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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