Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A different landscape we could not see

Twenty-three years ago, we moved to Kansas City into a newly built subdivision, the houses lined up like so many cookies cut from the same mold, one after another, the same neutral colors, the same sod struggling to take root, the same spindly trees that barely met the builder's shaky promise of "fully landscaped:" a single sapling in the same position out front and a few fledgling boxwood bushes.  All the same, house after house.

The most outstanding feature of our backyard was a large hill of dirt and rocks leftover from the foundations of the houses around us.  Behind that mountain was an empty unsold stretch of land, so dry and barren that even native prairie grass and weeds struggled to survive, as desperate and bleak as the lone Kansas frontier.

I was reluctant to sign the paperwork.  I didn't want to be here.  And at the closing, I felt like God was saying, "Trust Me in this."

From the front elevation and the back, our view was unobstructed from one end of the block to the other, largely devoid of vegetation. The small trees we planted were visible only by the stakes holding them up, casting nary a shadow and bearing but a few leaves at all, sad, forlorn and out of place as a new kid in a junior high school cafeteria. I could see from our backyard all the way up to the school, a dozen houses away.  In the eyes of the neighborhood children, this was a paradise with no visible boundaries.  They roamed and played in what they saw as one huge yard. 

We lived there for just three years and worked with what we had, planting a perennial garden by the garage, nurturing a thick row of hostas to outline the front bed, and coaxing the sod to take root in that arid soil.

We made friends, volunteered at the elementary school, became involved in a church plant that rented space in a local school, and we proactively planted more trees to replace those that looked like they were already on life-support.  

Then, like a nomadic tribe, we moved again to another state.

Now, suddenly as in a time warp, twenty years and five more locations have passed.

A few weeks ago, my husband Bill and I drove to Kansas City to attend the wedding of a sweet friend.  One evening while we were there, we intentionally headed to our old neighborhood. We turned onto our old street, counting down the houses. When we arrived at our old address, it was like seeing something vaguely familiar in a dream, the outlines the same, the colors unaltered, a season of our lives long past.

We slowly passed by the house, turned around, and inched past it again.  But then, we stopped the car suddenly in the middle of the street.  We caught a glimpse between the houses into the backyard. The view took my breath away.  A virtual canopy of green shaded the yard, not quite a forest yet, but a far different landscape that we could not have even imagined in our wildest dreams, a rich oasis in full color.

God redeems the hard places.  God gives the growth.

...and He will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD. 
                                              Isaiah 51. 3

Fruitfulness takes time.  Trust is what I cannot yet see.

You too may be wondering "What kind of wasteland is this?  What am I doing here?"  What we plant may not not be for us at all, but bearing fruit for people we may never even know.

I see a barren place.  God sees a forest.

Blessed is the man
     who trusts in the LORD,
     whose trust is the LORD. 
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out is roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

                               Jeremiah 17. 7-8

God has placed you
   strategically for His Kingdom.
You may not be able to see it yet,
but you can know,
God is altering the landscape
                      even here,
                      even in this.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Grey is the color of the Fourth of July

It is the Fourth of July weekend, and I noticed a couple of days ago the lack of decorations as I drove around.  There were a few flags in the commercial district of a neighboring town, a couple of buntings at the entrance of a subdivision, but that was about it.  There was talk of fireworks, hot dogs, and a long weekend. But what exactly are we celebrating?

We took a few of our out of town family members this week to visit some new traveling exhibits at a local art museum, featuring a collection of post- World War 2 Italian sports cars, a gallery of fantastical contemporary paintings, and a children's art space which delighted our niece.

Back in the corner of the second floor was also an exhibit of Soviet photographs and film.  These framed and curated works were the visual propaganda tools designed to re-educate the masses who were largely at the time vulnerable and illiterate.  The basic idea was to use art as a means to depict an utopian society, united and strong, and to eliminate any dissent, mostly under Stalin's fierce rule.

Black and white pictures showed small children standing in rows, dressed exactly alike.  The men depicted were strong and athletic, the women cheerful in their identical peasant scarves, an image of happiness and equality.  But the harsh and stark reality of the totalitarian regime was what it really looked like. Not shown were those caught in the crossfire of the political power struggle,the millions starving or slaughtered just because they chose to differ, chose to speak out the truth against government oppression, or just because of rumor and prejudice.

I looked around the exhibit hall at the black and white photographs and huge colorful posters.  And at the same time, I was very conscious of the visitors in the gallery who were glancing at the images.  With few exceptions, no one there was old enough to even remember those decades of Soviet oppression.  The Soviet Union dissolved twenty-five years ago.  This is dusty curious history to them, two-dimensional artwork, an afternoon's entertainment, the stuff of boring history classes.  Let's move on to the speedy Italian racing cars.

They have no idea what any of this really meant.  Don't color outside the lines. You have no right to question. Nothing to discuss.  No disagreement allowed.  Conform to the prevailing mindset... or suffer for your dissent.  One stray word and you lose everything, your profession, your family, and all too often you were never seen again.

One of my favorite books is Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya who suffered unbearably in a remote Soviet prison, sentenced as a young woman to seven years in a labor camp for the crime of writing poetry.  Grey was the color of the ragged uniforms of the political prisoners in that dreadful confinement. But Ratushinskaya grasped the hope that as long as there were grey uniforms, there were still people willing to speak out for freedom.

Freedom means that everyone doesn't agree.  Our strength is not in being all the same.  We all have different opinions and traditions and beliefs.  And that is what liberty is all about.

On the Fourth of July, we come together not to celebrate our sameness, but the beauty of our differences and liberty for all.

Wear grey
and love your neighbors.

The Fourth of July was not designated as a long summer weekend, or to commemorate the end of a war, but to celebrate the Declaration of Independence that was signed on this day 240 years ago:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life,
and the pursuit of Happiness."

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


When we moved in our house, now almost two years ago, there was a fledgling maple tree in the front yard, planted a couple of years prior.  It was a "builder" tree, you know, one of those weak excuses to compensate for "landscaping" in a builder's contract.

Among the other changes that we knew we would need to make to the house, the tree was near the top of the list.  It appeared that the tree was dying from the outside in. The main branch up through the middle of the tree was stark and bald, bearing no leaves at all, as if the top part of the tree was caught in leafless winter.  It was only a matter of time that the other branches would also lose their leaves, a slow gradual death, like an expiration date past due.  

When we added some bushes on the barren side of the yard and replaced an already dead-brown evergreen along the property line in the back, we planned for the tree guy to remove the maple on life support and replace it with a tree that would someday actually provide some shade.

We returned one day to find the new bushes and a live evergreen planted out back, but the dying tree in the front remained, mulched as if it was still part of the family.

"I think there is still some life in it," the tree guy said.  "Let's wait and see."

Knowing that a dead branch places a strain on the rest of the tree and limits its growth, my husband indulged in his favorite activity of pruning one afternoon, lopping off the dead part.  The dead branches now lay in a pile by the garage, waiting for a free ride to the county dump.

It already looks like a different tree. 

I thought about that tree, running through the forest in the park this morning.  I thought about the dead parts of our lives that we so desperately grasp, the bad attitudes, the well-worn patterns of behavior, the fears and anxieties that have dwelt so long with us they have a permanent address, the dead parts that sap our strength that we so little recognize... or want to acknowledge.

What impedes my spiritual growth?  What needs to go?  A fear, distraction, anxiety, criticism, or blaming of others.  Oh no, LORD, not that!  It's my favorite default, comfortable, convenient, and "not so bad."  But it is also that which keeps me from abiding in You.  Bring it to my attention.  O LORD, show me for what it really is, that which is so carefully disguised..

Only when I acknowledge what is the dead wood, then I can realize how much my heart has been distracted.

God prunes, God redeems, God brings the growth.  It already looks like a different heart.  And that transforms the entire landscape.

Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit,
He takes away,
and every branch that does bear fruit
        He prunes,
        that it may bear more fruit.

                      John 15. 2

Friday, June 24, 2016

We're Not Dead Yet

A guest blog today by my husband Bill:

Our sixth grandchild was born a couple of weeks ago.  Beth and Gary welcomed baby George into the world the night Karen and I arrived in Boston for a weeklong stay that had been planned for months.  God’s timing was perfect, and it was a fun trip. 

We spent most of our time playing with the three older grandchildren, ages 6, 5 and 2.  We played on a variety of local playgrounds, built sandcastles at the beach, and read books.  I also played countless hours of tag and Frisbee golf with them in the backyard.  I came to the conclusion that playing like a 5 year old is much better for you than a gym membership. 

One afternoon, we went to a local bird sanctuary, hiking the trails and climbing the large rock formations in the area.  As we returned to the car on one of the tree-shaded trails, Howie and I got a bit ahead of the others.  We talked about birds and animals we had seen on the hike.  At one point, he looked up at me and said, for no apparent reason, “Papa, I was surprised when we played tag yesterday.  You’re pretty fast for an old guy.”  It appeared he had given this some serious thought.  “Thanks, Howie,” I laughed, though I’m still not at all sure he meant it as a compliment.

When we flew back to our own home, we got up early the next morning to get our own lives back in order and caught up.  Karen came in from getting the paper and said, “Did you see them on the roof?”  Not waiting for a reply, she continued, “Buzzards.  Six of them.  And they won’t leave.”  In the area where we live, buzzards congregate in large numbers on even a rumor of roadkill like so many church members gathering for a potluck supper.

I walked out on the driveway, and there they were, looking directly at me and very unconcerned with my presence.  I clapped my hands.  They sat there and preened.  I yelled at them.  They continued to sit.  At that point, Karen came back outside, looked up and quoted Monty Python, calling out to those large scavengers, “We’re not dead yet.”  We both laughed as they finally took flight.

 “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.”  Psalm 92:14-15

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A little bit of Dawn, a scrub brush and a soaking overnight

For supper last night, we ate the last vestiges of the macaroni and cheese that I had prepared as a side dish for Father's Day.  It was still good, made even better by sitting in the fridge a couple of days.  And in the reheating, it produced a yummy crunchy cheese layer on top...and a strong adhering of burnt-on sauce on the baking pan itself.

"This one is going to need soaking," Bill announced, as he finished the dishes.

Before we went to bed, I realized it would need an even longer soak.

This morning, it still took a scrub brush and a little elbow grease before it came clean.

Yesterday, as I returned from an early morning run, I felt compelled to fast and pray.  When the thought occurred to me, I dismissed it.  There was nothing obvious that I was seeking.  Not today.  But as I began to prepare a simple breakfast, I felt even more convicted.  I put down the strawberry I was slicing for my yogurt, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge, and went about my day, waiting and listening for what to pray.  God placed different people and things on my radar throughout the day, but nothing extraordinary.  By the end of the day and the breaking of my fast, there still nothing evident to hang my prayers on.

But in the face of what appears insignificant and without obvious purpose, God is still working, sometimes I think more powerfully than when we think we see His hand.

Even while I was scrubbing the baking pan this morning, I was still mystified about the fast, "I wonder what that was all about?"

And in my thoughts, I heard Bill's voice from the evening before, "This one needs to soak."

I just needed to soak, not for a particular prescribed answer, not for an outcome I would want, or even to see God's hand on a specific situation, but to soak in Him, for the Holy Spirit to soften the crusty, stubborn, baked-on places in my heart and align my heart with His, not just cleaning it up, but getting ready for what is yet to come.

Fasting doesn't capture God's attention.  It draws ours to His.  The point is not in the fasting, not in seeking answers, but in seeking God Himself.

We don't always know.  No, we rarely have any idea what God is up to.  But He is working, stronger still.  We just need to follow Him into His leading, even when it does not appear to make sense.  Because it always does.  We just can't see it yet.

And He said to them,
"This kind cannot be driven out
by anything but prayer and fasting."

                                 Mark 9. 29