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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