Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The ink of many pens

I began working my way through the miry bog of papers on my desk this afternoon, looking for something in particular, but inevitably finding something else.

Ironically, I found the "something else" in a folder printed with the inscription "I dreamed my whole desk was clean," given to me years ago by a friend as a joke.   How little did she realize that ten years later, it would be filled with notes on the back of envelopes, clipped articles, and deep ponderings written on the margins of unrelated things -- thoughts which still profoundly touch me, even as I read them now.

One piece of paper in that mess was left over from a Bible study I attended at least a half dozen years ago, maybe more, entitled "A Record of Prayer Requests and God's Answers."  There were dates, names of people I vaguely remember, and requests scribbled in the ink of many pens.

Why would I have saved this? I wondered out loud.

I glanced down the list of things we had prayed about --the usual things like praise for a repaired furnace, prayer for a husband's job, surgery for someone's mom.

And then I saw the deeper stuff we prayed for:  praying for a daughter to have the courage to walk away from a troubled relationship, a friend losing her baby, and a son's parole hearing after almost a decade in prison.  I can't remember a whole lot about what we studied that semester, but I remember the intensity of praying deep vulnerable stuff for each other.  And sometimes being led to a remarkable answer even while we were praying.

A bitterly cold morning, one of the women in the group slid into the room uncharacteristically late.  At the end of prayer requests, she said, "I didn't want to come today.  And I don't even want to ask this request because of its ridiculous nature."  She hesitated a moment.  "I have a refugee friend who will lose his job if he doesn't pass the employment test next month.  He needs a tutor, not just a tutor, but a tutor who is fluent in Turkish, and because the man is Muslim, the tutor must be male and be able to meet during the day."

I raised my hand.  "Another request?" the leader asked me.

"No," I almost gasped.  "The answer." 

The husband of a friend of mine had worked in Turkey for some 20 years. He now lived about two miles away and worked a flexible schedule.

This sheet I found was not just a random list of needs, but a chronicle of lives intertwined by prayer.  We rarely saw answers as immediate as that.  But we saw answers even more unexpectedly, spelled out in ways we did not recognize as the hand of God.  The answers came in a lot of different size packages....and as far as I know, are still in process.  Because God never works in singular dimensions, nor so neatly tied up with a bow.

Sometimes His purposes are revealed,
sometimes they are too deep to comprehend,
the depths of the ocean,
the enormity of the universe,
         His intricate design undergirding it all.

I thought about that prayer sheet this afternoon in a now distant season of my life in a different state, and about the group I am in now, praying for each other with a box of kleenex in the center of the table.

Some things we see,
but even more that we do not.
But oh,
  the difference praying makes,
that which is revealed
       even in the rear-view mirror,
the faithfulness of God.

Then you shall call,
and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help,
and He will say,
                "Here I am."
The LORD will guide you

                Isaiah 58. 9, 11

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

An Ordinary Tuesday Morning

I am lingering in the waiting room at the car dealer this morning with a tepid cup of coffee, getting the oil changed in my car.  With 121,000 miles on this faithful vehicle, I am hoping that nothing else will be added to the tab. 

It is an ordinary Tuesday morning, doing ordinary things. 

And it is not lost on me, another ordinary Tuesday morning not so long ago, when I packed lunches, found missing shoes, and hustled the girls off to school. As soon as they left, I went for a six mile run with a fabulously blue sky soaring above.  I could have run forever that morning.  The beauty of the day astonished me.

Before I even changed out of my sweaty clothes, before I jumped into the work for the day, the phone rang – you know, the kind of phone still attached to the wall, the kind of phone where you actually had to be home to answer it – and it was my mom. 

Her frantic words stumbled over each other, so rapidly, I could not understand.  “Slow down, Mom.  What’s going on?”

“Turn on your tv,” she said as she hung up the phone.

It was an ordinary Tuesday morning, doing ordinary things.  And then, it changed forever by the images on a screen.

Someone once told me that at the news of any catastrophic event, one’s senses surge into high alert.  I remember such vivid details. I was wearing an old cotton t-shirt and royal blue running shorts, sitting with my feet up, my running shoes still on, the shrill of the phone startling me, the immense red of September ripe tomatoes lining the counter, waiting to be canned, their deep earthy aroma penetrating the air.

The very first image on the television screen was a newscaster running into the controlled pristine newsroom.  The other journalists were obviously both shocked and shaken.  A really deep abyss faced them, much deeper than could be condensed and captured in headline news, the dark unknown gaping in front of these seasoned professionals, who were speechless in the face of a vast evil, beyond the easily explainable or reportable, with no commercial breaks.

Seventeen years later, there are still no ordinary days.  There never were.  Peace and strength and God’s faithfulness are not dependent on blue skies and favorable circumstances, but manifest even in the hard stuff, the really really hard stuff.

God never promised us that life would be easy,
but “I am with you.”

Churches that Sunday were packed to overflowing, as if suddenly, quite suddenly, people realized that God is real.

Even though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.

                                Habakkuk 3. 17-19

On that particular September 11, I read Oswald Chambers’ devotional that morning, words that had been transcribed by his wife in the early 1900s and published in the 1920s, words that took my breath away, words calling for faithfulness in the ordinary:

“We have to go the “second mile” with God.  Some of us get played out in the first ten yards, because God compels us to go where we cannot see the way, and we say –‘I will wait till I get nearer the big crisis.’  If we do not do the running steadily in the little ways, we shall do nothing in the crisis.”

God does not compel us to be fearful of the future,
    but to be faithful on the most ordinary days.
Even today.
Even in this.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Walking the dog on a mid-summer's night

I slip out into the night for the mundane walking our daughter’s dog who is visiting for a few weeks.  As routine and uneventful as it is, an evening’s liturgy has been established, largely wordless.  All I have to do to begin the dance is pick up her ragged braided leash, and she awakens even from her deepest doggy sleep and races joyfully to the door.  No big deal to me, but a great adventure to her. 
The probably-unnecessary leash is slipped over her head, the heavy iron door opened, three steps out, two stair treads down to the sidewalk.  The heavy humid blanket of a mid-summer’s night hangs like a thick southern curtain blocking out any breathable air, the deep heat of the sultry afternoon still radiating from the concrete.  A mere momentary affliction.  Two minutes, maybe three, and I will be back inside where the air conditioner moans endlessly.

Nothing appears but darkness outside, but inside my head, my list of what still needs to be done stands like an impatient buzzing crowd encompassing me, pieces of conversations stuck in ragged incomplete bits in my thoughts, that which has worked its way to the surface, and what has not yet been, like a deep loss I step carefully through.

I am just walking a dog, that is all, but I am not alone, surrounded by things not left behind, nor forgotten, some packed in boxes and taped closed, dare they come spilling out at an inconvenient moment.

The tectonic plates of the universe always seem to shift unexpectedly in the ordinary, that split second when something completely new infiltrates through the cracks, not just an open door to another room, but revealing a different universe already set up and humming, inviting me in.

I wait for the dog on the edge of the dark field.  Come on, come on, come on.  She pulls at her leash, meanders and sniffs, her paws making little crunching sounds in the dead august grass.  This is such a waste of time, I think out loud.

And then, I look up.

The vastness of the stars surprises me, waiting there all along.  Suddenly, I no longer hear the words for all the thunder, these important things I was pondering, abruptly nothing at all in the immensity of glory.  I am now swimming in the heavens, not in what I had been doing but created for, my smallness swallowed up by tiny pinpoints of light all around me, distracting, disorienting, waylost in the brilliant unfolding of awe and order emerging out of chaos.

The deafening reverence of sight is simultaneously translated into sound and touch and meaning, a new language taking shape in a thousand new dimensions.  I cannot breathe, no longer stifled by the restraints of humidity but shocked by eternity without limits at all.

I am no longer standing on asphalt on the edge of a field overgrown with weeds, but on holy ground.  The magnificence of the stars blocks my steps back to the ordinary. I am unable to disregard anymore the intense intimacy seamlessly woven into the universe, nor explain away the wonder.

And when I come back through the door, my husband glances up from his book and asks, “Out walking the dog?”

I only nod and smile at what I had been missing. "You wouldn't believe."

He determines the number of the stars,
and He gives to all of them
                          their names.

                                Psalm 147. 4

Even in the mystery,
    there is nothing random,
    nothing “just happens.”
Even in the darkness
   or thunderous silence,
    we are all divinely appointed,
                strategically placed,
beyond the walls of comprehension,
    called by name

Friday, August 17, 2018

A deer, a turtle, and an armadillo at the side of the path

This was a long hot summer filled to overflowing, not by interruptions or distractions, but marked by...(whoa, a lack of words here), a season of vast relationships and unspoken needs and even urgent ones that often shook me awake in the middle of the night to worry or pray, His glory getting all over everything.

Yes, a summer filled with stuff like that.  Hot, humid, and my cup runneth over.

Last week, I started back to reading, writing, and early morning runs, all of which had been largely neglected like too many old emails in my inbox.  On Monday, I ran early, before the wet wool blanket of humidity declared world domination for the day. 

In my quest to look at things from a different perspective, I ran my usual loop backwards, starting from a different parking lot and skirting the gravel path and chain link fence behind the high school.  As I entered the woods, quite suddenly, a six-point buck stood sentry on the side of the path, not a bit afraid or startled by me, but watching me slog past with his huge deer eyes, silent, still and present.  I was running on his turf.  I smiled, as if seeing a glimpse of God who makes Himself known in shockingly ordinary ways and in unexplainable places, the invisible quite suddenly very very real.

Instead of following the dry stream bed, I turned suddenly left and up the hill, not quite into the unknown but that which is just yet to be explored.  A path always seems steeper from the unfamiliar side of things.  I ran suspended in the deep green of the lingering summer pressing around me.  For a few moments, I was disoriented, not knowing where I was on a path I knew so well. How often in life, keep going, you will get through this, and then sudden familiarity, perhaps from just a different direction, as if finding the right word after all.  And the mystery converges with what I knew all along.

Toward the end of my run, I saw a palm-sized turtle creeping alongside me on the trail amidst the leaves and moss and other such distractions, yet another glimpse of the unexpected.  A gallant deer and the barely perceptible disguise of a turtle prodded me to observe the largely unnoticed. How much I miss of life pulsing around me, even in the backdrop of the trees applauding in the breeze.

Wonder means being open, not so possessed about agendas and directions and God opening new doors for us, but being opened up to what is around me, and realizing how ludicrous the idea of doors when I am on a trail in the great outdoors.  God opens my eyes and heart to what I have not seen before, cracking open the day with the spectacular and the graciousness of the ordinary, that which I rarely or barely acknowledge, not invisible or unknown to Him at all.

For by Him all things were created,
in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible...
And He is before all things,
and in Him all things
                  hold together.

                 Colossians 1. 16-17

God's grand redeeming comes quietly, sometimes deeply below the surface of this mess, through fearful mysteries, even in a bleak wilderness or impossible situation.  Someday we are going to be really surprised. His awe emerges from the chaos, what appears as tangled is interwoven into an intricate and beautiful design--that which was there all along.

The next morning when I ran -- could it get any more humid?  -- on my final descent, I noticed an armadillo laying motionless in the tall grass on the side of the path.  I like to think that he was just taking a snooze.  But what in the world was a dead armadillo doing in a city park in Nashville, of all places?

I had witnessed the majesty of a deer, the humble grace of a turtle, and an unexpected mystery of an armadillo.  I am always a little taken back by the unusual details which God slips into our lives.  His grand wonders are seamlessly woven in the commonplace.  Even in the "what was that about?" mysteries,  like unexpected dead armadillos we come across, whatever form that may take.   Sometimes, I think, these are strategically placed and designed just to get our attention in the all-too-familiar.

What has God prepared for this day?
His faithfulness,
             His divine purposes,
      in every kind of package.
Nothing is wasted.
            All is redeemed.

No eye has seen,
      nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared
   for those who love Him...

             1 Corinthians 2. 9-10

Friday, July 27, 2018

And out of the mystery, hope emerges

In the past several weeks, we all watched the extraordinary rescue of twelve young boys in Thailand and their soccer coach.

The media doubted they could be found at all.  Only their abandoned bicycles provided a clue to where they had gone into the flooded cave.  It did not appear it was going to end well. Given the passage of time, rising flood waters and more on the way, even the experts doubted they would be found alive.

But they were. 

And then, teams of specialists, scientists, and navy SEALS from around the world, worked to get them out alive, these boys weakened by ten days without food and limited possibly contaminated water, many of whom did not even know how to swim.

But the highly skilled international rescue teams wouldn't give up, even in the face of overwhelming forces against them.

Why?  Not for the adventure, or challenge, or heroism, or headlines, but because of a God-rooted basic truth:  Life is sacred and precious.

Against the limitations of time and the threat of even more torrential rain, the rescuers pursued deliverance.   Day after day, the sheer odds against them rose like the waters in that cave. People without faith hoped for the best.  The rest of the world prayed for the impossible.  Because, then again, "odds" never include the intervention of God in an equation. 

When a highly skilled diver drowned in the pursuit, the others were even more determined to bring out each boy alive, the children having been underground at that point for seventeen days until they all emerged, having endured so many days of deep darkness they had to cover their eyes.

It was, as the Wall Street Journal stated, "one of the most extraordinary rescues the world has seen, involving thousands of divers, engineers, military and support staff."

And as every one realized, from every worldview, it took something outside of human effort to succeed.

Just as quickly as the last boy and their coach emerged from their watery prison, before even the cheering of the crowds faded, the unexplainable was explained away.  A top story of the day on July 12 in the New York Times was entitled:  "I still can't believe it worked,"  Inside the Thai soccer team's rescue:  floating stretchers, anti-anxiety pills and no small amount of luck.

I shook my head....no small amount of luck.  What does it take to acknowledge God's hand?

The article continued with a quote from a Thai army commander:  "The most important piece of the rescue was good luck.  So many things could have gone wrong, but somehow we managed to get the boys out."

But somehow...

The definition of luck is chance, accidental, something entirely random and otherwise unexplainable, unexpected, unaccountable, at exactly the right time.

Things like that don't "just happen."  The limited margins of the explainable leave no room for mystery, wonder, or transcendence. Luck is impersonal and random.  But supernatural is not spelled that way.

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
                  you are Mine.
When you pass through the waters
          I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
       they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
             you shall not be burned,
     and the flame shall not consume you.
...Because you are precious in My eyes,
and honored,
              and I love you."

                                   Isaiah 43. 1-2, 4

The daring reality of His Presence shocks us by His power in it.

As Ted Loder says in his book Guerillas of Grace: "Yet, prayer is always against the odds set by logic, by scientism, by realism...a gut deep, intuitive refusal to accept the odds or to calculate too closely with the limits of the possible or the sneakiness of grace....[Praying] opens the one who prays to broader dimensions of reality than he or she may have entertained before.

"Some part of us is taken captive or set free, and that shift changes the world a little."

Even in a cave in remote Thailand.

Even in whatever you face today.

And perhaps God did it that improbable,
                       impossible way
to put wonder in the wake of the story,
to make people doubt their doubts,
to hear the supernatural resounding in the air.
The last page has been turned,
the instruments have eased playing,
           but there is not silence,
just His glory too thick to breathe.
There will always be excuses and explanations
             for what cannot be explained,
the beauty,
the unexpected,
and a peek into the eternal.