Thursday, March 30, 2017

Seeing Eye to Eye

Helix Nebula, dubbed "The Eye of God"
“Are you open?” she asked.

Her question frustrated me. I checked to make sure the light was on above my checkout lane; it was. The belt lay invitingly empty, if not already moving toward me. I was turned in her direction, looking for my next customer. What could possibly make her hesitant to enter?

I wonder if God doesn't feel the same when we approach Him in similar fashion.

Just that morning, I had risen early and sat in my chair at the kitchen table, the coffee steaming in the mug at my right hand, my journal open to a fresh page, a pen laid in readiness across the blank sheet... waiting for the idea that would surely come from God's heart to mine, a thought that would make it's mark on the empty lines in front of me and the whole day ahead of me. As the minutes ticked by and nothing but silence enveloped me, doubt began to rise up inside of me, whispering that perhaps God wasn't open for business to me that day. Maybe I should just put my books away and get the day underway.

Thankfully I knew better than that. If nothing else, the Word promises that there is something to be said for rising each morning to look God in the eye. But there's always something else. :) And suddenly, just like that, there it was.

Grocery store cashiers are told to make eye contact when greeting a customer at the start of an order. A smile is welcoming, a greeting of some sort is obligatory, but it's that momentary connection, eye to eye, that says, “I see you, I hear you; I am aware of your presence before me.” The customer feels acknowledged and validated, and the order is off to a good start.

Many times I have stepped away from my register for just a moment, to put a basket in the stack by the door, perhaps...and have come back to see a customer peering cautiously up my checkout aisle, looking for eyes issuing the invitation to enter before placing their items on the belt. Don't we sometimes approach God the same way? We come tentatively, hesitantly... and if we don't get an immediate response to our initial greeting, an awareness of His presence, we give up and walk away.

We forget that prayer was God's idea, not our own invention or intention. He invites us to come into His presence, to spread our problems before him, to chat, to listen to His advice, to hear what he might have to say. His light is always on, there is never a “closed” sign blocking our entrance... He is waiting, willing, and longing to hear whatever is on our heart each day.

So why does it seem sometimes that we show up and He doesn't? That simply is never the case. He is always there first. Sometimes it just takes a while to make that eye connection. We come harried or hurried and He is always at peace. Our hearts are in two completely different spots. When our focus is on the problems weighing on our minds and lives, He can't get through to us. And so He waits for us to finally search His face. When our eyes lock in to His, it's then we find the grace we need, the space to speak, the answers we seek.

Haven't we all seen a child come crying to his dad, eyes streaming tears, complaints pouring out of a mouth that's demanding an immediate response? The father takes him by the shoulders and says (sometimes repeatedly), “Look at me!”, in a voice that demands to be heard. He knows he has to get the son's attention before he will hear and heed anything said to him. God simply does the same with us. And once He gets us to the point where we see Him... I mean really see Him... it's then that He can deal with the problems at hand. Sometimes just the sight of Him in all His magnificence is enough to mute our lips and remind our souls that He has all things under His control.

Rather than our hesitancy, perhaps God prefers the audacity of those customers who sometimes mistakenly (and other times, deliberately?) go to a closed checkout lane, place their items on the belt and simply wait to be served! Eventually an employee has no choice but to come to the register and run the order through. The Bible is full of stories of persistent people who eventually got what they needed because they showed up and refused to give up till they got what they needed.

So don't be shy. God wants us to take the time to come before Him, look Him in the eye... and get what we need from Him in reply.

Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
(Hebrews 4:16 NKJV)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Need to Knit

There it is in the photo to the left – the reason I picked up my knitting needles again after laying them down forty years or so ago. Do you see it?

It's not the multitude of beautiful yarn available, the abundance of fun patterns to work up, or even the joy of passing on a beloved hobby to a new generation of needleworkers...wonderful though all those things are.'s the phone lying face down on the table, ignored for the moment in the midst of colorful skeins of wool, attention focused on something other than Facebook, fingers and thumbs busy with with actions other than tapping, texting, scrolling and sending for a minute or two.

Don't get me wrong; I love my phone. It's my constant companion, the answer to my many questions, my entertainment when I'm bored... my connection to the rest of the world. But it was becoming my world, and I didn't like the way I reached for it every time I sat down, woke up, or a commercial break interrupted the program I was watching on TV. I needed to make a change.

And suddenly I got the urge to knit. I remembered the comfort of relaxing with the latest project, the satisfaction in seeing the work grow underneath the clicking needles...the freedom to let my mind wander while my hands remained happily employed with knit and purl stitch counts. Now I problem solve, I dream; my mind is free to set its own agenda instead of constantly searching other people's posts for something new to think about.

But what to knit? Pairing purpose with the pleasure I found in creating items added excitement to this venture; couldn't I make things other people could use? The ideas started flooding in. Of course, there were the obvious; little gifts for Christmas, seasonal items to decorate the home, baby items to give as shower gifts or donate to needy mothers. My sister mentioned a group of knitters in her area of the country who were making scarves, mittens, and hats to hang on park fences for homeless people to find and use; soon I found a local group I could contribute to who were doing the same. Now I find I can't knit fast enough to finish all the things I want to make before one season ends and another arrives with a whole slew of new ideas of its own.

It turned out I had it partially right. There was a human purpose to pursuing a passion...but what if there was a divine connection, as well? For no apparent reason I selected a snuggie as my first project, one of those little baby sacks or “cocoons” in which to cuddle a newborn, and did it up in blue, even though nobody I knew at that moment had a pregnancy nearing its due date. As my knitting grew, so did a friendship with a coworker who was new in town and who soon found out she was pregnant...with a little boy. It eventually became obvious to me who the snuggie was to be given to, especially when the project on my needles and the baby in her belly were “done” at the same time. But it was as I was writing a note to go with the gift that I felt a nudge from God to write a few words from His heart, as well as my own. It wasn't anything mystical or deep, just a few lines of light and love spoken into the life of a young woman at a special time in her life. And suddenly it hit me that that was why I had picked up my my hobby again after such a long period of deliver that very message at this particular time. The pleasure I found in the action was beside the point.

A light bulb turned on in my head. What I thought was my need to knit again was actually God's need for me to do so, that He might deliver a message of love to a daughter I “happened” to be connected with. What if God had me learn to knit forty years ago just so that He could call that skill into play decades later and use it to bless a girl who wasn't even born at the time I began? Could it be that many of the details of our lives that we thought originated from our own thoughts and desires are really planted inside of us by God to bud and bear fruit in the time of His choosing, in ways we couldn't have imagined originally?

Looking back, I realize now how many other passions in my life have come and then seemingly gone, only to be resurrected and given new life at a later point in time. How good of God to replace the sadness when a particular season ends with an eager hope that it may roll back around again on down the road! And, oh, how the joy we find in them is multiplied when those interests are used for God's purposes rather than just our own!

And my social media addiction? I still use my electronic devices mostly to find patterns on Pinterest or check in on the picture posts of my knitting buddies' current projects. The internet lists a host of physical and emotional benefits that come from picking up a pair of knitting needles; for me the best was the spiritual blessing that came with the excuse to put the phone down.

...make it your ambition to live quietly and peacefully, and to mind your own affairs and work with your hands...”
(1 Thessalonians 4:11 NIV)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pillow People

I could almost see her start to sweat.

The lady customer had written a check for twenty dollars or so over the amount of her grocery bill, but my attempt to process it only produced an error message of some sort, necessitating a call for help in overriding it. As she glanced nervously behind her I realized she wasn't worried about having enough funds in her account so much as she feared the reactions of the people behind her in line over the unexpected delay. Noting her action, I, too, took a look to see who was next. I smiled as I recognized him, turned to her and said, “No worries. You have the nicest man ever behind you. He won't mind waiting a moment or two.” Sure enough, he smiled at her as well and assured her he was in no hurry. She sighed in relief. And then suddenly the supervisor arrived, the check went through, and the shopper hurried on with her day.

Later I was reading a book on marriage restoration and came across a chapter on how each partner in the relationship should strive to “cushion” the other against the stresses of life. I like that word, cushion. It means to lessen or soften the effects of one thing on another. In the story above, the man directly in line behind the worried shopper cushioned her against the angry glares and stares of any less patient people in the queue.

An obvious picture of the concept is the heart-shaped pillow carried about by people recovering from open-heart surgery. It is important that such patients clear the vapor that settles in the lungs as a result of the procedure, but the required coughing action puts stress on their weakened sternum. Holding a pillow against the chest offers the needed support and lessens the pain of such episodes during the healing process.

You may never have undergone cardiac surgery, but who among us hasn't had their heart hurt in other ways? Many around us are nursing sore spots somewhere in their lives, be it in a relationship, a job situation, a financial difficulty, an extended illness, or the loss of someone dear. There are tender places in their makeup that need to be protected while they heal. And God stands true to His “I will never leave you nor forsake you” promise by cushioning those sensitive areas with people He places in their lives at just the right moments to shield them from things that would otherwise cause them pain.

The thought boggled my mind. You and I are the heart-shaped “cushions” held close in positions of support in difficult hours and days! We're pillows, people! Who knew?! Our purpose in life then is to buffer life's blows, to be hugged close, prop up in place, soak up tears, or tenderly cradle the weight of someone's mental burdens so they can sleep in peace.

If you've been to WalMart lately to buy a new pillow, you know that picking one out is no longer an easy task. They come in all shapes and sizes, some longer or shorter, fatter or flatter, filled with fiber or foam. Similarly, God has a multitude of people to choose from to meet a need, but because He has created them all he knows exactly which one of us has just the right combination of gifts, love, life experiences, compassion and humor to conform to each particular situation. He is the Master Chess Player who perfectly positions His pieces according to the special abilities of each to keep the enemy in check at all times. We are hand-picked and placed on purpose in other people's lives.

God battles any feelings of inadequacy on our parts by reminding us that pillows themselves don't actually do anything; their value lies in their availability. All that they need to supply has already been placed inside of them by the Manufacturer; they simply need to be. So do we.

Praise be to...the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
(2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Love Dare Square

Surprisingly, the bright day darkened suddenly when we ran into an old friend, the laughter and levity of a beautiful fall day spent at a small-town festival suddenly buried under the weight of the news he shared.

We had been celebrating all things black walnut - the nuts flavoring fudge, homemade caramels, and our favorite, the ice cream. We stopped to shop at one little booth after another as we strolled down the crowded street, looking for vendors we had visited in the past, chatting with people we knew along the way, and making our own “best of show” selections from the multitude of classic cars filling the streets and parking lots beyond the main drag. For once the weather had cooperated beautifully with the event planners; the day held all the colors of fall in the pleasant warmth of a summer day.

We were headed to pick up some lunch when we saw him; a man pushing a double-wide stroller that held his toddlers safely inside. He didn't look overly pleased to see us, which was strange from a guy we had been close to when we attended church together a few years ago. His wife was also a friend; when we looked for her nearby, he stopped us with the words, “We're not together anymore.”

Stunned, we looked at him blankly. It was as if the words wouldn't register in our brains. This was a happily-ever-after family, walking side-by-side as they served the Lord, raised their kids and busily made a life with one another. I had been in their wedding, for Pete's sake! I'd prayed with them, played with them, and later followed them on Facebook when our lives went in separate directions. Recent posts had been full of new jobs and vacation joys...I was simply blind-sided by the news. He didn't offer many details; apparently the situation was new and still-evolving, which gave me hope that perhaps they were just in the midst of a difficult stretch that they would soon work themselves past.

The more I thought about the situation, the madder I got that love and laughter was being stolen away from these two, leaving anger and fighting in its wake. Suddenly my spirit reached the breaking point and I vowed I would not be an inactive witness to the wreck of yet another marriage.

But what could I do? I turned the question over to God, who reminded me that this couple had been married for four years now, and we had been friends with them longer than that. He asked if I loved them enough to give them forty days. Seemingly a strange question, those last two words caught my ears and I understood what He was suggesting. I might not be able to halt the divorce proceedings, but my spirit wanted to give it a shot.

It was time to enter the fray. I dug out my copy of The Love Dare and began to pray. Featured in the movie Fireproof, The Love Dare is a forty-day action plan to turn a struggling marriage around. I used it as a prayer workbook of sorts, speaking the qualities of a loving relationship in their embattled union, one by one, day by day. I asked that their hearts be softened toward each other, that they find the strength to let negative thoughts and actions go and replace them with a willingness to work towards restoration, one issue at a time.

Perhaps it's just the season of life I'm in, but engagements and weddings abound in the circle of friends surrounding our family these days. And all the above has caused me to look at the save-the-date postcards that are arriving in our mailbox a little differently now.

What if a wedding invitation meant you were invited to participate in the marriage as well as the ceremony and reception afterwards, if the acceptance to attend involved more than just feasting, drinking heavily and dancing the night away? Could it be that those in the wedding party itself are party to something much bigger than just carrying rings in one's pocket, holding flowers, or straitening the train? What if everybody who responded affirmatively to an RSVP agreed to carrying the couple in thought and prayer, standing beside them long after the wedding date itself, holding them close, and helping to straighten out thinking that has gotten twisted somehow? Maybe we are supposed to “fight for the fairy-tale” of the couples around us, as well as our own.

It was at about this time that in my newly-rekindled passion for knitting I discovered the pattern for a glorious afghan made up of individual blocks in fabulous colors with a giant heart knit in the middle of each. In my excitement to make it I ordered the first batch of yarn and eagerly awaited its arrival so I could start. But by the time it arrived I had calculated how much this project was going to cost and the time it was going to take to complete it; I was ready to give up on the idea before I had even begun.

And so it is with any prayer project we undertake. We sign on eagerly at first, full of purpose and persistence. However, as the days wear on, our enthusiasm wears out, and we are tempted to abandon the action midstream. But marriages are near and dear to God's heart and He isn't about to give up on any; He wasn't going to let me do so, either. He simply linked my prayer project to my knitting project and dared me to take it one block and one couple at a time. Amazingly, the pattern had forty-some rows; one row for each of the prayer points in the book. And He reminded me that if we want to knit commitment into the lives of couples we love, we have to first find it within ourselves.

I have rarely been able to resist a challenge from God. A side benefit of this one is that I can hardly pray for other people's marriages without seeing opportunities for growth in my own. What I ask God to do in other unions He will also accomplish in mine.

I still check the Facebook pages of the couple mentioned in the opening paragraph, ever hopeful that picture posts and status updates might indicate the tide has turned in their relationship and they are together once more. And as the save-the-date announcements multiply under the magnets on my fridge, I am grateful that I get to set each couple up for marital success, one prayer square at a time.

...for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
(Revelation 7:17 NKJV)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Death or Departure...Your Choice

It was a strange dream, to say the least. In it my husband found himself in a room full of babies in incubators; born too soon, the infants were getting the extra help they needed to sustain their fragile hold on life. Odder yet was the fact that he knew the exact number of them; there were twenty-nine such apparatuses in the room. Such specificity surely indicated a message; he diligently began looking for the meaning of the dream.

What he found was that the Biblical meaning of the number twenty-nine is departure. The 29th mention of Noah's name came as he and his family were exiting the ark after the flood. Abram was leaving Sodom and Gomorrah at the 29th occurrence of his name. Jacob was moving away from his parents when his name came up for the 29th time.

So... twenty-nine babies in incubators? Premature departure.

It was hours later in the day when Jim received a call telling him that after failing suddenly over the weekend, his older sibling, Nancy, had succumbed after a long battle with Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, a form of Alzheimer's diagnosed in patients who are still in their fifties or early sixties. The particularly cruel nature of Early-onset AD is that it strikes a person when they still have so much life yet to live. Nancy's passing was a premature departure.

And so the family gathered to grieve and say goodbye. What struck me in this instance was a reluctance on our parts to use the word death. Death speaks of an end of something...a dream, a hope, ...a life. Departure, on the other hand, indicates merely a change of state and space, a move of some sort, from one existence into another. The cessation of Nancy's bodily function here on earth to us was merely a transference of her life from confusion, pain and sickness into restored clarity, health and wholeness...albeit in another realm. Having that assurance brought peace that surpassed our grief when the moment arrived.

Such assurance is available to all. The amazing thing about the death versus departure discussion is that each of us gets to choose which word will apply to our own passing. The Bible tells us that all of us will eventually come to the end of our days here on earth. But we get to choose what happens after that. The important thing to note however is that the decision has to be made before the moment arrives. If we don't accept the offer of redemption freely extended to us by Christ, we can then expect to suffer the eternal consequences of the sin nature we were all born into.

Anyone who's boarded an airplane has heard the pilot's instruction to “prepare for departure” ahead of the moment the flight leaves the ground. And everyone born into this world has heard God's repeated instruction of the same. Don't let a premature departure preempt your decision to obey.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live...”
(Deuteronomy 30:19 NIV)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Little Bits and Leftovers

The tension lay thick as a layer of fog over the front end that morning. We were working slowly on a day that demanded we move fast. The baggers were all busy with other tasks, leaving groceries to pile up on the belts. There was a break in the communication flow between managers and their minions, so the customers knew more about the day's sale than the cashiers checking them out. And the incessant yawns of those nearby made me long for a cup of coffee that was decidedly outside the moment's reach. We were stressed out, put out, and just plain grumpy, and it looked like we were headed for a very long day.

And then God came through my line.

He arrived in the guise of a small, bald baby, seated in the front of her mother's cart. Her soft pink arm was raised high as her fingers opened and closed repeatedly in her version of a wave, a huge smile on her face when her lips weren't closed in her attempt to blow kisses my way. She was a 10-month old bundle of joy, and my heart was instantly captivated at the sight of her. The rush of work that had seemed so important just seconds ago stopped completely as I stood transfixed with my hands clasped in front of my chest, and my eyes wide with delight as I took in the sight. Somehow her mother's order was processed and her bags loaded into the cart; I know I didn't help much in the effort. I just knew that I had to absorb every minute of the Son-light that baby radiated, and by the time the cart was pushed away, there was a smile firmly affixed to my soul once more.

He didn't need to explain Himself to me - I got the picture! - but I guess He wanted to emphasize His point. So it wasn't but a few customers later that a woman came through with a bag of chocolate chips that suddenly split open and spilled everywhere. They were on the belt, on the floor, and mixed in with the rest of her groceries. We quickly got her another bag and cleaned up the mess as best we could. But for the next hour or so a chocolate chip would suddenly come down the belt seemingly out of nowhere, knocked loose from a temporary lodging by the multitude of groceries passing by to suddenly catch my eye. I gathered them up with a grin as they came and soon found that my mood was rising as high as the little stack of brown candy by my water bottle. And I got the point.

God doesn't leave us out to dry on our difficult days. His promise to never leave us alone doesn't just apply to what we consider the bigger issues of life. He's in the little things that bother us as well, and He responds in little little bits of sweetness that He sends our way, hidden in the mix of ordinary moments to suddenly surprise and captivate our lift our moods and get us through. Too often we don't see them as the gifts they are, and we brush them aside or kick them out of the way, as some later customers did with the remaining chips they found on the floor. How much happier we would be if we would gather them up with gratitude and drink them in to refresh our thirsty souls.

I did just that the rest of the day. There was the coworker who made me laugh with a funny story in the breakroom...a manager who made a point of saying hi as she went by...a customer's comment about my hair...a friend who waved hi as she waited in another line. When the list became too long for my memory, I grabbed a strip of receipt tape and began jotting them down. You see, God is also into gathering. He instructed His followers to gather manna, fish, souls...even leftovers. Each time after Jesus fed the groups of thousands that were following Him, He gathered up the leftover pieces of fish and bread so they wouldn't be wasted. Leftovers of a blessing are a treasure themselves! Little things matter to God, and at the end of my shift I had a list of the same that brought an abundance of surprise smiles on a day that was a struggle.

When I thought I needed a coffee fix, God sent chocolate chips to give me repeated sips of Living Water instead, and I found that they were what I was thirsty for after all.

...she said, 'Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.' Then Jesus said to her, 'Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.'”
(Matthew 15:27-28 NIV)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Beach Bummin'

There's still sand on the floorboard of my husband's car. It makes me smile as I remember the constant hopping in and out of the vehicle with sand-encrusted feet and flip-flops as we played on a South Carolina beach. The powder-blue plastic wristband still slides up and down my forearm...even though the hotel pools and hot tubs it granted me access to are now 650 miles away. And before the clothes were even unpacked from our suitcases, the complimentary photo of us eating at a calabash seafood restaurant was posted on the fridge, reminding me of endless smiles from the miles traveled on the vacation now ended. Let's just say I'm having a little trouble letting go of the week just past.

Maybe it's because I'm not supposed to. Oh, to be sure, there's no escaping the return to real life; work schedules and household chores demand my attention once more. Already I feel the encroachment of tension and worry into my subconscious, trying to wrestle my mind from the rest found in sunrises and sea breezes and attach it to the tasks waiting to be tackled. But God would tell me not to wipe the sea foam from my eyeglasses just yet.

There are purposes to vacations that are vastly more important than just getting away. We need more than just a break from our regular routines; we need a new outlook on life. Every getaway is really a chance to reset our thinking, refocus our eyes, and restart how we live our lives from this point forward. If we limit our vacations to just a few days of play we lose out on the lessons God meant to impart into our hearts.

Some groan at the thought of adding yet another task to what is supposed to be time off from the same. Thankfully life lessons abound in everything around us; capturing them as we walk out our days is a game as addicting as Pokemon Go, once we download the idea into our thinking processes and set off to see what we can find.

God makes it surprisingly easy. He told me he wanted me to lighten up, to shed some things that were weighing me down. It just took me a while to realize what they were.

The first day we were in Myrtle Beach I carried my sweatshirt with me everywhere we went as we walked first the beach and then the storefront sidewalks. Storm clouds littered the horizon; shouldn't I be ready for a sudden downpour? Restaurants that offer a respite from the heat often offer a seat right under an air conditioning vent; I didn't want to shiver as I shoveled in the food. Best to be prepared...or so I thought. Soon the bulky extra weight began to bother me, and when God asked me if I wasn't getting tired of caring that thing all around, I was finally ready to hang The Fear of What Might Happen on a hook in the hotel room. I didn't touch it the rest of the trip.

I love to get up early and walk a beach while the morning is still fresh, the sun just breaking through the clouds and the the water rushing to the shore to wave repeated greetings to me as I pass by. But on our first morning there I overdid it just a bit; the sun was still sleeping and the hotel coffee bar was still closed. No problem; I'd just hoof it half a mile to the Starbucks down the road and load up on coffee there. But I had only taken a few steps out the door when I became painfully aware of my situation. I was alone in the dark carrying a big purse that held all our vacation money and gift cards, as well as anything I might need to occupy myself with while my husband slept in. As it turned out, I did get robbed, emotionally, if not physically; the simple joy of the morning was stolen away because I was burdened by treasure I held in my hands instead of my heart. What did I really need to walk the beach? Just two legs, a cup of coffee and my phone tucked into a pocket. Later that morning I shoved The Fear of Lack into a dresser drawer and slammed it shut.

The last to go was probably the hardest. My husband wanted us to hit the pool deck; the two swimming pools, a circular moat filled with inner tube floats, and two hot tubs were calling his name. But to enjoy them meant to shed the clothing covering one's biggest source of insecurity; our perception of the way we look. We simply don't like to expose our flaws to public scrutiny. But one of the joys of traveling off-season is that all the beautiful bodies are usually back at work or school; everybody lounging in the pool area was likely as pale, fat and old as we were. On went the bathing suits and off we went. Once we hit the deck I realized that my fears were groundless. Nobody was “scrutinizing” anybody; they were too busy swimming, soaking or floating in the last of the summer sun; we simply joined in the fun. And at the end of a couple of hours of delightful play, I smiled as I threw our swimsuits over the bathroom shower rod, realizing with a smile I had hung my Fear of What Others Might Think out to dry, as well.

Souvenir shopping is always a part of my vacation fun, so I was surprised that I came away with just one – a key chain made of a colorful collection of starfish and shells. That bit of bling on a ring simply reminds me that the days ahead will be richer because of what I left behind.

Therefore then...let us strip off and throw aside every encumbrance (unnecessary weight)...”
Hebrews 12:1 AMP

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Mason Jar-Worthy Moments

I startled my neighbor the other morning.

Coming up the driveway a little faster and farther than I usually do before stopping to look for passing traffic, I caused the driver of an approaching truck to slam on his brakes, thinking I was going to pull out in front of him. I waved my apology, and as he went on by I realized why he was a little nervous; he was carrying precious cargo. Pulling a trailer loaded with bee hives, the driver was the owner of the honey farm just down the road, bringing home a load of golden goodness locked in the little compartments of the honeycombs.

He held an open house on his farm last weekend; I wish I had been off so I could have learned more about the honey production process. I know the basics, that forager bees collect nectar from flowering plants, then pass it on to worker bees at the hive where it is stored and gradually transformed into honey by the evaporation of excess liquid. The bees feed off the stored honey in the hive in the winter months, and it produces a bountiful harvest that we enjoy in a variety of ways every day.

Although I had to work the day of the open house, as I sat on the deck with my coffee I noticed a honeybee gathering nectar from the nearby flowering plants. Wondering if it was a wanderer from one of my neighbor's hives, I observed how diligent it was in its search, going from one bloom to the next, hitting them all. God reminded me that just as honeybees are becoming rare, so, too, in this day and age of negative news and mindsets are those who seek out the sweet in all of life's experiences.

I want to be such a person. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that in the next couple of days I came across a devotional written by Max Lucado that talked about the many jars of canned goods he would see in his grandmother's cellar. It suggested that we can similarly store up good thoughts and moments to get us through emotionally lean times in the months ahead.

The idea took hold, perhaps because August is a canning month and people have been busy processing what is coming out of the gardens they have cared for so diligently over the summer. As a grocery store cashier I have seen a multitude of mason jars pass over my register scanner recently, and have helped a number of patrons find the pickling salt and spices they need only at this particular time of the year.

It was when God told me to pull out a mason jar of my own that I reminded Him nervously that I am neither a gardener nor a cook. He may have actually laughed at that point, remembering perhaps some of my earlier attempts at both. But He calmed me by saying I simply had to be the “forager bee” He created me to be. For the next month I was to go through each day looking expressly for the moments that made me laugh or smile, gathering those droplets of joy in my mind. Then in the evening, just before bed, I was to write a word or two about each of the most fun on three tiny slips of folded yellow post-it notes, just enough to later jog the memory, and then deposit them into the jar that I kept on the windowsill just over my sink. Those instructions could be condensed to three little commands I saw on a page-a-day calendar recently: Capture smiles. Capture love. Capture life.

Didn't we used to do that as kids? How many of us lucky enough to live where lightning bugs abound could resist the urge to catch as many as we could in a jar to use as a bedroom nightlight later on? Even then we were unwittingly storing up joy for dark times ahead. (Nowadays a string of battery-powered lights in a jar evokes the same emotional uplift without leaving a mess of dead fireflies to dump out in the morning. Progress!)

Because I love to play games with God, I eagerly signed on to the project. I have to admit that even my husband felt a twinge of anxiety when he first saw the mason jar waiting to be filled...but his concern turned to curiosity as the days went by and he saw it slowly filling up with yellow paper instead of yucky food I would later require him to eat. Finally he had to ask me about it, which of course was part of the point. You see, people will notice when you deliberately start filling your mind with joy you seek out instead of the junk the world offers. It becomes visible in even your facial features; they can't help but notice the smile on your lips, the giggle in your conversation, your laughter with an increasing number of friends. Eventually they will ask you about it, and that's when you get to share with them the goodness of God, how He fills our days with sweet nectar that is ours for the taking, blessings of all kinds that are blooming all around us, just waiting to be gathered up, enjoyed, stored, and shared.

But what was I to do with the jar at the end of the month? He told me to first pick a time to dump it all out and review the contents, enjoying each moment once more. Then I was to refill it with the paper slips and put it on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet, where I keep my pills. The significance of that latter instruction was not lost on me - truly a daily dose of smiles does as much for my health as my blood pressure medicine and vitamin tablet combined! And so I did as I was told, but I didn't shelve my commitment to being an active member of the hive. It is said that if you do something for thirty days it becomes a habit, and truly now I can't help but look for laughter everywhere I go. At the end of the day I review the moments that are written across my heart and give thanks for the joy of the day gone by.

This is a game that all can play. Just as it takes a bunch of bees to make a hive, so it takes a whole family working together to make a home a happy place, a lot of coworker cooperation to do the same at the workplace, and all of us working together to bring positive change to our world. How wonderful to think that the power to accomplish all that begins with the individual bee, simply buzzing from flower to flower.

Attention, all! See the marvels of God! He plants flowers and trees all over the earth...'Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.'”
(Psalm 46:8-10 MSG)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Kick Off Those Graveclothes!

Let's face it; we've all got issues. Sometimes getting out and doing something different gives us a chance to focus on something other than ourselves for an hour or two, and that can only be a good thing.

It was a surprise when my husband suggested we pick up some food, pack up some lawn chairs and head to a music-in-the-park event near where he works. We'd never heard of the scheduled band before, but what could be better than spending a summer evening kicked back and relaxing, surrounded by other people doing the same? I eagerly signed on.

The night didn't disappoint. Instead of using our chairs we sat on sun-baked rocks set in amphitheater style around a grassy space fronted by a stage. On it a three-man band was already giving the still-growing crowd their all. Covered in sweat in the lingering heat of the day, they played song after song without missing a beat, a boogie move, or even taking a break. They clearly were making the most of this opportunity to entertain.

The crowd wasn't nearly as energetic. Seated as Jim and I were on the edge of the square, we were in a perfect spot to people-watch as they sat in groups scattered all over the lawn, chatted with friends they ran into, or stood in line at the food trucks in the rear. Once parked in their seats, however, most people turned lazy, and crowd participation to even the most beloved of songs was limited to hand waving or wiggling a little bit in their chairs, ignoring the band's encouragement to get up and dance.

Suddenly we were shaken out of our lethargy by a peculiar sight. A young man with developmental disabilities had moved to a spot in front of the stage and was giving a performance of his own. Looking to be about 20 years old or so, he was strumming a toy guitar, singing and giving the moment all he was worth. To the crowd's delight, the band invited him onto the platform to finish the song with them! Oh, the joy on the boy's face! He bounded onstage, and back to back, he and the lead guitar player rocked hard to the end of the song! It was a glorious way to end a set; the band led the applause for young “Jackson” as they broke for a brief intermission.

The storm clouds that had been gathering in the distance during the last couple of hours were growing darker and moving closer all the time. During the break the event promoter decided that for safety's sake the night should end a little earlier than planned. Even as the wind started to pick up, the band came back on stage and said they would do two songs in closing. People slowly started gathering their things, packing their lawn chairs in their bags and saying goodbye to the people they had been sitting with. When the stage lights blew over during the final song and had to be propped back up by willing hands in the crowd, it was evident that it was time to quit.

But somehow Jackson missed the memo. He had continued his enjoyment of the night after the break, still strumming, singing, prancing between rows of chairs, working the crowd. The band ended with Kenny Loggin's “Footloose”, and as they sang “kick off the Sunday shoes”, Jackson sent his flip-flops flying off his feet! He was reluctant to leave and clearly the last to give up the fun and go home.

I thought about him a lot over the next couple of days. Like him, I seem to be surrounded by people my age who are more focused on leaving than living. Having settled in their chairs of late, their participation in life has diminished as their focus on the end of the same has increased. They are simply living out their last two songs, making decisions based on how much time they figure they have left. Sometimes it is a serious illness that has prompted the mindset, or perhaps the loss of a loved one that reminds them that their time on earth has an approaching end. Their swan song has rightly become “Live Like You Were Dying”, but their focus on the dying rather than the living shows they have completely missed the point of the ballad.

Jackson helped me get it right that night. Nobody in all that crowd had a better time that evening than he did. He fully entered in, despite, maybe because of his current situation. The one who seemed “challenged” taught me that WE are the ones with disabilities if we let the storm clouds gathering on our individual horizons rob us of the living we've still got left to do. It's evidence of how much God loves us that He sends the Jacksons among us to free us of the burial wrappings which our thinking and our speaking are slowly but surely winding around us.

His message is simple: When the curtain falls on your performance on earth, may it find you still dancing for all you are worth!

Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, drink wine with a robust heart. Oh yes – God takes pleasure in your pleasure! Dress festively every morning. Don't skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily!...”
(Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 MSG)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Black Mood

I woke to the sound of the dog retching, vomiting up the steak bones we had given him the night before.

Rarely do my days (or my stories, for that matter) have such an unpleasant beginning; I was determined to shake off the bad start with my plan to breakfast with the hummingbirds at the local state park. A series of feeders hung between overflowing flower baskets at the entrance to the lodge attracts the tiny buzzers in large numbers; it is a delight to sit on the benches to the side and watch the birds feed, chatter, and chase each other, sometimes zooming past seemingly inches over one's head. Quickly I gathered my coffee, donut, and devotional books and raced the seven miles separating me from the morning show.

As I pulled into my usual parking spot I was surprised to see a vulture sitting on the grass nearby. Hueston Woods is known for the vast number of black and turkey vultures that frequent the place, but usually they are lined up on the very top of the lodge's A-line roof, stretching out their wings and warming themselves in the morning sun before taking to the skies in search of food or perhaps just to play in the air currents. Many are the times I've laid back in a chair and simply watched them soar in circles way above me in the boundless blue – relaxation at its best! It was unusual to see one down on the ground in such a matter, and we eyed each other warily as I made my way past it to the covered entranceway nearby. 

I settled myself on the concrete seat and noticed with disappointment that there were no hummers around at all; a quick glance showed that the feeders had not yet been refilled in the busyness following a holiday weekend. But roosting on the rail across from me were half a dozen of the vultures, again in closer proximity than I had ever seen them before. Far from the breakfast companions I had in mind, they simply sat and watched me eat my treat until a maintenance worker came out to empty some trash barrels and shooed them away, saying with a smile, “If I have to get up and go to work, so do they.”

My second destination of the morning was a wooden bench behind the lodge overlooking the lake. A coffee stop in the gift shop was a necessity; the thermoses are in the back, past shelves lined with kids' toys and souvenirs. I remembered with a smile the many stuffed animals my boys came home with from trips in their boyhood years; we could've stocked a stuffed animal zoo. But the choices of the same in this shop were limited to just a strange two. One was a bald eagle, which made a little bit of sense since the park boasts a nature and raptor rehabilitation center; among the residents is a bald eagle that could not be released back into the wild. But next to it on the shelf lay...a stuffed turkey vulture! Who on earth comes to the park and takes home such a toy? I was amazed that anyone had even thought to make one, but had to admit that the likeness was striking with its black body and red face; it was just not something I could imagine a child wanting to hold tight and cuddle at night.

Coffee in hand, I went out the rear door of the lodge and headed towards the benches at the far end of a large expanse of grass. Again to my amazement there were large groups of the buzzards gathered on the ground, sitting together, standing nearby, or walking from one group to another. Once more they weren't disturbed by my presence or my movement. But to my dismay I found one even roosting on the back of the very wooden bench on which I'd planned to sit! By this time I'd had enough of their monopolization of my morning; I shooed it away with gusto. But when I went to place my bag down on the vacated space, I quickly had second thoughts; more birds than one had been there before me, their accumulated droppings the disgusting proof. Quickly I moved over to a cleaner bench nearby and got my focus off the black and brooding birds and onto the peace of the place which I had initially come to enjoy.

While this whole experience was a new one for me, many people suffer the recurring nightmare of waking to a black mood hovering above them and then dogging their every step through the day. No matter what they do or where they go, it moves with them, settling in and eclipsing the sunshine of happier thoughts and brighter moments surrounding them that are waiting to be enjoyed. While I don't pretend to understand nor desire to minimize the pain and seeming helplessness of a deep depression, there are things we can do to chase away an occasional dark and cloudy day.

The first step is to realize that darkness is not God's plan for us; we are children of the Light. While He occasionally allows us to go through difficult times and experience things we would rather avoid, they all have a purpose attached to them; His Word promises us that they will work for our ultimate good. If we can hang on to that promise, push past the unpleasantness and actively pursue the message behind it, we will all the more quickly find ourselves on the other side.

The maintenance worker's words stuck with me; we can't just sit around and brood. We have to get up and get to work, making those situations work for us instead of against us. So many things in life are motion-activated these days, from flushing toilets to water faucets to paper towel dispensers. Surely our faith operates the same way. We have to make a move in God's direction, and then He responds with ever-increasing hope and help and eventually, restored happiness.

Part of the solution, of course, is to take care where you set your stuff. Don't sit down amidst the droppings of other people's negative situations, and don't buy the lines and the lies they offer to sell you. Friendship sometimes comes with a price that we simply can't afford to pay. Sometimes it's best to get up and deliberately remove ourselves from bad situations and settle in a spot where we can receive the positive input we need.

I did eventually find that peace at the park the other morning. The solution came when I quit looking at the birds around me and directed my gaze to the sky above me...absorbed the weightlessness of the feather-thin clouds in the sky, trusting in the promise of the cross formed by contrails of jets in the big expanse of blue, and let the warmth of the Son-shine bake into to my soul.

God has a myriad of ways to get his messages across. My mind went back to the gift shop I had been in mere moments before: out of all the stuffed animals that could have filled the toy shelves in a park setting...raccoons, squirrels, foxes, etc...the choices were limited to just the two mentioned above. Likewise in life our choices often come down to just two; a simple yes or no when deciding whether to settle for the status quo.

I smiled as I remembered (and modified) the old saying: “It's hard to soar like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkey (vulture)s.” Perhaps God states His solution this way: “Don't let the devil dump his darkness all over your day.”

Peace I leave with you; My [own] peace I now give and bequeath to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed; and do not permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly and unsettled.]”
(John 14:27 AMP, emphases mine)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Time's A-Wastin'

It was an easy mistake to make. I sat in my car, eating my sandwich and engrossed in a good book while the life in my battery slowly ebbed away.

It had been a rainy, foggy morning, the kind of day that demanded driving with the lights on. When the sky brightened later, I didn't think to turn them off. I went through the drive-thru at McDonald's and then parked to eat in the lot; actions that kept me from having to get out of the car, but that also kept the door alarm from signaling that the lights were still on. It wasn't till I was ready to move on and couldn't get the car to start that I finally realized what I'd done.

It was a simple fix that day to call Triple A, get a jump, and be on my way, but I know God well enough by now to realize it wasn't just “one of those things” that happens from time to time. Rather, it was a a forced delay to cause me to question Him, listen to what He had to say, and think about some things in a way maybe I hadn't considered enough of late.

What He spoke to me about that day was waste. I whine about not having enough time for all that I want to do, but the truth is that I throw time away in little chunks all day long. And when I look back at the end of a week, a year...perhaps a lifetime...I see large sections of each that went missing because I didn't use what I'd been given appropriately.

Some of us find ourselves in a similar “forced delay” that is likewise not of our choosing, held back from the plans we had made perhaps by a consequence of some earlier action, an illness, an infirmity, or the loss of someone dear to us. While we normally consider such an interruption in a negative context, a change in our perspective might bring about surprisingly positive results. What if instead of being irritated and frustrated by the turn of events, we became intrigued and fascinated by what God might want to show us in this time that He couldn't reveal to us any other way? We might find ourselves actually thanking Him for doing so!

When the Triple A mechanic showed up to jumpstart my car, his first action was to flip off the cover of the battery, and we were both surprised at what was hiding underneath. The severely corroded cell required a lot of time and several bottles of cleaning solution before the terminals were clear enough to be connected to the jumper cables. He warned me that if the car started at all it would get me home but not much further than that; I needed to replace the battery as soon as possible.

Perhaps God is using what we consider a difficult time in our lives to likewise cause us to see what might otherwise remain hidden from view, giving us a chance to check our connections with Him, with friends, and with our families so we can make corrections to the same while there is still time to do so. When a battery reaches the end of its lifespan it is easily replaced. Not so with our lifetimes; we only get one go at it. Face it, we're all “terminal”...and if there's any amount of corrosion hanging about our lives we need to clear it off so we can make the most of the time and energy we have left. So let's not waste this moment; instead, let's be grateful for a chance to review and re-evaluate how we're living and loving today...because any tomorrows are not a given, but a gift.

He has made everything beautiful in its time...”
(Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Connor Connection

The five of us were seated around my kitchen table, chatting easily, baby Connor placed on the edge where he sat in the protective curve of grandpa “Poppy”'s arms. Silently he surveyed the adults before him as the conversation flowed around him, studying each face with the pensive look on his own that we've come to know as “seriously Connor.” His daddy, Gabe, had been telling the group about the moment each day when he stops at the babysitter's house to pick up his boy; that instant when Connor first sees him, recognizes him, and then smiles so huge, arms flailing, body wiggling with delight at the sight of his dad. At that moment Gabe said his heart just explodes within him with love for his child; there is absolutely nothing that can be compared to the experience.

Minutes later I saw it for myself on a small scale, when Poppy passed the baby over to Gabe for some reason. Connor looked up to see who he was being handed to, saw that it was Daddy, and began to smile and rejoice, the details of which were lost to me because his back was turned my way. But facing Gabe gave me a clear view of him in that moment of connection with his child; his joy evident in the ensuing smiles, funny faces and baby babble between them, oblivious as they were to the conversation continuing around them.

How funny that we had been talking about knowing God...when God Himself suddenly entered the conversation with a picture instead of words. He showed us that knowing Him is more than just seeing what He has made, reading about Him in His Word, or living the life He has given us, acknowledging in the back of our minds somewhere that He created it all and is our Father and our Savior. Rather, it is those moments of recognition in the midst of our circumstances; those times when something in a situation unexpectedly clicks in our spirit, and suddenly we see His Face or hear His voice and laugh in the knowledge that that particular detail was deliberately planted to be discovered and enchant us by the Father who dotes on us. That moment which brings us such joy brings even more of the same to Him. In that instant with Gabe and his son, God showed me a fraction of the single-mindedness of the connection and the love burst of joy that exists between a Father and His child. It was for this that we were created; for fellowship with the Father... to gladden the heart of our God.

And so Father's Day approaches and we are busy looking for ideas with which to celebrate the dads in our lives, be they our own fathers, our husbands, our sons, or just a friend with a child. Maybe we should also add God to the list. Our Heavenly Father is actually the easiest to please, as the entire world around us is loaded with gift ideas... if we only had eyes to see and recognize Him in them. I frequently ask the Holy Spirit for help in finding gifts for others; how much more should I ask Him to help me to find God in the details of my life, that I might delight His heart once more?

Such a request requires a lifetime, rather than a few moments of shopping on a computer or an hour in a store. So I guess what we give God is our time... time to develop a heart that can't bear to beat apart from Him, eyes that look for His in everything around them, and a mind set on continual connection with the One who loves us best.

One day Baby Connor will be grown and gone, but his dad will still long for their initial bond to stay strong. And no matter how long we have walked with God, how spiritually mature we have become nor how busy we are with ministry for His glory, He still glories in those moments when we return to our youth and simply delight at the sight of His face.

But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'”
(Luke 18:16-17 NIV)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The View from a New Pair of Specs

Nothing messes with the mind and emotions of a shopper more than rearranging the items for sale in a grocery store. No matter what the reasoning behind the reorganization, customers are convinced that the ultimate plan is to pull more money out of their pockets by making them hunt and search for the items they need, perhaps discovering new items to buy in the process. They resent the extra time and effort they have to put into filling their carts, and by the time they reach the checkout lane their rage has reached the boiling point and is ready to spill over onto the first store employee they see, usually the hapless cashier standing behind the register.

I listened to my share of customer complaints yesterday after clocking in for my shift. At first I was sympathetic to the customers' frustration, understanding that their time is valuable and they don't appreciate it being wasted for a purpose that doesn't seem to benefit them in any way. But as the day wore on and customer after customer spilled their vitriol over me, I went from sympathetic to apathetic to wishing I'd doubled up on my blood pressure medicine before coming in that day. I simply pasted a smile on my face, bit my tongue and reminded myself that as paying customers they had a right to voice their opinions and I was being paid to patiently stand there and listen.

One customer talked himself into a better frame of mind all by himself! At first he was angry, and I listened to his criticism in silence, nodding occasionally, so he couldn't accuse me of completely ignoring him. Once he had spilled his guts, he said, “But I know you had nothing to do with the decision to move things around.”

I nodded in agreement.

“And you probably have to shop here and be frustrated like the rest of us.”

“Very true,” I answered.

“And eventually we'll all learn where things are again.”

“Now you're talking...,” I said in agreement.

“And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter very much, does it?”

“Buddy, now you're singing my song!” I told him.

That was the point in a nutshell, as another customer told a fellow shopper he met in the aisle. He listened to her voice her complaints to anyone who was near as long as he could take it. Then he turned to her, a complete stranger, and said, “Listen, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease yesterday, and today you're upset because you can't find where they put the spaghetti? I don't even want to hear it.” He noted her subdued silence as he turned and went on his way.

It's a matter of perspective, for sure. And sometimes we simply need to similarly confront our pessimism head on and remind ourselves of what is truly important in life. While an extended shopping venture is a frustrating inconvenience, it is not the end of the world. We would realize that if we for a moment we shelved our complaints and focused our eyes on all that we have to be thankful for. For starters we could be grateful that we have the ability to come to the store and shop, money in our pockets with which to buy food, and such an abundance of goods that finding one particular item in their midst becomes a game instead of a chore. When we change the way we look at things, suddenly the overstocked shelves that seemed to be a curse we now view as overflowing with blessings from which we get to choose.

Usually the things we complain about aren't the real issue; rather they reveal the existence of a deeper problem on the inside. We're not really looking for items on grocery shelves per se. Instead, we're searching for the joy in our hearts that we lost somewhere along life's way. Everything that comes out of our mouths, regardless of where we are, just indicates its absence.

Each day following the recent remodel, the manager at our store assigned one of the cashiers to roam the aisles with no other job than to help the customers find the items they needed. Several times that was my assignment, and I walked the aisles sporting a black sash with the word “INFORMATION” in bold white letters across the front and a map of the store in my hand. My task was to find shoppers who looked lost, and together we would locate what they were looking for.

If you're searching for joy, I can help you with that, as well. The trick to finding it lies in wearing a special pair of spectacles. Put on your gratitude glasses and see not just your shopping trip but your life in a whole new light.

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
(Romans 12:1-2 MSG)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Fit Brain or a Smart Heart?

It was one of those many phone apps that promises an improvement in brain function if used regularly. Suckered in by the hope of forestalling age-related mental loss, I had downloaded several to my phone and simply enjoyed the challenge of beating my last score, whether I was truly benefiting my brain or not. This one in particular offered two categories for improvement, mental performance and emotional intelligence. For several days I concentrated on the former, thinking that I just needed to be able to think faster, process ideas more quickly, increase reaction times, and improve memory. But the app suggested that both types of intelligence were important for good mental health, and so just for fun, I ventured into the realm of challenging my emotional well being.

The first game seemed so easy; a color was printed at the top of the screen, and I was supposed to match it to the right word in the list of colors that appeared underneath it. Simple, I thought. The word “purple” appeared, and quickly I searched the list of colors printed underneath it until I found the same, and clicked on it.

Brrrrrrp,” buzzed my phone. It was the wrong answer! Thinking my thumb had mistakenly hit the color above or below the one I wanted, I tried again.

“Yellow” came the prompt, and I looked for and clicked on “yellow” in the list below, more carefully this time. But again my choice was wrong! Sadly, this happened several more times before I realized I was supposed to match the color the word was printed in, not the color it read. Thus when the word “purple” showed up in yellow type, I was supposed to select “yellow” from the list below it, not “purple.” The point was to detect true feelings behind spoken words.

Clearly some of us are better at this than others. When my boys were still living at home, one of my sons could detect a sadness in my emotional state, no matter how I tried to camouflage it with happy smiles and cheery talk, and he was relentless in his pursuit of the source of the problem. While others in the same household could be fooled by my attempts at normalcy in the form of busy activity and casual conversation, he was not. Although my actions spelled the word “happy” he would detect the blue-mood ink they were written in and call me on it every time.

God's Son did the same. Over and over in the Bible we see how Jesus looked beyond the spoken words and actions of people into the true state of their hearts, and spoke and responded to them accordingly. Some might claim that because He was God in the flesh He had access to inside information about people that the rest of us lack. For instance, He knew that the Woman at the Well had been married five times and was now living with yet another man. Yet it was the condition of His heart that caused Him to begin a conversation with her in the first place, despite the cultural boundaries concerning gender and genealogy. While He consistently challenged the current thinking of the times, offering new ideas and ways of relating to one another, His purpose was to change the hearts of those He encountered. And we see the success of his “training sessions” when we read of men who said their hearts burned within them while He was speaking to them, and others who could sit for hours just listening to what He had to say, despite pressure from those around them to perform more functional tasks. Jesus' answer to Martha concerning her sister's lack of help with household chores is telling: “'Martha, are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.'”

Perhaps we have it wrong, then, and are simply concentrating on the wrong organ. We spend time and money trying to improve the function of our brains, when Jesus says it's the condition of our hearts that we should be worried about. Research into the performance of brain training apps suggests that while the mind can be coached with repetition to improve the performance of certain tasks, overall IQ doesn't change significantly over a person's lifetime. Yet one's emotional intelligence can increase simply with the desire to improve.

It's interesting that a part of a believer's heart transformation likewise involves a change in the way we think about things as well as in the way we respond to others. We just need to learn how to operate in this new realm of existence. The brain apps are consistent in their insistence that regular training sessions are essential if brain activity is to improve, and they are eager to send notifications and reminders to our phones to keep us on track. Likewise there is no substitute for time with God if we want to become more like Him, and He uses the Holy Spirit to prompt us in that pursuit. Thankfully the ways to spend time in God's presence are even more numerous than the options in the app store, and free for the taking. We just have to make the time to make them an active part of our lives.

The closer we get to Jesus, the more our minds and hearts will think and love like His.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
(Romans 12:2 NKJV)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Rings Around my Heart

It started with the mother's ring on my right hand. Three birthstones set in a row on a band, one for each of my sons, it was a piece of jewelry I treasured almost as much as the boys themselves. I looked down at it at work one day and suddenly noticed one of the stones was missing! Horrified, when I got home that evening I worked the ring off my finger (over these knuckles? No small feat!) and hid it carefully away before telling my family about my loss. I knew instinctively (and correctly!) that the moment my sons heard about it they would rally to find it and figure out which of the three of them was on the “outs” with his mother while the other two were still secure in their standing! For once the merciless teasing was forstalled by my advance planning!

My husband kindly had the ring repaired for me, and a couple of months passed without incident. Then again while at work one day I happened to look down at my hands, and this time it was the band on my engagement ring that had split completely through!

“Are you kidding me?” I muttered to myself. Worn thin after 35 years of life and love and laughter with my husband, it had simply given way. Because the engagement ring was welded to the wedding band, I had to remove the entire set (another miracle!) and took it in for repair at the first opportunity. I chuckled when the jewelry store said they would call with a price estimate on the repair. I knew I'd pay any amount to get it fixed; the rings were simply priceless to me.

Yet the empty feeling on my left hand bothered me, so I dug in my jewelry box for something to wear in my wedding bands' place. I found a ring with a tiger's eye in a simple setting, a piece of jewelry I'd had so long that I couldn't even remember where I got it but liked it enough to keep it all these years. Gladly I worked it onto my finger and was happy to have it till my wedding set was restored to me. It lasted a full week before I happened to notice while again scanning groceries one day that that stone had likewise disappeared, leaving an empty setting behind!

What was it about weighing bunches of kale on a scale and sliding boxes of cereal down a belt that was so hard on my rings, I wondered? It didn't make sense that after eleven years on the job I suddenly couldn't keep a ring on my finger to save my life! It was such a strange occurrence of events that surely there was some message attached to it, one that I clearly wasn't receiving. “I hope I figure it out soon,” I thought to myself. “I don't know how many rings I have left!”

Suddenly, there it was! I don't know how many rings I have left.

The former forester in me remembered that the age of a tree is measured in the growth rings that are visible in a crosscut of the trunk, a ring for every year of life. How many “rings” do each of us have left? We simply don't know.

It's possible to determine a tree's age without cutting it down; foresters carry a tool called an increment borer which removes a core sample from the trees on which the rings are clearly visible and easily counted. But the sample reveals more than just the tree's age. It shows growth patterns in the life of the tree, years in which the tree grew well as well as those in which growth was stunted for some reason by environmental conditions or disease.

We Christians carry a similar tool in our pockets in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the mercy of God that before our lives are cut down He gives us the means to examine our past, evaluate our growth and consider problem areas in our relationships with Him and the people around us...while there is still time to correct them! Sometimes He just needs to get our attention.

My ring situation did that for me. The mother's ring reminded me of my joy in my boys, prompting me to keep them close in heart in specific ways and deliberately clear my schedule when the opportunity presents itself for us to get together. Similarly, a marriage can't survive if the joy of the engagement and early years is lost in life's busyness; scheduled fun times with a spouse is a marital must. And who among us doesn't have treasured friends whose faithful love should be remembered, renewed and rekindled with a deliberate effort to stay in touch?

It's interesting that the losses all became apparent to me while I was at work. It's easy to slip into the habit of letting our work situations run our lives and control our time. We can be still mentally clocked in even when completely off the job site, our minds still thinking about problems we encountered and working out solutions when they should be focused on thoughts and people closer to home. It can lead to an undiagnosed type of “attention deficit disorder” which, if left untreated, can prove to be fatal to the relationshps we value the most.

So what can we do about it? There's no oral medication we can take to instantly fix relationshps that have lost their luster. I had to send my rings in to be repaired, a good reminder that we can't fix all of our problems ourselves; we simply need to ask for help from the One who has all the answers. Maybe the Good Doctor will first prescribe a new set of eyeglasses through which we view our life and the people in it. Then He'll work on our heart to get the love flowing freely in all the right directions once more. He'll renew our mind and readjust our priorities so that the most important things...and our lives get our attention first. Perhaps the best treatment is simply to give us a glimpse of the brevity of life, to remind us that we simply don't know how much time we have left. If change is to occur, it has to begin

Whether or not my jewelry will be repaired in time for Valentine's Day, this year I'll be thanking God for the gift of three broken rings that redirected my love and attention to those in my inner circle...while there is yet time to hold them close.

whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
(James 4:14 NKJV)
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