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)

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