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)
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