Friday, December 31, 2010

Fast Food Freebie

Ali’s eyes went wide with surprise once again as she told me what had happened to her the night before. She pulled up to the window to pay for her supper at the local McDonald’s only to be told that the bill had been covered by a lady in the other drive-thru lane, a woman who merely wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas and give her a small card bearing the name of a local church.

It took her a minute or two to gather herself before she was able to grab her bag of food and move on out of the way. Genuinely shocked but pleasantly surprised, she immediately called her boyfriend to tell him about the blessing she’d received. She told him it was only seven dollars, but honestly, who does that kind of thing in December, with the economy bad, money tight, and everybody hanging on to the few dollar bills they’ve got to bless their own families with at Christmas? The impact of that simple gesture was still clearly visible as she told me about the incident at work the next day.

I smiled as I listened, excited to hear the story of a woman who had discovered the secret to living above her means. That last four-word phrase bears a negative connotation in the worldly economics of our everyday lives. In that frame of reference it means living in a style beyond what one can afford financially, and generally ends in financial ruin and heartbreak. Yet in Kingdom economics it has a totally different meaning and outcome, a description of living in the abundance, blessing and favor of God, a place we all long to be. Ali’s benefactor left us some clues as to how to get there.

It begins, of course with a relationship with God. While there are many people who make their fortunes on their own, we can’t live in the blessings of God without first believing that He exists and then understanding that He loves each of us individually and longs to fill our lives with His gifts and the good plans that He has for us. A true indication that a divine connection has been made is the change in our hearts and mental attitudes, a shift from thinking only about ourselves to suddenly focusing on the needs and welfare of others. Money then is no longer a treasure to be hoarded but rather a tool to use in helping those around us discover the wonder of God’s love, as well.

Secondly, we reap what we sow. We can’t gather in a harvest without first planting seed. God’s ways are not our ways and so His Kingdom principles often make no sense to our carnal minds, yet in God’s economy we gain by giving what we have away. If we want financial blessings to follow us, we have to first be obedient to what He says to do in the area of tithing and sowing financially into the lives of others. Yet the principle works far beyond our finances into all other areas of our lives as well. Whatever we need becomes ours when we first sow a seed for the same in the life of somebody else.

Thirdly, the woman expected results from her actions. She didn’t necessarily expect to see them herself, but she knew they were the inevitable outcome of the action she took. The whole reason I’m writing this today is that I saw the impact of her gesture in three areas in the life of my friend. The first was that a testimony was shared. Ali was so impacted by the gesture that she couldn’t stop talking about it, even twenty-four hours after the fact. It brought inspiration to those who heard it, creating in them a desire to repeat the action themselves, thus multiplying the effect of the original gift. And lastly, it led to a spiritual connection with God. While not a regular church-goer herself, Ali told me that it made her want to visit the church named on the card, if only to look for the woman and thank her. Yet who knows what might happen in her own spiritual life as a result of walking through those church doors? Perhaps the price of a soul might be that seven-dollar fast food freebie, transforming the original generosity into a truly priceless gift.

I can’t remember now if it was something I saw on a magazine page I flipped in passing or on a website I visited, but somewhere this past holiday season I came across four words that stuck with me because their meaning when used together changes depending on which word is accented in the phrase. It’s simply this: Pass on the gift. And the whole point of the ponderings above boils down to a simple choice we make multiple times every day. You see, all of us have received so much to be thankful for, and daily God gives us the opportunity to return the favor, to bless others as we have been blessed. Most of us will never receive a free meal at a restaurant, but the Christmas season just past reminds us that we’ve each been given a Gift that more than any Happy Meal will reveal to us the joy to be found in the love of God. And now we’re faced with a choice. We can pass on that Gift - simply ignore Him or openly reject Him. Or, having eagerly accepted the love and salvation that He brings, we can pass the Gift on in ways that are as unique as we are, following the leadings of the Father who loves us and the Holy Spirit who directs us.

In my mind’s eye I picture Ali at the fast food restaurant as a smile suddenly lights up her face, her hand closes on the bag of free food and then grabs her cell phone to begin spreading the good news. And therein lies a three-point prescription for making 2011 a truly happy new year: believe, receive, and then simply pass it on.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…”

(Isaiah 9:6 KJV)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Priceless Present

Her groceries bagged and back in her cart already, the customer noticed that there were no other shoppers in line behind her and stole a minute to chat. Eagerly she reached into her purse and pulled out a photo of herself and her then hours-old husband on Christmas Day nine years earlier.

Washed all over again with new-bride excitement, she told me that she hadn’t been looking for a spouse when they started dating. He’d never been married, but she had been there and was done with that, a painful divorce having left her with negative feelings on the subject. They just wanted to have some fun together. But one thing led to another, and eventually when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. Still in no hurry to run to the altar, they began making plans slowly and methodically for a wedding at some future date.

Or so she thought. Apparently he’d been thinking about the matter more than she, and after a day of shopping together two days before Christmas, their laughter still fresh on their lips, he suddenly suggested they just run off and get married the next day. Instead of this endless searching for just the right present, why not just be their Christmas gift to each other that year? Thinking he was still joking around, she joined in the game, told him to show up at noon the next day and they’d do it. They laughed some more, kissed goodbye, and she went to bed that night without giving the idea another thought.

A pounding on her door more insistent than any alarm clock woke her the next day. Half awake, she opened it to find him standing there, flowers in his hand and a huge grin on his face. “I’m taking you at your word,” he said, reminding her of the promise she’d made the day before. He rushed her to get ready, saying they had a marriage license to pick up, a preacher on standby, and little time to spare. Her head in a daze, she did as she was bid and changed her status from “single” to “spouse” that very day. In the photo she held out to me I saw two wide-eyed newlyweds, still a little breathless from the events of the day before, holding each other tightly as they stood on her mother’s doorstep and announced “We’re married!” at the family Christmas celebration the next day.

Don’t you know we’re standing in her shoes? Many of us likewise weren’t looking for the love of a lifetime when suddenly it burst upon us. Jesus entered our everyday lives and wooed us with His love and kindness, His faithfulness, forgiveness, and the joy of the time we spent together. Eventually we took Him up on His proposal to enter into an eternal commitment to Him, to become the future Bride of Christ. He promised to return for us and went to make His preparations for what we assumed was a very distant date. Amazingly we likewise have fallen asleep, forgetting that He said He’d surprise us like a thief in the night to take us at our word that we’d be ready and waiting whenever He chose to come. And now time is knocking at our door, reminding us of His soon arrival to claim His promised Bride.

I looked at the photo one more time before handing it back to her, and then watched as she tucked it carefully back in her purse. She carried it with her because she was looking for a frame to place it in so she could give it to her husband on Christmas as a reminder of the day they promised to be each other’s gift.

Can’t we do the same? Let us likewise carry the love we have for Jesus in our hearts and actively look for ways to frame it in deeds of kindness, generosity and mercy toward others this holiday season as a way to be the gift to Him that no amount of money can buy. As we prepare our hearts for the arrival of the Christ child this Christmas let us remember that our Groom is likewise on His way.

Be ready when He comes.

“While the bridegroom tarried, the all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom comes!… And they who were ready went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut… Therefore watch, for you do not know either the day or the hour in which the Son of man comes.”
(Matthew 25:5,6,10,13 MKJV)

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Slot For Your Soul

Thanksgiving was not about turkey, taking naps, or touchdowns on the tube for me this year, wonderful though all of those things were. Rather, my driveway was full and so was my heart, and for that I gave thanks.

The gravel entrance to our home has a large extension on the side, a turn-around area so that cars parked in the garage can be backed out and pointed towards the road before heading that way. As each of our sons started driving and eventually acquired a car of his own, the space was widened so that their three vehicles could fit at the end of it side by side.

The driveway thus became a barometer of how things stood in the house whenever I came home from wherever I’d been. One glance to the left as I pulled into the garage gave me a good idea of who I might find lounging on the couch inside or foraging in the fridge for food. I especially loved the sense of satisfaction that came over me when I arrived home from a late shift at work and watched my headlights bounce off of three shiny bumpers in turn, indicating that my boys were all safely home. But soon their bedtimes outdistanced mine, and I came to realize that cars in the drive merely meant they hadn’t left yet for the night’s activities. Instead of counting heads in beds in the mornings I’d just peek out the window and count cars in parking spots to reassure myself that all was still well in my world.

So it was difficult for me when the silver Civic and the black truck took off this fall, bearing portions of my heart to distant states for months at a time. The remaining Accord looked a little lost and lonely in that vast expanse of gravel, but the empty spots inside and out of the house were indeed occasionally filled with the noise and laughter of visiting friends who rejoiced that at long last they didn’t have to park on the grass! Still, the change made us look to a Thanksgiving reunion with special anticipation. While the many holiday photos posted online pictured feasts on tables, friends in the kitchen and at least a few family members snoring away on living room couches, so my simple snapshot of three cars in the driveway spoke of a grateful heart filled to overflowing once more.

Early on in the holiday planning it had seemed impractical for my youngest son who now lives in Florida to drive such a long way for just a short holiday, and so he planned to stay and celebrate with family friends in the area. But his brother couldn’t bear the thought of his not being home and offered to buy him an airline ticket himself, despite his own limited resources. In the end his father paid the price to bring his son home.

Surely we shouldn’t let Thanksgiving go by without remembering that our spiritual Brother and Father have done the same. So desperately did Jesus desire that we all gather at the table for the future Feast that He willingly gave all He had to make a way for us to get there. In the end God Himself paid our travel expenses with the life of his Son. And now He wants you to know that there’s a parking spot in Heaven with your name on it, a place reserved just for you…a slot for your soul. And more anxiously than any earthly parent waits for their child to arrive is your heavenly Father looking and longing for you to fill it.

Make it safely Home.

“…I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, you may be also.”

(John 14:2-3 MKJV)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reasons for Seasons

The food pantry patrons filed into the church sanctuary and settled into chairs to wait for their turn to shop the shelves in the basement below. As their initial greetings and early morning conversations died down, the music coming from the small radio in the corner was finally audible. Soon it was lost again in the loud protests coming from the workers and the waiting alike.

Christmas music? Really?” Most of us agreed it seemed out of place to hear carols on the day before children dress as ghosts and goblins and grab candy from outstretched hands.

I understand the motive behind the retail industry’s desire to jump into the each holiday merchandising program months before the season itself actually arrives. But in many of us there’s something that cringes at the sight of Christmas displays on shelves that seemed to hold school supplies just a day or two earlier! And I still recall the horror of walking into a store on New Year’s Day only to find Cadbury Easter Eggs for sale by the registers! I hadn’t yet watched the Super Bowl, received a Valentine, or dressed in green on March seventeenth, and yet the Easter bunny was already hopping in my direction! And on the particular fall day described above I felt sure I wasn’t going to get a minute to enjoy my pumpkin pie before being passed a plate of fruitcake!

I’m not a grinch. Born on December 25th, I’m a lover of all things Christmas. You might think it’s because I associate the yuletide season with aging that I’m not in a hurry to rush into the holidays each year. But I think there’s more to it than that.

Despite what we do with our holiday celebrations, we can’t rush the physical seasons of the year. Flowers and shrubs bloom in sequence as we flip the calendar pages, and all the wishing in the world won’t change the order of their appearance or speed the opening of their petals. Perhaps God planned it that way to teach us to drink every drop from the cup of the current season, be it bitter or sweet, before tasting what the next has to offer. Some stages of life are so enjoyable that we are reluctant to leave them, but perhaps it’s the boundaries on either end of them that make them precious, the knowledge that change is inevitable and our todays have to be embraced before they’re swallowed by our tomorrows and lost to us except in our memories. And yet it’s those same boundaries that make difficult days bearable, the knowledge that there will be an end to them as we pass through a particularly dark period into brighter days soon to come.

In the instant gratification of today’s society we have lost something valuable – the wonder of waiting. Due to technological advancements and the fast pace of life today we are intolerant of delay of any type, be it on the highway, the internet, the news, or the speed at which our food is prepared. Yet even fast food comes at a price that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. There’s something to be said for a meal prepared in a slow cooker that fills the house with its aroma and the family with anticipation as it simmers slowly away throughout the day.

Similarly, part of the joy of every holiday is the waiting period for it beforehand, remembering the fun of seasons past as we look ahead with excitement to what lies ahead. In fact, the Advent season itself is a time of waiting and preparation for the arrival of the promised Christ child, not just physically in a manger in Bethlehem long ago, but born anew in our hearts today, as well.

A tour through the produce section of the local grocery store proves that we don’t even want to wait for our fruit to ripen! Due to advancements in science and the speed at which goods are transported today, items which used to be available in only certain months are now available year round, simply flown in from other hemispheres where foods ripen at different times of the year.

At first delighted, my enthusiasm soon waned. The grapefruit I ate with joy in December I was tired of by March and April. When lured by their brilliant orange color into buying Minneola tangelos for sale in summer that I usually expect to eat only in late winter, I found that they just didn’t taste the same. Something was missing. I found that I’d lost the anticipation of their arrival. The same thing happens with the holidays we celebrate, when we remove seasonal boundaries and try to enjoy them all at the same time.

So how do we get that anticipation back? Personally, I’m putting myself back on schedule, waiting to enjoy seasonal foods in the months they normally appear here as a reminder to put all the energy and enjoyment I can muster into my current season while I wait with excitement for the joy of whatever lies just ahead.

As for Christmas? Everybody celebrates the holidays in their own particular way, and that’s fine. But you can bet I’m going to set my Thanksgiving drumstick down before I invite the Little Drummer Boy to pick his up and begin to play.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”

(Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Middle Matters

Acronyms abound in our high-speed society that has little time or patience for full word phrasing. Caught up as I am in the whirlwind pace of life in today’s world, I’ve succumbed to inventing several of my own to use when communicating with those I love. Thus most messages to my sons end with the four-letter “YMLY”, which stands for Your Mother Loves You and is a fitting end to anything I happen to say.

Lately I’ve noticed that this habit has caught on with other family members, and its use is continually expanding. Messages written on the white board in the kitchen now end with a series of capital letters that identify the author, and more attention is usually given to deciphering the code at the end of the note than is directed to the message itself. A recent posting to my son was written in handwriting that clearly belonged to my husband, Jim. But did the “YFPFF” sign-off at the end stand for Your Forgetful Parent Feels Foolish?… Yesterday’s Frisbee Players Fling Farther?… or maybe Young Freeloaders must Pay For Food? Wrong on all counts, it was eventually translated into Your Father Plays Fantasy Football…with a healthy “DUH!” at the end for emphasis. It’s simply become a game we play amongst ourselves to add a little laughter to the day.

But communication is not always a laughing matter, especially when the message comes from God. Suddenly it’s important that we get it right. God is the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last… and suddenly I remembered an email that circulated on the internet a few years ago that claimed that words with rearranged spelling were legible as long as the first and the last letters were in the correct position. It read as follows:

Aoccdrnig to rescheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

(Do you smell smoke? The spell-checker on this computer just went into overdrive!)

There are some who would suggest that the same is true of our spiritual experience in this world, that if we have a beginning with God somewhere in life (our salvation experience) and end our physical existence here on earth in a right relationship with Him, that the intervening years are of little importance in the grand scope of things. Yet I’m a firm believer that the middle of our spiritual lives matters to God.

It’s in those middle years that God speaks through us and our testimony is written on His behalf. Therefore we need to live our lives in those years in a way that leaves no doubt about God’s message of love, salvation, and His desire to walk with us hand in hand. How exactly that message is spelled out will vary with the individual, according to the gifts and talents each has been given, but it’s imperative that we don’t leave its meaning to chance or confuse those reading it with actions that inconsistent with the thoughts we are trying to convey. We don’t want people to have to guess at what God is trying to say.

It’s interesting that further analysis of the way we interpret misspelled words revealed that people had a more difficult time recognizing a word when letters were moved several positions out of place, instead of just one or two. Multi-syllable words were harder to read with misspellings than shorter ones and readers were slower to get the meaning of a sentence under these conditions.

Isn’t it interesting that the same can be said of us? The farther we move away from our spiritual center, the more difficult it is for others to read our message. Likewise we risk losing it altogether when we make it too complicated. The love of God is easiest to understand when simply expressed and underlined with a consistent lifestyle.

My messages to my kids always end with my signature sign-off, but it turns out that God’s messages to His could be signed in a 4-letter acronym, as well…simply “LOVE“.

It doesn’t get any easier to understand that that.

“For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another,”

(1 John 3:11 NKJV)

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hudek

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sweet Treats

I cried this morning, over a commercial I saw on TV. I caught the tail end of one I’ve seen many times before in which a mom has taken her son to his fist day of middle school and is quizzing him about whether he remembers the location of his first classroom, if he brought his lunch…until the boy in desperation says, “I’ve got this Mom! I can walk from here.” The mother takes a step back, physically and emotionally, and the boy heads into the school building, reaches to open his locker, only to find that the combination has totally slipped his mind. Frustrated and upset, he sticks his hands into his jacket pockets…and there finds a packaged Rice Krispie Treat that his mom had stuck in there with his locker combination written across the front. And suddenly I felt the tears well up.

I know. What does it say about a person’s emotional state when a commercial for a prepackaged snack makes them cry? I even braved the wonders of technology and used the rewind feature on our Direct TV remote for the first time ever (see that, boys?!) to watch the thing again. Sure enough, after the second viewing, the tears fell in earnest.

I recognized the trigger, of course. It was the look on the mom’s face at the son’s rebuke. Like all moms eventually must do, she took a step back and simply waved goodbye.

I can identify with her difficulty in letting go and allowing her children to make their own way in school as well as in life. Fast forward ten years in that boy’s life and that’s where I’m at today – having dropped two of my kids off at distant colleges to deal with the details of their lives on their own. I’m adjusting well for the most part (although my actions this morning may cause some to question that declaration), so could there have been something more to the commercial than just a lure to parents to buy the treats for lunches and snacks, now that school is back in session?

There’s always more to the life situations around us than what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. In this case the answer was found in the closing thought of the commercial: They’re never too big for a little something sweet.

We forget that occasionally. We think now that we’re grown up…older…more mature…that we’re too big for some of the things that brought us joy in our younger years. Too often we use age-related excuses to sit on the sidelines of life. We don’t avoid just physical activities, but emotional, financial and spiritual ones, as well. And perhaps we really have stopped living and started dying when we convince ourselves that it’s too late in life to do something new. Too late to go back to school…to start a new business…to try God.

In God’s view it’s never too late for any of the above, especially the latter. The Bible tells us that God’s grace and forgiveness are available to anyone who comes to Him with a repentant heart, at any stage in their life journey.

But what if you had a relationship with God at one point and lost it for one reason or another? Maybe life circumstances conspired to convince you that God wasn’t Who He claimed to be. Or perhaps you just lost your focus, distracted by the pressures and busyness of life, only to eventually find yourself off track and seemingly alone once more. Maybe you just got tired of the fight to do what’s right and gave in to sensual pleasures of one type or another, and now believe that you’ve gone too far to ever be accepted back into the fold. Whatever your situation, God wants you to know that the welcome mat still lies outside Heaven’s gates, the porch light is still on, and there’s a Father’s embrace just waiting for you when you’re finally ready to come Home.

I fell for the television ad completely this morning, even with my kids grown and largely gone. As I wiped my face and blew my nose I vowed to make Rice Krispie treats from scratch for the family members still at home, and thought about buying boxes of the packaged kind to send to the loved ones away, with my own “I love you” messages scripted on the front – not locker combinations of course, but information pertinent to their current situations, such as Rent is due on the 1st, Colors in cold, whites in warm or hot, or Cook the lasagna, covered, one hour at 350 degrees!

Hopefully I got the less verbalized message from Heaven, as well. God said He loved us when He sent His Son to die for us, and now that message is echoed in His longing to fill our time on this earth with timely assistance and blessings far greater than a few prepackaged treats stuck in our pockets or mailboxes. No matter what our age or station in life, we are simply never too big to begin again with Him.


“Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be –

you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.”

(Psalm 32:11 MSG)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Baby Face

Sitting in the front of his parents’ shopping cart, he was still hidden from my view behind the tall candy racks that separated our checkout lanes. And yet he was making his presence known.

“E-WAYNE!” he hollered at the top of his lungs. Again and again he bellowed his precious toddler mispronunciation of my name, as if there was some correlation between his decibel level and the speed at which I would appear. And desperately did I want to rush over and greet my favorite shopper. Not many customers come through the door calling for you by name, laughing at the sight of you and blowing kisses when they leave. But it’s this one that does that makes my job a joy.

It hasn’t happened without a lot of effort. Friends with his parents (my former favorite shoppers!) for many years, I’ve known him from belly to birth to big-boy-sitting-up-in-the-shopping-cart. At each stage his parents have extended their shopping trips to allow me a few minutes’ visit with their little man. I’m sure they must talk me up before entering the store so that he’s primed and ready when I finally spy him coming down an aisle. Even so, he becomes suddenly shy when we meet, hiding his face in his daddy’s shirt until the focus shifts away from him and our talk turns to other topics. A sudden giggle on his part at an expression on my face, and soon he‘s laughing and we’re buddies once more, blowing kisses unashamedly as he heads out the door.

The smile on that baby’s face could melt a heart of stone. All I know is that it’s surely worked its magic on mine. And so now I make a habit of smiling at babies in shopping carts. Getting them to smile back; that’s the challenge. Some I have to smile at long and hard, but in the end, perseverance is almost always rewarded with a grin in return. And I’ve found that I’m not alone in this fascination. I’ve watched the most sophisticated of coworkers throw all pride aside and practically jump through hoops to earn a sudden sunbeam from a little one passing by.

And isn’t that God’s desire, as well? He smiles at us, His children, from the moment of birth on, hoping that at some point in our existence we finally see His face in the love and blessings He pours out into our lives, knowing that once we do, we will never be the same again. From that time on we beam our response back to God, filling His heart with joy and the days we spend together in relationship a delight.

I remember the day it happened to me. Not only did I smile back at God, but I was also conscious that I couldn’t stop smiling at everybody else! My heart had been changed in a glorious moment of breakthrough, and it wasn’t a fact that I was able or wanted to hide.

And that’s part of God’s plan, as well. When a baby in a shopping cart finally cracks a grin in response to mine, the relative pushing the cart invariably turns to see what the baby is looking at. And so it is that when we respond in a positive way to God’s blessing on our lives, those around us will likewise turn to see what caused our reaction, perhaps eventually partaking in the joy themselves. No action on God’s part is wasted, but rather produces a domino effect on those we spend time with and love the most. Face it, if a yawn is contagious, how much more so is a smile! And there are those around us who would gladly trade a boring existence for the life of overflowing abundance that God promises to those who smile at Him in return.

Of course, a smile isn’t limited to an upturn of the lips. Any generous, kind or loving action on our part, even if it’s simply treating people with the decency and respect with which we’d like to be treated ourselves, qualifies as a physical grin that may provoke a positive response in the other person.

I haven’t been able to get a smile from every baby I greet, to be sure. And neither will everybody respond to God’s love. Sadly, some of those who do will eventually lose interest on down the road or become distracted by other lures in life. But never should we let the rejections of a few keep us from reaching out openly to those who may yet be desperate to experience God’s love.

As if in illustration of that last point, I realized recently that while my little buddy may still be my favorite, I’m no longer his. I’ve been replaced in his affections by a blonde beauty who carries him off to find stickers and free balloons while his parents chat with their many friends. But the other day his mother came into the store without the male half of the family, her baby daughter having made the transition from carseat-in-the-cart to front-of-the-bascart, sitting up proudly and looking around her inquisitively. And all of a sudden I smiled, knowing the joy in store for me as I embark on a mission to get her to do the same!

“…the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4 LITV)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Extra Effort Required

The squirrel leaped from branch to branch, sampling multiple nuts in succession until finally making a selection. A black walnut now securely in its mouth, it scampered off, and I watched to see if it was just looking for a more secure perch on which to eat it, or if it was off to store it somewhere in preparation for the coming winter. His progress through the trees never stopped, and so I assumed the latter. Truly it seems that September starts the season for gathering. Squirrels gather nuts, rakes gather leaves, farmers gather crops…and pastors gather their flocks in church buildings once more.

I smiled at that last phrase. With summer ending and school starting, our preachers hope that with our more predictable routines we’ll make regular church attendance the priority in our lives it was before summer sunshine distracted our attention. And surely it’s only on their hearts because it’s likewise on God’s. Perhaps He knows that more than just a season of the year is drawing to a close. If there’s an urgency to their message, it’s likely God-inspired. After a few more minutes of reflection on the subject in the morning peace, I heard my to-do list calling and went inside.

A few minutes later I was sitting at the kitchen table when I heard a loud “PLOP” outside the glass patio doors. I looked up to see that a baby squirrel had fallen out of the nearest tree and landed with a splat on the wooden boards of our back deck. Stunned, it lay there for a few seconds before it began pulling its limbs in towards its body, its high-pitched squeals signaling its distress.

Thankful that our inquisitive dogs were still locked inside, I waited a moment, wondering what would happen next. Too young to do anything but cry for help, the helpless baby just lay there awaiting rescue. Cautiously I opened the door and peeked outside, hoping to see a mama squirrel looking down in horror at the baby she must’ve dropped in transit. I was momentarily diverted by the thought that apparently even squirrel moms occasionally suffer from the Delinquent Mother Syndrome that I experience from time to time. But no squirrel mother seemed to be anywhere about. Perhaps the baby had simply crawled out of a nest in the tree trunk itself, one that we knew had housed a squirrel brood earlier in the year. However it came to be spread-eagled on my back deck, it was beginning to look like its rescue was up to me.

Reflecting that getting lost baby animals back to where they needed to be was apparently becoming a way of life for me (see Revival’s Arrival and Mission Unmasked), I called a friend who had taken another baby squirrel to an animal rehabilitator in the area earlier in the year. Before I could even get the number, however, I noticed that it was beginning to rain outside, and all the mothering instincts within me refused to allow the confused and frightened animal to be drenched, as well. So I carefully lifted the now dish-towel wrapped infant into a box and prepared to put it in the garage out of the weather until I figured out what to do with it. Looking up again I at last spotted Squirrel Mama watching closely from a tree limb high above me.

“So she is around!”, I muttered to myself. That changed the game plan significantly. I remembered a hole some 15-20 feet up the same tree frequently used as a raccoon refuge when our dogs chased them away from the birdfeeders. If I could somehow get the baby into that hole, surely that would provide the best possibility for a squirrel family reunion. But, oh, it was so high up!

I heard a voice in my head reminding me of the huge ladder in the garage and knew I was supposed to give it a try. “God, you are really stretching me!” I grumbled. Last week it was a 20-foot truck I needed to drive, and now I was expected to get a baby squirrel some 20 feet up a tree. Knowing that trouble usually comes in threes, I gulped nervously at what he might have in store for me next.

Ladder finally in place, I began my ascent. Rickety at best, the wooden structure swayed from side to side with each step up. Sadly there was nobody home to help hold the thing or I would surely have delegated this opportunity for bravery away. Perched on the top step while the ladder rocked alarmingly beneath me, I hugged the tree tightly with one arm, reached as high as I could with the other, and was just…able…to…push the little squirrel into the opening, towel and all. Minutes later and with my feet securely on the deck flooring once more, I looked up and noted with satisfaction that Squirrel Mama had watched the heroics from up above and knew exactly where to reunite with her young. Mission accomplished, I put the ladder away and peeked hopefully out from the kitchen window from time to time the rest of the day to see if I could spot any further action around the hole.

In our conversations of late God seems stuck on this concept of getting those out of place in their current surroundings back to where they need to be. And He’s not limiting our discussions to just baby animals in my backyard, either. In all areas of my life I’m surrounded by human hearts that are just as desperately in need of rescue. Most of us at one time or another likewise found ourselves wandering into dangerous territory or taking a wrong step despite warnings we may have received, falling flat on our faces as a result. We’ve needed somebody to go an extra mile on our behalf to get us back to where we need to be.

It’s that extra mile God asks of us that’s the kicker. The situations I’ve found myself in in recent days and weeks that were difficult for me are laughable, used by God simply to get my attention or to illustrate a point. But He’s likewise surrounded me with real heroes who find themselves in circumstances that are anything but funny and who He asks on a daily basis to do more than they ever thought they could possibly do. He’s led me to foster parents who love and care for the children whose biological parents for whatever reasons could not. I’ve watched several friends sacrifice their todays for loved ones with too few tomorrows left to them. Parents send the children who are the light of their lives around the world to be a light in missionary or military service. And the bravest among us endure tours or duty in war-torn countries, sometimes again and again and again.

God’s Word promises that He won’t put more on us than we can bear. Thus we know that we are able to do what He asks of us, however reluctant we may be to attempt it. But when we risk discomfort, perhaps even death, expending ourselves on behalf of another, the Kingdom of God expands as well, and so does our Christian experience.

In the season of gathering its important to note that nothing happens by chance. Nuts fall to the ground, not naturally into nests in trees. Leaves don’t normally fall into neat piles to be burned or bagged. Neither do crops jump out of the fields and into storage bins or stomachs by themselves. Yet somehow we expect God’s lost children to find their way to Heaven on their own. Some do, of course, but God knows that the vast majority will need some help to get from where they’ve fallen to where they need to be. From the time of the first disciples on He’s sent harvesters in the form of preachers, pastors, teachers…and everyday people like you and me… to help them find their way back Home.

Almost everything gathered in September eventually disappears. Nuts are eaten, leaves are burned or disintegrate on their own, and crops are eventually consumed. Only the souls gathered for God live on in an eternity of peace and joy. Sadly, those that are left in the fields likewise have an eternal future, one that’s as bleak as the initial outlook of that baby squirrel on my back deck. The Bible tells us that soon even the harvesters will be called away. Our extra effort today could mean that fewer loved ones will be left where they lay and be lost.

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
(John 5:13 NIV)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stairway to Servanthood

Slowly I inched the truck backwards, my eyes glued on my son’s beckoning arm in the massive side mirror until he raised his hands, signaling me to stop. Turning off the ignition, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d made it!

I had doubted my ability to drive the rental rig with the ten-foot bed from the get-go. Despite my husband’s assurances that it would drive easily, it’s mere size intimidated me, and it was only the need to get Kevin’s newly-bought furniture from the store to his apartment that caused me to agree to the idea in the first place. But when the customer service lady behind the counter told me that she was going to give me a twenty-foot truck for the same price because the smaller vehicle had mechanical problems, my Goliath suddenly grew another ten feet, and I quailed at the sight of the idling monster. Only the steady stream of encouragement pouring forth out of the mouth of the son standing beside me convinced me to open the cab and climb aboard the waiting vehicle. “You can do this, Mom.” “Piece of cake.” “Only a couple of turns and we’re there.”

Knowing that he could’ve driven the truck with his eyes closed, I mentally blasted the driver age restriction on rented vehicles, slid behind the wheel and set off. Minutes later, having mercifully run over only curbs and not people, I pulled into the apartment complex and backed the rig into position for unloading.

While I breathed sighs of relief and voiced my thanks to God for getting us there, Kevin looked at the dripping skies and knew our real problems were only just beginning. He could easily muscle most of the contents of the truck up the stairs and into the apartment single-handedly. Only the queen-size sleeper sofa, a notoriously heavy article of furniture, would pose a problem. Earlier we had joked about bribing some passing college student into helping us by flashing a few greenbacks, but with the steadily falling rain there were few people out and about. I assured Kevin that together we could get it up the stairs, even if we had to heave it up one step at a time. But the muscle-bound Popeye beside me took one look at my Olive-Oyl-like arms and knew we needed more help than a positive attitude and a couple of cans of spinach could provide. He quietly asked God to send us some assistance, then lifted the door at the back of the truck and began the unloading.

Minutes later his help arrived. An elderly Hispanic man who lived in the apartment below came walking through the nearby pool area, saw the open truck, and immediately shouldered an end of the sofa, ready to help hustle it up the stairs. Soon it was manhandled through the apartment door and settled on the living room floor. Our attempts to then communicate our thanks were laughable. The man spoke no English and we knew no Spanish, so smiles and handshakes had to suffice. Later in the day we saw him again, and he came over to the car to try to talk to us once more. Sadly, no amount of goodwill or hand gestures could get us past the language barrier, and with a few shoulder shrugs, shakes of the head and more smiles, we parted once more.

Somehow, however, he managed to get a message across. I saw it first in the actions of my son. Together we had been consumed with the need to get his apartment furnished and himself situated before I left for home in just a couple of days. Each day we had a multitude of tasks that needed to be completed, and we dedicated ourselves to accomplishing them. But after our encounter with his neighbor, my son’s focus suddenly changed from our own to-do lists to looking for other people to help! College kids were moving into apartment complexes all around us, and every time he saw a U-haul truck or a pick-up loaded with furniture, he looked to see if the rear door panel was up or a tailgate was down, indicating that somebody might be in need of the same help we’d just received.

Shouldn’t we be living the same way? A toothless old man with leathery skin browned by years in the Florida sun reminded me with his actions that Christ came to shoulder a burden that wasn’t his own and get us to a place we couldn’t get to alone. And all He asks is that now we do the same for someone else. Too often we let our inability to relate to others and the life situations they may be going through to stop us from reaching out to lend a helping hand. But a lifestyle of service to others speaks a message that hearts understand when our words fail to communicate our thoughts.

It’s not like God asks us to do it alone. The Holy Spirit is our constant companion, empowering us when we’re scared and weak with words of hope and encouragement, constantly leading and guiding us with His direction and counsel.

On the last day of my stay in Florida, my son and I high-fived when the last of our tasks was completed. All we had left to do was pass a few hours until it was time to head to the airport so I could catch my flight home.

Spiritually speaking, too many of us are doing exactly the same thing. Instead of killing time let’s use the time we have left to help others, knowing that every step we take to lift another up leads both of us closer to Home.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
(Galatians 6:2 RSV)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

See You in September

My heart is tender these days; I can cry at the drop of a hat. Questioning the cause, I consider the onslaught of menopausal hormones… a spiritual awakening that’s happening at church… or maybe just a mother’s natural sorrow at the thought of her children leaving home.

The truth is that my sons are starting to scatter. The middle one will be the first to be dropped off at his college destination, and my youngest son and I are on tap to help him deposit his belongings in his new home. Imagining our parting, I recently pictured it happening something like this: I smile brightly, hug him tightly, and then hurry to the car to begin the long trip back home without him. I wonder at what mile marker the boys will forego all warnings about texting while driving and have the following non-verbal communication with each other:

> How’s Mom?
> Not sure; she can’t talk. Sobbing uncontrollably.
> What should I do?
> Abort life plan completely. Return to Ohio as soon as possible. Live out your life in the basement bedroom of your childhood home.

Ridiculous, of course. God has good plans for my sons, and the last thing I want is to hinder those plans in any way by my reluctance to let go of the hands I’ve held on to so tightly for so long. For years I’ve asked God to bless my boys abundantly, expand their boundaries and enlarge their territories, as in the prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:10). And surely I can’t expect God to answer that prayer without them outgrowing their current surroundings. To stay is to stagnate; to go is to grow.

And yet I reject the concept of the empty nest, as if it had never been blessed with the joy and the mess of masses of boys about the place. No, their exuberance and laughter is woven into the fabric of our family, ever to remain. They are simply a part of who we are. I prefer to think of mine as an overflowing nest, one which can no longer contain the life and love inside it but simply has to spill the overflow into other cities, other states, or (gulp!) other countries, without diminishing the quality of the original quantity in the least.

My mind understands this theory, it’s my heart that gets in the way of its implementation. And so I’ve devised a game plan to keep me from becoming the woebegone woman described above. I’ve worked diligently at keeping a positive mental attitude as I face the upcoming event. My emails to my sister have become daily pep talks to myself about entering my sons’ excitement as they head off on their own. I’ve tried to fully participate in the process of finding apartments and household furnishings, bedding and necessities. I’ve concentrated on enjoying every moment of our family outings this summer, culminating in a week-long celebration /family reunion in a glorious rented home on the Oregon coast.

For the most part the plan has worked well and I’ve kept my emotions at bay. But recently I’ve started to wonder if suppressing all sadness is really the best idea…if it might not lead to greater issues and problems on down the line Perhaps it would be better to face down this giant in the time and place of my choosing, a little at a time, so I’m not overwhelmed by an onslaught of grief at some later date when I’m least prepared to deal with it.

And so now by day I busy myself with sending security deposits to hold apartments, establishing bank accounts, and preparing vehicles for long drives to distant climes. But on the late night drives home from my second-shift job I let myself think about just how much I’ll miss the tousled heads sticking out from swaths of blankets on the living room couches, tripping over shoes left abandoned in hallways, and the pounding of feet down basement stairs in the early-morning hours that lets me know the last of my night-owl sons has returned safely home once more. In the silent darkness of those moments I let my heart run unhindered. If my nest is truly overflowing, it’s to be expected that my eyes will occasionally, as well, and I let the tears go as freely as I desire to do my sons, trusting that God puts the world on hold for a few minutes while He sits with me and lovingly counts and collects each one (Psalm 56:8 CEV).

I studied this morning how Jesus prepared His disciples for His upcoming departure. In John 16 we read that He reminded them of His love for them, explained that his going was for their ultimate good, and promised that they’d be together again one day. Although we all long ago made our eternal futures secure, I’m glad that my earthly goodbyes to my boys are just temporary in nature. A family friend’s wedding in early fall will bring us all together once more. Frankly, wild horses couldn’t keep me from attending that event. And it’s likewise the upcoming wedding of another Bridgegroom to His Bride that will call us all from our earthly occupations to our eternal destination. May we be just as desperate to hasten that day.

I posted the engagement picture of the prospective bride and groom on my fridge to help me get through the difficult days of this August, a reminder of a happy reunion soon to come. God knew we would need a spiritual version of the same to get us through all of the trials and tribulations we face in this world, so he penned it in the pages of the Bible. Because Jesus did so first with His, I can truly smile brightly as I hug my boys tightly…the whispered “See you in September!” in their ears a reminder to us all that sooner than we can imagine we will be in a place where the sight of His face will erase every thought of our tears.

“And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”
(John 16:22 KJV)

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hudek

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Risky Revelation

I’d been following its progress for months. My friend had faithfully relayed to me the latest details of her blossoming romance after each visit with her new boyfriend. Successive dates revealed new aspects of his personality that delighted her and she found herself liking him more and more. In our last conversation she whispered that she was beginning to realize that she loved him… and was now in a quandary as to whether or not to tell him so. I was somewhat surprised at her reluctance to voice her feelings.

“I’ve never said it first,” she said in explanation. In all her previous relationships it was always the guy who first declared his love. I understood without her saying so that there was a lot at risk. Sure of her feelings, she was less so of his. Perhaps such an honest expression would scare him away, indicating a depth of feeling that he might not share. There was the possibility that after having laid her heart bare she would once again find herself wounded and alone. “Once burned, twice shy,” as the old proverb goes, suggesting that it might be wiser to keep one’s feelings under wraps and let the other person take the plunge.

To me it was obvious that he was in love with her, too. Throughout the course of their relationship he had been careful almost to a fault not to do or say anything that might jeopardize their relationship. Yet he clearly was facing the same fear. I urged her to say what she was feeling, but at the right moment and in a place where she could see his face in response. I was sure she’d be pleased with what she’d see.

A few days later I was shopping when I came across a bracelet that caught my eye. A simple silver heart was strung between a couple of small beads on two elastic bands that met and tied in a knot in the back. A sucker for hearts anywhere I see them, I soon walked out of the store with the bracelet in a bag.

As I looked at it often on my arm that afternoon I began to ask myself what it meant to me, as I knew it was more than just a pretty bangle. Perhaps it was nothing but a simple reminder that Jesus loves me. If so, I can never have too many of those. Or maybe it would prompt thoughts about loving God by loving His people, as well. Maybe the fact that I wore it with the heart pointed outwards was symbolic of the need to give His love away. But some time later it came to me that God was simply telling me to wear my heart on my sleeve… to risk love, and to love genuinely and openly, without concern about how that love is received.

Perhaps we are reluctant to do so because loving in such a manner makes us vulnerable to hurt or heartache. It means pulling our hearts from the layers of protection we’ve placed around them and putting them out there where they can easily be broken by the careless or deliberate actions of others. But there’s a reason that God would have us to do so, and that is that it makes His love visible to those who may have been looking for it all their lives. And in so doing we make ourselves available to be His instruments of help or healing in whatever situations they may be going through, to point them to the One whose love never fails and who has all the answers to the questions they ask.

At the store that day I tried on all the bracelets on the rack before eventually purchasing the one I did. I wanted to be sure I bought the one that was the right size and the right color for me. Similarly there’s no one way to wear love or to love other people. Each of us will express God’s love differently, but the important thing is that we do. And when you find that right moment to say what’s on God’s heart to someone in need, you’ll find that you’re finally in a place where you can see His face…and you can be sure you’re going to like what you see.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…”
(1 John 4:18 NIV)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heart-WRENching Worship

My first act of worship on a recent Sunday morning was to take a cup of coffee out on my back deck and sit in the quiet and relative coolness of the early morning hour. Peace beyond measure surrounded me, and I basked in it as a nearby wren poured its heart out in song, over and over again. Its countless repetitions intrigued me to the point that I began timing its bursts of beauty, and soon realized that it was sounding at the rate of fifteen times per minute, or once every four seconds! At that rate surely it was filling its lungs only to exhale in song.

I laughed as I looked down at the design on the old t-shirt I had pulled on that morning.On a white background was a picture of a coffee cup surrounded by the words from Psalm 5:3, "Morning by morning, You hear my voice." Clearly the wren was illustrating what God desired from me that day.

In the many years that I've sat on my back deck, I've learned to identify various bird species by their characteristic birdcalls. But the wren attracts my attention like none other. While other birds may call, when the wren opens its beak there's an explosion of sound too big to possibly emanate from the little bird that releases it. The bird seems to pour out its joy of living into that one long burst of melody, and then repeats it again and again as if incessantly prompted by a heart of gratitude and love.

Oh that God would hear that from me on such a regular basis! Morning by morning, he hears my voice alright... but it's not always such a delight to listen to. Sometimes I squawk my complaints or cry over an injustice or simply call for help to arrive in a hurry. On other mornings my prayers are as silent as the quiet grunts of the nuthatch that scrambles up and down the tree trunks in search of a few seeds spilled from the feeders. And God does want us to come to Him with whatever is on our hearts each day. But how it must please Him to hear something other than a whine or a plea of some kind on occasion! What if my mornings were filled with fewer birdcalls and more bird song... if I worshipped more than I asked for a change?

Not coincidentally I happened to pull a Casting Crowns CD from the storage compartment in my car this week and smiled as the lyrics to Lifesong joined with these thoughts floating around in my head, about living life in such a way that our words and actions sing a song that pleases the Father. Although I don't get to watch much evening television, I recently caught an episode of "America's Got Talent" that featured two girls out of a family of four siblings, all of whom suffer from cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that among other things clogs the lungs with mucous and makes it hard to breathe, let alone sing. Yet that's what these two girls love to do. They know that even with recent medical advances the life expectancy for people with this disease is in the 30's , and yet they've vowed to use what time they have to inspire others to pursue their dreams despite the obstacles they face and to live life to the fullest as long as they possibly can. And so they sing. And their absolute joy in doing so combined with the simple beauty of their voices moved me to tears, the audience to its feet, and the judges to vote them on to the next round in the competition.

Coffee finished, I moved on with my morning that Sunday. I walked up the driveway to get the newspaper and heard the wren still singing away. I filled the birdfeeders accompanied by its song. I laughingly wondered to myself how that bird would have time to do all its budgie duties - catching bugs, building nests and raising its young. And suddenly I realized that singing its joy was its duty, and that it simply sang all day long as it lived out the life it's been given. Too often we think of "worship" as just the music portion of a church service. God doesn't. To Him the worship portion of our day never ends - our lives are singing something to Him as we pursue all of our daily activities.

The TV show title is right - we've all got talent of one type or another, because the Bible says that we've all been given giftings unique to our personalities, callings, and life situations. May we resolve to use them out of our love for God in such a way that makes a difference in the lives of others, moves the heart of the Judge, and sends us rejoicing into the next "Round"!

"Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard. "
(Psalm 66:8 NKJV)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Your Father's Day

"We need your list," I said to my husband as Father's Day approached, hoping he'd do his duty of providing a wish-list of gift ideas for his sons to choose from while they still had a little cash in their pockets to spend. His response surprised me, however, as it turned out he was more interested in the time on their hands than the bills in their wallets. He gave them a list of chores he needed done so he could take the weekend off.

As Father's Day rolls around again perhaps you, like me, spend time thinking about your spiritual Father and wondering what you could do to make this earthly holiday a happy one for Him, as well. It turns out that He, too, has a list for each of us, not of items to buy nor tasks to be completed...but simply of people to love.

A list of people to love. The thought stayed with me as my husband and I browsed through the mall the other day and I came across a wall clock that had slots at each hour position for a picture insert. Set out on the clearance table and marked down to half price, it was a good buy as a possible gift idea for someone. I picked it up in passing, as I still needed a Father's Day gift idea for Jim's dad, but set it down again quickly as I laughingly remembered that I have absolutely drowned this poor man in pictures of his grandkids since they first arrived on the scene. Each year the Hallmark store seems to come up with a new way to display their images, from coasters with photo inserts to wooden ladders with frames hung between each rung. I've bought and gited him with them all. I set the clock back on the table and moved on.

But good fathers have a passion for their progeny and delight in seeing their faces about them. God is no exception. He took me back in thought to that clock this morning and reminded me that time is ticking away, and that He has children who are still lost, faces that are dear to Him that are not yet in His fold. He's given me a list of people to love into His Kingdom, and surely He must wonder what I'm doing with it.

Unrelenting in His urgency to get this message across to me, He found me browsing on Facebook a little while later, reading random posts from people about what they were doing and what their friends had to say about it. As I scrolled down the page, my attention was caught by a photo of two young women who were smiling at a camera, their hands clasped and arms arranged in such a way that they formed a perfect heart shape between them.

I stopped and smiled, fascinated at the love between them that was captured so perfectly for all to see. Although I didn't know the girls in the shot, the picture pulled me in and absolutely captivated me. I tried to scroll on down the page, but I found myself returning to the photo again and again. Finally I hit the print button and filed the resultant paper with the photo on it in a folder until I understood why God was drawing me to is so strongly.

Today I get it. It's not really a picture of two people at all, but of God. Despite mankind's begging through ages past, nobody has actually seen God, although Moses was once given a glimpse of His backside when He passed by. And yet God's answered our plea repeatedly, if we only had eyes to see His face in the love we have for each other. The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8). When we love one another, He suddenly becomes visible, and then those who have yet to experience that love can be drawn into a love relationship with Him of their own.

A list of people to love. Each of us has been given one, people that God has or will put in our path for the purpose of making Him known. It might be a long-standing relationship or an encounter so brief that you don't even have a chance to catch the other person's name. But God knows it, and He is blessed any time we put His desires above our own priorities in life and spend a little time loving on His kids in some way, be it with a smile and a kind word, a hug, a moment of prayer, or another activity of some kind.

The latter is important because love is more than a feeling. It has to be expressed in some way, as it was symbolically in that photo. What makes God visible is when we go to the effort of reaching out, grabbing the other person by some action on our part and drawing them into a heart-shaped relationship of some kind that has God at its core. That's easy to do with those who are easy to love, but so much more powerful (and visible) when we reach out to those who aren't...when the effort costs us something in terms of pride, patience, pain or time...when it's a sacrifice in some way. The the effort becomes visible to God, and suddenly it's a picture that He can't get past, but goes to again and again with a smile in His eyes and joy in His heart.

Talk about making your Father's day.

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God..."
(1 John 4:7 MKJV)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Growing Old, Gaining Gold

I was sitting in a bathroom stall at a funeral home when it happened. With nothing better to do I happened to look down at my feet...and gasped in horror at what I saw! One foot sported a navy blue shoe, while the other was clearly wearing black,! And as if it wasn't bad enough that the colors didn't match, worse yet was the fact that one shoe was square-toed while the other was pointed! Perhaps the color mis-match could be blamed on aging eyesight and a dimly lit closet, but surely I should still be able to see well enough to discern shapes! Embarrassed beyond belief, I seriously considered abandoning my shoes altogether and returning to face the public in just my pantyhosed toes. With a birthday coming the next week I laughed at the thought that at least the digits in my age would match, even if the shoes on my feet did not.

I squirmed uneasily at the thought of other signs of advancing age. I recently acquired a magnifying mirror, as I thought it was important to at least be able to see my face before applying makeup to it. The idea was prompted by the sight of an elderly lady who came through my line in the grocery store, dressed to the hilt but with her lipstick everywhere on her face but on her mouth. Then my hairdresser told me about a client who came into her shop with a whisker on her chin seemingly inches long that everybody in the world could see but her. That day I decided to get the mirror...before my beautician has to ask if I want a haircut or a shave!

"Old" seems to have become an adjective to be avoided at all costs. I wonder if we're born with that idea or if it's programmed into our psyches by the beauty that's splashed on television screens, magazine covers and advertisements of all shapes and sizes. Youthful good looks, health and vitality reign supreme in our minds and hearts and we dread the onset of wrinkles, infirmity, loneliness and poverty that we so often associate with a person's latter years. We note that old is rightfully found in the word mold - a fuzzy green substance that grows on food that's been left too long in the fridge. To the young it describes a person who's been left too long on the planet. It's simply become a word we associate with something that needs to be thrown away.

And so, like the rest of the world, I do my best to keep up at least an appearance of youth, but there are days when there's no hiding the signs of advancing age. I'm reminded of it each time I mount the stairs leading up to the break room at work. Creaky knees and arthritic joints make this a much slower process than in days gone by. Sounding much like an old plow horse, I lift a leg and drop it to the step, lift the other and do the same, lift and drop, lift and drop, plop, plop, lift and drop...hauling myself up by the handrail as I go. Breathing heavily at the top I'm suddenly caught up in the whoosh of a teenager's flying ascent, and I sigh. My "old" is showing.

When family genetics made my hair go prematurely gray in my twenties, I was unprepared emotionally to be shoved to the back of the fridge, and so began a lifetime expenditure of time and money to keep my hair the color it was supposed to be. But sometimes on a blustery day the wind blows my carefully coiffed hair, lifting the curls to reveal a halo of white roots about my face. The look of surprise in the eyes of my companions brings another sigh. Again, my "old" is showing.

While technologically challenged in many respects, I pride myself on the fact that I do send text messages on my cell phone. Yet the teens in my life laugh at my lack of speed and the fact that I have to look at the keys as I push them (thankful that I can still see them), making it impossible for me to hide the forbidden activity from the prying eyes of teachers or work supervisors by texting on a phone that's hidden under a counter, behind a back, or in a pocket, as they do. Again, I sigh. My "old" is showing once more.

Somehow we miss the fact that old is also found in the word gold, a treasured substance, sought after for its great value and beauty. I'm reminded that longevity is likewise something we try to attain, as our endless diets, trips to the gym and visits to the doctors' offices attest. We all want to reach old age; we just don't want to look like we've arrived.

But I've noticed lately that my husband and I now answer each other's questions before they're even fully formed, and that a simple look between us communicates as much as a lengthy spoken conversation used to. Thirty years after our wedding my jewelry may look a little worn, but my marriage shines as brightly as my ring did the day it was first placed on my finger. I smile at the thought. My "gold" is showing.

Now that my children are all legal adults I marvel at how they've morphed from chubby toddlers making messes about the place into responsible young men about to make a mark on their world. As I watch their lives develop and listen to them make their plans I can't help but smile to myself. Again, my "gold" is showing.

Perhaps nothing in my life shows its age more than my Bible. I don't have to look at it too closely to realize anew that it's in pretty bad shape. The binding is torn and flaps loose, while the brown color of the cover is worn off in the spots where my fingers have gripped it tightly for so long. And yet as the physical appearance of the book has deteriorated, the spiritual life inside of me that it has nourished has flourished When I look at the joy in my heart and rejoice at my peace of mind, I smile. My "gold" is showing once more.

Perhaps the reason the proverbial pot of gold lies at the end of the rainbow is to remind us that there's treasure to be found at the downside of a lengthy but well-lived life. As we look at the steps we're taking today may we remember that form and speed are not nearly as important as that our feet walk a path that will lead us to the streets of gold that line our heavenly Home.

"But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:20-21 NIV)

Monday, April 26, 2010

People - Problem or Purpose?

My first visit to the woods for the year was a time of great rejoicing, so ready was I to be done with winter and celebrate the warmer months of the year once more. With one of the snowiest Februarys on record now behind me, my trip had a purpose beyond merely searching for violets in bloom and wandering the woodland trails once more. I had come specifically to return my leaf to God.

As the trees were shedding their foliage last fall, making a golden carpet beneath my feet, I was mourning the end of pleasant weather and dreading the onset of the snowy season of the year. That morning God dropped a leaf from a nearby tree directly into my hands, whispering His promise that He would always be near me in the dark times of my life and to carry this simple token of His presence with me through the dreary winter days to come, marking their eventual end by returning it to Him once I'd made it through another winter and was celebrating that fact once more (see Woodland Wonder). And so, folded inside a slip of wax paper, it traveled with me though the pages of my journal as I documented the details of God's presence in my days. Now I was ready to welcome spring by bringing it back at last.

The leaf seemed as excited as I was, anxious to break free, the springtime breezes threatening to blow it away before I could lay it down at God's feet. Once done, however, the action made me wonder what other things God had given me that He perhaps desired me to return to Him. Love, for sure. Talents and giftings, most definitely. Time. Money. Fellowship. I rapidly scribbled the list in my journal as the ideas came to me, finally setting it aside when the flow stopped, knowing it to be still somehow incomplete.

Hungry for some "alone" time, I was distracted by the noise around me, my usual sanctuary a busy place that morning as fishermen returned in droves to the banks of the lake I sat beside, drawn as I was by warm temperatures and brilliant sunshine. Too near me to be ignored, a group of them discussed in loud detail everything from what fish were biting to which bait was best to where to find a cheap motorboat to what one might cost. Just as their conversation ended when the group with the boat finally put out from shore, another man accosted me, asking if I'd seen anybody resembling his fishing buddies, whom he then described in great detail. I looked up from my again interrupted quiet time in some irritation, yet tried hard to listen to him. I think I may even have smiled. But inside I was a seething bundle of nerves, all of which were trembling with the desire to scream at them all to please just leave me be!

Desperate for some solitude, I got up to go for a walk in the woods. I rejoiced in the early wildflowers and the sight of a passing butterfly, when particular birdcall near me caused me to wonder if the majestic pileated woodpecker was nearby. Just as that thought occurred to me, one did fly by, passing incredibly close to me before landing on a nearby tree. Fascinated, I stopped and watched him work his way up towards the sky, his brilliant red crest visible fist on one side of the trunk, then the other, until he was high in the treetop. Suddenly startled, he flew to another tree nearby and then deep into the woods where he was quickly out of sight. That's when I saw a couple heading towards me on the path. Although we greeted each other in a friendly enough manner, it was clear that each of us was a little peeved with the other, silently blaming them for scaring away the bird we'd both been watching as we continued hiking in opposite directions down the trail. I laughed to myself that people were clearly posing a problem for me that day, anxious as I was to simply get away from them all and concentrate on God.

And that's when it hit me that it was the people I'd been so busy running away from all morning that I was actually there to see! "People" was the missing entry on my list of things to be returned to God!

Fascinated, I turned the thought over in my mind a little more. Jesus had seemed to be as desperate for some "alone" time as I was. Over and over in the Bible he withdrew from the crowds to a solitary place (Matthew 14:13) or headed up into the hills to pray (Matthew 14:23). And yet again and again He was interrupted by people coming to Him for help with their needs. But Jesus never looked at dealing with people as a problem. Rather, spending time with them was simply the joy of his life, the passion of His heart, His sole (soul!) reason for coming in the first place. He simply loved them and wanted to be with them, both now and forever.

Perhaps the singular purpose of His attempted "alone" times was to give Him the resources He needed to deal with them more effectively. In one of His last times with His disciples before His arrest and eventual death, He talked to His Father about this mission he was about to complete, saying that He had made the Father known to the people God had given to Him, and that none had been lost except the "one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled" (John 17:12 NIV). In short, He was returning a full roster to the One Who had sent Him to rescue mankind from their sin.

We've been given a similar agenda. God has surrounded each of us with people - family, friends, neighbors and coworkers...even total strangers who cross our paths seemingly by chance, but who are actually strategically placed by God to be ministered to in some way by contact with us. Our alone times are meant not to escape from these people but to equip us to help them in whatever ways we can, to make the Father known to them and introduce them to a relationship with His Son, that they might one day be returned to Him and live in eternal glory.

While we can't make their choices for them, we are able to have a positive impact on their lives during our short stay on this planet. And if for whatever reasons we're finding that difficult to do, we truly need to ask God to touch us anew with His love for the people He sends our way every day.

"I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world..."
(John 17:6 NIV)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sweet Slumber

My sons pounded up the basement stairs and threw themselves down on the living room furniture just in time to catch SportsNation, one of their favorite sports talk shows on TV. Although the volume was turned to its usual high decibel level, I was able to tune out most of the chatter until I heard the start of a segment that airs at the show's end, called End of the Day. The lead-in to that portion features a quick flip through clips of various athletes and sports figures using the phrase at the end of the day in television interviews, one right after another. The rapid repetition of those six words in those opening moments burned them into my brain, causing me to sit up and listen more closely when they've passed my way again. And lately I've run into them wherever I've gone. I've heard them at church in my pastor's sermon, read them in stories in the newspaper, and passed people using them in everyday conversations as I've run my errands. Surely there's a reason they've come to my attention, as nothing in life happens by chance. Curiosity led me to the internet to google the phrase and see what I could come up with.

Figuratively, at the end of the day means when all things have been considered. It's usually the prelude to a conclusion an individual has drawn after all the relevant facts on a subject have been studied and weighed, and obviously follows some type of consideration, reflection, or contemplation. The literal translation of the phrase, however, refers to the time when one's work or waking hours are over. And that generally occurs when the daylight hours are over and we are ready to slip into slumber. Perhaps God doesn't want us to do so before giving the preceding hours some thought. As I wondered just what things He wanted me to think about, the following words came to mind:

Reflection. As Christians we no longer live our lives aimlessly or with selfish intent. Instead, at the intersection of our faith and our future we find the plans and purposes of God. We have general duties that we all should be about, such as living a life that glorifies our Father, sharing our faith with unbelievers, and helping those in need. But each of us also has daily specific assignments based on the individual gifts and callings God has put inside of us that we are to apply our time and attention towards accomplishing. And the end of the day is a good time to look back over the preceding hours and consider how well we applied ourselves to those tasks. Sometimes we sigh in satisfaction, knowing that we did what God asked of us that day. And many times we simply resolve to try harder the next.

Thanksgiving. Perhaps nothing benefits our lives more than the giving of thanks for blessings received. It changes our attitudes from the head to the heart, and as we engage in this practice we'll find that we recognize the hand of God at work in our lives in ways we never could have imagined before. We can't help but live happier lives as a result.

Supplication. The Bible tells us repeatedly to turn our troubles over to God instead of stewing over them ourselves, yet when we're in the midst of them that seems to be the last thing we think to do. Releasing them to the Father to deal with brings peace and rest to our troubled souls.

If God is concerned about how we end our day, He is even more interested in how we come to the end of our days, our spiritual condition at the conclusion of our lives. He warns us not to fall into our eternal sleep without likewise giving the matter some thought. Some wish to postpone that contemplation, yet the truth is that we never know which nighttime consideration will be our last. God's Word tells us that today is the day of salvation, and if you haven't already made your spiritual future secure, the time to do so is now. Reflect on your life and your need of a Savior, give thanks that One has been provided, and ask Him to forgive and cover your sins with the penalty He paid for them on the cross.

When I was a little girl, my mother's parting words to me as I headed off to bed each night were always, "Sleep sweet," her wish that I would have a restful repose free of nightmares or worries of any kind. Now it's not my mother but my Heavenly Father who reminds me that at the end of the day only one thing is important, that being my relationship with His Son. Daily I need to give that matter my attention, that at the end of my days, truly my (eternal) sleep will be sweet.

"The wise also will hear and increase in learning, and the person of understanding will acquire skill and attain to sound counsel [so that he may be able to steer his course rightly] - That people may understand a proverb and a figure of speech or an enigma with its interpretation, and the words of the wise and their dark sayings or riddles." (Proverbs 1:5-6 AMP)
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