Thursday, October 31, 2013

What are you going to be?

It was a big deal to my brothers and I as to what costume we were going to wear for Trick or Treating.  But when we were little, much to our dismay, we didn't get a choice.  My mom had found, at some Halloween in the past, three costumes on clearance.  She was so excited that we -- her children-- were able to wear a store-bought costume, as if we were royalty.  Others could wear their home-made outfits, but we would have the best.

She brought out the bag with the boxes, revealing three tiger costumes, complete with masks, all in the same size.  Despite our four year age span, it was even large on my older brother.  Plenty of room for your snow suits underneath, she said, greatly pleased. You don't want to catch a death of cold.

I would have rather come down with a grave illness.  We appeared a motley crew, at best, not just as three over-sized store-bought tigers, but jungle animals that appeared to have feasted all night, our thick parkas stuffed underneath.  And while all the other little girls on our block were transformed into dainty pink ballerinas and glimmering princesses, I trudged along from house to house with my matching brothers, glad only for the plastic mask that hid my identity.

And we wore those costumes reluctantly, year after year, until the thin material finally wore through and the plastic masks became brittle, much to our rejoicing.

And at dawn this morning of what appears to be a rainy Halloween, I thought - now with humor - of those childhood traumas, and realized that every day as my day stretches before me, I have a choice to make.  Have I decided not just what I need to do today, but what I want to be?

Be a blessing.

Bless the LORD, all His works,
      in all places of His dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul.

                           Psalm 103.22

Bless the LORD
                by blessing others
   in all things,
   in all places,
   among all on my path
               or ringing my doorbell,
even her,
even him,
even in this.
The LORD will show you how.

No masks allowed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Neighborhood Outreach Planned for Tomorrow

There are many who have tried to banish Halloween as an evil holiday by locking their doors and turning out the porch light.

But what does God say?

First, love God with all your heart
 and with all your soul
 and with all your mind
 and with all your strength.
 And when you do that,
          He changes your heart
     so that you can do the second thing:
                       Love your neighbor.

God literally changes you so that you see all things differently.
And as Creator of the Universe,
        He helps us to grasp opportunities
and see connections between things that ordinarily appear unrelated.

How can I love my neighbor in creative ways?  

What we know as Halloween is the borrowing of many customs, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Indeed, at one time, trick or treating -- the custom of going from house to house -- was called "souling," where the poor received food in return for prayers.

But Halloween really means "hallowed (or holy) eve," the night before All Souls Day, which was the celebration of the faithful.

And so, since Halloween is a compilation of customs, may we add our own.

Today is my grandmother's birthday.  She has been gone a long time, and she would have been 125 today.  She loved Halloween because it gave her the opportunity to love the children of her world-- which consisted almost entirely of our city block.  On Halloween, she pulled out an old scarf with dangles on it, a large plastic nose, and a plastic warted thumb which she pulled over her own arthritic one.  She made it fun.  And every kid in our neighborhood knew this home-bound grandma and loved her because she loved them, no matter whose kid they were.  My grandmother knew that loving others is not about programs and projects, but the people all around us every day.

A nationwide outreach is planned for tomorrow, a time designated to love your neighbors by granting them sweet treats, by getting to know them and their children, by loving them in that way. 

Let your house be the sweet spot in the neighborhood.   Love your neighbor.  A candy bar goes a long way in making that happen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Boulder at the End of the Street

When I was a little girl, children played outside most of the day.  We walked to school through snowdrifts and rain.  We traveled in packs like wolf cubs roaming throughout the neighborhood.  And while this was a time before cell phones, texting, and surveillance cameras, an even more powerful communication system was set on alert, an unofficial pact among neighbors that held us accountable and responsible for our actions.  The backup system was generated by the ever-present tattling prevalent among multiple siblings.  There were no secrets back then.

As a middle child, I was never alone, one brother older, another right under me, and my baby brother safe at home with my grandmother who resided with us.  The neighborhood kids all had traveling routes through the backyards of our block, sometimes even on our bikes, knowing the weak links in the fences and where the mean dogs waited in the shadows. 

There was an enormous rock at the end of our street, a boulder that I can clearly remember climbing and falling off, sometimes imagining riding a horse or scaling a mountain, depending on what I was pretending at the time with my brothers or friends.  It was huge. My schoolgirl knees were continually scraped. When I was not even ten years old, my family moved from that yellow brick house, but the memory of that rock grew legendary in my thoughts.

As an adult, I finally had the opportunity to visit the old neighborhood again.  Our block looked so plain as if the color had been drained from an old photograph. The mammoth arch of elm trees had been felled by Dutch elm disease decades ago.  The small brick and clapboard houses had aged and were filled with strangers.  It felt like the stories of my childhood had been evicted.  I did not see even one kid playing on the sidewalk.

And the boulder?  Where was it?  I drove past twice before I realized that what I remembered as massive and insurmountable was only a colossal figment of my imagination.  It appeared ridiculous.  I was enamored by a rock not even two feet high.  That was what I was scared of?

How many big rocks in my past do I hold onto
                 and keep tripping over
 -- fears
           and wounds
    and bitter words --
 that have no power over me
                       any more?
           And lies that never really did? 
They are
             only paper tissue phantoms,
        leftover childhood ghosts banished,
              and deflated by letting them go
                                        and moving on.
God redeems our past.
God restores our vision.
And a scar is not the sign of a wound
                  but the evidence of healing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pomegranates, dinosaur eggs and great expectations

I suppose it wasn't fair to ask so early in the morning.

I finished the book of Jeremiah this morning in my slow reading through the Bible. In this passage, the Babylonians were ransacking Solomon's Temple and carrying off the things of value.  The chapter mentioned that at the top of a 27-foot support pillar was a network of bronze pomegranates.

It is an ordinary Monday morning.  What am I going to carry with me from this passage today? 

"When you read the Scripture, always ask, "So what? What is the point here?" I once heard a seminary professor say.

"Why would someone take the effort of embellishing a pole with pomegranates?"  I asked my husband early this morning.  He looked at me as if wondering whether I had coffee yet.

I looked up pomegranates in the Bible dictionary, thinking that perhaps there was some ancient symbolism in the fruit.  The pomegranate tree is not large and very common in the ancient Middle East.  It would be a familiar fruit, the round globes very recognizable to anyone who saw them.  Nothing extraordinary in that.

And now, more than 3000 years later, I am reading about a workman who made a concerted effort to beautify a pole with something quite ordinary.  A little detail, but in God's Word, details are always significant.

What was his intention?  Who would expect it?  Was it really necessary?

In my early morning divergent thoughts, I was reminded of my two-year-old grandson Howie who eats a packet of instant oatmeal with "dinosaur eggs" in it, almost every morning.  Pour in the hot water and WOW!  There is a "dino egg."  and another, and another, as if he is discovering something new -- each one a surprise -- like buried treasure.  And this happens, well, just about every ordinary morning.  Howie sees joy in just about everything.  Nothing is ordinary to him.  He expects the extraordinary because that is how he sees life.

And those pomegranates on top of the pole?  I imagine it made those ancient people smile by what they knew was found within that very ordinary-looking fruit -- hundreds of bright red seeds. Incredible sweetness spills out of a tough outer shell.  And they were reminded that God adorns our days with goodness, an explosion of incredible fruit woven within even something that appears so ordinary..

And this ordinary Monday morning?
Do I see what is familiar
                with a different heart?
 That bronze fruit at the top of an ancient pole
     reminds me to do what is excellent
     even when I think
                        no one may ever know.
Those pomegranates tell me
                              how to serve my God.
        What makes our lives extraordinary
                              is realizing that God is in it.
Take it from Howie.
                              Great expectations.
                              Great joy.
Even in
    the most ordinary things of all.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

But I've Never Gone That Way Before

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to scoot from the local meat market over to Trader Joe's for a few groceries.  It would require me to cut across town at a time when schools were letting out, moving slowly from stop sign to stop sign, and cross the railroad tracks twice, always a risk of getting caught by a freight train as slow as a reluctant teenager on a school morning.  I knew the route.  I had passed this way many times before.

I commenced my trek, ready to turn left at the intersection to hop over the tracks, looking carefully for cross traffic and hoping to make the other side before a train appeared and the railroad crossing arms blocked the road. 

I had been praying earlier that morning to follow God into His day for me, instead of trying to fit God into my own agenda.  Create in me a new heart, O LORD, give me new eyes to see "the same old things" differently.  Navigate me through sticky situations and know that there are no interruptions in Your economy.

And in the glum of a mundane errand, at that ordinary intersection of roads, plodding along on the same path through town and through my day, I saw something different.

God placed an extraordinary thought in my mind, "Turn right, instead."

I have passed this way hundreds of times before.  It never occurred to me to turn right.  But quite suddenly, duh, I realized that turning right placed me on the most direct route to my destination.  It had been here all along.  I had driven past it countless times, my mind fixed resolutely on "the way I always go," lost in my grumblings about traffic and trains.  What I wanted to do totally blocked my vision of how to get there.  My deeds blinded me to direction and ultimate destination.

I turned the car right.  And then I chuckled.  For this new vision had placed me, believe it or not, on High Road.  And that is what God always intends, in all that we do or say or handle, to take the high road.  Always, His higher way is the best route to take, a path of divine purpose, and with a deeper destination in mind.  And often, it is a way not so obvious on my daily radar.

I can get there on my own, or I can follow God's leading into it.  His way is always prepared.  We have only to keep our hearts open and walk in it.

And I will lead the blind
     in a way they know not,
in paths that they have not known
     I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
     the rough places into level ground.

                           Isaiah 42.16

Friday, October 25, 2013

How does a tree know what to do?

The trees stand all around me,
      straight and tall,
defying gravity,
        a forest against the odds.
They look upward,
   towering strong in their defiance,
living in a way
           they should not be able to thrive,
    but they do,
not balanced precariously,
             but deeply rooted,
       bearing fruit,
    and wearing the colors of the season
                  right on time
                         every year,
      like casting aside green shoes after Labor Day.
How do trees know what to do?
Just fulfilling their purpose,
           bringing hope to the world
                     and glory to God who made them.
But their brilliance every fall
       is only a practice
                for what is yet to come.
For when the world is restored,
         nature will also be turned rightside up,
and we will witness
that all along the trees have just been rehearsing
               the astonishing chorus of creation.

Then shall all the trees of the wood
                    sing for joy...

                                 Psalm 96.12



Thursday, October 24, 2013

A different season, a different place

For the past week and a half, I have found myself in a foreign land.  I am a runner.  And right now, I cannot run.  My foot is healing from an overuse injury in training.  God held it together long enough to finish the marathon. But now, I rest.

In the past few days, I have driven along some of my favorite running routes, so familiar that I know every turn, every hill, even the coming up on the places where the trees flank the road like a cathedral.  I long to pull over on the side of the road, abandon the car, and finish that path on foot. 

But this is not the time.

There are so many things I would like to be doing.  But this is not the time for them.  I am in a different season for the time being.  I am in a different place.  Not a bad season, not a bad place,  just different.  And God has some different things for me to be doing right now.

I can be so distracted by where I was before -- or where I want to be -- that I can become totally ineffective where I am right now.  It is so easy to get bogged down in the grumblings of the "if only's" and the "what if's" and "why this, God?" that I miss His assignment for the now.

"Show me, LORD, what I need to be doing in this place, in this day, in this not-what-I-would-have-chosen situation." 

We all have gifts that we long to be used.  God may be in the process of developing yet another.  And this different place and season may be how He will do it.

When our first daughter was born, I remember a frustration creeping into my joy when I said out loud to this infant, "I can't get anything done around here!"  My gaze fell on her uplifted face.  And I realized SHE was what I was doing right now. Other things will come someday, or be set aside for a season, but when we get the big rocks in first, everything else falls into place.  It doesn't have to be an either/or situation.  God fulfills.

And so, be it the prophet Jeremiah in chains ("bound in chains along with all the captives"  Jeremiah 40.1), or the apostle Paul in prison ("I am an ambassador in chains" Ephesians 6.20), or simply a runner who can't run, God has something deeper going on. 

It may not be what we would have chosen,
but it is an opportunity
       such as we wouldn't believe.

Let God use you in it.

...fulfill your ministry.

                 1 Timothy 4.5

(whatever that may be today)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Stuck In My Head

In about fourth grade, our oldest daughter and a friend used to sing a tune called, "The Song That Never Ends."  And indeed, it did not.  Because with the least prompting, that annoying tune would travel a weary path through my thoughts throughout my day.

God created music, because He knew we needed the means of expressing the depths of our being in ways that mere words fall short.  It is a language in itself, powerfully moving hearts by its melodies.  And like snowflakes, new patterns of notes continually emerge.

Music is also a means of pouring out our hearts before God.   It pleases God to hear our praises,  but in singing out loud, praise also works a groove into our minds, reminding us of who God is.

When I used to rock our oldest grand daughter as a tiny baby, I sang to her the hymn "Before the Throne of God Above."  She was just an infant, but I thought, "Someday when she hears this song, she will wonder how she knows it."  Even as a little baby, singing was engraving the truth of God into her little heart.

One night when she was not even two years old, I began singing to her as I put her to bed.  She kept stopping me, indicating she wanted another song.  "What is it, baby? What song do you want?"

"Phone!" she said.

"Phone?"  I was at a total loss.

"Phone of God," she stated emphatically.

She wanted "Before the Throne of God Above."  And at age four, it is still her favorite for me to sing to her.

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to Your name,
                    O Most High,
to declare Your steadfast love
          in the morning,
and Your faithfulness by night...
                       Psalm 92. 1-2

Singing engraves His Presence 
          in our hearts and minds,
deeper than we can know,
      melodies of His love
          reminders of His faithfulness
 never forgotten.
It impacts all we do.
And in your comings and goings today,
            let praises to Him
                         get stuck in your head.
For indeed,
His goodness is
       the song that never ends.

And a tune you live out loud.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

And why should I pray about that?

One of our girls was faced once with a difficult situation unfolding before her eyes.  "Pray your way through it," I told her.  "God will guide you."

"But if God is bringing it about anyway, why do I need to pray?" she responded, not defiantly but in a practical sense.

"Because," I said.  "God will open your eyes and your heart to things that are not even on your radar.  You will see doors you never even knew were there."

Call to Me and I will answer you,
and will tell you great and hidden things
which you have not known.

                       Jeremiah 33.3

It is not that God fits into our agenda,
but that we follow Him
         into His day for us.

"Things don't always work out like we think they will," says pastor and author Francis Chan.  "They just don't.  But some of the best things in life are the things we did not plan."

Things, people, places,
        opportunities in disguise
 that are not even on our radar
                  but solid in His design.
Things that would 
                  take our breath away.

"Call to Me."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Diaper bag, car seat, and what else did I forget?

While I was training for my marathon, a friend’s son ran a one hundred mile ultra-marathon which in comparison made my race seem like a Sunday afternoon nap.  Participants in his race typically finish in 30-40 HOURS of running.

I ran my marathon on a Sunday.  Two days later, I began my own ultra-marathon which began with driving 8 hours to help our daughter with our youngest grandbaby.  While our daughter was involved in an overnight work retreat, I then had my own 30-hour ultra-marathon alone with the little guy.  I didn’t know what to expect – Up all night?  Screaming for no good reason?  Inconsolable?  Total exhaustion? 

While this eight-month old can crawl at the speed of light and thinks naps are a total waste of time, we had a precious time together.  Even at 5 a.m., he was a happy boy.

Through our time together, I was not babysitting.  I was developing a relationship with my grandson, not that he would recognize me, but that he will know me and I will know him. 


I’m looking forward to spending time with him again.

When I ventured out to Target with the baby and later that afternoon for a walk through the botanical gardens with an old friend, I was reminded of how much STUFF I needed to bring along.  Diaper bag?  Check.  Making sure that there were actually diapers in the diaper bag?  Check twice.  An extra outfit.  A toy to keep him occupied in the car.  A jacket.  Stroller or carrying pack.  Wipes – for any kind of mess.  A bottle and little baby snacks to tide him over. 

Go forth prepared. 

But do we approach difficult relationships with the same mindset of being prepared?  Recently, I had a choice to make in a tenuous situation.  I could choose to approach with confrontation and a critical mind – or nurture a conversation and come to the table prepared to bless.  What am I taking with me?  

Are some people hard to love simply because as wounded and broken people, they have become hardened to love?  God has provided us with the opportunity to infuse grace where it is not known and commence a slow penetration of tenderness.  Seek out a way to do it, training and practicing love in real life, in things both great and small.  

A godly friend once told me:  Put yourself on the path of righteousness.  This morning I was reminded of those words which I had written thirty years ago in the margin of my Bible next to this verse:

Aim at righteousness,
                     1 Timothy 6.11

If we don’t intentionally aim at these, we will hit nothing at all.

Go forth prepared,
 not with a bag of these things
                and packed just in case
                            I might need them someday,
but with a heart
          like a moveable feast.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

First Responders

In last weekend's marathon, there were first responders in red jackets, ready for a crisis.  The runners had trained for months for this race.  But these medics have trained for years.  It is what they do.  It is what they do best, prepared in mind and skill to handle a crisis, a problem, or conflict.

Their bags are packed with the tools of their trade.  And they know how to use them for restoration and resolution.

I take a lesson from these first responders.  For in the heat of the moment, they establish focus and approach from the get-go.

When there is a problem or conflict -- and there will be on a daily basis in our lives -- reach not for your battle gear, but for your toolbox.  It is not a matter of "who is going to win?" but "how can we work this out?"

The medics approached with a mindset of healing.  May we do the same.

A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

                              Proverbs 15.1

Friday, October 18, 2013

My thoughts runneth over

I am not running this week,
     but left-over thoughts from the marathon
                           runneth over.

I stood waiting for the race to start,
wrapped in an old ratty sweatshirt,
shivering just a little bit.
And I thought about in the weeks before the race
how I feared and dreaded the thought of
           this pre-marathon chill.
And in reality, it wasn't so bad at all.
"I was scared of this?"  I shook my head in disbelief.
Fear does that to you.
It creates phantoms that don't even show up,
       inflatable monsters of my own imagination.

And as I looked before me
               and behind me,
I saw people,
45,000 runners around me,
         up on my tip toes,
           precious people as far as I could see.
Love others,
          Jesus said.
Love others for no other reason
             or motivation
     but to love them.
LORD, show me how.
                       "I did," He says.

A few miles into the marathon,
      I saw a sign that said,
"Pain is weakness leaving the body."
I chuckled.
But I thought that even more,
     "Love is selfishness leaving your heart."
Every kindness,
every grace,
every letting go of the bitterness,
          is not just a random action,
but a pushing back the darkness
         and manifesting His light to the world.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
                                   John 1.5
And never will.

And then,
    at almost every mile-marker,
26.2 miles in the making,
smiling strangers handed out water,
       bandaging the blistered,
                healing the brokenhearted,
            encouraging the weary.
Who are you?
           I wanted to ask each grace bearer,
    those who for six hours were splashed
                    by lemon-lime Gatorade,
        serving joyfully in such a way
       that His love got all over everyone.
And through these self-less people I learn,
    to live in such a way
        it would make no sense at all
    if it were not for God.

For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me...
...Truly I say to you,
as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,
                        you did it to Me.

                                 Matthew 25. 35, 40


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Change My Mind

If indeed
the things I do
        actually change my brain cells
 -- as mentioned in yesterday's blog --
what even more happens
when I pray to the LORD,
when I read God's Word,
              and do it.
God actually changes my mind
             and my heart
       and my relationships
           and the course of my life.
What God says in His Word,
          He says for a reason.
And so, when He commands,
"You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
...You shall love your neighbor as yourself.".
                Matthew 22. 37-39
there is a reason for it.
Loving God
         and loving others
have changed minds and hearts
long before MRI was around to show it.
The proof is in our lives
       and the impact of God's love
                    in everyone around us.
Change my mind, O LORD.
Change my heart.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Residual effects

Somewhat to the surprise of friends and family, I am doing well.  Yesterday, I had trouble going down stairs, due to tight quad muscles.   And one of my brothers called to make sure I was still alive.  But I put my marathon medal in the bottom drawer.  I did the laundry and made supper.  And after a good night's sleep, I am good to go.

I woke this morning -- post marathon day two -- with one thought in my mind:   Do something different today.

What remains after a marathon is not pain, but a courage.

Other things don't seem so impossible, so fearful, so daunting.  I am not so afraid of trying new things.  In the past ten years since I ran my first marathon, I have ventured into cooking, blogging, writing short stories, various ministries, and hiking.   God has worked me through self-imposed limitations.  It is not that I now have more confidence in myself, but a deeper understanding of what He can do.

With a marathon, it is not the pain that changes you, but the discipline of moving beyond the ordinary.  When we try to learn anything new or different or difficult, those efforts create a freedom to do yet something else.

Trying something different doesn't just open your eyes to new opportunities;  it physically changes you.   Medical research shows that doing what is out of the ordinary -- or the same things a different way -- actually nurtures and develops new "highways" in your brain.  It strengthens your courage to embrace change and explore possibilities.  In contrast, anxiety, addiction, and sameness continually close down avenues in your thinking, physically shutting down your ability to see options.

And when you step beyond, it provides someone else the freedom to do the same.  I didn't start running on my own.  I saw my cousin tie on her own shoes, join Weight Watchers, and start running before work.  She's now running half-marathons.  And she is the one who got me thinking,"Hey, maybe I could do that."

I didn't start by running marathons.  I just stepped out the side door one spring day, ran two minutes and walked two minutes.  And repeated it the next day.  And the next...

Do something different.  Drive to the store another way.  Order something you have not tried before at a restaurant.  Sit in a different chair when you are reading.  Listen to a new station on the radio.  Change up your schedule -- eat later, get up earlier.  Even wear your favorite blue shirt with a different pair of slacks.  Run a marathon, one step at a time.

It is easy to get paralyzed into passivity.  It is even easier to take a first step in the opposite direction.

God can open our eyes,
     open our hearts,
and enlarge our gifts.
As Creator of the Universe,
He never meant for us
to be stuck with small thinking.

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Finishing the race set before me

The alarm pierced the darkness, and like firemen, our clothes were set out, ready to put on.  My bib number was already pinned to my shirt, even socks tucked into my shoes.  We headed out, few words between my husband and I for the immensity of the task ahead. It was still dark when we parked.  I made my way through 45,000 other runners heading in the same direction.

I reached my assigned corral 45 minutes early, wearing an old sweatshirt to temper the morning chill and cast aside as soon as the race began.  I thought about ten years ago this day when I lined up right here for my very first marathon.  I never dreamed there would be more than one.

The sun came up and revealed an incredible fall day with the bluest of skies and the radiance of a generous sun.  Chicago had put on its Sunday best.  High 65, upper 40s at the start, not a cloud in the sky and a whispering breeze. 

The start of a marathon this size is controlled by corrals released one by one.  My group approached the starting line and then suddenly, we were off and running.   Within a 100 feet past the starting line, we were embraced by the ROAR of cheering spectators.  Not unlike, I thought, when someday we will cross the line to the Other Side of life and angels on both sides of the road will rejoice at our homecoming.

The entire route was lined with enthusiastic crowds, upbeat music blaring from bands and stereo systems, and hand-printed signs to encourage the runners.  There was a deep sense of community as I passed through the neighborhoods of gracious strangers who cheered me on.
I didn't know if I could even run this race, because of a sore foot for several weeks.  But I asked many friends to pray.  And I decided to give it a try, even if I only made it to mile two.  I could feel the tenderness of my foot throughout the race, but it held together.  And in the second half of the race,  it was the least of my aches and pains.

I was further encouraged by my faithful husband, who on his bike, traveled quickly from point to point to cheer me on.  One of our daughters and her friend also appeared from time to time on the sidelines, shouting "Go, Mom!" 

At about mile 15, I began slowing down, overwhelmed by fatigued muscles and the thought of eleven long miles left to go.  I could have easily stopped and called it a day.  But I was reminded of those who were praying, and quite suddenly, my perspective changed.  Instead of thinking, "oh my goodness, you still have ELEVEN miles to go!" I began saying out loud, "just eleven left."  And as I passed each mile marker, I began counting them DOWN instead of UP.  Just ten.  Just nine. Just eight..

At about mile 20, I realized that I was not only going to finish this race, but there was a slim possibility that I could make my Boston time if I picked up my pace. It was going to be really close, a narrow squeak, if at all.  Here, I thought I was not even going to be able to run at all, and now that?  

Just past mile 22 with only four miles to go, the route traveled under an overpass.  The asphalt was cracked and broken in places.  I tried to get to the left side where the pavement appeared a bit smoother. And then, WHOMP.  I went down hard, knocking the wind out of me.  Three runners stopped immediately, scooped me up like I was a pancake on a spatula, and sat me on a guard rail on the side of the road.  They ran on. I sat for a minute, and then started hobbling along until my legs loosened up a bit.  I know that someone was praying for me right then and there.  "...though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, but the LORD is the stay of his hand." (Psalm 37.24)   We all fall.  God gives us the strength to get back up.

The fall slowed me down significantly, but I noticed in those last few miles, I was not the only one hobbling.  My dictionary defines running as "to move or go at a pace swifter than a walk."  Most of us were right on the edge.  At this point, the end of the course was pulling us down that long straight road, one wobbly step at a time.  And even in that, there was a togetherness of strangers.

So I finished the race and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4.7), borne up by the prayers of the saints and so thankful for the manifestation of God's strength.   

God did not say we have to "be the best,"
                                   or don't even bother trying,
       not even "get your personal best," 
                                   or you are a failure,
just "do your best,"
           with excellence in all you do,
                whatever course you are on.
And sometimes that is
                          just in the striving.

I am a little achy this morning, bearing road rash on my knees and bruises on my hands from falling, but joyful for the adventure of it all.  

And so thankful I did not miss it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

And Victories Along The Way

By this time tomorrow, I will be in the midst of running a marathon.  And like so many of us with challenges ahead of us  -- marathons in many forms -- there is always the daunting question of "Can I do this?" followed quickly by the promise of the LORD, "I will be right there with you."

When I went to pick up my race number yesterday, I stood next to this poster of some of the fastest marathoners on earth.  And while we are all running the same course, they will be already finished the race by the time I even reach half-way.

But in God's eyes, success doesn't always come from crossing the finish line first.  A cyclist friend of ours once raced in Europe with resounding defeats and bad races, one after another.  But he came home jubiliant, having realized, "God doesn't need our victories to bring Him glory."

A friend emailed me this week, bummed by the news of my sore foot, blaming it on my time with the grand kids.  "Go take care of that foot," she wrote, "and win that race."

I plan to, Betty.  To do my best in whatever God places on my path, to do it with excellence in all things, with all my might, and take great joy in doing that.

First place or last.  God works something deeper than we can behold.  There are always bigger things to conquer than what appears on the surface.  I don't want to wear a bib number in this race.  I want to bear the name of Jesus.

And in whatever we do,
      in whatever "place" we are,
not just what we run
                   but in how we do it,
we can bring Him glory.

...but this 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

You shall love the LORD your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your might.

                            Deuteronomy 6.5

Even in this.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Not alone in this

When I was in junior high school, my father's employment suddenly changed, and he took a job half the continent away.  My dad went on ahead of us to start his work, and my brother went with him as to start in that new high school as a freshman.  The rest of us remained behind for six months, waiting for our house to sell.  By winter, the house was still on the market, but the rest of us moved on to our new location.  Still, the house did not sell.  My parents were discouraged, and money was very tight.

Six months later, Miss Edith,an ancient woman in our church, approached my dad after a Sunday evening church service.  "Bob, what can I be praying for you this week?" she asked.

"Oh, nothing," he replied, starting to walk away.

"I know there is something you need prayer about," she insisted.  "What are you struggling with?"

"Well," he replied.  "Our house has been on the market for a year, and it hasn't sold.  But you don't want to bother God with something like that."

I don't remember her response, but I never forgot that knowing smile she gave him.

By the next Sunday, the house was sold.

I don't think the answer to that prayer had anything to do with the house, but everything to do with my father's relationship with God, the power of prayer, and the meaning of uncommon church community.

I once heard that the meaning of fellowship is "all the fellows on one ship."  We were not meant to do life on our own. God is with us, but He has also placed others in our lives to come alongside.

I have been through too much of life to know "Do not do this alone."  God does not intend for us to run in isolation -- no matter the course we "run" -- or to keep one's burden to oneself, but to abide in Him and bear one another's burdens.  Unbolt the door, and let them in.

Part of me mocks, "how can you ask for others to pray for you when they may bear a far deeper pain?"  All that deceit does is build up walls of resistance to God and isolation from others.

Two days from now, I will stand at the starting line of a marathon with 45,000 other runners.  There will be a lot of runners around me, but there will be many non-runners with me.  There are those who will be there -- in their beds, in church pews, going about their Sundays -- praying me through.  I have let these family and friends into my life, even in this, sharing what is ahead of me, what I am going through, even that which stands so puny compared to what some of them are going through.  I realize that many of them have weary legs and aching hearts and rocky roads that extend a long, long way.

We all have pain that is not relieved as easily as crossing a finish line on a sunny afternoon.  And we endure through a strength that its not our own, relying on God's power and the energy of fellowship.  God never intended for us to go it alone.  That is why he speaks in His Word about the "one anothers."  Love one another.  Bear one another's burdens.  Pray for one another.

And so, marathon day, I will be running with my entire family, friends all around the country, my small group, and all the others who say "I could never run that,"  but they do.

I couldn't run it either           
           without Him,
        nor without them.

Therefore. since we are surrounded
       by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and sin
which clings so closely
and let us run
            with endurance
the race that is set before us...

                      Hebrews 12.1

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Show and Tell

The assignment asked simply, "What is love?"

I went to the dictionary and studied the entry:
    a strong feeling of affection,
       a fond and tender attachment,
    passionate devotion,
          a strong liking (as in chocolate!),
    a state of feeling kindly
       and of desiring the welfare of,
    to delight in.

And what does God say about love?

I picked up God's Word
            and realized 
                           this is it,
       right here in my hands.
Not just a few quotable verses
          or a couple of repeatable stories,
but it took the entire Bible
                      to describe God's steadfast love
            and the life of His Son
                                   to show it.

Show and tell.

Love is who God is.

By this we know love,
     that He laid down His life
for us.
                   1 John 3.16

God is love.
                   1 John 4.16

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Just So Happens

On my usual circuit through town, I cut across a shady street that runs alongside the freight train tracks.   In the front yard of one of the houses, a small pile of rocks suddenly appeared one day a month or so ago, one rock stacked neatly on top of another.  At first, there were only two or three, somedays more, somedays an entirely different configuration.

Someone is having fun, I observed, creating this little piece of art.  It is obviously the work of someone's artistic hand.  I wondered whose.

Within the same month, I had the opportunity to go to the mountains for a weekend.  And there, around every bend, I stood in awe.

Another "pile of rocks,"  but these, the world says, "just happened."  No artistic hand.  No careful design.  No one having fun creating it at all.  Beauty by chance

A pile of stones at the end of a driveway is clearly designed, but this "just happened?"

Creation is just one of the ways God makes Himself known to us and assures us each day of His loving Presence, through creation's intricate designs, interdependence, and incredible beauty.

In God's world, things don't "just happen,"
they "just so happen"
                          for a reason.
Life is not so random at all,
   and you are precious in His sight. 

And if God, 
the Creator of heaven and earth, 
can transform a few rocks and a trickle of water into this, 
it just so happens
         He can do even more in me.
His hand upon my life,
    His transforming power
                          in my heart.

Imagine that.

It is He who made the earth by His power,
who established the world by His wisdom,
and by His understanding
          stretched out the heavens.

                               Jeremiah 10.12

It's who He is.

Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

                               Psalm  124.8

Creation courtesy of God
Photography courtesy of Rhonda Gregory

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

And those standing along the way

This Sunday is the marathon.  Training is done.  This is a test for which one cannot cram.

I have a choice this week.  I can open the door to anxiety and let DREAD (in capital letters) take up residence in my heart, along with its twin cousins Panic and Doubt.  They are all too willing to wrap themselves around me like a straitjacket, tie me up and weigh me down, growing ever heavier as the day approaches.

Or I can don a mantle of praise.  When my aim is to bring God glory, it is a win-win situation, no matter what happens.  

What makes a marathon a marathon is a degree of uncertainty.  And in my experience, it is impossible to pinpoint that pothole -- a little wrinkle in my sock, a day too hot, too rainy or cold, cramping legs, heading out too fast at the start, or even keeping a pace that is not my own. 

There is that which weighs down, but there is also that which builds up, things that stick along the way.  Unlike my training runs on lonely paths and deserted streets, the marathon route is lined with people.  They are not just spectators, but participants in a different way.  They don't just stand there watching complacently, but encourage those they don't even know.  I know the deep value of these cheering strangers who render tender words of encouragement to the weary along the way. 

A couple of weeks ago, I took two of our grandkids to a city park where there was a high school cross country race taking place.  The children had never seen something like this before.  They embraced it with great excitement.  Two year old Howie kept shouting out, "Go, boys, go!"  And sweet Maggie stood under a tree, clapping for every girl that ran past her, no matter first or last.

And may I remember long after this race, the kindnesses of strangers that keep me running.  Let those words bear fruit.  And may I be as generous as this tiny child, blessing others in word and deed, those who are on my path today.

The Lord GOD has given me
    the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know
    how to sustain with a word
              him who is weary.

                              Isaiah 50.4

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Grace That Lingers

It was on a church hay ride so many years ago now.  A young boy, the adopted son of a friend, did something dastardly of which he had been gently corrected just a few minutes before.  I don't remember the actual deed or the disobedience, but after all this time, I still remember how his mother handled it.

She did not react.  She responded.  And grace lingered in the air.

Most parents would have been too occupied by the presence of so many people around.  What will they think of my misbehaving child?  What will they think of me, the imperfect parent of unruly sinners?

But my sweet friend's focus was only on her son, as if the two of them were a hundred miles from any other person. Right there in the dust and hay, she knelt down to where she was eye to eye with her five year old son.  She tenderly took his hand.  And looked right into his eyes.  I could see and feel her gentleness.  She spoke quietly to him.  I could not hear her words, but I watched the boy's face melt from a stance of rebellion to repentance, that which only grace can do.

It was not the first time he had disobeyed.  I know it was not the last.

Grace is not a free pass to get away with whatever you want.  Grace does not turn its eyes away, but turns its vision toward, not to the action, but towards the person.  Grace does not expect perfection or performance, but surpasses by showing love to others in a meaningful way, to teach what is good and right, like velvet over steel.  Think conversation.  A harsh confrontation escalates emotions and turns the focus not on the misdeed but on your anger.  A child never forgets anger, nor grace.  Anger destroys, grace builds.

As pediatrician and psychiatrist  Dr. Grace Ketterman says, don't let what is right get mixed up with who is "going to win" this battle. 

O LORD, forgive my trespasses and have mercy on me.

I was not the only one who saw my friend respond that day.  I heard others say, "Well, she is just gifted that way.  She is special and that is how she does it."

But I know she has no super powers of her own. The difference was her heart preparation.  Even before she became a parent to four special needs kids, God prepared her heart through an intense "boot camp" of tough experiences she could not understand and through a deep daily immersion in His Word.  She learned the way of grace by letting God change her heart and "doing grace" in her own tough places, both big and small.  "He equipped me before marriage or kids,"  she once told me, "for what I am doing now."

And in the process, "I could feel His Word wash over me," she said.

Whether tough family situations, or unruly co-workers or customers, don't let difficulties (or difficult people!) take you by surprise. God's Word is what holds you together when the crises emerge out of thin air in the most inconvenient times and places.  Learning to rely on His strength is what gets you through. And His grace is what lingers.

For we are the aroma of Christ...

                    2 Corinthians 2.15

And He said to me,
    "My grace is sufficient for you,
for My power
is made perfect in weakness."

                    2 Corinthians 12.9

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Buttermilk and Other Such Beauty Secrets

It was a rare evening together with one of our grown daughters.  "What do you want to make?" she said -- she who in third grade had already surpassed my culinary efforts.   I was working on the computer as she walked into the room.  "Do you have....?" as she worked her way through the ingredients of a new recipe.  Buttermilk was the missing element.  "Isn't there something we could substitute?" I asked in an effort not to go out to the store a mile away.

I realized my mistake before she could even give me that look that says, "it won't be the same."  I grabbed my keys and we got into the car.

And as I had two pieces of that apple skillet cake this morning for breakfast with a mug of coffee, I had to agree.  It was worth the trip.

But seeing that container of buttermilk in the fridge transported me back to my childhood when milk was delivered in glass containers and left mysteriously in a little silver box on our doorstep by the milkman.  We drank what is known now as "whole milk."  But my mother drank buttermilk in tall frosty glasses.  I tried it once.  Ewww! "How can you stand to drink that?" I exclaimed.

"Well, I read in a magazine that it gives a woman beautiful skin," she responded.   And she cobbled together her own recipe for beautiful skin:  a large glass of buttermilk daily, moisturizer twice a day, NEVER go out in the sun without a hat, and don't use water on your face.  When we went to the lake, she would sit on the sand under an enormous sun hat and a beach umbrella.  She never entered the water (and only when she was in her 80s did I find out that it was because she had never learned to swim).

And so, she lived.  When I came to be with her in her last days, before I even entered the room, the nurses exclaimed about her beautiful skin.  As a woman of 85, her skin was flawless, as smooth almost as a child's.  She radiates, one of the nurses said.

As I told this story this morning, our daughter said, "Well, I hope I inherit her skin."

And I realized her legacy was not about passing on a genetic trait or even in drinking buttermilk, but the evidence of how daily choices affect our lives.  LORD, help me not to just "make wise choices," but follow You fully.  Am I choosing to listen to You?  Am I reading Your Word?  Am I abiding in You?

What I ingest will manifest itself in my physical body.  When I choose to follow Him fully, God transforms my heart, and He dramatically impacts everything in my life and everyone around me.  The evidence revealed, as God's Word says, in word and deed.  Even impacting the children yet unborn.

Over a lifetime of faithfulness to God, Mom's legacy was more than skin deep. he came down from the mountain,
Moses did not know
that the skin of his face shone
because he had been talking with God.

                               Exodus 34.29

Friday, October 4, 2013

High Octane Fuel

Eve took one bite of that apple.  And anxiety grabbed her by the throat.

In Latin, anxiety literally means "to choke."  And oh, how it has both hands firmly in place.

Anxiety poses itself as a natural and necessary part of our lives, but in reality it is only thinly disguised desperation, fear and an uneasiness that wakes an exhausted person up at night and keeps Tums in business.

But God never intended anxiety to take up residence.  God helps me to see how ugly it is and how much space it has commandeered in my life, like an enormous broken down couch inherited from an elderly aunt.  Now what do I do with it?

The Bible says to "cast" those overwhelming emotions away, to hurl, to throw, to send away, to shed like a coat out of season and out of style.

Cast all your anxieties on Him for He cares for you.
                              1 Peter 5.7

Cast your burden on the LORD
    and He will sustain you.
                               Psalm 55.22

I don't know about you, but my anxieties are not so easily disposed.  They cling like toddlers with separation issues.  They attach themselves with superglue.  They crawl out of the dumpster and back into my heart at the first possible opportunity.  And I am reminded of how my mom used to clean out her closets.  She just moved the stuff from one closet to another, a different room but still a permanent resident.

Why am I even anxious at all?  Because I am deeply concerned about someone or something.  And indeed, God wants us to be passionate.  He gave us deep emotions.  We have just twisted them into worries and let them choke the life out of us and bind our ankles with barbed wire. 

My grandmother would take whatever she had on hand and transform it into something good.  And so should we.

The archaic nautical term "casting" refers to turning the ship around. Turn those powerful anxieties inside out, that which Satan means to trip you up, and let God transform them into something good.
Let anxiety fuel your prayers. 

Pour those powerful emotions into how you pray -- high octane fuel in trusting God.

Have no anxiety about anything.
            but in everything
by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving,
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding,
will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

                                       Philippians 4. 6-7

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Individual Servings

I was afraid.  After a derailed training run on Monday and two subsequent days with a painful foot, I was fearful to even try to run.  But with just ten days until the marathon, I had to do something today, or hang up my running shoes for good.

Last evening at a Bible study, I asked the group to pray for my injured foot that I would be able to make it through to the marathon.  "Please pray that I can just finish it," I said.

This morning, the vacant lot next door was shrouded with fog, so heavy that I could not even see trees a hundred feet away.  I felt a similar oversized burdensome shroud on my shoulders, heading into the unknown.  Would I even be able to run at all?

I started off at an easy pace, no need to tempt the pain, I thought, as if to ration out my foot for a mile or so.  It felt good.  I was cautiously surprised.

I ran this morning with only one little twinge in my foot at the half-mile point.  I headed out bearing that heavy shroud of fear, and returned, running joyously through unforecasted rain, wearing a mantle of praise that danced in the breeze. 

Victory doesn't usually come all at once in one huge triumph, but in individual servings.  God grants us our daily bread, which is manifest in His strength for this day, small encouragements for whatever struggle I face, and all the grace that fits.   Small victories keep me moving in the right direction and focus my eyes on Him.

And once again, I am reminded He is the God of the small runs too, nothing insignificant in His eyes.

Everyone struggles with something.  And God is there to help see us through with small victories -- even through the pain.    

I will rest my foot the next couple of days, ice it, and keep praying.  And then I will follow Him into it again.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
     the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
     His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
     and to him who has no might
                   He increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted,
but they who wait for the LORD
                    shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

                                 Isaiah 40. 28-31

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tools in their Toolbox: Find a tribe

Several weeks ago, a technician came to our house to repair my mother's old piano.  The incident reminded me of her insatiable love for music -- in every form it took.

Even though she bore four children, there was not a true musician among us, much to her dismay.  Heaven knows she tried.  We played instruments and we took lessons, but the only way any of us would make it to Carnegie Hall would be to buy a ticket.

My mom's first language was music, and I firmly believe that everything in her life was translated through that lens.  She thought music.  She wrote music.  She practiced music, even waiting in the carpool line. She worshiped God through music. She "spoke" music.  It was her connection with other people.  After she passed away, I found out about a cellist who met my mom when he was seven.  She did not ask him if he played an instrument.  She asked him, "What instrument do you play?"  That question alone launched him into a musical career that served him well all through high school and college.

I had a different language, one that she did not comprehend at all.  I "spoke" words, always a stack of books in my room, and like her ever-present violin, a book accompanied me wherever I went, ready to read, whenever the opportunity came. (Some things never change!)  My mom often practiced her violin late into the night, hiding in the bathroom with the ventilation fan going to mask the noise. I read.  I slipped under my covers with a flashlight to finish just one more chapter...and then another.  Reading then became just a warm-up for writing the stories all around me, the stories that are always there, hanging like ripe fruit from heavy-laden trees and the poetry that breathes deeply through our senses.

And still, despite our differences, Mom pushed music, encouraging each of us not just to play an instrument, but to participate in the orchestra, band, chamber ensemble, and whatever musical group she could find for us.  And so we joined, sometimes reluctantly.

I never understood her rationale until a college football game less than a month ago at the same university that I attended.  Out on the field, the marching band lined up in formation.  It first brought back a flood of memories from when I marched in the band so many years ago as a transfer student.

And then, it quite suddenly hit me.  There was my tribe.

It was not the music mom was pushing.  She knew that  I needed a tribe.  I needed a group to belong to, a narrow thread of connection, perhaps, but a community with which to navigate the harrowing straits of high school and later, college.

Our own girls traveled through the wilderness of high school by participating in cross country, swimming, lacrosse, student government, and orchestra.

A short time later at the local grocery where I shop, I conversed with Brandi, a cashier I have come to know, who is a single mom of an eleven year old daughter.  "How are things going?" I asked, knowing that her daughter had started back to school.  Brandi rolled her eyes, "Well, she wants to learn to play flute and join the band."

I just smiled.  "Encourage her in that," I said.

"She needs a tribe."

It is just one of the tools in their toolbox they need before they leave home.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Running Deep

For the past four months, I have been training for a marathon, keeping pace with an intentional schedule of running in rain or shine, heat or cold, in busyness and free time.  The training has gone on long enough that what I used to consider a "long" run has now become a "short" one.

The marathon is a week from Sunday.  And my right foot hurts.  Yesterday, I had to stop running and walk the last two miles home.

Despite any kind of wishful thinking, I may not be able to participate in this marathon.  But the race is still enough days away, that anything could happen.  My foot could mend enough to run. I just don't know.  Even as I am writing this, my foot is resting on an ice pack.  The verdict is still out.

"Oh,that's too bad," one friend told me this morning, as if to say, "Well, you sure wasted your summer by training for it."

But as my late dear grandmother always told me, "No effort is for naught."  God doesn't waste anything.  He will use it all  -- even in ways we may not comprehend.  That strong pioneering woman saved every scrap of fabric and string, could assemble a meal for our large family out of a few oddities in our fridge, and hobbled around on arthritic legs for 45 years, long before anyone had ever thought of knee replacements.  I believe her, because I saw her live it out before me.

Throughout my ten-year adventure in running, I have been very aware of the tentative nature of this sport.  As I set out on just about every training run or race, I know it could very well be my last, not in a dismal kind of mindset, but oddly aware of a fragile gift, a great joy in running -- don't just do it, enjoy it completely.  The reality is that someday I may not be able, but today, I can run through cathedrals of trees singing praise songs (sometimes OUT LOUD), drinking in the beauty of God's incredible creation and rejoicing with my feet.  

"But today..."  That is the opportunity God places on my path.

Prepare as God leads you, pursue, and work with all excellence.   It may be for something not even on your radar yet.  He may use you in ways far deeper than you can ever know.  Faithfulness looks like that.  It is a seeking that goes beyond an accomplishment, an event, or a destination.  It is seeking Him, above all else, no matter what appears on the surface.  His purposes always run deeper than what we are aware.

Whether I am able to run this marathon or not, I know that God will use this training, if only to know Him more.  And that far exceeds what any race can do.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
           and my portion for ever.

                      Psalm 73.26