Friday, October 3, 2014

Farmville, Faith, and Fallen Sheep

A few years ago, McDonald’s created a promotional game targeted toward the reported millions of Americans who were playing the Facebook game FarmVille.

The press release said, “Our mission is to connect the world through games by offering consumers meaningful experiences that enhance their game play. Tens of millions of people play FarmVille daily and this unique campaign with McDonald’s…further strengthens our commitment to delivering high quality in-game brand experiences.”

Now, I must stop here and admit something.

I was one of those millions. I once owned a farm on FarmVille.

It started innocently enough. I was checking Facebook, and an update appeared on my wall. One of my friends had just expanded his farm.

“What is that?” my daughter asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just a game some people play where you own a virtual farm.”

“I want a farm,” she said. “Do it!”

We made the fatal click.

It started with a little patch of virtual land. I could buy pretend seeds, plant them, and harvest them. Innocent enough, right? Even biblical, really — the Bible says a lot about seeds.

Then, I found out that I could expand my farm. Seek new territory. Acquire a barn and fences and trees and goats and even a hot air balloon.

Again: nothing wrong with expansion. Look at the Bible. The Israelites expanded into the Promised Land — bigger and better. Abraham went to a far off place to become the father of many nations. And all with God’s blessing! This was fun! I liked it!

My farm grew to an impressive state. I had at least 100 fruit trees and many cows. In fact, I had so many animals that I had to corral them into fences and buildings. I had to buy a seeder to plant my newly expanded fields and a harvester to keep up with the bounty of crops.

In the meantime, I was being charitable. I was even helping friends.

I was also winning. FarmVille lets you know how you are doing. I was ahead of many of my friends. I would visit their so-called “farms” — they were pitiful. Little single plots of land with wilted crops.

And I was jealous of some. A married couple I know had taken over FarmVille. Their farms were amazing and impressive. Nicely arranged. Beautiful barns. Multiple machines. In fact, once I visited their farms, my own seemed insignificant.

Then something terrible happened. My farm got completely out of control.

 In the midst of one mad milking
and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself:
Have I lost my mind? 

I had so many cows to milk. I had so many sheep to shear.  I had so many crops to seed and plant and harvest that I could not keep up. Things started dying. My crops were turning brown and wilting before I could reach them. I could not keep up this frantic pace.

I was getting physically stressed by FarmVille — by my virtual farm.

I knew this was crazy. In the midst of one mad milking and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself: have I lost my mind?  Am I really worrying about a virtual farm that does not even exist? Do I need this stress in my life? I am a busy woman — I work full time. I am a mother. I have a long commute. I don’t have time to be a pretend farmer!

I knew I needed to stop.

Stopping was easier than I imagined. With one simple touch of a button, my farm disappeared. And with it, went my stress. I couldn’t believe how easy it was just to end the madness, just to walk away.

In keeping with the farming metaphor, I think of Isaiah 53:6. The text says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  I had indeed gone astray. This was not my intent when I built my farm. It was supposed to be fun! It was just some little silly thing to do with my daughter. How had it gotten out of control?  The New Living Translation says, “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.”

My experience with FarmVille has a parallel with my own life. My life can, at times, be much like that game. It can easily get out of control. Like Isaiah so clearly states, I leave God’s path and follow my own.  Leaving the path is not really a conscious decision. It starts with many, many good things.

I am success-driven. I like to be recognized for doing a good job. But personal ambition can have a bad result when I accept a position or responsibility I do not want, simply because it brings me prestige or honor or money. I leave God’s path when I become secretly jealous of a colleague who gets recognition. I leave when I consider an opportunity that would not suit me, simply because it would mean I am successful.

Although I try to be content, I tend to want more. More stuff. More out of life. More money. When will we, like Solomon, recognize the vanity of this never-ending cycle of life? This mistake is common. We are not alone in our chasing after the wind.

The McDonald’s rep says that tens of millions of Americans play this game. Tens of millions! Why?  I think it is because FarmVille reflects our dominant culture. We want to do more, to be more, than what we are or, even, more than what is best for us.  We encourage our kids in this direction, too. 

Children today lead incredibly busy lives. They are participating in so many good things — but have we gone overboard? They are asked to join clubs. To play sports. To prioritize academic achievement.

As adults, we want to be the head of the PTA, in charge of that church committee, a leader in our workplace. And with each responsibility we add, our frantic life spins a bit faster.  This pursuit of success can easily spin out of control.  These successful lives we pursue can get so busy, so overwhelming, that individual experiences lose their meaning. In our effort to build our bigger and better farms, we forget about the pleasure of growing one plant. God calls us to put an end to this madness. He wants us to be counterculture.

I readily admit it. I tend to be one of those sheep. But there are ,moments in my life when I have felt the call to stop and question everything. How do we hit delete when the game of life gets out of control?

It starts with a prayer for help. We need help to stop the cycle. We need help to make changes to our busy, crazy lifestyles. We need help to renew our minds and our hearts. We must recognize that no matter what our title, no matter how great our achievements, we are merely sheep, and we are in desperate need of a Shepherd.

- Originally published in Catapult magazine - 1 Sept. 2011. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

In the Waiting Room - My GUEST POST on This Odd House

My friend and colleague, Kelli Worrall, has a beautiful blog titled This Odd House. It is a little bit about their beautiful Craftsman style home, but more about the people who live within it. Kelli tells the story of how they adopted their two children. She tells about growing up with parents suffering with disabilities. She writes about life and brokenness and hope with heartbreaking honesty. 

This month, I have the joy of guesting on her blog. She is hosting a series about "waiting." The topic struck home because I am in that place. I am waiting and trying, desperately, to be patient.

Lately, it feels like my life has been all about waiting.
Our house has been up for sale for 90-plus days. We are waiting, hoping, praying for a buyer.
About five years ago, we started to talk about moving from Indiana to Florida. The move could bring us closer to my husband’s brother and to my mom and her husband who had recently adopted the “snowbird” lifestyle. The decision made practical sense in many ways.
Living near family would be helpful for us since my husband’s mom, who lives with us, is 86. While she is in good mental and physical health, we have been more worried about leaving her alone when we travel.
Plus, the fact that the weather in Chicago has been earning polar nicknames cemented our decision. How wonderful would it be to not have to wear a winter coat that looks like a sleeping bag? Or, to throw out our snow shovels and thermal gloves? Or, to go on outside walks all summer long.
So we made plans.
I prayed every morning as I drove to work. “Please God, if this is the right thing, make it happen. Please let me get the right job. Please let the move transition smoothly and care for all the details in a way that YOU think it should happen.”
For a while things moved smoothly ahead. While I did not get the jobs I applied to, I found that my current employer would let me work remotely in a new position. We sold my husband’s classic car, a boat, and a camper. We fixed up the house, downsized and put it on the market. We were steadily moving forward.
And then, everything seemed to stop. No sale. No offers.

Here's the rest of my blog- and be sure to read more from Kelli on This Odd House.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Secret to Being a Nerd

Certain activities belonged to “nerds” – and wanna-be-cool high schoolers avoided them like the plague.

I was in the Marching Band – nerd heaven. Plus, I was skinny, wore braces, earned excellent grades, was hopeless at sports, and refused to break rules. Card-carrying nerd, for sure.

But, as an insider nerd, I knew a secret. We were not all the same type of nerds. Even within marching band, people were not all one variety. Louise was a hard-core determined flute/piccolo player who wanted to gain a spot in a professional symphony. Smart and determined, she simply seemed focused. Our trumpet player was also a jazz aficionado. Brian wanted to look and sound like Chuck Mangione, so he was often seen sporting a fedora and carrying his flugel horn.

At Thornwood High School, the theatre people were on the verge of nerd-dom, but some managed to be deemed socially acceptable. Certainly the Mathletes or Dungeons & Dragons Club were card-carrying members.

The word “nerd” was not used until the 1950s. The first use, of all places, was in a Dr. Seuss book. Although, the concept of a person who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream has always been present. For years, that one person who stood out has been called an “oddball,” a “geek,” “square,” or “drip.”

Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future, nerds are often portrayed as extremely intelligent, socially awkward, and oddly dressed. The stereotype developed of a nerd with taped, horn-rimmed glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors. In the 1980s movie, Revenge of the Nerds, these stereotypical nerds decided they’d had enough and took on the popular crowd.

For most of us, high school was a highly-pressurized time to fit in. From what my daughter says, it still is today. That is why stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are incredibly successful. “Blend. Blend. Blend,” they seductively whisper. “Wear our perfume. Flash our label. Maybe then you can avoid nerd-dom.” Anyone who avoids sports – a nerd. The girls who don’t want to be cheerleaders – nerds. The labels can be oppressive.

But, as Whil Wheaton (newly-crowned King of the Nerds) said to a crowd at Comic-con. Being a nerd just means following what you are interested in. 

Actually, we are all (even those sporting a jersey or cheerleading skirt) unique. Some of us just keep it more under wraps. We may want to know everything there is to know about [fill in the blank]. For me, it was vintage fashion and books. I loved reading and authors and traveling and times of the past. Nerdy? Probably.

Even at age 16, I knew I would rather wear a 1940s gabardine jacket, than anything I can buy at the mall. Unusual? Certainly. But, as I grew older and moved on from high school to college to graduate school, I realized that the nerd label gradually disappeared. Suddenly, I was smart, determined, one-of-a-kind.

At the end of an episode from the animated series Freakazoid, they explain that nerds have huge potential:

..most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.

If you still have any doubt, look what nerds have achieved. Ivy League colleges are filled with card-carrying nerds. They have revolutionized, invented, dreamed, and succeeded. Bill Gates – the world’s most accomplished nerd – changed the world with his inventions. John Greene – whose novels fly off the shelves and movie made millions – is a self-proclaimed nerd.

When you get older, I can assure you that the nerd label slips gradually away. As you earn your degrees, leave behind lockers and backpacks, you find out that you are delightfully quirky, unusual, determined, focused, and (gasp!) often, extraordinarily gifted and smart.

My daughter is at a convention this weekend filled with teenagers who are slightly, well – okay – hugely, obsessed with anime and comics. To an outsider, to other high schoolers, they may all seem like nerds. But I know their secret. Beneath the crazy costumes (that took hours and hours of dedicated work to create), this hotel is filled with interesting, quirky, young people who aren’t afraid to swim against the stream.

That takes guts and courage. These “nerds” will go far.

Long live the wonderful, unique people who are labeled as “nerds” in school. May they fly their freak flag proudly, refuse to conform, and ever shine.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

In junior high, my daughter was given career aptitude tests. They declared she would make a great pharmacist, an idea that repelled her. She wanted to be a fashion designer, an artist, not someone who studied medicine for years and then worked behind a counter distributing pills.

At the Bible college where I teach, students are pushed to declare a major. They enroll as a Sports Ministry major or a Pastoral Studies major with an Intercultural Studies emphasis. Their career choices are interwoven with their Christian calling which adds even more pressure to the choice. Some students arrive their freshmen year with career goals oddly defined: I am called to work with orphans in Romania.

Really!? How do you know?

My own life’s ambitions have rolled out like a tattered carpet littered with failed dreams. I wanted to be a Bible translator in the 7th grade. Yes, I know it is an odd career choice in junior high. But, I admired a missionary woman who had come to speak at our Baptist church. She was a bit bookish (like me) and loved Jesus (like me), so I figured I could quietly follow in her leather, sandal-clad footsteps. Years later, after claiming my first “C” in a phonetics class, I realized that dream would probably never come to fruition.

I was focused on news journalism throughout college, until I landed a part-time job at a daily paper in Normal, Illinois. I was thrilled by the bustling newsroom and grumpy editors. I proudly took my place at the copyediting station, typed in headlines, and corrected poor comma usage. My heart beat quickly when I earned my first actual assignment and took the paper’s car down to Springfield. As I bounded up the state capitol steps toward my first press meeting, I felt like a real reporter.

Certainly, I had grown up.

But my dream spiraled downward from there. After a few months at the paper, I realized I would never be a dedicated journalist. Rather than thrilling me, the atmosphere of the newspaper office exhausted me. I found the minute by minute news spewing from the AP wire more than a bit depressing. Every few seconds I was reminded that houses were burning, kids were missing, and people died. The cyclical nature of news and the crazed dedication of those true journalists who loved to live at the office quickly sealed my fate. I would never be a journalist – and that was my major.

Since then, my career has taken an odd and unexpected path. I became a teacher reluctantly. I entered public relations because of an unexpected job opportunity. I started fundraising writing because I found I was good at it. I wrote a book – something I had secretly dreamed – but never thought would come true. All of these odd parts have come together in a way I never expected. I can only conclude it was God-ordained. I never would have imagined it and it certainly never appeared in a career-finder chart.

To my daughter and to all of those feeling the pressure of deciding what to be, I offer this bit of advice:

1)      Hold your plans loosely. Know that any dreams or ideas of what you will be or should be may very well change. Life has a way of interrupting or even rerouting those dreams. When I became a mother, I switched to full-time teaching. It fit that lifestyle, and I enjoyed it. Since then, my job has shifted again. And, I expect it will in the future. I know very, very few people who are today what they thought they would be in college or especially high school. It is fine to plan, but know that your dreams may shift, doors may close, plans may change. You may find that what you end up with is better than what you expected.

2)      Expect rough patches. After I graduated, I was floundering. I took a job without benefits. It was a new position, and I didn’t have a desk. I carried my stack of papers and belongings from vacant desk to vacant desk. I was living at home because I couldn’t afford rent. I was depressed. As I made endless copies and sealed hundreds of envelopes, I felt like all my work and ambition had gone down the toilet. That happens. It is part of life. Keep going. Trust that this is the long haul, not a short sprint. Hang in there and keep your eyes open for the next opportunity.

3)      Know what you love. Rather than deciding on a job, consider what you love to do, what you are good at. I wanted to love journalism, but I finally realized that I never really liked being on the staff of a paper. I liked the idea of being a reporter more than the actual job. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time or lifestyle to achieve that dream. My inclination toward journalism was not completely wrong. I did love writing. I like interviewing and telling stories. I like interpersonal interaction with others. Look at what you are drawn to and let that influence your choices.

4)      Don’t be surprised when some of your dreams fail. Failing dreams does not make you a failure. It may mean that they were never the right dreams in the first place. Our big grand vision is what gets us off the couch and sends us on a journey. But, we can also expect that our ambitions may change as we grow and mature. Very few boys grow up to be a race car driver or fireman. Very few girls are now ballerinas or princesses. We don’t realistically expect those childhood dreams to come true. But, dreaming in itself is not bad. It is shaping our vision.

5)      Be realistic. Think practically about the lifestyle associated with the careers you are considering. If you want to be a journalist (as I did), but you aren’t willing to work long hours or move to a new city to pursue your dream, it might not be the best choice for you. Trying to shoehorn your personality into a job that doesn’t match it will be a painful learning experience.

6)      Keep striving. If you really want something, don’t give up. This is especially true for artistic careers. It is not easy to become a writer or a musician. It takes time. It takes years of doing jobs, sometimes unpaid or on the side, before you can actually spend quality time pursuing your true calling. Your career dream may not be lucrative. That’s okay. You will do it anyway.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that a career builder test would never have predicted my path. Only God knew, and I am thankful for His hand that guided me in ways I never expected.
For years, Psalm 32:8 was my favorite verses: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go, I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”

God knows you better than anyone else. He has His loving eye on you. His ways are not our ways. His path is best. Trust in that. Move ahead. Do what you love. Enjoy each stage of your life without focusing on what you never achieved.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sorting Stuff and Those Copper-Coated Baby Shoes

The blue storage tub that was pushed way to the back of our cement-floored "sump pump" crawl space. It is hard to get back there, and a bit musty, so I don't venture very often. But, we are trying to sort through our piles of stuff in preparation for a move. It is time to get serious...

We have been in our current home, in northwest Indiana, for almost 20 years. It is amazing how quickly that time has passed. As I tackle the monumental sort and salvage task, I am learning a great deal about my sentimental, pack rat tendencies.

In this particular bin, I discovered yet one more box of baby things. My "baby" is now 16 years old, almost 17. I found a little pair of shoes, a tiny red sweatshirt with "Door County" embroidered on it. A slightly stained t-shirt from our trip to Cape Cod when my daughter was only six months old. There is the padded Bible and her mini, board version of Good Night Moon. In the same box was a copper-clad pair of shoes turned bookends that belonged to my husband.

All choked up and sentimental by this unexpected trip down memory lane, I showed the slightly stained bib to my daughter. She wrinkled her nose. "Eeeewwww. Why didn't you throw that away?"

Honestly, I don't really know!

It is amazing how much stuff we can acquire without even trying. Was it only 20-something years ago that Milt and I, newly married, struggled to furnish the rooms of our new house? Today, we have boxes of things that we haven't looked at in years. We have more than 100 VHS tapes - some personal, many movies we love and haven't yet acquired on DVD. I have piles of cookbooks that are no longer as necessary, thanks to the Internet. We have at least 30, yes 30, gallon cans of semi-used-up paint in every color and shade. Pastel mint green, taupe, multiple shades of ivory, a horrible, vivid blue I'd rather forget.

So I sort, and sort, and sort some more.

I make rash, vengeful decisions. I grit my teeth and put those copper-shoe bookends into a plastic giveaway bag. Then, feeling a bit nostalgic and guilty, I snatch them back out again. Poor things, all neglected. What will the people in the thrift store think that some heartless mother donated her own child's baby shoes? No, they must go. Soon I find myself entering crazy zone with no ability to discern what should stay and what must go.

For those of you who are now worried, know that I am okay. I've come out of the other side. Deep breaths. Lots of sighs. Some photos snapped. The giveaway pile is growing. I realize that this is how those scary hoarders begin, so I've had a garage sale and called the donation center. 30 boxes and bags piled up to go in the garage.

Maybe I'll add the copper shoes to the mix.