Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The place where I can't touch bottom

Yesterday, I floated in the sea.

That may sound refreshing and relaxing, which it was.  But for me, it was also a song of victory.  I moved past the edge of the water, a little deeper than my knees.  I ventured further into the surf where the small waves pushed their bubbly way onto the beach, reaching and falling back.  I moved deeper into the water than I have gone in a very long time, past the breakers of my childhood anxieties, to where the sea was smooth and calm.

What lay beneath the surface?  Maybe things I did not want to know, a fish or two.  But certainly not the sea monsters of the magnitude that my imagination had crafted, so many years in the making.  These sharks of mine were not man-eating, but joy-destroying, figments of fear from childhood that did not just flare up, but had staked a false claim and taken up permanent residence.

Fear protects us from actual danger.  Fear helps us to make wise decisions.  But illusory fears are what paralyze us.  And those phantoms without substance expand from a single childhood fear into limitations we ridiculously impose on ourselves.  One fear multiplies into a hundred others.

I decided yesterday to step beyond the breakers.

I surprised not only myself ...but everyone around me.

Fear not, for I am with you,
be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you
     with My victorious right hand.

                           Isaiah 41.10

What is your ocean?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Living counter culturally

One of my delights in the Bible is discovering deeper and deeper its encouragement to not go along with the status quo, but to live counter culturally in extraordinary ways. Not in a weird way that says, "look at ME."  But living in a way that very naturally reveals the grace of God in our lives.

And in our throwaway culture that still seeks and demands the elusive "fountain of youth," my favorite women are those who do not fear growing old, but instead they bear the evidence that "the joy of the LORD is my strength."  Not happiness dependent on the prevailing wind, but joy that weathers any storm --  extraordinary joy that has thrived no matter what.  I've seen it before my very eyes, an hilarious strength that runs deep.  It blesses all around them.

And so, I want to send out a tribute this day to those women who have been such an encouragement to me by how they live and what they wear.

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.

                             Proverbs 31.25

Monday, July 29, 2013

By what we are known

May we be known
by a jubilant competition
       outdoing one another
            in showing honor
         and grace
               and acts of kindness
    even when not deserved,
   especially when not deserved.
May we be known not by performance
but filled with grace
and may that truth bubble out
         spilling all over,
     grace evident
      and covering everyone around us.
May we be known by excellence
         in all we do,
       not always being the best,
     maybe even never being the best,
   but seeking fully
                       to do my best.
     That is always what God can use.
And may His people be known
    in all ways and all times
                    by integrity.
      May others say,
         "I can depend on
              those forgiven people
           for treating me fairly
                        and with great grace."
Because if others cannot trust us,
    in our dealings,
    in our doings,
    in our "weights and measures,"   
      they may never know they can trust Him.
Be hilarious today
             with a generous spirit,
always eyes wide open
in opportunities both great and small
for loving God
     by loving others.
May we be known by Him.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dog-eared Pages

Our time is limited on this earth,
and God has created it for us
        to enjoy and glorify Him.
Waste nothing.
Read the Bible
      more than you read Facebook.
      more than you watch TV.
Eat good food
      more than you eat bad food.
Wake up early.
Introduce people.
Reach out to the marginalized.

                   --Douglas Williams
                     as quoted in the ECS alumni magazine,
                     summer 2013

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Taste and See the LORD is good

My daughter is introducing "real" food to our ravenous five-month-old grandson.  The first week's menu featured pureed carrots.  Whoa, this is incredible, he seemed to say.  Give me more!

Oh, how we LOVE the blessings of the LORD that are so good to us. 

But what about those things that are good for us?  Not so much!  Still a blessing, but we don't quite see it the same way.

For the LORD is good;
His steadfast love endures for ever  (Psalm 100.5)

Even when it's the green beans of life!

Friday, July 26, 2013

My 16 and Yours

Last night at a small group supper, someone asked me, "How far is your long run this week?"  "Sixteen," I grimaced.  "Sixteen MILES?" he responded.  The enormity hung in the air between us.  And when I sat down to eat at the dining table, every one of those long miles sat on the table in front of me like an extra large helping of dread, staring me down all through the evening.

Before I went to bed, I checked the weather.  Rain was forecast for the afternoon, but I should be able to run before the storms arrived.  Zero percent chance of precipitation greeted me at dawn with the patter of drops on the window sill.  The encourager that he is, my husband's first words to me this morning were, "If you can run in this, you can run in anything."  I knew I needed to just do it, but that dread of the night before just increased exponentially.  And I thought of a verse I read earlier this week, "Arise, and be doing!  The LORD be with you."  (1 Chronicles 22.16)

By the time I finished my morning reading and cup of coffee, the rain ceased.  I pulled on my running clothes, double-knotted my shoe laces, and grabbed my hat.  I knew in the freezer in a small plastic bag were a couple of teeny tiny Snickers I would need to fuel me on my run.  Where were they?  O LORD, if they are in here, please help me see them, I prayed.  Past the frozen fish, a half-container of Cool Whip, nothing.  I worked my way through the drawers.  Nothing.  And there at the very bottom, underneath some Freezer Pops, I saw a Snickers wrapper poking out.  Bingo.  Thank you, LORD, I whispered.  And then I laughed outloud.  Because when I pulled out the sandwich bag with the two Snickers in it, I unearthed an entire quart size bag of frozen Snickers leftover from last Halloween.  God's unexpected blessings strike again.  As I stuffed a couple of them in my pocket, I laid aside my bad attitude.  No room for that!

I headed out not knowing what to expect.  I chose an out-and-back route, because I know myself well.  If it started raining, I didn't want to be two blocks from home.  For sure then, I wouldn't finish this run.  When I am weak, let me chose a route far away from temptation.  A few miles into my run, I saw an old man with a walker talking to an old lady with a cane.  Me ten years from now?  Twenty years?  Maybe.  But today I run.

I am glad that I did not know it would be raining for 10 1/2 miles of my run.  And oddly enough, when the rain started, that which I dreaded so much, it was not a huge barrier or burden, not even an irritation or inconvenience, it came as a blessing.  That which I dreaded made me stronger.  It came as a refreshing cool breeze and water droplets to cool me off, almost the same delight as running through a sprinkler like a kid on a hot summer day. 

I finished my run, and I did not die.  And I sit right now at the computer and watch the DELUGE of rain outside my window.  I am so glad I went when I did.

I ran my dreaded sixteen in the rain.  And I thought about the "16-milers" that we all struggle with -- the big unknowns, hard choices to make, physical pain I know so many friends endure, difficult relationships, huge responsibilities, discouragements.  "I can't do this."  And God replies, "Oh, but I can.  And I will be with you."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Today is just a piece, and then another

We all hold in our lives
         pieces of a puzzle
we don't understand
"Does this one belong somewhere?"
This difficult person,
a hardship endured,
an opportunity missed,
      and even what appears a dead end?
And at the oddest times it seems,
connections are made when suddenly,
    another incomprehensible shape is found,
sometimes what was cast aside as arbitrary,
sometimes hidden in the folds of the couch,
sometimes like a dime on the sidewalk.
"I wonder where this one goes."
It is not that we create what connects them
but see that the interlocking mechanism
          was there all along,
                forming an intricate design.
And so, that bit of darkness
simply contrasts with the light
       for divine purposes yet to be realized,
           His goodness revealed.
Today is just a piece,
           and then,

And I am sure that He
    who began a good work in you
will bring it to completion...

                   Philippians 1.6

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

We interrupt this regularly scheduled programming...

I was in a store yesterday, talking to the proprietor, and other people were moving about.  Largely ignored, a show blared away on a large television screen on the back wall.  Quite suddenly, a banner moved across the screen, announcing breaking news.  "We interrupt this regularly scheduled programming to bring a special report."  The buzzing of the store stopped, all eyes focused on the screen.  I quivered a bit.  The last time I heard those words was in April with such heavy news from Boston.  We have come to know those words a little too much, all too often bearing heart-breaking tragedy and death.

And suddenly appearing on the screen was young couple carrying a newborn baby, surrounded by jubilant crowds.  I smiled.  The new prince.

"Big deal, a baby," one woman said, sarcastically.  Another just shook her head and went back to what she was doing, as if to say, "you interrupted my show for that?"

But I saw the joy of the new parents, carrying their first born son, and the cries of great happiness in the streets of London.  Good  tidings.  It is about time that the headlines bear some good news, instead of its overwhelming litany of woe and fear, despair and evil, perversion and oppression.  But, hey, that's reality, I can hear some say.  To which I would reply, so is this.

We can still celebrate something good.  That alone is worth interrupting the darkness.  May the headlines seek good tidings every day.

Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
so is good news from a far country.

                        Proverbs 25.25

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Friend" me

I read this morning the story of a young man who came to know Christ as an adult.  What convinced him most of all was a friendship with a believer who flat-out loved him as a friend.  He was not someone's evangelism project, but friends, plain and simple.  And he knew it.  It did not matter that the two came from diametrically-opposed world views, indeed even that became one of the strengths of their close relationship. They felt free to live their lives out, sharing experiences, bantering about what they believed, and seeing how their different faiths looked without scripts in the real world.

This is the second time this month that I have read about an adult's conversion, the first being an university professor who was militantly opposed to Christianity.  Again, the turning point in this woman's life was not some huge mega-event at a church or carefully-crafted argument, but a simple friendship and a growing love for each other.  In this incidence, the woman's stereotype of Christians was completely derailed by how genuine these people were.  No pressure.  No presentations.  Just living life together and "to listen and to learn and to dialogue."

What does that feel like?  What does that look like?

And Jesus said to him,
"You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like it,
You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

                            Matthew 22. 37-39

Love God.
Love others.

That is how it works.  That is how God meant it to be.  He wired us for relationship -- with Himself and with others.  Love God that way, and you can't help but love others that way.

And He will change your life and everyone around you, one genuine friendship at a time.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Song That Never Ends

A friend of mine keeps a chronicle of God's faithfulness to her, writing down those amazing realizations of His presence in times both great and small, huge miracles and the most intricate details that could only come from God alone.  She wants to remember every one of these instances.  She does not want to forget.

"Isn't it strange," I remarked, "that we need to write down these glimpses of faithfulness to remember them? And that we never need to keep a list of what we worry about or fear?"  We both chuckled at the truth.

Maybe we should.   To make a list, not just what I fear, but why I fear it.  Then, while it is on paper before me, pray and praise my way through the list.  Let the praise deflate its power over me.  Let praise erase it.

Praise is stronger than fear.

Why?  Because the focus of my praise -- God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and me, my Savior, Redeemer, my rock, my strength, my fortress, my deliverer, my shield, my salvation, my stronghold, the God who provides, the LORD of breaking through,  the Great I AM, the Most High, King of Kings, and LORD of Lords -- is stronger than fear.

I do not know what you face today, but I do know that we all struggle with something.

Sing today a song of praise, make it a continual loop in your thoughts.  Sing OUTLOUD when you can.  It is not that praise drowns out fear,
                  but God Himself vanquishes it.
And He fills you instead with a strength
that is not your own.

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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I didn't see it coming

There is a route I run in frigid weather when the running path bears treacherous ruts of ice and snow.  My alternate route follows sidewalks and roads through a residential area, the yards quiet and grey in the depths of winter, and the trees stencil stark black lines across the heavens.

At about the half-mile point on that loop -- both coming and going -- the sidewalk deviates from the norm, jutting out in a half circle, and taking a short detour around a peculiar little patch of dirt.  I realize that at one point there was a reason for this odd little exception, the rest of the sidewalk running long and straight as the eye can see.  I imagine when the sidewalk was measured and poured, a large tree stood there in its path, and the pavement took a turn to accommodate it.  But now, and probably for a long time, there has appeared no reason for this aberration from the expected course.

Sometimes I ran around the patch of dirt, staying on the pavement.  Sometimes I just ran over that barren place, that which is no more, and of which its purpose has expired.

I hadn't run that way in months, but I followed it the other day when I only had time for a quick little run. I was just settling into a stride when I saw something brilliant right before me.  Blocking my path was an outrageous display of bright yellow lilies, standing tall, crowded together like a choir rejoicing with strong voices and incredible joy.

I didn't see it coming.

That phrase is typically reserved for something devastating, such as a train wreck.  But when we are walking with God, He places right in our path unexpected blessings.  He transforms what seemingly has no purpose into that which delights and sustains.

He is good.
His mercy abides forever.

Even in that we cannot see coming.  Ambushed by His love.

Therefore I tell you,
do not be anxious about your life...
Consider the lilies,
how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin,
yet I tell you,
even Solomon is all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

                          Luke 12. 22, 27

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A reprise of the train wreck?

Reality set in this week.  Way back in February, in a moment of weakness, I enlisted for the Chicago marathon this October.  Yea, I know you have heard that one before.  What was I thinking?  As documented in this blog, the last time I ran Chicago was a train wreck (October 2011).  And in March 2012, I ran what I thought was my last marathon -- 47 degrees in pouring rain in rural Virginia.

So what was I thinking to sign up again?  I knew that tackling another marathon could very well be another chorus of my previous train wreck.  And then again... I really don't want to close this ten year chapter of my life in defeat and fear of  what lies beyond my comfort zone.

I realized on this hottest week of the year  that I needed to crank up my training if I was going to do this thing.  And so, I ran through the oppressive heat and humidity, even on days when it would have been a lot easier not to.  And toward the end of one very sweaty run where shade was scarce and I felt like quitting, I saw a woman running toward me.  Sweat poured down her face.  But her expression was a strong mix of agony and determination.  I noticed that she wore a triathlon t-shirt. And then I saw that one of her legs was a prosthesis.  She was an amputee.  She ran past me, and  I could feel a different kind of strength.  She was going to make it.  And I humbly realized, so could I.

May we all live with that kind of perseverance.

This morning, I headed out on my first long training run, beyond what I thought I could do.  Not easy, but I did it. Building up endurance takes one step at a time.   And that is what running a marathon is all about.

Keep me running that way.
Keep me living that way.

...let us run with perseverance
       the race that is set before us...

                       Hebrews 12.1

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hiding in Plain Sight

A variety of bottles, jars and tubes were lined up on the desk in front of me.  Last night, I was on a mission to find which ones contained the culprit causing my severe allergic reaction.  Thanks to the internet, it is a lot easier to examine the fine print.

I started with the store brands and the least expensive items.  Surprisingly, no matches.  I proceeded through moisturizers, one of which I have been using for almost twenty years.  Nothing there, nor in my sunscreen, foundation, or other likely makeup components.  My shampoo was fine.

I was getting a bit overwhelmed by all of the complicated-sounding chemicals that lurk within these products.  One particularly lethal sounding item --tocopherol -- appeared over and over.  What in the world?  Rather alarmed, I mentioned it to my chemical engineer-trained husband.  He looked up from his book, "That's just vitamin E," he said.   So much for the consumer sleuth in me!

It was getting late.  I was weary, feeling a bit like Samuel running through the seven sons of Jesse to anoint the new king of Israel.  I only had one item left, a very unlikely suspect in that it was a fresh tube of mascara, a brand that I rely on, known and labeled as "Hypo-allergenic, dermatologist and ophthalmologist-tested, safe for contact lens users."  As I now half-heartedly completed my research, I was most impressed by the manufacturer's website, which detailed the company's careful selection of materials in their products which were also inspected for purity and reliability.  I scrolled down through the company philosophy, its mission, and what compounds they avoid using.  I was pleased to see one of my top two allergens was listed in the company's banned list.  The website also included both the name and picture of each product to avoid any confusion.  And to the left of the picture, every ingredient was listed.


My mascara!  I had my culprit, the least likely of all, but there it was in plain type, the name of a substance which produced, during the allergist's patch test, a large welt on my back, even now still visible and very itchy.  I never would have guessed this product would have caused such turmoil and skin irritation.

I heartily respect my husband for encouraging me throughout this whole ordeal, including driving on our recent road trip while I was in a Benadryl stupor.  He is so gracious to me.  And this morning, as Bill was doing his daily reading, he chuckled.  "What's so funny?"  I asked him.  "I have a verse for you today," he said: 

Who has woe?  Who has sorrow?
Who has strife?  Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
                         Proverbs 23.29

(Obviously, my verse for the week!)

Two other of the elements also appeared in unlikely products.  One was a component in my daily multi-vitamin, and one oddly enough in our grand children's baby shampoo which is labeled "99.9 percent natural."  That .1 percent is what to be concerned about.

I am thankful for the allergist who proceeded with testing.  I am regretful that I was too stubborn to seek help sooner.  One of the things God desires is a teachable heart.  ("Listen to advice and accept insturction, that you may gain wisdom in the future."  Proverbs 19.20)  Self-diagnosis is tempting, but I need to remember that the internet is not a substitute for med school.  A teachable heart would have made A LOT of things much easier in my life.

Whether it is a physical health issue or a spiritual one, when I seek the LORD about it --"help me, LORD, how to navigate this situation" -- He reveals my path and what to do about it.  Sometimes it is just one tiny step at a time.  "Reveal to me, LORD, what to do and what not to do."  Redirect my life to Your purposes.  The path may not be obvious.  And the problem may be something totally invisible to me but a huge pothole in my spiritual well-being.  What trips me up is typically what I consider insignificant.  And what I think doesn't matter at all may indeed change the course of my life.

Read the fine print.  And follow Him fully.  God will reveal Himself to you.  Even in the "little" stuff.

Search me, O God,
     and know my heart!
Try me
     and know my thoughts!
And see if there be
     any grievous way in me,
 and lead me in the way everlasting.

                         Psalm 139.23-24

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Please don't let it be chocolate!

For the past five years, I have been struggling with some type of allergic reaction around my eyes.  It would come and go, itchy and red for a week or two and then better again -- until the past year, when it became a constant companion and progressively worse.  Last fall, I began seeking medical help.  I consulted a dermatologist who said, "sorry, we don't do eyes."  The opthamologist said, "sorry, probably an allergy."  And the first allergist I saw last December actually googled it on his computer right in front of me, printed off an information sheet, and said, "this is probably it."  By the time I read the symptoms on the form -- few of which applied to my situation -- he had already left the room.

A couple of weeks ago, it felt like I had poison ivy around my eyes they itched so much.  It looked like I had applied red marker around my eyes.  People were kind.  They would STARE at my face and not say a word.  Family, of course, would respond with a sympathetic "WHOA, that looks like your eyes really HURT!!!"  I took to wearing my sunglasses continually in public like Bono, and I made an appointment with another allergist.

After being pin-pricked with various allergens,  four culprits emerged, all preservatives hidden in various lotions and face products.  The doctor prescribed an ointment to heal my eyes, and now it is up to me to carefully examine the ingredients on everything from shampoo to sunscreen.  Get out the magnifying glasses. These ingredients are printed in  the tiniest font-size available.

Those culprits produced an allergic reaction on my skin.  But even more hurtful and damaging, I know that there are elements in my life that produce negative reactions in my heart and mind.  To what do I expose myself that causes such soul  reactions?  When I was in junior high school, I stopped watching any kind of scary movie or reading scary books.  There was nothing illegal in them, and my parents didn't even tell me I couldn't watch them.  But I knew that they were just not healthy for me to watch.  I couldn't even babysit without thinking someone was going to jump out of a closet.

All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.
All things are lawful for me,
     but I willl not be enslaved by anything.
                     1 Corinthians 6.12

What other things am I "allergic" to?  What stirs up discontent, what riles up anger, what discourages, what hinders, what derails my spiritual life?  I need to examine, identify, avoid, and spend my energies on what builds up, not takes me --and others -- down.

All things are lawful,
    but not all things build up.
                       1 Corinthians 10.23

Sometimes it takes careful self-examination to determine the culprits -- reading the fine-print of my life and doing what it takes to make things right again.  Is it an unhealthy friendship?  Addiction to Facebook?  Discontent spurred on by the perfection of Pinterest?  Unkind words spoken?  Or even taking out my irritations on those all around me? 

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of My people
      not been restored?
                          Jeremiah 8. 22

Because my sin,
     my selfishness,
         my pride
  stand in the way.

As my doctor recommended, identify the allergen, avoid, and apply a healing balm.

And in life, repentance and grace do wonders.

Apply liberally.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Surrounded by Tell-tale Signs

I was working in the kitchen this afternoon when I heard the plaintive cry of the Cooper's hawk which inhabits the wild assortment of trees behind our house and in the vacant lot next door.  I stopped what I was doing to listen closely.  There was the sad cry again.  Now that I know what the hawk sounds like, I can identify his voice.  And it seems that I am even more aware of his presence.

I snuck out quietly onto the back porch, hoping not to disturb him.  One time the hawk was sitting on the roof of our detached garage, so close that it startled both the hawk and my husband as he left for work.  I now stood silently in the porch, listening to the hawk, and trying to follow the sound to spot him in the trees.   But in the lush display of leaves this summer, he remained audible but invisible to my eyes.  He was there.  That much I knew, even though I could not see him right before me.

The backyard appeared as motionless as a still-life painting.  When the hawk is around, it is as if all living creatures play freeze-tag and hold their breath until the predator departs.  The bird feeder stood alone and unwanted like the last item on a clearance rack, not a bird (or squirrel) in sight.  Not a single squirrel traveled on the "squirrel highway," as our three-year-old granddaughter calls the large electric cables strung from pole to pole along the property line.  And the rabbits had scurried into safer yards.

I know now how to recognize  the tell-tale signs of the hawk, but do I recognize the marks of God's Presence as readily?  Ahhhh, songs of grace and transformation displayed in those around me.  I know that tune.  The stirrings of His goodness in what I experience.   An awareness of His power, even in what appears to be a proverbial empty field.  When I am sensitive to His Presence, it changes what I see, how I feel, and what I do.  I can go forth on a strength that is not my own, a wisdom deeper than I can know, and a peace that passes all understanding.  Be not dismayed.  I am with you.  Those are the most repeated words in the entire Bible.

I need not pray for His Presence.  But just for an awareness that He is already here.

Fear not,
   for I am with you,
be not dismayed,
   for I am your God;
I will strengthen you,
   I will help you,
I will uphold you
   with My victorious right hand.

                         Isaiah 41.10

Seek the LORD and His strength,
seek His presence continually!

                          1 Chronicles 16.11


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shrink-wrapped and Priced to Sell

One of my neighbors plants her vegetable garden in the front of her house, along the sidewalk where a large number of children pass by as they walk to school.  Her purpose is two-fold.  It is partly because of the ravenous red squirrels who have established totalitarian control of our backyards.  Nothing is sacred to them.  There is no defense against their scheming minds.  In fact, I believe, they actually enjoy the challenges we place in their paths.  (Exhibit #1:  my bird feeder)

My neighbor's other reason for her tastefully arrayed vegetable garden -- indeed  a work of art -- is to reveal truth to the school children who will pass that way hundreds of times in the course of the school year.  "So they will know where vegetables really come from," she once explained to me.  Fruit and vegetables do not suddenly and mysteriously originate shrink-wrapped at the grocery.  They are intentionally planted, nurtured, weeded, fertilized, and harvested by farmers.  There is a lot of time, sweat and work involved.  It is an incredible process.  And it doesn't just happen.

I see the children in springtime, watching the seeds planted and the tiny seedlings coming up through the soil.  I have noticed the children during the summer, whizzing past on their scooters and bikes, glancing at the growing plants and sometimes unrecognizable vegetables.  ("What is THAT???" I heard one little boy ask his mom).  As the vegetables grow over the course of the season, I even see the boys, girls, and their parents stop and point out what is now apparent, watching as if they can see the growth day by day.  Always, there is a sunflower or two towering overhead, those which appear to grow six inches a day.

By mid-August when school begins again, there is an amazing arrangement of vegetables, sometimes a hidden zucchini as long as your arm.  Every year as autumn progresses, the children watch with excitement the pumpkins grow and ripen.  And the birds flock to the nodding heads of the sunflowers which provide seeds for months to come.

Whenever I have the opportunity to spend time with our own young grandchildren, I intentionally point out the splendor of nature -- the sun, moon, the light show of stars, the tiny little handprints of the raccoon, the birds of many colors and their special songs, and the brilliance of trees in all seasons.  On their last visit, we discovered even along the asphalt driveway, tiny little wild strawberries.  Imagine that, strawberries not in a plastic box!

I want them to know where these things come from.  They are not just there, but designed and nurtured by God, the Creator of the Universe, maker of heaven and earth and you.  There was a lot of imagination and power involved.   These wonders that surround us on all sides did not just happen.  Nature is just one of the ways God reveals Himself to us, just one of the ways we know who He is.

And what only He can do.

For thus says the LORD,
who created the heavens
(He is God!),
who formed the earth and made it,
(He did not create it a chaos,
He formed it to be inhabited!):
"I am the LORD,
and there is no other."

                         Isaiah 45.18

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Chronicle of His Faithfulness

Last week, we had the honor and privilege of having our dear friend from Chad stay several days with us. She has lived and worked in the cities and rural areas of Chad for the past twenty five years, faithfully doing everything from agricultural management to tutoring -- loving the scores of people whom God has placed on her path.

She was in town last week attending a conference at a nearby college.  One evening when she returned, I saw her water bottle and offered to fill it with cold water from the fridge.  She replied joyfully, "Oh, I am just so glad to be able to drink water from the tap."  That is something I don't even think about.  To her, that is a luxury.

At times, her assignments have appeared custom-designed to draw on her particular gifts and abilities. Sometimes she is totally out of her league, doing that for which she has not been trained or feels confident doing. And still at other times, it is sheer obedience to God to even get out of bed in the morning, knowing her tasks for the day.

But after these many years, she has learned that divine appointments are not necessarily tasks she loves doing.  Over the decades, she has learned to just do it.  And do it fully, knowing somehow, some way, God is using it.  Sometimes God's mysterious purposes are revealed as she is doing them, sometimes years later ("oh, that's why that happened,") and yet at all times, she knows those reasons will not be fully grasped until God brings us Home.

"This is not my gift" is not a valid excuse before God's divine appointments.

And when her work has seemed so mundane or fruitless or a daily struggle, she has learned the meaning of "the strength of the LORD," for she could do nothing at all without Him.  She has experienced dimensions of God I will never know.

For years, she has been keeping a chronicle of God's faithfulness to her.  When you are in the African bush, one sees and appreciates the tiniest details.  Even His smallest favors are HUGE miracles to her.  It does not have to be something "supernatural" for it to be a miracle, for indeed God only works supernaturally.  But God has trained her heart and eyes to recognize His hand of faithfulness in all things.

She returned late one evening, full of excitement.  She had just been driving to a gas station when something caught her eye, a flicker of light perhaps from the street lamp or a shadow on the pavement.  But suddenly just in the nick of time to veer out of the way, she realized it was a skunk.  She was thrilled, not by her own self-awareness and excellent driving skills, but that God had delivered her from a collision not easily overcome, the invasive putrid odor of a skunk.

She was thankful for that rescue, as well as being aware of His deliverance from the skunks she does not see.  His faithfulness is not dependent on her recognizing it.

That experience will be jotted down in her chronicle of God's faithfulness.  She keeps a running journal of those specific instances where she grasps even a glimpse of His faithfulness.  She is on the lookout for His hand.  One of her great dismays recently was the disappearance of that electronic journal.  She began it again this week, this time saving it to the "cloud" to refrain her from accidentally deleting that chronicle again.

But even in this, even with a new journal, she knows that all those instances of His faithfulness have not been deleted at all.  They are still there, surrounding her at all times.  God is faithful.

But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
     great is Your faithfulness.

                        Lamentations 3. 21-23

I hope that song gets stuck in your thoughts today,
          all day in all things.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Doesn't Make Sense, And Yet...

It is the height of the summer.   The plants push against each other like children at recess.  What was once a cultivated bed of seedlings equally spaced has taken on a life of its own, creating a jungle without the lines of apparent design.  By this time, the garden should be laden with fruit.

Instead it is almost dead, the leaves yellowing, and vines now brown and limp.  The once-tall stalks which vied for attention appear like the hands of students raised in class -- "me, me, call on me" -- now lay lifeless on the ground as if the last breath has been stomped out of them.

Even the young buds of new vegetables are stunted and shriveled.   Some plants have been violated by bugs, the smooth skins of peppers and tomatoes marred, holes left in the pale jackets of beans,  every possible blossom consumed, leaving only disappointment behind.

The sprouts, the plants, even the seeds had looked so promising in spring.  But what desolation has happened here?  Not enough water, too much water, not enough fertilizer, or too much.  Everyone has a theory, the weather, the heat, or "just a bad year," said with a resounding sigh.  No one knows.

But yet, I have seen wild plants flowering out of sheer rock and entire trees flourishing where they should not even exist, and still they thrive.  What is their secret strength, what kind of stubbornness redeemed for glory?  And I know people too who dance to hidden tunes and dare to possess gentle floods of secret joy.

They are those whose story has been changed, those who cannot help but bear fruit even in a barren place, those who stand beyond explanation but rooted fully in grace.  And they thrive with a strength that is not their own.  They love hilariously, manifest impossible fruit, and know what Resuurection means.

"Live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist," wrote Cardinal Emmanuel Celestine Suharto, archbishop of Paris, 1940-1949.

We can live that way,
we cannot help but live that way,
   because God is not if,
           God is.

Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like hinds' feet,
He makes me tread
                upon my high places.

                             Habakkuk 3. 17-19

(This posting was adapted from my journal, an entry dated August 8, 1998).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

There and aware

Help me, LORD,
   to not just be conscious of You this day,
but aware of Your presence
                      in every detail.
Help me to be
not just satisfied that
     "there must be a reason,"
but You have a purpose,
     You have a purpose for me.
I just can't see it yet.

The LORD will fulfill
      His purpose for me;
Your steadfast love, O LORD,
  endures for ever.

                      Psalm 138.8

Friday, July 12, 2013

Today is the last day

Today is the last day of our daughter Kat's medical residency -- the culmination of three years of college, four years of medical school, and four years of residency.  It is the fruition of hard work all the way through elementary school, the throes of junior high, and concentrated study in high school, through all those innumerable tests, crazy science projects, and AP study groups crowding around our kitchen table.  It is the dream of a three year old in the pediatrician's office, who told me, "Mama, I want to be a doctor."

There are many threads running through Kat's life, weaving together an incredible story of God's faithfulness, year by year, day by day, minute by minute.  Her perilous adventures included coursework in Spain, rural medical clinics in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, hospital work in the jungle of Equator, pediatric cancer research in the wilds of Brazil, and med school in urban Memphis. She made it through a bevy of narrow squeaks, including standing alone watching her car burning up on the side of the interstate.  God protected and provided in every conceivable dwelling place along the way  --through flood, mold, extremes of heat and cold, and even the scurrying of rats.  And His strength was there when those long days and nights of med school and residency blended into exhaustion.

God worked His purposes even through the mysteries when all she could do was trust Him.

The joy of helping others held it all together.  When she was an intern, I can remember her phoning me after her first day volunteering in a clinic for the poor and powerless.  With excitement in her voice, she said, "Mom, this is why I wanted to be a doctor."  Now, four years later, she will begin working as a physician in that same urban clinic for underserved people.

And while congratulations are in order for Kat today,
I praise God
       for His steadfast love and faithfulness to her
                       and through her.

Because today is not really the last day,
           but just the beginning
           of His story of faithfulness.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It doesn't just happen

A constant array of flowers decorate our neighbor's yard.  It is a sight to behold, blooms from springtime until late autumn, as each type of plant moves into its prime.  It appears that when one group dies off, another takes its place.

When I have a question about plants, trees and flowers, I don't have to google it, but just chat with my neighbor.  She and her husband are continually working in their yard, weeding, watering, pruning, moving plants, dividing bulbs, and adding new varieties, often donated by others.  Several times a year where the sidewalk and driveway meet, she places small paper bags filled with cuttings and divided bulb, freely offered to those who pass by, thereby beautifying the rest of the neighborhood.

She reminds me of my grandmother who had a garden, no matter where we lived, no matter the soil.  I still have irises that were transplanted into her garden in Texas when my mother was a little girl before the Great Depression.  Every time we move, I leave some behind in the yard, give some to friends, and transplant the others at our new location.

My grandmother was the one with the green thumb.  I don't know much about keeping a garden alive, but I do know this:   it doesn't just happen.

I envied my neighbor's garden this morning as I ran by, but I also realize her hard work, focus, and intentional efforts in producing such a dazzling array.  These plants did not just suddenly emerge, carefully arranged, and nurtured.  It was deliberate.

I know many godly people who God uses in extraordinary ways through their selflessness and extreme faithfulness.  They are the quiet ones who simply go about serving people -- fostering and adopting children, creating opportunities for others, befriending people no matter their place in life, and living out their faith in amazing venues.  I heard one person describing an incredible friend of mine, "Oh, you know, she is just special that way."

But I know that she really is no different than anyone else.  She just has a strength that is not her own.

It doesn't just happen.  Like my friend, these godly people are those who dig deep into Scripture on a daily basis and are nourished in the Word, these are the prayer warriors who lay their lives continually before Him, these people are intentional in their spiritual pursuit and have been transformed by Christ.  It is not what they do that brings them closer to God;   it is their relationship with Christ that drives who they are and what He does through them.

And it radiates from within.

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

                                Jeremiah 17. 7-8

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I would gladly share the recipe, but there isn't one

A couple of days ago, my husband and I drove home on swiftly moving interstate highways, finishing a week of visiting family in several different locations, and completing a 2366 mile loop, as it turned out.  We slept in so many different beds, every morning it took me a few moments to reorient myself to our location.

I love my husband's family.  As many members as there already are, I feel like they have embraced me as one of their own.  The very first time I had supper with them,  we devoured a cardboard barrel of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  That experience was hardly indicative of the culinary adventure I have had with them since. Most family events bless me with at least one new coveted recipe.  At a family reunion about ten years ago, the evening meals became highly competitive events as cooking teams, comprised of members of different families, worked feverishly attempting to produce the most memorable supper of the week.  Even the little ones were involved in decorating the tables and providing the dinner music.  Each night was not dinner but an extravaganza in itself.

This family rallies around at the least possible hint, appearing to look for any excuse or opportunity to get together. A couple of quick last-minute phone calls convened almost the entire family this year for the Fourth of July -- schedules adjusted, travel tweaked, and the entire countertop of my sister-in-law's kitchen covered in foil-wrapped dishes, showing off new recipes and old favorites.  Four out of my husband's five siblings, their spouses, parents, children, and even their DOGS attended.  As it was raining -- make that still raining-- people balanced paper plates laden with food throughut the kitchen, dinng area and family room.

And it wasn't until dessert was eaten and the kitchen was finally cleaned up, that we discovered the watermelon and the potato salad forgotten and uneaten in one of the ice chests. We were all disappointed.   My mother-in-law's potato salad is like the Hope Diamond of cuisine.  I would gladly share the recipe, but there isn't one.  Mamaw has never written it down.  And despite all of our many attempts to replicate it, there is nothing like it, or even close.  It is THAT good.

And so, with the potato salad forgotten and alone, out of the running, first place at this event was taken by my sister-in-law Maryam's carrot cake, its cream cheese frosting literally bathing the moist cake on a hot and humid North Carolina afternoon.

The only thing better that day was being surrounded by this beloved family who devoured it.

Maryam's Carrot Cake (adapted from Saveur Magazine)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Residual Effects

Already by 6.15 this morning, the heat and humidity were pressing against the windows. I could feel that heavy blanket of air when I opened the door.  And the weather forecast called for even more of the same as the day progressed.  I had only a short window of time before my still-sleeping house guests were scheduled to leave and my morning appointments began lining up.  I dressed quickly for a run, left a note, and headed out the door.

I need early runs like most people yearn for a cup of coffee.  It shakes my brain awake, allows me to pray out-loud, listen to what God may be trying to impress on my heart, and revs me up for the day.  And I have learned the hard way that somehow that as the day moves on, the time to run is the first thing that gets squeezed out of my schedule.

Running has an immediate impact on how I feel.  But according to studies from the human performance lab at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, even after a person stops running, their bodies continue to burn calories at a higher rate, also known as "excess post exercise oxygen consumption."  So even when I am sitting in a chair or sleeping in bed, my metabolism is moving at a faster rate than if I hadn't run.  Exercising has residual effects.

The study also found that in addition to increased metabolism, exercise enhances energy levels and produces better self-control.

It changes you.

Consistent time in Scripture does even more. God's Word changes how you see God, how you see yourself, how you see others, and how you treat them.  Every time you read the Bible, God changes you.  I recently read a story about a woman who began reading a Bible without letting anyone else know she was doing it.  She searched the Scriptures and read the Bible daily.  Within a few months, her friends began to say, "What's going on?  You are different."

God's Word has a habit of doing that.  He changes you through it.

I know.  Taking the time to read God's Word goes with me into my day.  If you spend time in the Bible. God redeems that time.  I am more productive, less frazzled, more focused, and guided into what is before me.  And I have learned to take a verse with me into the day, written down on an index card or in my journal.  These are not just words, but as my pastor used to say, "the very words of God."

A friend of mine with four young children says that she can't do what she does without it.  She depends on Scripture's residual effects.

Because He changes you.

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

                       Psalm 119.105

Monday, July 8, 2013

What if's

As a fiction writer, “what if” is one of the most valuable tools in the arsenal of my imagination.  It enables me to look into the future and craft a character, a situation, and the journey to redemption.  “What if” he looked out the window at that very moment?  “What if” she took that job in Wisconsin?  What a different trajectory her life would take.  “What if” looks from the present into the future and guides the story and its characters to a logical conclusion.  In fiction, I am neither constrained by time nor place.

"What if” can produce a bottomless pit of regrets.  Visualize the young girl in the movie True Grit, when she falls into a crevasse filled with poisonous snakes.  It is that kind of bottomless pit. And of course, those deep worries are also spurred on by "what ifs" first cousin, the despicable "if only."  To some degree, we all get hung up on those assaulting emotions. 

Right now in this season of life, I have many friends who are losing sleep over the “what ifs” of their past, lamenting poor decisions regarding their children.  “What if” I had let him take the car that night?  “What if” I didn’t let her take the car that night?  What if’s imagine a different outcome, all hanging like too many wornout coats on the same hanger, threatening to bring us down.  What did I do wrong?  What could I have done better?  And, of course, the inevitable "what was I thinking?!?"

But God…

That is where the story always takes a significant turn.   God sees “what if’s” extending into the future as a new course of action.  The world claims emphatically that you are stuck and can never change. Nothing can be done about it.   But God  Many say that the LORD is a God of second chances.  Indeed, a billion times more than that.  He knew that we would mess up.  That is why He invented forgiveness, because we can’t take it back, we can’t rewind the tape, and we can’t make up for what we have done in the past.  But He can.  That is why Jesus came. 

Forgiveness is the scarlet thread that runs all the way through the Bible.

God says, “Turn, and go another way.”  Get up.  Things can be different.   Use that imagination, not just looking into the future, but today.  Use that powerful imagination for great good, instead of regrets.  Not “what if I had done something different” but “what can I do now?”

…but one thing I do,
forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward
             to  what lies ahead.
I press on
toward the goal for the prize
of the upward call of God
 in Christ Jesus.
              Philippians 3. 13-14

In these lay a multitude of invalids,
blind, lame, paralyzed.
One man was there,
who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him
and knew that he had been
lying there a long time,
He said to him,
      “Do you want to be healed?”
…Jesus said to him,
     take up your pallet
           and walk.”
                              John 5. 3-8

Jesus can change you.
He is not constrained by your past.
            He will redeem it.
Our relationship with Him
is not based on our performance
or derailed by our iniquities,
         but grounded fully on His grace.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dog-eared Pages

If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened.  Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.
     Unless there is God.  If the God of the Bible exists...then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God's calling, can matter forever.  That is what the Christian faith promises.

                               --Timothy Keller
                                  Every Good Endeavor
                                  page 29

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Because I Said So

 A couple of weeks ago, as the hallways of our house were filled with the patter of grandchildren’s feet, we had to establish a few rules.  Hold the railing when you come down the stairs.  No standing up in the bath tub.  No scootering or bike riding without a helmet or an adult watching.  

And when Mommy or gramma or Papa, says no, “It means no.” 

I love baking with our three-year-old granddaughter.  Usually I measure, and she dumps the ingredients into the mixer.  And sometimes under my supervision, she does both.  As I placed a cookie sheet into the oven one morning, I said, “Stay where you are, Sweetie.  The oven is very hot.”

As a curious little monkey, Maggie started to slide down the kitchen stool to watch me a little closer.  “Stand back, please,” I repeated, as her mom walked into the kitchen.  “Do what gramma says,” her mom said.  I knew what was coming next.  “Why?” Maggie replied.

“Because I said so,” Beth said -- the response of every weary mom who hears why, why, why, and “how come?” over and over again.

Many children of the three-year-old variety will challenge you at every turn.  But I have found that those constant inquisitors are the children who inherently know that there is some kind of reason.  They just want to see the purpose behind the rule.  And sometimes, they just want to weigh the balance between obeying and the consequences.

God placed children in this world that we – as adults --would more adequately understand our own relationship with Him.  In what God says in His Word and what God places in my path, it is not just that there is a reason, but that the LORD has a reason -- even in that we cannot comprehend.  There are perhaps 10,000 reasons for that single act of obedience that I cannot grasp at all, far deeper than I can know.  It may impact me, or maybe not me at all, but those who come after.

God gave us rules – standards – not to limit us in any way, but to protect us --sometimes in ways we don’t even see coming.   And when we obey, when we follow Him in our situations and decisions, He directs the outcome.

Why?  Because He has ten thousand interconnected purposes that span eternity.  Perhaps, even more.

…let the purpose
of the Holy One of Israel draw near,
and let it come
         that we may know it.
                                 Isaiah 5.19