Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Decide to be Deciduous

I've never been a fan of leafless trees. The bare skeletons reaching to the sky after proudly dropping their vibrant covering in a final burst of color is depressing to me, speaking only of death and decay and the dreariness of winter ahead, while spring is just a distant hope on the horizon.

I come from the part of the country where conifers are king, and “evergreen” trees are exactly that, holding their needles close, all year long. There are few more beautiful sights than fir boughs cradling freshly fallen snow in the winter, or the lime green “fingertips” of new growth shooting out the ends of darker hued branches everywhere come spring. The forest backdrop of a sea of green brings beauty to every mountain scene and peace to my anxious soul. I love the constancy and stability of an evergreen tree in a world where change is the name of the game.

And then I moved to the Midwest...that part of the country where radical temperature change is a reality, and the resultant transformation of physical surroundings is eagerly acknowledged, anticipated, and embraced as one season after another rolls in to steal our short-lived attention and affection. I had to learn a whole new way to live. And I discovered that there is a reason Fall is the most beautiful season of them all.

The word deciduous was added to my vocabulary and my life experience. It means the shedding of something at a particular time of year or stage of growth, and refers to that which is not permanent, but transitory. Perhaps it is most often used to describe the type of tree that loses its leaves in the autumn months when the chlorophyll that gives the leaves their green color is pulled back towards the stem, and foliage everywhere flames in a dazzling display of red, orange and yellow hues before dropping to the ground to be kicked around, raked up, jumped in and burned.

I've always thought the beauty of the season was in that brief but glorious visual display. Yet I think God actually prefers the bare stems that are left behind, which I have always so scorned. And here's why...

What if we picture the leaves as worries in our lives, concerns that bud innocently enough in the springtime of each developing situation? These leafy agitations grow as they are fed by the time and attention we devote to them as the days pass, until the sheer number and size of them about our lives is so great that when we look up, they obscure our view of the Son and we live in the shadow of their control.

God never intended us to be weighed down with worry and distress. And the good news is that we don't have to wait for a certain time of year to change our thinking and be done with all that. He took the mental and physical burden of all our problems and literally “lashed” them on His own back, that they wouldn’t trouble us any longer. Now we are as free to let them fly away as a tree unleashes a free-fall of spent foliage in a good gust of wind.

That's what can make the “autumn season” in our spiritual experience so achingly beautiful. All it takes is that initial moment of realization to begin a deliberate pulling back of the fuel that feeds the worry process. We finally see our problems for what they really are, addictive distractions that grab our attention but block us from the love of God flowing towards us and the life of victory He has planned for us. When they no longer have the mind control over us they crave, they fall off our lives and hinder us no more. God desires us to be so lighthearted about our lives that we jump into piles of our dried up worries and toss them up in the air around us, now toys instead of trials.

One look at my basement will expose me as a truly “evergreen” girl, born with a tendency to hold on to physical possessions forever and ever and ever, amen. What is true in the natural world is often true in the spiritual one, as well, so I'm trying to get better about shedding the things that are taking up too much room, not only in my basement, but in my life experience, my thought processes...and especially my heart.

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
(John 14:27 NKJV)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Bridal Bruise

It appeared unexpectedly, its presence unwelcome, untimely...unfortunate.

I vaguely remembered the injury that caused it – a bump into a bag rack at work, a momentary ouch, quickly forgotten, until days later an ugly bruise manifested on an arm that needed to be wedding-perfect for the sleeveless mother-of-the-groom dress I would be wearing in just a week's time.

I had been working hard on my arms in the months before the big day, trying to slim them down, tone them up, and erase any evidence of the farmer's tan I'm prone to. All that work seemed to be null and void when a blotch the size and color of a penny suddenly made its appearance on the afflicted limb.

Did I say penny-sized? That thing was as big as the state of Texas, and just as anxious to draw attention to itself amid the sprinkling of freckles around it! I was horrified.

“Maybe it will go away by the big day,” I muttered to myself hopefully, a wish that withered as the days ticked by and the color and intensity of the mark on my arm remained the same, despite last-minute heat pack treatments applied multiple times a day in an already overcrowded wedding-week time schedule.

“We can cover it with makeup,” the bride suggested hopefully...until the attempt on already pale skin drew as much attention to the spot as the color it was attempting to hide. In the end there was nothing to do but shrug it off and give it no more notice than I would a birthmark I'd lived with all my life. I went on to enjoy the day.

I know. There are people out there with real problems who wish they could struggle with something as minuscule as a bruise on their skin that will simply go away in time. But since we have no choice but to deal with the issues we have at hand, wouldn't a change in perspective help? What if we considered the situations we contend with to be nothing more than blemishes we incur as a result of our birth into a fallen race, proof of our humanity? We all are wounded repeatedly in our journey through life by incidents that leave a mark, not just on our skin but on our psyche, as well, inflicted on us by people, life experiences, physical contact...hurtful words. Unseen initially, the evidence usually become visible later, if not on our skin, then in our outlook on life, outbursts in relationships, or out of control behavior. Unable to make them go away on our own, we spend too much of our focus and time in covering them up, trying to project a perfect image to a watching world.

The truth is that our eyes are in the wrong place. Instead of looking at our spots we should be looking at the Savior who let Himself be bruised on our behalf, that the problems that plague us wouldn't keep us from the joy He intended us to experience on a daily basis. He took the beating, the bruising, the eventual death that was our lot in life and changed our current fortunes and our futures forever. While the physical evidence of what we are going through may linger, our minds, hearts, and souls are released from its power, leaving us free to live and love and laugh once more, despite its presence.

A couple of days after the wedding, the photographer gave us a “sneak peek” of her work, releasing a few photos of the event in unedited form, teasing us with anticipation for what was to come. One shot in particular caught my eye. It captured the moment my son and I came through the golden drapery that separated the wedding party from the waiting guests as he walked me to my seat in the front row of the groom's side of the aisle. There on my arm the ugly bruise was still visible, but much more so was the huge smile on my face, radiating the joy of the moment and the happiness in my heart.

Could it be that God intended that shot to be a glimpse into our own futures, that moment in time when we push through the curtain separating this world from the next to find the seats reserved for us in another wedding ceremony, escorted in by the Son Himself?! Perhaps He is reminding us that the joy of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and the delights of eternity to follow will so overshadow whatever is currently leaving a mark on our minds, body, or hearts that we should only give those situations a passing thought (as in, “this, too, shall pass”), and focus all our attention on the joy of the days ahead.

The ugliness of that bruise on my arm was simply a reminder of all the hurts God took on His, outstretched in love for me and nailed in place in a forever embrace.

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”
(Isaiah 53:5 NKJV)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Ticket to Ride

We were in the mood to play.

It was such a beautiful day that we headed to Cincinnati early to walk along the riverfront for a bit before heading into the ballpark for the Reds game that evening. Our spirits as high as the sun in the sky, we hit Smale Park and I gasped when I suddenly saw the carousel in front of us.

Gripping my husband's hand excitedly, I asked, “How much would you pay to ride that thing?”, knowing that doing so was not on an item as high on his to-do list as it was on mine.

“Two bucks,” he grunted.

“Let's go see,” I said as we pushed our way through the door and made our way to the ticket table in the corner.

“How much for a ride?” Jim asked.

“Two dollars,” came the reply.

“YES!” I fist-pumped, then said, “I'll even buy!” Fishing the bills out of my wallet I handed them to the clerk and then fairly ran around the ropes to find a seat. The beautifully carved red cardinal claimed my heart, as anyone who knows me will understand, while my husband settled himself into the silver-blue Corvette nearby, likewise a predictable choice. The bells rang, the carousel moved, and my smile fairly split my face from the sheer joy of it all.

At first we were busy snapping pictures of each other on our separate seats, until I finally had to remind myself to stop and simply enjoy the ride, for surely it would be over all too soon. Savor the moment, I told myself...the up and down, the round and round regularity of it. Bliss.

There was a baby on the seat next to me, supported by her mother standing alongside. After a while, she started to cry; she'd had enough. The mother plucked her off and held her for a moment, then moved her nearer her toddler-aged friend riding alongside, who held her hand for comfort for a moment or two. Inevitably, soon the carousel slowed, then stopped as the bells signaled it was time to get off. We headed back outside, but I laughed at a glimpse of the sign that's posted on the door when the attraction is closed, stating that the carousel animals are sleeping now, and to please come back at another time.

Everything around me was smile-worthy, it seemed, so happy was my soul. We jumped on the foot piano “keys” at the Playscape like the biggest of kids, trying to make the overhead bells chime, and then tried to walk along the River Trail, but our progress was slow, stopped at regular intervals by my insistence that we halt and take a picture of just about everything I saw.

“Are you a tourist today?” Jim asked, understandably a little frustrated by my desire to photograph landmarks that we see on a regular basis...the Roebling Bridge, the Great American Insurance building (majestic in a blue sky dotted with white clouds, flowers framing the view!), Great American Ballpark...the list ran on. I only put my phone away when we spied the bench swings overlooking the river, and rushed alongside of them till we found an open seat. How relaxing to simply sit and swing, watching a tugboat push a barge along on the water in front of us, a riverboat ferry docking at river's edge to deliver a load of Reds fan to the ballpark, a gentle breeze cooling our faces that were turned towards the sun. It was simply an unbelievably beautiful day, and our hearts refused to do anything but rejoice.

How wonderful that that is exactly the future God has in store for us!

Don't you know, this life is but a carousel ride. We eagerly embark, looking for our niche, that place in life that matches the skills and desires that God has placed inside of us. At times we get so caught up in the details of the ride that we have to be reminded to savor the journey, the ups and downs, the round and round regularity of our routines and every beautiful moment in-between. No joke, life can get pretty scary at times and we may beg to get off, but when we cry, our Father holds us in a comforting embrace or moves us a little closer to a fellow traveler nearby who holds our hand and lifts our spirits for a little bit till we're brave enough to move on. For surely we have only a limited number of spins around the sun before life slows and a bell chimes to let us know our time has come to an end. Reluctantly we leave, only to push through another door and realize that while our bodies may sleep, our spirits are more awake and alive than ever before, and everything before us is brand-new and beautiful, waiting for us to explore and enjoy, our Savior by our side.

“I would never have guessed you wanted to ride that Carousel,” my husband said later that day. It was a wish I had never vocalized, perhaps because it wasn't that important, one I never fully understood myself when I stashed it away after watching TV coverage one day of the carousel's assembly process. But God knew, just as He knows the secret desires of all our hearts, and the Bible promises that He'll make them happen...if not in this world, then surely in the next. Oh, what joy He has in store...!!!

But as it is written: 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.'”
(1 Corinthians 2:9 NKJV)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Daylight to Darkness

Photo credit: Chloe Garrett
Perhaps for you the solar eclipse didn't happen on August 21, 2017.

No, for you it was that day in the doctor's office that a shadow passed in front of the sun and the brightness of your life suddenly disappeared. Maybe it was the morning that you woke only to find that a loved one did not, that your world plunged into unexpected night. Or it could have been when your college-bound kid traveled clear across the country, leaving a path shadowed in darkness across your heart in his or her wake. For you, it was anything but a joyous event. Whatever the cause, like people everywhere on that August day, you looked to the Son to try and figure out what on earth was happening. And you risked being blinded by His Glory as a result.

Do those words tickle a memory? Sometimes it's comforting to know that what we're going through has happened before. Moses was likewise given an assignment that he knew to be impossible in his own strength alone. When God promised that His Presence would go with him, Moses asked God to show him His glory. He wanted to see God's face. Answering that nobody could see His face and live, God placed Moses in a cleft in a rock and covered him with His hand while His glory passed by.

Could it be that we are looking at things from the wrong perspective? God's Word tells us that in this life we will have tribulation; none of us will make it through life unscathed. But He tells us ahead of time that He has overcome the world so that we can have peace, even in the midst of the trial. His Presence will be with us, just as it was with Moses... and with the disciples in that storm-tossed sea, the Hebrew men thrown into the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion's den...and in so many other rough times in biblical history. What if we looked in the hard places in our own lives for the cleft that is surely there, that space of safety and protection in which God shelters us, shadowing us with His hand while His Glory passes through our difficult days, working all the things we don't understand to our good, and giving us glimpses of His Presence as He passes by?

After the solar eclipse was all over, I was fascinated by the news coverage of the event in various cities across The Path of Totality, that swath across the United States in which the moon completely blocked out the sun for a few moments of time. Several things stood out to me as important in dealing with an event of such magnitude.

The first was that you had to be prepared. In the weeks before the actual eclipse, special glasses for viewing the event without damaging one's eyes appeared in stores everywhere. Just an item of interest at first, no one “visualized” that those stores would soon sell out of the same, and that people everywhere would be scrambling to locate a pair, paying exorbitant prices at times and waiting in long lines when word came that a new shipment had arrived somewhere. Many simply couldn't locate a pair in time and were left with only television coverage of the event. It reminded me of the biblical story of the bridesmaids who ran out of oil for their lamps at the critical time of the bridegroom's arrival and missed the party as a result.

It wasn't like they hadn't been warned ahead of time. And so it is with us. While we (mercifully!) never know exactly when disaster will strike, God has warned us to be prepared for it, not so we live our lives in fear of its arrival, but to expel fear and replace it with courage and confidence in His ability to handle anything that life throws at us through the security of our relationship with Him. Friendships don't develop overnight, however; they require time and attention to develop to their full potential. And so it is with a relationship with God. The time to foster it is while the sun is still shining brightly above and “eclipse” is just an entry on a sixth-grade spelling bee word list.

There was such a sense of community about the solar event. People everywhere put their lives on hold for at least a few minutes that day to look up in amazement together. A troubled nation had finally found something they could agree on and celebrate together. Total strangers became fellow campers under a unified sky, sharing glasses with each other and marveling together, telling their stories of travel and being inspired by the lives of others on the same road.

Isn't that what God intended the church to be? A place of community and discovery, shared interest, compassion and help? Divisions disappear as we focus on something so much greater than ourselves. Perhaps that's why God urges us to pause on the Sabbath and remember that we are fellow travelers who need to look up together for answers in difficult times. “Humbling” was a word used repeatedly to describe the eclipse experience. Trouble likewise has a way of reminding us that we are not in control. How like God to provide a safety net for us, a place where we can be surrounded and supported by people on a similar pilgrimage.

Finally, what struck me the most was the joy people found when the eclipse was complete. Day had suddenly turned to dark, yet people cheered and jumped, cried and celebrated, taking off their glasses and marveling at the sudden nighttime that had fallen upon them. I laughed and cried along with them, just watching the replay on the news.

Could it be a picture of that difficult verse in the Bible...the one that urges us to “count it all joy” when we fall into various trials? What if we looked at those difficulties through a different set of glasses, ones that allowed us to view this event as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see things in a different light, discover unexpected joy in even the darkest of night, giving us a story to tell when the difficulty is past and the sun is shining brightly over our lives once more?

News broadcasts ended their coverage with a reminder of when the next solar eclipse to cross our country would take place, knowing that people everywhere are already looking forward to the event, marking their calendars and making plans to head to the best viewing areas (and taking note to buy their viewing glasses in advance!). And surely that is the attitude God wants to see in us as we come out of whatever hard circumstances we are currently in: exhilarated, excited, confident in His ability to see us through whatever difficulty is just around the bend. When we know that He is near, the motto we speak over our hearts and lives can be “No Fear Here.” How pleasant are those words of faith to His listening ears!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”
(James 1:2-4 MSG)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Worry Wart

The drop of Compound W at the end of the applicator brush grew slowly bigger, bulkier, finally bulging at the end of the applicator brush held over the finger that was so patiently waiting underneath. One drop would cover the spot, but that drop was taking a lifetime, it seemed, to gather its strength and release its load of salicylic acid on the troublesome wart below. My bad, of course. I had noticed the medicine seemed to be getting thicker as the days went on. Apparently I was allowed to thin the solution and shake thoroughly before application; a detail I'd missed. I waited instead.

It seemed like I'd waited long enough to even start the removal process, when first one and then a second wart appeared on the affected finger. I ignored them until I found that their presence was attracting the constant attention of the nearby thumb, which ran itself over the bumpy skin repeatedly throughout the course of the day. The warts had become a silent worry I needed to dispose of. Compound W came to the rescue.

I know I am not alone. Not everybody has warts on their skin, but we all have bumpy spots on our souls, problem areas that need to be corrected before they demand any more of our time and attention and hinder us from fully devoting ourselves to the work we were put here to do. We tend to ignore those difficult areas in our relationship with God until we realize that they are not going to go away on their own; action of some type is required.

Perhaps it's not any one particularly sinful action we are dealing with; none of the Ten Commandments has been broken, we love God and (most of!) those with whom we share the earth. Some of us are just prone to worry about things over which we have no control or what what the future might hold. But worry is itself a spiritual wart...an indication that our trust and confidence in our Creator's love for us is not where it needs to be. The numerous times the words, “do not worry”, “do not fear”, and “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible are an indication of how important this issue is to God, and yet they are commands we break with astonishing regularity.

How funny that the solution for the problem is likewise “Compound W”...multiple applications of the Word of God. Soaking ourselves repeatedly, consistently several times a day in what God has to say peels back the layers of wrong thinking and justifications with which we've covered our actions until the root of the problem can be uncovered and corrected.

I have wanted to interfere several times in the wart removal process. Impatient to get on with my day, I've raised the finger to meet the brush, painting the medicine on instead of waiting for the drip. And I've tried to hurry the peeling action of the drug by picking at the area. Instead of moving things along I only delayed the process, as I then had to wait for the irritated skin to heal before beginning the application process once more.

When spiritual change doesn't happen fast enough to suit us, we tend to take matters in our own hands, as well. We want a quick fix, a one-time prayer, a laying-on of hands, a single church sermon that will set us straight. And sometimes God works in lightning-bolt fashion as He did with Saul-turned-Paul on the Damascus road. But more often He leads us down a path of daily application of time in His Presence, reading His Book, developing a relationship with Him that eventually kills the sin virus working within us, removed the dead evidence of our old lives and makes us fresh and new once more.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
(2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Hurrah for Hero-Mothers Everywhere

That face in the tree belongs to my nominee for Mother-of-the-Year this year.

I saw her in action a day or two ago in a driving rainstorm, the kind that had water pounding our outside deck and left me pondering an unpleasant drive to work. As I filled my travel coffee mug before leaving the house, I heard an unusual chiiirrping noise coming from outside. Unable to identify it, I assumed it had to be a squirrel scolding the storm clouds that were bringing the bad weather. Peeking out the window to see if I could spot it, I saw instead a sight that kept my eyes locked on the activity outside and made me almost late to hit the time clock at work.

A raccoon had been snoozing in a hole in the tree that grows through our deck for days, much to the annoyance of our beagle, who circled below it in endless tight circles, howling for all he was worth and biting at the bark of the tree in frustration that he couldn't get his teeth on the animal safe up above. Certain the constant commotion would soon move it along, we'd watch it wander away each dusk only to spot it once again sleeping the morning away come break of day. My husband even considered boarding up the hole to hasten its search for other living quarters. We were getting a little desperate for the return of the peaceful days and quiet nights we had once enjoyed.

All that changed in the torrential rain the other morning. Instead of the squirrel I was expecting when I looked out the window, I saw the raccoon, not sleeping this time but climbing up to the hole in the pouring rain with a furry bundle of baby in her mouth! She reached the hole, chucked it in, and then turned around to come back down! Wondering what on earth she was doing, I looked farther down the tree and saw yet another tiny form trying to work its way up! Raccoon babies! Somehow they must have fallen out of that hollow in the tree, hollered for help, and brought their mother running to the rescue!

The second mission was not a smooth operation. The baby's tiny claws were gripping the tree for all it was worth, forcing the mother to rip them loose with a quick yank of her head once she had a hold on him, one she almost lost a time or two in her struggle to reach the hole with her mouthful of wriggling fur. Once both babies were safely deposited inside, I went on to my shift at work, replaying the action in my mind for the rest of the day.

Just as dusk was turning into dark at the end of the day, the dogs were out and had again spotted Mama Coon at the mouth of the hole. I, too, looked up and saw her blocking the entrance, a few bundles of fur moving around behind her, one inquisitive face peeking over her shoulder. The babies were getting active and soon would be ready to get out and explore on their own. Behind that mother's black mask lay a hero's heart, but I think she knew her time as guardian of her own particular galaxy was coming to an end.

May is a tough month for mothers, weather conditions aside. Upcoming graduations signal a season of young who are ready to leave the nest. The celebration of motherhood early on in the month comes at a price much higher than the cost of the flowers and gifts received. Somehow the moms among us are expected to let their offspring leave to make their own way in the world, knowing better than they the dangers that lurk beyond the safety of the home they've made, and the enemies waiting outside for a misstep on untested ground. A fall could be fatal.

Some of you know what that's like. You've seen your children leave only to be called upon to retrieve them from one disaster after another, ripping them loose from the false security they cling to and hauling them back up to safer ground, carrying them physically for a time, perhaps, because you do so forever in your heart. The month of May may end, but your motherhood mask never comes off, so how do you deal with the weight of the worry that comes with the task?

What a relief it is to realize we can pray!

In an effort to protect those furry babies in the tree, we started putting a leash on our beagle when we let him outside. Knowing him to be a slippery little hound, hard to catch when he's hot on a scent, if he ever got too close to Mama Raccoon or her babies we could just step on the end of the leash to corral him and haul him back inside. In similar fashion our prayers put the devil on a leash! He can go only so far and no farther; spiritually we can rein him in. God's gift is the peace you receive when you transfer your treasures from your hands to His...trusting Him to do all that you cannot, to safeguard and heal and restore as needed.

Oh, you may still be asked to do your part occasionally. My husband was working in the kitchen the other day and heard a “plop” on the wood planks of the deck outside. Looking out he saw that a baby raccoon had fallen out of the nest once more. The dogs barked furiously at the mother's subsequent rescue mission, but they were kept at bay by the window glass that separated them from her. And that's the best Mother's Day gift of all...the security in knowing that God has put a barrier between the ones you love and those who threaten them, a bulwark those enemies can't breach; your babies are safe from their reach.

If you ever doubt that He can do so, remember that God Himself climbed a tree years ago to get all His kids safely Home.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
(John 3:17 NKJV)

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.

Nope...it'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 time...to 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 plenty...now 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 ways...in little bits of sweetness that He sends our way, hidden in the mix of ordinary moments to suddenly surprise and captivate our hearts...to 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)
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