Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Whatever We Do

My oldest daughter and her family traveled from Cleveland to visit us this past week.  It was a jumble of great fun and the joy of just being together.

One chilly afternoon when there was the bustle of activity in the kitchen, I noticed my two year old granddaughter in an adjacent room, playing on my mother’s old piano.  I tiptoed out of the kitchen behind her to see what she was doing.  She was not banging away on the piano keys, as you would expect a toddler to do, but carefully plunking each one as if following a sheet of music.  She had an old hymnal opened before her, and she occasionally stood up on the piano bench and turned its pages.  And in her sweet little voice, she sang Joy to the World, over and over again.  Her passion was of one unaware of the concept of performance, and deep in the purity of one unencumbered by the limitations of others.  She sang with amazing joy.

I stood there silent behind her, afraid of disrupting this precious moment of a little one worshiping God in her own profound way and giving Him glory.  She was singing from the bottom of her heart, enunciating every syllable with great feeling.  And I could feel His delight in the room.

But Jesus said,

“Let the children come to Me,

and do not hinder them,

for to such belongs the kingdom

of heaven.”

            Matthew 19.14

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

And What Do We Miss?

Whenever we go to the mountains, I am overwhelmed by the hand of God in His creation.  Each time as we drive through the cathedrals of trees, no matter the season, each time I run through the woods, no matter the weather, I hear and smell and see something new.  Sometimes it is the mist through which trees seem to float eerily, sometimes it is the grandeur of snow clinging to rocks in a rushing creek or the branches of trees that engrave the sky with dark lace, sometimes it is the deep smell of pine needles carpeting the autumn floor of the forest.

But my favorite is the sighting of a black bear, which happens more often than not.  I always watch from a safe distance, I know to respect their space, but the opportunity each time takes my breath away by the majesty of these creatures, so integrated into their environment that even a dark rock, a shadow, the hollow blackness of a fallen tree become phantoms in the wild. 

Once while driving through the mountains and watching out the window like an excited little kid, I prayed silently, “O God, just one, give us a glimpse of just one bear walking through the woods.”  And in my silliness, I stopped short.  Because I realized very suddenly to Whom I was praying, the Creator of the Universe, the LORD of all creation.  And I knew that if He chose, it would take nothing at all for Him to send out a hundred bears dancing a jig.

What am I praying for today?  Do I realize what God is capable of doing?

May the bears dance, O LORD.

William Holbrook Beard and his painting 'The Bear Dance

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From whence does my help come?

My help comes from the LORD,

Maker of heaven and earth.

                          Psalm 121.1

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Littlest Angel

When I was three and so shy that I was mostly invisible, I was designated by the choir director to participate in the church’s annual reenactment of the Christmas story.  I was given the part of an angel.  All I had to do was stand behind the manger which held a rough-looking plastic baby doll wrapped in an old towel.  It was not necessary for me to attend the rehearsals as I did not have a speaking part.  I just had to stand there and look, I guess, angelic.

My grandmother Mammy, who lived with us, toiled over my costume.  An old white bedsheet was sewn into a small robe and around my waist was tied a golden metallic cord, leftover from a previous Christmas.  A strand of dime-store tinsel was bobby-pinned into a halo of sorts in my unruly curly hair.

The evening of the event, my grandmother took me backstage.  Suddenly, this didn’t seem like such a fun thing to me anymore.  I was surrounded by giants dressed like characters in my little Bible.  And there were people out there, lots of people, staring at the stage.

When it came time for Jesus to be born, this little angel PANICKED.  And with the tenderness that only a grandmother can have in a moment of pandemonium, Mammy just gently took my hand.  On cue, as if it were the most natural thing for me to do, I stood on stage with my arms held out, just like I was supposed to.  Behind the curtain and out of sight sat Mammy on a folding chair, holding the tiny little hand of a terrified angel on stage.  Even though I could not see her, I knew she was there.  I could feel the warmth of her hand.  And it was ok.  I could do this very hard thing.

Quite frankly, we all are faced with situations when inside we are terrified three-year-olds wearing adult costumes on the outside.  And with shaking knees we have to put on a game face and big girl panties and get out there.  But we can KNOW we are not alone.  “Be not afraid.  I am with you,” the LORD says.  Those are not just words but promises woven repeatedly throughout the entire Bible.  His Presence surrounds us.  No matter what role we may be called to play.  He is there.

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.

For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

…Because you are precious in My eyes,

and honored, and I love you…

Fear not, for I am with you.

                    Isaiah 43. 1-5

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas on the bottom shelf

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I stopped by Target yesterday for a few things, including the Fisher Price Little People nativity set for our grandchildren.  The toy department was daunting, to say the least.  After looking up and down the aisles for a few minutes, I spotted an employee wearing the familiar red Target shirt.  I told her what I was looking for.  She looked quizzically at me.  “Fisher Price,” I repeated.  She started to lead me down an aisle.  “What was it again you were looking for?” she asked.  “The Fisher Price nativity set,” I told her.  “What is a nativity?” she asked me.  “You know, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus,” I explained.   I could tell by her face that my explanation meant nothing to her at all.  “The Christmas story,” I emphasized.    “Is it a Christmas toy?” she asked.  We were surrounded literally by a canyon of toys, threatening to bury us alive.

At that point, I saw it, in the middle of an aisle, down on the bottom shelf, by itself.  

And I was hit broadside by two things:

1.  This clerk had NO idea that Christmas had anything at all to do with Jesus.

2.  In the entire store, including a whole section devoted to holiday decorations, this plastic nativity set was the only thing I saw that represented what Christmas is really about.

When our oldest daughter was just a toddler, we had some friends nearby who recognized even then what was happening to Christmas.  And so, as soon as you walked in their door, there was a nativity set, front and center, situated so that it could never be overlooked.  I have never forgotten that.  Make it the first thing you notice.

Christmas can be fun.  But it is also a time of great joy and hope in a world that has no idea that joy and hope even exist.  Never assume that someone you meet or someone you love knows that Jesus has everything to do with Christmas and everything to do with the cries of the human heart.  “He is here!” the angels shouted with glee.

For you with young children, read them the Christmas story over and over, until they can recite every word.  Let them play-act the story, over and over, costumes and all, yes, even if they make a huge mess.  Invite the neighbor children to join them.  Let them play out the story with a nativity set, so that they physically see what happened.   Memorize with them the account from Luke 2.  You would be amazed how quickly they can do that, verse by verse, even at an early age.  It will be engraved in their memory forever.  One of our girls memorized it at age five, and twenty years later, she can still recite it.

And above all, make sure that your children KNOW the difference between what is pretend and what is real.  The Christmas story is not just another “story.”   It is unlike any other made-up tale like Dora and Curious George.  Because Jesus is REAL.  This is Truth. 

For unto us a Child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be upon His shoulder,

and His name will be called

Wonderful Counselor,

Mighty God,

Everlasting Father,

Prince of Peace.

                       Isaiah 9. 6

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Gentle Reminder

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My grandmother could grow anything in any type of soil or container.  Anything.  She came to live with my family before I was born.  When I was very young, she staked out the entire length of windows in our family room and planted a huge indoor garden three feet deep.  After all, as a Texan, she was used to a long growing season.  We lived in Chicago.  So even when the permafrost had set in and we didn’t see the ground from the beginning of November until the end of March, we had an indoor jungle.  Wherever we moved, she planted and transplanted, no matter the climate, no matter the soil, whether sand or clay or rock.  Nothing stopped her.  She had a green thumb, a large dose of stubbornness, and she delighted in God’s creation.

But of all the traits that she passed on to me, her green thumb was not included in my DNA.  Plants do not thrive under my care.  Actually, most of them do not even survive under my care – or lack thereof.  (Did I water that plant sometime this month?)

So much to my surprise this week was an actual bloom on my African violet that has been in need of life support for some time now.  I take no pride in what has happened.  Actually, I chuckled when I saw it.  This is seriously something that only God could do.  And I give Him all the credit.

There are times when God sends me a gentle reminder of Who He is and this is one of them.

Let them know that this is Your hand;

You, O LORD, have done it.

                       Psalm 109.27

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Make It Work, People

The commuter train system in Japan is known for its accurate schedules and efficiency, despite transporting about 21 million people daily with more than 12,000 trains running.  In reality, its infrastructure is considered so overtaxed that logistically the system should not work at all.  But it does brilliantly, in spite of disruptions.  Trains arrive on schedule every two minutes.  Its success, however, is not based on perfection, but the opposite.  To make this system work, a recent article in The University of Chicago magazine reports that “unpredictability must be a part of the transit equation.”

It is the recognition of that unpredictability, the acknowledgement that the system is not perfect, that actually allows the Japanese train system to work so well and so efficiently.

How do the Japanese engineers do it?  By “…creating an environment where technology incorporates irregularity rather than trying to eliminate it,” according to Chicago anthropologist Michael Fisch in his book about the Japanese commuter train network. 

I think about how much energy, effort, and frustration that we invest in trying to make our lives at work or at home “perfect,” as if that is an attainable goal.  What if we approached difficult situations not from a perspective of perfection, but from the lack of it? 

There will be difficulties.  Count on it.  We live in a fallen world, not a perfect one. So as Fisch says, incorporate the reality that there WILL be problems rather than trying to pretend that they either do not exist or hope beyond hope that everything will go smoothly THIS time.  The trick is having a system within the system so that glitches are expected and already accounted for.  As I have told many young moms, “From now on, flexibility is your middle name.”

Ask God to help you see these road blocks and variables, not as obstacles but as opportunities in disguise.  Make it work with what you have before you.  The biggest problem may be that we have stopped trying to do just that. 

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. 16-17

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Woman Hit By Train

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My clothes were set out like a fireman’s.  My favorite pink shorts, faithful grey tank top, a pair of well-worn socks, and my running shoes.  We pinned 29594 to the front of my shirt and looped the timing chip through the laces of my shoes.  I wanted to minimize any surprises in the morning.  The alarm was set for 4.30, but I lay awake a good part of the night, just waiting for morning, waiting to run.  Four and a half months and 581 miles of training were stored up in these legs.  It was still dark when we arrived in downtown Chicago, but the sidewalks already were teeming with people.  When the sun arose, 45,000 runners were corralled into the starting area like cattle going to market, so tightly jammed together that there were people as far as I could see in front of me and behind, too close together to even lean over and re-tie my shoes.  The gun went off, but it was a full eleven minutes before I even reached the starting line.  It was like being caught in the current of a fast moving river.   

A marathon is a grueling endeavor which takes you to your limits, and sometimes beyond that.  It is a surreal journey through a canyon of cheering crowds and on roads sticky with Gatorade.  In Chicago,the pavement rolls through an endless tour of ethnic communities vying for attention: China Town, Little Italy, the Polish neighborhood, and the Hispanic barrios, people shouting, singing, and cheering absolute strangers.  People came out of their houses with little cups of water and dripping bags of ice.  One man handed out popsicles from a plastic bag, a woman and child offered fig newtons on a paper plate, and an old man joyously sprayed water on the sweaty runners out of his green garden hose.  The last six miles was littered with runners who struggled even to walk to the finish.  This time, that was me.

My excitement surged when I realized near the half-way point that I was on pace for a Boston qualifying time.  And then, within another few miles, the wheels began to fall off my wagon.  I began to slow down, a couple of blocks at a time, gradually to a walk.  My legs had cramped up to a point that I struggled to run at all.  I walked a little and ran a little.  I tricked myself to keep going, “Just run until the next corner…or the next traffic light…or the next water stop.”  There came a time when I thought it was over.  I stopped altogether at the aid station at mile 20.  I lay face-down on a cot drenched in the sweat of other runners and I did not even flinch.  A volunteer placed large bags of ice on my legs.  She offered me some water.  Minutes passed.  “Well, we can get you on the transport bus back to the finish,” she said.  And I lifted my head.  I was down, but I wasn’t out. 

That old familiar voice of stubbornness that has pushed me into a lot of trouble through the years shouted at me, “You came 20 miles just to ride a bus back????”  I gulped down the water, limped back on the course, and shuffled and ran the last six miles.  I finished.  Pathetically, to be sure, but I finished.  And when I crossed the finish line, I raised my arms as if I won a gold medal in the Olympics.

I came home with a finisher’s medal and a few more lessons in marathon running.

Problems:  As in life, I should have admitted earlier when I needed help.  Most problems don’t just go away on their own or dissolve with pride.  A big glass of water earlier in the race would have kept me going.

People:  A running buddy in a race (or life) makes a significant difference.  At mile 10, one of my daughters jumped in to run with me for a few miles.  Because I was having problems, she ended up encouraging me for 16 miles.  She wore a hand-lettered tank top that said, “Cheer for Karen,”  with an arrow pointing toward me.  And total strangers became my personal cheering squad. 

Pressure:  As in your teenage years, peer pressure runs rampant in a race.  I started out too fast, and it caught up with me. Always run YOUR pace, no matter what others are doing.

Perspective:  One of the sights that kept me running that day was seeing a teenage boy in a wheelchair with a microphone and loud speaker, cheering on runners he didn’t even know.

Prize:  Keep your eyes on what really counts.  Years ago, a friend of ours went to Europe to race bicycles.   He didn’t do well against the other cyclists.  But he learned one thing far more valuable:  “God doesn’t need us to win to bring Him glory.” 

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,

let not the mighty man glory in his might,

let not the rich man glory in his riches,

but let him who glories

           glory in this,

that he understands and knows Me,

that I am the LORD…

                                  Jeremiah 9.23

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

There comes a time…

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In any endeavor that stretches us beyond the boundaries of our own imagined strength, there comes a time when we suddenly realize our dependence on what we do not control.  And we make the tragic mistake of either looking back or looking down or quitting altogether because the uphill was, well, a little more uphill than we thought it would be. “What was I thinking?” 

Passion and adventure are hard-wired within all of us.  But complacency is an idol that binds our feet and repeats over and over “you can’t do that,” until we not only believe it, we stake our lives on our fears.  We become disabled souls, paralyzed by a maligned self-diagnosis.

On almost a daily basis, I hear people say, “I could never do that,”  about something good that might stretch them just a little bit.  Our reluctance gives birth to a million excuses.  “It will be hard, it will hurt, I will probably fail,” we whine.  And the lies we believe keep us in a place where we choose to do nothing at all, held hostage in our own windowless temperature-controlled comfort zone.

Are we so afraid of being dependent on God?  Of what amazing things He can do with our lives, if we let Him?  As my friend John Bryson says, “What am I doing that if God was not in it, I would fail?” 

I contemplate these thoughts on the eve of the Chicago marathon, coming up now in three short days.  It is a rigorous physical endeavor, that is to be sure, but for me, it has become a different kind of exercise, a stepping out and trusting God to move me beyond the limitations of my own wisdom and strength to a scary place where I finally acknowledge my dependence on Him.   Over the 18 weeks of marathon training in heat, rain, and the daunting fragility of old age, sometimes slogging  along by myself and sometimes eating the dust of those much younger and faster than I am, I have both thought and verbalized, “Why am I doing this?”  And I sense God replying, “Trust Me.  Let Me use this in your life.”  There is meaning.  There is purpose.  The marathon is not an end in itself and, indeed, may not be about running at all.  But perhaps, it is just getting out the door for what lies ahead.

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded

by so great a cloud of witnesses,

let us also lay aside every weight,

and sin that clings to closely,

and let us run with perseverance

the race that is set before us,

         looking to Jesus…

                         Hebrews 12.1-2

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A River Runs Through It

Recently my husband and I went kayaking with a couple we have known for 30 years.  They live in a community north of Chicago which surrounds a 100 acre lake.  The sun warmed our skin, the strong breeze kept us honest in our paddling, and wild herons and swans graced the shore.  When we came around one bend, there was a small eight-foot bridge that looked like the railing on someone’s backyard deck.  “That,” said our friend Sandy, “is the dam.”  Forty years ago, three inconsequential “you-could-jump-over-them” creeks were dammed to form this lake on what used to be a farm.  A small obstacle served to create a large scenic body of water.

Someone had the vision to strategically place a small disruption in the flow of those meandering streams.  The creeks still flow through the land, but now, instead of being the end, they are the means of nurturing something much bigger than themselves.

In His Word, God talks a lot about the imagery of water:  being planted by rivers of water, walking on dry ground in the midst of the Red Sea or Jordan River, Christ as the living water, and our lives as being rivers.

Do I have the vision for obstacles and difficulties as something God has placed in my life for a reason and purpose?  Do I SEE them differently?  Or only as an annoyance and something from which I cry for deliverance – or complain about?  That obstacle may not be about me after all.  As Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest, “…out of us will flow the rivers that will bless to the uttermost parts of the earth.  We have nothing to do with the outflow -- This is the work of God…  If you believe in Jesus, you will find that God has nourished in you mighty torrents of blessing for others.”

Let God use that interruption today, that change of plans, that unplanned outcome, that traffic jam, for His glory.  Ask not “why God?”  but “what?”  God’s purposes are always deeper than we can envision.

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none,

and their tongue is parched with thirst,

I the LORD will answer them,

I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

and fountains in the midst of the valleys;

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

and the dry land springs of water.

…that men may see and know,

may consider and understand together,

that the hand of the LORD has done this,

the Holy One of Israel has created it.

                            Isaiah 41. 17-18, 20

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Facing the Hordes

All too often fear sneaks through an unlocked door and takes up residence where it can no longer be ignored.   Most often, it stands by my bedside, waiting for me to stir in the middle of the night.  And then, it pounces.  In the dark, it is hard to decipher what is only an illusory monster under my bed.  Those amazingly irrational fears cast the biggest shadows.  They are the hardest to eradicate because, like spiders, hit one and a hundred more take its place.  

There are those days when it feels like a multitude of barbaric warriors have you surrounded.  As Oswald Chambers once prayed, “I seem to be paralysed by my own littleness…”  At these times, we want to hide in the closet at the very moment we should be heading out the door.  But perhaps the awareness of our own littleness should be, instead, a cry out to God, an awareness of His enormity.  One afternoon this summer when I was wallowing in a moment of dismay and praying for help, outside the window I heard the voice of my little granddaughter singing on the porch, “My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty, there is nothing my God cannot do.”  Literally, God spoke to me through the mouth of a babe.  To whom am I listening?  To fear?  To my own littleness?  Or to the Creator of the Universe?

This problem is nothing new.  Indeed, the Bible is FULL of what I call “God’s little pep talks.”  This morning, I read one of them.  God may not take me out of a battle or sticky situation, but He can still deliver me in its midst.  It is all in how you look at the TRUTH of the matter, not a perversion of it.  This summer I watched three girls, about ages 8 to 10, playing in a shallow creek.  All of a sudden, they started screaming at the top of their lungs “a SNAKE!!!” and took refuge on the top of a large flat rock until their father came to their rescue.   He reached down into the water and pulled out the problem.  The littlest turned to the girl who started screaming first and confronted her, “We were scared of a STICK?!?!”   God has a way of deflating those fears back to reality.  Take courage, my friend.  And know Who is with you.

Be strong and of good courage.

Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria

and all the horde that is with him,

for there is One greater with us than with him.

With him is an arm of flesh,

but with us is the LORD our God,

to help us and to fight our battles. 

                     2 Chronicles 32. 7-8 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

There WILL Be A Glitch

A friend whose daughter is getting married this weekend asked me for advice in navigating the wedding ceremonies.  The best thing that I could tell her was to have fun and EXPECT something to go “not quite as planned.”  There is a level of insecurity and frustration in expecting everything to be perfect.  And there is a peace in knowing that we (as well as the people who are working the wedding) are imperfect.  SOMETHING will go awry.  In my oldest daughter’s wedding, the flowers arrived an hour late.  In the next family wedding, the groom’s tux was missing.  I attended a wedding in Memphis a couple of years ago where – after months upon months of planning the perfect summer wedding– the air conditioner at the church was not working on one of the hottest days of the year.  And, at the end of the day, in all three situations, the bride and groom were married, which when it comes down to it is the whole point of the day, glitch or not.  Some things ARE beyond your abilities.  When our girls were little and plans were spoiled by sickness or bad weather or other childhood calamities, I used to tell them, “There are some things in my control, and this is not one of them.”

And through all of the things in life when detours, speed bumps, and dead-ends happen, remember that the situation did not come as a surprise to God.  Because in God’s economy, there are no glitches.  There is a reason and a purpose, even if it is something we cannot see and even if it is only to remind us that –surprise!-- we are not in charge after all.  Last weekend, the battery in our eleven year old truck died.  We were inconveniently stuck for awhile at the farmer’s market, but hey, at least we weren’t stranded on a lonely section of Interstate somewhere in a rain storm in the middle of the night.  My husband went to get a new battery at Autozone since that was where he had one replaced before about eight years ago.  When the clerk went to check their records, it turns out that the full-replacement warranty had 18 days left on it.  Eighteen days.   That “glitch” in our Saturday morning plans turned out to be a blessing.

Biblical worldview is not just what you believe.  It is how you see life through God’s eyes.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man,

but it is the purpose of the LORD

     that will be established.

                                  Proverbs 19.21

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bored With Nothing To Do

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Bored – Nothing To Do! is a delightful picture book about two brothers who undertake an adventure on a summer day when there was “nothing to do.”  I was reminded of it last night when I read an article  in the Wall Street Journal focused on a new “underserved” marketing niche:  boys 6 to 11 years old.  Why?  Because, “boys watch more animated series than girls and represent a lucrative sales opportunity for videogames, toys and sports merchandise.”  Put into a nutshell:   it is the middle of summer, there are A LOT of kids passively watching a screen in front of them, and they are bored to death. 
Boredom seems to reign supreme in this new generation of kids.  And that is a shame.  Children of this generation – boys and girls alike – are so pre-programmed, over-scheduled, and pushed, even in the earliest months, that “spare time” is filled with a bizillion channels of cable tv, endless video games, DVD players even in the SUV, and i-pads to soak up every bit of their remaining attention.
Addictive behaviors begin early.  And so does a lack of creative initiative.  Indeed, a couple of years ago, when I was taking care of a friend’s children, her kids were excited to find Lego’s in the toy closet.  They quickly became frustrated, though, trying to follow the pre-planned instructions, and began squabbling over the pieces.  “You know,” I interrupted, “You don’t have to follow the directions.  You can make ANYTHING you want.” 
“We can?” they replied, incredulous. 
The next two hours flew past, each of the kids building and rebuilding the “best rocket ship ever,” and the “best fighter jet ever,” and the “best castle ever,” from the pile of tiny plastic pieces.  And they GLOWED when their mom came, so proud of what they had made.  Their faces, in turn, fell when their mom replied, “Ok, time to pick up the toys.  We need to go.”
The next time they came, the oldest child made cookies with me.  For the first time ever.
One summer in Kansas City when our girls were elementary and middle school age, we challenged them to not watch tv for the entire summer.   It was like they were released from jail.   They put on plays in the basement, they ripped up the sideyard playing with a Slip N Slide that they bought for a quarter at a garage sale, they rode bikes to the neighborhood pool, and one of them started a “mold garden” under her sink to “see what happens.”  They figured out how to sew simple things for their American Girl dolls using scraps of cloth and yarn…and much to his horror, constructed outfits for our dog Jack.  Each of the girls had “mud clothes” and an old pair of shoes for exploring the undeveloped field behind our house.  And that summer began their adventures in cooking--with recipes and without –a pursuit that continues to this day as adults in their own kitchens.  
Quite frankly, they made a big mess.
And they had the time of their lives. 
When the summer ended, tv wasn’t even mentioned until November.   C. S. Lewis was once asked how he developed such a vivid imagination.  He replied that he and his brother were left with large amounts of time on their hands.  Creativity took over from there. 
Our oldest daughter Beth, now the mother of two small children, has a wise friend who advised her, “You have 18 summers with your kids.  That’s it.  Make the most of that time.”
So tonight, let them pitch a tent in the backyard and sleep under the stars.  Let them come up with ideas for supper…and make it.   Let them run through the sprinklers in the yard, and draw with colored chalk on the driveway, and make forts with pillows and quilts in the family room, and research and plan a family outing somewhere in, let’s say, a 100 mile radius of home.  And yea, they WILL get dirty.  They might even have so much fun you will have to throw out their clothes.  They can film their own movies or create a video scavenger hunt or play Capture the Flag at dusk.  You may even discover latent talents in them.  As a poor Brooklyn kid back in the Great Depression, my father built a miniature golf course in their tiny yard – and made money with it.  He charged a few clothes-pins a game, and then sold them back to the neighborhood moms on laundry day.
And when it comes time for your kids to write the perennial essay What I Did On My Summer Vacation, your kids will smile at the thought of it.  “You wouldn’t believe…”
Let them make it the “best summer ever.”   It’s not too late.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Elusive Perfection of Children

Of the writing of parenting books, there is no end.  The first one was written, I believe, in the garden of Eden, shortly after Eve took a bite of the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Satan had promised her, PROMISED her, that she would become like God.  And nothing since has been the same.  She took a bite, blamed her husband Adam, looked for a new outfit, and began rearranging bushes in the Garden.  Before the incident, Adam and Eve basked in perfection; since then, we have been seeking it.  And as if we have come to grips with our own imperfection, we have been appalled at its presence in our children. 

Children misbehave.  That is a fact.  They misbehave most certainly in the presence of those you want to impress, and just about always when it is grossly inconvenient and your patience is nowhere to be found.  “You did WHAT?”  “Can’t you children get along for TWO minutes?”  We somehow expect them – whether 18 months or 18 years old – to act with the mindset of a mature adult and naturally display the attributes of God (wise, loving, kind, gracious, and good), in other words, as WE would have done :)

With that bite of the apple, performance entered the picture.  And so, if our children do well, we take the credit.  And if they do not, we feel guilty and judged, and quickly as possible pin the blame on someone else:  the bad influence of a neighbor’s child, an unqualified teacher, the whole school system, your own mom or dad… or we carry the guilt, browbeating ouselves, tormented by our own stupidity.  “I am to blame.  It is my fault.  I should have/could have done better.  And now my child’s life is ruined.”  Really?? 

As followers of Christ, our homes should be radically different.  Your worldview does not just affect your view of God;  it changes how you view your children.  And that difference should be evident to everyone who enters your home and anyone around you – whether you are playing in the park, standing in line at the grocery, or sitting in an airport terminal with a delayed flight and hungry, tired kids.  Be assured, others ARE watching you and your children:   not to see how perfect they are, but how you respond in grace.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

That Annoying Bird

In early spring, we began to hear the cry of a bird nesting in the trees of the vacant lot next door. Arrggghhh! It was an irritating sound, slicing through the early morning silence like an annoying alarm clock that won’t shut off. “Oh, no,” I cried out. “Not a crow!” I wanted the chatter of tiny colorful songbirds at our bird feeder, not an ugly bird hiding in the trees, mocking me. The annoying noises continued, day after day.

Last weekend while sitting on the front porch, we heard the bird again, and Bill saw something fly by and perch in our neighbor’s enormous tree. “Doesn’t look like a crow,” he said. It had a white underbelly and a curved beak. It continued to yell at us from high on the tree branch.

Bill went inside and looked it up on the computer. “It’s a peregrine falcon,” he said, “the fastest bird on earth.”

My reaction to the bird was instantly transformed from “Woe!” to “Wow!” An object of annoyance had become in my mind something treasured. I saw the bird differently. It was no longer trespassing on my turf, but graced our lives with its magnificence.

What happened in my mind? It was the same bird. It made the same noise. But now I viewed him from a new perspective.

Looking through radically new eyes, that annoying kid, husband, friend, or neighbor, may actually be a blessing in disguise (or the opportunity for us to be). They may be annoying and irritating only because they infringe on our own agenda, personal peace and happiness or, sadly, how we think the person SHOULD be-- as if we were God.

And yet….it is God who sees all things so radically different. He doesn’t see us as we SHOULD be; He sees us as we really are, without our costumes and disguises, without the baggage we have picked up along the way, and without excuses. He always sees from the way He designed us, always deeper, more graciously, more loving, and amazingly profound and personal. This is God who chose the awkward, the marginal, and the often annoying little brothers to be the leaders of His Kingdom, the people we would never expect, because He sees them differently. He sees us differently too.

He sees the falcon in us.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Perennial Garden

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Early one fall when my mother was ten years old, her aunt who lived nearby transplanted some irises into their garden, just green spears and bulbs with the promise of flowers the following spring.  Little did my aunt know at the time how desperately they would need that bit of color and beauty.   It was 1929 and about a month later, the stock market crashed and Great Depression began. 

Every time my mother and grandmother moved, they brought along the bulbs, dividing the clusters and always leaving some behind, Fort Worth, New York, Chicago, New Jersey, and back again to Chicago.  When my parents eventually moved to Florida in the 1990s, we scooped up some of the bulbs for our own garden.  The irises have now traveled with us to Kansas City, Iowa City, Cincinnati, Memphis, and Chicago.  In each of our nomadic locations, there are irises blooming every spring, the story behind them unknown to those who live in those houses. 

This week I have been writing the obituary for my father who passed away earlier this spring.  Due to space limitations, the entry can only hit the highlights of his career as a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur.  The text seems incomplete, and the words cry out to me what is missing and what really matters.  He was a man of integrity (“if you are going to steal, rob a bank”), a father who provided, a grandfather who desired each newborn to go to college, and a shepherd more than a business man – those who worked for him (some up to 40 years) considered him “family” because that is how he treated them.  He was not a man of many words until very late in his life.  Faith played a large role in his life, even though he didn’t speak much about it.  In his own way, he cared about people, even to the point of initiating a “men’s club” among the elderly men in his assisted living facility.  He outlived them all, including the one woman member who was blind and acted as their secretary.  He was full of stories about growing up in Brooklyn, coming of age in the War, and meeting Eisenhower and Einstein, most of which we never heard until the last few months of his life. 

The iris blooms make me think about what we leave behind.  Our culture thinks largely of the material – “make sure you have a will” – but those who come after us don’t need a tufted chair or a check, but an inheritance that tells of the hope within.  I came across my grandfather’s Bible last week.  He was born in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, and died decades before I was born.  As I lifted up the crumbling book, what I desired more than anything was a note to fall out that would give me a clue about who he was and what was important to him.  I held his Bible and realized I was holding that evidence in my hand. 

When I became a grandmother, the first thing that profoundly hit me was that everything that I do and say and believe and hold as true will directly affect this little child in my arms.  What am I passing on to her?  Baggage that will weigh her down or perennial hope?  The irises remind me what to leave behind.

We will not hide them from their children,

but tell to the coming generation

the glorious deeds of the LORD, and His might,

and the wonders which He has wrought.

,,,that the next generation might know them,

the children yet unborn,

and arise and tell them to their children,

so that they should set their hope in God…

                                      Psalm 78. 4, 6-7

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The First Picture Show

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About 14 years ago, we moved to Iowa City and lived on the edge of town with a creek running through our backyard. The fields beyond the borders of our yard appeared, at times, to extend all the way to the horizon where sunsets silenced us by their beauty. It was a precious season in our family when all four of our girls still lived at home, before that time when one by one they journeyed to distant worlds called “college.” It was a time when the washer and dryer droned on a daily basis. Our evenings were full to overflowing with homework and art projects and bedtime readings about Middle Earth. And our mornings were a flurry of back packs and quick searches for shoes before the bus came up the hill.

In that “rush hour” early one junior high morning, as she flew out the door, grasping her coat, backpack, and lunchbag in one hand and toast wrapped in a paper towel in her other hand, our daughter Kate hesitated just a moment, turned to me and said, “Mom, I had the weirdest dream last night. I dreamt that our house was surrounded by corn. I mean, surrounded, like pressed up against the windows.” And with that, she was off to catch the bus.

At the time, I was taking a fiction writing course at the University of Iowa, and I had a deadline for a new story in just a few days. The deadline so far had no accompanying story to submit. That morning, Kate’s words hung in the air, as vivid as apples hanging ripe and heavy in a tree, just waiting to be harvested. I drove the two youngest girls to the elementary school and came back home to a sink full of morning dishes and a laundry room full of yesterday’s dirty clothes. And, ignoring all, I wrote. What emerged over the next couple of days, just in time for my afternoon class, was a story about truth and a boy raised in a house surrounded by corn.

Last night, I had the privilege, no, make that the HONOR, of seeing that story on the big screen. Caught in the middle of the flurry that morning was our youngest daughter Hannah, then 8 years old. She heard Kate talk about the dream. And then, over the years, she grew up knowing the story about that amazing house and the little boy in it, indeed growing up with him. About a year and a half ago, as a film and animation major at Northwestern University, Hannah began translating those words first into a screenplay and then turning that script into visual images. She pitched her idea and won a grant to fund the film. She interviewed actors, she rented an old farmhouse to film, she built a model house and birds to animate, she stayed up for -–I can’t imagine how many --days and nights directing amidst rustling corn stalks, animating checkerboard pieces in the computer lab, and weaving together a story not about corn, but the manifestation of truth.

Last night, as she gave a short speech thanking the “Academy,” so to speak, I saw that imaginative little girl with two dark braids suddenly transformed into a confident smiling woman on the cusp of a great adventure. And this Momma is so proud.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Concrete block walls held together with super-glue

Bill and I were invited to a get-together last fall by a high school friend of mine.  At the party, it became obvious that everyone there had known each other for many years.  When asked about our family, we told them about our three girls living in Chicago and our daughter who lives in Nashville.  “I have a sister who is a nurse in Nashville,” one woman said. 

“You have a sister?!?” another woman exclaimed.  “I have known you for twenty years, and I didn’t know that.”

The woman replied, “Well, we haven’t even spoken to each other in, oh about, thirty years or so.”  When prodded by the others for the reason why, she hesitated a moment and then responded, “I can’t remember anymore.”

Who is lurking in your closet?

The more time that passes by, the higher and thicker the walls between us.  We seem to think that forgiveness needs to be someone else’s responsibility.  Sometimes we just don’t know how to go about it. And sometimes we just don’t want to let go of the hurt, thinking oddly enough that holding onto the pain is somehow hurting them back.

Forgiveness is recognizing the gap, acknowledging that something happened or something was said that caused pain.  The first step even in Alcoholics Anonymous is realizing that there is a problem.  The second step is recognizing that there is pain.  Yes, it hurt…and it still does.  That is usually when we stop and let it brew longer and stronger.

The third step is determining to do something about it.  Forgiveness does not mean saying that “it’s ok,” or “you didn’t mean it,” or “letting someone off the hook,” or “pretending that nothing happened.”  Forgiveness is letting go of the bitterness.  Bitterness manifests itself in any number of ways that physically and emotionally affect you – and everyone around you, even if you don’t realize it.  When you let it go, it no longer has control over you.  Let go of the hurt.  And do what YOU can to reconcile.  I thought for a long time that forgiveness meant having to go to someone and say, “I forgive you for hitting me, or ruining my life, or fill in the _____.”   Sometimes all that does is stir up the past.  And sometimes the person has no idea that they have done anything wrong.  If YOU are in the wrong, then asking for forgiveness is in order.  If not, sometimes the kindest and most forgiving thing is to just let it go …and move on.  Put the relationship first, not the hurtful action.  And pray that God would show you how to see that person differently.  They may hang up the phone on you.  They may never answer your emails.  They may not hug you back.  But then again… they might.

There are two great movies available about the impact of forgiveness:  An Unfinished Life (2005) starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez and Morgan Freeman, and just out on DVD Get Low (2010) starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, which is, by the way, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.   Nothing is more powerful than redemption…and nothing more destructive than a lack of forgiveness.

It is a long way home.  It may be a friend or a parent or a sibling or even one of your kids.  But don’t wait until it is too late.  Regrets are even harder to live with.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Now What Will I Do?

As of this afternoon, there will be millions of grieving, forlorn women.  Their longtime friend who visited daily for 25 years will not be knocking on their door today.  For some, she is even a childhood friend, and they have grown up together with tears and laughter, compassion and outrage, and literally through thick and thin.  After 5000 visits, Oprah is no longer coming over for a cup of afternoon coffee. 

Oprah, I am sure, relished having so many viewers.  Little can she conceive how intimately these women are attached.  She was welcome in their homes.  She ruled their schedules.  She filled an hour of their day.  Since 1986, she was their best friend.

My mother never watched Oprah, but she was glued to the news.  Every afternoon, Carol Marin, a local Chicago newscaster, appeared right across the room from where my mom sat on the couch.  Mom welcomed her, and if one of us was there, she would comment on Carol’s hair or clothing choice.  My mom was not so pathetic as it sounds, but in her eyes, Carol was her friend who came every afternoon to see her.  My parents’ house at the time was across the street from the high school.  One day during a so-called earth-shattering news event, the television cameras were lined up across the street.  Mom always kept a stealth eye on what happened at the school, vigilant particularly during the sit-ins and protests during the Viet Nam war.  As she peered out from behind the curtains, she spotted Carol, getting ready for the broadcast.  Mom dashed across the street, probably still in her slippers, ran up to Carol, and hugged her like a long-lost friend.  I am sure that Carol was duly shocked and delighted at the same time.  Mom talked about it for weeks.

That is the kind of attachment I am sure that Oprah had, even though most women I know always said to me, “Well, I just so happened to see Oprah the other day, and she said….” as if it were a rare occurrence.  But there was a tremendous draw and impact through this television idol. 

“Now what will I do?” many will ask today as they scroll through the channels.    The only thing God never meant you to do is to live a mediocre life.  God has something special in mind for every one of us.  Day by day by day, and we are too distracted to know it.  As Donald Miller wrote in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “get up and do something.” 

Think about what you can do with one hour a day.  God can change the world.

“My times are in Your hand.”

                   Psalm 31.15

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Great Expectations

Last week, flipping through Redbook magazine, I came upon an article that stopped me in my tracks about a mom who struggled with accepting her child (http://www.redbookmag.com/kids-family/advice/i-dont-like-my-child?click=pp). It was a powerful and convicting essay because of its honesty, revealing feelings few are willing to admit. “I viewed Sophie through a lens of failure,” she wrote. This is not an isolated story. It is my story. And it is yours. It has everything to do with how we treat everyone around us, how we see them, what we expect, and how we are frustrated because they don’t fit our grid, be it a child as in this story, or a spouse, or a parent, or friend, or co-worker. “You are not who I want you to be,” we think and vocalize in so many words, as if WE are so high and mighty, the perfection of all things. We let those phantoms reign destructively in our lives and relationships, and then wonder what’s wrong.

I carried the haunting words of her article around in my head for days. At the same time, I was deep into writing an article about worldview. Worldview is the way we see reality and make sense of the world. It infects how we see all of life, including how we view and respond to other people. Biblical worldview, based on the reality of God, is different, because it sees life through God’s loving eyes.

And that is radical indeed.

In April, I read Dancing with Max by Emily Colson, a moving account of a single mother who raises her severely autistic son. I was touched by the struggles she endured in everyday things such as picking up a prescription at the drug store, or confronting school administrators to provide an education for her son, or desperately seeking the advice of so-called experts, one of whom advised her to lock Max in a closet. She saw Max differently. “I don’t think this diagnosis steals our dreams,” she wrote. “What if it were the very thing to build our character, to give our lives purpose?” As her perspective continued to change over the course of twenty years, so did her expectations. Her expectations were not diminished, but whole new dimensions of life opened up for both of them.

If a relationship is based on performance, the other person can never be perfect enough, always viewed through a convenient lens of failure. But in the eyes of God, “…you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43.4) Our relationship with God is based on grace alone. That changes the lens completely. We are all created in the image of God, precious in His sight. And as a result of the Fall, we are all depraved, in need of redemption. If we really get that, it changes how we treat others and how we view ourselves. What’s wrong with the world? As G. K. Chesterton once replied, “Sir, I am.”

And what emerges through that redeeming work is the restoration not of our own eyesight but seeing through God’s lens and His great expectations for how life is meant to be.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Design 101

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Last month, my husband and I traveled to the mountains in east Tennessee, emerging from cold grey Chicago into another dimension where the adorned mountains seemed to sing out loud, and the trees were decked in a million shades of tender green, lifting their limbs upward against a blue too deep to comprehend.  The waters of the creek danced over the rocks.  The woods, trail sides, and hills were carpeted in an explosion of color, millions of flowers that no one even planted.  The beauty was so radical I wouldn’t have even been surprised if the animals could talk.  The winter cold had been redeemed, the world turned right side up with a glimpse of the way things ought to be. 

And in the midst of this wonder, I ran on asphalt painted with double yellow lines, designed, constructed and paved by the Army Corps of Engineers and a battalion of earth-moving machinery.  This hard inanimate surface wound its way through a living, breathing, totally organic world so interdependent and fragile that the elimination of one species or a single degree throws it off balance, so intimately and intricately designed.   It is all seamlessly woven into what we are able to recognize as beautiful.  The best description is awe.  And it appears every year.  Right on time.

The road was engineered. Duh.   Anyone could tell you that.

But this beauty… just happened?  Always remember, reality reveals truth.  Profound.  Complex. And amazing.

 

The Mighty One, God the LORD,

speaks and summons the earth

from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of the perfection of beauty,

God shines forth.

                Psalm 50.1-2

Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding

The other day I was cleaning out one of our closets and I came upon my 30-year-old wedding dress stored in a box and shunned by all my girls as too old fashioned.  The girls have all smiled kindly at me and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

So I had a great chuckle this morning after all the hoopla about the royal dress for the wedding in London today.  For there, it appears, Kate was wearing my dress – or very similar.  The only difference is I married the better guy!

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confusion of Tongues

We live in a world where many people have relegated the Bible to the sphere of ancient myths, mostly in an effort to discredit the Bible’s power and its truth within.  The Bible is the very word of God.  And as a result, it does not require the consent of man to deem it anything more or less.  Its Truth cannot be so easily dismissed.  Indeed, in the Psalms, it even says, “Truth will spring up from the ground.”  Dismiss it as myth, but it is still the Truth.  And as such cannot be hidden.

So I chuckled last week, when I read in the Wall Street Journal (Friday, April 15, page A4), an article entitled “The Mother of All Languages” about the evolution of spoken and written words.  Researchers have now “discovered” that all languages have come from a single language somewhere near or in Africa, a startling revelation based on distinct units of sound, called phonemes.  The study points to a catalyst that researchers have pinpointed to have caused migration of humans from Africa to all parts of the globe.  That unexplained catalyst was indicated by a “a sudden and marked shift in how modern humans behaved…likely caused by a key innovation:  complex language…”   Furthermore, the researchers point out that “Only humans have the biological capacity to communicate with a rich language based on symbols and rules.  Without language, culture as we know it wouldn’t exist, so scientists are keen to pin down its origins.” 

Note the words “sudden and marked shift.”  Hmmmm, well, let’s try Genesis 11. 1-10.  “And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” (Genesis 11. 6-8)

They would discount the Tower of Babel as a myth, but flaunt their own theories as startling discoveries.  The Truth is there.  They are not discovering truth as much as they are uncovering it…  even if they slap their own names on what was revealed in Scripture thousands of years ago.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Boiled eggs, a handful of jelly beans, and another ham sandwich

This morning, the reality of Easter stood before me. Ham sandwiches are on our lunch menu all week, a handful of jelly beans that somehow escaped yesterday will be gone by noon, and I am searching for a recipe that will use a dozen colored hard-boiled eggs smashed on each end from our family tradition of “egg wars.” Yesterday, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.
I am convinced of the resurrection. Not just by the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection, but from what happened afterwards. The disciples were sure that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Indeed, the word Christos is the Greek word for Messiah, or Anointed One. And here, their leader had just been killed in a horribly painful and humiliating death. This was not at all what His disciples expected. And so, they huddled behind locked doors, terrified that they would be next. The disciples thought that was it. Let’s hide until things settle down. At this point, the missing body had caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, to the point that in an effort at damage control, the Pharisees spread a rumor that the disciples had stolen it (Matthew 28. 11-15), further imperiling the disciples.
But that was not the end of the story. The tomb was empty, the grave clothes cast aside, a huge stone rolled away, and the Roman centurions guarding it were shaking in their boots. And Jesus appeared. Over and over and over again. He was alive. He had risen from the dead. Christ was who He said He was. Nothing would ever be the same. And this raggedy group of cowards were empowered and transformed from a state of fearfulness and despair into those who were fearless and bold. In the ensuing years, with one exception, each one died a martyr’s death after spreading the love of Christ like wild-fire to the uttermost parts of the world. The disciples were changed. These men who cowered behind locked doors now stood before kings and tormentors. They were transformed. Men will not die for what they know is a lie. But they will give their lives for what they KNOW is Truth. They were eyewitnesses. And nothing could stop them.
What makes the difference is that God is supernatural and life is eternal and Jesus is alive. Death is not “game over.”
That, to me, is the reality of the Resurrection: transformed lives. It still is. I see it all the time. Lives are turned right-side up with no other explanation than realizing the amazing grace that we know as Easter.
He is not here, for He has risen,
as He said.
Matthew 28.6

Monday, April 11, 2011

Posterity

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…from generation to generation

                 we will recount Your praise.

                                    Psalm 79.13

Twelve days ago, our second grandbaby was born.

My cup overflows.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lord, Make it Enough

A sweet friend spent years living on the edge, caring night and day for a handicapped son.  There were multiple surgeries, many narrow squeaks, and the overwhelming demands of a growing family intensified by her lack of sleep.  She shared with me once that her cry out to God after many a sleepless night was, “Lord, make it enough.”  And God would provide.  She learned not to dwell on “I am running on empty,” but “Lord, make it enough.”

We have all been there in one fashion or another.  And the evil one seeks to pull each one of us down into the miry bog of seeing life without God’s intervention.  But He is still there.

The disciples cried out to Jesus, “All we have are five stale biscuits and a couple of cold fish nuggets.”

And God made it enough.  “All ate and were satisfied.  And they took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces.” (Luke 9. 17)

The solution was not personal ingenuity or “thinking positive,” or even deliverance from the situation,  but God’s blessing on it.  Hold up your impossible situation to Him, look to heaven, and let Him bless it.  His blessing will sneak into your life today in unexpected ways, despite the storm around you…or the parched wilderness.   And in one way or another, you will see it before your very eyes.  He will redeem.

Your situation may not change, but God can change you.  That is even better.  Get ready to stand amazed.

“Lord, make it enough.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nudges

Often when I am out for a run, God will bring to mind people in my life, friends, family, loved ones, and, well, some not so loved.  At times it will be a person with whom I have just had a conversation or read an email.  Sometimes I am surprised – where did that come from?- someone I haven’t thought about in years.  Other times it may be a public figure like the President or person in the news. 

These are not aimless imaginings designed to fill up the vast recesses of my brain.  Over the space of time and by experience, I have LEARNED to recognize these contemplations as nudges from God.  God has placed a particular person front and center in my thoughts not just to think about them, but to pray.  And to pray NOW at that very minute.  We never ever know what that person is facing at that exact moment, an enormous decision, an overwhelming task, or perhaps, a temptation that seeks to bring them down.

I was reminded of these things last week.  The day after my dad died, I received two emails, one right after another, from two old friends who both independently said that God had placed me on their hearts that morning and over the weekend, and that they were praying for me.  They did not know what was happening or even where I was,  but they knew to pray.  And they had no idea how much I needed it.  I feasted in the month of March on the prayers of the saints.

So as you go about your day, grasp that opportunity to pray, no matter how random it may seem.  Because it isn’t.

The prayer of the righteous

         has great power in its effects.

                        James 5.16

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unfinished Business

A couple of nights ago, I slept for the first time since the end of January without the impending dread of a phone call in the middle of the night.  And for the past three weeks, I dozed lightly  like a firefighter – clothes, shoes, and keys set out—waiting for the alarm to sound.  I balanced on an emotional edge, waiting to hear “Come quick,” or “I am so sorry to inform you…”

Last Sunday, I knew even before I answered the phone at 4.55 a.m. in the early morning darkness.  “He’s gone,” my brother told me.  That day and the next, I went through the motions of the things that needed to be done, papers signed, keys turned in, and a final run-through his cluttered apartment.  Condolences arrived, but my heart and mind seemed in the final six miles of a marathon, just keep going, one step and then another, almost home, almost home, the rhythm set my pace.  Sympathies sounded so weak, drowned out by the assurance of a line in an old hymn in church later that morning, “Jesus has conquered the grave.” 

The plane landed late Monday night.  I am back in Chicago, feeling like I have completed a long race, spent and weary.  My dad went Home to be with the Lord on Sunday, finally crossing from one life into the next in a single breath, after lingering in hospice for three weeks, beyond even the belief of the doctors and nurses.  He defied the odds against him his whole life.  He wasn’t about to stop now.

One of the maintenance men who helped me carry some cartons out of his apartment said of Dad’s lingering, “Well, he must have some unfinished business to attend to.”  As I sat by his side for those three weeks, listening to his tales embellished by dementia, and making sure that he knew he was not alone, I realized that the unfinished business was, perhaps, not on his side, but mine.  I had a lot of forgiving to do.  Not condoning hurtful actions, but letting go of the bitterness.  And through the process, I began to see my Dad in a different light.  He could not hurt me anymore.  He was an old man now, dying in a hospice room, surrounded by strangers. 

Like many women I know, I did not have a close relationship with my Dad.  He was largely absent from my upbringing, working long hours, unencumbered by the norms of fatherhood, and dwelling mostly in his own little world.  He never played games with the family.  He never attended programs or meets or our school activities.  I don’t even remember him ever sitting down and watching television with us.  He provided, but even that was mostly on a shoestring.  He once made a skating rink in our back yard one bitter Chicago winter.  And then I found out he was only experimenting with a new kind of plastic.  When I graduated with my Master’s degree, he shook my hand.  I once asked him why he never told us he loved us.  “Because you know I do,” he replied, never a man to waste words.  The first time my husband Bill hugged him, his arms froze, straight out, not knowing what to think.  I had accumulated a lot of emotional baggage to dig through.

So four days before he passed away, his very last words on earth took me by surprise.  I had been with him all day, his eyes were closed, his fragile body rolled from side to side every two hours by the nurses without so much as a groan from him.  It was late.  I was weary, and I needed to leave.  I leaned over and kissed his forehead and said, “I love you, Dad.”

And with eyes closed, he mumbled, “I love you too, honey.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Never Forgotten

A few weeks ago, I attended a church service where the children were invited to sit on the steps at the front of the sanctuary for “a special time with Pastor Frank.”  The pastor started to share with the little ones about times of being afraid and being alone.  “I wonder sometimes if God remembers me,” the pastor said.  Quite suddenly a little boy spoke out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear:  “He always does,” said the four-or-five year-old.  “He knows you by name.”

Out of the mouth of a mere babe comes the truth that should always be foremost in our thoughts and in the way by which we live.  It will transform how you see yourself, how you see the world, and how you see God.  Nothing will ever be the same. 

But now thus says the LORD,

He who created you, O Jacob,

He who formed you, O Israel,

“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.

For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

…Because you are precious in My eyes,

and honored, and I love you.”

                                 Isaiah 43. 1-4

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wearing of the Green

We celebrate today not green beer and leprechauns, but one man’s radical obedience to God, through whom God used to change the course of history.

Patrick was born in 387 in Britain, which was part of the then-crumbling Roman Empire.  He came from a legacy of faith; his father and his grandfather were spiritual leaders in the early church and served as deacons.  When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave.  What seemed as a tragedy in a young man’s life, God used for tremendous good.  In the long hours slaving as a shepherd in the wilderness taking care of his master’s sheep, Patrick spent long hours in prayer and meditation.  In his own words:   “But after I reached Hibernia I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the Love of God, and my fear of Him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time".

Also in this time of exile, he learned the Celtic language and became well-versed in the pagan culture of Ireland, as his master was a high Druid, an important leader in Irish religion and culture.  All these things God fashioned into tools in Patrick’s life which later would be used for His Kingdom.

After six years of enslavement, after being prompted in a dream that “Your ship is ready,” he escaped and fled on foot for 200 miles and found a ship, ready to sail.  He returned to Britain and studied to be a priest.  Nudged again by God in a vision, he returned to Ireland, the land of his captivity and a place of fierce opposition to the Gospel, to be a missionary to the Irish people.  After 30 years of evangelism, he died on March 17 in the year 461.  One of his tools of evangelism was the three-leafed shamrock, which he used to teach unbelievers about the Trinity.

But that is only the beginning of the story.  Patrick’s obedience to God then reverberated throughout the known world.  As chronicled in Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, God used Patrick as a catalyst for literacy and learning in Ireland while Europe was being invaded and destroyed by barbarians in a period of time we know as the Dark Ages.

So wear the green proudly today in honor of what God can do through one man’s faithfulness to Him.  And as a challenge that we may live obediently for God.  Yes, it matters.  It matters a lot.

I thank my God through Jesus Christ

for all of you,

because your faith is proclaimed

in all the world.

               Romans 1.8

Monday, March 14, 2011

Old and Full of Days

I am sitting here this afternoon next to the bedside of my almost-90 year old father who is deeply asleep, coming to the surface every few minutes to mumble something unintelligible, whispered almost as a prayer, but not to me.  For the past two weeks, I have expected his next breath to be his last.  And in classic form, it appears the last to go will be his famous German stubbornness.

To some, he was a man of character, to others just a character.  He is stubborn and ornery and imperfect and, as he lays here, a picture of redemption.  Because in him and his roughness around the edges, I see my own need for grace.  When it all comes down to it, we all show up at heaven’s gate with nothing to show for ourselves.  Nothing matters but our relationship with Christ, not even what we “did for God.”  We are empty handed, undeserving, and stand in awe and shame for how much God loves us.  We will all stand here one day and face eternity.

And what is this journey, my Dad’s slow creeping towards the other side of life, but to be released from the groaning of a prison cell, a fallen world, and emerge into a world where everything is what it ought to be.  What is broken is restored without seams, all things new.  From solid concrete block walls, grey and cold, to a vista beyond our imagination, so bold that the trees and mountains burst into song and laughter.  Former things now dissolve and can no longer be remembered, except for what is eternal like a baby’s chuckle and truth not surrendered.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,

then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part;

then I shall know fully,

even as I am fully known.

                 1 Corinthians 13.12

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Letting Go, Part 2

Almost two weeks ago, my daughter and her family moved to Cleveland amidst tearful goodbyes.  They left behind reminders of themselves scattered like toys in a playroom.

That same week brought about a letting go of a different sort.   That Friday afternoon my cell phone rang and I saw a doctor’s name.  My Dad had been in the hospital for over a month.  Before I even answered, I knew it couldn’t be good.  “There is nothing more that I can do for him,” the doctor said.  Dad was transported back to his nursing home.  Doctors there observed him for a few days.  He continued to decline.  And the signs of his body shutting down were becoming more evident.

A few days ago, I signed the papers for Dad to be admitted to hospice.  I had been hesitant to travel that route.  I had viewed the decision as giving up on Dad.  But as the days progressed, I realized that it was not giving up on his getting better;  it was realizing that he was not.  And it was not a matter of giving up, but letting go.  My Dad has mild dementia, so he has no idea that he is so close to the end of this life and the beginning of the new.  But although his body is weak, his dry humor is still strong as ever.  I was reminding him about a restaurant that we had gone to a couple of years ago.  “Do you remember Jason’s?” I asked him.  “No,” he said.  “I can’t remember if it was last year or the year before,” I said.  “Welcome to the club,” he replied.

In the South, people don’t die.  They “pass,” followed by a parade of pound cakes to the home of the deceased.  “Passing” is a very appropriate expression – as an actual passing from one reality to the next.   And in the immortal words of C. S. Lewis, “Christians don’t say goodbye, they just say see you later.” 

That is not an expression of wishful thinking.  God has not left this process a mystery.  You can know without a shadow of a doubt what is on the other side.  We can let my father leave with the assurance in our hearts of KNOWING that we will see him again.  Several weeks ago, when I came down to Florida for the second time in two months, I talked to him about his faith.  Now, please understand that my father was never very verbal about his faith.  Actually when we were growing up, he was not very verbal about anything.  He was a research scientist whose delight was spending long amounts of time alone in a laboratory.  But last month, I asked him pointblank, “Dad, have you ever asked Jesus to be your personal Savior?” He responded immediately. “Of course.  A long time ago.”  He made a choice that grounded him in life and in the hereafter.

Mom and Dad always enjoyed traveling, many times leaving us with no clues to their whereabouts.  But Dad is leaving us now with a destination in mind.  That makes the letting go a lot easier.  We will all miss him, but he will just be waiting on the other side.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat

That is how I felt today.

I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t comprehend how overwhelming it would be. 

This morning, our oldest daughter Beth, her husband Gary, and our grandbaby Maggie, strapped in her carseat and waving like crazy, backed down our driveway to move to Cleveland.   The reality of it hit us like a cold, icy, February Chicago snowball and we cried-- a lot.  Their absence is not yet ten hours old, and I haven’t even touched the bottom of it yet.  “Turn around,” I wanted to text them this afternoon.   I won’t ever again see a bird at the feeder or a squirrel in our yard without thinking about Maggie.  Tomorrow is Wednesday.  Beth is not going to Bible study, and Maggie won’t be coming over to play.  Everything in me says don’t be such a baby about this, but I can’t help it.  There have been too many goodbyes.  

We rejoiced fifteen months ago when God engineered our move here to live just three miles from them.  When  Beth and Gary announced that they were moving out-of-state, it was not what we had in mind.  It was another one of those times when God kept asking me, “Can you trust Me in this?”  I know that just because it doesn’t make sense to me doesn’t mean that there isn’t an amazing divine reason for what is happening.  But oh, there were moments today when I thought that I couldn’t breathe.

Last Friday morning before the packing frenzy began, Beth came over at 7 am with Maggie to have breakfast.  Beth brought some donuts, I made the coffee, and Maggie supplied the laughter.  And while we were eating and talking, I was reminded of an experience 24 years ago when Beth started kindergarten.  As I stood on the sidewalk outside the school with tears streaming down my face, my very wise husband told me, “The letting go starts right now.”

Well, today we reached the Super Bowl of letting go.  And in the midst of my tears while I was picking up the all-too-silent playroom, God reminded me again that there is no better place for them to be than the center of His Will. 

“Trust Me,” God tells me in His Word.   He is the God who heals and redeems and restores beyond all that we can ask or even imagine.

LORD, all my longing is known to You,

my sighing is not hidden from You.

My heart throbs, my strength fails me,

and the light of my eyes – it has also gone from me.

…But for You, O LORD, do I wait;

it is You, O LORD my God, who will answer.

                                  Psalm 38. 9-10, 15

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Get a Grip

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Chicago was hit by a blizzard of historic proportions last week.  And in its wake, the storm left behind literal mountains of snow.  Our village requires residents to shovel their sidewalks, which provided me a maze of icy paths, 16 inches wide with walls on each side thigh-high.  I know now how the Israelites felt in crossing the Red Sea, like traveling through a canyon. But running in these conditions is a lot harder than it looks.  Running in snow replicates trying to gain traction on loose deep sand.  At other times, layers of ice hiding underneath produce a lethal combination.  When I was a little girl back a hundred years ago, people installed chains on their car tires to help them maneuver through the wintry mess.  I now attach to the bottom of my running shoes, a type of tire chains.  They don’t guarantee a slip-free run, but they really help me “get a grip” when the way is icy and treacherous.

On a sunny day when life is wonderful, reading my Bible and praying keep me glued together.  When the way gets a bit harder, I reach out and shout “help” to a few trusted women who don’t ask for details or try to fix my problem, but pray for me.  Also, as I run, I quote Scriptures that I have memorized to plug me into the power of God’s Word. 

And indeed, in the same week Chicago was hit by a blizzard, I was hit by another blizzard of sorts, a difficult situation with strong emotional winds.  I struggled with how to navigate the turmoil.  It was not the first time I have had to face an enormous task that made me want to hide in the closet until the tempest passes.  This was yet another time when the only way that I could face the enormity of the crisis was to trust God through it.  That is the only way to “get a grip.”  Put pride aside and strap on the trust.  As God reminded me this week, “Can you trust Me in this?”  I know I can.  The path may not be obvious to me, but God will guide me through it and keep me from falling.  “Trust Me.”  Those words are the “tire-chains” that keep you going when the way is treacherous and not what you had in mind.  And you may find, as I did last Sunday morning running through three inches of new powder and snowflakes dancing around me, that trusting God brings you to a beautiful place you never knew before.

You gave a wide place for my steps under me,

and my feet did not slip.

                     Psalm 18.36

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Gospel According to Jimmy Choo

On this morning’s TODAY show on NBC, hidden somewhere between the exciting news of wind chill in Chicago and the traffic update, was a small feature entitled “Why We Are Obsessed with Shoes.”  A group of four experts came to the conclusion, and I quote:  “Shoes have the ability to transform your life.”  Whoa, I almost fell off the treadmill. 

As a shoe-challenged kind of woman who 99.8 percent of the time wears either running shoes, Chaco sandals or Birkenstock clogs (yes, in that order),  it is probably illegal for me to even type the words “Jimmy Choo” in a blog.   The panel of experts included Stacy London who weekly scours the United States for women like me who don’t have a fashion clue, a fashion editor for Glamour magazine who said that a poor economy actually stimulates the sale of shoes, and another woman who had on a pair of boots that probably cost more than my car is worth.

How many pairs of shoes are enough?  One more pair, I am sure these women would conclude.  It is an elusive pursuit.  There is something in us that wants something more, something dramatically different, something new.  We KNOW there is more to this life.  That is why advertising is so successful:  it promises you the world for the price of a  new pair of shoes.  It will make things right.   It will save your life.  While a pair of shoes can have many positive qualities, salvation is not one of them.  Why do we seek these things with such displaced desperation?  Because there is a longing in our hearts…a longing that only God can satisfy, no matter how many shoes you can stuff in your closet.  That longing is there, because God put it there, to lead us to a relationship with Him.   

The right pair of shoes, yea, they can make an outfit work.  But transforming your life?  Sorry, Stacy, it has nothing at all to do with what you strap on your feet…and everything to do with what God’s love can do in your heart. 

…and you shall be called by a new name,

which the mouth of the LORD will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,

and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

but you shall be called My delight is in her…

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

            so shall your God rejoice over you.

                                          Isaiah 62. 2-5

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rebound

Bill and I watched the University of Wisconsin basketball team yesterday soundly defeat the Northwestern Wildcats (make that the Scaredy-cats).  Were the Wisconsin players that much better?  Obviously they made more baskets, but the victory was in the HOW they did it.  Wisconsin missed the basket a lot.  So did Northwestern.  The difference came in the rebounds.  Wisconsin caught the rebounds nearly EVERY time, whether their team’s botched shot or their opponent’s.  It appeared that Northwestern was shooting, missing and then drawing back, (“Oh well, missed again”), and just politely handing the ball to Wisconsin.  At one point, Wisconsin shot and missed THREE times in a row, each time recovering the rebound, snatching it out of thin air from their opponents, and then finally sinking it in.

We all miss baskets in life, all of us.  The significant difference is what we do with the rebounds.

I have been reading about Joseph in Genesis.  He was handed hardship after hardship, injustices building up one after another.  And he rebounded each time.  Not on his own strength, he would tell you to your face, but on God’s, even in the face of constant adversity.   It was not Joseph’s situation that made him great, but his RESPONSE, his vertical perspective, letting God use him and giving Him the glory.  (“It is not in me, but God…” Genesis 41.16)

The ball doesn’t always go in the net as we desire.  As with Joseph, God has bigger plans.  Rebound with excellence in everything you do.  And let God give the victory.

But the LORD was with Joseph

and showed him steadfast love,

and gave him favor in the sight

of the keeper of the prison.

…the LORD was with him,

         and whatever he did,

the LORD made it prosper.

               Genesis 39. 21,23

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kick-off Sunday 2 p.m.

Chicago Bear fans – who comprise just about the entire Chicago metropolitan area – are surging with excitement about this Sunday’s NFC Championship playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.  Indeed, news broadcasts all week have been focused on this momentous event, discussing everything from scalping tickets to boycotting cheese in support of a Bears victory.  One news feature about the Bears players themselves was entitled “How to Best Prepare for the Big Game.”  Four days before the game?  Ummmm, if you aren’t prepared yet, it is a bit too late!

There are some “big games” in life that we see coming on the horizon, things that we know that we SHOULD prepare for.  But there are also those vital and immediate “play-off games,” when so much hangs in the balance and are quite suddenly standing at your front door.  How to best prepare for the crises?  I know no better way than training for it, not just the week of the “big game,” or the night before when panic sets in, but daily training in good times and bad --  spring training, so to speak, to prepare for that possible or even improbable Super Bowl of life.  The best way I know is:  Every day, read God’s Word and pray, developing your relationship with the God who loves you, so that when times are great, you acknowledge His hand… and when the hard times come, you are not just crying out for Him but you KNOW He is there.  You are always in training.

And as the theme song goes, “Bear down, Chicago Bears, make every play clear the way to victory.”

“You girded me with strength for the battle.”

                      Psalm 14.39