Thursday, January 19, 2017

The game of Scrabble and other hard places in life


An open evening stretched before us and instead of reading, finishing up laundry, and catching up on accumulated unread emails, my husband suggested a quick game of Scrabble. 

We dug out our box of National Park Scrabble, set up the board, and grabbed a handful of tiles, not knowing what random letters we would have to work with.  I placed my tiles upright on the tiny wooden stand.  I stared at the tiles.  I stared at the board.  How can these unrelated letters possibly make sense at all?

My brain froze in place.   My vocabulary was reduced to that of a toddler.

My initial few words were slow and monosyllabic.  On his third turn, when Bill chuckled, I knew I was in trouble.  He carefully set down on the board the word “sequoia.”  Where I saw separate little squares of wood,  Bill saw monumental words. Those seven letters of his were so strategically placed that he gained a whopping 48 points from that one word.  I was doomed.  He was on a roll.

As the game progressed, I realized that I was not playing Scrabble, but a despairing game of “If only…”  I didn’t play with what I had.  I was waiting for new letters to magically appear and come to me.  “If I only had an “N,” if only I had two “A’s,” if only I hadn’t used up my “B” on my last turn.  But in reality, with the tiles in front of me, I had many other words I COULD have composed.  

What can I do with what I have?  If anything I learned from my grandmother, that was it.  She modeled that for me in so many dimensions of her life. 

Throughout that same day, I had been praying about a difficult situation much deeper than a not-so-quick game of Scrabble.  As we retired to bed, I thought about that simple game, learning how to look for new patterns in the letters I had.   I prayed about my hard situation, “O LORD, show me Your way.   Help me to seek YOU in this.”

 I just lay there in the darkness, sleep playing yet another game of hide and seek.  I needed a nice long run to sort it out, to pray it through, to follow God into it, and as Scrabble reinforced—to look at my dilemma differently.

How am I approaching this tangle of letters in my life? This hard place? 

Fear says you have no other options.  There is no way out.  You are stuck.  You are already defeated.

But trusting God opens up a universe of possibilities.  How else can I see this?  God always has something far deeper going on.  

Look at what God has placed in front of you.  Seek Him through it. Sometimes the answer is not so obvious.  Follow Him into it, even by the thinnest scarlet thread, through impenetrable scrabbled letters where there appear to be no solutions at all, through the miry bog, one bend in the road after another, step by step, tile by tile.

And there is God, right before me after all.

When I arose this morning, I had a completely different mindset.  God did not lead me to a particular answer.  He is leading me to Himself.

And that changes everything.

And I will lead the blind
   in a way that they know not,
in paths that they have not known
            I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them
                            into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
     and I will not forsake them.
                   Isaiah 42. 16

A couple of days ago, I found this piece hidden on my computer, written ten months ago, unfiled and unposted, waiting as it were for the end of the story.  I struggled with that particular dilemma for about a year.  I had no idea at the time of that writing how it would be resolved, what would happen, how in the world I could make it through.  And indeed, God led me on paths I had not known, in ways I knew not, places I didn’t want to be, with a strength that was definitely not mine to claim.

And at the end of it, it was not that an answer appeared.  It was not that I was the hero with “sequoia” to my credit.  But God led me to a deeper place where “the answer” was irrelevant.  What mattered, as it always does, was my relationship with Him.





Thursday, January 12, 2017

From where I am sitting



I have a certain place at the kitchen table where I always sit.  I have not been assigned there.  I, more or less, claimed it for myself, randomly choosing at first what eventually turned into a deep rooted habit.

I sit there, just because I always do, the lamest excuse for any action, “Because I have always done it that way.”  The groove is so deep that I don’t even think about it anymore.  I just sit down in the same spot, day after day.

My view is of the kitchen, the stove, the sink, the fridge, all in one chunk of my sight.  It never changes except for what is left on the counter, usually that which doesn’t belong there.

But this morning as I zapped my oatmeal in the microwave, Bill set the table with mats and spoons.  Instead of putting my placemat to his left in my usual spot, he moved it to the other side of the table, still next to him, but where I would be facing OUT instead of IN.

As I walked the few feet from the microwave, the change in perspective took me by surprise. 
 
Bill remarked, “I don’t know why you always sit where you can’t see anything.”

“I don’t know either,” I said, that profound truth lingering in my thoughts.

I faced the windows this morning.

My geographical location did not change.  The table did not change.  It was still a Thursday morning in the middle of January. 

And, oh, what I have missed, I thought.  It is not that my circumstances had been completely transformed, but my heart.  The place where I reside was the same.  But my response was totally different.

I always cringe when people say, “And then, God showed up.”  Oh, baby, He is already there.  We are the reluctant ones.  

Suddenly, I was not delivered from a place, but God delivered me to the place where He has me.  It was all there, right in front of me.  I just hadn’t seen it before.  I didn’t notice those trees swaying in the wind, that painted sky, the birds chasing each other in the wind, even the daily transformation of outside things.  The great outdoors is continually on the move, not segmented into distinct seasons, but silently redeemed from moment to moment.

It is not that God had not provided.  I just needed to turn around.

Looking for the perfect place, the just-right circumstances, the “if only” things were different?  You are already there.  Pitch your tent, seek Him out, and maybe just turn around.

As I am looking around in these newly discovered dimensions, God indeed may direct me to another door that He has already opened.  But most likely, He may show me what still needs to be done, right where I am.  I may not be done here yet.  I may be just missing the view from the other side of the table.

It is not such a cramped hopeless place all along, but a room with a view.

What needed to change was me, not my situation.  And now, it is not just what I see, not just what I see differently, but how do I now respond to what God has placed in my field of vision?  That which has been there all along.

You have said,
         “Seek My face.”
My heart says to You,
“Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
                     Psalm 27. 8

And the servant said,
“Alas, my master!
            What shall we do?”
He said,
“Fear not, for those who are with us
are more than those who are with them.”
Then Elisha prayed, and said,
“O LORD, I pray to You,
open his eyes that he may see.”
So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man,
and he saw;
and behold,
the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire
round about Elisha.
                       2 Kings 6. 15-17

What am I missing
    from where I sit in my usual spot?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Fear is too heavy to carry


You have come to the narrow bridge
       frightfully high
   nothing to hold onto
                    and a long way down.
On this precipice of fear,
        there is only God to cling to
and “savior” becomes no longer
                 a decision made long ago
      but a reality that arrives
                                  several times a day.
It is the path that moves beyond
   that which is sight
               to that which is faith,
     beyond the standard liturgical response
                                to life itself.
It is knowing there is nothing
         we can do
                   nor the expertise of others,
          no instant cures or treatments
                                but God alone
                   that we may know Him.
And how can I call to you
    from where I stand on firmer ground
            “be tough”
                     “don’t be afraid”
     when I can’t see the other side either
      and have never felt the fear of falling.
The journey is uncertain
                one foot at a time
                                   sliding rocks
                                   shadows foreboding
          but He is there
                                 no darkness too deep.
Fear is too heavy to carry
and worry blocks out the light.


(I wrote this piece in July 1994 for a friend struggling with stage 4 breast cancer, young children at home, and the odds stacked immeasurably against her.  God brought her through. She is a grandmother now.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Year in Books 2016



One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mom and older brother on his bed while he read out loud the iconic Dick and Jane primary reading books for homework.  One evening, when he hesitated over a word, I finished the sentence for him.  And then, the page.  Mom looked from three-year-old me to my five-year-old brother and reassured him, "She really isn't reading.  She just memorized the words."

Growing up, I can remember furtively reading in my room, on the playground, in the car, and sometimes under the covers. "You are going to ruin your eyes," even now I can hear Mom say.

Well, I am still ruining my eyes.

As requested and promised, here is my reading list for 2016 -- some books I savored, some I slogged through (once is enough), and some are favorites I come back to over and over again.

Best book of 2016?  The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton, because it speaks profoundly of friendship.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr (2015)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016)

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (2009)

The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer (1948)

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (2010)

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1987)

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (1989)

The Taste of New Wine by Keith Miller (1965)

The Truth According To Us by Annie Barrows (2015)

Scary Close:  Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller (2014)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1974)

Home Tonight: Further Reflections on theParable of the Prodigal Son by Henri J. M. Nouwen (2009)

With Justice for All by John Perkins (1982)

Answering Jihad:  A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi  (2016)

TED Talks:  The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson (2016)

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything you Own by Joshua Becker (2016)

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus:  A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi (2014) 

The Inner Voice of Love:  A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Henri J. M. Nouwen (1996)

Moving Mountains:  Praying with Passion, Confidence and Authority by John Eldredge (2016)

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens:  The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist by Larry Alex Taunton (2016)

Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard (1982)
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance  (2016)
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (1940)
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (1942)
Jim the Boy by Tony Earley (2000)
Encounters with Chinese Writers by Annie Dillard (1984)
Guerrillas of Grace:  Prayers for the Battle by Ted Loder (1984)
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman (2000)
The Radical Disciple:  Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John Stott (2010)
Humility:  The Journey Toward Holiness by Andrew Murray (1895)
In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership  by Henri J. M. Nouwen (1989)
Thirty Million Words:  Building a Child’s Brain; Tune in, Talk more, Take turns  by Dana Suskind MD  (2015)
What Now? By Ann Patchett (2008)
The Red Bandana:  A life. A choice. A legacy.  By Tom Rinaldi (2016)
A Timbered Choir:  The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry (1998)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1934)
Saints in Politics:  The Clapham Sect and the Growth of Freedom by Ernest Marshall Howse (1952)
The Bible

Monday, January 2, 2017

A new trailhead


Often when my husband Bill and I hike in wilderness areas, we come upon an intersection of trails right in the middle of nowhere.  Which way do we go?

And so, Bill always carries a trail map with him.  This is where that path goes. This is where we are heading.  This is how to get there. 

On this first real day of the new year, we all have come -- in some way or another -- to an intersection of trails.  It may mean a new direction.  It may mean a new destination.  It may mean exploring where I already am.  It also may mean that where God is leading, there may not even be a trail at all. When I have no idea where I am going, it does not mean God is not guiding me, but taking me to a deeper place.

Anxiety tried to rob me of sleep last night, but despair is not the only trail in the forest.  It is just a deep rut to nowhere. Trusting God is not just a way out, but a way through this.  

Which of those trailheads do I choose?  Despair?  Or trusting God?  That's a daily choice I make.

Can you trust Me just one more step?  

This past year as I walked right into the perfect storm on so many levels, God reminded me over and over, "Follow My scarlet thread through this."  One more step.  One more step.

What do I choose in this?
What kind of person do I want to be in this?
What is God's way in this?
What is He trying to say to me?

More often than not, as I prayed and read Scripture this past year, verses came to the surface that applied astonishingly to what I was facing, not some cute little phrase to plug in a hole, but the reality of God on which to dwell.  Sometimes it was a passage of Scripture I read that morning, sometimes a Bible verse that I knew from long ago, sometimes even a phrase or a few words from God's Word that I would write down and take with me into the day.

What trail do I take in this?  I still have a tattered typed-out copy of Romans 12. 9-21 taped to my bathroom mirror from months ago.  God does not just give specific directions, but changes my heart.  

"I don't know what I am doing!"  I cried so many times through the course of last year.  And God would respond, "Good.  That's the very best place to be.  Because I do."

We do not know what to do,
     but our eyes are upon You.

                  2 Chronicles 20. 12

  ...even when there is no obvious trail.