Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Holy Days

It was the day before Thanksgiving, but the customer before me was feeling anything but thankful. He groused and grumbled and snarled and complained about commercialism having taken over the holiday season, muttering about how things weren‘t like they were when he was young. His plan was to hole up in his house with his beer and his buddy and ignore it all as best he could. He walked under such a dark cloud of negativity and unhappiness that I absolutely couldn‘t wait for him to head out the door, so anxious was I to shake the dust of my contact with him off my spirit before it settled in and made me as unhappy as he.

His complaint is a common one, however, and truly our holidays have lost much of the holiness that made them special in the first place. Surely God is as anxious as we that we get back to the Reason behind the seasons of celebration, but I wonder if our constant griping and sermonizing about the situation is as repugnant to Him as my customer’s words were to me.

That’s a sobering thought. What bothered me about the shopper’s attitude was that he was doing nothing to change the situation himself. Complaining about something is easy; making a positive difference requires effort that many of us aren’t willing to expend. I think God would remind us that if we’re going to bring holiness back into the Christmas holiday it has to begin on a personal level. He isn’t nearly as interested in what is going on with the world as a whole as He is with what’s happening in each of our hearts. Perhaps He would ask us to consider what we can do individually to make this a season of reverence, worship and spiritual joy while still enjoying the secular sights and sounds that surround us as well.

I thought back to my disappointment of a week earlier when I’d missed an opportunity to participate in the annual “Light Up Hamilton” evening, that night each year in which the switch is flipped and the Christmas lights come on downtown, Santa makes his first visit to our hometown, and businesses up and down Main Street open their doors and invite the public in to enjoy food and musical venues of one type or another. I’d been asked by the owner of one such establishment to play Christmas carol violin duets with her that night, and eagerly looked forward to the event. As I waited for her to call and schedule a practice session I was mentally rosining up my bow, rounding up my music and requesting the night off from work so I could join in the fun. The only trouble was that her call never came. The day of the event rolled around and I called her place of business, wondering if she was just expecting me to show up and wing it with her as best we could. I thus found out that she’d been so sick she hadn’t been able to put any thought into the night’s activities and would have to cancel, hoping to try and do it later in the season instead.

I told myself that an unscheduled evening in such a busy season was a gift, and funneled my enthusiasm into some other necessary task. While there was nothing to stop me from joining the crowds in town anyway, somehow attending the event as an observer rather than a participant didn’t have the same appeal. Yet a lot of us are willing to do exactly that during this holy season of the year. We go through it passively instead of getting totally involved in the task of spreading a whole lot of hope and love and joy around. God showed me that my possible involvement with “Light Up Hamilton” had nothing to do with a musical opportunity at all. Rather He was extending to me a spiritual invitation to light up the lives of the people I run into this holiday season in as many different ways as I can, in the hope that somewhere in the Christmas chaos, He suddenly is the Light that they see.

The thought has turned this advent season has into an absolute spiritual adventure, and the wonder of it is that I don’t have to wait on anybody else to begin. I remembered the advent calendars we used to hang about the place when the kids were little that had tiny flaps that were lifted or doors that were opened to reveal a prize of some kind as the days were counted down to Christmas. They kept the focus on the holiday and the excitement running high as the days passed by.

God is likewise teaching me to “number my days” this December as He daily opens doors of opportunity for me to be a blessing to somebody else and somehow make Him known to those who are looking for some Light to shine in the dark of their unbelief.

So, like Santa I suppose, I’m making a list and checking it twice, once in the morning as I plan out my day and again at night as look back on what was accomplished during the hours of daylight. Hidden away in the back of my journal, it’s not for anybody but God and me to see, but I’ve found I have to be deliberate in my actions or the best of intentions gets lost in the busyness of the season. I simply don’t want the days of December to pass by without purpose or praise to His Name.

I’ve heard it said that doing something repetitively for thirty days turns the action into a habit. Thus our efforts to make this Christmas season merry for somebody else could turn the coming year into a happy new way of living, as well.

Much like that customer standing before me, one day we’ll stand before God and have a conversation as well about the state of the world and the part we played in changing it. How wonderful it would be to have the review light up His face and bring joy to His heart because our lives did the same to the people around us. As long as we wake in the morning with breath in our bodies we have a chance to make a difference. No time to delay; let‘s start today!

“Be mindful to be a blessing…” (Galatians 6:10)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Suddenly Silent

My cold left as quickly as it had come, but it took my voice along with it in passing. It’s been a long time since my vocal chords have been that silent. Try as I might, I could produce only the smallest of sounds; a mere whisper that failed repeatedly to express my thoughts, my needs, and my increasing frustration over the situation. Obviously unable to call off work over the telephone, I dressed and showed up for duty, leaving it to management to decide if I could fulfill the requirements of my job in total silence. But common sense warned me that when you work in a grocery store and it’s just ten days before Thanksgiving, as long as there is breath in your body and you can stand and scan groceries, there is no going home for something as inconsequential as a bad case of laryngitis. Behind the register I stayed.

Throughout the long day I thought a lot about the situation that was a mere inconvenience for me, but for many is a way of life. There are multitudes of people around us who have no voice in society because they are too young or too old or too sick or too poor to capture its ear. In their frustration over their failure to make themselves heard they instead make choices that we condemn or commit acts of violence against themselves or others that leave us wondering what went wrong and where we failed to provide the help and the hope that was so desperately lacking in their lives. Surely God wants us to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to right the wrongs we see and have the power to do something about when He tells us to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before Him. (Micah 6:8)

We are all born with something to say and an entirely unique way of expressing our message, one that is refined when we are born again with a purpose to declare the works of the Lord through the gifts and talents He gives us to do so. Yet we have an enemy who works to steal away our voice and silence the message that God would have us bring forth. His attacks may be physical in nature, through sickness and disease, hoping that we become too weak and ill to pursue our callings. Some of us are defeated by discouragement over the effort it takes to get across what we are trying to say, causing us to simply give up. Or he may enter through a chink in our spiritual armor, a weakness in our faith that leads to sin and a fall from grace. Over and over again of late we’ve seen on the political stage, in the sports arena, and in celebrity circles how a wrong choice somewhere down the line resulted in a ruined reputation, a career brought to an abrupt close, and opportunities to influence brought to an end. While a tragedy on an individual level itself, there is a domino effect on those who might have been helped or touched in some way by our lives had our voices not been silenced and our opportunities to speak not been squandered by the mistakes we made.

Thankfully we serve a God of second chances. As I found out today, you can get your voice back. Mine has returned slowly but brings with it a new appreciation of an ability I previously took for granted and gratitude towards the people who helped me in its absence; those who made calls for me on the intercom, encouraged me to rest it when I had the chance and passed me water or cough drops. God used my minor physical affliction to remind me that in the kingdom realm we speak in many ways other than just those that involve vocal chords, not the least of which is the emotional, financial or spiritual support we offer to God’s actual mouthpieces. We see in God’s Word that the spoils of war go to all who took part in the victory, not just those fighting on the front lines.

My Day of Total Silence ended on a humorous note. A male customer brought his groceries through my line and was tickled to discover that I couldn’t verbally respond to him, saying, “How can you be a woman if you can’t talk?” I let his comment pass with a (silent!) laugh but was reminded on a spiritual level that I can’t be all that God created me to be without my ability to speak on His behalf.

A spiritual voice is truly a gift to be treasured. Use it, don’t abuse it, and be very careful not to lose it.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
(Matthew 5:13)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Be Keepers

God can sometimes speak a message using no more than two letters placed side by side.

The first such combination to get my attention was one that most church-going Christians are familiar with…the P.K.‘s, or Preacher’s Kids, among us, a segment of society with unique characteristics and traits based on their experiences while growing up in a minister’s home. But in the 1990’s the P.K.’s I heard about all the time changed to the Promise Keepers, a movement aimed at encouraging men to be true to their promises to God, their wives, and their families. Then my kids turned into teenagers, and one in particular spoke nothing but the language of B.K., or Burger King…and it was in that period of my life that I very nearly became addicted to the Whopper Jr. with cheese. Maybe it was the promise that I could have it my way that drew me back again and again. But lately the King has been drawing me with another message using the letters B.K., one that has little to do with burgers and fries. Instead it centers on the importance of living life His way, specifically in the area of being my brother’s keeper.

It’s first in Genesis that the question of our responsibilities to our siblings arises, when God questions Cain concerning the whereabouts of his brother Able, and he responds with the query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a question God is still answering in the affirmative today.

To tell the truth, the past thirty days have been pretty rough on many of my spiritual siblings, those likewise born into the family of God who are walking the road of faith beside me. Day after day has brought little but bad news in hospital rooms, doctor’s offices, emails on my computer and text messages on my phone.

Clearly there are some things God expects of us in response. To start with, He desires that we keep an eye on our brother, to know where he’s at, spiritually rather than physically. That means, of course, that we watch our brother’s heart, not so much his comings and goings. This can only happen if we communicate regularly and have built a relationship between us, so that we are able to talk freely and honestly about the difficulties we’re having and the struggles we face without fear of being judged or condemned.

The second expectation then is that we keep our brother’s confidences to ourselves, to be people who can be trusted not to divulge that which has been shared in private conversations and counseling sessions. We’re to help keep our brother on track, steering him back on course when he gets distracted or knocked about by the cares of this world. It might be up to us to just keep him moving, to pick him up and help him along when he feels like dropping out of the race or giving up on the Christian life completely. In order to do that, of course, we have to be keepers of our own spiritual lives, that we continually have something of value to share. All of the above can be summed up in Christ’s command that we simply keep loving one another as He has loved us.

In fact, the only way we can do as God expects is to keep our eye on the one Brother who taught us how to live a life of loving others. Just as He said He did nothing except that which He saw His Father doing, so should we keep our eyes focused on the Jesus we see in the Bible constantly loving, lifting, and leading others, and who now lives in our hearts to spur us on to lives of the same.

God’s purpose in this is two-fold. He wants us all to make it to the spiritual finish line, of course. But His heart is moved by those who have yet to even enter the race. It’s His hope that they will see Him in the love we have for one another (John 13:35) and be drawn by His Light on their own dark days.

Finally, God expects us to keep our brother in prayer. A lot of the people I love are in difficult places right now, and I approached my devotional time this morning with a heavy burden on my spirit as a result. Not surprisingly, God had the solution ready and waiting for me. He told me to list those whom I was most concerned about on the open page of my prayer journal. Obediently I wrote the names of four people whose needs were foremost on my heart, acknowledging again my complete inability to alter the life situations of any of them. On a post-it note I then was told to write out the words of my favorite verse: Be anxious for nothing, but in all things, through prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6,7) Next I was instructed to tape the note paper on top of the names I’d written moments earlier. When I did so, I noticed that I was unable to see the problems I’d put down earlier, covered as they were by God’s promise of peace through the simple acts of prayer and thanksgiving.

A couple of hours later, I stopped at the local Starbucks, noting that it was shortly before noon. I was surprised to see the store nearly empty, so used am I to the long lines of the early morning hours when people are looking for a hot pick-me-up on their way to work or school. But I believe that it’s never too late for a latte, especially when pumpkin spice is on the menu, and as I placed my order I soon realized that fewer people in line meant more time to chat with the brew master behind the counter. Nodding my acceptance to his offer of an extra shot of espresso, I asked how his day was going.

“Well, I’m standing up. And I know where I am. So I guess it’s a pretty good day,” came his somewhat surprising reply. My heart, so recently released from the weight of its worry about others, suddenly laughed in response. My “brothers” and I, despite the situations we’re facing together, are likewise still standing. And it doesn’t matter where we are, because we know Whose we are. Truly that makes all the difference, and any day, no matter how difficult, a good one indeed.

“…I am yours…“ (Psalm 119:94 NIV)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Positively Powerful

I resolutely pulled the bookmark out of volume, opened the cabinet door that hid the trash can and unceremoniously dumped the book in. I was done. Resolutely I put aside my desire to be pulled into a story so artistically told by an author I love that I have no choice but to flip page after captivating page. This time I simply couldn’t get past the negativity of what I’d read so far; foul language, angry people in destructive relationships deliberately hurting one another. On a mini-vacation myself, I’d picked up the story hoping for a brief escape from that which surrounds me on a daily basis; I didn’t need it to follow me even into what was supposed to be pleasure reading. What surprised me was that I waited so long before giving up. I kept hoping the tale would take a happier tone, but as the plot continued its downward spiral I made the choice not to follow it any longer. There are too many people and situations in my life that need my positive input for me to fill my mind with thoughts from the other end of the emotional spectrum. The same is true for you.

Our outlook on life is our choice, but it is fed by other decisions we make on a daily basis that often seem unrelated: how much we sleep, what we eat, who we hang out with, what we listen to and what we allow our eyes to see. Surprisingly, one of the most important influences is what we allow ourselves to think. I’ve spent the recent months considering how that last item on the list is linked to the first, in other words, the importance of what we think just before we fall asleep.

As a simple example, the local baseball team this summer seemed to display an uncanny ability to suddenly lose a nighttime ball game after leading with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning. Disgusted and disappointed, a look at the clock tells me it’s time to turn out the lights on more than just the game and go to bed. But is that a good idea? My summertime study said absolutely not, that it would be so much better for me to turn on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show and laugh for fifteen minutes first, maybe read a chapter in a good book (The Book, perhaps?!) or think about something else that makes me happy before closing my eyes on the day.

It’s important to end each day on a positive note. The Bible tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger, a verse we mistakenly limit to marital disharmony, a warning not to go to sleep without making up first after a fight with our spouse. But there is much more to the verse than just that. Our minds dwell on that which we were concentrating when we fall asleep. If we’re upset when we go to bed, our agitated state can give us a restless night, causing us to start the new day tired and grumpy instead of alert and refreshed. But what if the opposite were true, and we closed our eyes deliberately considering the blessings of God which fill our days, or reflecting on the goodness of some person, the beauty of a place, or the happiness associated with an event that just occurred? Surely then our morning cup of coffee would be met with a grin instead of being the necessary prelude to producing one.

The idea expanded. What if we put our interactions with people to rest the same way? Mother Teresa said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.“

Can you imagine how different our relationships with others would be if we made a deliberate attempt to end each conversation on a positive note, either with a laugh or a smile, an encouraging word, or an expression of love? The key word in that sentence is deliberate. It’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of people, especially when our own lives are troubled with trials and distress. But it can become natural when we put it into practice again and again. And what better way to fight back against the woes of the world than by lightening the load, even momentarily, for somebody else? When our minds are consumed with making others feel better we often find that we do, too, despite our unchanged circumstances. And it could be that an improvement in our mental attitude is the first step in altering the life situations which challenge us.

Finally, it’s important to enter our final rest on a positive note, as well. That can only happen if we’ve settled the issue of where we’ll spend eternity, for surely that is also our choice. Either we accept God’s offer of forgiveness through His Son, Jesus Christ, and live the rest of our lives in the peaceful assurance of salvation that it brings, or we reject the concept of our need of a savior and spend our final days in fear and dread of what lies ahead.

A woman coming through my check-out lane at the grocery store the other day had among her many groceries a copy of the wonderful best-seller, Heaven is For Real, in which author Todd Burpo shares his young son’s description of a visit to Heaven he experienced while undergoing surgery. She told me that a copy of the book was given to her mother while she was in hospice just before she died, and at that time she had responded angrily over the gift, asking her mother, “Why’d she give you that book? You’re not going anywhere!”

Yet the truth is that we’re all dying. God spends a good portion of the Bible talking about death and encouraging us not to fear it. Perhaps that’s because when our hearts are at peace about the end of our lives, we can take our focus off of our dying and put it on our living, where it belongs. Then dying is just something that happens in the midst of our living out God’s plans for our lives with fervor, joy and love for whatever time we have left.

If you find at any time of the day or night that your thoughts are being pulled in a negative direction, remember that they don’t have to stay there. I like Graham Cooke’s assertion in a sermon I heard one time that you can have a better thought. Trash the old, and simply think again.

“My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment… when you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet… for the Lord will be your confidence…” (Proverbs 3:21,24,26 NIV)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Impact's Importance


I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and finishing up my devotional time when the latter was interrupted by a sudden noise out on the back deck. Thinking that it had to be something more than just the black walnut shells the squirrels have been dropping out of the tree like crazy of late, I looked out the glass door and was shocked to see a baby squirrel lying motionless on the wooden planks…again! The shock of the moment was doubled by the realization that the same thing happened almost to the day last year, as a subsequent journal entry later proved!

Last year when the disaster occurred, the baby almost immediately started moving around and hollering for help. Home alone at the time, I was eventually able to push it into a hole high up in the tree (see Extra Effort Required, September 21, 2010). This time, however, the infant appeared to be toast. Although still breathing, it lay motionless for so long that I figured it must be mortally wounded in some way. I decided to give it some time, and finished what I was doing. But nothing changed in the squirrel’s condition. Other adult squirrels actually ran past it without paying it the least attention as they made their way to dig in the planters on the deck railing or feast on the bird seed in the feeders. Deciding it was past rescue, I resolved to move it to the woods on the other side of the fence where nature could take its course without my dogs getting to it and ripping it to shreds. But when I emerged from the garage, broom and shovel in hand, I was amazed to see that the baby had suddenly rolled over onto its feet and was moving around drunkenly, all the while crying piteously! Apparently rescue was still an option on the table. This time I was not home alone, and while I waited for my husband to be available to help, sat back down to see what would happen next.

Looking out the window and up in the tree, I finally saw Squirrel Mama looking anxiously down at her baby. In doing some research after the fact last year I learned that a mother squirrel will eventually come and get her displaced young if given a chance. So I moved out of sight and began to pray fervently that the feat would be accomplished.

Sure enough, the mother squirrel s-l-o-w-l-y came down the tree, and then ever so cautiously made her way to the infant, which she then began rolling around and around, as if looking for a place on which to get a grip with her mouth. The youngster became more agitated with its mother nearby so the process took a bit of time. Finally she got a good hold on him, and then with amazing ease, bounded on to and up the tree! I held my breath for a minute, half expecting them both to come crashing back down, then raced to another window that afforded a better view. Both squirrels were long gone. I rejoiced at the “happily ever after” ending to a story that I had thought was (literally!) dead and done long before.

Amazingly, I’d been thinking about a name on my prayer list when the whole squirrel episode dropped from the tree and physically illustrated what God had been speaking to me moments before. I had come home from a church conference a year and a half ago with what is known as an Impact List, a wallet sized card on which to record the names of people to impact in some way spiritually, to somehow love into the Kingdom of God through prayer, fellowship or ministry of one type or another. High on my list was an individual who was likewise desperately in need of rescue, physically as well as spiritually. Out of a job for close to two years, he was now rapidly running out of options and hope. I’d been praying for him month after month with little visible results. Frankly, I was growing a little discouraged myself in the process, my hope for him beginning to look a lot like the motionless squirrel spread-eagled on the wooden planks of my back deck.

But God wouldn’t let me give up. I am amazed at the number of ways He spoke that message to me. I laughed when I looked on my fridge and found posted there the Italian phrase-of-the-week I had picked at random (or so I thought) out of a year’s worth of the same: Non arrenderti mai, which means “Never give up.”! I opened the newspaper only to see a story about a high school football player who was too short to be taken seriously by the college scouts, despite his great work ethic and many physical skills. On his upper arm was tattooed his motto: Never give up. And I was shocked when at work one day a coworker ended a random conversation with me with the comment, “Never give up, Elaine! Never give up!” Surely he must’ve wondered at the look I gave him, so startled was I to hear God’s words coming out of his mouth! And so I continued to pray.

And then suddenly one night there came a phone call from that very prayer project, who told me that he had been offered a good job and was heading back to work immediately! Even as we rejoiced together, I knew that the rescue was yet incomplete, however, I was thrilled to know it was underway! While salvation remained the ultimate goal, his immediate need was to be picked up from the floor of despair into which he’d fallen and had been lying unresponsive for so long. Just as the mother squirrel spun her baby around in her paws, looking for a place to get a grip, perhaps God does the same, allowing our life situations to roll us around awhile until just the right spot in our hearts is exposed, contact is made, and He can carry us Home.

It was the impact of the squirrel hitting the deck that got my attention that morning when I was busy doing something else. And perhaps that explains the same name of my prayer list, that the persistent petitioning on behalf of the people on it gets God’s attention, and moves His heart to respond.

I recall that several other squirrels ran past the baby during its moments of distress without paying it the least bit of attention. The rodent rescue was clearly the responsibility of the one that had the connection to it. And similarly there may be people in our circle of relationships whose names are not found on anybody else’s prayer list, making our dedication to the same of eternal importance.

Finally, it was amazing to me that the situation occurred in the same manner, two years running. Obviously I didn’t get the whole message the first time around. Last year when a squirrel fell from the sky in front of me the point was made that extra effort would be required to get those people whom life has dropped by the wayside back to where they need to be. This year I learned that the main focus of that effort has to be prayer.

When I came home from that church conference two years ago with my prayer list in my pocket, it became almost a point of honor among those of us who attended the event to be able to whip out our cards on a moment’s notice if asked. Yet no impact is made if all we do is write a bunch of names down on a slip of paper and then carry it around. Rescue happens when we drop to our knees with those names on our lips and truly begin to pray.

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9 NIV)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Not Big on Bugs

“There’s a moth flying around down there,” my husband warned, pointing to the floorboard on my side of the vehicle. Concentrating on the text I was sending and picturing a tiny bug fluttering about my feet, I said, “If I don’t see it I’ll be fine. I’m not worried,” and continued tapping the screen and pushing buttons.

“Okay, I just thought I should warn you.”

Finished at last, I reached down to slip my phone in my purse, only to find a HUGE winged creature perched on the top of the front cloth panel, the size of a small bat it seemed to me, it’s black, beady eyes staring straight at me as if daring me to push the phone past it.

I didn’t scream, but I hollered good and loud. Repeatedly.

“It’s just a moth! I tried to tell you…”

“You didn’t say it was the size of an airplane!” I held my phone in my tightly clenched hands and scrunched as far away from my purse and The Creature as possible without diving into the backseat, hoping that if I didn’t look at it wouldn’t advance any more in my direction. We were headed to a wedding, and so I concentrated on whether I could make it through the ceremony without the essentials of life packed in my bag. I surely wasn’t going to touch the latter until that bug was long gone. I could envision us now, seated in the pew, watching the wedding party come down the aisle and thinking thoughts of something old, something new, something borrowed…when suddenly something flew out of my tote and scared the living daylights out of me all over again. It just wasn’t going to happen.

Have I mentioned that my husband is a hero? He pulled into the parking lot of a farm market we were driving by, got out of the car, came around to my side of the vehicle and opened the passenger side door to where I was still sitting frozen against the gearshift. Realizing I was never going to hand him my purse, he reached in and got it, set it on the trunk and began his search for the winged invader. Having apparently been scared itself as badly as it had frightened me, it had taken a tumble into the depths inside.

“I don’t see it,” Jim said.

“You’re going to have to pull everything out. It’s in there somewhere,” I said with certainty, having by this time unlocked my legs and gotten out of the car, checking the floorboard area as I did so to make sure the thing wasn’t still in the vehicle.

Resolutely he began removing items and setting them on the lid of the trunk. I carry a big bag that it’s easy to stuff a lot into, and much had been thrown in there during the activities of our busy summer, most of which were soon on display on the hot metal surface. Out came the umbrella, the water bottle, the notebook and the wallet, followed by a few unmentionables that I normally wouldn’t have brought out for public viewing. But this was an emergency.

“There he is!” my husband spoke at last, grabbing the still fluttering monster with his bare hands (ugh!) and letting it loose on the gravel parking lot. Much relieved, I packed the items back in my purse, got back in the car and quickly slammed the door shut before it could fly back inside, and we continued on our way into town.

I write the words above to give you the understanding that I’m not big on bugs of any kind. But because God is relentless in His attempts to get a point across, I found myself a couple of days later face to face with a grasshopper sitting on top of the microwave in my kitchen. I recognized it, of course. I’d seen it in a corner of the living room a day or so earlier and had done nothing to remove it, figuring it wasn’t hurting anything, nibbling on my husband’s houseplants, at worst. Surely the cat or the dog or the long-suffering spouse would take care of it eventually. Now perched on top of the appliance, it didn’t look particularly scary, but the problem with most bugs is that they don’t stay in one place. Even as that thought crossed my mind, the grasshopper launched itself over my head, causing me to duck wildly, my heart stopping momentarily in panic, and my coffee very nearly spilling all over the kitchen floor.

“I give,” I said to God a short time later. Sounding much like the plague-besieged Pharaoh of Biblical fame I pleaded, “No more bugs, evil butterfly-cousins, or insects of any kind. Just tell me what You want me to hear, and I’ll listen and act upon it.” He had definitely gotten my attention.

Not surprisingly, He brought up the subject of my reluctance to deal with things that scare me. I avoid confrontation, not just with bugs, or people who bug me, but problems and painful situations of any kind, choosing rather to run away from them than figure out a way to deal with them. It’s as if I believe they can’t bother me if I don‘t look at them, and yet in my heart I know that they’re still about the place…somewhere. And so my daily activities are hampered as I go about life with a wary eye and a tentative step, always wondering what might jump out at me from around the corner. God simply wants a better life for me than that, and frankly, He can’t use me if I’m a frightened follower rather than the fearless forerunner He created me to be.

A recent situation at work came up as an example. I love my job, except for one assignment I’m occasionally given that makes me incredibly uneasy for a variety of reasons. Yet my personal preferences carry no weight with my supervisor, who simply expects me to do and go as I’m told. My joy in my job began to disappear completely, swallowed up by the nagging fear concerning my possible job assignment each day when I clocked in at the start of my shift.

When I wondered why God didn’t deliver me out of this situation, His response was that in Him I am a victor, not a victim, and as such I didn’t need rescuing. What I needed instead was a strategy to help me overcome the problem, which He was perfectly willing to give upon request. The instructions He subsequently gave me became the stones in my sling to use against the Goliath that stood in the way of my once again enjoying my workday. When I ran at the giant instead of away from him, my fear fell dead at my feet.

Several years ago a friend of mine and her family lived in an old farmhouse they rented in a rural area of Ohio. When the weather turned cold, a couple of harmless but horrible-looking black rat snakes went up inside the walls of the house to over winter in the relative warmth of the attic. When spring came around again the reptiles were once again on the move. One day my friend and her loved ones were gathered around the table enjoying a meal when a snake suddenly dropped through the roof through the light fixture and hung above the table, dangling mere inches in front of their faces! They screamed, dropped their forks and knives and raced out the door. Only after their hearts quit pounding and they had caught their collective breath did they realize that while they were all safe and sound outside, the snake was still inside…somewhere. They had no choice but to go back in and look for it, but apparently it had pulled itself back up through the hole it had dropped through. For days after that they tiptoed around the house, opening drawers and cupboards slowly for fear of finding a snake coiled up on their underwear or towels, and examining light fixtures carefully before walking underneath them. But they just couldn’t live like that. So with the help of their landlord they went on the attack, eventually capturing and removing the snakes and blocking up the places where they had gained entry.

We simply need to do the same. Every day God spreads a banqueting table of incredible life experiences out before us, inviting us to come and partake. Yet when we least expect it, the enemy of our soul drops into our lives in the form of that which we fear most, causing us to flee from what is rightfully ours, that which has been purchased for us on the Cross and provided for our enjoyment. Because he has no place at the table and no portion in the bounty spread before us, his desire is to keep us from enjoying it, as well. Eventually we come to a place where we’re just not willing to let him get away with it any longer.

Unfortunately, the physical and spiritual insect plagues in my life have not stopped, no do I even expect them to do so any more. But neither do I fear them like I used to. Through them God has taught me that if I‘ll turn to Him for advice and assistance, I’ll find that He is still very much in the business of setting His people free.

“You shall tread upon the lion and adder;
the young lion and the serpent shall you trample underfoot.”
(Psalm 91:13 AMP)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Water Woes

I stepped out onto the back deck with my first cup of coffee of the morning and immediately sensed that something was wrong. I heard a strange noise I couldn’t identify but that sounded vaguely like running water. Looking up to see if a sudden shower was perhaps splashing raindrops on the leaves of the trees overhead before reaching the wooden planks I was standing on, I saw only sunlight and clear skies above me. Drawn by the sound to the left edge of the deck, I looked over the railing and was surprised to see that the stream which borders the yard was running like crazy, the water rushing down it’s path into the woods behind the house. The spring storms were long gone, and the summer had turned hot and dry. The local crops and ground were desperate for rain that had been withheld for weeks. Surely I would have been awakened by a storm of the severity to produce as much runoff as was flowing past the house, yet there was no sign that the surrounding property had received any relief from the deepening drought. Something besides rain was sending the water downstream. Resolutely setting my coffee cup down, I decided I’d better go take a look.

I hiked upstream to the top of the property, veering left around the fence to walk up the road, assuming the water was running down the ditch from somewhere up the hill. The brushy fence line along the side of the pavement blocked my view of anything beyond it, but the farther I went, the less clearly I could hear the water, till I gathered that I was going to have to stick to the streambed itself if I was to find the source of the flow. My feet sunk in the muck of the waterlogged footpath that crossed the stream to the neighboring lot, and I noticed water pooling around the culvert that emptied out from the other side of the road. Yet the water wasn’t coming out of the pipe, but forming a large puddle in front of it. Suddenly I noticed a spot where water was bubbling up from the ground itself. A broken water line was surely the culprit! Soon the water company was notified and before long a repair crew was said to be on their way.

Hours after the pipe had been replaced and the workmen had pulled their trucks off the property, I sat thinking about how my attention had been alerted to the problem in the first place. It was the sight of something unusual in my everyday surroundings - water flowing where none should have been - that caught my interest and led me to investigate further. And surely God uses the same tactic in drawing people to Himself. They see one of His followers exhibiting behavior inconsistent with what one would expect in the circumstances surrounding him, such as fearlessness in the face of a terminal illness, strength in time of overwhelming sorrow, or great calm in the midst of a calamity of some sort. Such responses lead the observers to look deeper into the life and beliefs of that one whose reaction is out of the ordinary. They track what they see to its Source, and oftentimes their lives and futures are forever changed as a result.

I know that the words written above are true, because they describe a similar situation that happened to me. Decades ago now, when I was first dating the man I would eventually marry, I had fallen in with a group of people who worked hard all week, partied hard every Friday and Saturday night, and then recuperated on Sunday to do it all over again the next week. I was surprised when I met Jim to learn that he didn’t live the way I and everybody else I knew was living. Rather, he found his joy in his relationship with God and the fellowship of people who knew Him. He talked about the church service that week and his Bible study group meeting with as much excitement as he did the latest softball game he’d played in, and it amazed me. I’d gone to church my entire life and believed in God, but the idea of being friends with Him and having fun in His presence was foreign to me. Intrigued, I eventually followed my boyfriend’s happiness and contentment to it’s source in a relationship with Jesus, and found that joy, peace and love can bubble out of a soul the same way that water bubbled out of the once-dry ground in my yard.

When the work crew first arrived on the scene that day, they told my husband that the extremely wet spring we’d had, followed by a hot and dry summer, was causing the ground to compact and break the pipes. The same thing has happened to some of us. A once-thriving relationship with God may have given way to a dry season in life. The increasing pressure surrounding us finally broke our hearts and brought us back to the love relationship we once knew with God and the Living Water that flows out of the same.

The repairmen went on to tell us that there were a dozen or more such leaks all over the city, and they were having trouble keeping up with the calls for assistance because of a shortage of help. And isn’t that God’s problem, as well? He says that the fields are ripe unto harvest, but the workers are few.

The truth of the matter is that people are at the breaking point all around us, and we don’t have to be on a church payroll somewhere to offer assistance. All that God asks is that we first let Christ flow freely out of our lives, and then that we be ready to point others in His direction when that running stream in a desert place draws the people around us in for a closer look.

“…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…”
(1 Peter 3:15 NIV)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bunny Business

I might as well change my name from Bridge to McGregor, as I seem to have spent the summer chasing bunnies, much like the gardener by that name in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I don’t have a garden, and I rather like the sight of the cotton-tailed creatures hopping about the yard. The problem lies with my son’s beagle, who has an inherent hatred for rabbits, squirrels, and even low-flying geese. Especially rabbits. The minute he spots one through the living room window he’s mentally on the attack, barking incessantly and at very high volume until the intruder is removed from his sight.

But bunnies are not intimidated by a dog barking inside the house. Rather, they sit frozen in place, the one eye on the side facing the trouble watching warily and waiting for further alarms. So the barking won’t stop and the noise level doesn’t’ drop until for the sake of the still-sleeping family members I slip my feet in my flip-flops and head outdoors to chase the trespassers away.

You may wonder why I don’t just open the door and let the dog do the duty himself. But the property is not completely fenced, and he would chase the animal not just out of the yard but probably out of the county and very possibly out of the state, as well. While I don’t care if I ever see the rabbit again, I am partial to this particular puppy, noisy though he may be, and try to keep him close to home. So I take care of the problem myself.

Few things are as harmless as a bunny in the yard. Yet when Mr. McGregor spotted Peter Rabbit in his garden, he called him a thief, eating what didn’t belong to him. And this summer my spiritual life has been full of seemingly harmless thoughts that have nibbled their way into my subconscious and likewise stolen away much of my peace and joy. They are worry over life situations over which I have no control and have previously committed to God, yet they sneak back into my thought life when I’m not looking and consume too much of my time and thought life. Thankfully the Holy Spirit is my watchdog who alerts me to their presence again and forces me to run them off once more.

Perhaps your problems are much more intimidating than the bunny-sized ones that I seem to be dealing with. Yet the size of our problems is not the issue, as dealing with them is God’s job, nor ours, once we’ve committed them to Him. There’s simply nothing too large for Him to handle. But dealing with the worry over the same He leaves to us. He tells us so in no uncertain terms: “…Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed, and do not permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly and unsettled.” (John 14:27 AMP, emphasis mine). In other words, “Get off your duff and chase that bit of fluff out of the yard!”

I’ve found that it’s not enough to merely chase the rabbits out of the dog’s sight, as they soon hop back to where they were feeding before. Rather I have to chase them completely off the property, pursuing them till their white bouncing backsides wiggle through an opening in the fenced boundary of the yard.

I notice that my gardener friend of storybook fame didn’t enter the bunny battle unarmed. Rather, he brandished the tool he had at hand as he ran after the intruder. And it’s surely no coincidence that the rabbit feeding times at my house seem to coincide with my devotional times, both morning and evening. It‘s as if God wanted to remind me that I likewise have my weapon of choice, the Word of God and the promises it contains, always close at hand - in my heart and on my lips, as is promised in Deuteronomy 30:14. Clearly it’s there to be used.

So the next time you are feeling disturbed or unsettled, let the Holy Spirit nudge you as He does so often to me, to look through the windows of your soul and see if there are any worries nibbling away at your peace and contentment. If you find some there, don’t just bark at them in vain, but in your best Mr. McGregor imitation, pick up your “rake” and chase those intruders all the way back under the garden gate.

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:6-7 NKJV)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bottomless Bucket

The mother and daughter laughed excitedly as they tried to corral the avocados rolling in opposite directions on the conveyor belt that bore them relentlessly to the cash register. “We’re making guacamole,” the mom explained. “It’s on our summer bucket list.” Suddenly they remembered they hadn’t bought the makings for dinner, but I reminded them that after eating a whole bag of corn chips with the sure-to-succeed experiment, they wouldn’t be hungry for it anymore anyway. Still laughing they headed off to cross off another item on their vacation to-do list, leaving me to realize that with the summer one-third gone I hadn’t even taken the time to write any such items down.

Maybe their words caught my attention because I had a week’s vacation coming up, seven days as yet unplanned. I didn’t want to waste them. Yet I knew that if I left them to chance, they’d fly away like dandelion seeds in the wind, uncatchable, irreclaimable…unremarkable. I wanted to make them count.

And so I got a mental paper and pen and got ready to write. The first draft looked a lot like most of the “bucket lists” I’ve looked at online – things I wanted to see or experience before I ran out of time. In this case it was my week-long vacation time, but the same principle applies to our individual summertimes, and especially to our lifetimes. The emphasis was heavy on the word my. My wish list, for my life and my time.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I could take those seven days and donate them, that I could plan each day around doing something for somebody else instead of concentrating only on what I wanted to do myself. Of course, college students have been doing exactly that for years, spending their spring breaks on mission trips or building houses for homeless people. Without having seen the movie The Bucket List myself, I read a synopsis of the plot and learned that two terminally ill men who started off as complete strangers ended up as friends who helped each other cross items off their lists. Even the popular TV show The Buried Life about a group of friends on a mission to accomplish items on their bucket lists includes a segment each week of how they helped a complete stranger realize a particular dream of his own.

Suddenly I understood why God has been nudging my heart about this topic of late. It’s because my life is not my own anymore. It belongs to Him. And so perhaps my determination to make my time on this earth count for something should lead me straight to His “bucket list”, the purposes and plans He has for the people He loves, while there’s still time to accomplish them.

All this talk about buckets got me to thinking of one in particular I’ve seen at the entrance to the lodge at Hueston Woods State Park. It hangs under a faucet that delivers a slow yet steady stream of water, gradually filling until the weight of the water inside tips it over and dumps the contents into a basin below. Then the empty bucket swings back into an upright position and the running water starts to fill it once more. The process repeats itself over and over again.

I smile at the thought that maybe God’s “list” has just one item on it! Perhaps His sole desire is that before we “kick the bucket“, as the saying goes, we position our own in such a way that our lives become so filled with His goodness that they can’t help but spill it all out on the people around us, over and over again.

“…Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’” (John 7:37-38 NIV)

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Pot of Petunias

I planted a pot of petunias today. Just one. I’ve learned that that’s all I can handle.

Death and destruction have pretty much followed my gardening attempts in years past. One year I enthusiastically planted flowers along the fence of our Texas home, dreaming of bright blooms bobbing their heads at me whenever I looked out the window. When the weeds grew bigger than the desired plants I resolutely began the process of pulling them, only to be chased inside by the bite of the fire ants, the persistence of the bees and the suffocating summer heat. I decided the flowers would simply have to fend for themselves. When they did not, and what was supposed to be a fence line eye-catcher became a backyard eyesore, my husband mercifully employed the lawn mower to erase my mistake. Since then I’ve left any outdoor gardening to his more capable hands.

I likewise have a long history of killing houseplants. In my single days I was determined to have greenery of some sort in my apartment, yet soon noted that I was buying a plant a week to replace one that had died in the preceding seven days. My budget couldn’t stand the strain. More recently I’ve been banned from indoor watering chores because of a tendency to either water too heavily or withhold the same till the brown and brittle foliage indicated that a once-thirsty plant had gasped its last. I was beginning to believe that the “green thumb” I thought I was born with was instead as black as could be.

That all changed quite by accident some years ago. A son’s graduation party coincided with Memorial Day weekend that year, and my mother-in-law bought a pot of red, white and blue-ish petunias to help decorate our back deck. It looked fabulous…until that first round of blooms faded. There was no second round of flowers to follow. Our back deck was overshadowed by the trees on the property and the plants simply didn’t receive enough light to thrive in that location. On a whim I set the pot on the front step which was normally bathed in afternoon sunshine. The flowers returned in abundance.

And suddenly I remembered how I had always wanted flowers on the front step, that it was something I noticed about the town when we first visited it with the thought of moving here so many years ago now. While my husband had pondered the practical considerations of driving distances to work, locations of freeways, churches and restaurants, all I seemed to see were white plaster flowerpots on porches all over town. The place seemed to be thick with them. I vowed that if we moved here we’d have flowers on our front step, too.

That idea got lost in the busyness of moving and working and raising a family. My husband was content with flowers in the ground under the front window and in various places around the yard. He didn’t see a need for a pot on the porch, particularly. And I eventually forgot about it, as well. Yet amazingly, God didn’t forget! How incredible that our Father loves us so much that He doesn’t forget the unspoken desires of our hearts, even those that matter so little in the grand scheme of things. Yet because we matter to Him, He makes them a reality in our lives in a way that draws our hearts to His more closely than perhaps if the wish had been granted when first expressed.

I’ve had flowers on my front step in one form or another every year since then. Their bright beauty does more than merely welcome me home from wherever I’ve been each day. They’re a reminder of my search to find the spot in God’s Kingdom where I was meant to bloom. We each have one, you know - a place of service where the gifts and talents God’s placed within us function at their best to accomplish His purposes. Finding that perfect spot, however, is the challenge, and too many of us give up before we do. I remember how frustrating my own search was, the many ministry opportunities I experimented with, only to seemingly discover one position after another that was not where I was meant to be. Then one day a simple request by a program director opened a door to an option I had never before considered, and suddenly joy and peace bloomed in abundance. I quickly cleared my plate of other commitments so I could concentrate my efforts on that which I finally realized I’d been called to do. When I looked back I realized that I had carried the makings of my ministry from birth. I hadn’t considered before that I was created to enjoy certain things that God later intended to use in His employ!

Once we’re born again there’s a longing in each of our hearts to serve God in some capacity. Too often we listen to the whispers of the enemy who says we’re not qualified to do so because of what’s in our past, our seeming lack of ability or time in the present, and our doubts about our commitment in the future. What changed things for me spiritually was illustrated for me physically. I simply moved my potted plant from the shady backyard to the front step where the sun shines. We likewise need to find that spot in our lives on which the Son is shining, and center our efforts on what is blossoming there.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like he crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy...”

(Isaiah 35:1-2 NIV)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eyeing the Storm

A young girl walks along a sidewalk when a police officer suddenly flies into her from behind, knocking her off her feet with such force that she slams into the wall beside her and falls to the ground. Stunned or perhaps momentarily unconscious, she lies there motionless while he quickly handcuffs her arms behind her back.

That video clip on the morning news was a lead-in to a discussion on possible excessive force used by the police department. I didn’t wait to hear the details but turned off the TV, aware that I’d seen the clip in response to a question I’d been asking God about a coworker of mine.

“How are you today?” he mutters, his face and voice directed at the floor rather than toward the customers he is required to address. Needless to say, they often don’t even hear him speak. Unsure if the question is directed to them when they do, they fail to answer. Met with only silence in response, he asks the question again but in the same way, netting the same silence in return. When he poses the question a third time I want to break the awkward silence by telling him to simply look up at the person he’s speaking to.

But that’s the issue. He won’t look anyone in the eye. Raising his arm to cover his face from view, he peers under it to analyze the groceries coming down the belt towards him, mentally grouping the items that should be bagged together before they reach him. He bags them with his head down and answers any questions the same way. When forced to speak, he lifts the neck of his shirt to cover his mouth. Everything about him indicates a desire to be invisible. It’s an obvious struggle for him to fulfill the requirements of a job that forces him to deal with the public on a daily basis.

His attitude frustrates coworkers and confuses the shoppers. Some mock him, but most people just look at him in bewilderment and then grant him the solitude he craves. Others try to speak to him kindly and draw him out, but he keeps himself hidden behind doors he has shut to his inner being. I’ve noticed that his supervisors are unusually patient with him and am surprised that they tolerate his many quirks. But perhaps it’s because they know his history that they cut him a little extra slack.

I’ve heard that he hasn’t always been this way. Apparently he is very bright, went to college and excelled in his studies. But just as his future was opening before him, an altercation with a family member (or so the story goes) knocked him down emotionally and severely damaged him, handcuffing his ability to function normally. Now even an entry-level position in a grocery store is frequently more than his fragile psyche can handle.

Some of us have likewise been blindsided in life by circumstances that have knocked us completely off course. While recovering and moving on as best we can, we remain handicapped by that incident and live lives far below the level that God intended. Those around us become confused and then frustrated at our inability to overcome the trial and begin to abandon us, accelerating our descent into isolation and despair.

What we need is an intervention, and thankfully God has provided One. Thinking about this coworker one day at work as he bagged groceries at the end of my lane, I pictured Jesus walking up to him, pulling that arm down from across his face, lifting his head up with his finger and gently turning his head with his hand, forcing him to look Him in the eye. There he would find the love and acceptance he so desperately needed, as well as freedom from his shackles, the regaining of the hope he lost, and the opening once more of the future that was taken from him.

For some of us the pain is compounded by the fact that it is the religious system itself that has failed and wounded us, making us reluctant to trust spiritual advisors of any kind. Yet we err when we confuse the fallible institutions of man with the unerring love of a merciful and loving God. How it must frustrate the heart of God when such situations keep us away from the help, healing and wholeness that are found in a true relationship with Him!

We need to lift our eyes off the situations that are dragging us down and direct our gaze onto the face of the One who has defeated the very things we fear. Truly Jesus is the eye of the storm so to speak, the place of calm in the midst of chaotic events swirling around us. In Him we find the peace and strength we need to confront the situations that threaten us and the key that unlocks the handcuffs holding us back from the future awaiting us. Once we are settled in Him, we can look our storms in the eye and speak His word of victory over our situations, even as the wind blows around us and the rain pelts us in the face.

Elizabeth Smart did just that recently. You may remember her as the young girl who was kidnapped several years ago and held captive for nine months by a criminal who was just recently sentenced to life in prison. When given the opportunity to face him in court and to speak her mind, she spoke of the beautiful life she has now and told him that he no longer has the power to affect her existence in any way.

It’s important to remember that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). We, too, need to face our adversary and speak our confidence that his influence over our lives has been defeated by the power, grace and glory of Jesus Christ, who rules and reigns in us.

When we look to Jesus in our storms, we find the courage to look our accuser in the face… and the love and confidence within us to look others in the eye, as well.

“…He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.” (Luke 8:24 NIV)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love Letters

I’d finally reached the end of a late-night shift made even longer by the need to do my own grocery shopping at the end of it, and headed out to the far corner of the parking lot where I’d left my car many hours earlier. Wearily I popped open the trunk and loaded the grocery bags into the back of the vehicle, slamming the lid down when I was through. My eyes lifted to the back window of the car and then I literally jumped in surprise! The words “Love you” were written across the glass in white shoe polish! Alone in the dark with nobody but God to see or hear me, I suddenly smiled and even laughed out loud as the midnight sunlight of a friend’s thoughtfulness broke through the gloomy fog surrounding me. Happy once more, I began texting my thanks to her almost before even closing the car door.

It got me to thinking about what messages we spell out with the letters we’ve been given.

Just days earlier my son had purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab and invited me to play the Words With Friends application, which is the game of Scrabble in tablet form. I was to start the game off and waited expectantly for the seven letters I would be given to work with to pop up on the screen. When they did so my eyebrows rose in surprise, as spelled out perfectly in the middle of the group of tiles was a four-letter word that I wouldn’t let come out of my mouth, much less set down on a game board!

I wish I could say that I didn’t first tally up the points I could’ve accumulated from using it before discarding the notion completely. And suddenly it occurred to me that we do the exactly the same thing in life. Almost unconsciously we weigh our options in delivering our messages. Too often we exaggerate the details slightly to make a better story, lower our standards slightly to raise our standing in someone‘s sight… in short, ignore our convictions somewhat in order to score a little higher in the game of life. There’s a ten-letter word for that, and it’s spelled compromise. God would so much rather that we choose to play well than that we come out on top.

Choices matter in the area of communication because we carry the words we’ve been given around with us. They have the power to bless us or curse us for years after they’ve been delivered. I was grateful that the rain had stopped long enough for me to see message on my car before it got washed away, and I carefully parked it in the garage when I got home to preserve its presence for as long as I could. The next day as I drove around town I would smile all over again each time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw love beaming back at me from the back window. I’ve tucked similar messages in the pages of my journal to bless me all over again when I look back on them at some later date. But too often we carry the destructive messages that have been communicated to us around with us as well, reliving the hurt of those moments each time we look back in time.

It’s amazing to consider that we can make a difference in this world, one word at a time. So it’s important what words we choose to use. As I was considering my options in the opening word of my game with my son, I realized that I held another letter in my hand that would change the four-letter word I wouldn’t say into a five-letter word that I could play. One letter made the unacceptable suddenly acceptable.

One sacrifice did the same for me spiritually. And now the life that Jesus gave on my behalf influences the choices I make towards others…especially in the area of verbal communication. I have received love; surely now I ought to give love away. Suddenly the message on my car that was originally just a kind thought from a friend became a directive from God.

Yet surely we can go beyond simply being verbally kind to one another. There’s no greater way to spell out a message of blessing than to tell somebody about the love of God that has made hope and help and Heaven available to them once more.

My friend told me later that she almost changed her mind about writing on my car because she thought I might be angry. And sometimes we are hesitant to share what’s in our hearts for that very reason. We fear rejection. Yet we never know who may desperately need to receive a “love you” message from God at any moment in time.

One letter. One Life. One Love.
Pass it on.

“’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”
(Isaiah 6:5-6 NIV)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lost in Life

My years as a field forester spanned three geographical states (from California to Oregon to Washington), two marital states (from single to married), and on one particular day, two physical states (from lost to found).

For four years every workday began largely the same way. I’d load my boots, my vest, and my hardhat into the company truck, stop at the office for a co-worker, my paperwork, a cup of coffee and a donut if I was lucky, and then head out for whatever corner of the company’s land holdings I was to work in on that particular day. At the end of the day everything went back into the truck for the drive home and a run-through of the events of the morning in reverse. The duties of each day varied depending on my job title, office location, and the season of the year. Some days I found difficult, such as the one on which a “controlled” burn lost that status when it jumped the fire lines and turned into a raging forest fire. I hated working in the bone-numbing cold of snow and hiking on terrain so steep that I had to hang on to the brush I was pushing through to keep from catapulting down the hillside. But there were many more moments I loved, such as coming over a ridge onto the heart-stopping beauty of tree-covered hillsides stretched out before me, the heart-dropping thrill of helicopter rides with herbicide applicators who needed to be shown boundary lines, and the depths of friendships that developed between coworkers who got through all the moments together somehow. Yet few days stand out in my mind as forcibly as the day I got lost in the woods.

It began like so many others. Armed with the tools of our trade, my coworker and I headed out to find the stand of trees we were supposed to work in that day. The morning seemed to go smoothly, but at some point in the early afternoon we noticed that our maps weren’t lining up well with what we were seeing on the ground. The more we tried to get back on track the worse the situation became until suddenly we realized we were hopelessly turned around; in short, lost. For hours after that we trudged in one direction through thick brush and open tree stands, up one hill and down another, hoping to intersect with a road of some type that would give us a clue as to our whereabouts.

I remember the heat and physical exhaustion of the trek and our overwhelming disappointment each time we reached the top of a ridge only to see more hills and valleys before us with no logging trail or access road in sight. But mostly I remember my incredible thirst. Our water supplies emptied hours earlier, we looked in vain for refreshment in dry streambeds on a warm end-of-summer day. Weary, soaked in sweat, and incredibly cotton mouthed, I can’t describe our relief when we finally stumbled across a road, determined our location, retrieved our truck and were headed home at last.

It was a humiliating experience at best, one that required multiple explanations over the days that followed to an inquisitive boss, interested friends, and (supposedly) sympathetic spouses. Mine just thought it was funny, and the longevity of our marriage is due in part to the fact that he quickly learned to quit bringing up the subject for laughs in social gatherings of one sort or another. The people around me focused on the fact that I got lost. Yet what made it memorable to me was the absolute joy of being found – the relief of finally coming across a road, the gratitude for the directions we were given, and the satisfaction of finally drinking my fill.

Shortly after this incident occurred I discovered that I was as lost in life as I had been in the woods that day. My job had been going along fine until a transfer to a new city left me lonely and vulnerable. A few missteps in the wrong direction knocked me seriously off course until I gradually came to realize how desperately I longed for a way to get myself back on track. I was tired of waking up each morning to more of the same questions, problems and difficulties, the answers I sought having eluded me once again. I didn’t realize how spiritually thirsty I had become. Desperate to find a way out of my situation, I sought help from a fellow traveler who answered my questions and pointed me in the right direction, a path that led to the foot of the cross.

It likewise was a humbling experience. When that particular morning began I was a 24-year-old college graduate just killing time in the back of a classroom, looking forward to my plans for the rest of the day while my boyfriend fulfilled his weekly spiritual obligation of teaching a Sunday School class to a handful of sixth grade girls. People later laughed to hear that I needed the lesson he taught more than the kids I was with. But I remember the absolute joy of walking out of the room much as I walked out of the woods that day, having moved from Lost to Found, a huge smile framing my face.

One more detail from our Bad-Day-in-the-Woods. When we finally found a road and had made a decision which way to head on it, we soon came upon a small house. My coworker knocked on the door to get directions, but I spied something I needed more. A hose was curled up underneath a faucet on the side of the building. Without waiting to ask permission, I ran to it, turned the spigot, and got the drink I so desperately needed. I drank and I drank and I drank.

Once you’ve discovered how lost and thirsty you are, you don’t necessarily need to wait for the next available church service or to pray with a pastor to ask for a drink of Living Water, good though it is to get direction in those places. You can go straight to the Source and get what you need.

In my case, I found the Road, slacked my thirst, and have been happily heading Home ever since. The same can be true for you.

“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I, the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.”

(Isaiah 41:17,18 NIV)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hot Spot

“Nice you could make it today, Part Time,” the bass player said to me as we both got our instruments ready for an early morning worship practice. He smiled as he said it and I laughed at the new nickname, then protested indignantly that it had been my work schedule and not any lack of desire on my part that had kept me from recent mid-week rehearsals. In fact, it was due to a change to full time status on my job that led me to become part time in my worship team attendance.

He wasn’t buying it. As a foreman on his construction job he works overtime trying to get all his paperwork done. Then he has a home to cake care of, a son to hug, and a girlfriend to charm. I often wonder how he manages to make it to church at all, much less be one that leads the way in the passionate pursuit of God.

I honestly don’t think my friend Chad’s use of the new moniker was a reflection of anything more than his desire to tease. Yet he is also one who understands how the Lord can take a casual comment and use it to effect life-changing results. God has a double interest in doing so. He wants to change our lives for the better, of course. But then He wants to use us to change the lives of those around us. And with time growing short He needs full-time employees to get the job done.

Some of us stir uneasily at the thought that God wants more of us than we feel we’re currently able to give. Stressed to the breaking point already with too much to do, we ask ourselves in frustration, what more does God want?

God answered that question for me through a story Chad shared in a recent church meeting. He’d had a long day at work only to find it could get worse when he got home. His roommate had been cooking his supper, leaving a burner turned on the stove and then inadvertently setting his work gloves down on the hot surface. In an attempt to put out the resultant flames he grabbed the fire extinguisher which splattered molten rubber all over the kitchen. Such was the mess that awaited my friend when he walked in his front door.

I thought the story was especially appropriate to Chad’s life, and not because he’s so “hot” that women melt at the sight of him, as he frequently claims. The truth of the matter is that he lives with all of his spiritual burners turned on high. You wouldn’t know it to look at him - a slow moving, slow talking kind of guy. But spend some time listening to him and you soon realize that he has various projects and ministry efforts simmering on all parts of his spiritual stove.

But if God is calling us to more and we feel we have no burners to spare for additional pots, how do we respond to His call? I looked at my stove and realized that one of the burners has a “part time” and “full time” status as well! I can turn the control so that only the inner ring gets hot, or move it the other way so that the outer ring will light up as well, expanding the effective cooking area on that portion of the stove. Perhaps God is not asking us to put in more hours, but to put more passion and power in the hours we’re already dedicating to His service, making a more productive use of our time.

What is accomplished so easily with the turn of a dial on a stove takes a little more effort in our spiritual lives. A little while later I was randomly reading blogs on the internet when I came across one that addressed a similar problem. A writer was detailing her difficulty with concentration during the hours she had allotted herself to write, realizing that she was only actually putting words in her computer for about one third of the scheduled time. The rest of those precious moments were wasted on distractions such as music she listened to as she typed, the playfulness of her cat, the pull of the internet, and the conversation of her spouse, among other things. It was a wonder she got anything done at all. To combat the problem she found a free application for her computer called a “focus booster”, which was a visual timer that allowed her to be constantly aware of how much time she had left to work and thus kept her on task until her next scheduled break.

Maybe an awareness of the passage of time is God’s solution to the spiritual dilemma we face, as well. The first step to getting more out of the hours we devote to the Lord is to realize that we haven’t much time left to accomplish what needs to be done. And far from needing a downloadable app to focus my attention, I simply can’t escape the visual images on my computer, my television screen, and in the pages of my newspaper to know that spiritual seasons are moving rapidly along, and we need to be fully on task at all times. My practice sessions with the band have taught me that if I can only be part time in attendance I need to be full time in attention while I’m there. The same is true in any effort put forth on God’s behalf.

Unlike a stove, however, our spiritual lives shouldn’t have an on/off notch on our mental dials. Instead of giving two hours here and there to operate in our callings, it could be that God is calling us to a different type of worship “practice“, that of actively experiencing His presence in our lives all day long and on into the night. He is always on task, and amazingly I am discovering that I can be, as well, letting my spirit sing worship songs in the back of my mind while I’m busy with other things, my heart praying constantly without my lips actually shaping the words, and my tongue rehearsing his love and goodness in the words that do come out of my mouth.

The worship team’s sole purpose is to connect with hearts in the congregation so they will be receptive to the message from the pastor when he stands up to preach. Individually our goal is the same, to strike a chord with somebody in the mass of people who pass through our lives so they’ll be ready to listen when the Master comes knocking and begins to speak.

“Speak, O Lord, for Your servant is listening”

(1 Samuel 3:10 NIV)

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