Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Savior, Not a Souvenir

Photo courtesy of Leah Wolf
Christmas began for me back in August this year. It had nothing to do with the onslaught of summertime Christmas in July sales or a desire to join the ranks of those who were finished with their holiday shopping before Halloween had even come and gone. What brought it on was a passage of Scripture that presented itself as an unexpected gift.

The Bible tells us that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a star appeared in the sky over the place of His birth. Wise men traveled from a distant land in search of the Babe, following the star. Their arrival in Jerusalem and subsequent questions about the location of this newborn King of the Jews disturbed the reigning king, Herod. So he arranged a meeting with them, and “then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, Go and search for the Child carefully, and diligently, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him” (Matthew 2:8 AMP).

There were the three words that struck me: Bring me word.

None of the family and friends who have sent me off on various trips has ever asked me to bring back word. Other things, yes; a rock was one rather unusual request, and I've bought lots of shot glasses to bring home to collectors, as well as other souvenirs to give as gifts for those waiting on my return. But word? Not so much. Intelligence gathering has rarely been a priority in my personal travel agenda. Perhaps the difference is that Herod was not a well-wisher wanting to enter into the joy of the event as he claimed, but rather an insecure monarch wanting to retain his reign by killing off any threat to his throne before it had a chance to gain ground. The Magi received direction in a dream to ignore the order they'd been given, and went home by a different route.

Most recently before a trip to visit one of my sons, a friend made a light-hearted request that I bring her back a keychain bearing the name of the place that I'd been. After it was delivered to her she later showed me where it hung on her purse, along with others she had received from travelers to different states and countries. A unique display idea, it intrigued me. So I was surprised when the Holy Spirit nudged me one morning and said I had one, as well. Quickly He reminded me that daily I travel to a different realm to visit with my Father, and I bring back memories from those moments with His Son that I write excitedly about in my journal, sometimes illustrating the same with pictures that remind me later of what we talked about while there. Each entry is a link in the chain that hangs about my life, bearing the Name, not of a place, but of the Person I've been with that day and holding the keys to an existence of joy and wonder and gained wisdom that I then apply to my earthly existence. When I bring Jesus back into my daily life, I've truly brought back Word.

The wonder of this is that it is not just a seasonal experience, but one that can take place every single day of the year. The Bible tells us that as we abide in Him, He abides in us, and thus what began as journal entries eventually become living messages to other people that they read in our daily interactions with them. Oh, to be so full of God that we bring Word of His love and passion for people simply by standing beside them in a line somewhere, bumping into them in the grocery store or working side-by-side with them on an assigned project at work.

My friend told me later that most people don't take her seriously when she makes her souvenir request. They take it as just a form of well-wishing before they leave on their trips. And to my shame I've done the same. Coworkers and complete strangers alike have asked me about the joy I have inside of me, intrigued by a smile in difficult situations or a laugh despite my circumstances. And I've shrugged it off as just a form of small talk or a compliment of sorts. Yet the truth is that people all around us are desperate for the hope and help and truth we carry inside.

Perhaps there is no better illustration of such hunger than in the story of Simeon, a devout man who was desperate to see the promised Savior before he died and had received a supernatural promise that this would happen. Prompted by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple one day, he was there when Mary and Joseph arrived to present their newborn to the Lord. The young parents literally brought the Word of God made flesh and placed Him in Simeon's arms.

God simply asks us to do the same. As our mailboxes and newspapers overflow this time of year with ads and sale fliers may we remember that people around us are not searching for a good deal so much as the real deal...and what a deal it is! Christ was born in a manger that He might be reborn in our hearts, and then born anew in every moment and experience in which we behold Him. Talk about a gift exchange...our captivity for His freedom, our shame for His honor...our end for a new beginning in Him.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
(John 1:1 NIV)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sign Language

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Bridge)
I doubt if I would have noticed it if he hadn't pointed it out. But there it was, an orange sign mounted on one of the highway exit sign poles, with the words “22 Jump” in black print above an arrow pointing to the right. Indeed, I had been on that road and passed that very sign multiple times already in our initial wanderings through the city, but since the words didn't mean anything to me, my eyes had skipped over it like just so much passing scenery. What made it different this time was that my son was driving the car, and he deliberately pointed it out to my husband and me. Working in the film industry as he does, he knew it to be a directional posting for the film crew working on the upcoming movie “22 Jump Street”, to get them where they needed to be.

As if a visit to New Orleans wasn't exciting enough with all the dining, shopping, and sightseeing opportunities available, the city is a hub of the motion picture industry, and at any time all manner of movies, commercials and music videos are in the process of being filmed. Traffic already congested by the crowds of tourists as well as just the city dwellers who are trying to get to home, work, or social activities, driving is made more difficult by roads blocked off temporarily to accommodate movie sets in the making and multiple trucks carrying all the necessary gear and supplies. Highly prized parking spots in front of local eateries are sometimes lost as a result, but the necessary hike to these culinary destinations from more distant sites affords the tourist time to gawk at the lights, cameras, and action going on behind the yellow taped areas, hoping for a glimpse of somebody famous as they briefly pass by.

What a difference it made to be alongside somebody who knew what was going on and could tell a “grip” or a “gaffer” by the tools clipped to his belt from a mere production assistant picking up coffee for the who could detail the function of the various trucks parked on the street by a passing glance inside their open rear doors... a guide who could identify where the shooting might move to next by spotting generators and other equipment delivered in advance and waiting on site to be put to work... an interpreter who translated the seemingly random jumble of letters on brightly colored placards plastered all over the city into names of films that were currently being shot in that locale. His practiced eye saw a whole other world at work and in motion, interacting with the one in which the majority of the people walked, oblivious to much of what was going on around them.

And so it was for us at one time, when as unbelievers we didn't understand the operations of the spiritual realm, had no knowledge of the forces invisibly at work around us, and didn't understand the many signs posted at the turning points in our lives to give us direction and assistance. How badly we needed somebody to come alongside as Phillip so long ago did with the Ethiopian eunuch, who when asked if he understood what he was reading in the Scriptures responded with, “How can I... unless somebody explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31 NIV)

Many of us can recall the day when we did the same, struggling to make sense of what we simply couldn't understand on our own. Thankfully God intervened, as He did initially by sending us Jesus, Who on His way to restoring our relationship with the Father spent countless hours teaching the disciples, explaining the Scriptures to disheartened believers, encouraging those struggling with fear and lack of faith, and helping all who came to Him seeking assistance. As He prepared His followers for His departure, He promised the disciples to send a Comforter, Teacher, Counselor, Helper... in the form of the Holy Spirit who would reside inside each of them. Repeatedly in the Bible pages that follow His coming we see the Spirit of Truth in action in bodily form, operating through Phillip with the Ethiopian, Ananias with Saul, and Peter with the Roman centurion, Cornelius. Likewise today when we reach the point spiritually that the eunuch did, asking for help and inviting God into our lives, suddenly what was invisible to us before we now clearly see, and we not only notice but understand the signs He leaves around us to direct and guide us as we accomplish that which we were sent here to do.

As if to bring the message a little closer to home, yesterday morning I got up and started in on my morning routine. Ready to start my devotional time, I suddenly realized I didn't have my glasses. Since I can't read a word without their assistance, I looked everywhere for them, on the windowsill where I often leave them, on the bathroom sink, the kitchen counter, the laundry room...I even tip-toed soundlessly through the bedroom where my husband still slept, searching everywhere for my specs by the light of my cell phone. Frustrated that I couldn't read my Bible without them but determined to meet with God anyway, I told myself that at least I didn't need the glasses to pray, and began to do so. And suddenly I spied my glasses on the table, not three feet away. Gratefully I put them on, opened my Bible, and instantly the words which were blurry before came into focus and became messages that I could apply to my life in the day ahead of me...a simple illustration of how God works when we turn our thoughts and attention towards Him. Having spoken a language that our hearts can understand, He now uses whatever tools He has at hand to bring our minds in line, as well,, whether they be a pair of lenses in plastic frames, a face behind a pulpit, or a friend who walks beside us along the way.

Our trip to New Orleans changed from memorable to mesmerizing when we asked my my son to take the wheel. All the more do our life experiences improve dramatically when we simply ask God's Son to do the same.

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
(1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Shout-out to Sisterhood

How funny that we met at Applebee's for lunch on this day in September, a month I'd devoted to eating an apple a day to celebrate the onset of fall as well as dabble in apple-based food choices for the nutritional benefit they contain. Little did I realize that our noon-time meal was destined to be a food date for my soul that contained nourishment beyond anything set before me on a plate.

My friend and I met several years ago in the bleachers of a basketball court, the sport itself relatively unimportant; we were simply moms sitting on the sidelines of our children's lives, supporting our kids in their current field of play. As such we had much to talk about, and I soon found that I was attending games for conversational reasons as much as to watch boys bouncing balls on wooden boards for an hour or so.

We're still at it. Five boys between us, and none of them living at home anymore, yet we meet regularly to catch up with each other as much as to discuss what our kids are doing. This last time our talk turned to the subject of siblings. Her mother and aunts she affectionately refers to in combination as “The Sisters”, their antics and attitudes a constant source of love and entertainment to the rest of the family, but a form of relationship that she has not experienced herself.

“You've never had a sister,” her mother lamented to her recently. To be honest, I don't think she's ever felt the loss, as she keeps busy being a sister to the brother she was born to and the many friends she was born again to minister to along the way.

The conversation, however, remained on my mind. Evidence of the love of my own younger sister fill my life and my home, from messages I find in my email in-box to postcards stuck on my fridge, to framed pictures on my windowsills and gifts stitched by her hand mounted on my walls. From our infancy on we've shared everything, from clothes to baths to bedrooms to toys. A built-in best friend, I didn't have to wait for her to come knocking on my door to see if I wanted to play. We grew up surrounded by the same relatives, neighbors and family friends. As such we speak a common language; there are memories we share, jokes we laugh at and heartbreaks we cry over together that nobody else on the planet can relate to with me the way she can.

That doesn't mean we were always close. After drifting apart somewhat in our high-school years we were simply distant daughters of the same father and mother for a number of years that followed. As the years passed away, however, we came together emotionally if not in physical distance, as the life experiences we shared with one another forged us once more into the best of friends that we remain today. Yet at any point in our relationship, regardless of how we were getting along, we were still sisters linked by blood, if not by choice.

Yet the opposite is true in the spiritual realm. It's by choice that we are born again into the kingdom of God and then allow Him to put us into sibling relationships with people of His choosing and linked by His Blood, friendships that perhaps lack the limited view of a shared past yet stretch beyond the boundaries of this earthly existence into the joyful expectation of an eternal future.

They are not without purpose, however, on this side of eternity, as to a large extent they are instrumental in getting us to the finish line with soul intact. There are simply some risks you are only willing to take with your sister by your side. In the earthly realm I laughingly submit coloring one's hair and taking a first bite of sushi as members of that group. Spiritually speaking, however, a walk of faith is easier when there's a hand around to pull you back up when you've fallen down, a smiling face in a world of frowns, a fellow traveler who speaks the same language of grace.

My friend and I finally finished our lunches, paid our bills and went on with days that went better because we had spent that time together in love and laughter. While our mealtime meetings always eventually come to an end, it's wonderful that the friendship between us does not.

Perhaps the “friend that sticks closer than a brother” mentioned in Proverbs is Jesus in the heart of a godly sister.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 NIV)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Shorelines Near and Far

A day off from work, time in my pocket and Starbucks coffee in my cup holder, I was off for my favorite spot in the park. Crowded with fishermen most of the summer, I wondered what this day would hold in terms of congestion at the lake's edge. Praying under my breath that I'd have the place to myself, I then held the same as I rounded the last curve and came upon the parking area.

“Not too bad, “ I muttered to myself. It was about half full, and a quick glance to my left revealed a lone picnic table unoccupied, although there were a fair number of people casting lines farther down the spit. I gathered up my belongings and hurried to lay claim to it. As I drew near, however, I understood why other people had given it a wide berth.

Placed close to the water's edge for the convenience of the many anglers that frequent the place, the water that lapped the shoreline a foot or so away from it's nearest side was not a pretty sight. With too little rain in recent weeks to break it up and distribute it more evenly, the remnants of summer fun at the state park now collected and washed up on the dirt at my feet. Brown globs of oil from boat motors trapped all manner of muck and mire, a collection that likely smelled as bad as it looked. 

Glad for once that my sense of smell was inactive, I looked desperately down the shoreline for another place to sit. Boxes of tackle, discarded sweatshirts and now-empty bags of fast food meals covered the other tables already claimed by sportsmen busy about their work. A huge rock bearing a memorial plaque had been my seat on previous occasions, but it's rounded top left no spot to set my books, my phone, and the all-important cup of coffee. Today I needed room to spread out. With a sigh I laid my burden down on the wooden planks farthest away from the mess and sat down.

I felt the tension of the preceding days gradually lift off of me as I settled into my spot, a reminder of why I'm repeatedly drawn to that location. The peace and quiet and natural beauty of the place is a balm to my soul and salve for my stressed out nerves. I lifted my coffee cup to my lips and looked out across the lake at the vista spread out before me, noting the swimming area to my left, the wooded hills rounding down to the water's edge on the opposite side, even a glimpse of the lodge way off to my right. Boats slipped soundlessly by as an occasional heron or gull winged its hello in passing. If I kept my eyes on the beauty of the distant shorelines, the mess immediately in front of me bothered me less. With a start I realized that that was what I was there to see that morning; therein lay God's message to me that day.

Many of us are likewise drawn repeatedly to a place, perhaps a church, a relationship, a home situation, or even a calling that our hearts can't escape from. Immediate circumstances may make the current situation seem unbearable, as day after day and in wave after wave the garbage of other people's actions wash up to where we're sitting. Desperately we look about us for another place to go – a new church to attend, a new love to find, another living situation to move into, another avenue of ministry – only to find that there's no place to go; we seem to be constantly crowded out by other people and their problems. Yet the truth is that we enter any new situation the same way we left the old, carrying our baggage around with us, desperately looking for a place to set it down and spread our wings. All of us are looking for perfection and are surprised at times to find that the spot God has for us is far less than that.

Perhaps the solution, then, is simply to lift our overlook the negative that surrounds us and soak in the hope and peace and beauty that lies beyond it. Maybe the answer is to keep our eyes on the distant shoreline and let God work His will in change me, to soften your heart, to eliminate some of that which we've been carrying around with lighten our load.

I did that that day. When my coffee was gone, I set down the empty cup and opened the books I'd brought with me. I turned my journal to a new page and lifted the pen to my hand. I read and I studied and I listened...I even laughed a time or two. I talked to God and He talked to me. When we were through I stood up and looked about me in sudden amazement – my car now sat alone in the parking lot, and the once-crowded shoreline now was as empty as could be! I had been so focused on the pages before me and the Voice that spoke to my heart that I no longer noticed the dirty shoreline nearby, nor the movement of the people originally crowding me, as one by one they packed up and left!

I learned some things that day that had little to do with what I read in my books or wrote in my notebook. If I buckle down and do the work that God's planned for me, in whatever situation it is that He has planted me, I'll be surprised to later look around and realize that the conditions which distressed me so originally didn't actually bother me after all, or now no longer disturb me. I have changed, and that was His plan all along.

The perfection I long to find in my life situations, God is more interested in developing in me.

Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke on you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
(Matthew 11:28-30 MKJV)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Switched Seats

Photo courtesy of Mark Bridge
I tried.

I really, really tried to pay attention to the action on the ball field, but, as usual, the actions of the people seated around me proved to be too much of a distraction.

A huge baseball fan, a natural gift for my husband on his birthday were tickets to a game at the local ballpark. Not just any game, this was a match-up between two long-time rivals, the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals, two teams battling to reach the top spot in the Central Division of the National League. My oldest son was slated to go with him to the game, until his responsibilities at his church called him away on that particular weekend. I got to go in his place.

To be honest, I argued with my husband on the matter. Surely he should pick one of his friends who likewise love the game and who are knowledgeable enough to engage him in good conversation on the subject between innings or when the action on the field is slow. Jim knows from past experience that such battter chatter is not something I excel in. He teases me often about not knowing what sport is being played in front of me, let alone which teams are engaged, simply because I am so fascinated by the sights and sounds of the ballpark itself.

If our seats are high enough, there is all the action on the nearby river to watch, just visible over the far side of the stadium – the barges going up and down with their loads, boats doing the same, or people on jet skis chasing each other as the sun dances off the rippled water. Inside the park there are multiple electronic signs flashing messages to catch my eye, as well as the scoreboard itself, a media marvel so encompassing in the information and entertainment it presents that there is really no need to look at the field below it at all.

I am most distracted, however, by the people around me, from the vendors selling their wares up on and down the stairs to the interactions of the people seated in the rows surrounding me. By the time a game is over I find I've been entertained not by a baseball game so much as a life story I've picked up on in the nine innings or so that it's played out before me. I've identified the major players and learned their positions in the unfolding drama, information I can't help but glean from the conversations that take place just inches in front of my face.

On this particular day there were three. To our right sat a couple from nearby Columbus, and it soon became apparent they were not rooting for the local franchise. Bravely they wore their Cardinals t-shirts in the midst of a sea of Cincinnati red, loudly cheering on their team and laughingly answering the angry glares and stares of the local crowd by becoming ever more vocal. Their team was thumping ours, and they were loving every minute of it.

Below us to the left was a family of four which included two young boys obviously visiting a major league stadium for the first time. Sporting jerseys still fresh from their packaging and alternately holding hot dogs and mitts in their hands, they were clearly awed by the experience and enjoying every minute of a day they would never forget.

It was the family to our left that got to me, however, a mom and dad using a trip to the ballpark as a means to connect with their college-age daughters, boyfriends in tow. Because of the long-standing rivalry between the two teams, tickets were in short supply, and they hadn't been able to purchase six seats together. The best they could do was to get the four beside us and two in the row in front.

Determined not to let the separation deter him, the father continually initiated conversation with his daughter nearby, bending low to speak with her as she leaned back to respond. On and on they chatted about her recent engagement, friends they'd seen lately, even the amount of beer being consumed. Clearly the game on the field was just the excuse this dad used to catch up on what was happening in her life.

As the score became more and more unfavorably lopsided, the stands began to empty out. The out-of-towners to our right decided the lead was secure enough to allow them leave the game and beat the traffic home. With seats now open beside us, my husband tapped the daughter on the shoulder to offer her our spots beside her family. Pointing to the man sitting to our left, he jokingly asked her, “Do you know this guy?”

“He's my dad!” she responded, then laughed as she realized we'd figured that out. Gladly she accepted and was soon seated beside him, the free flow of conversation and love facilitated by the move and continuing once more.

It turns out it wasn't just a ballpark scenario after all. Sometimes in the game of life our eyes are so fixed on the field of play that we don't realize that the final outcome has a lot more to with relationship than points scored.

Many years ago I was the daughter whose heavenly Father was tapping her on the shoulder continually. He, too, appeared to have a lot to say about the details of my days...who I was dating, the friends I was hanging out with, and, yes, even my alcohol consumption. I occasionally looked His way to answer Him back before turning in my own direction once more, yet doggedly He pursued me.

I am forever grateful that a friend walking through life beside me took the time one day to tap me on the shoulder, point to God, and likewise say, “Do you know this Guy?” I realized I knew a lot about Him, having been raised in church and all, but I didn't really know Him. Carefully it was explained to me that the distance separating the two of us was the sin in my life, and that Jesus was offering to switch me seats. He would take my spot on the cross so that I might be seated beside my Father in Heaven. Gladly I accepted, and have been gratefully rejoicing in the love of my Father and the easy and open communication with God ever since.

It's important that we deal with the question now, because we can be certain that we will hear it again. When the game of life is over in this world there will be a moment of accountability in the next. Victory or defeat will be based on the answer we give when asked about the One seated on the throne, “Do you know Him?” How wonderful it will be to reply, “He's my Savior, my Joy, my Life, my Hope, my Strength...”

In other words, “He's my Dad!”

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
(Matthew 7:20-23 NIV)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wreckage on the Rooftop

Usually I go to the local state park to encounter the woods, but this week the woods came to a literal and unexpected way.

A storm blew up out of nowhere, generated I suppose by the high heat and humidity we'd been experiencing; summer weather that I'd welcomed after an unusually cool June. The sky darkened and the rumbling thunder announced its rapid approach. Soon it was upon us, the earlier quiet pierced with ear-splitting BOOMS as lightning strikes hit a little too close to home for comfort. Suddenly there was a CRASH so loud it set the dogs to barking, plunged the house into darkness and pelted the deck outside the kitchen window with branches and chunks of wood that bounced and rolled around on the wooden planks.

Either struck with a bolt of lightning or torn apart in the ferocious wind, the tree that grew nearest the house seemed to have taken a direct hit. A nervous text message to my husband had him soon calling to check on the status of the gravel driveway that has a tendency to wash out in bad storms. When I could finally see it, peering through the living room window and the pelting rain, it was a relief to see that it, at least, was holding up well, but the yard was clearly littered with a huge amount of tree debris. Soon the downpour eased, the rain gradually stopped, and I stepped outside to survey the damage.

Gingerly tip-toeing around the mess on the deck, I looked upward to see what was left of the tree. The sun that had suddenly reappeared blazed back at me, the leafy filter that used to be there suddenly gone. A good chunk of the top of the tree was missing, an open wood wound on what was left of the trunk signaling its absence. I soon spotted it dropped on the roof, the massive end overhanging on one side, the leafy branches extending past the point at the top...and our internet satellite dish, now twisted and squashed, barely visible beneath it all.

That evening my husband climbed on top of the house, small chainsaw in hand, and began cutting off the smaller branches and tossing them off, stepping gingerly on a surface covered with rain-slick leaves while battling the incline at the same time. Dogs safe in the house, he let the bigger chunks of wood he sawed through simply roll off and bounce into the growing pile of timber below, mercifully missing the glass patio doors and windows nearby. As he worked his way through to the shingles he found that there were at least two baseball-sized holes that he could see from the outside, one made visible by the tree limb still sticking through it. Praying it wouldn't rain any more until a roofer could come and cover it with a tarp, he climbed down for the night with a better idea of what to tell the insurance agent in the morning.

At least we've still got a roof over our heads. That old adage was meant to bring comfort during times of distress; when everything else seemed to be going wrong and collapsing around one, at least there was a place of refuge and safety in which to take shelter. But lately a lot of people around me are finding that the storms of life have left them with holes in that which they earlier looked to for security. Those who trusted in their strong bodies and good health find both suddenly gone, taken away by potentially deadly diseases or the treatment of the same. Parents who used to provide good counsel and an open door have died or moved away from positions in which they can provide either. Many seemingly solid marriages have open wounds with life issues sticking out of them that those involved can't seem to pull out or cut away. Bank accounts are devastated by sudden job loss in a stubbornly slow economy that keep the doors of opportunity locked up tight. With no earthly insurance agent to call for problems such as these, many are looking to those around them to patch up the leaks in their lives, and react in frustration when they find that they cannot.

The truth is, we're looking in the wrong direction. We're looking about us when our eyes should be directed above. Just as I looked up into what remained of the tree and saw the sun blazing back at me, so when we take a moment to survey the damage and look up, we'll see that God hasn't moved, and in fact is more visible than He might have been earlier. Perhaps it took the very shambles of our lives lying about our feet to finally get our attention, to bring us to a point in which He becomes our only hope, and we at last look to Him and beg Him to take charge of situations that are rapidly spinning out of control. Bound by the laws of free will, He can't and won't intervene unless we ask Him to, and sometimes our pride and self-reliance have to take a direct hit before we are desperate enough to ask for that which we so desperately need.

Repairs are costly. The insurance adjuster and three sets of roof repairmen have plodded all over the thing, much to the consternation of the dogs below. We are grateful that we don't have to pay for the whole job. We owe our deductible;the insurance company pays the rest. The current debate is over what“the rest” amounts to.

Thankfully in the spiritual realm, God paid it all. Restoring our relationship with Him and now repairing the broken places in our lives cost God His Son. There is no way we could repay Him, and thankfully He doesn't ask us to; He did it out of His great love for us. What we give Him in return however is likewise expensive; He wants our hearts, our worship...and our willingness to simply listen to His voice and do what He says to get things in order once more. In short, He wants our all.

Part of the disagreement between the men who have examined the boards above us concerns how much of the covering has been affected. A trip to the attic disclosed more leaks than were visible from the outside, as well as a broken truss that triggered discussion about whether it should be stabilized or replaced, the latter a much more expensive option.

Similarly, too often we are willing to submit to God's direction only until things in our situations begin to improve. When the dust has settled somewhat about our feet and the chaos has quieted to some degree, we are quick to grab the reins of control once more, often with disastrous results. Treating the outward symptoms of an internal problem is not enough; we have to get to the heart of the matter. We are willing to settle for a patch job, when God knows we need to replace the whole roof. He tells us we must be born again, let Him make us a new creation, the old life gone, all things brand new. We don't need remnants of previous disasters hanging about us the rest of our lives.

In the days immediately following the storm, we were most affected by the loss of our internet connection, our satellite dish squashed as it was under the weight of the tree. We missed the ease of access to the web that we were used to, and found we were eager to head to our workplaces in town where it was available to us.

Likewise in the midst of the storms of life we sometimes lose the ability to hear and connect with God, just when we need to hear His voice the most. It's necessary sometimes to seek out places of counsel and connection to Him elsewhere until our own relationship and ability to hear directly is restored. He reminds us to join with others regularly for worship and teaching, and to heed the advice of wise counselors, the very things in our struggles that we are sometimes least apt to do.

The worst storms we go through can result in the sunniest times of our lives afterward if we deal with the wreckage on our rooftops in the manner God suggests.

But if from there you will seek (inquire for and require as a necessity) the Lord your God, you will find Him if you [truly] seek Him with all your heart [and mind] and soul and life. When you are in tribulation and all these tings come upon you, in the latter days you will turn to the Lord your God and be obedient to his voice.”
(Deueteronomy 4:29-30) AMP

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Father's Favor

Helix Nebula - "The Eye of God"
I got myself in trouble at work in the grocery store yesterday. Surprisingly, I did so apart from breaking any rules or disobeying a spoken command, and with only the best intentions in my heart.

Standing at the end of my checkout lane was a relatively new bagger, one who sacked groceries with a consistently cheerful attitude and an ever present desire to please.  His smile always firmly in place, he would jump to help me out whenever he saw groceries piling up on the belt beside me, a quality that endears a bagger to a cashier like no other. I told him repeatedly that he was the best!

After working together for quite a while that afternoon, he was eventually sent on break, replaced by a customer service clerk who took over his duties while he was gone. Her bagging days long behind her, she had retained her skill, bagging with a speed and expertise that impressed me to the point that I told her it was simply wonderful to have her working again at the end of my lane.

Soon I was the one sent on break, and when I came back, Bagger Number One was back in place. With a twinkle in his eye and an even bigger smile than normal on his face, he informed me that he had heard a story while I was gone, and there was something we needed to discuss. Apparently Bagger Number Two had told him that she was my favorite, and he knew from conversations with me that that couldn't possibly be so! Jokingly confronted on the issue, I laughed sheepishly and told him that I may have told a third employee the exact same thing!

Truth is, whichever bagger is standing at the end of my line is my current favorite...even those who are loved apart from their complete lack of bagging skills! They each have something special to offer, and our interactions are unique to the relationship between us. Some have disabilities that make the successful completion of their tasks a greater challenge, and others' minds are fixed on things other than the food items before them; the topics of conversation are as diverse and numerous as the names on the work schedule. Simply put, each of them has a special place in my heart, help make my days a joy and the hours standing behind a cash register fly by.

Perhaps that is why I was so excited when an especially thoughtful customer service representative arranged Bagger Appreciation Week to celebrate their contributions to our store. For seven days there were bright streamers and balloons decorating the registers, baggers walking around with icing on their lips from free cupcakes and smiles on their faces as they were allowed to pick other store employees to take their scheduled turn pushing carts in from the parking lot. Not only did she arrange for all the cashiers and members of management to write these grocery sackers notes of appreciation, but she then posted all those affirmative messages on a wall for the baggers and shoppers alike to read. Everyone walked away feeling better for having done so, and there was a well-spring of positive energy about the place as a result.

I've told all the baggers at one time or another that it simply does my heart good to turn my head to the left and see them standing at the end of my checkout lane. Similarly, it's a matter of positioning that determines our standing in the spiritual realm. Whoever is at the end of God's line of sight is His current favorite, apart from any skill they may possess. All of us are working with disabilities of one type or another, and struggle somewhat in the completion of our assigned tasks. It's what we do with what we've been given that matters, and the attitude with which we do it that delights Him.

Perhaps you remember the Bible story about the woman who attracted the Lord's attention when she put just a couple of coins in the offering box at the temple (Luke 21:2). She didn't have a lot to give, but she gave all that she had. God simply asks us to do the same, in every area of our lives.

Even the most gifted among us fail to attract God's notice if they're're not standing in the right place spiritually. It's not the position of our bodies that matters, but of our hearts. When we turn them towards Him, His eye turns towards us...and His loving favor is the end result. 

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might...”
(Ecclesiastes 9:10 MKJV)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Last Word

A text message chat between us five family members detailed the timing of my youngest boy’s arrival home for a holiday weekend. Letting us know what time he’d be at the airport, he was wondering if anybody could be there at that time to pick him up.

“Can do.” my eldest son texted in response.

Will do.” was my reply.

My middle son scooped us all with his one word answer: “Done.”

The next morning I had breakfast with the latter before sending him off to begin a multi-state drive back home, some travel restrictions he was dealing with causing me more than the usual concern for his safety. Yet instead of giving in to worrisome thoughts I turned the issue into a heartfelt conversation with another family member, He who is actually the Head of the household…and when I had laid my prayer request at His feet and picked up my phone again to head on with my day, there was His one-word response still showing in the last of the earlier text communications: Done.

Amazingly, as the day wore on, that word flashed again and again before me, the resulting peace closing the door on the worry that was trying to come in. Every note I wrote to myself on my phone was finished when I tapped that one word at the top right hand corner of the screen: “Done”. The pictures or comment streams I clicked on in Facebook were brought to a close the same way. It seemed to be the last word in  any of my communications that day. As a result, I went about my tasks and off to work in quiet confidence instead of the usual anxiety, and sure enough, shortly after midnight came the text message that my son had made it home safe and sound. Done.

The same answer has come back to me repeatedly in response to other prayer requests this past week, as well. A sick baby needed relief from constant seizures. Done.  Seemingly inaccessible computer files needed to be restored and properly saved. Done. A lost wallet containing a large sum of money needed to be found. Done.

While I seem to be hearing a string of favorable responses of late, I've learned to accept my share of less popular replies, as well. Many is the time I've dealt with a “Not yet.” to a prayer request, as well as the occasional outright “No.” But the fact that I have an open door to Heaven and am even able to have such honest communication with the God who lives there is an answer in itself to earlier generations that cried out to Him in the midst of their distress. They begged for forgiveness of their sins and a restoration of the relationship between them and their Creator. Then they dealt with centuries of waiting through the silence of the “not yet” response. But eventually the answer came in the form of a Savior, one who taught them to listen to and love their God and one another, then showed them how to do so by serving and loving them unconditionally Himself  in the time He lived and walked among them.

And now when it's time for us to go Home, we know we will be met upon our arrival by our older Brother, who long ago made all the necessary arrangements and had the last word in the ongoing conversation, as well.

“It is finished!”, He said.  In other words, “Done.”

“So when Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, 'It is finished!' And bowing his head, he gave up His spirit.”
(John 19:30 NKJV)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Alive Again

At first glance it looked like a giant smudge on the new glass of the door to our deck. Moving in to investigate more closely I realized it was something else entirely. A large bird of some sort, perhaps a mourning dove, had apparently been startled while pecking at dropped birdseed on the wooden boards under the bird feeder, and had flown smack into the glass in its haste to get away. Amazingly, the bird’s image was left behind in intricate detail in the dust on the door.

Birds fly into that window all the time, usually leaving just a feather or two stuck to the glass in their wake. The lucky ones bounce off and sit gathering their wits about them for a few minutes before eventually taking off again in a safer direction. Others succumb to broken necks or the damage to their battered bodies in just a matter of minutes, leaving me to dispose of them before the dogs have a field day with their feather remains.

Never before had I seen anything like this. From wingtip to outspread wingtip the bird’s likeness was pictured before me, down to the feathery plumage of its torso. The dawning morning light was just right to illuminate the sight against the remaining dark surroundings, and I quickly grabbed my camera in the hope of somehow capturing the picture before it became less visible as the day wore on.

Perhaps it registered with me so strongly because I know a lot of people whose life circumstances are similar to that bird’s experience. Eagerly taking off on some new venture, they have barely gotten off the ground when they’ve slammed into an invisible obstacle, falling back to sit stunned and shaken and wondering what on earth has happened to them. Many times their dreams succumb at that point to the blow they’ve received.

Surprisingly, I didn’t find a bird carcass on the deck boards that morning. Surely if it hit the glass with the force needed to leave the image it did, it could not have survived. But things are not always as they seem. Perhaps the purpose behind that dusty imprint was simply to remind me that a seemingly dead future can be resurrected, and that a promise can live beyond the grave.

God’s left such reminders before. The Shroud of Turin is one such example, a piece of cloth said to have been wrapped around Jesus’ body at His burial, bearing in blood the features of the crucified Savior. Yet it was set aside at His rising, His abandoned grave clothes all that was left in the tomb on that first Easter morning.

While there is much debate about the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity, there’s no disputing that Christ’s image was imprinted on the hearts of the disciples that were discussing the events surrounding His death as they trudged wearily to Emmaus. When Jesus suddenly appeared walking alongside them, disguising His true identity but discussing the events of the last few days and explaining their significance, those same hearts burned within them, helping them to eventually understand and believe, and infusing their lives with new hope.

God simply does same thing with us. He walks beside us in the midst of our distress, encouraging and explaining things to us, although often we don’t recognize His voice or the form in which He appears. As a new day dawns we are surprised to see an imprint of His presence left somewhere where we’d stumble across it, and suddenly we realize that He was with us in the darkness all along and hasn’t left us, as we supposed. Hope infused and hearts beating wildly within us, we grab our resurrected vision and rush as the two disciples did to tell somebody else of what we’ve just experienced. Not only is the gospel thus spread, but our expectancy rises from the dead, and our dreams suddenly take flight once more. 

“On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces…”
(Isaiah 25:8 NIV)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Winged Valentines

The floral shop of the grocery store takes on a special wonder in the weeks before Mother’s Day. Flower arrangements and gift ideas of all sorts spring up in the shelves of the cooler and bloom on the display tables in that crowded section of the store. Special touches to simple potted plants give them an eye-catching beauty that turns a wandering shopper into a paying customer in just a matter of minutes. Simple things, like colorful helium-filled balloons tethered to blooming greenery by matching lengths of broad ribbon, sheets of bright tissue-paper-like plastic that add a splash or color to glass vases, and beautifully tied bows set off the wares in such a way that is sure to catch the eye and delight the soul of spring-starved shoppers walking by.

What got me were the butterflies.

Brilliantly colored artificial picks set in a flat pan of blooming miniature daffodils and blooming hyacinths, they looked for all the world like they had just landed there for a moment’s rest before flitting off to their next stop. I would have bought the arrangement based on the butterflies alone, and apparently the floral manager understood their pull, because she was soon placing them on plants of all sorts whose natural beauty was set off by these winged angels. Every time a customer came through my lie with such a decorated gift for a mother in their life, I’d catch the eye of my friend who was bagging for me at the end of my register, and she’d say, “I know. The butterflies.”

We had one such exchange even after Mother’s Day had passed when a shopper in front of me was purchasing three such decorated arrangements that were marked down because the blooms were passed the point of perfection.  Overhearing us, the customer looked at me inquisitively, and I laughingly explained to her that I had a weakness for the butterfly picks. She said, “You can have these three; I’m just going to throw them away. I only want the bulbs to plant in my garden for next year.” Insisting that I take them, she quickly pulled them off her purchase and gave them to me in exchange for the receipt I was holding out to her. Gratefully I thanked her and put them aside to take home with me at the end of the day. Already I could see them displayed in the flower pot planting that was soon to grace my front porch step.

Later that weekend I read a Facebook post by a man who was having a spiritual revival of sorts in his personal life. Raised in a Christian home and a pastor himself, he knew all about the love of God in his head…he just hadn’t felt it in his heart so much recently. Yet all of a sudden he discovered that God was reaching out to him in ways that were specific to him alone. He was inescapably drawn in by this love that was extended out to Him, and in his new found joy, he challenged his Facebook friends to look about them for the little ways in which God was speaking His love.

It didn’t take me long. Instantly my mind flew back to the butterflies who had winged their way so recently into my heart. Knowing the attraction they held for me, God made a way to give them to me through the actions of a good-hearted customer. His love expressed to each of us in a multitude of similar exchanges over time gradually binds our hearts to His so tightly that no future challenge is strong enough to ever rip them apart. But the process begins when we start to see and receive the little valentines He scatters throughout our days. 

Butterflies have absolutely filled my vision this past spring. I’ve seen them everywhere, on the printed fabric of shirts and purses, on necklaces and notepaper, even tattooed on necks. Each sighting is met with a smile and its message of love received, the discovery then dutifully recorded in my journal. It’s pages are full as a result, and so is my heart.

The Bible says that God gives us the desires of our hearts, and what more do any of us want on a continual basis but to know that we are loved? And so He responds, in a multitude of bless us, to be sure, but even more so in the hope that we will then turn and be a blessing to someone else. Those who receive love can’t help but give it away. But sometimes we have to see it before we can take it in to our love-starved souls. So look about you with new eyes for ways God might be waving His wings at you as He flutters by, receive with joy the butterfly kisses He plants in passing, and let your heart and life (and those of the people around you!) be changed forever as a result of the love that deliberately lands in your line of sight.

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him?”
(Matthew 7:11 MKJV)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Needing Neighbors

“We got the wrong butter,” the mother said to her daughter, flipping through the coupons in her hand while the girl unloaded their groceries from the shopping basket to the belt. “The other one would have been cheaper with the discount.”

“Do you want me to go back and exchange it?” the teenager asked.

Suddenly the elder of the two broke into a huge grin. “You know what? We’re getting it all for free anyway! It doesn’t matter!” she said, and the two of them laughed delightedly.

I looked at her expectantly for the explanation that was sure to follow.

“Somebody gave us a van yesterday, and $200 in grocery gift cards!” Noting my surprised look she went on to say, “I take care of severely handicapped kids - the kind on machines and in wheelchairs…the ones that need a lot of help. And my old van broke down recently. I haven’t had a vehicle in weeks! Yesterday a church donated one to me, and it’s wonderful!” She went on to tell me that although it was fourteen years old it ran great and had many features that their old vehicle lacked. It was an incredible blessing, and then there was the money to help with her food bill on top of it all. She was clearly over the moon about her good fortune.

When I hit the total button, usually a bad moment in the checkout line, she was overjoyed all over again. “Look at that! We have enough left for next week‘s bill, as well!” When her groceries were bagged she thanked me, her non-stop smile still in place, and started to push her loaded cart towards the door. Something had been stirring in my brain while we talked, however, and as she left I stopped her with a sudden question, asking if she lived on a certain street several miles out of town. When she answered in the affirmative, her eyes wide, I described a house and its location at the end of the road, where it meets the highway. Again she nodded.

“I’m your neighbor!” I told her, explaining that I lived a mile up the road on the other side. As we had been talking earlier I’d remembered a story I’d read in the paper about a family that welcomed disabled children into their home, despite the incredible amount of work involved in caring for them and the pain of losing them when they eventually succumbed to their medical challenges. In fact, it was the name of our road mentioned in the newspaper article that initially caught my eye, and I realized after reading about them that that we were living near some very special people indeed. She told me she was almost sixty years old, an age when most people start thinking of retirement and living for themselves for awhile, and yet she found she couldn’t stop taking these kids in. It delighted me to finally meet her and to hear that she who gives help had received the same from somebody else.

Despite the proximity of my house to hers, it was the people in the church who came alongside her and assisted her who were her true neighbors, a word that defines the position of a heart more than the location of a house. No matter where we live, we are all surrounded by very special people, gifted in different ways and unable to quit functioning in them. We move into their neighborhood spiritually speaking when our hearts are stirred with compassion for the things that move theirs and we find ways to help them get done what they’ve been called to do.

Some of us have been living in the same place for a long time. The good news is that it’s not too late to move. There’s surely a good neighborhood near you with people just waiting…needing…for you to notice the vacancy. Move on up today.

“Give, and it shall be given to you, good measure pressed down and shaken together and running over, they shall give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you measure, it shall be measured to you again.”
(Luke 6:38 MKJV)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Robin Reflections

Sundays are simply a delight to me. Although I enjoy my relationship with God every day, I live life a little differently on the day traditionally set aside to worship Him to mark it as set apart.

It’s on that day of the week alone that I stop at McDonald’s to pick up a quick breakfast on the way to an early morning music practice session before church. I try to get to my parking spot down the road from the brick building early enough so that I can sit in the car for a few minutes and consume it while conversing with God. I mark the uniqueness of those moments by treating myself to a hot mocha instead of the usual coffee in my cup, but yesterday I had even yet to take a sip when God showed up in a big way.

As I savored the usually-forbidden flavor of the sausage McMuffin in my hand (the grease stains on the paper wrapper a good indication of why it was a Sundays-only moment), I was startled when something struck the driver’s side window beside me. A robin had landed on the edge of the door, so close to the glass that surely the tips of its toes hooked in the window slot were the only things holding it there! But there it stayed, despite how I jumped in response to its sudden appearance, cocking its head at me and eyeing me steadily. Amazed, I studied it in fascination; the bright orange of its breast feathers, the beautiful brown on it’s back, and the black eye rimmed in white that was inspecting me as closely as I was looking at it!

For the longest time we simply stared at each other. What was it doing, I wondered, and why was it there? Did my breakfast look as good to it as it did to me? Was my sausage McMuffin the draw? Robins eat worms they pull from the ground, I reminded myself. The are not parking-lot scavengers like the sparrows that peck about for left-over french fries. I didn’t understand.

Finally it flew to the grass on the side of the road next to where I’d parked. But just a minute later it landed back on the car again, this time on the passenger side at the bottom edge of the windshield, again looking interestedly at me sitting inside. Having never seen a robin act this way in all my life, it definitely got my attention.

Later I realized that was exactly the point.

I had deliberately set aside that time to visit with God, and yet His sudden appearance surprised me. The truth is that I didn’t expect Him to show up physically at all, much less covered in feathers.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing from God in certain ways. And it’s true that many times He simply speaks to our hearts directly, highlights His thoughts in our Bibles, or causes them to come out of the mouths of our favorite preachers or singers. But God is not limited to the confines of our church buildings or the boxes we place Him in. Instead, we’ve limited ourselves in our expectations of how He might appear to us, and so we walk right by His Presence in the burning bushes of our lives repeatedly. As a result He seems to take a special delight in surprising us, and enjoys our startled excitement when we finally recognize that He’s been right beside us in the “Emmaus moments” of our days.

His message to me yesterday was two-fold. Despite the wonder of seeing the brilliant color of its feathers up close, it was the bird’s black eye staring at me so intently that initially got my attention. Thus the first point was simply that He sees me.

Such an obvious conclusion shouldn’t discount it’s importance. Surely we all need to know that God sees us in the trials we are going through, standing at the base of mountains we can’t seem to climb, or blocked by obstacles we can’t seem to overcome. We truly wonder at times if God is aware of the difficulties we face and the issues we’re dealing with. The answer is a resounding yes. Life is so much easier when we know that we don’t struggle through it alone.

The second point is equally important, that being that God is simply interested in the details of our days. I smile to think of the way the robin cocked it’s head and watched me so intently as I consumed my breakfast. Is God truly interested in the little things of life, like what I might be having for breakfast, why I like it so, and what I’m thinking of doing next? I absolutely believe so. It’s the little details that we would only confide to an intimate friend that God is so hungry to hear Himself. His goal is to be first in our thoughts and closest to our hearts of any of those we are in relationship with.

He wages an uphill battle in that area, however, because we are so distracted by things we can see and hear (and in my case, taste). The visible draws our attention away from the unseen, and so God has to show up in truly spectacular or surprising ways to grab our attention and focus it back on Him. The physical world is simply at His back and call to call us back to Him, in Whom, as the Bible states, we truly live and move and have our being.

It’s been a long-standing issue with God. Even back in Bible days He was using the natural world He created and in which His people wandered to first grab their attention and then guide their steps. Stories of burning bushes, plagues of frogs and flies, traveling pillars of cloud and fire, droughts and floods fill the pages of His Book. Similarly has He filled the pages of my book(s), the journals I keep on an ever-present basis for the purpose of recording the many ways He’s shown up in my life simply to get my focus back on Him. Once you start seeing Him operate in such a way you find that you have more stories to tell in that vein than time to write them all down.

I’m grateful that I don’t serve a Sundays-only God, but one who is interested in the smallest details of my everyday life. It’s my constant prayer that He will open my eyes of expectation to see Him in forms and places that I wouldn’t ordinarily think to look. Today He sent a robin to remind my heart that it’s not the things I do on any given day that make it special, but rather His Presence in it that truly sets it apart.

“Heaven’s calendar has seven Sundays a week. God sanctifies each day. He conducts holy business at all hours and in all places. He uncommons the common by turning kitchen sinks into shrines, cafes into convents, and nine-to-five workdays into spiritual adventures.” - Max Lucado

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they…would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”
(Acts 17:26-27 NIV)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Victory on Valentine's Day

I could place her face; it was her name I couldn‘t come up with. But then rarely do I know the names of the people I meet over the checkout lane of the grocery store until a friendship has been firmly established between us. Yet she chatted merrily on, mentioning in the same tone she’d just used to discuss the weather we’d been having lately that she was going through a divorce.

I stopped scanning her groceries for a moment and looked at her. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” she asserted. “And I don’t need that in a bag…” she said, reaching to grab the bottle of vodka I’d just set down and putting it directly into her purse. The action caused me to wonder if she was really as fine about it all as she claimed, especially when I saw her the next day, the one after that, and the one following that as well, doing exactly the same thing. Some days she came through my line, on others I just happened to look up and spot her in another checkout lane just in time to see her stash the bottle in her handbag. Perhaps these days before Valentine‘s Day were tough ones for her in her current situation, and the liquor was just her pain medication of choice.

That thought prompted mental visions of another friend for whom this particular holiday was also especially difficult this year. A coworker who looks too young to have already been married two years, she’s an army wife whose husband has been deployed overseas for the past eight months. The separation has been hard on them both, and they are eagerly counting down the days till their reunion sometime this spring.

I asked her recently how she made it through the holiday season just past. She told me that Thanksgiving and Christmas weren’t so bad, perhaps because she had lots of family around, but that New Year’s hit her hard, as she and her soldier had always been together before this to share a New Year’s Eve kiss. And now Valentine’s Day loomed on the horizon, and she hoped she’d be scheduled off that day so she wouldn’t have to see people buying flowers and candy for the love of their lives, while hers was still so far away.

Imagine her disappointment then when the work schedule came out for the week of Valentine’s Day, and not only was she scheduled to work on the holiday, but she was placed in the floral department all week long! With cashier hours in short supply at the start of the year and the floral department needing extra help to handle the Valentine’s Day demand, she’d been given hours there in order to meet the need and fill out her paycheck at the same time. Grateful for work though she was, the action rubbed salt into a wound that was already raw and bleeding.

Surprisingly, she, too, found solace for her pain in something she carried in a bag…not a handbag, but a shopping bag that she filled with gifts for her friends and coworkers. By day she took orders, carried fresh blooms from the cooler and cashed out customers making purchases, and then she spent her off hours tying personally-addressed Valentines on to the stems of cloth flowers, depositing them in the pink carry-all until it was packed full. A day or two before the holiday she started delivering them with a smile, an occasional hug, and a warm wish for each. Using some tips from a regular in the department she also put together an arrangement of fresh flowers for the mother who supports her in so many ways in her husband’s absence. She simply spread joy wherever she went that week.

Her actions seemed to inspire the same in her coworkers, who were soon passing out mini-bouquets, frosted cupcakes, or buying little remembrances for any possibly lonely soul who came to their minds. And not surprisingly, the love she gave away came back to her in the form of flowers from friends, a greatly anticipated gift from her hubby, and the thoughtful appreciation of the many people who were blessed by her actions. She simply took the pain she was feeling and turned it into gain somehow for everyone around her, and found victory on the very Valentine’s Day she’d been dreading as a result.

The Bible warns that in this life we will have tribulation; each of us will face troubling situations that break our hearts and threaten to wear us down physically and emotionally. It’s what we do with that trouble that counts. So often we stay so consumed with getting through the matter ourselves that we don’t even see the suffering of those that surround us. We feel we have nothing at that point to give to anybody else, anyway. Yet God urges us to use the very thing that threatens to destroy us as a tool to help the person struggling beside us get a leg up on their own situation. In doing so we find that we are gradually lifted out of our own pit of despair as well.

We need to remember that we don’t fight our battles alone; God sends visible reminders of hope and the victory He promises if we just have eyes to see them. Perhaps it was just one such messenger who suddenly appeared before my friend in the floral shop a day or two before the holiday, a man dressed in army fatigues, presumably from the nearby recruitment center, there to buy flowers for his girl. She told me later that she was surprised she didn’t break down at the sight of him. Yet I believe he was really sent there on a mission to deliver a gift…his presence perhaps a heavenly reminder that sooner than she thinks, her own soldier will come walking home to her. On that day she will cry…but they will be tears of joy.

“…for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap…And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all…”
(Galatians 6:7,9-10 NKJV)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sudden Snow

“It’s snowing?” I said in disbelief as the store’s double doors opened wide and I caught a quick glimpse of the outside world.

The possibility of frozen precipitation hadn’t been mentioned in the last forecast I had heard. Apparently a lot of other people had missed it, as well, from the surprised comments I heard as shoppers brushed flakes off their clothing as they came in and stomped their feet on the mats in the doorway. But surprise soon turned to consternation as the snowflakes quickly covered the roads, then melded together in the frigid temperatures and high winds to become a solid sheet of ice.

The resultant driving difficulties were soon reported by people who were caught out in the bad weather and came slipping and sliding on into the store; cars off the road, traffic tie-ups, coworkers calling in to say they’d be late because they were stuck on the very road I needed to take to get home. The dispatch radio on the shoulder of the policeman on security duty that night cackled incessantly as he tried to give advice to customers about to head out the door.

“Which way do you have to go?” he’d ask, and then warn them that hills were especially slick and people were having trouble getting up them, forcing them to turn around when their spinning wheels could get no traction.

The store soon emptied out as people eventually stopped venturing out under the bad weather conditions. Soon we had more workers than people to wait on. Told I could leave early, I was suddenly not so sure I wanted to go. The constant stream of driving horror stories by those coming into the building had made me doubt that I wanted to head out. Since I had a grocery list of my own in my pocket, I decided to delay my departure with that and give the salt trucks a little while to work on the roads.

As I pushed my shopping cart down the now deserted aisles I remembered that my husband would likely be driving home as well from his weekly Bible study home meeting. Knowing he shouldn’t even look at his phone while driving, I yet shot him a text message asking him if he was okay and what the roads were like, secretly hoping he’d call me back and say, “Stay where you are - I’m coming to get you.”

That didn’t happen. He did call, but he said the roads weren’t so bad, and definitely navigable. “You can do this,” he said. “Just take it slow.”

Surprisingly, that was just what I needed to hear, and his words changed my perspective completely. If this man who knew me and my driving abilities (or lack thereof) thought the situation was within my capabilities, then clearly it was. When another frequent shopper stopped me in passing to feed my fear and warn me with his own story I cut him off short, saying, “My husband says I can do this. I’ll be fine.” and marched quickly away from his tale of woe.

It’s not just winter that makes travel difficult; life sometimes does the same. So many of us find ourselves at the base of hills we can’t seem to climb. Unable to catch a grip on the slippery slopes before us, we often find ourselves sliding backwards despite our best efforts to get ahead. Many are in danger of giving up and turning around. Yet God tells us in His Word that what is impossible in our own strength is possible in His; His power inside of us is what propels us over the mountains that stand in our way.

The trouble is that we sometimes forget the extent of His power and authority that are available to us to deal with any situations we face. We listen to voices of doubt and disbelief from fellow travelers, and when in our fear we call Home and ask to be rescued, the One who created us and thus knows us better than anyone else answers us with the gentle reminder that we can do all things through Christ Who gives us strength. We know that of course; sometimes we just need the reassurance and the comfort in the sound of His voice. Then we can respond to any naysayer attempting to discourage us by voicing with confidence, “My Bridegroom says I can do this. I’ll be fine.”

I did get home safely that night. I found as I set out that the salt trucks had indeed prepared the way before me, as God promises He will do for us in all our earthly travels. There was one strip of clearing pavement down the middle of the road, and as long as I kept a wheel in that and didn’t venture too far to the left or to the right, I was fine. Yet as I pulled into the driveway it was such a relief and delight to see the lights of home before me. The tension finally lifted off my shoulders as I pulled into the garage and then entered that place of safety, warmth, and joy to find the one who loves me waiting there to welcome me home.

Rest in the knowledge that one day soon you will simply do the same.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also I me. In my Father’s house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you…that you also may be where I am.”
(John 14: 1-3 NIV)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When Jack Came Back

Photo courtesy of Brian Bridge
We were surprised to arrive at my friend Terry’s house and find the gate to her porch standing open and two of her three dogs greeting us from outside the fence instead of inside where they belonged. Upon entering her home we found Terry with jacket thrown across her back, pulling on her shoes and about to go outside to yell for the missing pup one more time. The dogs having broken out of the yard a couple of hours earlier, all were safely home again except the littlest one, Jack - the one who didn’t like the rain and the cold yet was still away on a night filled with the same. Her daughter despondent over his absence and Terry clearly distracted herself, our weekly fellowship and Bible study meeting was off to a poor start.

We gathered at the dining room table for the evening meal, a delicious repast normally salted with the laughter and banter of friends coming together again after a week’s absence to catch up on each other’s lives. But this week the fellowship was subdued as Jack’s nonappearance hung over the group like a dark cloud, the muted conversation punctuated by Terry’s repeated calls to the dog in the night. In between her trips outside she sat at the table with head down, idly twirling spaghetti noodles on her fork, her heart apart from the discussions going on around her.

Finally Gary could stand it no longer.

“Don’t you know that what’s important to you is important to God?” he asked her. At that she looked up and said, “Of course.”

“Then let’s pray and get this over with,” he said, quickly leading us in a short prayer asking God to bring the dog safely home and thanking Him in advance for doing so.

As the table was cleared for the ensuing study time I struggled with the battle going on in my own mind. God’s “be anxious for nothing” command echoed repeatedly in my brain, even as my mind considered the dangers to a small dog out alone in the night, ranging from cars on the busy street outside to coyotes in the surrounding rural acreage. My hope for a positive outcome bounced around in my heart like a ping-pong ball, slammed about by the paddling of negative circumstances on the one hand and then buoyed in return by my belief on the other. Finally God scored the winning point by asking me which camp I would find myself in when Jack came back in the end, as surely he was going to do - would I be rejoicing in His proven faithfulness with the rest, or apologizing for my lack of trust once more? Too many times I’ve been in the latter group; I didn’t want to hear again the words Jesus spoke to Peter as He reached to rescue him at the end of his water-walking adventure: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”. Now was the time to choose faith over fear, and I made a conscious decision to do so.

God Himself seemed to applaud my decision, as I subsequently found message after message from His heart to mine in the printed pages of the lesson we were studying. Appropriately called The Transformed Heart, it was a discussion on the way God reveals His presence to us in the storms we go through in life. Surely He did so to me, even as the rain fell in the cold night outside. I captured His words in big circles of blue ink with an increasingly confident smile on my face, to the consternation of my husband/group leader sitting beside me who wondered what on earth I was doing. As my papers grew more and more marked my faith grew, as well, until all doubt was dismissed and belief rose to take its place.

The mention of Peter’s name above reminded me with a smile of another group meeting recorded in the Bible in which the faithful had gathered to pray for Peter’s release from prison. Suddenly their prayer gathering was interrupted when God sent His answer to their request in the form of Peter himself, knocking on the door!  And indeed so were we nearing the end of our weekly time together when Terry’s daughter suddenly jumped up and ran to the back door in response to a noise she heard. Soon a wet and weary Jack was running wildly about us once more before trying to jump into Terry’s lap. Even covered in mud and muck though he was, she opened wide her arms and delightedly welcomed him home. Eventually bundled in a towel and sent off to be bathed, only the overjoyed smiles on the faces around the table and the dirty streaks on Terry’s shirt remained to tell the tale of how God Himself taught us a lesson on His faithfulness on a night when we were studying the same.

The ping-pong ball in my spirit is silent now, the paddles still once more…waiting for the next time that faith and fear face off on opposite ends of another issue. May trust in God ever be victorious in my mind, my heart and my life.

“ The truth is that faith and worry cannot inhabit the same space at the same time. One of them has to go, and we get to choose.” - Graham Cooke
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