Thursday, October 29, 2015

Your room is ready

We were away when some friends arrived in town for her father's funeral.  There was no space for them to stay at her sister's, and the hotel where they were staying seemed cold and businesslike.  They did not just need a room to attend a funeral.  They needed a refuge in their grief.

When our daughter told us what was happening, we told her to give them a key to our house. They could have free reign of the house and a place to rest without distractions.

"We can't do that!" the wife protested.  "We can't just show up and stay at someone's house without warning.  They are not even home."

And her husband quietly responded, "But maybe they are already ready for us."

Indeed, that is a lesson I have learned over the years.  Clean sheets and towels in place.  New toothbrushes in the bathroom drawer.  A spare key already made.

God has placed many people on our path at the last minute and often with little or no notice, including a medical student checking out residencies, a variety of missionaries passing through, and once, an elderly couple we had never met.....and that's an amusing story to be shared at a different time :)

Sometimes we were home, quite often we were not.  But we were ready.

And what about on ordinary days?  Am I ready for those people God puts on my path today?  Not just for a place to stay or another chair for supper, but a listening ear, a kind word, or even noticing and acknowledging those who are seemingly invisible around me.

It has been said that we make time for those things most important to us.  And many times in our culture, there doesn't even seem time for those things.  For awhile, a viral video on the Internet summed it up, "Ain't nobody got time for that."

But as a Christian, I am called to do things differently.  I am called to see things differently.  I am called to respond to people differently. Because as a believer, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Galatians 2. 20).  There is a huge freedom in that.

How differently would we view these incidents or opportunities if we saw them in terms of the Gospel?

I don't have to carve out huge pockets of time, but just be aware, willing and ready, to pull out a snack for someone, pull up another chair to the table, and put out the welcome mat in every form and dimension. Kind words out of my pocket, a toothbrush in the drawer.  It's all the same.

And so, when Paul admonished Philemon to "prepare a guest room for me," (Philemon 1. 22), he knew that it was not a matter of square footage but a heart condition.  Not space for a guest, but a willingness for God to work through me.  It is no different than if the LORD had said, "prepare a guest room for Me."

The world calls it margin.  The Bible calls it grace.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A box of paper towels and other such mysteries

Our daughter was swamped with a big project which involved her working from pre-dawn to almost midnight yesterday.  With what little I can help and when I am available, I attempt in those situations to fill in the gaps.

I was on dog duty, going over to her house twice yesterday to let her dog out.  No big deal.  Glad to do it.

Since it was pouring rain all day, I took with me a box of paper hand towels to wipe off wet paws before her dog could decorate the house with excess water, grass clippings, and possibly mud.

When our daughter arrived to her home at midnight, there was the box of paper towels, sitting on top of the garbage can right by the back door.  She had no idea what they were for or why they would be there in that unlikely spot.  But as she told me this morning on her way to work, "Knowing you, mom, I knew that there must be a reason for it."

When I told her its purpose, she said, "That totally makes sense."

How often God places a person or situation on our paths that appears out of place, without obvious function, possibly inconvenient, uncomfortable, and illogical.

And God always has not just a reason for it,
           but purpose in it.
Something that may not be in my plans at all,
                        but in His.

I may not get it,
    but His fingerprints are all over it.
There is nothing random,
          or for naught,
in God's economy.

And our response is not a matter
of seeking an answer for a difficulty,
explaining away a mystery,
or concocting our own imaginings,
        but to seek Him through it.
I may never know why.
God just calls me to be faithful in it.

Knowing You, O LORD,
there is not just a reason,
    but purposes too deep to comprehend.

He is before all things,
and in Him
    all things hold together.

                 Colossians 1. 17

Even in this.

We would stand astonished
                if we knew.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Surprises in My Reluctance

It happened once again several weeks ago.  I was presented an opportunity to see a movie with some friends.  I didn't want to go.  And throughout my life, I have discovered that when I start lining up a litany of  lame excuses to not do something, I know that I need to just go ahead and do it.

All my excuses crumbled, nothing to cling onto.  And so I reluctantly agreed to go.

My sister-in-law and her three sisters were attending the movie War Room which was released at the end of August.  I admit an inherent prejudice against cheesy Christian movies.  But I went.  We sat down in the theater.  And God brought me to shame.

I will not say anything more, but the powerful message in this movie just might change your thinking on a lot of different levels, a message that very well may change the course of your life...and everyone around you.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Wasteland and the Wilderness

I woke this morning with the words of an old hymn running through my thoughts on a continual loop.

"Guide us, O Thou great Jehovah,
      lead us through this barren land."

And as the words and tune repeated themselves in that early morning darkness, the rain steady outside my window, I realized that when I turn to You, O LORD, it does not appear such a wasteland at all, but a place of opportunity to serve You, one step of obedience leading to the next, not reluctant tasks, but ways to worship You.

Desolation and despair want me to believe they are the only ones who live there.

And I am called to find the splendors
         of the wilderness
filled by His Creation,
full of His Presence.

The difference is in which direction I stand
        and in whom I trust.

Near where we live in the mountains, there is a planned federal roadway through the valley of which its construction has been delayed for decades.  Other roads have been paved, houses have filled in the empty fields, livestock and small businesses thrive there.

"It is not obvious to me," I said to my husband, "where exactly that road would go."

And Bill replied, "If you get to a higher elevation and look down, you can see it."

Find His higher perspective in this.

Some things are not so obvious at the time, but God's deep purposes always prevail.  We have only to stay faithful to Him.  It will not just happen, but God will bring it.

But seek the welfare of the city
where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare
        you will find your welfare.

                         Jeremiah 29. 7

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,
                         says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.

                           Isaiah 55. 8-9

Beyond our comprehension
     and marvelous in His ways.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Great Instead

One of our daughters texted me a week ago about a big test she was about to take the next morning.  "Please pray about my exam tomorrow and for my studying for it tonight."


In the next couple of days, I found out the results.  She missed passing by one question.

O LORD, I cried out.  Missed by one question? She could have seen Your power in this.

And God stopped abruptly that line of thought in my heart.

If she had passed by one question, WOW, surely God's hand would be evident in that.  We would all have rejoiced.  But to MISS passing by one question?  Why is that anything less than God's hand?  God knew this.  God is working a lot deeper than a set of answers.  God is redeeming even this.

The great instead
    is how God works it.

I can trust Him
        even when I don't understand the outcome,
because He is not done yet.

As Steven Curtis Chapman says in one of his songs:

"God is God,
              and I am not.
I can only see a part
       of the picture He's painting.
God is God,
              and I am man.
So I'll never understand it all,
       for only God is God."

O the depth of the riches
and wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgements
and how inscrutable His ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been His counselor?
....For from Him
          and through Him
    and to Him
            are all things.
To Him be glory for ever.

                     Romans 11. 33-36

God works instead
    something so much bigger
than I can grasp.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A story you won't believe

For a couple of days, we are visiting my in-laws.  When we arrived yesterday, my mother-in-law caught me glancing at a hardback novel placed on a table. "Have you read that book?" she asked.  "It is the most incredible story.  I couldn't put it down."  And pointing to my father-in-law, she said.  "I made him read it too."

"I couldn't even sleep until I finished it," he added.

It is one of our most basic affections to be drawn to stories, those written and those unfolding all around us.  That is how we learn, that is how we grasp the big picture of where we are and who we are, and that is how we come to know God more.

It is not so much in books that we experience those truths, but in realizing that we are each living in a story you won't believe, a story of God's own redeeming.

Incredible stories are God's specialty, a profound narrative from the beginning of time, the chronicles of real people with real problems woven together in God's Word, no glossing over imperfect actions, but the seamless fabric of God's redeeming in the lives of ancient peoples.

And as God intends for me to see, redeeming even my own.

Both writers and voracious readers know the pattern of what is known as "the story arc."  The elements of the story build upon each other, layer upon layer, character by character, the tensions are not arbitrary but intricately designed.  The crisis is not random, but an integral part of the story. Intrigue keeps us turning the pages.

And then ... the redeeming.  All the pieces suddenly come together.  What doesn't belong makes sense after all.  It is all connected, the hand of the master storyteller, the hand of the Author of life itself.

And so, when things seem impossible
   and the pieces don't make sense,
and "how in the world is this going to work out?"

God says, "Ahhhhh, you are just getting to the good part."

One of my favorite memories of our daughters was when they would burst in the door after school with great excitement in their voices, "Oh mom, you wouldn't believe what happened today!"

Live that way
    even in that which you don't understand.

You are in the midst of the most incredible tale,
            a story you wouldn't believe.
It is not that you will somehow make it through,
it is not that things will work out,
           but God is bringing it.

Now to Him
   who by the power at work within us
is able to do
              far more abundantly
than all we ask or even imagine...

                          Ephesians 3. 20

Your story is not over,
      but bursting with profound hope.
There is something deeper going on here.

Watch how God redeems every detail.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Blue skies, big rocks, and the storm in the forecast

 A few weeks ago when one of our daughters was having a particularly difficult time with her job, I told her I would be praying that she would have a nice day at work.

“Mom,” she said kindly.  “I appreciate your encouragement, and I appreciate your prayers, but it is not going to be a great day.  With everything I have on my plate today, it is going to be a rather difficult one.  That is already evident.”

She stopped me in my tracks.

What puny things have I been praying?  Praying for  “a nice day,” when she is in the thick of battle and slogging through the miry bog and squeezed between the proverbial rock and hard place?

 Shame on me.  “Have a nice day?”  Where is God’s strength in that?

 God does not want her to “look on the bright side of life,” and to pretend all is good and easy in the midst of the turbulent storm.  God wants her to know the reality of His Presence when life is tough, to know the strength and peace that only He can give in impossible situations.  He wants her to know that He is her Redeemer, no matter what is happening.  God is sovereign, even in this. He wants her to possess deep roots in Him, no matter the landscape, no matter the drought, no matter the storm.  God is her Rock.  God is her stronghold in the day of trouble.  God is the Almighty God, not a warm fuzzy feeling when the skies are blue and everything is going my way.

Recently I went hiking with friends along a rushing mountain stream.  The path was strewn with huge rocks, the water danced wildly between the boulders, the leaves revealed their true colors against an azure sky.  Our sights were drawn upward to the waterfall ahead and to the boughs of the deep forest reaching high as if in praise of the Creator.  But as we hiked up that stony trail, I began to notice huge trees alongside of us, living trees that were growing out of sheer rock, defying all reason to even be there, let alone thriving in that absurd place.  “You should not even be able to grow there,” I said out loud.  But they do, and they are stronger for it.

We pray for our children to be those luscious green trees that send down their roots by streams of waters.  But I am convicted that we should be praying for a faith that thrives even out of sheer rock, not dependent on favorable conditions, but rooted instead in a God who is there no matter what.  “…so live in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith… and to grow with a growth that is from God.” (Colossians 2.  6-7, 19)

God’s strength transcends all circumstances.

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

Pray like that.
Live like that
                 in the high scary places
                 in the miry bog
           even in what seems impossible
with a strength that is not your own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The refugee crisis, a book of displaced persons, and a granola bar

I turned on the television to catch the news while I was preparing supper.  Pictures of desperate refugees streamed across the screen. 
In the face of so much global and local need, an abyss looms in my heart. “What can I do?” I do not have medical training.  I cannot translate.  But this I know, in the words of Oswald Chambers, “Obey God in the thing He shows you, and instantly the next thing is opened up.”

I signed up as a volunteer at a medical clinic in town that cares for the underserved.  Every Monday morning, newly-placed refugees and immigrants arrive for medical examinations and documentation.  Eyesight is checked, blood pressure is taken, and health assessed.

As I crossed the threshold of the clinic that morning, small groups of people had already arrived, conversing around folding tables, their languages blending together like so many voices in a beautiful chorus.  And a grace prevailed in the large crowded room, so palpable I could feel it.

Quite suddenly as I scanned the room, the scene became profoundly familiar, like a series of black and white photographs that I had seen many times before.  I chuckled.

Is this what he saw every day?   Not strangers, but people coming to a new home?

For a minute or two, I saw this room through the eyes of my great grandfather Harvey Snider.  From 1900 until he retired 34 years later, Harvey worked as the night superintendent at Ellis Island, the incredible portal for 12 million people who entered America until it closed in 1954.  

I remembered his old photographs of newly-arriving immigrants in the Great Hall.  From the stories that my father told about him, Harvey knew operable words in 41 different languages.  He knew the power of familiar words in one’s native language to inform, guide and comfort.  

God reminded me that from cover to cover His Word is a book about displaced people.   “Love the sojourner” even before he becomes your neighbor (Leviticus 19.34).  Remember you were a stranger too, the LORD says.  

At the Monday clinic, nametags were already prepared, handed to each one as they came through the door.  Each person was known not by an impersonal government code, or a numbered place in queue like at the bakery, but by one’s own name. These people were not refugees being processed and documented, but individuals who were warmly welcomed and greeted and cared for. 

A different kind of party was going on.

The world sees hospitality as the entertaining of friends.  But the Bible defines it as the love of strangers.  God enables us to respond in a way that is unexpected by the world, not from a sense of obligation or necessity, but out of a gut-wrenching compassion for those around us.   These people before us were not strangers at all, but simply those whom we do not yet know. 

 I passed out white paper bags that morning, containing items like shampoo, toothpaste, soap and granola bars. “I have some gifts for you,” I told one beautiful young Iraqi woman, not realizing how to explain with hand motions the function of dental floss and stumbling over how to describe a Clif Bar to someone whose previous address was a refugee camp. 

I was not even able to engage in conversation with our new friends.  “Welcome,” I wanted to say.  “I’m glad you are here.” 

I do not have even the limited proficiency of my great grandfather in 41 different languages, but ironically enough, that morning we served exactly 41 individuals, and I learned that a smile translates perfectly into every language around me.  

How do I know?  Because they smiled back.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

I thought it was over

Two years ago today, I thought my running was over.

I had trained for four months for that Chicago marathon in October 2013, through late spring rains and summer humidity, on long lonely stretches on suburban trails, darting along paths through the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the great delight of running for miles on the breezy shores of Lake Michigan.

One September morning just several weeks before the race, I felt a creaky place in my right foot.  I didn't think anything about it at first.  Aches are part of a runner's life. But as it persisted, I tried doing something different to hold off injury. "Just a few weeks more," I begged my foot.

I changed to a new pair of shoes.  I tried icing my foot after a run.  I took Ibruprophen to reduce inflammation.  I kept running, knowing full well that this could be my last marathon.  The last weeks of any training program involves a "taper," when a runner gradually decreases mileage to be fully charged for a physically challenging event.  About two weeks before the marathon, I didn't just taper, but I completely stopped running to give my now-injured foot every advantage to heal ...and in my mind, to save up anything that was left for the big run.

I knew that I didn't have to run the marathon.  I didn't have to go through with it.  But I decided to show up and run even a token amount.  If my foot hurt even in the first mile, that would be enough.  I would stop at the nearest coffee shop and call Bill to come and get me.

You can read about what happened in that race in Finishing the race set before me posted on October 14, 2013. 

The race was followed by months of rest and physical therapy.  And still, no matter what I did or didn't do, my foot still hurt.  I hobbled.  I hung up my running hat, thankful for that unexpected decade of running that God had given me.

"Time to take up a new hobby," one of our daughters recommended.  "Like knitting."

A lot of life has unfolded since that race two years ago -- new locations for every member of our family, new jobs for most of them, two new grandbabies, and a lot of driving miles.  No more running, but no regrets either.

And something happened along the way.  God healed my foot.

One morning last spring, as I walked in the city park near our house, I ran from one big tree along the path to the next.  The following morning, I tried a little bit further.  No pain, no cramping, no little cringes.  I went out and bought a new pair of running shoes, the absolutely most important first step in any running endeavor. I was not sure what was going to happen after eighteen months of not running.  I ran a bit.  I walked a bit.  Each day, a little further.  Just like I did when I first began running fifteen years ago.

And each day, God brought running back a step at a time.

I am not keeping time any more, or pace, or measuring distance, nor following any kind of training program.  I am just running, some days on the public greenway along the river, some days through the woods at the city park, some days not at all.  Will I ever race again?  I don't know about that.

There is just joy in being able to run again, praying outloud, meditating on Scripture, and thankful for every step God has given me.

As I found in all those years of running, God redeemed every mile with what I learned not about running or myself or life, but about Him.

I will close with what I had posted in this blog right before that last race:

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

My favorite place to live

We moved a lot while our girls were growing up.  Our family was more like a nomadic tribe, transferring to a strange land for a few years and moving on to the next.  A friend once confided to me that I had totally messed up her address book with all our changes of residence.

My husband and I are now in our tenth location.  Many times I thought that surely this move or that would be the last. But God freed me from that myth a few moves ago.  My final destination is heaven. Anything in between, well, is just a rest area on the highway.

Often, people ask me where was my favorite place to dwell.

The center of God's will.

I have realized through many experiences and locations that the center of God's will is not restricted to a certain geographic place, but my relationship with Him.

Years ago and every year between, God has used a particular verse to change my heart and my mindset.

Not that I complain of want,
for I have learned,
in whatever state I am,
               to be content.

                 Philippians 4. 11

I chuckle, because written in the margin now some 32 years and nine moves ago, I had scribbled "even Tennessee."  At the time, I was a young lonely mom from Chicago with a two year old and a newborn in the Deep South in a house surrounded by cotton fields.  It was our first major move.  And I felt like a stranger in a foreign land.

But little did I know, not just the hardships yet to come, but the extreme joys, the deepening of our lives in Christ, over all those many moves and all those new places.  God taught me quite literally "in whatever state I am," to learn His secret of contentment.

Because whether it was Tennessee or Illinois or Ohio or Kansas or Iowa, I could dwell in Him.  He has strategically appointed me in that exact house, that particular block, that specific neighborhood, that city for deeper purposes than I will ever know for His glory.

And through the years with each bend in the road and huge changes, God brought me to observe that I have seen too much to question God in this.

The amusing part of "even Tennessee" is that is the state where we moved again last year.

Contentment is not a secret joy,
      nor dependent on circumstances.
It is a learned state of heart
    that not just prevails over circumstances
but flourishes in them.

God's deliverance may not be in plucking you out of a difficult spot in life, but engraving His joy into your heart in whatever state you are.

When I look back
on all those places now,
    there is not one
    that I would have wanted to miss.