Monday, April 30, 2012

ZAMBONIES of the Spirit

If you've ever lived by the side of a golf course, as I did for four short days while on a recent vacation, you know that they don't take care of themselves. Early every morning the maintenance crew takes to the greens, preparing them for another day of use.

Our hotel room overlooked two sand traps that were on the edge of a long, par-4 hole. Each morning I noticed that they were in pitiful shape. An abundance of footprints left in the stand led to a variety of other conditions. There was a hole left by one frustrated golfer who had tried to blast his way out of the difficulty. I saw a lone golf ball, perhaps left in disgust by a golfer who'd suddenly had his fill of woods, water hazards, sand traps and small swamps… or one that another player had simply been unable to locate during the course of his play.  Sand rakes were left where they fell after others had attempted to cover the worst of their disturbances. But every morning, along came a course worker on a machine that smoothed out the sand and erased all the evidence of yesterday's frustrations. Around and around the sand trap he drove in tight circles, leaving the sand smooth and even behind him. Another laborer used the sand rakes to smooth the remaining few feet around the lip of the trap, an area that the machine couldn't reach, leaving the rakes lying neatly against the rim where they'd be out of the way when he was finished.

A Zamboni is a machine that does to an ice rink what the tractor did to the sand trap. Whether the sport be ice hockey, speed racing or ice skating, the blades on the participants' ice skates cut grooves into the ice which can catch an edge of another's skate and cause him to stumble. So periodically during the course of the event all action ceases and the Zamboni takes to the rink, filling the wedges and leaving a smooth surface in its wake.

God's not on a golf course's payroll, nor does He work at an ice rink, and yet He daily grooms our spiritual lives in much the same way. When the events of each day are finished and before a new day dawns, He carefully erases the remnants of that day's mistakes so they won't cause us further problems tomorrow. He fills the holes we've dug for ourselves, and picks up the pieces of our lives that we've left scattered around us so we don't trip over them as we again take to the field of play at the start of a new day. His careful work keeps today's damage from tripping us up tomorrow.

Many golf tournaments on the pro golf circuit are by invitation only. Not just anybody is allowed to play. In others as well as in many competitions that take place on the ice, prospective participants have to pass a qualifying round of some sort before they can compete. They must demonstrate a certain level of performance before they can enjoy the benefits of the course or rink maintenance efforts.

Not so with God. He likewise works by invitation only, but no performance levels are required. He only asks us to exhibit a broken heart and a contrite spirit - and then He goes to work on lives marred by sin and selfish desires, making whatever repairs are necessary and smoothing the rough edges for a fresh start the next day. And He doesn't charge us for this service, because Jesus has already paid the bill in full.

Whether you're talking about sand traps, ice rinks or the daily grind of life, it's a wonderful thing to start each day with a clean slate.


"Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me."
(Psalm 5:10)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

YOUR Place in His Heart

The day Maria moved from her cramped apartment into a two-bedroom house was one of incredible satisfaction and joy. Most of her belongings had been packed for months, so determined was she to flee her crowded living arrangement into the more spacious accommodations she knew God had waiting for her… somewhere. When at long last a door opened for her, physically as well as spiritually, she was ready to go.

Few people would attempt a move of this magnitude just days before Christmas, but that magical morning found her with boxes unpacked and disposed of, a tree decorated in the corner of the living room, a fire in her fireplace and presents in readiness for her young son. Perhaps she saw the house itself as God’s gift to her that day - the fulfillment of a promise He had made to her years before.

Eager to celebrate with Maria this long-awaited answer to prayer, our church family threw a small housewarming party for her. She responded to our gesture of love by welcoming us all into her home for an after-service potluck dinner one Sunday afternoon shortly thereafter.

Never has anybody so quickly transformed a house into a home that reflected their personality so clearly. From her signature “Scrabble” bathroom, to the framed autumn leaves above her cherished fireplace, to the dainty teacups above the window dressings in her dining room, Maria’s passions were put on display.

Each of us who visited with her that day were delighted to find our simple gifts already in use as we wandered from room to room. One friend had given a porcelain clock covered in painted cardinals that now ticked steadily away on a shelf it shared with a book about the birds and a framed picture of the same that Maria’s son had painted for her as a Christmas gift. Another lady smiled to see her scented candle burning brightly in its brilliant red glass jar, perfectly matching the sofa cushions and other scarlet accents in the room. Sliced fruit beckoned to a third from the glass serving platter she’d given that now graced the beautifully decorated table. Again and again there was joy as each of us recognized not just our gifts in Maria’s home but also our own special place in her heart. There was a warmth in the welcome we found there that we were reluctant to leave as we moved at last from our seats at the table to drink coffee and chat in the living room for awhile before eventually heading off to our separate lives and evening activities.

Reflecting back on my enjoyment of that time together I understand more clearly now the psalmist’s words, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere…” (Psalm 84:10 NIV). There is no greater joy than to walk into God’s house and find it decorated with the gifts we’ve given Him – gifts He first gave to us in talents and abilities that we work to develop in order to offer them back to Him to use as He sees fit. And use them He does, to draw lost souls into His Kingdom, heal bodies plagued with disease, lighten a heavy load, or encourage a weary heart as we wait for the day when we will be together eternally. Until then it’s a delight to walk into the place where His Glory dwells and find it decorated with the passions of His heart – His love for His people and the love gifts they bring.

It took some of us awhile to decide what gift to bring to Maria’s housewarming. Phone calls were made and discussions held over color choices and personal preferences, but in the end I realized that each person’s gift reflected their own interests and personalities. Those who love to entertain brought dishes for her table. The teacher who loves children brought a gift for Maria’s son. The decorator among us brought an accent item. A friend brought a memento of a memory they shared. Each brought a piece of themselves and it all fit together perfectly in Maria’s home.

Likewise many of us struggle with what we might have to offer God. Perhaps we’ve yet to realize the special gifting He’s placed within us. And yet the Bible states that each of has “a particular spiritual talent, a gracious divine endowment” (1 Peter 4:10 AMP) that God wants to use in His Kingdom. In this as in all other things, if we lack wisdom in an area we need only to ask God for it and He surely will answer us. Perhaps in this instance He does so by reminding us that none of us would have needed a gift to bring to Maria’s party if we hadn’t first developed a relationship with her. And likewise the key to finding our place in His Kingdom is to first find our place in His heart.

“For the Father Himself [tenderly] loves you…” 
(John 16:27 AMP)

Friday, April 27, 2012

eXception to the Rule

He meant it as a joke.

My husband knew I was waiting for a message, the title of which would have something to do with the letter "X". The messages for "Y" and "Z" had come easily some time previously, but I was stuck on "X". Clearly he was getting tired of waiting. Each time he'd ask me how my writing was coming, I'd answer, "I'm waiting for 'X'." As we lay in bed discussing the situation one night recently, he said, "I've got the answer. Just write, 'This letter is an eXception' on the post for 'X' and move on!" We both laughed and went on to sleep.

Two mornings later I realized that my husband was absolutely right… that the letter "X" was to represent the eXceptions to the rule we are to be in the world around us due to our relationship with Christ.

A visit to the Word proved His point. I first visited the book of John to see the first of God’s "eXceptions": "Jesus answered and said unto him, verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3, emphasis mine).

Not everybody can enter the kingdom of God. Only the exceptions. Only those who are born again - who have asked and received forgiveness for their sins and are now leading a life of service to Him will ever walk beyond the Pearly Gates.

And how does one get to be "born again"? Again, you have to be an exception. Jesus said, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…" (John 6:44, emphasis mine). Only when the Holy Spirit is doing His work in our spirits, drawing us to a relationship with the Father, are we receptive to the call of God. At any other time the Words of Life fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. ("But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" 1 Corinthians 2:14). It's only when the Holy Spirit has prepared the way by softening hearts of stone and opening closed minds that a person can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

The exceptions don't stop there. We can't enter the kingdom of heaven except we become as little children (Matthew 18:3). We can't bear the fruit that God expects from us except we die to our own desires like a corn of wheat dies when it falls to the ground (John 12:24). As a branch springing forth from Jesus, the Vine, we can't bear fruit except we abide in Him (John 15:4).

Others are looking for what we have found in Christ, but they'll only receive help in finding it from the exceptions among us. "And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:31, emphasis mine). "And how shall they preach, except they be sent?…" (Romans 10:15 emphasis mine). It's even the "exceptions" that edify the body of believers with the gifts of the Spirit: "Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? (1 Corinthians 14:6, emphasis mine), or "…except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying." (1 Corinthians 14:5, emphasis mine)

Sometimes being an exception is not a good thing. Jesus clearly rebuked Thomas for his lack of faith when Thomas told the other disciples, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." (John 20:25, emphasis mine). And earlier Jesus had expressed disappointment in the Galileans he was visiting when He said, "…Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe" (John 4:48, emphasis mine).

Jesus Christ was the ultimate exception to the rule in the world in which He lived. And it's only by imitating His example in thought, word and deed that God's will is done in our world and we are able to lead exceptional lives in Him.

"He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done"
(Matthew 26:42, emphasis mine).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

WORSHIP Tips

A weekend worship summit brought my family together to watch the live broadcast at our local church on a recent Friday night. We listened to three hours of wonderful music and inspiring teaching on how to touch the heart of God through song. When the session ended for the night we headed to a local restaurant for a late-night snack.

Seated immediately, we seemed however to wait longer than usual for the arrival of our server. When she did approach the table she appeared a little flustered, apologizing for taking so long to get to us. She explained that some patrons seated near the door had just skipped out without paying their bill, and she would be expected to cover the restaurant’s loss out of her own paycheck. We sympathized with her for several minutes before she got back to business, pulling her pad out of her pocket and taking down our order.

As she disappeared into the dimly lit interior, our conversation quickly changed to other topics and our table soon echoed with the laughter and teasing that normally accompany my three sons on a Friday night. All thought of the waitress and her predicament seemed to be forgotten, until it came time to pay the bill. Apparently one of the boys had been dwelling on the girl’s dilemma during the entire meal, because he suddenly leaned over and asked me quietly if he could borrow some money. He explained that he felt sorry for the girl and wanted to add to the tip that my husband would leave, but hadn’t brought any cash along. As I dug in my wallet for some bills, his brother chucked the two dollars he’d earlier stuffed into his pocket onto the table as well. The third then spoke up, saying, “I understand what you’re doing and appreciate your desire to help this woman out of a bad situation, but have you considered that the story of the dine-and-dash customers might be just that, a story, designed perhaps to inspire a larger tip?”

We thought about this possibility for a minute. Sitting at the end of the booth as I was, I did hear the server speak her tale of woe to the customers she seated next to us, as well. I myself had wondered about the very scenario my son had brought up. But perhaps she spoke so only because the injustice of the situation was still fresh in her mind and heart. After a minute or two his brother said, “Thanks for the warning, and you might be right. But I think tonight that if I’m wrong, I’ll err on the side of generosity.” He put the extra money on the table and we left soon after.

Life has taught us to be careful, not just with our cash, but also with our hearts. Having been taken advantage of before, we wonder at times if there’s anybody left that we can trust with the things that we hold much more dear than mere dollars – our hopes, our dreams, our loves… our lives. And that uncertainty extends sometimes beyond our earthly relationships to our eternal ones. Can we truly trust God to be all that the Bible declares Him to be? Is He worthy of our all?

The way we worship reflects our answers to those questions. Some of us approach God the same way we approach life, giving just what is due and nothing more – the 15% tip, the 10% tithe, the 20 minutes of singing on a Sunday morning. Others of us find it difficult to give even that much, perhaps still reeling from wrongs done to us in the past, injuries we attribute to God or to the people who are supposed to represent Him. Yet there are others among us whose hearts have been touched by a story… the story of a Savior who loved us enough to suffer injustice on our behalf… silently… that our hurts might be healed and that Heaven could someday be our Home. These people are able to love with abandon and put all they possess on the table, spiritually speaking, willing to risk it all in a lifelong expression of gratitude for what they’ve received.

Worship is so much more than just the songs we sing on Sunday morning. It’s the way we live our lives all week, a mindset that seeks to please God in everything we do, from the thoughts we think, to the words we speak, the love we share, to the way we care for other people.

For eight hours that weekend I listened to world-renowned worship leaders speak on how to move God through music. Yet the lesson that stirred me most came from a teenager in a restaurant booth and was simply this… that when your worship extends past what comes out of your lips to even the size of the tip you leave on the table, it’s then that you’ve truly touched the heart of God and made Him smile.

“…But the time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God…”
(John 4: 22-23 MSG)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Clear VIEW

It started with the fine print on menus in dimly lit restaurants. My husband found that he simply couldn't read them anymore. I laughed at him as with increasing frequency I was forced to read his dining options aloud to him. Increasingly frequent headaches from staring too intently at computer screens all day and a decreasing ability to read small print of any kind finally forced him to accept the inevitable, and he came home one day with the glasses that were eventually to become a permanent fixture on his face.

I realize now that I shouldn't have laughed, because eventually the same thing happened to me. I could feel the strain in my eyes as they tried to bring the printed pages before me into focus. Soon, I too, became the proud owner of a new set of spectacles. I've noticed lately a need to have them ever close at hand, while just mere months ago they would sit unused for days at a time. My use of them grows as my eyesight fails, a result of the aging process. My glasses are quickly becoming an indispensable tool I take with me as I travel through my days.

I put them on as I sat down to read this morning and realized that once again they were desperately in need of cleaning. The task itself triggered the same memory it always does, of my father cleaning my glasses for me when I was a little girl. My entry into the family photo album was marked by my vision problems. Pictures of a decidedly cross-eyed toddler were followed quickly by those of the same child wearing a miniature pair of specs. I remember those eyeglass frames to this day. In fact, if truth be told, I probably still have them, buried in a box somewhere in the basement. Those black cat-eye frames with silver specks were nightly tucked away in a blue leather case with a panda bear sticker on the front.

I hated those glasses. I wanted my eyes to have free exposure to the world around me and disliked the thought of having to hide them behind those vision aids. I ignored them as best I could, and of course it never entered my mind to clean them occasionally. So my father took on that job. I remember how he'd sigh as he once again plucked them off my face, wiped them clean and set them once again upon my nose. He, better than I, understood the necessity of keeping a clear view of things.

Now that glasses are once more a part of my life I once again struggle with remembering to clean them regularly. It's not until the smudges on them loom larger than the words I'm trying to read that it occurs to me that they might need some attention. My husband doesn't have that problem. He cleans his glasses as part of his morning routine each day, recognizing the need to see clearly if he's to accomplish all he has to do each day.

Many of us put as little effort into improving our spiritual vision as I do into enhancing my physical eyesight. We don't make a habit of cleaning our spiritual eyeglasses at the start of the day. Lack of time or concern are usually the reasons we fail to do so, not realizing that our neglect of the necessary affects our view of the situations around us all day long. Soon the fingerprints of man and the dark smudges of difficulties we face accumulate until they mar our view of God and what He wants to accomplish in our lives. Everything we see is tainted with the grime of the world, instead of viewed through the clear possibilities we possess in Christ. We need to start each day with the cleansing power of His mercy and forgiveness, and then let our eyes light on the promises and power in His Word, to fill our minds and hearts with food for the day ahead.

In much the same way as I resented my glasses as I child, sometimes we balk at the restrictions God's view of things seems to put on our lives, longing for the freedom to live as we wish. But His Word has a corrective action that works behind the scenes, often unnoticed, until with increasing frequency our wants and desires come in line with His. What was once an annoyance we now hardly notice. As we age spiritually we realize in increasing measure the failure of our own abilities and our increased dependence on Him, as it becomes ever more apparent that we can't see on our own at all anymore, except in Him.

No matter how old I get, I'll always need my Father to clean my spiritual spectacles. But now I know the importance of making that process a regular part of my day. I know that viewing the world around me through God's perspective is the only way I can complete the work He has for me to do and fulfill His purpose and plan for my life. I've found out that the earlier in the day I put my spiritual glasses on, the better off I'll be. The details of what God has on the menu of life for me might suddenly come into focus and become a real feast for the eyes. I'll want to be able to read all about it for myself.

"The eye is the lamp of the body.
 If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light."
(Matthew 6:22 NIV)

Monday, April 23, 2012

TWENTY-NINE and Holding...Hands

The little girl hung around the desk chair in which her mother sat busily arranging paperwork for us to sign on our newly purchased car.

“My mommy is twenty-nine,” she volunteered out of the blue, while the woman behind the desk smiled at us sheepishly.

“And holding?” I queried, as we both laughed. To myself I murmured, “Twenty-nine is nothing”, knowing that my grip on thirty-nine and even forty-nine had somehow loosened as the years quickly slipped away. Clearly our youth is something we try to hold on to, often causing us to spend more money than we ought to perhaps on hair dye, facial cream and gym memberships in an attempt to keep up an appearance of youth, despite the truth of our advancing years.

But the conversation came back to my mind just a day or so later when my husband commented in amazement (and also seemingly out of the blue) that our wedding anniversary in the year after this will mark thirty years spent together as husband and wife. That means that this year’s date will likewise be our “twenty-nine and holding” anniversary year.

It’s funny how the same phrase can mean entirely different things in the two scenarios. When it comes to our age, it indicates that we’d like to stop the roll of the years, the flip of the calendar pages, and the too rapid passing of days and weeks. We boldly declare that twenty-nine is it – we refuse to describe our age with a number larger than this!

But our twenty-nine-and-holding declaration has an entirely different meaning when it comes to a wedding anniversary. In that situation it speaks of our refusal to let go of a treasure discovered and attained through years of togetherness, no matter what pressures threaten to loosen the grip. For surely our marriages today are bombarded with attacks from all sides, and only a diligence and devotion sustained by supernatural forces can keep a couple committed to the love they once professed and the union that was formed in a wedding ceremony years ago.

Walking out of church behind Jim and me one day not too long ago, a friend teased us about the fact that even after being married for so long we were still holding hands. We smiled and laughed, but we didn’t loosen the grip we had on each other. That simple act of touch means as much to us spiritually as it does physically. It’s an unspoken reminder of our need stay connected, whatever the time or place.

It’s not always easy, of course, as a couple of silly examples will attest. When Jim and I ride in the car together I make sure that if I’m eating a sandwich, drinking my coffee, or even texting on my cell phone, I do so with my right hand, keeping my left open and available should my husband have the urge to reach over and grab it. My text messages are often more garbled than usual as a result, and we won’t even get into the issue of speed. But I realized I’d taken this to extremes and burst out laughing at myself the other day when I brought an orange with me in the car and realized my complete inability to peel it with my right hand alone! Yet I do need to be extreme in my efforts to be available to my husband in our marriage, whatever the occasion, whether it be to talk, to listen, or even just to spend time together in silent companionship.

Another time as we exited the car I performed a juggling act of circus-level expertise to carry my purse, my book bag and my violin case all on one side of my body so that I had a hand free on the other to squeeze his as we headed in to church. And likewise it takes a willingness to shuffle our lives, the events of our days, and sometimes even our emotions around as necessary to keep marital harmony a reality.

Many marriages have to endure times of separations, due perhaps to illness, job situations, military deployments and the like. When physical contact is not a possibility, couples must creatively find other ways to link themselves together, holding hands in their hearts until they can do so in the flesh once more. 

Perhaps it is significant that my hand-holding examples above all occurred while heading to or leaving our church. And suddenly I realized that my relationship with God is also in its twenty-ninth-and-holding year! Then it dawned on me that it’s only because this relationship is still going strong that my marriage has been able to endure as well. The health of our connection to God affects all the other relationships in our lives and therefore deserves the attention, time and devotion that we sometimes fail to invest in it. Our marriages surely need us to make the effort to reach out to each other, to draw out the details of our days, and pull each other close in conversation and physical contact. But even more do they need us to reach out to God together. He is eternally available and ready to assist in every way possible, smoothing the rough edges in our relationships, softening hearts that sometimes turn hard and inflexible and returning us to the love and purpose that brought us together in the first place. His are the hands that we should reach for and never let go.

As far as age is concerned, for Jim and me both, twenty-nine is long gone. But when it comes to our marriage and our love for God, we’re pushing thirty and going strong.

"Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold my by my right hand."
(Psalm 74:23 NKJV)


Saturday, April 21, 2012

STAYING Power

There’s a whole new set of heroes in my book these days. I’ve been watching them for weeks now – ever since the start of the year. I’ve seen them display courage, personal fortitude and steadfastness… all qualities a hero most possess, even if gaining the respect of those around them is not their primary quest. And truly my admiration of these people has grown as I’ve seen them display these attributes day after day.

My new heroes are the employees of Liberty Tax Service, one of the many tax preparation businesses that pop up in strip malls everywhere at the start of each year. These people are hired to stand at the side of the road and advertise their company to motorists passing by.

I didn’t consider them heroes at first. I laughed at them in fact, as surely most of the city must’ve likewise been chuckling at the sight of them dressed in long turquoise-green robes to resemble the Statue of Liberty, complete to the pointed crown on their heads. They’ve looked ridiculous as they’ve jumped and waved and attempted to get the attention of passing drivers.

But my laughter later turned to respect, simply because they’ve stayed. They didn’t quit their jobs when the weather suddenly turned cold. It’s one thing to stand on a sidewalk when it’s 60 degrees outside, and another thing entirely when the thermometer reads in single digits and the wind chill drops below zero. They’ve simply donned more clothes underneath their costumes and have stood their ground.

And people have noticed. My sons have taken to texting each other on their cell phones each time they drive past Liberty’s local storefront and see the sign carriers still in place. The existence of those messages alone is an indication that something unusual is happening on that sidewalk.

 There was the afternoon when the leading edge of a winter storm blew into town and was expected to drop four to six inches of fluffy dry snow on the ground. Businesses closed early, schools scheduled early dismissal, and people everywhere rushed home to beat the full onslaught of the winter weather. In the midst of his own efforts to get home safely my son took the time to text the message, “The Liberty tax guys are still out there…” as he drove by. The next morning, when most people had yet to dig themselves out of the snow drifts, came another message of similar content: “Liberty has it’s people out.” Even the local newspaper published a picture of one of the men in a recent edition, his costume in place, one hand in the air while the other held his sign, snow clearly visible in the background.

Liberty’s advertising scheme has been a success. Because these people have stayed through the worst weather we’ve had in two years, their message has stayed in my mind. Were I looking for a tax service to prepare a return today, I wouldn’t go to a big name like H & R Block , Jackson & Hewett or to any of the other less well known tax services that have popped up everywhere seemingly overnight. No, I’d head to Liberty Tax Service, basing my decision not on any knowledge of the quality their work but solely on the character I’ve seen their employees display day after day.

What a lesson there is in this for us who have likewise been called to proclaim liberty! We, too, have a job to do – to put our God’s name out where people can see it – to advertise that the help they need is available should they choose to give it a try. We may not have to wear ridiculous costumes, but we might have to be willing to look foolish at times, as the very nature of what we’re offering causes us to stand out from the crowd. We’re required to hang tough, not only when the spiritual conditions are favorable, but especially when the atmosphere around us turns chilly and storms arise that we need to battle our way through.

The term “staying power” in the spiritual realm has a meaning beyond the supernatural ability to stand one’s ground in the midst of difficulties and hardships. Steadfastness to one’s beliefs carries with it a drawing card of sorts that goes beyond mere name recognition (as in a tax service) and actually pulls on the heart. People wonder if there mustn’t be something to a message that produces such persistent determination and faithfulness. Someone, somewhere, might decide to give God a try, simply because a believer stood his ground and didn’t waver in his faith when times got tough.

I can’t drive by the men on the sidewalk anymore without giving them some kind of response. I smile and wave at them as I go by, an action which seems to generate even more energy on their parts. Suddenly they give me a thumbs up and smile in return, glad to receive something besides the blank stares of so many passing motorists.

Shouldn’t we do the same for those who are standing their ground in whatever part of the world God has placed them? Think what a word or encouragement, a heartfelt prayer or maybe a little financial support might do for somebody who is speaking for God in a difficult spot. They might just stay at their post a little longer as a result. And we’d both be heroes in God’s book as a result.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;”
(Isaiah 61:1 KJV, emphasis mine)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

REPOSITIONED RESPONSIBILITY


Baked by the afternoon sun streaming in through the living room window, my son temporarily closed his eyes to the football action on the TV screen, rolled over on the recliner and thought about taking a nap. The discomfort of lying on his stomach on the not-quite-flat sofa soon chased any thoughts of slumber from his mind. He opened his eyelids to find himself staring squarely at a very grimy and smudged living room wall. His disgusted comment, "This wall is a mess…" reached my ears in the kitchen where I was preparing the Sunday afternoon meal. Half in jest I reminded him of the message we'd heard preached in church just two weeks prior - that if God makes a need apparent to you, it then becomes your responsibility to take care of it.

Expecting him to laugh, roll back over and return to his game, I was therefore astonished when he instead came into the kitchen in search of a sponge with which to clean the wall! Quickly I placed the tools he needed in his hands and he returned to the living room and began to scrub. Soon he was the one who was amazed as he began to see the difference his actions made. Greasy fingerprints and dark smudges disappeared as he worked across the expanse. Encouraged by what he saw he reached up higher and bent down lower until he had washed down the entire wall. His mother bestowed praise on his efforts from the kitchen; his brother joked about again being able to see the color of the paint under all the dirt. And when he was done, the entire room was brightened physically as well as emotionally by his efforts.

And it was all brought about by a little repositioning… a change in the physical realm that felt awkward and uncomfortable but which caused him to see the world around him from a different viewpoint. Dirt on a wall that had been unnoticed by him for ages suddenly became visible to him. And yet it wasn't just the realization of a need but rather his determination to do something about it himself that made our living quarters a more pleasant place for the whole family to spend their time.

Oh, that we would catch this concept in the spiritual realm the way my son realized its truth in the physical one! God repositions us regularly in life, and we rebel at the discomfort of the situation instead of focusing our eyes on the everyday situations He wants us to see in a new way. When we do see a work that needs to be done we are more likely to wonder who's going to take care of the matter than to seriously consider handling it ourselves. We let inconsequential attitudes such as fear or pride keep us sitting firmly in the comfortable spots we've made for ourselves instead of following the urge to use the gifts God's placed within us and put them to work.

Fortunately there are those among us who are beginning to not just hear this message but to act upon it. How thrilling it was when one member of our congregation recently saw a microphone sitting unused on the platform and decided to fill it with song! Others are moving to fill an empty seat behind a drum set… teach a class that's been waiting for a teacher… type a bulletin in the absence of a church secretary or simply tidy a messy corner of the church that they happen to regularly walk by. Some are little actions; others require a greater expenditure of time and effort. Yet they all count the same in the sight of the God Who's placed these tasks before us and looks to see if we're willing to do what needs to be done.

We've sat in the Son and watched the work of the ministry go on from our seats of comfort on the sidelines for far too long. Our number's been called and the Coach is telling us it's time now to get our hands on the ball and get into the game.

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it - he will be blessed in what he does."
(James 1:22-26 NIV)

The QUEST in the QUARRY


I woke with a song in my head, and its presence reminded me of the friend I first heard it with. I laughed at the thought that if she knew I was away on vacation, she'd surely ask me to bring her back a rock for her collection. She likes to collect rocks from far-away places.

A passage I'd just read in John chapter eight came to my mind - the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, surrounded now by people with rocks in their hands, ready to throw at her. And when Jesus told them that only he who had never sinned could throw the first rock, one by one the people dropped their rocks and went away. The only One worthy to stone her was not willing to.

My life is built upon one Rock and guided by the ultimate "word" - the Word of God. In its pages I find that rocks are used for two purposes - to build altars for sacrifice or memorials, or to throw at people to kill them. And surely words can have the same two functions - to build up or tear down. We can choose which way our words are used. Likewise unworthy to hurl a stone at anyone else, before I speak then I need to mine for words in the quarry of the same that will build the other person up or instruct them in some way, casting aside those that will wound them or tear them down as just so much mining debris.

Later that same day I did find rocks that made me think again of my friend, amazingly each with a word cut into the face of the stone! All of the fruits of the Spirit were represented - love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control. - as well as several other words that represented positive thoughts. Sadly, I couldn't afford to buy one to send to her - they were costly little items. Neither are the fruits of the Spirit available for purchase - they're priceless! - but they come freely after one has accepted the free gift of salvation - eternal life in Jesus Christ.

If I can't send her physical rocks to build up her collection, I can heave a few well-chosen written ones in her direction. In this case it's life, not death, that's just a stone's throw away.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach
and admonish one another with all wisdom..."
(Colossians 3:16 NIV)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

PADDLE Hard!


“When the water first hits you,” our river guide said, “your instinct is to stop paddling with the shock. But you have to keep going for us to get through.” He stood on a rock on the water’s edge, pointing to first this set of rapids and then that, describing the various hazards we’d face when we boarded our raft and attempted to navigate this next quarter-mile stretch of river. He had a plan, which he was trying to communicate to us before we got back in the boat and carried it out.

The first third of the three-mile rafting trip had been a breeze, as guide and rafters got to know each other a bit before braving the rapids together. As the raft drifted lazily along we practiced forward paddling and back paddling in unison at our leader’s command. We learned that the boat would turn when one side paddled in one direction and the other side did the reverse. When our guide yelled, “Stop!” we all rested our paddles in our laps, enjoying the beautiful scenery on either bank as the raft moved along. We gazed at an osprey nest high in the trees and looked for other wildlife on the shore before the next command brought our paddles into the water once more.

The first set of rapids had been just a little thrilling as the boat rushed through them, lifting us off the sides of the raft on which we were perched. We locked our feet more securely in the bottom of the boat and laughed a little nervously as we anticipated the more difficult water ahead.

Just before we reached the foaming white water, our guide had us put the boat to the shore. We all clambered out and followed him to the point on the shore that overlooked the raging water we were soon to pass through. It was in this stretch of more arduous going that it would be so important for us to listen to his directions and follow them explicitly. Failure to do so could cause the raft to flip and the lot of us to be tossed into the chilly water. The Deschutes River we were navigating flows through land of volcanic origin, and the stones through which the river passes are rough to the touch and very hard on exposed skin. It was definitely in our best interests to stay aboard and navigate the raft successfully through this stretch of the river’s rage.

We gripped our paddles tightly as we began our run through the rocks. The first wall of water drenched us and we gasped in surprise, only to hear our guide in the back of the boat yell, “Paddle hard!” as the raft tilted and bounced as it rushed downstream in the furious water. Lost completely in the angry white foam, we concentrated on following the directions of this leader we couldn’t see but who shouted his instructions to us from the back of the boat. We paddled furiously and then cheered in exhilaration when we emerged dripping wet but deliriously happy into the slower water once more, boat and all occupants miraculously intact. Two smaller sets of rapids added excitement to the rest of the trip, but for the most part we simply relaxed, played water games, or watched the antics of the rafters in the other boats in our group.

Twenty-four hours after the experience the two-word command “Paddle hard!” still echoes in my ears. I realize how important it was that we kept our oars moving in the water at our leader’s command, despite the waterlogged chaos surrounding us. So often in life we don’t do that. We let the shock of the circumstances crashing around us stop us cold. Then we find ourselves in even greater hardship, perhaps losing our grasp on the situation and tossed into trouble from which we find it impossible to emerge unscathed. The only way to successfully navigate through our difficulties is to listen and follow the instructions of the One Who sits in the boat with us and yet knows what we do not, and to paddle hard… doing what He tells us to do without question until He tells us to stop or to do something different. It’s then that we’ll emerge victorious to the smoother sailing on the other side.

God allows us to celebrate our victories, but only for a time, reminding us to regroup and refocus for the bigger battles that are surely just around the bend.

“…fear not, but let your hands be strong.”
(Zechariah 8:13 KJV)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

OVERJOYED


I understand the meaning of the word “overjoyed”. I saw it acted out before me each morning and evening – any time my husband walked back into the life of our puppy after an absence of some kind, whether it had been an 8-hour day at work or an 8-hour sleep at night. The minute he entered the room he was body-slammed by a wriggling mass of delighted dog, whose joy at being reunited with his master was expressed in every way imaginable.

All the dog’s body parts seemed to be moving at once – tail banging the door frame and furniture, feet prancing from side to side, head and body twisting back and forth as fast as those parts could move. At the same time he was growling his greeting and nipping and chewing on anything that moved in response. In his excitement he even lost control of certain bodily functions, making it necessary to mop floors and shoes when the love-fest had lost some if its initial intensity!

And my husband loved every minute of it! He never tired of it – it was not an experience that grew old in repetition. He came home from a week-long business trip one night, and happy as he was to be returning home to me and our boys, I’m sure it was the thought of the welcome he was about to receive from his dog that put the smile on his face as he drove! As it turned out, I was in the shower when he came through the door, and the boys were playing video games in the basement. But the dog didn’t disappoint him. Without being there to see it myself I know that his ears perked up at the sound of the garage door opening… and that at the slam of the car door he was up and in the doorway waiting, his body already shivering in eager anticipation.

What would happen in our church services if we waited for our Master to enter the house in the same way? If we anticipated His arrival while we were yet on our way to church, and were ready to shout our praise and welcome the moment the first chords were hit on the keyboard and God’s Presence began to fill the room? Can you imagine His delight to find those He loves so glad to see Him, so anxious to spend time with Him again, so ready to adore Him?

And sometimes we do welcome Him in just that way. Our church body shakes and shivers as people react to His Presence in various ways – some jump, others shout, groan, wave their arms or dance in joy before Him. Still others just weep, fall to their knees, or lie before Him and soak in the wonder of His Presence among us. God doesn’t mind that our church services are a little messier than they used to be. He would so much rather we react to Him like this than that we not even notice as He walks among us because our minds are so busy with other things – planning menus, making mental shopping lists or looking forward to our Sunday afternoon naps. Welcoming and rejoicing in His Presence should be the sole reason we come to church, rather than the afterthought we sometimes make it.

The dictionary defines the word “overjoyed” as simply “filled with great joy”. I don’t think that goes nearly far enough. To me it’s an overflow of the heart, as expressed in physical and verbal demonstrations of wonder and incredible happiness. However you describe it, it’s a fitting response to the entrance of the King.

“…in thy presence is fullness of joy…”
(Psalm 16:11)

Monday, April 16, 2012

NEW Experiences with Old Friends


The book came to an end just as my Florida vacation did the same. Days earlier I had been surprised and delighted to find it in the book section of my grocery store after wishing my favorite secular author would put out something new in time for my trip. I’m normally a library patron, not usually having the funds to spring for the hardcover version of the new releases on the bestseller list. I force myself to add my name to a waiting list there or postpone the read til it comes out in paperback. But not this time. With my trip just two days away, I laid my money on the counter, tucked the book under my arm and then in my carry-on bag, waiting til I was seated at the gate at the airport before cracking the cover. My anticipation of a great story and my excitement over my travel plans were both at fever pitch!

Thankfully the book didn’t disappoint me. As usual, I flipped through the pages relentlessly, staying up late after visiting all day to sneak in an extra chapter or two before falling asleep, and picking it up with delight when insomnia attacked in the middle of the night. Of all possible locations, the book was set in Italy, a place near and dear to my heart. Descriptions of the people, places and FOOD in the novel matched those I’d experienced myself in my one visit there several years ago, and catapulted what would normally have been just another good read to a literary experience of the highest caliber. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling anew to a favorite country with this writer who’s given me so many pleasurable literary vacations in the past. Truly it was a wonderful new experience with an old friend.

Those words likewise perfectly describe my Florida vacation, although perhaps in this instance the word “old” should be printed in capitals, italicized and possibly underlined, as well (just kidding, Mary!). Her birthday was the excuse I needed to visit her in far-away Florida. But it wasn’t just any birthday, mind you. This was her 40th, a biggie. How gracious of her to age to this extent, just so I could come and visit! I have fewer years to spare than she does, so if one of us had to sacrifice one for our reunion, she was definitely the one to do it. She didn’t seem to mind.

Surprisingly, I learned some things about Mary that I didn’t know before. And she discovered some new aspects to my personality, as well. Expecting me to comfort and support her as she entered her 4th decade, she was surprised that I instead took the opportunity to razz her every chance I got. I was finally honest about my feelings towards her favorite footwear, preferring the “crocs” you find in the water to the ones she wears on her feet. Surely she was also amazed that I didn’t take a single nap while in her company, despite the tedium of her senile ramblings at times. No, we were much too busy to waste time in sleep. There were sights to see, stores to shop, meals to eat, trails to hike, even alligators to find (from a distance, of course). There were movies to watch, people to meet, and of course, her birthday to celebrate. The days were packed full of new experiences with an old (OLD!) friend. I loved them all.

Those same words likewise describe my relationship with God. Our friendship dates back to a Sunday morning some 32 years ago now, and truly has become deeper and richer over time. Yet my experiences with Him are still as fresh as a new day breaking. He can still make me laugh or cry with a sentence or a look, and just one Word out of His mouth or in His Book can change my attitudes, my actions,… my life.

You know, a book is new only until you’ve traveled through its pages from cover to cover one time. My time with Mary was new only until we ran out of things to do (we didn’t) or until my return flight home eventually left the airport (it did). But my experiences with God can be new every day (Lamentations 3:23) – they never come to an end. Likewise I never have to say goodbye to Him or wait months for the next chance to see Him. He’s always available and I can walk in His Presence continually. He will never leave me nor forget the promises He’s made to me (Deuteronomy 4:31).

I love my favorite author because I trust him not to lace his characters’ conversations with profanity nor place them in lifestyle situations that would cause me to put his books aside. I likewise treasure my friendship with Mary because of its constancy. The love between us is not diminished by the difference in our ages, the miles betweens our homes nor the months in-between our chances to be together. How much more, then, do I trust God, the Author of Life, to do me good and not evil all the days of my life, to extend His mercies new to me each morning, and to be that Friend Who sticks closer than a brother…(or even an aging “sister”)?! Stories reach a conclusion, vacations come to a close, but truly a relationship with God can be a journey of joy that never comes to an end.

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
(Lamentations 3:23-24 NIV)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A MOTHER'S Prayers


Her motherhood experience was a surprise from beginning to end. The first surprise came while she was lying on the examining table in the middle of her second ultrasound. Staring intently at the screen she saw something she hadn't seen in the first such procedure weeks earlier - a second baby! The technician was as surprised as she, and quickly checked the earlier results to make sure that the procedure had been done correctly and completely. Surprise turned into shock at the unexpected discovery, and then gradually dissipated into wonder and delight. She set about the task of nurturing her babies to the best of her ability for however long she'd be able to carry them.

The second surprise came in the form of labor pains that arrived in the 29th month of her pregnancy. Rushed to the hospital, her doctors worked to stop the birth process, hoping to give the babies more time in the womb. The best they could do was stall it for another week. On a cold and snowy Sunday morning in January, at only 30 weeks of age and weighing just over three pounds each, the twins made their arrival and were quickly rushed into intensive care.

The neo-natal center was not a surprise to this mother. She'd been through the worry and fear associated with this area of the hospital before, after the premature birth of her first daughter, almost exactly five years earlier. Familiar already with a routine foreign to most new parents, she resigned herself to weeks of daily commutes to the hospital to feed and connect with her twin daughters.

Those first several weeks of their lives were very different from what most mothers experience in the birth of their newborns, and so the method in which she mothered her children was likewise different as well. A new mom's day is normally filled with diaper changes, feedings and baby baths. Her days were filled with prayer. When incubators separated her babies from her touch, she touched God with her tears. Denied the opportunity to hold her children in her arms, she held God's attention with her pleas on their behalf.

Nightly before she left the hospital she would open the incubators one at a time, lay her hand on each tiny chest and ask God to do for her babies what she could not - to heal their heart murmurs, bolster their breathing abilities and soothe any digestive distress in their stomachs. She was neither shy nor quiet as she asked Him to hold them for her in the night, to cradle them in His love and rock them in His sheltering arms. When a doctor raised his eyebrows over her evening practice of prayer she looked him in the eye and said, "You have your job to do; I have mine. Your job is to treat them physically; mine, as their mother, is to pray."

Her words speak to all of us, whether our children are sleeping tonight in a hospital, are tucked safely in their beds at home or are on their own somewhere out in the world. As mothers we carry our kids in the womb for the first months of their lives and then on our hips for years after that. We carry dinner to the table, dirty laundry to the washing machine and groceries in from the car. Yet it's when we carry our children in prayer to the foot of the cross that we're most the mothers God created us to be.

“…The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
(James 5:16 KJV)

Friday, April 13, 2012

LIVING a LIFE of LOVE and LAUGHTER


“Whatever.”

The word jumped out at me during my devotional reading tonight. I stopped in mid-sentence and gave it another look. Taken by itself, removed from the company of its neighbors in the sentence, it has the strange ability to make me smile. It triggers a mental picture of a goofy friend of mine, a teenage cashier at the grocery store where I work, and her usual reaction to almost any suggestion or comment of mine. She rolls her eyes, forms a “W” with the thumbs and forefingers of her hands and mouths, “What-ever” in as bored a voice as she can muster. It never fails to make both of us break out in laughter.

Laughter. That is what God wants for me – a life abounding in love and laughter, according to the Scripture passage I just read: “Always be joyful. Pray continually, and give thanks whatever happens. This is what God wants for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NCV, emphasis mine).

Always be joyful. How awesome it is that we serve a God Who wants us to laugh and be happy! But many of us face real life situations that are anything but. And yet this passage seems to say that God expects a positive reaction, whatever happens to us.

Thankfully He doesn’t expect us to drum up those positive feelings on our own. Instead He Himself provides the solution to our dilemma in the three words which end the passage: “in Christ Jesus.” When we are in relationship with His Son – hidden in Him, living in Him, relying on Him – then He shoulders our problems. And with our burdens thus lifted we are left with just three responsibilities: Be joyful. Pray continually. And give thanks… whatever comes our way. Surprisingly, the first comes easy when you focus on the second and the third.

Pray continually. But God doesn’t want an endless recitation of the same problems, day after day. In His eyes, prayer is synonymous with “casting our care” (1 Peter 5:7). Yet He doesn’t mean “casting” like a fisherman casts a line, only to reel it back in and cast again. When we cast our care on God we give whatever is bothering us over to Him completely, taking our hands off of it, once and for all. Once given, it belongs to Him. He is far better able to handle our problems than we are. What a relief it is to be able to turn our troubles over to Him!

Once you’ve given away a problem, it’s only natural to thank Him for taking it. And we need to do so before we even see His solution to our concerns. That is what faith is all about – trusting that God will be true to the promises in His Word. Giving thanks ahead of time exhibits that belief and activates God. Over and over in the Scriptures we see God moving when faith, belief and trust are present. Likewise His hands are tied when they are absent. Thus we need to thank God whatever happens, so that He can fix the situation for us.

After that, it’s easy to be joyful. And what better witness is there to others about the greatness of your God than the smile on your face and the laughter in your heart?

I love it when God gives me a picture to illustrate a point. When troubles come my way He reminds me that Jesus was a teenager once, too. Can I picture Jesus rolling His eyes, forming a “W” with the fingers of His hands and muttering a bored, “What-ever” to anything His Father God has to say?! No, but it does make my laughter come bubbling forth… and that just may have been what God had in mind all along.

“I have told you these things, that My joy and delight may be in you, and that your joy and gladness may be of full measure and complete and overflowing.”
(John 15:11 AMP)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

KEYBOARD Catastrophe


The pager beeped loudly in the middle of the night, causing my sleeping husband to stir in the bed beside me. Reaching slowly for his glasses and cell phone on the headboard of the bed, he was soon calling in to the office to find out what the trouble was. Minutes later he climbed out of bed and stumbled in the dark towards the computer. Mindful that his wife was hoping to fall back asleep, he kept the lights off and so didn’t see the half-full glass of Gatorade sitting on the desk. As he moved to switch on the monitor he accidentally knocked it over, dumping the contents directly on the keyboard in front of him. Then the lights came on in a hurry, and the mopping up and wiping down process began. When we had cleaned things up as best we could and he had finished the work required of him, we turned the keyboard upside down on some paper towels, hoping that any moisture left inside would drain out and not cause us any problems further down the road.

At first the keyboard seemed to have been unaffected by the ordeal it had been through. For two days after the disaster it worked perfectly. But suddenly on the third day some of the keys wouldn’t go down at all, or refused to come back up once depressed. I TRied toooooo send an email t my sister, but te sentences came oooout lking like this. It was a spell-check nightmare, to be sure. Initially I laughed, but after several minutes of struggling on in like manner I was soon so frustrated that I was ready to unplug the thing and simply toss it in the trash.

Thankfully my husband has more patience than I do. He pried off the keys that were not working properly and put them in a glass of water to soak. Then he wiped down the newly exposed interior as best he could and set it aside. When the individual keys were clean and dry he began to put the keyboard back together, piece by piece. A short time later we were able to type freely and easily on it once more.

The keyboard didn’t ask to be doused with a sports drink; it just happened. And many of the life experiences we struggle with likewise come upon us through no fault of our own. At first it may seem that we’ve come through the situation unscathed, but over time the damage to our faith and belief systems becomes apparent. Many still struggle on at this point, but gradually our unresolved hurts cause the message we are trying to convey to become garbled or lost entirely in its delivery. Our ministries then too hindered to be continued, we seem to be halted completely, not just in the work we’ve been called to, but likewise in our relationship with God. Friends, family and even sometimes we ourselves grow impatient with our inability to cope and continue on with our lives as they once were. We feel disgraced and discarded, and powerless to change a thing about our situation.

Some still plod on, despite their lack of effectiveness. Sadly, others turn away completely from the faith walk they once trod, never to return. And yet there are others who cry out to God for the help and healing they can’t find on their own, only to discover that He has been quietly waiting in the wings to provide both.

While recovery methods and times vary, often they involve a period of separation from the posts we once held, allowing us the time and freedom to soak in the Living Water of God’s Spirit while He wipes away our tears. Little by little He cleans us up and puts us back together, eventually restoring us completely to our positions of usefulness in His kingdom.

As it turned out, we brought our keyboard back to its place of purpose a little too quickly. Once again the space bar started to stick, so we again set the keyboard aside, temporarily replacing it with an older model until it received further cleaning and care. We likewise are warned not to rush God’s hand and our own healing processes, but to give both the freedom to do a complete work in us, trusting that God is able to not just restore us completely to our earlier ministries but to develop in us a greater compassion, insight and understanding toward others as a result of all we’ve been through.

Our individual “keyboard catastrophes” aren’t always the disasters we sometimes think them to be, but merely avenues to greater blessing and usefulness as tools in God’s hands to use as He chooses in the work of the Kingdom.

“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)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

JOY in the JOURNEY


Knowing full well that I should've been changing the cats' litter box, mopping the kitchen floor or cleaning out the bedroom closet, I changed instead into my baggy sweatpants, put on my comfy tennis shoes, grabbed a map, the binoculars, my camera and the ever-present cup of coffee… and took off. I was on a mission to find the elusive great blue heron rookery that I'd read about in Sunday's paper.

I have a fascination with blue herons. Beautiful enough to look at while standing still, they are a magnificent sight in flight. Ever since the evening I was sitting in a boat on a nearby lake and saw one lift off the water and fly across the setting sun, I've been hooked. Now I look for them everywhere and occasionally see them in creeks and other waterways, or sometimes flying overhead.

And so the article in Sunday's paper caught my eye. I couldn't imagine seeing their nesting colony - large numbers of them in close proximity, working together to raise their young. I set off to find it, knowing it wouldn't be easy to track down. The columnist refused to reveal the rookery's location, noting that the herons had abandoned an earlier one in the same county when the Department of Wildlife attracted too much attention to the area. The birds like to be left alone, to nest in seclusion. The only clue to aid me in my search was a stream name the author had mentioned once in an earlier column on the same subject. I headed off in that direction, driving carefully with the radio off and my windows rolled down, hoping to hear the squawking sound of the birds together or catch sight of one in the air overhead. Looking for the large nests high in the branches of sycamore trees, I had my eyes on the skyline as much as on the road before me.

In the same way, I'm on a mission to find the glory of God - to discover His dwelling place - the secret place of the Most High. Looking for it is an adventure that causes me to abandon other pursuits and to leave other desires behind. I travel carefully, with my tools beside me; my map (the Word of God), my binoculars (the Holy Spirit), and my camera (my prayer journal, in which I record my discoveries). I travel carefully, with my ears open to the sound of His call, looking for a sign of Him that will lead me in His direction. God’s Word promises that we will find Him when we search for Him with all our hearts.

I didn't find the rookery in today's search, but I’ll look for it again another day. Yet I did see some things I'd never seen before - a huge, empty nest, perhaps built by herons, high in a sycamore tree… a pileated woodpecker on a tree by the side of the road, and a wild turkey – it’s hard to say which of us was more surprised to see the other! Most importantly, I had an absolutely wonderful time in my search… which may have been the whole point of the afternoon. Maybe the message God wanted me to glean from the experience was that the joy in the journey itself is a big part of the glory at the end of the road.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
(Jeremiah 29:13)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Put IT Down and Leave IT Down


All puppies love to play, and ours was no exception. I suppose at almost two years of age his puppyhood was really behind him, but Zion didn’t seem to know that. Anytime any of us sat down in a chair - anywhere - inside the house or out, he invaded our space with his smiling face, a slobbery ball clenched tightly between his teeth, begging us to throw it for him. We'd have been happy to do what he asked… if he'd just let go of the ball. That he was not willing to do. In his mind the best part of the game was having you try to pry it loose from his jaws, risking the health of your fingers in the process as he fought you every wet and disgusting inch of the way.

It was a game my husband, Jim, was no longer willing to play. He'd gladly throw the ball, but he began to insist that the dog drop it out of his mouth first. Every time Zion brought him the ball from that point on, Jim gently but firmly instructed him to put it down. He refused to get involved in the game to a larger degree until the dog cooperated and dropped it down in front of him, often repeating his command with increasing volume and intensity until Zion obeyed. After that he had to add the further instruction to also leave it down, because when he did lay it down he wanted to snatch it back up again, just seconds before our extended hands could reach it.

Zion knew what he was supposed to do, he just wanted to play the game his way. He had a tendency to take his toy and go off in a corner to sulk like a frustrated child, but he learned that if he wanted Jim to participate at all, he had to play by his master's rules.

The lesson was for his own good. Few people are willing to stick their hand in a dog's wet mouth to remove a slippery ball that the animal obviously wants to keep. Thus his list of prospective playmates was small. Should he learn a new way to play the game, he'd have many more people to play with and his life would be happier as a result. For that reason I tried to support my husband in his training efforts, reinforcing the lessons by likewise limiting my willingness to play to those times when the dog did what he was supposed to do.

But it was hard. I found it hard to resist such a bundle of playful energy when he stood before me, tail wagging, his puppy heart visible in his eyes. But I knew I'd only make things more difficult for him in the long run, prolonging the training sessions and subjecting him to more open rebuke down the road if I gave in. My indulgence confused the dog and confounded my husband's training efforts. For his own good I had to be consistent in my actions.

We all too often play the same game with God. It's not our intention, of course. When we bring our burdens to Him we are rarely in a lighthearted or playful mood. But our actions reflect our immaturity in much the same way that my dog's puppy nature was revealed by his. We bring our problems to God and yet have a hard time releasing them to Him. It's almost as if we expect God to pry them loose from our tightly clenched hold. When we do finally respond to His request to lay them down, we have a tendency to snatch them up again before He can pick them up and throw them into the "Sea of Forgetfulness" where they belong. He longs to put them away forever, but we don't allow that to happen. Like my dog, who watched carefully where a thrown ball landed before racing off to retrieve it, we, too, watch where God discards our refuse only to go get it once more and bring it back to Him repeatedly to deal with again.

It's not just the bad things in our lives that we need to lay down, however. Releasing our hold on good things like our finances, our gifts and abilities, laying them down for God to pick up and use as He desires can also open the door to wonderful new experiences in Him. We have to resist the urge to pick them up again ourselves, to use as we think best. Instead they must be totally surrendered to Him and His purposes, whatever they may be.

Too often we're guilty of indulging each other, allowing our friends to bring to us what they should've left at the altar, prying for details and allowing them to chew on situations awhile that were better left to lay where they'd been dropped. In doing so we hinder God's attempts to help them reach spiritual maturity by living life God's way. If we truly love them, we'll desire for them the greater blessings that are to be found in obedience. "Put it down and leave it down" is advice that leads to a whole new ball game, not just for the dogs in God's animal kingdom, but also in Kingdom living for His kids.

"And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
(Matthew 16:19)

Monday, April 9, 2012

From HORROR to HOPE


It began with the clocks. My son noticed that almost every day he happened to look up and check the time just as the digital display on his timepiece read 9:11. Sometimes he caught it both morning and night on the same day. The numbers followed him to his job in a clothing store, where his attention would be arrested upon handing a customer exactly $9.11 in change from the cash register. He’d be straightening the piles of size 9 jeans in the display case and suddenly note that the size 11 jeans were right above them.

Once he mentioned it to me, I began to have the same experience. It wasn’t long before I was texting him about the rump roast that went across the scanner at my register in the grocery store and rang up at nine dollars and eleven cents. Or I’d mention to him when I got home from work about the order that totaled $91.10 and likewise caught my eye.

After a while it became apparent that we weren’t the only ones who saw the numbers 9 and 11 everywhere we went. His friend had a similar experience with the clocks, always noting the time just when it was eleven minutes past the ninth hour. Even his brother mentioned an eerie experience at school in which two friends stopped by his desk to chat, both wearing football jerseys, the one on the left sporting the number 9 while the one on the right bore the number 11.

The truth is that people everywhere notice the numbers 9 and 11 together, and instantly their minds go back to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the devastation that followed. I daresay never before has the numerical representation of a date in history been so etched in people’s memory that the mere reference of the two numbers together instantly causes our emotions to tumble towards despair and discouragement. Forces of evil in our world had a plan for destruction that they carried out that day. In the spiritual realm we likewise have an enemy that seeks to kill and destroy (John 10:10), and it’s not by chance that those numbers appear together before us so often, but rather his intention to continually remind us of fear and defeat.

Many people have experienced personal catastrophes that have nothing whatsoever to do with the events of September 11, 2001, but that have created devastation and havoc in their homes, hearts, and lives, just the same. And daily, they, too, are faced with inescapable reminders of that which they’ve lost. Perhaps it’s the facial features of a spouse lost to death or divorce that they see in the eyes and smiles of the children they had together. Maybe it’s the familiar landmarks in a neighborhood they still have to drive through but no longer live in due to job loss and financial collapse. Or it could be a certain curve in the road marked with a small, white cross that stamps a symbolic “9/11” across the day their world changed forever.

Nowhere, however, was the devil given dibs on the numbers 9 and 11. Perhaps God is looking to reclaim them, to instill in us the positive emotions of hope, peace and goodwill that are associated with them all through His Word. He, too, has plans for us, perhaps stated best in a signature 9/11 verse in the Bible, that found in Jeremiah 29:11, which reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

On a whim I started looking up the 9:11 verses in the Bible and found that hope, peace, provision and protection are associated with them throughout the Word of God. It’s in Genesis 9:11 that God promises never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Numbers 9:11 establishes the annual celebration of Passover, the day when God spared His people from death and delivered them out of slavery. The same verse in Nehemiah is a reference to when God parted the Red Sea for His people to pass through on their way to freedom, while provision and protection is promised to the widows and fatherless children in Jeremiah 49:11.

Never should we forget the lives lost on 9/11/01 and the sacrifice, courage and heroism of the first responders and those involved in later recovery efforts. But neither should we forget the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, an action that defeated death forever and gave birth to the promises of good things to come that we find in the 9/11 verses of the New Testament (Matthew 7:9-11, 2 Corinthians 9:11, Hebrews 9:11 KJV, Revelation 19:11, ). His sacrifice is in vain if we let the devil steal away the joy and hope He purchased for us that day. May the 9/11s we see today instead inspire thoughts of a new beginning, a fresh start…a reminder of a glorious future rather than a destructive and depressing past.

It occurred to me recently that I use the 9/11 sightings in my life as an opportunity to connect with my son. God simply suggests we do the same with His.

“But [that appointed time came] when Christ (the Messiah) appeared as a High Priest of the better things that have come and are to come…”
(Hebrews 9:11 AMP, emphasis mine)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

GREEN and GROWING


I sat on the balcony of our hotel room, sipping coffee and watching the gardener tend to the plants in the atrium below. In what must’ve been a morning ritual, the woman hooked a particular nozzle on to her garden hose and gave the waiting plants their morning shower. It’s strange, but I could almost feel their delight. I was reminded of feeding time at a zoo and the many times I’ve seen the lions and tigers (and bears? Oh my…) pace behind the bars of their cages in anticipation of an upcoming meal. Plants are not so mobile, but I wondered if they feel an equally intense yet less visible excitement as their caretaker approaches and hooks up her hose to the water spout! Surely their early morning watering is the high point of their day and perhaps the very reason that the conservatory which stretched below me was filled with healthy, thriving plants.

Perhaps our spiritual gardens would be as verdant if we Christians found the same delight in our morning meeting time with our Creator! Washed free of yesterday’s grime, our thirst slaked, our hunger satisfied… our only concern would then be to grow and radiate the joy of living in such a lovely spiritual place.

Returning to the balcony an hour later with a second cup of brew, I saw that the gardener was likewise back, this time clipping off the dead leaves she found and throwing them in the trash. I was surprised that she was able to find any leaves to clip - they surely weren’t visible to me in the overwhelming mass of green foliage below. But she seemed to know where to look for them, reaching deep in one pocket of greenery after another to pull out brown and curling leaves that were as yet invisible to the casual observer, removing them before their condition became more obvious and spoiled the overall look of the plant.

How awesome that God does exactly that with us. He knows the exact location of every dead and dying aspect of our existence, be it a bad attitude in one corner of our heart, an unforgiven wrong lying just beneath the surface of the face we present to the world, or a hurt of some kind that’s buried in the depths of our soul. God reaches deep and plucks that rotten part of our personality out before it becomes visible and mars the witness we present to a watching world… if He gets the chance.

You see, sometimes I don’t show up for my morning grooming. Unlike the plants I saw below me, I am able to move at will… and I frequently will myself to move in too many directions at once rather than sit for a bit and wait on God’s will.

It happened to me this morning. Away for a week on a vacation with my sister, we had a full day of activities planned. I was the first awake and felt a yearning in my soul to find a morning meeting place with God. But not wanting to disturb my sis with my pre-dawn wanderings, I succumbed to my laziness and the lure of the comfy blankets and pillows, and stayed in bed instead. There wasn’t another chance to get away with God before the day was well underway. I didn’t think about it again till many hours later when we were struggling to find our way on unfamiliar freeways in a driving rainstorm. Tension was as thick as the moisture-laden clouds above us, and I snapped an impatient response to my sister’s attempts at navigation. I quickly apologized, but later wondered if my momentary grouchiness was just the result of the stress of the moment… or perhaps was a “dead leaf” in my spiritual garden that God would’ve snipped if I’d given Him a chance to tend to my life this morning as I knew He desired.

And so I entered the New Year with new resolve. When for whatever reason I’m tempted to skip out on a morning grooming session I’ll remember the gorgeous view from that balcony and remind myself of how the healthy condition of each individual plant contributed to the beauty of the whole. Likewise I want to be a positive part of the Kingdom of God, not a weak and wilted specimen that’s destined for the compost pile because I gave in too often to the desire to dally in bed awhile.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
(Psalm 139:23-24 KJV)

Friday, April 6, 2012

FOOT Notes


It’s been a busy nine days, and my feet have a lot to show for it.

Frankly, they’re a mess. Blisters have erupted on the heels and in-between the toes where shoes rubbed skin that was not used to the pressure. Dirt from dusty mountain trails has worked its way so deeply into the soles that even repeated scrubbings with soap and water fail to dislodge it. They’ve plummeted through icy water on a river rafting trip, were repeatedly doused in salty seawater and have baked in the sun and hot sand they traveled through. Sunburnt and dry in some places, there are open sores in others where particles of sand were trapped between skin and sandal and rubbed the flesh raw. In short, they’ve had a rough couple of weeks and are in desperate need of some pampering. They could use a few long soaks in a tub filled with warm soap water, a good session or two with a pumice stone, lathering in lotion and maybe perhaps even a Band-Aid or two. But all that can wait till my vacation travels are over and I find myself home once more. Until then I bathe them at night, bandage the worst of the wounds by day, and walk on them some more.

Amazingly, I’m proud of them in their burnt and blistered state. Their condition boasts that they didn’t sit idle as I visited new places. Instead they’re almost a travel diary in themselves of new experiences and opportunities explored and enjoyed. And as I look at them I wonder what condition my spiritual feet are in and what they might have to say about my Christian walk I wonder if they likewise speak of new adventures in the spirit or would instead shame me with a pristine condition that speaks of too much time on the sidelines. Have I ventured out on to new paths in the Spirit that take me to the high places with God, never minding the bumps and bruises I experience along the way, or have I merely sat safely at home and read about spiritual adventures others have taken? Have I plunged into the river of God, risking the rapids that threaten to dislodge me, or merely listened to the stories of others who braved the trip, envious of the thrills and chills they experienced as a result? Have I simply looked out at the world around me or did I get out and experience it firsthand, hiking miles perhaps through wind and waves and spiritually changeable weather?

Likewise my spiritual feet won’t get the pampering they deserve until I finally arrive safely Home. Till then there’s plenty of work to be done as I go about my Father’s business. Christ still washes the feet of His servants through the saints that He sends our way, fellow Christians who use the gifts He’s placed inside of them to wash off the trail dust we’ve collected, minister to our sore spots and refresh and encourage us as we continue along the way.

The more battered my spiritual feet look to me, the better they look to God. The important thing is to keep them moving. I have a feeling He doesn’t think much of feet that simply stand still.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”!
(Isaiah 52:7 NIV)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The DAYS of Our Lives


On January 8th, 2002, President George W. Bush came to Hamilton, Ohio, to sign the education reform bill into law. It was a big day for a little town. Excitement escalated rapidly in the days before his visit, as the high school principal met with Secret Service agents to discuss security measures, last-minute landscaping operations beautified the grounds around the school, and city officials worked out the details of traffic flow. It all came to a head on the morning of the day itself, when schoolchildren ran out of their classrooms into schoolyards in sub-freezing weather (without their coats!) to wave as the helicopters carrying the presidential party flew overhead. Those individuals lucky enough to obtain tickets to the event were the envy of their classmates, families and friends. And almost everyone in town, it seemed, watched the event live on the local TV broadcast.

Now, several weeks after the event, a photo collage of the occasion is being offered for sale in stores in the Hamilton area. Hundreds of tiny photos taken that day are grouped together in such a way that, when viewed as a unit from a distance, they form a picture of President Bush. Perhaps you've seen the same technique used in television and magazine ads recently. The end result is a striking image that has caught my attention each time I've stopped at the store. I always have to move in for a closer look. I'm sure that many of those people who were in the high school auditorium that day have looked to see if their likeness was perhaps captured in one of the photos that make up the image of the president. My gaze has always drifted eventually to the price list posted by the photo display, causing me to move on quickly to whatever shopping I came into the store to do.

But God used that photo to remind me that as Christians, each day of our lives is a snapshot of a moment in time with the Lord. Day after day as our lives unfold, the pictures accumulate, until at some point in time we can look back and likewise see an image form out of the collection of our days - a picture of Jesus Christ. If He truly lives in us, then He will be reflected in our lives for the world to see. The more photos in our collection (the more experiences we have in Christ), the clearer the image of Him will be.

So often we are guilty of wishing away the days of difficulty in our walk with Him. We delight in the sunshine of His blessing, but ask that the dark days of suffering and pain be spared us, or at least cut short in our lives. Yet Christ is as present with us when we hurt as He is when we're happy, and the photos of those days make a sharper image of Christ in our lives for a watching world to see.

Once we become Christians we no longer live our lives for ourselves. Rather, our whole purpose on earth now becomes to make Christ visible to others. Therefore we should delight in whatever each new day brings, be it joy unspeakable, unbearable sorrow, or any emotion inbetween, knowing that allowing Christ to have His way in us on that day will bring His image in our lives that much more in focus to others.

Once His likeness becomes visible in your life, people around you will move in for a closer look. They'll look to see if they can see themselves in any of the situations you've been through. And who knows but that what they see in your "photo collage" may propel them into a relationship with Jesus of their own, out of which the image of Christ may likewise someday arise.

To buy the picture of President Bush in that photo collection will cost you an arm and a leg. To purchase the image of Christ in the midst of our days cost Jesus His life. We should therefore live those days in a manner worthy of the price He paid.

"This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."
(Psalms 118:24)
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