Packing (ornaments) and pondering (church)

Unpacking the Christmas ornaments is always like seeing friends that have been gone for a while. Packing up the ornaments is different, though. It’s a melancholy experience, that should be accompanied by cookies and hot cocoa as it was a month ago during the decoration process.  But, after Christmas, often the main goal is restoration of schedule (and furniture), so undecorating is focused and fruitful, not peaceful and pleasant.

Today was the fateful day in our house. Time to undress the tree,IMG_6537 (1)

pack up the ornaments, vacuum up the needles, and replace the living room furniture. We played some background music and recounted the recent memories made this holiday season to improve the overall mopey mood. We felt blessed by times with family and friends, while returning our home to its eleven-month-a-year state of (dis)order.

As we packed the angels, snowmen, reindeer, and hand-made treasures from years past, we cushioned the soft ones against the fragile ones for protection. A sock monkey cuddled an ornament from the year we were married, while my childhood Strawberry Shortcake pillow provided a comfort for a pregnant s’more from my maternity days. Glass balls from Grandma’s farmhouse found solace with modern New York team ornaments. A soft, 8 -point buck given to my son this year kept company with a worn out dog and a three-legged cat. Old ornaments mingled with new, soft protected fragile, those with a story shared space with new arrivals who haven’t ‘lived here long’…

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And I thought…

‘This is what church should be like’.

The old and the new sharing space. The whole and the broken coexisting. The colorful with the plain, and the simple with the complex.  Those with spiritual ‘life experience’ reaching out to those who ‘haven’t been here long’. The soft, cuddly ones wrapping their consoling arms around the fragile or broken. Each listening to the stories the others have to share…and finding comfort in their common journey of love and celebration of the light of Jesus. 

The writer of first John wanted the same for the believers in the early church. He wanted children, parents, young people, and church leaders to be reminded of their mission in the dark world. To be love and light to each other because they were loved and valued by God. Their love and light were to add to the lives of those around them, who were struggling with the current darkness. The church was to be the comfortable congregation, vivid haven, the peaceful solace for those in places of darkness or light. 

I John 2:9-11, 4:19-21

 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.  But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. 

I am writing to you, dear children,
    because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
 I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
    because you have overcome the evil one.

 We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

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We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right,
a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light, a story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright;
and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light.

The United Methodist Hymnal Number 569
Text: H. Ernest Nichol, 1862-1928 (CWH attrib to Colin Sterne)
Music: H. Ernest Nichol, 1862-1928
Tune: MESSAGE, Meter: 10 8.87 with Refrain

 

 

 

 

 

Then, he smiled at me

It was an emotional afternoon in our house, in the living room specifically. The dog had shredded a toy on the floor, and I had asked my son to vacuum the floor. Pine needles, bits of wrapping paper and ribbon, dog toy fluff…they all needed to disappear.

So, he tried, bless him,…and the vacuumed died. I needed to compile a Sunday school craft, finish preparing dinner for my husband, unpack the bags I had just dragged in from the ‘final shopping trip’, and find out why my daughter was sulking in her room. I didn’t have time to deal with a sucky (or not-so-sucky) vacuum.

Nevertheless, I sat down and began dismembering the machine. Mounds of dog hair, pine needles, and other floor funk began piling up in front of me as I checked this tube and that tube, this connection and that connection. And my emotions began piling up as well. “I have too much to do to deal with this stupid vacuum. We should just buy a new one. There are good sales at this time of year. But we’ve just spend Christmas money. Maybe we should wait. But how long can we go without a vacuum?? I don’t even have time for this now! I have to get stuff put together for church, dinner, gifts…ugh!!!!”

I reached around the Christmas tree to unplug the vacuum in hopelessness. And he smiled at me. IMG_6324

Little baby Jesus. In his manger. The whole reason for this season.

His tiny, precious face caught my attention and gave me pause. It’s all about this beautiful baby, not all the other chaos.

This season of celebration is about his arrival to earth. His presence and promise make our lives more full of love and hope and relationship.  He valued the women he encountered. The busy, frustrated, tired, weary women. The mothers, wives, entrepreneurs, leaders…the oppressed, sick, unfaithful, confused…they all found acceptance when they encountered Jesus. Despite their past struggles, their current predicaments, or what they thought were their future plans, they found compassion with him.

He smiled at them. He lightened their loads. He gave them renewed purpose. He restored their souls.

Look to him, weary mothers. He loves you more than your efforts. He values you more than your attempts. Let him smile at  you. Let him know you. Let him restore you.

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5: 34)

Family is not a brood of vipers, but…

Holidays are abundant with family gatherings. Whether its for a meal, a party, a gift exchange, or just a movie night, many occasions occur that bring families close…in proximity…and hopefully  in relationship.

We hope for the best when we’re setting the table for Aunt Gerry to be near Cousin Frank…they have opposing political views. And Sister Margie who indulges in her quiet, single life can’t stand sitting near Brother Bill, the doting father of six curtain crawlers. Mom wants to sit beside Dad, but Dad wants to sit by Uncle Paul and talk football, which Mom discourages because the brotherly competition gets too loud every year…and then Dad gets snippy with Mom, which makes everyone uncomfortable.  And then there’s the question of where to put the wine…in the kitchen or on the sideboard…near or far??

Family. We share genes with them, but sometimes, that’s all we share. Holidays bring out the tension when we know we’re ‘supposed to’ get along with our blood-kin, but it’s just hard to do so. Even among people who all claim to be Jesus-lovers, there is judgment.

I was amused when I reread over the passage in Luke 1 (verses 57-66) that tells of the family gathering after Elizabeth and Zacharias welcomed their baby boy into the world.

‘When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah,  but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.  He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.  All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.’

The family was thrilled that Elizabeth had given birth in her old age, shedding the shame of her barrenness. They came to rejoice with her. You can imagine how this went: the veteran mothers gave advice, while the younger moms were whispering that they had some new ideas about baby care. Some relatives wanted to help with housework and others just wanted to hold the baby. The men were probably helping Zacharias fix something outside the estrogen-crowded house, and any little cousins were chasing each other in and out and around the busy home.

Then, came the all-important naming ceremony.  In the reverent Jewish tradition, the priest presented the baby to God and gave him his Hebrew name–Zacha…what?  Imagine Elizabeth shaking her head and saying, ‘No, we’re not naming him after his father. We’re naming him John.’ The questioning looks pop on the faces of the friends present, while the relatives begin mumbling ‘Who is John? I don’t remember him. How far back are they reaching to get a family name? What’s wrong with Abijah, or great-great-great grandfather Hashabiah…or his dad Kemuel? John? Where did she get that one?’ The sun rays of acceptance and rejoicing that previously shone throughout the house were now covered with clouds of doubt and disappointment. ‘Why is she changing the tradition?’

So they turned to ask a second opinion, that of Zacharias, for clarification. Now, Zacharias had been mute since the angel spoke to him in the temple, nine months prior to this happy, though increasingly awkward, situation. When he was questioned by the crowd of family and friends, he concurred with his wife. The baby would be named John. Immediately, Zacharias received his voice back and was able to verbalize his joy over the birth of his child and the message that Gabriel had delivered to him. “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17)

When the gathered crowd heard their friend speak again, after months of silence, and heard his story of the angel’s visit, the promise of the child, the vow the son would take to purity, they knew something was special about this baby. And they began to chatter and rejoice and spread the news. Like people do. ‘Ohhhhhhh, I am so thrilled for them. They’re going to need more cloths to wrap that growing boy in! I know I have some at home!’ ‘Did you hear what he said? That’s the vow that Samson took. I hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes Samson did…’ ‘It’ll be another Delilah debacle all over again.’ ‘I still can’t believe they chose that name, I mean, I know the angel told them, but still…’ ‘I have the perfect lamb casserole recipe that I’ll share with Elizabeth.’

As families will do, they had their opinions. What will become of this boy? His birth was a miracle. His arrival was angel-announced. His future has been forecast. He will bring our nation back to God. What? How? Why?

In a few years (Luke 3), John was doing exactly what the angel had predicted. Calling people to turn from their selfish ways and prepare their hearts for God’s work.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. “

Long story short, families are going to have joys and opinions and quarrels and chasms. There will always be some loving  relative who questions our choices. But we don’t model our lives after them. Our focus should be on what we can do on this earth to draw people to God. I don’t suggest calling out the fam as a ‘brood of vipers’, but see them for what they are…needing God’s love.  We can’t do that with brow-beating, critiquing, arguing, or ignoring. We do it by showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Before all the family came over to see new little baby John, I am certain that Zacharias and Elizabeth spent time in prayer, both being from priestly families. And that’s what we need to do. Wrap each gathering of friends and relatives in prayer, like the precious, temporary gift that it is. And then enjoy it for what it is…an opportunity to share the message of God that was given to us directly.  Love.

 

 

 

Anticipation

Thanksgiving is late in coming this year. Well, it’s the fourth Thursday in November, as usual, but the lateness of the 28th has built the holiday tension. Holiday playlists are tapping their feet as radio stations hold off on playing Christmas carols until after the turkey has been carved. Many businesses have advertised ‘Pre-Black Friday’ sales to ensure that holiday sales are as plump as usual, despite the shortened shopping season. If you listen carefully, you can hear nutcrackers, snowmen and reindeer getting restless in their boxes, cabinets, and attics…maybe even arguing in their cute little holiday voices.

One of my favorite images of preparation occurs at a family-owned garden store in my neighborhood. During the week of Thanksgiving, they put out their stakes, knowing that the Christmas trees soon will be there.

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I love the feeling of expectation shown here. Peter and Gemma, the owners of the greenhouse, don’t toss the stakes down in the grass and sigh, ‘Well, I guess the trees are coming. We’ll put up the posts when we see them.’ This hard-working couple doesn’t leave the stakes in storage and act surprised when the truck arrives with this years pines. ‘Oh, is it THAT time already? Gosh this year flew by!’ They set those stakes in the ground because they KNOW that the trees are on their way. The arrival date may change due to calendar, weather, or transport issues, but the trees will arrive. No doubt.

Seeing the stakes pop up this week made me smile…and feel that holiday sparkle. It’s coming. It’s almost here. A month of joy, lights, fellowship, songs, excessive and delicious quantities of butter and sugar…the whole shebang! It’s almost upon us!

This enthusiasm led me back to the book of Luke. We often overlook the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, in our rush to get to the manger. But as I reread their story, I saw lives of anticipation.  Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were ‘righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ (Luke 1: 6, 7 NRSV). They had already chosen to live Godly lives. They came from centuries of Jewish believers who had seen God’s hand actively at work…delivering them from Egypt, parting the Red Sea, defeating enemies, providing for their needs. There was no doubt who God was or whether he deserved their worship.

As Zacharias was a priest, he was serving his term in the temple. Here’s how Luke retells the story in chapter 1, verses 11-15:

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” 

Did you catch that? Zacharias and Elizabeth had been praying for a child. They knew that their ages made child-bearing unlikely, but they also knew the God they served. Their lives had been dedicated to honoring and worshiping him. So they prayed. With anticipation. They planted their stakes of prayer in the ground of faith and went on with life.

Communing with God means that we have a trusting relationship with him. We lift up our quiet prayers, our feeble hands, our tired eyes…and we look at his loving face with anticipation, trusting that he will deliver what we need. Zacharias and Elizabeth had likely prayed this prayer a long time. Verse 25 says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  Elizabeth had endured a range of emotions while still raising her prayers to a God whom she knew would answer. She continued to worship and live an honorable life of devoted anticipation. 

When we raise our prayers, our hands, our faces, our hearts, our tears, our cries. and even our shouts to God, he hears us. He knows what we need more than we do. He looks on us with compassion while he works for our good. Romans 5:3-5 reminds, We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ And Romans 8:24 and 25 smack our impatient, childish little thoughts with, ‘Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’

As the decorations of the Christmas season begin to appear, raise your hopes and prayers to God. Whatever they are…and lift your eyes in expectation…and be patient, knowing that sometime, your expected delivery will arrive.

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PLOT TWIST!

When I am teaching my students about making predictions and inferences while reading, I remind them that they have to ‘update’ their thoughts as they gain new information. One of my favorite picture books to use in teaching this concept is Suddenly by Colin McNaughton  . This book is the opposite of predictable. When the

suddenly

reader tries to guess what’s going to happen next (the pig will walk out of the school house into the wolf’s clutches), something far less predictable happens (the pig returns to his school desk for money and leaves out the back door instead.) On every page, the reader is flummoxed when the plot takes a completely unexpected twist (the wolf crashed into a wall instead  of nabbing the pig at the supermarket!).

I love thinking about this in the realm of God’s work in our lives. And the Bible has so many examples of plot twists! We think we’re the only ones who get our hearts set on something and then feel disappointed when it doesn’t work out…but then get happy again when something better occurs. Well, that emotional roller coaster has been ridden for centuries!

Genesis 15-18, Matthew 1-God shows Abram the countless stars in the night sky and promises that Abram’s descendants will outnumber them. {Wow! Amazing! Thrilling!}  PLOT TWIST: Abram is nearly 100, and Sarai his wife isn’t too far behind. {Wait, what? That’s crazy! And darn near impossible!} PLOT TWIST: God did it anyway…and Jesus was born from that infinite number of Abram’s descendants.

Daniel 1-3–Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were  wholesome, Godly young men who prayed daily and didn’t defile themselves in Babylon, the land of his captivity. They were promoted in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. {Yay! Young Jewish men take a stand and are making positive influences! Hooray!} PLOT TWIST: King Neb threatened them with death via fiery furnace if they didn’t bow and worship the idol he made. And then he did it! He put them in a flaming furnace!!! {Whaaaaaa? That’s seriously messed up! } PLOT TWIST: God sent an angel to keep them company in the furnace…aaaaaaand when they came out, ‘the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics[f] were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.’ (NRSV)  {Boom! Not even the smell of smoke on their clothes…and Neb had tried to extinguish their faith. } Not only that, the king made a decree guaranteeing the security of these guys.

Daniel 6-– As Daniel’s life continued, he remained honorable and trustworthy, so he continued in the service of the upcoming rulers of Babylon. In fact, he was about to be promoted into a place of great power. {So great! A Godly young man rising in the government…the world needs more of that! What an example!} PLOT TWIST: Daniel’s colleagues weren’t so fond of him, and they manipulated the king into decreeing Daniel’s daily prayers illegal. The punishment for praying to anyone except the king was being thrown to the lions. And the ignorant king went along with it.  {Whaaaaaaaaaa??? Seriously? Daniel’s the good guy…how can the king agree to such nonsense?} PLOT TWIST:  God closed the mouths of the lions…until the king’s advisors came along the next morning. The king realized the error of his ways and reinstated Daniel…and his scheming sidekicks were lion breakfast.

Acts 9–Saul was a dreaded Christian-killer. Daily, he sought worshipers of Christ to imprison and stone to death. {That’s terrible! What a ruthless, horrible man!} PLOT TWIST:  On his way to capture worshipers in Damascus, God spoke to him from heaven, questioned his motives, and blinded him for three days. {Yeah! There ya go! Get him, God!} PLOT TWIST: When Saul regained his sight, he gained a new identity…Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, that was largely responsible for the spread of the Gospel to Europe and Asia.  {Well, I did NOT see that coming! What a miracle! You sure did ‘get him’, God!}

And there are so many more! Reading through Joseph’s life is a tale of twisted truths and flat out lies until it’s relieving resolution.  The death of Lazarus was heartbreaking to his sisters, until they saw that Jesus could untwist Lazarus’s burial clothes and restore him to his life’s story. Zaccheus was a stinker of a little man, until Jesus untwisted those purse strings and heart strings and changed the plot of that tax collector’s story.  In the glowing stories of Ruth  and Esther , these brave women were writing their own versions of ‘herstory’, following the paths that they believed that God had planned for them, when their plots were severely twisted. Death, immigration, and conspiracy wound around the secure cords of their lives and snapped the comfort right off. But then, God restored the story. He gave them back their lives…in abundance.

How often we get caught up in the plot twists that are happening to us right now. We miss the bigger story that God has written for our lives. In each of the Bible stories above, the people were ‘minding their own business’, doing what was daily expected of them, when disaster struck. I’m sure that they questioned what was happening…especially Saul and Zaccheus who had yet to develop a connection to their Heavenly Father. But those other saints, they must have had their questions. ‘But Father, I was doing what I thought was right?’ ‘Abba, wasn’t I doing what you told me to do?’ ‘Forgive me, Father, if I misread your directions. I thought I understood.’

Just like us. We question ourselves. We question God. We question others. But what we need to realize is that it’s just a plot twist. It’s not curtain drop. We’re not at the end of our story until we die. The Author and Finisher of our faith is thoughtfully considering each event that occurs to us…and how it will ultimately accomplish our perfection and His glory. Others will ‘read’ our story and note our unfailing faith…or our faith struggles and restorations. God wants our tales to reach audiences beyond ourselves. That’s why our story goes on…after the plot is twisted.

Lamentations 3:19-26

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

 

Lamentations 3v22-23 Vinyl Wall Decal 2

 

photo credit: wildeyedesigns.com

I know something you don’t know

In two days, my son will be getting four teeth pulled…and he doesn’t know it yet. We had this appointment scheduled a month ago,  but there was a miscommunication with the dentist, so we had to reschedule. The week leading up to that appointment was torturous for his anxiety-prone little mind. So, this time, we’re opting for telling him the day before, to eliminate stress…for all of us.

I feel as though I’m being a little bit dishonest by not telling him, but I know what he went through last time. I know that this is truly more comforting for him. He doesn’t need to lose sleep, work himself into a panic, or become as jumpy as a late summer grasshopper. He hasn’t asked, so I’m not lying…and I won’t lie to him if he does ask.

Our family is in a waiting season currently. Several transitions are looming in our future, and we’re not sure which ones will affect us in what ways. Being in this place of uncertainty has driven me deeper into Bible study and prayer, for which I am thankful. I am confident that my faith has deepened in this time.

That said, having this ‘omniscient’ perspective on Brady’s upcoming surgery has given me a new understanding of God’s timing. He doesn’t reveal his upcoming plans to us completely to protect us from overreacting, overthinking, or overdoing.

Though He was leading them out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites balked when they saw the plan God had involved the Red Sea…and they wanted to return to Egypt. (Exodus 14)

While Moses was on the mountain, receiving guidelines from God Almighty about living in peaceful community, the awaiting Israelites grew impatient…and built a fake god to worship. (Exodus 32)

The fall of Jericho wasn’t enough to convince Achan that God was in control of the future of Israel. He had to take some of the spoils of the battle as treasures, which was in direct defiance to God. (Joshua 7)

Eve couldn’t trust that God’s plan was infallible, so she chose to listen to evil guidance. (Genesis 3)

Lot’s wife wistfully looked back at the debauchery of Sodom and Gomorrah rather than following God’s gracious exit strategy. (Genesis 19)

Even the Pharisees couldn’t imagine the forest of God’s mercy for the planting of their self-righteousness. (Matthew 16)

This is not a crowd I want to hang out with. I don’t want to be listed with these of little faith. I want to learn from them, but not repeat their haste and misdirection. Knowing that God has something better ahead than what I can see now needs to give me the faith to hold on until He demonstrates his plan.

My faith, tiny and tired though it may be, is the ‘substance’, the shred, the sliver of light that directs me to the things I hope for…says Hebrews 11:1. He’s not showing me all of the plan right now because I might mess it up in haste to make it happen faster. I could greedily snatch unnecessary treasures…or sample forbidden fruit…or stroll toward unhealthy decadence… If I knew what was ahead, I might avoid it, change it, or rush it.

I am not God. I am not omniscient. And anytime I try to be, I detract and delay His good work in my life…and even for the lives of those that I love.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
    in the morning I lay my requests before you
    and wait expectantly.                ~Psalm 5:3

Lord, I wait for you;
    you will answer, Lord my God.

                                                            ~Psalm 38:15

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.                ~Psalm 27:13, 14

 

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“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried,                                                             but you’ve actually been planted.”                                                                                                                 ~Christine Caine

 

 

 

Scratching the spot

Mia is our fourteen-year old, beloved family dog. She has been with my husband and me since we were newlyweds. She’s grown old and gray as our kids have grown up and active. Currently, she spends most of her time sleeping on the couch, monitoring neighborhood activity out the window, or occasionally escaping to see her best bud down the street. We love our old gal.

miawindow            miadog

About a year ago, the vet told us that Mia had become paralyzed in her back legs. We had noticed that she would drag her back feet a bit when we would take her for a walk. In the snow, you could see the imprint of her front paws and a dragged streak representing her hind steps. But she could still run and play, just slower…and maybe a bit clumsier.

We noticed another way the paralysis affected her when we scratched ‘the spot’ behind her ears. For years, our family has relished in seeing Mia’s hind leg twitch when we would successfully find ‘the spot’ on her neck that activated her scratching reflex. She’d lift and twitch her back leg while we actually did the scratching work around her collar. But now, her legs don’t feel that reflex, and she certainly can’t lift either back leg or stand on the remaining one to scratch her neck. So, we find her special spot and do the work for her, since she can’t do it herself. Her head twists to the side, her eyes get that ‘Oh my gosh…that feels sooooooo good….’ glaze over them…and there’s a little bit of ‘Thank you’ in those big brown eyes, too.

 

You know, we all have our times of being the old, crippled dog…or the loving caretaker. There are seasons in life when we find ourselves limited by our circumstances, and we need someone else to help us. Unexpected family crisis can freeze our life progress…our thoughts are locked on solving that problem, and we can’t focus on anything else. Conflict at work can be so monopolizing that we bring it home with us, and it lives in our house too, paralyzing our relationships with others. Finances, seemingly the base of our existence, can falter, leaving us standing helplessly and aching for solutions. Grief, depression, illness, transition…all stifling, limiting curses to our happy little existence. So many irritating itches, and no way to satisfyingly scratch them. We desperately need help, whether we lift up our beseeching eyes to anyone or not.

mia                               miab

We need connection with others. We need to metaphorically, or even literally, curl up on the couch with those who love us. We need to rest our head on that able body and moan, whine, wish, weep, and even snore. There has to come a time that we seek help from those who have loved us, those who have spent time caring for us, those who will love us no matter what ails us.

That said, sometimes, we will be the caregivers to our friends as well. Are we ready for that? Are we keeping ourselves emotionally and spiritually healthy? Do we lift up ourselves and our dear ones in prayer, seeking help for things that we are powerless to change? Daily, we should seek God and his merciful grace on our lives, so we are prepared to live this life he has given us. With this empowerment, we will be ready to ‘scratch the spot’ of those beloved companions who need us most.

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Second Corinthians 2:3-7

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Second Corinthians 7

Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

 

Switching from offense to defense

My son has played lacrosse for over half of his little life. He received his first helmet for his fifth birthday, and for the next few years, he grew into that bobblehead Stormtrooper look like he was meant for it.  bobblehead

In lacrosse, as in many other sports, there are offensive players, defensive players, and the guys in the middle who do both when needed. He played midfield for a while, liking the constant switch of helping the defense or rushing with the offense. As he matured in the game, he wanted to become more specialized, so he focused on being an offensive player. An attackman plays right in front of the goal and uses opportunities fed from teammates to score. Brady loved playing attack. He watched experts of the game and honed his skills at placing his shots…high to low, low to high, behind the back, aiming at the goalie’s feet…so many tricks to get the ball into the goal. The rush of scoring, the adoration of teammates, the cheers from the crowd…being a hero.

On the other end of the field, the hero is the goalie. Brady has tasted of that sweetness as well, but he wasn’t fond of it. Being pummeled by hard, rubber balls at excessive speeds, repeatedly…and repeatedly feeling angry with himself…wasn’t for him. However, this season, with more maturity, he decided to try being a defenseman. And he loves it. Another noble position on the field. It’s like good vs. evil…with sticks and helmets. Modern-day gladiators.

As I watched him in his games this past weekend, I couldn’t help but connect his actions with life beyond the field. Sometimes we have to switch our positions from offense to defense. We can wait around for opportunities to do good, and then we can be successful in those attempts and rejoice. But there are other times, when we have to have a more defensive stance in our daily lives. “Not today, Satan.”

I hope I will always remember the ferocity I saw in my son as he fought to defend his territory this weekend. Eyes searching around him, directing his teammates to watch out for incoming dangers, stick ready to disarm his enemy, feet always pacing in protection of the goal. He was on guard and prepared to fight.

I want to guard my mind that ferociously. Anxiety creeps in and hangs around for so long that I can forget that it’s ‘playing for the other team’. It stays in my periphery and then settles in so well that I lose track of its presence. Then worries seem like facts, fears seem like realities. And my mind has become home to an enemy. What happened to my defense?

In 2nd Corinthians 10, Paul describes the defensive fight we need to wage.  For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”  Paul was encouraging his brothers and sisters in ministry to get beyond the outward appearances of their neighbors to focus on widening the spread of God’s love. He warned them that their thoughts were the problem.

“Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Like the early church, we often need to defend our spirits from negativity and worry. We need to capture the thoughts before they get too ingrained in our brains. We need to push out the thoughts that don’t belong, like a defending player protects his goal. The goal of our lives is to spread the love of God, and if our goal is inhibited by fear, anxiety, busyness, or other preoccupying distractions, then we will not accomplish our goal. We will be overcome and defeated by those thoughts.

The New Testament church had plenty of opposition, from within and without, but repeatedly, they kept returning to defensive hope, peace, love, and power.

Romans 8:6– For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.

2nd Timothy 1:7 –For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

Colossians 3:2 — Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

1st Peter 1:13 — Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.

1st Peter 5:8–  Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

There are times to be active, pursuant, assertively making good happen, driving toward the goal of Godliness. But we should also be daily defensive of our minds and hearts. Successful offense relies on dependable defense.

Ephesians 6:10- 13Last of all I want to remind you that your strength must come from the Lord’s mighty power within you. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand safe against all strategies and tricks of Satan. 12 For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against persons without bodies—the evil rulers of the unseen world, those mighty satanic beings and great evil princes of darkness who rule this world; and against huge numbers of wicked spirits in the spirit world. 13 So use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy whenever he attacks, and when it is all over, you will still be standing up.

 

My dad and semi-gloss paint

I’m sitting here at the keyboard with semi-gloss paint on my fingers from giving the

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bathroom a makeover today. It’s summer time, and my summer bucket list is full of painting projects. They will all end with coating the trim work with a lovely layer of white semi-gloss.

According to paint authority Sherwin-Williams:

“Higher-gloss paint finishes can also help brighten dark spaces. Under most common lighting conditions, a combination of semigloss sheen and light-colored paint is an optimal wall covering method to brighten a dark space.”

Even home expert Bob Vila says:

“Semi-gloss is more durable and easier to clean. The higher the gloss, the easier the cleanup of messes like fingerprints and smudges. For objects and areas that get a lot of use and therefore require frequent wipe-downs—bathrooms, kitchens, playrooms, kids’ bedrooms, and any other area children may feel tempted to draw on walls with Crayola—semi-gloss is often the wiser option. Because the surface is slicker, it’s more resistant to moisture and easier to go over with a damp cloth or special sprays designed for minor household disasters.”

Yay! That’s what I’ve been doing. But I learned it from my dad years ago.

You see, Dad taught me that ‘semi-gloss is forgiving’. It covers a multitude of stains, scuffs, and various oopsies. It rolls into itself on a surface, making a smooth surface over time.

So, semi-gloss is like forgiveness, which is another topic with which dad had experience. Dad was a truck-driving farm-boy who just really wanted to be a church pastor. During a time period when being a divorcee was taboo, he was not allowed to even teach a Sunday school class. That left a big ol’ scuff on dad’s interior. A scuff that could only be covered with a thick application of forgiveness.

When pastoring didn’t work out, Dad sought to be a college professor. He loved adding to the palette of knowledge older adolescents were acquiring, and he happily shared his knowledge of God and people for years. But as the hues of administration began to fade into different shades, Dad’s Biblical views became too ‘vintage’ and he retired. Stains of betrayal and disappointment colored his life until he wiped over them with forgiveness.

Family splits, chronic pain, loss of parents and friends…all of life’s dents, dings, smears, blemishes, and scrapes have battered Dad. As they have the rest of us. But forgiveness covers it all. Forgiveness doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t erase the stain, but it does make the surface clean and ready for future use.

Once I asked Dad for help with a  secret project for my kids. I bought a can of black chalkboard paint for him to use. His dubious look was greater than when a younger me had broken curfew to go to a concert. I know my dad’s affinity for white semi-gloss, and yet I was asking him to use black. He knew that this project for my kids was going to get crayon marks, paint streaks, and various sticky messes on it. He wanted me to use the most ‘forgiving’ paint possible. One that was going to make  perfect, usable surface. One that would clean up easily from oopsies.

Dad knows that life is a colorful, messy array of positive and negative experiences. Ones that broaden our perspectives to see beautiful panoramas. Others that will scrape away our delicate finishes and leave discolored blotches. More importantly, he understands that life doesn’t end with those experiences.

Renewal and forgiveness make all things news. What’s the alternative? Allowing the scuff to remain visible? Walking around with the smeared faults of others on display?

Forgiveness is restoration, the beginning of something new. 

 

Colossians 3:12-14 (emphasis mine)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. {Wear these around instead of the drab scars of  disappointment and hurt.}

13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  {God forgives us each time we scuff his love toward us. He sticks with us through our sins, so we should forgive others and stick with them.}

14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  {Love is what allows us to forgive. We must have love if we are going to forgive. Love for the other person and love for ourselves if we want to grow from the hurt.}

Dad would go through phases when he would paint a lot. And then the house would seem new to us. Fresh and untainted. Forgiving those who have wronged us can give that same renovated feeling to our lives, preparing us for whatever is coming next.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I will think of you with each coating of semi-gloss paint I use, for the rest of my life. And hopefully, I will work to forgive and restore the way that you have as well.

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Embrace

As a teacher-mom, this thought has often occurred to me: the ones we most want to throttle are the ones who most need a hug. Students, offspring…husbands. When they are at their worst, whether intentionally or not, they just really need our love. Maybe it’s acting out or maybe it’s need of boundary reinforcement, the fact still remains, love is needed.

Hold that thought in your mind for a minute, and hop over to this next one.

I recently read about a stress study that demonstrated how living in uncertainty is actually more wearing on the body than receiving negative news. The “not-knowing” is harder than the knowing. (Study details: http://time.com/4274201/uncertainty-stress/ and https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10996 ) Consider how you feel at the eye doctor when you wait for the air puff to blast your eyeball…or how a child feels waiting for that finger prick…or your response when the boss calls you in for an unexpected meeting…or a newborn unable to articulate his desire for another meal. The waiting is beyond nerve-wracking. And now science has proven that it truly is the worst. Our bodies are physiologically primed for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but ‘maybe’ incites panic.

The past 18 months of my life have been the most panic-inciting of all IMG_9698

of them.  So many unexpecteds and changes. So much time spent weighing possibilities and examining choices. Pros/cons. Nows/laters. What ifs/ doesn’t matters. Family, church, friends, home, finances, jobs, health….all of it. The fence-riding has given me blisters…the see-sawing has made me nauseated. As it has gone on (and on), I’ve finally begun to gravitate to one word: embrace.

Remember that thought from the first paragraph…the ones who need the hugs? My life is the child who is ‘acting out’. I can’t fix any of it easily, but I can embrace it for what it is, and stop fighting it. Instead of waking up each day with thoughts swirling in my head, I can wake up and say ‘Yep, it’s a mess, but it’s a temporary mess. I will do what I can today, and then try more tomorrow.’

 

 

Name it. Call it what it is. Stop wavering about it. Embrace it for what it is. 

Unexpected bills. Well, poop. Okay, here’s your hug. Let’s sit down and deal with you.

Pre-adolescent drama. Hello. I’ll be glad when you’re gone, but here’s your hug while you’re here.

Betrayal. You suck. I will not be like you. Here’s your hug. Good-bye.

Messy house. Ugh. You’re the prize I get for being a working mom. Accept my meager cleaning as it comes. Here’s your hug.

Aging & illness. I can’t control you, nor will you control me. I accept you in my life, but you will not get the best of me. Imma gonna hug you and teach you a lesson.

Ignorance. I hate you. I will educate myself to not be like you. You need a hug because you’re pathetic. Good-bye.

I’m not thrilled with my current place in life. But after years of bliss, I guess it was time to have things shaken up a bit so I can mature to the next stage in life. I don’t have to be miserable here, though. If I can recognize the student who needs a hug and a redirect, then I can recognize when my own concerns need hugs and boundaries. And I can hug them, and put them where they belong.

The struggle is in the fighting. If I stop fighting, then I can think clearly. And clear thinking leads to brighter vision for the future. 

Name it. Embrace it. Move forward. 

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Read James 1. 

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. 12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.