Thursday, December 20, 2012

Born in a Barn

“Close that door! Were you born in a barn?”

Well…yes, He was. He was born in a stable of some sort, at least, likely surrounded by animals, and laid in a manger of hay. And He’s been leaving doors open behind Him ever since.

Many more years ago than her youngest daughter is old, my friend Terry had an encounter with God. While I don’t know the details, I do know that Jesus came knocking on her heart’s door one day, and she let Him in. Not only did He never leave, He left the door open behind Him, and countless others have followed His lead into her heart and life.

I joined that crowd when she began hosting a mid-week fellowship and Bible study gathering several years ago and literally opened the door to her home for a group of us who have been faithfully meeting there ever since. For years upon years now she’s rushed home from her job on a Thursday to start a meal for the lot of us and then sits on her porch and waits for us all to arrive. Enveloped in hugs and love when we do, we’re ushered inside for a time of food and friendly banter. When the meal has moved from plates to waists we move the dishes to the kitchen, break out the coffee cups, pens and worksheets and study the night’s lesson in one accord. The evening ends as it began, with laughter on the front porch as the crowd gradually dissipates into the cars that fill the driveway and heads for home.

As the last guest leaves and her door is shut on the night, Terry’s heart and life are still open and available. Because she freely shares her struggles and foibles, friends and acquaintances feel comfortable to be real about theirs around her and come calling on the phone or crowding a campfire in her backyard as together they search for the keys to dealing with the problems they face. More often than not her visitors find Jesus in their discussions with her, whether they open a conversation with Him on their own at that point yet or not. They are at least introduced to the Master Locksmith who can open any door that is closed to them, whether it be a physical door of opportunity in their lives, or the entryway into the heart of another person that was closed over an event that happened in the past. And it begins by responding to the pounding of their own hearts, and letting Him in.

I have a fear of facing a locked door on my car. Because the key contains a computer chip it is expensive to duplicate, and I haven’t gone to the expense of doing so again after the first spare was lost on a snowboarding hill and the second simply disappeared somewhere in the house. As a result I never leave my car casually anymore, but stop to make sure I’m holding the key in my hand before I exit the vehicle. Even so, I still remember the horror of accidentally dropping my lone means of entry into the trunk one day just as the lid to the thing came slamming down. And many of us live restricted lives because we’re similarly afraid of somehow dropping the ball with God and hearing the Gates of Heaven slam shut against us forever as a result.

Yet God doesn’t want us to live our lives in fear. Knowing that we were without the means ourselves to purchase our passage into His Presence, He sent His Son to rescue us. Jesus was born in a barn in Bethlehem for the sole purpose of reopening the door of communication between fallen man and the God Who still desperately loved His creation, despite their rejection and sin. With His death He made restitution for us all and reconciliation a precious possibility as Heaven’s portals swung wide open once more.

From the night of His birth, while yet in His mother’s womb as she and Joseph arrived at a crowded inn, He’s been knocking on doors that are closed to Him, seeking a place to be born anew. If this Christmas you feel strangely moved, perhaps it’s because He has come to you with a simple message from your Father‘s heart: The door is open. The porch light is on. Hurry Home.

 “For it is through Him that we …now have…(access)…to the Father…”
(Ephesians 2:18 AMP)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Ever-Afters

“So much for my happy ending…”, a recent Facebook post began.

I knew the girl, but not her story, yet I could relate to her disappointment. I’m a huge fan of happy endings in movies, in books…and especially in life. But things don’t always work out that way. Loved ones die despite the best medical science can offer, relationships sometimes end on an unpleasant note, and doors slam shut on even the best-laid plans.

Too often we are then consumed with sorrow and loss over our lot in life. While grief is understandable and even to be expected, lingering depression over any situation is self-destructive and defeating. Yet once pulled into its web, it clings to us and seems to resist our best efforts to shake ourselves free.

Perhaps the problem is with our perspective. When such events occur our natural feeling to think that our lives are over and done, and mentally we close the book on our future and set it down. We give up hope for happiness and fulfillment because that which we longed for failed to come to pass.

Yet if we haven’t experienced a happy ending in a situation, perhaps it’s because we’ve not yet reached its end. As long as there’s breath in our bodies, our stories continue on. Each day brings a turning of the page as a new chapter unfolds before us, filled with characters and plot lines written in Heaven, but not yet experienced on earth. Opportunities for joy await us if we will bravely step into the future that lies ahead.

To a large degree we write our own happy endings. We can’t dictate the hand we are dealt, but we can choose how to play it. Life is simply a progression of choices we make that lead us in one direction or another. We can’t win if we fold. Better yet to turn another card and see what we can make of the next card in the deck.

Unlike a card game, however, life is not a game of chance. Every detail has already been scribed by the hand of a loving Father Who wrote and therefore sees our story in its entirety, while we simply struggle on, page by page. I’ve given up on many a book I’ve been reading because I didn’t understand or appreciate where the author was leading me. Yet there are some writers that I will stick with no matter what because I know from past experience that the story will come together in the end. Even more do I trust the Author of Life as He pens around even the difficult spots in my life to bring events to a happy conclusion, as He promises in His Word to do.

Sometimes we have to fight to bring those happy endings to pass. As if in illustration of this point, I came home from work last night to find that our puppy had shredded the bestseller I was currently reading. While relieved that for once it hadn’t come from the library, I was yet horrified at the thought of not being able to see how the story ended! The cover was torn into a million little bits scattered over the living room floor, the back ripped off, pages torn out. Quickly I gathered up the latter and examined the ruined remains. To my relief, while battered and chewed, the pages were still readable, and while the last page was temporarily missing, I located it in the litter around me and found that with a little tape it could be salvaged.

Some days end with our hopes and dreams similarly lying in scattered disarray about our feet. We have to dig through the wreckage of broken pieces to find what can be salvaged…a place to begin again from, a hope to build on. When we bring that remnant to God and place it at His feet, we find over time that He somehow is able to make all things work together for our good.

As the year draws to a close it’s a good time to consider that the story of our lives could well be doing the same. God wrote our beginning when He created us in our mother’s womb, and He had a plot line in mind before we were even born. But He allows us to chose the ending, a decision that will largely determine how things work out in the middle. He pre-wrote one possibility when He sent His Son to die for our sins, reconcile us to Himself and make Heaven available once more upon accepting Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Rejecting that offer, we can choose to continue to go our own way and accept the consequences that follow. No matter what dark turns our stories may have taken, a positive outcome is always within the realm of possibility.

Recently a young mother came through my check-out lane in the grocery store with her two little girls, the older of which was tickling the younger one seated in the front of the cart. Their delighted laughter filled the air and caught the attention of all of us standing near. I mentioned to the mother how great it would be to bottle up that happiness and offer it to a world so stressed and miserable and in desperate need of the same. And that is exactly what God has done in the gift of His Son.

On and on their laughter went, rolling waves of joy that absolutely arrested us, giving us no choice but to stop all our busyness for a minute and smile. As I did so, I heard His voice whisper in my ear, “That’s what Heaven sounds like.“ A happy ending, indeed.

May we similarly stop for a moment as the year draws to a close and let this thought tickle  our imaginations: The happy ever-afters we so long for could be just one choice away.

“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 1:6 NIV)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ahhh, Asiago!

I love asiago cheese, and I’m fond of the occasional bagel. Putting the two in combination was something I’d never considered until a bagger friend at the grocery store one morning was pondering his food options for his upcoming break and suddenly said, “That’s it! I’ll have an asiago cheese bagel!”

Noting the blank stares on those of us working around him, he said, “Haven’t you ever tried one of those?! They’re incredible! The saltiness of the cheese is just the perfect complement to the bread of the bagel. Once you try one, you’ll be hooked! But you have to buy them early; they go fast.”

It turns out he was right on all counts. Amused that I was the one who was next sent on break, with a few coins in my pocket and curiosity in my taste buds I headed to the bakery section in the back of the store. There I was lucky enough to find a few of the desired item still in the display case, quickly bought one and headed off to the break room. Soon I was in asiago bagel heaven, the mass of cheese filling the hole in the middle and melted around the bottom a special delight!

Wouldn’t you know, once on board I found that my new bagel addiction was hard to feed. My bagger friend was right; the asiago variety sold out quickly each morning, leaving only an empty tray and a few crumbs in their slot next to their jalapeno cheddar brothers. Farther on down there were likewise plenty of its cinnamon crunch buddies, my former bagel of choice, but having tasted the asiago variety I was surprised to find that they no longer tempted me the way they used to. I would simply sigh in disappointment and turn away to find a less satisfying snack to eat that day.

I even mentioned the problem to the bakery manager the next time I saw him, asking why he didn’t refill the bagel case when one particular variety sold out. He told me that they put out all that they have at one time, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. He did suggest a simple solution to the problem, however, generously offering to put some aside for me if I’d mention the matter to him the night before.

I’ve yet to take him up on the offer, and I think I know why. I like the anticipation of the trip to that corner of the store, wondering if my desire is going to be satisfied on that particular morning. Whatever the outcome, the longing remains and springs up fresh and new on the succeeding day. It’s even stirred by the sight of a bakery bag coming down the lane in the midst of a customer’s groceries when I’m working behind the register later on, the toasted cheese shreds on the bagel visible through the translucent packaging a dead giveaway to the wonders of what lie inside.

It’s the same thing that brings me to my devotional time each day, the anticipation of what God might have to say. I’ve become addicted to the sound of His voice. I’m amazed that I lived for years not knowing that such a treat was available to me, and am forever grateful to the fellow traveler who one day asked me if I’d sampled His wares. His description of the joy he found in his own relationship with God intrigued me, and after giving the matter some thought, I decided to try it out for myself. What I found, however, was so much more than just a temporary satisfaction to a momentary hunger. God literally saved and then changed my life, little by little in those morning meetings with Him, a bite at a time.

An interesting thing has happened as a result. Other pleasures, some healthy, others less so, have lost their pull on my life, replaced by a taste sensation in those mealtimes with God that they just can’t match. And now I’m hooked. I come to Him each day for food that satisfies, and unlike as sometimes happens in the bakery, I never come away disappointed. He always has something ready for me if I’ll simply make the time to head in His direction.

Due to their scarcity, there’s an unwritten code of ethics to be followed among us cheese bagel devotees that applies only to this one variety we so adore: you buy one and leave one for the next person who comes along. Another asiago addict told me that he tried to stare down a lady beside him at the bakery case who quickly stashed three in a bag and left in a hurry, refusing to meet his accusing gaze. And I laughed at myself the other day when a bakery bag came down the conveyor belt of my checkout lane, and I could clearly see the bagels lying inside, back to cheesy back. While I always confirm the quantity inside with the customer before ringing them up, I noticed there was a slight edge to my voice and I spoke perhaps a little too loudly as I asked, “You’ve got two in here?” She ignored my tone as best she could and simply nodded as she continued to unload her groceries. But she got my point.

All joking aside, we tend to do that with the spiritual treats we consume, as well. We hoard what God meant to be freely shared about, and wait for people to be stirred by the tell-tale signs of His presence inside our human packaging before offering to share the joy we’ve discovered with the hungry souls around us. God wants us to simply give what we’ve got away. Thankfully His supply never runs out, His mercies are new every morning, and refills are available throughout the day! Any time we feel the hunger rumbling in our spirits we can physically or mentally hit our knees and smile at our Father in anticipation as we whisper, “A little asiago cheese, please…?!”

It’s a picture and a plea He simply can’t resist.

“And Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes on Me shall never thirst.”
(John 6:35 MKJV)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Strange Change

November is upon us, and change is in the air.

We’re reminded of that fact officially as we move our clocks back this first weekend of the month. The presidential election just after that has filled the airwaves with debates, commercials and promises of a shift in one direction or another in the political arena as the chair in the Oval Office is once again up for grabs. Even the vacillating temperatures outside contribute to the unsettling upheaval of things as we’ve known them recently, as the onset of winter rains and whipping winds rip the last of the leaves off the trees, filling the world we walk through with their communal downward dance.

Surely the leaves drop and the clocks fall back and elections occur regularly as scheduled, year after year after year. But this year I’m noticing some strange transformations happening in me, in the thoughts that fill my mind and the activities that fill my days. My personal colors seem to be changing, and things I’ve held on to tightly for seasons past are now dropping at my feet and being simply kicked aside as I move on with my life. Individually they are as insignificant as one leaf on a tree filled with the same, but when they all start falling at once, it causes me to look up and wonder what on earth is going on.

Like I said, they are little things. Like the Saturday morning I ran into town after a big family breakfast to knock some errands off my to-do list. Amazingly I found a parking space in front of the gift store I needed to visit and went inside. Business done, I came back out and looked longingly at the Starbucks franchise that was directly across the street. Although I had time on my hands and a gift card in my purse, it was the calorie expenditure I couldn’t afford on that particular day…so I got in my car and drove away! No earthquake split the street before me and the sky didn’t fall, but in my own personal world, that moment was HUGE.

One weekend later family tradition found us at a small local festival, walking a street lined with vendors selling food and hand-crafted items of all kinds. When it comes to purses I’m a firm believer in the bigger, the better. I stash everything from an occasional bottle of pop to my laptop in mine, and thus I never buy small bags. Yet that day I bought one that was flat and thin and hardly wider than my fingers could stretch. Doubtful that I’d make it a week without switching back to a bigger version, I dubbed it as an experiment, to see if I could function without carrying my life around with me in my hands all the time. I’ve had to make a few adjustments in the way I do things, but overall it seems to be working.

Actually, I would have walked right on by that vendor’s booth had it not been for one piece of fabric on an otherwise denim blue bag that sucked me in. None of the other bags hanging around it interested me in the least, but the autumn leaf print on the quilted border on the one caught my eye and hooked me, perhaps the way God hoped the changing colors of my daily routines would catch my attention and look to Him for an explanation.

Clearly I’m experiencing a paring down, and not just on the digital read of the bathroom scale and the amount of clutter I carry around. Things I’ve told myself were absolute necessities I’m now suddenly able to put aside and adapt to life without. But to what purpose? And is it just for a season, or are these lifestyle changes of longer duration?

I think back to when Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples and told them not to take along a purse, bag or sandals. Later He asked them if they had lacked anything during that time, and they answered that they made out just fine. Perhaps the purpose was to teach the lot of us that our joy and peace as well as our daily sustenance are not found in the things we consume or carry about in this life, but in the One who carries us. He frees us from the burden of our own provision that we might concentrate instead on Kingdom purposes and His business.

I’m reminded of the passage in John 15 in which Jesus said He is the Vine, and we are the branches. He explained that every branch of the vine that bears no fruit is cut off, and those that are fruitful are pruned for greater production. Surely there are aspects of my existence that bear no fruit in the heavenly realm; they use resources of money, time and energy but nothing of eternal value comes out of them, and so they must be eliminated. Meanwhile God prunes and refines the spiritually productive areas in my life so that they can be even more effective. .

Throughout His years of ministry on earth Jesus was constantly looking about Him for fruit. He looked not only for figs on trees, but faith in His followers, and every time He ran into somebody with even a mustard-sized portion of it His eyes lit up and His heart beat a little faster…the moment was an occasion for joy. And even yet today He looks for love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control …the fruits of the spirit… to be evident in the lives of you and me. Oh that He could likewise find in our hearts and lives a similar reason to rejoice!

Recently I mentioned to my husband that I’d made my last trip to the state park near us for the year. When my he questioned me on it I tried to explain that the brilliance of the fall color is over for the year, the leaves are on the ground,  and the bare stems are simply depressing to me. Already I find myself looking forward to spring, when there‘s new life bursting up from the ground and out of every branch tip.

In much the same way I feel a little disturbed at the changes taking place within me. It seems at times that there’s an awful lot of loss. But neither does God like the sight of a barren life that bears no fruit. So I welcome the spiritual pruning and cutting away that’s going on now if it means that days from now God will similarly be able to rejoice in the springtime of my soul and delight at the sight of the fruit that He finds there.

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
(John 15:11 NIV)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Savor the Flavor

“Tell me what you really think.”

Perhaps you, too, wonder sometimes if the above message is tattooed across your forehead or printed on a sign around your neck, considering the freedom some people feel to speak their opinions about your life, often at the most inopportune times. In my experience those moments seem to come most often in public venues when I’m surrounded by a host of listening bystanders. The latest left me standing before the man open-mouthed and speechless:

“I can see that you’re gaining weight, and that‘s alright, except that you used to be such a slender little thing.”

Aside from the fact that I can’t even remember the last time I was “slender “(it may have been in the fifth grade) I couldn’t believe the gall of the man to bring up such a sensitive subject in the middle of a crowded grocery store line. Yet if God can get past our pride, He can often use such comments to provoke positive change.

While not everything people say to us needs to be received, in this case I had to admit that the man was absolutely right. Having recently reached a new high on the bathroom scale, I had downloaded a calorie counter app onto my phone just the day before. What I lacked was the motivation to start using it, which this customer unwittingly provided. And in the month and a half since that day I have been carefully abiding by my calculated calorie allotment per day, considering my food options and making choices based on the calorie counts I now read on nutritional labels, googling the same in their absence.

Several things have happened in the weeks since I started. The first is that I became aware of just how many calories I was consuming per day, especially in caffeinated liquid form. I’ve noticed that with less food on my plate I eat each meal much more slowly, taking smaller bites and savoring the flavors of each individual meal element, instead of simply gulping it all down due to the abundance before me. And I love the rediscovered feeling of control over my diet and my weight, to know that I can still eat whatever I want, just not all on the same day. I budget my calories now, and plan ahead for meals out or special treats (pumpkin spice lattes come strongly to mind) so that I can enjoy them at the time and not regret them later when I next have to step on the scale.

And then another day, another customer, and another opportunity for life change.

This shopper told a fellow cashier that he was once married to a woman who talked as much as I did and was reminded how glad he was to be rid of her! At the time I simply wrote him off as a grumpy old man having a bad day, but he got me to wondering what a difference it would make if I had an app that tracked the words that come out of my mouth the way my diet diary tracks the food that goes in. If I was only allotted so many words per day, wouldn’t I take care to make every one count? I’d be careful not to waste any on foolish conversations, instead conserving my daily allocation to communicate the important thoughts on my heart and mind or to speak a blessing or encouragement to somebody in need.

The customer isn’t always right, despite the saying to the opposite, but in this case I had to agree with mine that there are people we avoid because of the ceaseless babble that comes out of their mouths, even friends we are afraid to open conversations with because we fear they will never end. The more compassionate hearts among us seek to find the reason behind their need to speak in long-winded diatribes; the rest of us just run from them. I don’t want to be counted in their number.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those whose words are carefully considered and chosen before they’re spoken, people whose inner thoughts come out in short and stirring messages of wisdom, hope, or enlightenment. While they don’t speak in volume, what they do say has a definite impact, and the people around them have learned that their conversation is worth the wait, however short their communication may be. This is the word-watcher group we should be anxious to join.

It’s interesting to note that my calorie-counter app takes into consideration any exercise I do, and allows me extra calories to consume each day according to the number I burn off in activity of some sort. It seems that everything short of sitting in a chair burns off some calories; the list of  possible physical exertions to engage in seems endless as I scroll through page after page of them on my phone. I don’t visit the list often, as my “exercise” usually consists of a short walk on the road in front of my house and maybe a stretch or two. But I’m reminded of the correlation with my faith, that my opportunities to speak for God and the life-changing power behind my words are increased with the active pursuit of His presence through prayer and Bible study and the exercise of my faith in ministry of some sort. Again the opportunities to serve are endless and should be ever on our minds instead of tucked away and ignored as we go about our days.

Some day God will tell us what He really thinks…about our lives…our love walk…our spiritual weight… and the value of the words we spoke. His opinion will count for all eternity, so we should make sure it’s one we’re going to want to hear. Let’s strive to live in such a way that God Himself will savor the flavor of what we have to say.

“…For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart brings out good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings out evil things. But I say to you that every idle word, whatever men may speak, they shall give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.”
(Matthew 12:34-37 MKJV)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tired and Tardy, Lazy and Late

I looked up at the clock over the microwave, and gasped. Knowing I had to be at work by 11 a.m. that morning, I had timed the events of my day so that I’d be ready to leave home at exactly half past the ten o’clock hour. One by one I had ticked off the tasks on my list as I completed them until I stood ready to grab my purse and head out the door. One last look at the clock, and….what on earth had happened?! Somehow I had lost an hour! It was already 11:30, not 10:30, and I was headed to being a full sixty minutes late by the time I reached the time clock to punch in!

Quickly I grabbed my phone and called in. How on earth do you explain an hour’s tardiness when you have no explanation yourself?! No flat tire, no lost key, no excuse. I simply lost track of time. Thankfully my supervisor thought my horror over the situation was amusing, told me not to make a habit of it and to hurry in to work.

All day long I was amazed by my belated arrival, as I am rarely more than a minute or two late, at most. The bagger at the end of my checkout lane enjoyed it immensely, however, and teased me endlessly about losing my grip on life, this being the first evidence of the start of a downhill slide. I finally shook it off as just one of those things that happen from time to time…until I walked in the door the next morning (thankfully, on time!) and ran into my bagger buddy once more.

“Guess what happened to me today!” he said.

“Were you…late?” I asked.

“Yes!” he responded.

“Were you…an hour late?” I queried.

“Yes!” he answered again, and we both broke out into laughter over the absurdity of the situation. Like me, he had no real excuse, he simply overslept.

At least then I felt better about my own tardiness, understanding that God was using our tandem experiences to illustrate a point. Simply stated, it’s later than we think…for us as believers, for our coworkers in the Body of Christ, and most especially for the lost among us who need our witness and work in the ministry to lead them to a saving knowledge of Christ. And in God’s view of things, it’s no laughing matter.

A group of women in our church went away recently for a weekend of fellowship, shopping, and spiritual regrouping. They came home newly awakened to the call to pray, to seek God’s face, and to intercede for the Church, our fellow believers worldwide who are increasingly under attack. Resisting the urge to dally under the warm covers on cool autumn mornings now they instead get up and meet with their God, speaking His will and Word over the lives of their loved ones and canceling any plans the enemy may have against them with their active intercession. They reserve the first moments of the day for that which is most important, long before their schedules fill up and their energy runs out. “RIP those blankets off!” has become a spiritual battle cry that echoes from one corner of our sanctuary to another now on Sunday mornings as they meet, greet and encourage one another to remain faithful to the call.

It matters because we have an enemy who simply never takes a day off. He is ever on the job, looking for those whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8) and seeking to steal, kill and destroy the lives of our loved ones and the lost among us. If people truly die at the rate of 2 lives per second, then each minute that we are “late” is costly indeed, especially for the unsaved, who will pay for our tardiness for eternity.

The situation was graphically illustrated the other night when a pack of coyotes attacked a neighbor’s dog. My husband listened in horror as the sounds of the fight came through the open bedroom window. The neighbor’s pet was clearly outnumbered and getting the worst of it; he wondered if it would survive the night. Quickly he got up to make sure our own animals were inside where it was safe. It brought back memories of  a night years ago when our own beloved golden retriever was wandering in the nighttime hours and met a similar fate. Thankfully he survived, but he was never quite the same after that attack.

Too many of us are living with a false sense of security, oblivious to the ploys of the enemy who waits till we’re not on the lookout to slip in his subtle temptations and lead us astray. Likewise we have loved ones who are wandering in the darkness of these times, oblivious to the danger that surrounds them. Perhaps if we had a better picture of the fate that awaits those who stumble into his clutches we would be similarly impelled to arise from our physical and spiritual slumber and begin to pray for their spiritual safety and security.

But God asks more of us than that we just pray for ourselves and the people we know. He, too, has loved ones that have yet to come safely Home, as well as those out searching for them who likewise need the protection of our prayer covering. And He’s looking for workers who will throw back their covers and rise to the challenge…while there’s still time. 

Remember that it was while His disciples were sleeping instead of praying in the Garden of Gethsemane that God’s own Son was set upon by a pack of dogs. He allowed it to happen so that we would not have to suffer a similar fate. But perhaps that’s why God doesn’t find our tardiness amusing. The consequences affect more than a paycheck or a company‘s bottom line; the lives of people who are dear to Him hang in the balance. For the love of God, then, let’s rip off the life of ease that lulls us back to spiritual sleep, and get to work.

 “When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, ‘Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.’” (Matthew 26:40-41 MSG)

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Fungus Among Us

It doesn‘t take much to turn my stomach these days. It rebels at a number of things commonly shown on television commercials, usually just when I’ve sat down in front of the screen with a meal that I can’t wait to dig into. Everything you can imagine is paraded in front of me at such times in explicit detail, from out-of-control pest populations on ads for exterminators, to various medical conditions that can be treated with the latest discoveries in the pharmaceutical world. As the pictures scroll, my stomach starts to roll and rumble in protest. It’s bad enough to see toenail fungus on your feet, but on the television screen at a mealtime, it’s simply too much. Yet the commercials continue, often one right after another, heedless of my voiced protests, “People are trying to eat here! Have a little mercy…!” I’m forced to close my eyes and wait for the visual torture to end, hoping I still have an appetite when it’s over.

All that to say that while I’m not fond of seeing fungus on people, on trees it’s a different story. One of the delights of walking though the woods for me is noting the “conks” or fruiting bodies of various fungi that spring up on dead or infected trees. The variety is astounding, each one beautiful in its own special way. We normally think of fungi in negative terms, but the truth is that they are doing the forest a favor, breaking up dead tree matter to release the minerals they contain and make them available to the healthy, growing stems in the ecosystem. Fungi are simply the forest’s friends, and so I feel free to admire the unique beauty and individuality of these growths that indicate their presence at work in the woods I‘m passing through. A little knowledge as to their purpose puts beauty in the eye of an otherwise skeptical beholder.

Perhaps I need to remember that when I’m tempted at times to avoid some seemingly fungus-filled people around me. Many times I’ve come to a mealtime in God’s house only to be put off by the behavior of someone near me that simply rubs me the wrong way. Yet it’s likely that God is using the very quirks that irritate me in their personality to develop some missing qualities in my own. Those traits then become a blessing rather than a burden, and that different perspective causes me to view the person with more tolerance and acceptance, again putting newly-perceived beauty in the eye of this formerly impatient beholder.

Too much time spent criticizing the other guy makes me blind to the ugliness of my own imperfections,…at least until some unexpected turn of events sprouts an uncensored reaction in me that is similarly openly displayed before a watching world. I am suddenly reminded again that I, too, am a sinner ever in need of the Savior who has redeemed me and is gradually changing me from the inside out. While those moments of reality are repulsive in themselves, their value lies in the revelation of problem areas that can be corrected once their existence is made known. Like conks on the trees they are the visual evidence of spiritual potential that is currently trapped by my sin nature, awaiting the touch of the Savior to release it in power to the benefit of those around me. And He awaits my invitation to come in His victory and likewise set me free.

It’s comforting to note that because we’re covered in Christ, when God walks among His people as I walk in the woods, He is not put off by the problem areas that are often so newly visible to us; they are hidden in His Son’s perfection. When He looks at you and me, it‘s His Son that He sees, and therefore there’s nothing but Beauty in the beholding eye of the Most High.

 “You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye?”
(Matthew 7:3 CEV)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When Second is First

“Tomorrow, then, same time, same place?” Phil asked. The orchestra director nodded, and I groaned, envisioning another evening of violin practice instead of whatever other activity I had planned.

Phillip’s friendly, freckle-covered face was marked by his blue eyes and easy smile and was topped with a swatch of closely-cropped flaming red hair. I liked him fine in math class; it was when we walked through the doors of the music building that he switched from friend to foe, and a persistent one at that. We were fighting for a chair, a position really, and a title, that of concertmistress/master (depending on the gender of the person who came out of the battle with the top seat in the orchestra’s first violin section) and all the duties and privileges that accompanied it. It was one thing to land the seat, and another completely to keep it, I was quickly finding out, as Phillip scheduled daily challenges to unseat me.

In our freshman year of high school the top spot was held (as it had been the preceding three years) by a family friend and neighbor named Robert who played like a pro, largely because he practiced like one. Every day on my way home I’d pass by his house and see him through his bedroom window, violin tucked under his chin, working away. He was so far ahead of the rest of us in talent and ability that Philip and I simply joined the mass of violinists behind him who were counting the days until his graduation, an event that finally opened the floodgates of competition for those who followed after him and were soon fighting for his chair.

Perhaps because I had that vision of Robert’s daily dedication to his instrument, I had a better idea than most of what it took to be the best. And maybe that’s why I scoffed when I read the Message Bible’s version of Romans 12:10, a verse that instructs us to “practice playing second fiddle.”

Nobody has to practice to play second fiddle, I thought. Second fiddle is what you end up with when you don’t practice hard enough to play first!

Our flesh fights for first place in every area of our existence. So many of our choices are geared towards putting us at the top of the heap of whatever the current pile-on, and we’ll give up pleasures untold to prepare ourselves to end up in that position.

It’s not a new battle. Even the disciples back in Jesus’ day struggled with one another over the seating arrangement in the heavenly concert hall, trying to lay claim to the chairs to Jesus’ right and left (Matthew 20:20-28).  And Jesus told them in effect what He still says to us today, that greatness in the Kingdom of God is  measured in servanthood and how hard we work to help others succeed. It’s this reversal of our natural thinking that takes constant and daily practice.

In the physical world we long for the attention that follows success. It’s easy to carry that over into our spiritual lives. We desire to have God’s eye upon us, to single us out, to look upon us with special favor and love. Yet we easily forget is that we can’t earn God’s love. It was a gift at the outset, and nothing we have to offer can make Him love us more or less. When we truly grasp the concept of His absolute and unconditional love for each of us, suddenly the burden of competition is lifted from our shoulders, and we find we’re free to do as He commands, to love others above ourselves and to put their welfare above our own. It’s that latter part that requires daily practice as we strive to outdo each other in service and submission.

Perhaps it’s not good to liken the Christian life to a race, as that concept once again stirs up the “victory vice” that lies just under the surface for most of us. And yet the Bible encourages us to train as one who gets the prize. Perhaps we just need a different picture of what “winning” is all about. If truth be told, God probably wouldn’t even see who crossed the finish line first because His eye is on the straggler…that one who is lagging behind and perhaps in danger of dropping out. And there’s a special place in His heart for the runner who gives up his own golden opportunities to help the brother who is in danger of collapse, that they might instead finish the race together, shoulder to shoulder and arm in arm.

It’s a little late to tell Phil, but these days I‘m a lot more willing to play harmony to another‘s lead. It’s taken several decades and a lot of broken heartstrings to learn that when my eye is on the other guy, to see that he succeeds, God’s eye is turned towards me. There‘s simply no greater spotlight to be in than that.

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
(Philippians 2:4 NKJV)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spotless and Wrinkle Free

David may have downed his giant with a single stone, but God felled my foe with a potato chip, of all things. A potato chip!

I met him several years ago, shortly after I began working at the grocery store. As happens with regular customers, I saw this man so often that he gradually became another in a string of nameless friends who bring a smile and a moment of cheer as they pass through my check-out line on any given day. What made him different…and difficult…was his conversation.

Early on in our acquaintance it became apparent that with his boys grown and his marriage over, he was giving himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of the happiness to be found in a case of beer, a willing woman, or a fast dash on his motorcycle, preferably with one such woman perched on the seat behind him. A road construction worker by day, he partied hard by night, his perpetual tan and easy smile a testament to his devotion to a life of fun in the sun.

His language reflected his lifestyle, laced as it was with raw humor and sexual innuendo. He could turn the most innocent of casual comments into something entirely other than what was intended, and he did so regularly with great delight at my subsequent confusion and embarrassment. Most of the time I was able to just laugh him off, change the subject and then wave him on his way, and so our friendship of sorts continued. But there came a day when everything I said was taken the wrong way, making it absolutely impossible to converse with him. I’d had it, and told him so, requesting that he just pick another checkout lane to go through in the future, because trying to talk with him just wasn’t worth my time and trouble any longer. Store policy aside, I’d reached the end of the line with this particular shopper in mine.

He was surprised, to say the least, but kept his distance for awhile. Eventually he apologized and asked if we could start over, and for awhile, things were better. He was careful about his subject matter, keeping his conversation to safe topics like the tomatoes growing in his garden, or, as the seasons changed, the possibility of joining a gym to ease his boredom during his winter work layoff. But like a leopard that can’t change its spots, soon he was talking about the great scenery to be found in his workout sessions, and toned muscles other than his own. I shook my head at his consistency and he laughed as he headed out the door.

With road construction in full swing during these summer months, his visits to the grocery store have been fewer, but a day or two ago he came in for a cold drink and I spotted him already smiling in anticipation of his sport at my expense as he headed my way. But by the time he got to my register he was coughing, clearing his throat repeatedly, and could barely talk. Apparently he had grabbed a handful of the potato chips offered in the free sample bin as he came in the door, tossing them into his mouth without giving the action a second thought. I’d passed the display on my way in, as well, but having noted the word jalapeno splashed in bold lettering across the front of the sample bag, this potato chip devotee had given that particular flavor a wide berth.

My shopping friend now wished he’d done the same. “Wow, those chips are hot!” he sputtered, gasping for air and wiping his watering eyes. With conversation nearly impossible because of his continued coughing fits, he did manage to spit out, “Ill bet you’re enjoying this!” Naturally I wouldn’t wish his misery on anybody, and I knew he’d be fine once he took a slug of the drink he’d just purchased. So I felt free to enjoy the fact that our roles were finally reversed; this time it was he who was red-faced and speechless while I was the one with the smile on my face.

“You have to admit, it‘s kind of funny,” I giggled.

“You probably planned it,” he muttered as he stuffed his change in his pocket and headed out the door.

Thinking to myself as I watched him leave that I couldn’t possibly have come up with anything so perfect, I was more struck by the fact that I didn‘t have to - that God did it for me. Having long ago struck the word coincidence from my vocabulary, I was encouraged by this simple reminder that He knows every detail of what goes on in my life and that He willingly fights my battles for me, even those that matter so little in the grand scheme of things. But as always, there was more to the moment than just that. He took me back to an earlier thought, reminding me again that a leopard can’t change his spots…and we can’t do it for him. But that doesn’t seem to keep us from trying.

All of us have “spotted” people in our lives, those whose bad habits and subsequent difficult behavior we’d love to change. And God would remind us that only He who created the leopard in the first place can remove its markings. In fact, that’s what occupies His time as he creates for Himself a Bride “without spot or blemish”. He simply is at work in each of us, making us into what He would have us to be. Our desire that He hurry up and “git ‘er done” affects Him not in the least, and we must be patient with His pace, realizing that  as much as He’s working in that “problem” person, He’s likewise at work in each of us.

We have blemishes, too, problem areas in our personality that we treat much like we did the acne we experienced in our teenage years. We go to a good deal of effort to simply cover them up, and try to doctor them with all manner of surface treatments that don’t get to the root of the problem.

Skin breakouts are affected by many factors, diet and heredity included. The same is true of our behavior. Those times that we act out are largely fueled by what we’ve fed our spirits - our spiritual food choices that day or lack of the same. And they reflect the remnants of a sin nature that we come by honestly, but that God can change in an instant in a true “born-again” experience, giving us a whole new parentage with the characteristics and privileges it contains. Then He goes to work changing our markings with the makings of a life that glorifies Him, one life experience at a time.

David knew that God was his shield as he fought his battles, as well as the strength in his arm and the power behind his throw. Similarly, the Bible states that God has beset us behind and before and laid His hand upon us. How good to know that wherever we go and whoever our foe, He’s got our back and can effectively eliminate even those who are sometimes just a little too hot to handle.

“…that He might present it to Himself as the glorious church, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
(Ephesians 5:27 MKJV)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sophie's Choice

It brings to mind a movie by the same name - the details of which I've long since forgotten. I do remember that Meryl Streep played the part of a woman named Sophie in a German concentration camp during World War II, who had to choose which of her two children would be allowed to live. Both children would die unless she picked one whose life would be spared. She chose her son on the basis of his skin and hair coloring, details that would improve his chances of survival in the days to come. Perhaps the rest of the movie was lost to me after the horror of the one scene in which her daughter was torn from her arms and taken away to the execution chamber, screaming and calling out to her mother to save her. Sophie was tormented by the agony of having to choose between them for the rest of her life.

Another woman named Sophie comes to my mind, a woman who also has had to choose between two lives that are dear to her. One choice would guarantee her life, while the other might lead to her death, physically speaking. But the opposite is true in the spiritual realm. The choice that leads to physical safety and security would likely to her mean spiritual death, while the choice that could cost her her physical life leads to an abundant and prosperous spiritual one.

Sophie is the American name of a 26-year-old woman living in China - a new Christian, having not yet even celebrated the first anniversary of her new birth in Christ. And yet she packs a spiritual resume that puts some of us older Christians to shame. In the ten months since her decision to serve the Lord she has attended a short Bible training class for a month in one city, then studied theology in another city for another two and a half months. Another month was spent witnessing to an unbeliever in a third location, a fourth spent visiting and preaching in a church in yet another spot. And now she's entered the school of ministry through which we've made her acquaintance. She already knows her calling, which is to take the love of Christ back to her hometown, and to see it become a village likewise living for the glory of God. To date she is the only believer in the city limits. She asks for our prayers.

Surely I need this woman to pray for me. My Christian walk seems like a stroll in a park compared to the life she leads, in constant fear of betrayal, discovery, possible imprisonment, torture and death. She's made her choice, and she didn't go the easy route. She didn't choose the life that looked good on the surface but in which she would quickly suffocate in the absence of the Presence of God. Instead she chose radical Christianity - to suffer for Christ's sake - to live in seclusion, to worship in private, but to see God's glory operate in her life in a way that we in our lives of ease can only dream about. She really had no choice, because to live any way other than that to which she's committed herself would torment her the rest of her physical days. And now, having "put her hand to the plow", she's pressing onward with no regrets but instead with every right to expect God to show up in a big way, everywhere she goes.

She really doesn't need her picture on my refrigerator and her name mentioned in my prayers, although that's where both will remain. Sophie's choice has placed her face ever before her Father, and has written her name across His heart.

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it:
and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
(Matt 16:25)



Thursday, July 12, 2012

A New Name at the Baggage Claim

There’s something incredibly wrong with this picture.

Surprisingly, it’s NOT that there’s an air-conditioning vent hanging from the dog’s collar. The problem lies in that he seems to have no clue that it’s there.

The weather’s been HOT and the puppy in the household, much like his predecessor, decided that the best place to take a nap on such a warm day was right on top of the register through which the cool air enters the room. Apparently, while he slept, the new blue name tag on his collar slipped through the grill, hanging down and turning sideways inside the vent. When the dog heard truck tires coming down the gravel driveway, signaling my son’s return home from work, he jumped up as he always does to meet and greet the arriving family member, inadvertently pulling the register up with him, it banging and bashing him repeatedly in the chest as he bounded to the door.

At least, that’s what we think must have happened. Nobody else was home at the time but the beagle and the fuzzy black cat, and they’re not talking. So we have to assume that there would have been a trail of wreckage following hours of his panicked and burdened movements, and no such evidence existed. In fact, when my son walked in he was greeted by the dog as pictured above, simply looking at him expectantly, seemingly oblivious to the picture he presented.

My son pulled out his phone and quickly made a video of his initial moments talking to the dog and the pet’s eager response. It was impossible to watch it later and not laugh out loud at the absurdity of the situation and the dog’s excited attempts to welcome the returning loved one despite the ridiculous hardware he carried.

Thankfully God doesn’t laugh at us when we come to Him in a similar manner. Many of us lie in much the same state as my dog moments before God arrives in our lives, cooling our heels in spiritual slumber. Suddenly we are roused out of our sleep by the entrance of One Who excites and delights us, and we jump up and run in haste in His direction, not realizing that we carry all manner of baggage from our previous lifestyles along with us. There we stand before Him, eager and expectant, with attitudes and the consequences from earlier actions handicapping our efforts to get close to Him. And although they’re often plainly visible to others, most of the time we don’t even realize they’re there.

My son told us that it took a surprisingly long time to remove the vent from the dog’s collar. In his excitement the animal wouldn’t sit still enough for the job to be accomplished, the little parts that needed to be found and extracted impossible to locate in that mass of bouncing fur and banging metal. Yet think of the joy when the mission was finally accomplished and the pup could give and receive love in complete abandon once more!

Such joy is ours when we let the Father do His work in our lives. Sometimes He has to dig deep to reach and remove the source of our problems. While sometimes we’re blessed with a quick fix, other issues require patience we don’t possess for time and His touch to complete their combined efforts. But eventually that which separates us is removed and we are free to delight in the freedom and exhilaration of an unobstructed relationship with Him.

A few days after the situation with our dog, I noticed that his name tag no longer hung from the blue collar around his neck. Apparently his struggles with the vent and it’s eventual removal widened the hook enough that it slipped off the metal ring that once held it. When I mentioned to my husband that we needed a new one, he suggested that we look around the place for the old one first. I looked at the acres of grassy property though which the dog had romped in recent days and knew the situation was hopeless.

But we do exactly that at times when God sets us free from problems or life situations that have bound us in the past. Suddenly we’ve lost an identity that we’re familiar with, however troubled it may have been. Too often we’re tempted to go back and look for it, to settle back into a life to which we’ve learned to adapt, regardless of the sin and struggles it contained. Yet the Bible insists that he whom the Son sets free is free indeed (John 8:36), and if we’ve really been released from our past it’s impossible to truly pick it back up again for the simple reason that we’re no longer the same person we used to be. New creations in Christ, our old ways no longer fit us the way they once did. The baggage we used to carry now sits like suitcases turning endlessly on a luggage carousel at the airport, because what’s written on the tag no longer matches who we are in Him. God doesn’t just give us a new life, He gives us a new name, as well.

The episode with our puppy closes with a final thought: Be careful where you lay your head in your hours of repose; you never know what habits you might fall into and later pick up while your spiritual eyes are closed. When your Master arrives, let there be nothing to hinder the free flow of love you receive and bestow.

“Therefore let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:6 KJV)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Questionable Thoughts

Now that the kids are grown, it’s the puppy in the household that is doing all the cute stuff and hogging all the camera time. I realized this anew as I sorted through the photos available to make a calendar for my husband for Father’s Day, a gift to fuel his obsession with his dog and help while away the hours at work each day until he can come home and spend some time in canine play. Finally I found my favorite; a shot of the pup trotting across the deck with his tail curling above him like a giant question mark he carries around with him everywhere he goes.

Surely that’s the way a puppy approaches life; curious about everything, constantly investigating every leaf, bug or blade of grass he comes across. A fur-covered bundle of energy, he bounces and tumbles and chews his way through the hours of the day till he collapses in an exhausted heap wherever it is that his batteries run out, closing his eyes and recharging his system so he can give it his all once more.

While most of us aren’t nearly as photogenic or energetic as my husband‘s dog, to our Father in Heaven it must look like we similarly travel through life with a giant question mark over our heads. In  thinking about the questions we ask God and our constant quest for answers, it occurs to me that when we don’t get the latter, perhaps the issue is with the former. All through school we were told there is no such thing as a stupid question, but it could very well be that we’re asking the wrong ones. And God sometimes uses our questions themselves to lead us to the answers we seek.

Perhaps the problem is with the sentence structure itself. Many of the questions we ask fit the following format: “God, when/how/why/what/where are You going to do ____ for me? We fill in the blank with all manner of requests. We want the doors of ministry to open up, the pews in our churches to fill up, or God to simply show up in our life situations, whatever they may be. And although our questions sound spiritual and God-centered, ministry related and Kingdom focused, perhaps there is an error in their structure that keeps us waiting. Meanwhile, maybe God is waiting for us to realize what that problem is and rephrase our requests so that He can respond appropriately.

I’m no whiz at grammar, but I know that when God is the subject of all our thoughts, actions and dreams, the very center of our days, all is well in our communication. We know from Jeremiah 29:11 that He has thoughts and plans for our lives, objectives that He wants to accomplish through us; thus He rules the verb, as well. The problem, then, must lie in the last word of the sentence, specifically the object of the preposition for.

Surely when we first began our lives of service all the results achieved were clearly for Him and for His Glory. But subtly and slowly over time, things sometimes begin to change. We understandably pour so much time and attention into our ministries that gradually they grow not just in size and scope, but in the space they occupy in our thoughts and devotion, as well, until they sometimes loom larger in our hearts than the God they are supposed to be about. We gradually take ownership of that which originally belonged to Him, and suddenly the last word in the sentence changes as well, from a God-centered You to that prideful and misconceived me.

While the situation was not intentional, neither is it without remedy once we realize that such a shift has occurred. Repeatedly we must release our hold on what we’re doing and focus anew on Him in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Our sentence structure will then reflect our belief that God is the Alpha and the Omega in our lives, the Beginning and the End, and every word and thought in-between. When we re-center our requests on God rather than on ourselves and our concerns, suddenly we realize we have the very Answer that we we‘ve been searching for, as well as God’s “Yes and Amen“ response to the queries we pose concerning His promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). 

I shook myself from my reverie and refocused on the task at hand, selecting photos, uploading them to the calendar website and then hitting the submit button to send my order on its way. Previous experience with this same company assured me that that my gift would indeed arrive in time for our Father’s Day celebration. Similarly, many of us have testimonies to prove that when we shake ourselves loose from wrong thinking and submit our refocused requests to the Father, His response will come not a moment too soon nor a minute too late, but exactly at the appointed time to accomplish what He has in mind.

When I eventually hold that finished calendar in my hands, may it remind me anew that every day of my life and all the minutes within it are securely held in His.

“My times are in Your hand…”
(Psalm 31:15 MKJV)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sometimes Silent

The morning was cool and new and fresh, and I was enjoying its beauty, sitting on a patio chair and sipping a cup of coffee, when the peace of the moment was broken by the blare of emergency vehicle sirens. The sheer number seemed to suggest a big accident, and as I listened to them approach and then abruptly stop there was no doubt that it had occurred in the streets near our home. Quickly I said a prayer for those involved and then went on with my early morning reverie.

Later in the day a dear friend who now lives far away put out a prayer request on face book for one of her husband’s relatives who had been involved in a motorcycle accident and was fighting for his life. It wasn’t until the next day that a story in the paper made me realize that the accident I had heard the life squads responding to and the one that had injured my friend’s relative were one and the same. Truly the situation was hitting a little closer to home than I originally thought.

Sadly the injured man died as a result of his injuries, and even as arrangements were being made for his funeral a makeshift memorial was quickly developing on the side of the road near the spot where the accident had occurred. Not one, but two wooden crosses, one an intricately carved affair, were quickly being surrounded by flowers and other personal mementoes that obviously meant something to the friends who left them there. Even as I drove by the site on my way to work that afternoon I saw a red pickup truck parked near the spot and a man standing in front of the crosses, head bowed and hand over his eyes, grieving a loss that was personally hitting way too close to home.

A week passed, and Mother’s Day was soon upon us. As part of my family’s celebration we watched the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the story of a young boy’s search for answers in the wake of his father’s death in the horror of 9/11. I loved the movie, but it was the title that captivated me. In an effort to more fully understand its meaning I came across an interview with the author, who simply said that there were things in the novel that were loud and close, and likewise many things that were silent and far away. 

I thought about that in relation to the accident that was weighing so heavily on my mind. As I sat on the patio that morning, the sirens were loud and the accident site was close. In the hearts of my friends in Florida, fear was loud and prayer was close. Surrounding the lives of the family and friends of the victim over the next several days, death was loud and memories were close. And to the sorrow of the wife left behind, her husband’s voice was silent and his touch was far away.

Too often we feel that way about God, that His voice is silent and His touch is far away. And yet we are surrounded by both on a daily and forever basis.

Oskar, the little boy in the movie, asks question s of his grandmother’s aged renter, a man who doesn’t speak but writes his answers on the pages of a small tablet he carries, or holds up one or the other of his hands for a “yes” or “no” response. His inability or refusal to vocalize his thoughts frustrates the little boy. We likewise bombard God with incessant questions, and although He always answer us, we get impatient when His response is not in our timing or doesn’t come in the way we expect.

Before his death, Oskar’s dad played a continual game of investigation with him, leaving him clues and encouraging him to look harder or in a different direction for answers to the questions he posed. Our Father does the same with us. Sometimes His silence is deliberate, to get us to dig a little deeper into a subject on our own or to look at the leadings He’s given us in a new way that causes us to see our life situations in a different light. Too often we rush the process, trying to make sense of a situation to which we haven’t yet accumulated all the information we need. Time is sometimes the missing puzzle piece that eventually causes all the others to suddenly fit together into a wonderful moment of discovery and revelation. God knows that the search for understanding cements His message in our minds and hearts in a way that a simple response on His part could never have done.

Many things are loud without being audible. Colors can be loud to get our attention, for instance, and actions speak even louder than words, so we‘ve heard. God uses both on a regular basis to communicate with us. When we feel that He is quiet and distant we need only consider that it was not by accident that His blood ran a brilliant red on our behalf, but rather His deliberate intent that it be shed to span the distance between us forever, an extremely loud expression of love from His heart to remind us that He is always incredibly close to His home in ours.

“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your mind and in your heart…”
(Deuteronomy 30:14 AMP)

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Sound of Surrender

The bridegroom stood at the altar by the side of the minister, his eyes locked on the double doors that would soon open for his bride. The bridesmaids had sauntered down the aisle on the arms of the groomsmen minutes before, visions of pink with perfectly coifed hair, their faces wreathed in smiles. The twin ring bearers, dressed to the hilt in black tuxes with black and white stuffed pillows that hung carelessly at their sides, dutifully made it down together, mindless of the little flower girl who was slated to accompany her brothers down the white runner that stretched seemingly endlessly before her.

She started off bravely enough, concentrating on the instructions she‘d been given: step, reach into the basket, drop the petals. Step…basket…petals. But the stares of the crowd on either side of the aisle began to weigh on her, and as she looked nervously around, her steps slowed, then faltered. Suddenly she dropped her basket, turned and fled back from whence she’d come.

Quickly those in the back gathered her together, retrieved the abandoned basket and set her on her way once more. A little less sure of herself this time she yet resolutely gave it another try. Forgetting the petals this go-around, she concentrated on heading for the group smiling at her from the front and made it a few pews farther than the first time before again turning tail.

The guests laughed in sympathy at the little girl’s plight and thought surely the ceremony would simply proceed without her. But the bride remained out of sight, the wedding party up front stayed frozen in position, and so the guests sat silently, waiting expectantly for what would happen next.

With an incredible show of patience, her father knelt behind the little girl, whispering words of encouragement to her as he gently but firmly propelled her down the aisle once more. “Walk down to the front, Sis,” he urged. “Walk all the way down.”

A third time she started down the aisle. But in much the same spot as the first two attempts she finally stopped, threw her head back and slammed her hands down at her sides. “Daddy, I just can’t do this!” she cried, and ran weeping back into his open arms. He swept her up and held her close before carrying her around behind the seated guests to a spot where the family sat up front, even as the bridal march sounded and the doors were thrown open to admit the radiant bride.

I’ve heard the words of that father come out of the mouths of many a minister through the years, as time and again they’ve urged the lost to walk down an aisle to receive the gift of salvation at the end of a service. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to leave the safety of one’s seat and travel down that impossibly long aisle while strangers stare. A drawing in their hearts pulls them forward even as fear holds them back. Some march down as effortlessly as the little boys in the bridal party. But others struggle through repeated attempts to respond to the love that calls them forward.

It’s this latter group that have captured the Father’s heart and likewise have held the march of endtime events captive until the list of all of those to be involved in the ceremony is complete. Surely all Heaven is standing at attention, the Bridegroom poised and eagerly awaiting His Bride, the trumpet even at the angel’s lips to call her forth…only to find that the Father holds up His hand and puts the show on hold while He gently works with the fearful and afraid. With endless patience He gently but purposefully urges them on until at last He hears the sound of surrender He’s been waiting for…”Daddy, I just can’t do this!” It’s when we realize that we can’t get to where we need to be on our own best intentions that we are swept up and carried in by a love that made a way for us Himself. We ride in on the arms of His sacrifice, His loss, His eternal solution to our sin problem.

Looking at my friend’s wedding pictures online recently I smiled to see that the little flower girl was very much a part of the party at the reception hall, smiling in the arms of other guests, dancing with the bride, and (at last!) standing in her spot in the bridal party photo at the start of the celebration. Her struggle didn’t disqualify her, even though some of us were ready to move on without her. Likewise God makes a way for us to be included when our own failures would have otherwise locked us out. In arms spread open on the cross He carries us from the hopelessness of our tearful inabilities to a spot right up front where all the action is, where our loved ones await us and the biggest party of all is just about to start.

“The Lord does not delay and is not tardy or slow about what He promises, according to some people‘s conception of slowness, but He is long-suffering (extraordinarily patient) toward you, not desiring that any should perish, but that all should turn to repentance.”
(2 Peter 3:9 AMP)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Whispered Warnings

He looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old, so I was surprised to learn later that he was a legal adult. His maturity level didn’t match his physical age, however, self-control and respect for authority being two characteristics whose absence in his emotional make-up were what spearheaded the events of the day.

The police officer on duty that day felt that this young man had entered the grocery store carrying an item that was inappropriate for a shopping trip, so he politely asked the boy to leave the premises. That simple request unleashed a torrent of anger and verbal abuse as the young man insisted on his right to be there. He stubbornly and vociferously challenged the officer’s authority in asking him to leave.

The store hires the security detail to be an unobtrusive presence in the facility, to deter shoplifting, and to handle any altercations that might arise in the parking lot or on the property. Yet the boy had picked what is surely the busiest spot in the whole store to create his scene – the middle of the wide aisle in front of the checkout lanes. By the time the situation had escalated enough to attract my attention from where I worked at a nearby cash register, the teen had thrown himself down on the floor, crossed his arms and legs in front of him and continued to rage at the injustice he felt was being done to him.

The police officer at that point could have reacted in a variety of ways. With the boy still screaming at him and an interested shopping public watching their every move, he refused to be pulled into a verbal shouting match or an exhibition of force. Instead he simply leaned down over the boy and began to whisper into his ear. The young man had to be quiet to hear what he was saying. For the longest time the officer talked to him, surely encouraging him to rethink his actions and to simply leave the store before his choices led to consequences he’d later regret. With much more consideration than was being afforded him, he gave the youth every opportunity to remove himself from a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand while there was still time to do so. In the end the boy chose not to heed the advice he’d been offered, so the handcuffs came off the officer’s belt and were clamped around his wrists. He was helped off the floor and led to a back room to await the arrival of another cruiser that would transport him to police headquarters downtown.

While the physical action was over in a matter of minutes, the mental image of the police officer leaning over the boy and quietly talking to him stayed with me for days. Instead of shouting in return or using any available means of force to subdue him, the officer simply talked quietly to him and offered the boy a choice.

And isn’t that exactly what God does with us? At one time or another we’ve probably all been in that boy’s shoes spiritually, questioning God’s authority to ask us to behave in a certain way. Sometimes we simply act as we please and then scream at God like an angry and rebellious teenager when our desires are thwarted, He denies a request, or refuses to allow our disobedience to continue. He exhibits the self-control we lack, neither shouting at us in return nor knocking us to our senses. Rather, He simply bends near, whispering His warnings into our ears, hoping His love reaches our hearts and changes our actions.

There’s a biblical progression from “ear” to “hear” to “heart” (Romans 10:17) that sometimes requires more time to achieve than we’re willing to give. Yet God is patient, simply talking to us repeatedly in that still small voice, laying before us our choices and encouraging us to make the right ones while we still have the opportunity to do so. For there will be a time when it will be too late.

Some time later I saw the boy again as he was being escorted to the waiting patrol car. No longer loud and defiant, he walked out of the building with his head down, perhaps regretting the actions he no longer had the power to change, his fiancé weeping behind him as she followed him out of the store.

Perhaps the warning God whispers to us today is simply this: don’t leave this world the same way.

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” 
(Deuteronomy 30:19 NIV)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Welcome Home

Carrie Underwood’s version of the Randy Travis song I Told You So simply stops me in my tracks. My kids call me now when it comes on the music video channel they watch on TV, and I rarely leave the YouTube website without clicking on a clip of it to watch and hear her sing it one more time. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a Carrie Underwood fan since her American Idol days. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a beautiful song. But something told me there was more to my attraction to that performance than either of those. Today I realize it’s the longing in the human heart to hear God say those very same words to us.

On the surface that seems like a ridiculous thought. The song tells the story of a lover who left a relationship to pursue other passions, and now wonders what kind of a reaction would greet a return and an attempt at reconciliation. Would the abandoned party be just as eager to pick up the pieces of their lives and love, and look to build a future together again? Or would such an attempt be met with a cold shoulder, a cold heart and the news of a new life with someone else? Would the one who’s come back be met with an “I told you so” response?

Many people today are living the words of this song in their spiritual lives and their relationship with God. Having walked away from the love relationship with Him they once knew and enjoyed, they now feel a yearning in their spirits to go Home and rekindle that love. Perhaps, as so often happens, they didn’t realize the value of what they had until they left it behind. And now, having pursued the dreams that drew them away and finding only disillusionment and disappointment in those pursuits, they’re considering a return to the life and love of God they once knew.

But fear holds them back. They wonder what kind of reception awaits them, should they one day be brave enough to push open the church door and walk back in. How sad that they should even have cause to wonder. Yet churches are filled with imperfect people who sometimes respond with heads instead of hearts, and judgment instead of compassion. Too often we are guilty of reminding people of the warnings they were given instead of eagerly welcoming them back into the fold. We somehow make them feel they have to earn back the love they spurned by living up to certain behavioral expectations. And so they stay away for fear that they will never be restored back to full fellowship with the Father.

Yet nobody needs to wonder how God would reply in such a situation. He answered the question before we ever were in a position to ask it. In fact, the entire Bible is His written response to it. In line after line, verse after verse, and chapter after chapter, the Bible speaks of the love of God reaching out to those who have rejected it. It’s offered freely to all, with no strings attached, even though He knows full well that we will break His heart again and again with our selfishness and sinfulness. Our welcome home is promised in the pages of that precious Book.

The devil, however, does a good job of reminding us of all the bad things we’ve done, whispering into our listening ears that because of our “list”, we simply can’t go Home again. He tells us that God has surely filled His House, His church pews and the empty places of His heart with more faithful and devoted people than we can ever hope to be. And for some reason, we listen to and believe the lies he tells. Yet the only questions to come out of God’s loving response to us are likely to be, “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31) and maybe, “What took you so long?”

In any war of words with the enemy, God always has the last say. And in this case, when the battle’s won and you find yourself once again locked in the safety and warmth of His loving embrace, His words to you will be, “I told you so.”

 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” 
(Luke 1:20 NLT)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wedding Words

Sunny if windy, the gorgeous weather had called everyone outdoors on this early spring morning. Hoping to escape the ear-splitting pounding of a jackhammer in the hands of some workmen who were fixing a portion of the paved parking area, I hurried down the path that led to my favorite stretch of nearby woods. Usually one whose gaze is drawn to treetops, this trip I was looking for the early blooming wood violets that line the trail in bunches of purple glory. As I neared the end of my morning stroll, I was stopped by a strange and persistent cracking sound that I couldn’t identify.

At first I thought it was just more noise from the crew of park workers I’d left by my car. But the sound was closer than that, and different somehow, a steady snapping that held my interest and attention as I looked about me in bewilderment. As my gaze turned upwards for the first time that day, I looked uneasily at the swaying trees that were being blown about by the steady wind. My few years of experience as a field forester had instilled in me a healthy respect of this force in the sky that can topple weakened trees on anything moving about on the forest floor. I decided it was time to leave.

Just then the repeated sound caught my attention again, and when I looked to the right of the trail I suddenly found its source. A giant beech tree, probably hundreds of years old, had a huge split shooting up from the base, and I suddenly realized that the steady wind was bringing this forest giant down, one ominous crack at a time. That moved me down the trail in the hurry, as I had no desire to be hit by any debris falling from the sky.

But I didn’t go too far, and despite the warning bells going off in my brain I found myself drawn back by something else I saw on the tree trunk. Long ago somebody had carved a crude heart shape into the wood with now-indistinguishable initials inside. Amazingly visible above it, however, was the carved “4 EVER” declaration of never-ending love.

Other markings on the tree were now as blurry as the lovers’ initials, testifying to the many years of weathering and growth that had gradually erased the distinguishing features of the letters and pictures. The huge crack angled off to the right side of the tree, cutting through the other carvings, but somehow leaving the heart and its message surprisingly intact.

I wondered about the couple whose romance had been recorded in that wood. Where were they now, in location as well as love? Could they still be together after so many years? The fact that the crack had bypassed the physical symbol of their love made me hope that their relationship had endured, as well, despite the storms that had weathered it. Perhaps years of togetherness in sunshine and rain had changed them little by little, blending their unique personalities over time so that the lines that identified them as individuals became blurred, and their two separate lives eventually merged into one powerful picture of forever love.

Later in the week another picture of forever love came my way. As I handed an aged customer her change after processing her grocery purchases I happened to get a good look at her hand. Fingers that at one time were fleshy and plump had become thin sticks covered with crepe paper-thin skin. Knobby knuckles kept the wedding bands that were now too big on her withered digits from sliding off, but the rings spun around her fingers at will, the stone that once so proudly marked her engagement as often hanging upside down as it was upright and glinting in the light.

Forever love is not always pretty. Life frequently tumbles us upside down and spins us around on promises we made when all was fresh and new and easy. Sometimes all that holds our marriages together is the conviction that God will protect that which He brought together in the first place and the belief that He will use the very storms that threaten us to instead strengthen our resolve to work things out when our willingness to do so is weak.

Perhaps the couple whose romance was recorded in wood never got the chance to revisit the tree that told of their love for all to see. But I hope they did so on occasion in their memories, especially when times were tough in their relationship. Making a marriage work is much more difficult than simply drawing a picture on a tree, and both parties have to purpose to maintain the union if its to be preserved. Sometimes that simply doesn’t work out. But maybe mentally running their fingers over the fresh-cut ridges in the once-smooth bark would remind them of the permanence of the declaration, a carving that could never be erased. It could be that in doing so they found the courage and resolve they needed to refuse to let the vows they spoke on an eventual wedding day be just words that could be taken back at will.

As a former forester, I’m not a big fan of carving anything on the bark of a tree. But this one in particular got to me. It’s very likely that the couple in question is no longer even alive, and surely the tree that recorded their love will be on the ground soon, too. Yet even as the symbol was left intact by the destructive crack, I like to think that the love expressed in that heart was truly one that even death could not part.

“…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, from this day forward until death do us part.”

(Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Shannon)


Friday, May 4, 2012

Snake in the Room

The morning started off with a bang. Literally. I was getting coffee in the kitchen, and my son was in the process of waking up on the living room couch, when suddenly we heard BANG!… Crash!Thump!…coming from the spare bedroom down the hall.

I just looked in that direction in bewilderment, but my son and his dog got up and headed that way to investigate. They both entered the room, but soon the beagle was ejected and the door closed again, only adding to my confusion. A few minutes later my husband, Jim, emerged and headed rapidly for the front door, holding a lump of cloth in his hands extended out before him. Minutes passed before he once again came into the house, calmer now, and began his explanation.

He had gone into the bedroom to get my laptop from the desk and was startled to see a snake curled up in the middle of the floor! Jim hates snakes, but he wasn’t about to let this one get away. Looking around for something to grab it with, he spied a cloth book bag in the closet nearby. He stuck his hand inside and bravely made a move for the intruder…except that the snake didn’t want to be caught; hence the banging and crashing and thumping we heard as the chase continued around the room. My husband emerged from the battle victorious, but there was more to his excitement than just an evicted trespasser.

Weeks earlier he had begun looking for a particular computer disk that he needed and didn’t seem able to find in its usual spot. He searched high and low, through all the piles of papers crowded around the computer, in stacks of the same piled around the room…everywhere…with no luck. He began praying, saying, “God, you know where that disk is! Please show me!” 

And so God did. After emptying the book bag he had used that morning of its reptilian content, Jim started looking at it a little more closely. There, in a zippered compartment in the back of the thing he found the very computer disk he had been searching for. We laughed together over the absurdity of it all and asked God if in the future if we could please have our answers to prayer minus the snakes!

But there was more than a computer disk in that book bag; there was also a message, as I found out the next Sunday at church. Our pastor’s son was the stand-in preacher that week for his recuperating father, and he had a sermon prepared and passion in his heart on the subject of breakthrough…only to find that he needed one that morning himself. His long-standing issues with anxiety were hitting him full force as he sat in the back of the building; in short, there was a spiritual snake in  the room.

Summoned by his wife, several believers began to pray for him, their voices loud even against the worship music delivered by the musicians on the stage up front. But it was a battle that he had to fight himself, one that only he could win. And when he eventually stood up and headed to the podium at front, I knew that he had done just that; he had grabbed that snake by the tail and thrown him out where he belonged. In doing so he demonstrated the very subject he was preaching on that morning. He found victory…for that moment, on that day.

In Exodus 4 we see that Moses likewise struggled with the idea of delivering a message; his, to Pharaoh in Egypt. God asked him what he had in his hand, and then told him to throw the staff he was carrying on the ground. When he did so, it became a slithering snake that Moses ran from in fear. God then told him to reach out and grab the snake by the tail. When Moses somehow managed to do so, it became a staff again, one that God told him to take with him always to use as a sign to those who would question the authority he carried after God had appeared to him.

Note that Moses carried the staff before He initially met with God, and he kept it with him long after that first meeting. And perhaps it’s true that the burdens we carry are actually tools God can use to show His power and authority on a day to day basis when we like Moses cast them down and then go after whatever it is that afflicts us instead of running from it, overcoming it again, each time demonstrating to those around us the power and authority we carry in Christ. The apostle Paul likewise talks of a thorn in the flesh that God allowed the enemy to use to buffet him on a recurring basis, that in his own personal weakness the power of God was shown to be strong. It could be that the victory we so desire is a moment by moment, day by day kind of thing…on purpose. Perhaps when the enemy sees that what he meant for harm is persistently being used to glorify God, he will abandon that particular form of torment altogether.

My husband and I wondered how the snake got into the room in the first place. Jim tore the place apart looking for an entrance hole. And then we remembered that with all the beautiful weather we’ve been having of late, we’d opened the window, even though the screen was off. We simply let the creature crawl in ourselves. And surely life is difficult enough without giving the enemy easy access to our lives by neglecting to use the spiritual filters God has given us to guard our hearts and minds.

I shudder to think that the snake was somewhere in the room that morning when I spent a good number of hours in there myself. Even in my most unobservant moments I surely would have noticed a snake curled up in the middle of the room, yet it was hidden in there somewhere. Similarly some things we carry with us a long time before they make their presence known, usually when we are least prepared to stumble across them.

Finally, I remember how Jim walked to the front door that day, holding the snake as far from his body as he could keep it. He wanted no part of it. And whatever our personal affliction, that’s exactly how we feel about it. But it’s when we allow God to use us in even our most difficult moments that He is glorified… and we may be surprised to find the answers to questions we’ve asked at last.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
(Romans 8:28 MKJV)
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