“NOOOOO!!!!” The happy hum of preschoolers enjoying their snacks is instantly shattered by three-year-old Thomas’ screams of rage.
“I don’t WANT you to put the straw in my juice! I can do it MYSELF!!!” Crossing his arms, Thomas glares at me. “I’m MAD at you!”

It’s going to be a long day. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. This is more than I bargained for when I agreed to sub for the three-year-old preschool class today.

All day long, Thomas throws screaming fits when something is not exactly to his liking. “But I don’t WANT to color the T!” “I don’t WANT to sit next to Samuel!” “He’s touching MY crayon!” “NOOOOOO!!!!!” I’ve never seen a preschooler put in time out or sent to the principal’s office so many times in one day.

“Thomas’ family just moved to the area,” the other preschool teacher explains to me in a whisper. “His dad’s in the military and gone a lot. Plus his mom just had a new baby. He’s mad at the world right now.”

My heart goes out to this angry little boy, but I don’t know how to handle his fits of rage. So I start to ignore Thomas. When Allison needs help with her letter T worksheet, I gladly show her what to do. When Gregory wants me to read to him, I pull him onto my lap and cheerfully start “Curious George at the Dentist.” But I avoid even looking at Thomas, afraid that the smallest thing might set him off.
Almost done, I sigh with relief at the end of the day. We are letting the kids run off some energy in the gym before their parents pick them up. Like clockwork, after a few minutes Thomas plops down in the middle of the gym and screams, for no apparent reason. None of the other kids seem concerned.

This little boy needs a lot of love, I realize with a pang. He needs consequences too, but if I only give him attention when he does something wrong, isn’t that just reinforcing his bad behavior?

I don’t really want to do it. But I know I need to. I walk over to him and force myself to smile.

“Thomas, would you like me to swing you around?” He looks up, surprised, and agrees hesitantly. I pick him up, and he quickly wraps his legs around my waist and holds tightly to my neck.

“Ready?” I ask. He nods. As I start spinning around, I’m surprised by a sound I haven’t heard all day. I stop and look at Thomas. He’s actually giggling!

“Want to do it again?” He grins. Once more I spin around, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until we’re both dizzy and laughing. Amazing. Thomas isn’t throwing fits. And I’m actually enjoying myself!

As the preschoolers gather their coats and backpacks for the carpool line, I think of another friend in my life who sometimes acts like Thomas. Deeply wounded by life’s hurts and disappointments, she reacts in anger, verbally attacking anyone who comes near. Recently I’ve started to avoid contact with her completely. To keep from being hurt, I’ve been withdrawing from the relationship.

But aren’t there times when I, too, react out of pain and anger, hurting those around me? Yet the Heavenly Father always takes an interest in me. Not because I’m always acting lovable. But because He loves me unconditionally. Right then I decide to make an effort to reach out to my friend. Because I’ve been forgiven, I can forgive. Because I’ve been given grace, I can extend grace. Because I am loved, I can love.

Do you know someone who is throwing a tantrum at life’s injustice? Do you have a friend who’s been hurt deeply and is lashing out in pain? Though the temptation is to back away from someone like that, consider how you can reach out to that person this week. Even a screaming fit of rage is no match for forgiving, grace-filled, unconditional love.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
Psalm 86:15 (NIV)

“I’m not gonna make it.” I was so very tired. It would be so easy to just give up and submit to the waves that were trying to submerge me. “I just can’t keep going anymore.”

Half-wading, half-swimming, my mom and my brother Stephen and I had made our way through the clear, shallow waters of the secluded bay that afternoon, anxious to test out our snorkeling gear. Brilliant yellow and blue fish darted in and out among the rocks, so close we could have touched them! Visiting my parents here in Costa Rica was a refreshing change from my busy life as an English teacher in East Asia, and the week was going by far too quickly.

When I finally decided to swim back to the shore, my legs and arms were already starting to ache. All that snorkeling around the rocks had worn me out more than I realized. I swam underwater for a few minutes, then decided to stand up and take a break.

My feet didn’t touch the bottom.

Looking back to where my mom and brother were still snorkeling, I realized we had drifted down the coast with the current. “I guess it’s a bit deeper at this spot. When I’d swum out here, it had been shallow the whole way!”

Swimming on my back this time, I aimed for the beach once more. But every time I turned my head to look, it seemed no closer than before. And when I tried to stand after a few minutes, there was nothing but water beneath me. This time my head went under and I got a mouthful of salty seawater. Coughing and sputtering, I looked toward the distant beach where my dad was reading in the shade of a tree. I waved my arm frantically to get his attention. He cheerfully waved back.

“He has no idea I’m in trouble,” I thought in desperation, struggling to keep my head above water. I’d never been a strong swimmer, and now I felt so desperately weary.

“No one would even see me go under,” I realized. My mom and brother still hadn’t noticed my distress, and we were the only ones on this isolated stretch of beach. “I’m going to drown right here within sight of my dad on the shore.”

I don’t know how, but somehow I made it to the shore that terrifying afternoon in Costa Rica. My dad later told me that when I was swimming on my back, I was actually going in circles. No wonder the shore never seemed to get any closer. When I finally crawled onto the sand, gasping for breath, I couldn’t believe how close I had been to giving up.

Hopeless. Helpless. Desperate. I’ve been there before. Sometimes life just seems to be one pounding wave after another of pain and disappointment and loss. And I feel like I’m drowning in it all.

But God doesn’t leave me there. When I have nothing left, not even the strength to yell for help, I look to Him in desperation. And even if He doesn’t pluck me out of the circumstances I’m in, He gives me the strength and the grace to make it through the rough waters.

How about you? Are you stuck in destructive cycles of conflict and harmful relationships?Are you in danger of drowning under waves of disappointment? Do the depths of pain in your life seem endless? You are never without hope. Help is on the way. He won’t let you drown.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“…He pulled me out of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos, the void in which I was drowning. He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!”
Psalm 18:16-19 (The Message).

My stomach started twisting in knots as soon as I saw the name come up on my cell phone.

Do I have to answer it? I could just let it go to voicemail, I reasoned with myself. But I had already ignored one phone call from Julia earlier today. I better answer this one. I inhaled deeply and forced myself to speak cheerfully.

“Hello, Julia! How are you?”

“Fine, thanks. Did you get the message I left this morning?” Her tone was brisk, almost accusatory. The implied question hung sharply in the air – “Why didn’t you respond immediately?” I immediately felt defensive. Why does this woman intimidate me so? 

Everything about Julia, from her perfectly styled hair to her shiny high heels, added to her image of perfect control.  At our first meeting several weeks ago to discuss my transition into her current position, I found myself intimidated by her. Though I had a master’s degree and much more experience in the field than she did, Julia’s patronizing and critical tone made me feel inadequate and unqualified. I kept telling myself that THIS time I was going to stand up to her attacks and not let her walk all over me. Yet time after time I caved in to her demands, meekly nodding my head in agreement, just to avoid a confrontation.

A Perspective Change

When I asked a trusted godly woman for counsel and prayer regarding the situation, her response was immediate and unequivocal. “It sounds like she’s intimidated of you.”

“ME? She’s intimidated of ME?” The thought had never occurred to me. “But I’m intimidated of HER!”

“She knows you have more training and background in this area than she does, and that you’re fully capable of this job,” my friend said gently. “She feels threatened by you.”

Suddenly my whole perspective changed. It’s true – Julia WAS feeling threatened, and this was her way of showing that she was in control. I asked the Father to give me His eyes to see Julia with compassion.

“Her opinion doesn’t define me,” I reminded myself as I drove to my meeting with Julia that afternoon. “My heavenly Father defines me.” And as I walked into her office, rather than the usual feeling of dread, I felt surrounded by a strange sense of quiet peace.

Julia still tried to make me feel like I was five years old and incompetent, but this time it didn’t bother me as much as before. For the first time I had the boldness to gently express my opinions and defend myself in the face of her criticism. Once I stopped letting Julia define me and looked to Jesus to define me, I was filled with a new confidence. I know who I am in Him, and others won’t intimidate me anymore!

Going Vertical!

MJ

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Hebrews 4:16 (NRSV)

I must confess, after my first class with Billy, I prayed he would never come back.

From the moment the four-year-old “little emperor” marched into my small English classroom in northeast Asia, he and I were in an all-out battle for control. Billy was king of all he saw, and woe to the one who dared to challenge his authority.

When the rest of the class stood and sang “The Wheels on the Bus” with motions, Billy sat glued to his chair, arms crossed, scowling. When the children were practicing English dialogues with animal puppets, Billy snatched another child’s puppet, yelling that he wanted the lion, not the monkey. While the other kindergarten students obediently copied the words from the board – cat, bat, hat – Billy filled his paper with scrawling Chinese characters. I complimented him on his skill in writing Chinese, then gently asked him to please write the English words from the lesson. Billy turned on me, his eyes flashing. “I speak Chinese. Chinese is a very beautiful language. English is not a beautiful language.”

As the weeks and months went by, Billy consistently challenged every instruction, unfazed by every attempt at discipline. I had never seen so much animosity and anger in such a small package. Though I repeatedly asked our school administrators to remove Billy from my class, my requests went unheeded.  Billy’s defiance escalated to a point of physical aggression – threatening to poke me in the eye with a pencil, spitting in my face, and even slapping me so hard my glasses flew across the room!

After almost every class with Billy, I would lock the door of the classroom, turn on a worship CD, put my head down on my desk, and cry. “Please, God, please don’t let him come back. I can’t take it anymore.”

I wonder how often the Father is tempted to give up on us completely. We can be pretty unlovable sometimes. We stubbornly insist on doing things our own way. We laugh when He corrects us, we mock His words, and we’ve even been known to slap Him and spit in His face. Does He ever wonder if we’re worth it? Does He lock the door at night, put His head in His arms, and cry over our stubbornness?

I wish I could say that Billy instantly changed, and that he became a sweet, polite, well-behaved boy. But then he would have been easy to love. Sacrificial love expects nothing in return. Even if the difficult people in our lives never change, can we love them as Christ loves us?

Are we “Free To Love and To Be Loved?”

 

“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:8

Going Vertical!

MJ