Friday, February 26, 2016

Planes, trains and lemonade

It was not the week I had expected.  There are always incidents and people and turns in the road that I cannot foresee.  There are things I cannot possibly know.  There are even things for which I don't even know how to pray. But I can trust God even in what appears to be an unfolding mystery.

My trip this week was scheduled for one night away, a business meeting in the evening and a quick flight home the next day.  That was my plan.  But God appeared to have something different in mind.  I flew to Chicago.  I attended my meeting. The next morning, I jumped on an early train to the airport when I received a phone call that my flight was cancelled.  Actually, all flights had been cancelled due to impending weather.  And it hadn't even started snowing yet.

Change of plans.  I chuckled.  I thought of my mom and her proverbial, "If you have a lemon, make a lemonade."  Throughout her life, she showed me how to turn on a dime.  Just do something different with it. God is faithful.  Even in this.  And as I rescheduled my flight and got off one train and back on another, I realized that it was the anniversary of her passing away.

I had no idea how God was leading me in this situation.  But that is usually how God leads, not a weird event or a random detail, not even an odd piece of the puzzle that does not seem to fit, but a strategic positioning and purpose. It is not for me to dictate.  I have only to trust God and follow Him into it.

I am often reminded of the character Jayber Crow in Wendell Berry's classic novel, who says:  "I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley.  And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led..."

This disruption in my schedule was not a change of plans to God, not a cancellation, not a delay, but just redirecting my heart to something else.  May God fulfill His purposes in it.  May I be sensitive to His leading.  And may I realize that it might not be about me at all, His mighty designs unfolding, even in what I may never know.  God's purposes are so much deeper than the response "there's a reason for it." 

God is not bringing it. He already has it firmly in place.

It is not a matter of "roll with it,"
                 but run with Him. 

...and let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us,
        looking to Jesus...

              Hebrews 12. 1-2

Saturday, February 20, 2016

This IS your life

This is your life title sequence.jpg

A friend who has been dealing with some difficult situations lately remarked to me the other day, "I can't wait to get my life back."  She shared that her life has been ruled lately by some major interruptions. But what if these disorderly things are not so random at all?

For almost a decade, starting in 1952, NBC produced an early reality show on television called This Is Your Life.  The show originated in the late 1940s as a radio show to encourage despondent soldiers by revealing to them that their lives matter in significant ways, shown by those who had been impacted by these ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

None of us can fully realize what odd little turns of events that God uses in our lives, nor how God profoundly redeems those big "interruptions" for His greater good. 

From the time my mom was a little girl, she poured all her energies into developing her musical abilities as a  violinist and performer.  With very limited means, her widowed mother did everything she could to encourage my mom.  When going to college seemed a virtual impossibility, my mom hosted an early morning radio show with live music, playing her fiddle.  She finished up work every morning about the time most students were just rolling out of bed.  After becoming a young war widow in the early 1940s, Mom headed to New York to seek her musical future, furthering her education and playing on early television.

Before I was born, my grandmother came to live with my mom and dad to run the household while Mom pursued her music, seeking out every opportunity in ensembles, music organizations, and even playing concerts at our elementary school. Far ahead of her time, she worked with the music director at our local church to develop an orchestra to play in worship services and produce annual performances of Handel's Messiah, tapping into the abilities of church members who dusted off instruments long unused and encouraging budding musicians, adults and children alike, to serve God with their musical abilities.

And then, what could have been viewed as a narrowing of her scope manifested itself into an enlarging of her influence.

Mom's attention in later years was directed to playing her violin at nursing homes, residential facilities for the elderly and veterans, women's clubs and other small venues.  It was not Carnegie Hall, but she brought warmth and joy to mostly forgotten people.  Nurses often remarked about unresponsive patients tapping their feet to the music.  More often than not, she compensated her piano accompanist more than she was paid, giving valuable work and hope to mostly unemployed musicians.

She took her work seriously as if she were playing for the Chicago Symphony, practicing every day and working deeply into the night arranging music to the needs of the specific audience, never once repeating the same program. It never dawned on her to do anything less.

She had not reached a dead end in her musical career, but simply a change of direction.

The little secret that Mom discovered was "This is your life," not in a defeatist way, but as an extraordinary discovery of what God is doing, not as an interruption of plans or dreams, but the seamless weaving of God's purposes in it.  If we realized what this meant, how differently would we live?  How differently would we view our own turns in the road?

When my mom passed away eleven years ago, I found a piece of paper on which she had jotted, "I always wanted to be famous, but I think better things happened because I'm not."

We miss a lot of life, waiting for the future, waiting for what might be.  And yet, God has given each of us a story for today, not an insignificant detail in it. Something profound is going on that we cannot comprehend.  There is always something God is doing that we cannot yet see.

So when real life seems to be interrupting your dreams, God may be giving you a new story, a different narrative, and using you for something much deeper than what appears on the surface, something more significant than you can imagine.  When we allow God to lay His day before us, there are no interruptions, only divinely appointed purposes.

This IS your life, beyond your wildest dreams.
Follow Him into it.

Your life matters to Him,
 His extraordinary designs manifest
 even in the very details
                     of an ordinary day.

Where are you, God?
Where are you in this, O LORD?

For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.

                        Habakkuk 1.5

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Deep Engraving

When our oldest grandchild was an infant, I found that the quickest way to put her down for a nap was to sing to her.  As I sang old hymns while walking or rocking her, I prayed the lyrics for her.  And it made me think that someday in the distant future, she would hear a tune or a few words and it would trigger a memory in her heart, "How do I know this song?"

I almost always started out with the beautiful hymn "Before the Throne of God on High."

One afternoon when she was not yet two, I began singing to her before a nap.  It had been a long time since I had seen her as our daughter's family had moved to a distant city.  I began singing, but one song after another, she squirmed and shook her head.  Finally, I asked her, "Baby, what song do you want me to sing?"

"Da Phone," she replied emphatically.  "Da PHONE!"

I was perplexed.  "What song is that, sweetie?"

"Da phone of God!"

I had no idea how that tune and words had engraved themselves so deeply in that little child.  She was not yet speaking in full sentences, but she already knew something deeply engraved on her heart.  It was not for "someday" but even now.

God uses the power of music to connect our hearts not just to words strung together but to an unfathomable anchoring of His truth and love.  Indeed, in the early church, through centuries upon centuries when illiteracy was rampant, stained glass windows taught the stories of the Bible, and God's Word was set to music.  The very basis of these songs was not to entertain, but to engrave Scripture over and over again, a profound infilling of God's truth, not just a strong remembering through one's senses but a reminder of His Presence in the every days of life. 

Even now as adults, those patterns of melody and words are still there, sometimes deep below conscious thought, but flowing through one's very being.  I often pray for those who are struggling in their faith, or have turned away, that God would bring to the surface of their minds and hearts every verse that they ever memorized, every chorus they ever sung, every testimony they ever heard, every moment when God touched their hearts.  May those layers of God's truth become a song stuck in their heads and hearts and bring them back to Him.

When in crisis or joy, when I am often speechless, God brings those melodies to comfort and strengthen out of the blue when I need His Word to express my heart. I have read countless stories of those suffering in solitary confinement that hymns, Scripture and even simple Bible songs from childhood created a scaffolding that kept them strong and sane in dire circumstances.

A friend once related to me that when he came to Christ as an adult, Bible verses that he had memorized decades before in a Sunday school class, kept coming to mind.  He had memorized the verses to "win a Bible."  God used His Word for something far deeper than that.

As I recently sat in the back of our daughter's minivan, behind a row of three carseats, I could hear the littlest one "singing" the Bible songs on the CD that was playing.  She knew the tune.  Her sounds had not yet been translated into English, but God's Word is being deeply engraved.  And what sounds like babbling to us is profound in God's ears.

O LORD, our Lord,
   how majestic is Your name
   in all the earth.
Thou whose glory above the heavens
 is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants.

                            Psalm 8. 1-2

What song are we singing?  Let His Word rise up within us.  May every prayer, every song of praise, every memorized verse of Scripture be engraved over and over into an unending chorus of God's glory.

The LORD is my strength
         and my song.

                     Exodus 15. 2

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Most of the time, I don't even know

I awoke in the predawn darkness Monday when all the shadows were still even asleep.  I looked at the clock and groaned not just because of the hour, but because I was simply awake, very awake.  My heart was troubled by something I could not identify.  I tried rolling over in an effort to fall back to sleep.  Nothing doing.   

I slipped out of bed, closed the bedroom door, and made a pot of coffee.  What was causing this uneasiness?  I had no idea.  I owned up to obvious sin in my life, speaking when I should have not, not saying anything when I should have, perhaps having missed a turn on my path that I should have taken.  LORD, have mercy on the "should have's" in my life.  O God, do not let regret dominate my life but Your redeeming.

Nothing obvious was coming to the surface, but as I prayed, I felt the tension in my heart loosening, like a tight knot being worked out.  I prayed for family and friends, each as they came to mind.

As I left for the clinic where I volunteer, I thought momentarily about checking traffic on Google maps.  No, I thought, turning left is always the quickest way, avoiding the early morning school traffic. But within a couple miles, all traffic came to a standstill, the cars forming a ribbon of red braking lights. I lamented not going the other way.  Getting to the first major intersection usually takes me about four minutes.  This morning, it took me twenty-two.  And I still had a long way to go.

I should have gone the other way.  I should have left earlier.  I should have checked traffic.  But before I could descend too far into my "should have's,"  I asked the LORD to redeem this time.  I turned off the radio.  I continued to pray for those who rose to the surface of my thoughts.  When I arrived at the clinic, I texted an encouragement to a friend who lives 500 miles away, "Praying for you this morning."

A few hours later, she texted back. "Thank you for your prayers, for following the Lord's leading in that...somehow I didn't connect it until right now."

In her text, she related that at 6 a.m. as she was passing through an intersection on her way to the train, both a semi truck and a car flew through a red light.  "Had I not paused," she said in her text, "I would have been killed...I saw what was happening and waited!" 

"You must have been praying then," she added.

I know that God is not restricted by time, nor by my mistakes, nor by my ignorance.  I know that God's hand is not powered by my praying nor limited by the puniness of my prayers, but God uses prayer in deeper ways than we can know.  I thought back to my uneasiness in the middle of the night.  Was my heart just being urged to pray?

Most of the time, I don't even know for how specifically I need to pray.  A good bit of the time, I don't even see the  visible outcome of God's hand when I pray.  All of the time, I have no idea God's deeper purposes.  But I do know, based on James 5. 16, "The prayer of the righteous has great power in its effects."  I don't have to know how prayer works, but just to know that God does.  God's power in this world is not limited by my understanding of what He is up to.

God brought my friend to mind. I prayed for her, not even knowing what I was praying for. I thanked God for her, for our friendship, for His mighty hand in bringing her to Christ, for her testimony in her job, for how sweetly she loves everyone God places on her path.

I had no idea what was about to happen.  Indeed, if I had not prayed nor texted her, I would have missed it all, not having known the shield God had ready and waiting, not realizing His power in the intricate details of an ordinary day, an ordinary winter's morning on the way to the train.

We are the ones who are missing out.

"If you lower the ambient noise of your life and listen expectantly for those whispers of God, your ears will hear them. And when you follow their lead, your world will be rocked."
-- author, pastor, and speaker Bill Hybels in his classic book Too Busy Not to Pray (1988).