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.