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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Gift of a Son (Times Three)

The Christmas tree had come down a day or two earlier, and as I puttered around the living room, putting the rest of the holiday decorations away, I noticed a ring on the carpet in the corner where the tree had stood, the imprint of the circular tree stand that held it upright for weeks on end.

I paused in my busyness for a minute and thought about the wonder of the days just past, how perhaps this holiday season had been the very best ever, made more magical by the presence of all three of my sons who in the past year had each moved into living spaces apart from the home they grew up in. To have them together under one roof for each of the Big Three Days (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) with my husband and me was better than anything we could have found under the tree.

It didn’t happen by chance. Schedules had to be arranged in advance, travel plans made and adjusted as situations changed, and time set apart from other pursuits that demanded attention during that span of several weeks. There were cramped quarters on airplanes, long hours behind the wheel, and living spaces rearranged as the brothers accompanied each other on different travel legs and opened the doors of their living quarters to house siblings in town temporarily…all so we could all be together again.

Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t relate to the many people who said they couldn’t wait for the season to be over as they rushed through my line in the grocery store and on to the next place they needed to be. Perhaps they had no people in their lives to make the day special, I reflected. Surely that was the case with one elderly friend who told me that her children lived in a distant state and so for her Christmas was a day like any other. But others had somehow mistakenly made the holiday itself more special than the people they were celebrating with, focusing more on the unimportant details of what was on the dinner table and under the tree than the family that would be clustered around both.

Christmas is a celebration of family. The birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph was God’s  gift to all His children who were or are spiritually far away from Home. The gift of His Son was His means of bringing us all back together again eventually, and that ensuing Hope is the means with which we cope with the difficult days in our lives until their end. Instead of rushing through the holidays we should soak in that time which reminds us of how to get through the rest of the year.

Likewise Christ’s birth didn’t happen by chance, foretold as it was by prophets in centuries past and then every detail orchestrated by heavenly hosts who directed the key players in God’s plan for mankind’s redemption; a plan which included tiresome travel and difficult days on the back of a donkey, birthing places arranged in a crowded town when a stable door was opened at last, and long hours of laboring alone in the pain and the dark and cold…all so we could one day be together again.

Surely the circular imprint on the carpet will soon fade, so I’m glad that to keep the memory of those magical days alive we took a family picture just before we all split up to go our separate ways. I look at the photo now and smile, remembering the laughter of the procedure and the joy of the days just past. And I‘m able to head in to January and the rest of the year with my heart lighter and my thoughts brighter, just from the time we had together.

Thankfully we don‘t have to wait till next December to remember that God‘s Gift does the same for us, nor do we have to wait till the holidays come round again to spend time with Him Who loved us enough to give us His Best. Neither do we have to wait another minute to give our best right back to Him. Let’s hold Christmas close in our hearts all year long, so the wonder of God’s special Gift will never fade, but rather grow more precious, day after day after day.

“For to us a Child is born; to us a Son is given…”
(Isaiah 9:6 MKJV)

“Til The Season Comes ‘Round Again
By Amy Grant

Come and gather around at the table
In the spirit of family and friends
And we’ll all join hands and remember this moment
‘Til the season comes ‘round again

Let’s all try to smile for the picture
And we’ll hold it as long as we can
May it carry us through
Should we ever get lonely
‘Til the season comes ‘round again

One night holy and bright
Shining with love from our hearts
By a warm fire,
Let’s lift our heads high
And be thankful we’re here
‘Til this time next year

May the new year be blessed
With good tidings
‘Til the next time I see you again
If we must say goodbye
Let the spirit go with you
And we’ll love and we’ll laugh
In the time that we had
‘Til the season comes ‘round again

Friday, January 4, 2013

Nautical Nonsense

It began when a friend shared with me the most recent of her stories about life with a little sister. The younger sibling had decided upon a new career choice after covering her sister’s name tag from work with stickers and receiving rave reviews over her handiwork. She would simply go into business, charging fifty cents a pop for a pin decorated to please. Laughing, I remembered that I had a spare in my possession, one that looked plain and pitiful compared to the decorative version my coworker now sported. A day or so later I handed it to her with the instruction to take it to her sister and see what she could do with it.

It came back to me covered with the “nautical nonsense” of SpongeBob SquarePants and his partners. The black lettering of my name, which once stood boldly alone in the middle of the yellow plastic, was now barely visible, surrounded as it was by the images of this cartoon hero and his friends. The artist sent a message to me upon delivery, apologizing for the theme but explaining that the stickers she used were the only supplies she had. Declaring it to be perfect, I pinned it immediately upon my shirt.

And so it turned out to be.

The last of the mad dash to Christmas was in full swing at the grocery store, and the front end was packed with people standing in long lines waiting to be checked out. I was manning the express lane, designed for small orders and speedy service. Along came a customer who, unlike everyone else in the store, was not in a hurry. Part of it was her age and lack of mobility; she had one speed, and it was slow. On top of that, she had many questions about food prices and fuel points, all of which I tried to answer, to the increasing frustration and exasperation of the next woman in line. Huffing and puffing, stamping her feet and glaring at the poor lady in front of her, she was clearly trying to communicate to the woman that she was taking too long. By the time the first customer finally shuffled on I was afraid to even speak to this next one, for fear that if she opened her mouth she would blow her top and all kinds of horrible things would come out from between her lips. So I skipped my usual greetings and just started scanning her groceries as fast as I could while she stared at the counter, fuming. Finally I had to talk to her to tell her how much she owed, and she lifted her head to look at me as I spoke. “Here it comes…!!!” I thought to myself, bracing for the explosion of rage that I was sure was coming.

That’s when the miracle occurred.

As she raised her eyes, she caught sight of the name tag pinned on my shirt. “You’ve got SPONGEBOB!!!!” she fairly screamed, a huge grin suddenly breaking across her face. She laughed and smiled some more, gave me my money and told me how much she loved that show. Too stunned at the total transformation in her attitude to answer her, I handed her the receipt and she happily went on her way.

Thinking about the incident later it occurred to me that when the customer looked at my name tag, she never even noticed my name, which was lost in the multitude of stickers around it. All she saw was SpongeBob and his buddies, the source of her joy. And for those of us who call ourselves Christians, that should similarly be our goal, that people see Christ and feel His love and touch in the words and actions surrounding our lives, and,  as they go, remember not our names, but His as the source of the impact on their lives and the subsequent happiness in their hearts.

Cartoon characters can’t alter the circumstances of one’s life at all. Momentary mood changers, they merely supply diversion and laughter, welcome anytime, but especially when our stress levels are at the breaking point. The effects of their influence diminish the minute they are no longer in view. Christ, however, works ever more effectively by changing us from the inside out, so that the situations we face daily no longer have a hold over us and our actions are not dictated by those of the people around us, whether they be fast or slow or even know that we’re in a hurry. We won’t have to pin our joy on our clothing for others to notice it; instead it should overflow unconsciously and continuously from a heart filled with the same.

A picture of SpongeBob changed that lady from being the maddest person on the planet to the happiest woman on earth…temporarily…, but a vision of Christ can fill a heart with eternal joy and produce life change that is clearly out of this world.

May He be that visible in you and me.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, in order to prove by you what is that good and pleasing and perfect will of God.” 
(Romans 12:2 MKJV)
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