Monday, November 23, 2015

A bad case of the "what if's"

My busy day commenced at 5:14 a.m. in the pre-dawn darkness, full of preparations for the coming holiday and even including a short hike in the woods on a chilly afternoon, the sunlight waning through the canopy of skeletal trees.

So, when I finally climbed into bed, I expected a quick drift into slumberland.

But not so.

A noisy and unruly crowd of "what if's" lined up on my side of the bed.  I turned my back to those aggravating thoughts and loose ends and scary monsters crawling out from the dust ruffle.  And I lay there, listening to my husband's measured breathing.  I was not able to sleep.

I had a bad case of "what if's, triggered by what I had yet to do, don't forget to stop the mail, bring your gloves, what shoes would be best for walking, and do I really need that coat.  Those thoughts were egged on and sustained by getting a subway pass and traveling from the airport to the city with two toddlers, a stroller and suitcases.  And finally, I also added to the fray those things totally outside of my control and fear that has been broadcast daily on the media of what is going on in the world...and what could happen. My imagination is never more awake than in the middle of the night.

And I thought of the childhood song, "Five little monkeys jumping on the bed."  It was too crowded to even turn over.

When we have a project before us, or a situation we are working on, or a problem to be unraveled, it is accompanied by a surge of energy that God supplies to carry us through.  But God never meant that provision to be used for anxiety.  When we feel that surge coming on, we all too often identify it as anxiety, when all along, God means us to recognize it as His strength to go forth.

When that surge of energy comes, instead of complying to a default of stress and fear, instead of investing in anxiety for which there is no end, instead of setting up my tent in the miry bog of despair....what if?

What if I trusted God with that energy instead?  What if I trusted God instead of that phantom of anxiety?  What if I trusted God that much?  

What if, instead, I focused my thoughts on His faithfulness, staking my life on God to bring me through and dwelling on a peace provided by the Almighty God, no matter what is going on.

In God's kingdom, "what if" is not based on fear,
but the "what if"
         of His extravagant goodness,
not the impossibilities,
          not even on possibilities,
but the reality of His Presence.

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

                     Ephesians 3. 20

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Burnt Rolls and other Thanksgiving Traditions

None of us can remember the first time it happened, but along with my mom's green beans that had been cooked to death, the annual burning of the rolls became a Thanksgiving tradition when I was growing up.

"This year," mom would promise and proclaim, "this year, it won't happen."  But it did.  The store-bought dinner rolls were slipped into the oven in their little aluminum trays, and well, there was always some kind of distraction.  The blessing went on a little too long, there was jockeying for position at the table, someone's water glass tipped over, or the rolls were simply forgotten.

And then, with exact timing 3-2-1, we all heard Mom's shriek from the kitchen as she discovered the charred rolls.  More than once, the smoke detector alerted us to the obvious.  The back door was opened to let out the smoke into the bitter Chicago air.  And the bread, now appearing as lumps of charcoal, once again was deleted from the menu, ending up still smoking in the trash.

Mom would look surprised for a moment as if "how did that happen?" and then, she would laugh.  And we would chuckle with her, grace not covering up her mistakes, but redeeming them.

Realizing that Thanksgiving comes suddenly upon us next week, a family email was circulated among our daughters yesterday, soliciting Thanksgiving menu requests.  Let the creativity commence.  And may the cornbread dressing retain its rightful place of honor..

My husband's request for the meal?  "I am just glad to be together," a rare and precious time now that our family are scattered across two time zones.

It's not about the perfect table, or perfect food, or a perfect family, but thankfulness to God for what we do have, for what He has done this year, and for Who He is.

Many friends have shared with me their anxieties about the holidays, and it doesn't have anything to do with the menu, but bitter grapes, long-seasoned animosity, and overcooked bad attitudes, things that don't belong. Breaking those traditions means taking the high road there and bringing a huge plate of grace to the table.

Saying grace refers to a short prayer or an expression of thankfulness to God, traditionally said before a meal.  It is not meant to be a recitation, but a realization of God's favor.

Bringing grace is a state of being that results in an intentional mindset and heart prepared to express a love that is not earned.  Grace releases us from expecting perfection in others, and fills in the cracks with an impossible love.  The most important person in the room is not you, but the one that needs your love the most.

Who is saying grace this year?
More importantly,
               am I bringing grace?

 Grace covers it all, even when provoked.  Grace changes it all, especially me.

A commercial last night showed a family joyously arriving for Thanksgiving dinner.  "It's going to be perfect," the narrator said. 

Think instead:  "No, it's going to be grace."

Because that is what God has given us.

And from His fullness
we have all received,
                  grace upon grace.

                                 John 1 16

If I want things to be different,
        something has to change.
And that would be me.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence,
if there is anything worthy of praise,
        think about these things.
What you have learned
and received and heard
and seen in me,
and the God of peace will be with you.

                             Philippians 4. 8-9

Practice grace in this.

May we not just say grace as a formality,
    but bring grace as a personal gift.
It is not that it will be the perfect holiday,
   impossible with imperfect humans all in one room,
                     but that is what grace is all about.
Do not forget why we come together:
           not to be thankful,
           but to thank God.
He is the honored guest.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What we cannot know and what we can

I have been without words since late Friday afternoon, paralyzed in my writing.  My thoughts and my prayers have been spinning out in a thousand different directions.  None of us can comprehend the evil displayed in Paris last week. We have all been impacted by it. Deeds do not exist in a vacuum, but reverberate to encompass the world.

And we are all connected in some degree by the actions of those we do not even know.

Listening to the news, or even checking my email, was about the farthest thing from my mind on Friday.  We had helped our sick daughter that day by taking care of our two in-town grandchildren.  They played, they napped, and they left a trail of crumbs in the kitchen.  On our way back to their house late in the afternoon, my mother-in-law called to ask about one of our other daughters who had been traveling for the past week.  I heard just snatches of my husband's conversation with his mom.  "No, we hadn't seen the news... No, we haven't heard yet from her....We'll let you know."

We had no idea what was happening.  We snapped on NPR in the car.  The first shocking reports of the atrocities in Paris were coming to the surface.  No one seemed to know what was going on, except that it appeared that the unspeakable was still going on.

About fifteen minutes later, we received a text message from our daughter:  "Just wanted to let you know we're safe."

No sweeter words could we have received at that point.

Hours before the terrorist attacks began, our daughter and her friend had left Paris to finish up their trip in Lyon and fly home from there.  They had been staying very close to where the shootings occurred... and now, they were a two hour train ride away.

They had made those travel plans months and months ago, not realizing at the time that their idea to complete their trip in Lyon may have saved their lives.

Who knew?

God did.

There are things we cannot know at the time, narrow squeaks we slip through, devastating incidents we never see, like a truck that just misses us, or incredible encounters like sitting down next to a stranger who becomes a good friend. Or even a crazy idea to go to Lyon for something seemingly remote as a better airfare, or another art museum that needed exploring, or nothing in particular, just that it might be a fun thing to do.

There is nothing random at all.

"Never allow that the haphazard is anything less than God's appointed order, and be ready to discover the Divine design anywhere," says Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest.

There are so many things like this that we cannot know.  But there is something we can know, even in trouble, even in hardship, even in danger, even in grief:

Great is Thy Faithfulness.

Fear not, 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

Please keep praying for the people of Paris as they grieve the loss of precious, sacred lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Quality of Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the heart of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

You've Got This

Last week, we visited our daughter and her family who recently relocated for our son-in-law to attend seminary.  

The elementary school and a city park are located just a few blocks from their house.  One morning as we picked up our granddaughter from kindergarten, we lingered with her little brother and sister at the playground for fifteen minutes or so, before we headed home for lunch.  Two of her schoolmates joined them on the play equipment.

Maggie was practicing her skills on the monkey bars, learning to work her way across the rings to the other side.  The first few rings are within her abilities, but then about the third ring, she is stuck.  She swings her body and hangs on with both hands, but she cannot quite YET get past that point.  Her friend Sophia moves quickly across without hesitating and seemingly without effort.  It is obvious that she has been at this for awhile.  Sophia tried to encourage her friend.

“You’ve got this, Maggie!” she would shout from the other side.

But as much as Maggie really wants to make it, thinking positively or not, or trying to convince herself, the strength is not yet there.  Practice a little more.  Each week a little further.

It occurred to me as I watched her swinging her legs and grasping the rings how often I am stuck at that same spot in trusting God.  Those first couple of rings – no problem – I can really do those on my own.  But then…. when it comes to trusting God with the harder stuff, I grip even more when I should be moving forward.  And the hesitation makes trusting Him with the next ring that much harder.  And I get stuck.

We all face “monkey bars” in our lives.  We all face things that which only God can do – in His strength, in His timing, in His sovereign control.  And that does not mean a passive “You do it, LORD,” but a very active relying on Him, “You’ve got this, LORD.”  Help me through this.

I don’t have to attempt the entire span at once, but God nudges me, “Trust Me one more ring.”

And in the trying over and over, in the grasping, in the falling, in the climbing back up and trying again, God builds His strength in me, by knowing Him more.  I can trust Him in this.  He takes me to a deeper dimension in my relationship with Him, each strength building on another. 

And when we master this feat,
when we learn to trust Him in this,
         we are strengthened for the next,
one hand over another.

Because life gets a little harder
        outside the fence of the playground.
And when we get there,
     God has already equipped us.
It  is not our strength after all.
But  His.

GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like hinds’ feet,
He makes me tread upon my high places.

                             Habakkuk 3. 19

Not trying to convince myself,
        you've got this,
but acknowledging out loud,
   "You’ve got this, LORD".