Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Camel on the Stable Roof

Few bouts of marathon training have been as rigorous as a few weeks ago.  I  lifted heavy weights, spent hours scaling flights of stairs up and down and up again, crawled long distances on my hands and knees, and had the time of my life.

Our grand kids were in town for a few days, and I was full-throttle in the gramma mode.  There is nothing better than that.  Our 20 month old grandson redecorated the bottom two feet of the Christmas tree every morning.  His little toy truck was parked in front of the manger set.  The camel was perched on the stable roof, and a plastic Snoopy toy stood reverently next to one of the shepherds.

One afternoon, our three year old granddaughter sat at the kitchen table, eating a snack of oyster crackers and shredded cheese, asking four million questions a minute, most of which started with "why, Gramma?"  We talked about hungry birds and greedy squirrels and what bacon looks like.  We made peanut butter cookies and watched Veggie Tales, snuggling on the couch. Together we constructed a gingerbread house our of graham crackers.  Evergreen trees were made of ice cream cones and green frosting.  Red and green sprinkles spread across the counter.  Our house was a wreck.  And at night, we all fell exhausted in bed. Mornings came far too early.

Little, if any, will these children remember at this age, doing the puzzles, going to the farm zoo in twenty degree weather, eating chocolate Cheerios, and playing tea party in the attic.   They may not remember the activities, but as the years progress, they will know what love feels like.  They will not care about any accomplishments in my life as much as how much I love them.

When our oldest grandchild was born, I held that little baby girl in my arms, moved visibly by a daunting responsibility.  The Bible speaks of our faithfulness to the generations to come.  Everything I have done, everything that I do will directly impact the life of this tiny baby.  I take seriously what I pass on to her, and to the children of the furthest generation, that they will know the LORD and place their hope in Him.  We will tell them about the wondrous love of God and how He sent His son Jesus.  But I realize that they will only know that He is true if it is lived out before them -- what they see, what they hear, and what grace they know. 

One generation shall laud Your works to another
and shall declare Your mighty acts.
                    Psalm 145.4

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Baby Is Here

 Our second daughter is pregnant, awaiting her first born son in a matter now of just a few more weeks.  She and her husband have prepared for his imminent birth by clearing out their little back bedroom.  Our son-in-law’s desk was squeezed into another room, and the day bed was disassembled and stored in the attic.  Our daughter has replaced that furniture with a crib, tiny clothes nestled in a repainted dresser from Craig’s List, and a padded rocker in the corner. 

On most accounts, she is ready for his coming.   But she has NO idea of how this little one will totally rearrange her life.  Our daughter is a doctor, and hence, she has delivered dozens of babies, everywhere from urban medical centers to a small hospital on the edge of a jungle in Ecuador.  The mechanics of the birthing experience are not unknown to her.  But the mysteries of becoming a mom have yet to emerge. 

Thirty years ago, there was no one more unprepared than me.   I was clueless.  When our first daughter was born, I had no idea what I was getting into, or of the love that radically deepened with the birth of each of our four daughters.  A few weeks before our oldest was born, I passed by the church nursery, terrified by the sound of the crying babies I heard.  But my relationship with my own baby changed everything.  I was the same me, but my heart underwent tectonic shifts as I began to see myself and others from a different perspective.  I am different because she came.   As each of our girls was born and grew up, and as each of our grandchildren come into this world, it is the relationships that continue to transform who I am and who I was meant to be.  And as deeply as I am attached in these relationships, I understand a little more about what it means to be loved by God. 

And so, in this advent of our daughter’s, I think about the advent we just celebrated in the month of December, the coming of Christ, who came as a little baby to save the world.  It is our relationship with Him that changes everything.  I thought about that the morning after Christmas.   Nothing is the same because He came.  I am not the same because He came.   My life is changed, not because of my doings, but by His relationship with me.

...for God is love.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us,
that God sent His only Son into the world,
so that
        we might live through Him.
                          1 John 4.9

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Strange Peace

I woke to a quiet morning when no one was stirring, except for my early bird husband making the coffee in the kitchen.  Several thoughts converged at once.  I began to think about what other things I needed to prepare for both today, Christmas Eve, and for tomorrow, Christmas Day.  I thought about the troubles in this world, the terrible shootings, the unrest in so many parts of the world.  And strangely, I thought about a couple of years ago when a blizzard raged in Chicago, a day when for an unbelievable 24 hours, there was no crime -- no shootings, no robberies, no violence (this peace broken ironically by two men forcibly stealing a snowblower from an old man trying to dig out his car).  But the city was distracted, and a strange peace ensued.

As I reached for my sweatshirt and slippers, I wondered, "what if this Christmas there was peace? No crime, not a shot fired anywhere in the world, not even a harsh word, a 24-hour amnesty this Christmas?"  That is the way that God intended the world to be.

I have no power to enforce gun laws or prevent wars or protect my city, but I can practice grace and pursue peace where God has placed me.  We have neglected to love those God has placed on our paths, in our homes, those even within reach.  We have forgotten who we truly are:  His beloved.  And because we are so loved, we can love others, not a  harsh word, no ammunition stored away from hurt feelings, no bitterness from Christmas past, but bring to the table joy and that what makes for peace this day.  Seek peace and pursue it.  It is not the other guy's problem, but my own. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each one to his own way (Isaiah 53.6).

That is why God sent His Son to save us from ourselves.

What a different world we would live in.  And we would witness what the shepherds saw, keeping watch over their flocks by night, a multitude of angels rejoicing,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
     good will among men."

                   Luke 2.14

Merry Christmas, my friend.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Christmas Basket For The Needy

So many organizations rally their resources this season to help those in need.  But this Christmas, be aware that remembering the poor and needy around you may also mean those with a full refrigerator and a heart full of despair.  The home-less sometimes live in the biggest houses, accompanied only by loneliness and isolation too much to bear.

Those we least expect may be neediest of all.

Love does not discriminate between the haves and the have nots.  The biggest needs of all are often the invisible but desperate cries of the human heart, an empty life which may be carefully disguised by a nice car and expensive clothes.  Small kindnesses are always multiplied, whether deserved or not, and maybe especially when they are not deserved.  That is grace.

Even the rich young ruler sought the compassion of Christ.

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, was to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.  The second is the manifestation of the first, to love your neighbor.

Practice grace before all.  Make us aware, O LORD.

...but he who is kind to the poor
                    honors Him.

                            Proverbs 14.31

Thursday, December 20, 2012

But There Is Hope

I have struggled with deep emotions since Friday, trying to put into words this unfathomable tragedy in Connecticut.  I have started a half dozen blogs, abandoned in mid-sentence, my throat tight, tears in my eyes, prayers for those families who lost so much.

And then wading through this strong current, it came together, not through any brilliance on my part, but God's Word coming suddenly to the surface.  So many verses of Scripture that I read this week converged.  Here is what I had jotted in my journal, even before the incident unfolded.

...when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me.  Micah 7.8
(no matter how deep the darkness)

...and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Revelation 7.17
(restoration of the world, what God intended this world to be)

Every word of God proves true.  He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Proverbs 30.5
(the freedom to walk in the midst,  His Word provides incredible freedom)

The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble.  He knows those who take refuge in Him.  Nahum 1.7
(stay focused on God, despite what is going on all around you)

After this I looked, and behold,, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues... Revelation 7.9
(from every corner of the world, redeemed and restored)

The last chapter has been written already.  God reigns.  God prevails and has revealed that hope to us throughout His Word.  God's hope is not as what the world portrays as wishful thinking.  The hope of God is that on which I can stake my life.

God has showed us what He has done about evil.    We celebrate next week the coming of His only Son who came to save us.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.           Romans 8. 38-39

We stutter at the magnitude of evil that was revealed last Friday.  But evil does not get the last word. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And Into Such A World As This

We have quite suddenly been stripped of the festive trappings of the season.  Our grief resounds over the tragedy last week, our tears flow for the families and sweet children and brave, loving teachers.  The world seems so dark and full of despair.  We ache for good news.

And breaking suddenly into such a dark world as this, there appeared a great light to give hope.
         "Do not be afraid," the angel said to them.
         "For behold,
           I bring you good news of great joy
                  which will come to all the people,
           for to you is born this day in the city of David
                 a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

           "Glory to God in the highest
              and on earth peace,
                     good will among men."

                                       Luke 2.10-11, 14

God still breaks suddenly into our lives, like a shaft of light through the gloom, no darkness too deep.  And as the angel announced on that night, "He is here."

May we read the Christmas story with different eyes this year, and sing carols not out of tradition or sentiment, but words afresh proclaiming "The Lord has come."  And that makes all the difference, good news of great joy, Immanuel -- God IS with us.  We are not alone.

In Him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

                           John 1. 4-5


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Free Engraving

I was purchasing a gift for someone this week.  The company offered "free engraving" as a means of personalizing the gift.  An engraved name establishes ownership, a way of "making it mine."  It is no longer a SKU number, a box, a thing, but it now belongs to someone.

Engraving requires a deliberate effort to impress deeply letters or designs upon an object, patterns sunken beneath the surface, for permanence.

The first Christmas that Bill and I were married, we purchased a Nativity set (as mentioned in a previous blog).  We bypassed buying the beautiful glass figurines, and instead went for the painted plastic set.  We wanted our future children not just to see a decoration, but to play out the story of the birth of Christ.  And they did.  The girls would -- almost daily -- move the shepherds and wisemen and Mary and Joseph around, acting out the story, sometimes even as it was being read to them.   And once, we found a Santa candle on top of the stable, "visiting Jesus," they said.   Physical touch is one of the primary means of teaching young children and getting it to stick.

When our girls were young, surrounded by the trappings of Christmas, the hoopla in the stores, the lure of television commercials, pseudo-Santas in the mall making minimum wage, we deliberately used every opportunity to engrave the truth into their hearts.

We also emphasized to the girls that this was not just another story, but that this is true.   Christmas is REAL, not just a made-up tale.  God has always used stories to imbed His truth, because narratives are so powerful.  But it is important to help young children to know what is real and what is pretend.  It is amazing how quickly children learn to differentiate between truth and the imaginary.  Make sure your children know that the Christmas story is real.   Jesus really came, just as had been promised.

Our creative girls took the story to other dimensions.   At school, our oldest had an assignment to create a holiday centerpiece as a gift.  She glued pieces of wood to a carousel of sorts.  And even now, two decades  later, Mary, Joseph, a lamb and the manger, still grace our table the month of December.

One bitterly cold Saturday in Ohio, our girls performed the Christmas story for us, the angel also serving as director and narrator.  "Joseph" had a beard of construction paper, and she also played the role of the terrified shepherd.  Mary "rode" a donkey, fabricated of a brown fuzzy blanket over a tricycle.  The plastic playhouse-- being stored for the winter in our unfinished basement -- became the Inn.  And our fourth daughter, only a toddler at the time, caused mayhem when she balked at being put into a cardboard box which was supposed to be the manger.  "Baby Jesus" did not cooperate at all, but wandered through the scenes.

But it was another means of "engraving" the story.

At age five, one of our daughters memorized Luke 2 which chronicles what happened.  Memorizing used to be called "learning by heart."  And indeed it was.  Those words were so engraved, that now more than twenty years later, she can still recite them word for word.

One year the Christmas story was molded in clay.  Another time in dough that spread the Word and flour all over the kitchen.

Let them see, hear, smell, touch, speak, and experience the truth of God's Word.  Let them have fun with Christmas in creative ways.  Let them make a mess.  It will follow them all the days of their lives.  And engrave the Truth.

And in that region there were shepherds
     out in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
                          Luke 2.8

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Baby Is Missing!

When our oldest daughter was two, we had just made a major move and had welcomed another daughter into our family. It appeared we were now living in what appeared to be another country, instead of another state.  I was accustomed to a climate of frozen tundra in December, but where we lived now, it was 65 degrees, and I was hanging up garlands outside without even a jacket.

Preparing for Christmas, the first box we always open is our Nativity set with its plastic figurines depicting the birth of Christ.  This particular year, when I passed by the Nativity a few days after decorating the house, I noticed that Baby Jesus was missing from the manger.  I retrieved the cardboard storage box from the attic.  Nothing was left in there.  I got down on my hands and knees, looking under the table and a few chairs.   I looked over the little stable carefully, thinking maybe the baby had fallen behind one of the other pieces.  Mary, Joseph, and the others appeared no longer to have a look of awe and worship on their faces, but now astonishment and their hands up in the air as in shock. There had been a kidnapping.  The Christ Child was missing!
Our two year old wandered into the room.  "Beth, have you seen Baby Jesus?"
She looked up, questioning me with her little brown eyes.  I thought that maybe she didn't understand what I was saying.  I repeated myself.   "Baby Jesus is missing.  Do you know where He is?"

"Not time for Him yet," she responded like an ancient prophet.

She knew, even at that age, that we were waiting for Christmas to arrive.  And the main event was this baby in a manger bed.  And so, the Christ Child waited in a wooden drawer until Christmas morning when Beth retrieved Him and put Jesus where He belonged.

My friend Claire told me thirty years ago that she always placed her Nativity set "front and center," the very first thing that others would notice about their house at Christmas.  I have always remembered that.  The Nativity is not just a sweet little tag-along to the festivities, nor just another holiday story to put the children to bed at night, nor yet another seasonal decoration, but what prophets promised for hundreds of years beforehand, the story of the Anointed One who has come to save the world.  And so, even with little ones we can say, "What do the sheep say?"  Baa.  "What does the cow say?"  Moo.

"What do the angels say?"   He has come!!

And that changes everything.

For unto us a Child is born,
    unto us a Son is given...

                             Isaiah 9.6

For God sent the Son into the world,
not to condemn the world,
but that the world
   might be saved through Him.

                            John 3.17

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Grinch and the Dark House on the Block

We took advantage of the mild weather over the past few days to pull out our outside Christmas lights to hang on the tree in front of our house and string the porch railings with garlands

Actually, we were shamed into it.   Since Thanksgiving weekend, we have become the dark house on the block.  All up and down our street are displays of lights carefully strung on bushes and branches, strings of white lights and twinkling icicles outlining some houses, and candles in the windows.  In some yards, large inflatable characters call for attention at night, including one yard marked by lights for Santa's runway.  My favorite is one fifty-foot evergreen midway down our  block glowing with multicolored lights and a star on top that can be seen for a quarter of a mile.

This is Christmas, and it ought to be celebrated big time.  Who has become the Grinch but us?  Our homes should be the best-lit on the block.  We rejoice because CHRIST HAS COME!  It is not a Festival of Lights, but a Celebration of Light  ("I am the Light of the world," Jesus said). And it is our response to bear witness to that light that all might believe through Him. (John 1.7)

And while you won't find an inflatable Grinch in our front yard, nor Santa's runway, may our lives reflect the light of Christmas --the love of Our Savior -- in season and beyond, radiating from within and evident in who we are and all we do.  May our homes be so distinguished by His love that they glow.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

                        John 1.5

In this the love of God
   was made manifest among us,
that God sent His only Son into the world,
so that we might live through Him.

                    1 John 4.9

Friday, November 30, 2012

All Who Wander

I came from an era when printed maps were offered free in every gas station.  This was back when fuel stops were called "service stations," because someone actually filled your tank for you, cleaned your windshield, and checked your oil and tire pressure, all for 27 cents a gallon.  The maps were folded crisply, until used, when they refused to yield to polite appearances like misbehaving toddlers. 

I also lived in a family that didn't consult maps at all.  We were not naturally directionally-gifted, just stubborn.  I can remember wandering for long periods of time, simply because it was beneath my father's dignity to stop and ask directions. And on more than one vacation, the seven of us would pile into the station wagon and head South with no particular destination in mind, no reservations, and no idea where we would land.  On one trip, after wandering for two days, we stumbled upon a small rather shabby motel in McAllen, Texas, so close to the tracks that the building shuddered every time a train passed.  A bargain at five bucks a night, it had a small pool surrounded by a chain link fence, and the weather was sunny and hot, so it fulfilled all my father could want for the three days we had left. 

How often I do the same, not for vacation, but in life?  I head out with only a vague idea in mind, no particular destination, thinking somehow perfect plans will be delivered miraculously on my doorstep by Federal Express, and not bothering to ask God for directions at all.  Or I fill my schedule to the brim with my agenda, thinking that, well, God can follow along.

I have found -- be it guidance for my work, or what begs to be done next, or even buying Christmas gifts for others -- to stop, drop and pray FIRST, not as a last resort.  I am always amazed at the huge amounts of time He saves me, my energies focused, and a million distracting rabbit-trails banished.  God guides me, not on MY path, but on His.  On His way, things fall into place the way He intended, sometimes in ways I never considered.  He implants thoughts into my head that surprise me by their freshness.   He opens my eyes to other routes invisible to me before.  He places people on my path, those connections and relationships which I call His divine appointments, many times in the most unexpected ways.  And so, there are no interruptions, no detours, no dead ends, and no wild goose chases on His map.  It may not be what I had in mind.  But His plans are always intentional, carefully designed, and dripping in purpose.

The most efficient and fruitful way from point A to point B is always His path, not mine.  And the first step is prayer and spending time with Him in His Word.  "I don't have time for that.  I am too busy."  Really?  I can't afford not to.  He more than blesses that time, the most important minutes of the day.  His path is always most direct.   And it may be something not even on your radar yet.

LORD, reveal Your way to me.  LORD, reveal Your day for me.

Commit your work to the LORD,
and your plans will be established.
                          Proverbs 16.3

(whatever you do, wherever you go)

Your Word is a lamp to my feet
     and a light to my path.
                           Psalm 119.105

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Repetition, Rehearsal, and First Response

The tips of my mother’s fingers were engraved by the marks of practicing her violin. Most people knew her as a talented musician.  I knew what that meant, a lifetime of continual practice, and the permanent indentations to prove it.  

Mom had no conception of free time.  If she was not occupied by something urgent, she was practicing.  It didn’t matter where she was, she would find a way to practice.   In the bathroom, late at night, she played with the vent fan on high to drown out the noise. Even in the car, when she was waiting for carpool or one of us to come out of an appointment, she put that time to use.  She never stopped.  Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, I would see her drumming her fingers, knowing full well that she was playing a sonata in her head.  She did not practice to become better;  she practiced that she would know the music, to be one with it.

She would work on the same piece of music for years, playing a difficult passage over and over to get it right, to make it natural, to imprint the patterns of the notes in her fingers and her mind, so that when she came to the hard part, she knew exactly how to handle it.   In a performance, when the pressure was on, she could then concentrate on the essence of a piece as a whole, instead of focusing on an obvious pot hole.   I imagine her smiling as she approached the impossible. She was ready.   Bring it on. 

Recently in an article in the Wall Street Journal (“Practice Makes Perfect – And Not Just for Jocks and Musicians,” October 27-28, 2012), author Doug LeMov stated what my mom knew all along:  “Practice lets us execute a task while using less and less active brain processing.  It makes things automatic…  What drives mastery is encoding success – performing an action the right way over and over.”

God calls us to do the same, to practice and to train ourselves in righteousness – that which is good and right and loving.  Just as highly technical passages did not come naturally to my mom, so we must repeat, rehearse and practice our first response to difficult situations and relationships, wearing a groove into our hearts, encoding what God intends.
Practice grace in that turmoil.
Practice contentment .
Practice praise.
Practice joy.
Practice kindness intentionally .
Practice love.

What does that look like?   Think it through, pray it through, and let God change you.  It is not a matter of “becoming a better person,” but letting your Biblical worldview logically impact what you do every day.

Go over and over again godly responses to your own difficult (and possibly daily) passages.  Practice until it becomes automatic, and it becomes a part of you. 

A few weeks ago, when I found myself heading into a highly charged situation, I remembered the article about practicing.  And so, even before I started to freak out over it, even before I began gathering up my ammunition, God impressed upon my thoughts:   Practice grace in this.”  He stopped me in my tracks.  It astonished me to approach that volatile situation with a different mindset and different eyes.  I practiced something new.  And God transformed a difficulty into an opportunity.

The Bible continually talks about practicing, training, disciplining ourselves, and exercising.    Deliberate effort and  frequent repetition work into us what does not come naturally that we may practice what is good and right and loving, no matter where, no matter when, no matter what. 
What is my first response?  What do I practice?  Dismay?  Selfishness?  Criticism?  What do I put into action, set in motion, apply, and fall back upon?   Do not be conformed by usual defaults, but transformed by what is transcendent.  Work it and pray it, over and over again, so when the impossible passages come, "Ahhhh, I already know that part."

May our lives be so engraved by the marks of practice. 

Practice these things,
     immerse yourself in them,
 so that all may see your progress.
                           1 Timothy 4.15

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Burnt Rolls, A Charred Turkey, And Green Beans Cooked To Death

Traditions run strong and deep in my family.  Every year --without fail-- my mother burned the pre packaged "warm and serve" dinner rolls at Thanksgiving.  She would slip them into the hot oven in their little disposable aluminum pans just before the blessing was said, and sometime during the salad course, she would suddenly jump up and dash into the now rather smoky kitchen, as if she were participating in a 5K race.  Every year, the rolls became a burnt offering.

One year as the turkey was in its final hour of cooking, the broiler element in the oven came to life, literally charring the bird beyond recognition.

And always, Mom cooked a huge pot of canned green beans on the stovetop for days until they fell apart, her signature dish with which we filled our plates when other items were cooked into charcoal.

I always loved the Norman Rockwell painting of the happy family gathered around the elusive Thanksgiving feast, the father carefully carving a beautifully browned turkey.  My dad, on the other hand, wielded a rather fearful-looking implement called an "electric knife" and hacked off pieces of turkey in the privacy of the kitchen with that which closely resembled a small chain saw.

This Thanksgiving, we acknowledge God by saying grace and in extending grace to others.  But it is not just a matter of thanking Him for the good things He has done, but because God IS good.  GOOD is not a description of what He does, but Who He is, not an adjective but a noun, not a characteristic, but His identity.

The Bible also refers to "the sacrifice of thanksgiving," which I consider the basis of thanking God BEFORE the outcome, before I know how this situation or trouble or problem will turn out.  That kind of thanks is not a matter of seeing what is good, but trusting that it is and will be, knowing that He is good, and He ALWAYS works from a position of goodness.  On that you can depend, no matter what.  As we used to sing aloud when we lived in Memphis, HE IS GOOD!!

Happy Thanksgiving, my friend, no matter where you are.

O give thanks to the LORD,
           for He is good;
His steadfast love endures for ever.

                     Psalm 118.1

(In all ways, in all things)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"It Can't Be Done"


Several weels ago, my computer crashed.  We ordered a new hard drive, and when that didn't arrive a week after it was promised, we had to reorder the same part. Within a couple of days, we possessed not one hard drive but two.  As no installation instructions were included, I called the website help line.  The technician who answered kept me on the phone for more than an hour, telling me emphatically that it was impossible for my husband to install it by himself.

I told Bill about my lengthy conversation when he arrived home.  He ate supper, went down to the basement, and in less time than my frustrating phone call, victory -- Bill had installed the new hard drive and reinstalled the software.  Nightly Tea is back in business.

The phrase "it can't be done" is not a discouraging word to Bill, but a challenge.  Impossible?  Think again.  I am grateful to my husband for his amazing work in bringing the computer back to life.  I also have my father-in-law to thank.

Thank you, Howard, for giving your little boy problems to solve, glitches to fix, opportunities to change the oil and fix the brakes, let him play around with gadgets to figure them out -- and to gain confidence one small victory at a time.  I know that most of the time, there was no option whether or not to call a repairman, either you all fixed it or it wouldn't be fixed.  And so, you kept the same avocado green fridge operating for almost 40 years, cars running past their prime, and every appliance rebuilt.

When I asked Bill how he did it, he casually replied, "I was just not afraid to try."  His father had granted him that gift:  embrace a challenge, fix a problem, THINK about every possible solution.  And while that meant a lot of trials and errors, it also meant a lot of A-HA moments when creative solutions rose to the surface of his thoughts.  Bill said that he didn't think his father intentionally attempted to teach him and his brothers these skills, but that it was simply an expectation.

So, parents, let your children play, let them make messes -- and mistakes, throw away the instructions  and let them think and dream and figure it out on their own... and not be afraid to try.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dog-eared Pages

We can see God in exceptional things,
but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline
to see God in every detail.
Never allow that the haphazard
is anything less than God's appointed order,
and be ready to discover
         the Divine designs anywhere.

                 -- Oswald Chambers
                     My Utmost for His Highest
                     November 14

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

My Year Of Never Befores: A Monster Behind Every Tree

Backpacking has always appealed to me in an adventurous sort of way -- the wild open spaces of the frontier, the path not taken, a total freedom from the routine of daily life, carrying all I need in a little backpack.  Indeed, I have reveled in stories and articles in books and magazines of those who have set off and discovered a new courage within and a fresh appreciation for God's amazing creation.

My turn.

Several weeks ago now -- indeed, the days preceding my computer crash -- my husband and I set off into the wild for my first backpacking adventure.  I had no idea what I was doing, what I needed, what I was getting myself into.

My best advice:  Marry a Boy Scout

Bill had carefully selected every ounce of my backpack, advising me as per clothing, food, contingencies.  Minimalist as he is, I was a bit wary that I would have what I would need.  As it turned out, not only did I forget my water bottle in the fridge, my backpack weighed more than a third grader.  Bringing extra of anything was no longer on my radar.

We parked at the trailhead, laced up our hiking shoes, adjusted the load on my back, and took a picture to commemorate this first backpacking trip in my life (yes, one of the pictures lost forever when my computer crashed two days later.)  I have hiked now for several years, but never stayed the night "out there."  My parents considered a picnic in the park as "roughing it."  We camped a lot with our girls when they were growing up, but always in the fortress of a pop-up camper.  So this definitely was a journey into the unknown.

The trail was carpeted with a thousand colors of fallen leaves, so deep in places it was like shuffling through snow.   A few miles later, a grove of young hemlocks decorated our designated campsite, their feathery needles floating in mid-air.  We pitched our tent, hoisted our backpacks on overhead wires to keep away woodland creatures, and headed down to the rushing stream.  Bill began to fish.   He cast his line into the water with one motion, and with the second swing of his arm, pulled out a seven-inch brook trout.   He laughed out loud, thinking he had just snagged the lure on a rock or leaf.

As dusk settled, Bill prepared supper - little pouches of soup heated in boiling water, hot tea, and  M&M's for dessert.  He made a campfire, starting with a tiny teepee of twigs and adding sticks one by one.  The almost-full moon ascended like the headlights of a car, its beams slicing through the trees, like a medieval painting of God speaking to the saints.

I heard a crackle sound.   "Just some leaves falling," I said cheerfully to Bill.  "Didn't sound like that to me," he said as he covered up the last embers of the dying fire.  My courage continued its slow leak.  We removed our shoes at the tent door and snuggled into our sleeping bags.  He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts.  I was fully dressed, afraid that I would be cold.  Every couple of minutes, I shed another layer, my sleeping bag now like a fiery furnace.

I heard the immediate slow breathing of my "can-sleep-anywhere" husband next to me.  And I began playing a deadly game called "WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?"  startled by every tree that creaked.  I imagined the worst for HOURS, childhood fears and scary movies remembered in gory detail.   A frog croaked a rhythmic tune, over and over, convincing me that it would not be singing so freely if there was a predator about.  And then, it stopped.  Oh, great.  

Finally, I persuaded myself that no one tweeted the ferocious beasts of the forest about an all-you-can-eat buffet at campsite 39.  The tent was not edible.  And God's words, "Fear not, I am with you" were still a valid promise.  Bill, who has delighted in camping under the stars for 50 years since he was a Cub Scout, slept peacefully.   I dozed off.

In the morning, I was reminded of my mother's words after I had finished my first marathon, "Thank goodness, you are still alive."  All my imagined fears had done was rob me of a good night's sleep and dull the wonder around me.  

I don't want to live like that, fearful and joyless.

I emerged from the tent.  Bill already preparing hot tea and oatmeal.  I looked up and saw the top of a mountain crowned by the early morning sun, a picture of majesty and grace.

I did not freeze to death.
I did not die.
I did not get eaten by a bear.

Indeed, the only wildlife we saw at all was the one teeny fish Bill caught and released, and on our way back to the truck, about a mile from our campsite, two wild turkeys playing in the creek.

I survived unscathed, my phantoms rebuked, and since none of the pictures survived as evidence, well, I look forward to going again.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What's In YOUR Pocket?

It is the tradition of my church to offer Communion on the first Sunday of the month.  Last Sunday the sermon was a bit shorter to accommodate this liturgy.  As the broken bits of crackers and teeny little plastic cups of grape juice were being passed down the rows from one person to the other, I considered what I needed to confess before the LORD.

Nothing big, I thought at first, as if I was rummaging through my purse for a few coins.  And for some reason, I thought about how I pass through the security line at the airport, placing on the tables my shoes, keys, my backpack, and my suitcase of which has already been purged of anything more than three ounces.  What seems like nothing backs up the line out the door of the terminal.

And so, what do I have, not to pass through the scanning machines at the airport, but to place on the altar before the LORD?  What is on His radar? Well, pride is always an obvious one.  But by the time I had lifted that heavy load up, along came a lot of other stuff out of my pockets equally unwieldy.  What about those pangs of jealousy last week, feelings of despair in the middle of the night, those sharp words not even spoken?  All of which are linked inextricably to the selfishness that so desires to consume me.

Ok, so what else is in there?  What else do I don't recognize or consider as sin?  Fear of the unknown?
Fear of the known, the maybe possible, and "what if's?"  Oh yes, and give me a bigger altar, worry takes up a lot of space.  Hurt feelings, not THAT too?

We leave church as different people because of Communion.  Because Jesus paid with His life for all that junk in our lives.  LORD, have mercy on us.  We worship God by leaving on the altar that which we were never meant to carry.  And realize His unbelievable grace.

That changes everything.

But He was wounded for my transgressions,
He was bruised for my iniquities;
upon Him was the chastisement
            that made us whole,
and with His stripes
                           we are healed.

                              Isaiah 53.5

Friday, November 9, 2012

No Matter What

No matter what dilemma you face today,
no matter what is on your plate,
no matter the endless list of struggles,
no matter who is standing on your path,
no matter the foes or fears
         or wild beasts growling,
no matter how dark the long tunnel,
no matter the weariness,
trust Him through it
     by thanking Him through it.
He will give you new eyes
         a new heart
  a renewed strength
      that can come only from Him.
Do others see anything different in me?

And I will manifest My holiness among you
in the sight of the nations.
                            Ezekiel 20.41

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Leave A Trace

Annis was a tough pioneering woman.  She married a widowed minister in Georgia in the early 1800s, bore twelve children, and walked alongside her circuit riding preacher/husband on the Trail of Tears in order to teach native Americans how to read, moving from their established home to the frontier harshness of the Wild West.

I read her husband's loving words in an eulogy after she died in 1868 at the age of 57.  What popped off the page to me was that she read God's Word everyday and through the Bible every year.  That is from which she received her strength.  Other than the basic facts, that is all I know about her.  And that is enough.  That explains a lot.

That daily action in the early to mid-1800s transformed everything she did by transforming her.  And thereby transformed everything she left behind.  I am so profoundly grateful for that deliberate effort and daily choice -- and I am sure that it took discipline on her part.  She was no woman of leisure ("oh, I have nothing else to do, I guess I will read my Bible."). She was a woman of the Word,  thriving through the hardcore reality of life ("I need this.")

Among those who trek through wilderness areas, there is an unwritten rule to "leave no trace."  Pass through the woods without leaving your imprint, no trash, no evidence of a fire, not even a broken branch that would be evidence of you having been there.

But Annis left a trace.  And that has impacted my own life in profound ways.  She understood the impact of God's Word on her life.  But did she realize the impact that would make on those who came after her, not only to her own offspring but to the children of the furthest generation?  Did she ever think that it didn't matter?

Annis was my great, great, great grandmother.

Spending time in God's Word does not just affect me today but reverberates beyond my life in ways I can never comprehend.  It changes me.  It changes everyone around me, even those I may never meet until the other side of life.

May those who come behind us find us faithful.

...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. 6-7

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Highway 40 Blues

Recently when my husband was driving, I saw our exit coming closer.  And closer.  And closer.  Judging from his actions, I could tell that he did not notice.  So, I pointed toward it.  And he drove past.
"You missed our exit,"  I announced.
He looked over at me and grinned.  "That is not where we are going," he said.
I was confused for a moment until I realized we don't live in Memphis anymore.  Our former route, engraved in my brain like an old habit, was no longer valid.  We needed to go in an entirely different direction to get home.

 "THIS is the way," we tell God.  "You don't know what You are doing."

And it turns out that WE are the ones that are clueless.

"...and I am staggered that I was so stupid
        as not to trust Him before."
                         --Oswald Chambers
                            My Utmost for His Highest
                            November 6

And I will lead the blind
       in a way that they know not,
  in paths that they have not known
        I will guide them.
                            Isaiah 42.16

Monday, November 5, 2012

Culinary Misadventures: Stale Bread, A Lone Banana, And A Handful Of Chocolate Chips

One of my grandmother's best talents emerged out of necessity, living through lean times -- two world wars and the Great Depression --and then even leaner when her husband was disabled and died when my mom was a teenager.   Mammy never wasted her limited time and energy on complaining about what she didn't have, but approached times of need with an attitude of, "Well, let's see what we have to work with."   She lived with our family from before I was born, so i had a front row seat in watching that audacity manifest itself almost daily, her creations from food to clothing to home repair emerging from her sheer imagination.  I used to kid her that she could whip together a feast for unexpected guests out of an empty cupboard.  And indeed, that happened on more than one occasion.  And no one was the wiser.

Her imagination and "don't-let-anything-throw-you" attitude expanded to fit the occasion, no question ever of "if" but "how can we make this happen?"  I feared to come up with feeble excuses in front of this pioneering woman who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 36 and spent 50 years as a widow.  Her perseverance was just a positive spin on what was fierce stubbornness. 

In my attempt to make a new recipe a week, I thought of Mammy's ingenuity when I tackled this new dessert which incorporates stale bread, a banana and leftover chocolate chips.  Sounds like something she would have concocted, but bread pudding is an item that can be found on every authentic Southern menu.  As it has chocolate in it -- one of my basic food groups -- it was worth trying out.  The recipe came from The Feed Zone Cookbook by Biju Thomas and Allen Lim,  who were the chefs who fueled the Tour de France cycling team.  I can imagine these chefs thinking, "Ok, so how do we fill these guys up today?"

Kind of like my grandmother looking at her empty cupboard with a twinkle in her eyes.  Approach your days with that kind of adventure.

And for dessert?  "Well, what do we have to work with?"  Mammy would say.   Enjoy!

Chocolate Bread Pudding

2 cups cubed bread
4 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup almond milk (I just used regular skim milk)
1/2 cup chocolate chips, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Sprinkle of cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped bananas

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9-inch round baking dish. (From my experience, an 8-inch pie pan would work better.)  Combine all ingredients except bread in a large mixing bowl.  Add bread cubes and let soak until cubes are thoroughly coated, about 10 minutes.  Add a bit more milk if all liquid has been absorbed.  Pour into prepared pan and bake in oven for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. (Use toothpick method to test, not by sight, as it will look moist, even when done.). Scoop bread pudding into a small bowl for serving and garnish with fresh fruit. (I served it warm with a bit of ice cream and a few fresh sliced strawberries on top -- yes, for guests!).   Serves 6 realistically - recipe says 8.