Monday, December 23, 2013

"The Mirror...a Christmas Memory"

     Two of my (grown-up) babies got engaged at the same time this last Christmas season.  I caught myself thinking several times that this might be my best Christmas ever.  It brought back a long forgotten memory of what really was perhaps my favorite Christmas gift ever.
     I was about twelve or thirteen, and it had been a lean year financially for our little family on the Vesta Prairie.  It was cold and we were broke, but that isn't the part I've been remembering...  
     Christmas was coming, and I had my mind on the expensive designer jeans my “town friends” were wearing.  I was experimenting with make-up and spending hours locked in the bathroom curling my hair, surrounded by clouds of hair spray.  The teenage years were hitting fast and furiously.  My emotions were spiraling out of control.  I spent the majority of my time with the phone receiver cradled to my ear and the cord stretched to my bedroom.  Gossiping with my friends about cute boys, piles of “Teen” magazines scattered across my bed.  I wanted to be a rich glamour girl.  I wanted to live in New York City.  I had a ways to go.  In every sense.
     My dad and his brothers had been out hunting in the woods on our mountain every night, coming home late and exhausted.  They skinned the animals they killed and sold the skins.  “Hide” money funded my parents Christmas shopping.  I lived in a state of constantly conflicting emotions, stuck between praying for those poor animals to get away, and hoping for money to buy those designer jeans.
     Dad spent more and more time working out in the barn at night, often going back out in the cold weather after supper and staying until long after my brother and I went to bed.  I assumed he was skinning animals.  I avoided that barn as much as possible.  I can smell it in my mind, even today.
     After much anticipation, the long-awaited Christmas morning finally dawned…my brother and I opened the gifts stacked under the tree one by one.  I can’t remember what they were that year…maybe make-up or a cassette tape for me, maybe a football for Cody.  No wrapped expensive designer jeans- and I tried not to show my disappointment… but then Dad slipped outside when we were almost finished, hurrying out to the barn and coming back with something wrapped in black trash bags.  He handed it to me excitedly…
    He had secretly spent those hours late at night out in that barn with all those stinky skinned animals- in the one place he knew I wouldn’t snoop- building me a large oval make-up mirror surrounded by lights.  He fashioned the frame, positioned the mirror and attached it, ran the electrical cords and carefully screwed in the large bulbs…all with money we could hardly do without.  It was beautiful.
      I can close my eyes even today and easily remember the excitement on his face when I squealed with joy as he carried it in from the cold outside.  
     Mom spent Christmas Day hanging my mirror above a fancy new vanity table, with its short and padded stool.  Oh, the many happy hours I spent primping in front of all the bright lights, pretending I was headed to model for a fancy magazine, applying and reapplying my make-up, modeling every outfit I owned.   Getting ready for the day I would move away to the big city.
     It’s been about thirty years since that Christmas morning so long ago.  I’ve received a lot of presents and given a lot of presents myself, many of which cost much more than that mirror did.  But I’m not sure I ever received a gift that had more effort and thought put into it, or brought me more fun and happiness.
     I still lived in the country.  I was still poor.  I would never model for a magazine or even own those fancy designer jeans…but each and every time I sat in front of those bright lights, in my private little dressing room… lost in my pretend world…I was glamorous and rich.               
     I never made it to New York City.  At least not to live.  Never fulfilled many of those teenage dreams.  As I got older, other dreams replaced them.  Better dreams.  Of family and faith, and small town life.  It took me a lifetime to understand that I wasn’t poor- even in my childhood, but rich in ways that I wouldn‘t understand for many years…

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"The Gathering Place"

     I’ve been home alone this week, trapped by snow and ice, and without electricity, like so many others here in the Charleston area.  I’ve had some unexpected quiet time, broken only by the sharp crack of limbs breaking and falling in our back yard. Made me start thinking about how much I love trees.  And one in particular.
     In previous generations, kids in small towns such as ours gathered in sand lots to play pick up baseball games, unencumbered by the watchful eyes of referees or coaches.  Playing long into summer evenings and running home to supper when the sun began to set.  And maybe, once they were driving age, those same kids gathered at the local drive-in, where they compared cars and clothes and ate ice cream under warm summer skies.  These days my teenager and his friends gather at the local high school gym in the evenings to shoots some baskets, and probably discuss the same issues as so many before them.  The gym is their “gathering place.”
     Young kids and old men have a tendency to gather and visit.  I think the rest of us, hurrying from place to place and activity to activity, could learn some lessons from them.
     To get back on track, my brother called recently to tell me he was cleaning up around our old home place and planned to cut down the big tree in the side yard.  He knew he should call.  He knew I would want to know.  He knew I would be sad.  And he was right.  That tree was the “gathering place” of our childhood.
     We were country kids, raised almost seven miles from town.  We rode an old bus to school and back every single day, an hour each way, through winding dirt roads. With dust blowing in through the lowered windows, sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter, it felt like seven hundred miles instead of seven.  I don’t remember my parents worrying too much about our comfort in those days.  I think they worried more about our character.  Riding that school bus taught me many things.  Some good and some bad.  I suffered a little.  But I think now my parents had the right idea.  Suffering just a little bit as a child taught me many good and enduring character traits.  Makes me worry a little for the generation we are raising now.  Afraid they are entirely too comfortable.  Don’t think they are spending much time climbing leafy trees or riding hot buses.
     Anyway, the point is, we didn’t have a ball field or a gym to enjoy.  We didn’t have a drive-in anywhere in Vesta, USA.  What we had was a tree in the yard.   And a lot of boredom.
     It wasn’t just an ordinary tree.  It was perfect as far as trees go.  The trunk was several feet around, solid and sturdy.  It split about four feet off the ground into several thick low limbs that were perfect to get a first foothold, then continued up for forty or fifty feet, horizontal limbs branching off in all directions.  I think God planted that tree as a special gift to Cody and me when he plotted out the blueprint of the world.  Our world was small, and some days never expanded any farther than those cool, leafy branches.
  When we were really young, dad poured us a sand pile.  Oh, the excitement!  There was no frame except for the thick tangled roots of the tree standing proudly above, and no expensive pesticides to keep away the tiny bugs, which we caught and kept for pets.  We buried broken toys we found at the city dump, and old pennies we shined up, then dug them back up, over and over again.  We built elaborate miniature houses from rocks, and used sticks to form long, curving roads and deep lakes, which we filled with muddy water.  We fashioned various schools and churches (although at Cody’s insistence, the schools stayed closed year around).  We tried unsuccessfully to grow plants in our sand pile, transplanting grass cut by the lawn mower and watering it faithfully.
     After many years that load of sand was swallowed by the damp earth underneath, and there remained only a trace of what had been.  Our sand pile was gone forever.
     At some point in those early years, my brother decided he would grow up to be a professional bull rider.  I don’t remember anyone ever telling him it was unlikely.  In fact, my dad hung an old rusty barrel from the low branches of the tree and he commenced to practicing!  I spent countless long hot hours pulling on the four ropes that suspended it, making his “bull” turn to the left and right, bucking and twisting the barrel until he landed in the left over sand pile, standing quickly to throw his hat in the air and wave to the imaginary crowd that cheered wildly.  Those who were surprised that he actually grew up to earn a good living in the Professional Rodeo world were not with me under that tree all those hot summer days.
   I, for one, was not surprised at all.
     On the other side of the tree, we had an old tire swing that was never still.  We were not the only ones who made good use of it, as we often tied unsuspecting farm animals in against their wills, naked broken baby dolls, and even an occasional adventurous adult!  The rope had to be replaced periodically due to use and abuse, as we would sometimes load it down with three or four neighborhood kids at one time and swing high, stretching the tire to the ground, where it would hang and rub in the smooth dirt below until dad climbed the tree to loop the rope over the branch a few more wraps.
     Many summer days found us eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking kool-aid under the tree while pretending we were far away from home on a fancy picnic.  We attempted to ignore that fact that mom was delivering discreetly from her kitchen fifty feet away.
     As we got older, we had family birthdays and country church picnics under the sprawling branches, resting afterward, spread out in the shade, slices of garden fresh watermelon resting in our laps, sticky juice dripping from our chins.
     Years later, I grew up and got married, gave birth to my first child, and took him straight home from the hospital to live in our old home place.  I had the satisfaction of seeing him play under the old tree, just as we had a generation before.  It was starting to droop a little, not producing as many leaves.  But it still had the strength to host one more group of children playing happily beneath it’s sheltering branches, puppies and mud puddles close by.  I’m so grateful for that.
     My kids are grown and married now, and many years have passed.  I’ll have my own grandchild next summer.  But I think often of my time as a child, playing under that tree.  It was a simpler time.  A time when “busy” lived somewhere seven miles away in town, and our vivid imaginations ruled our simple country world.  
     When my brother called recently to say it was time to cut it down, I knew in my heart he was right.  It had been leaning slightly, with rotten branches slowly splitting, for several years.  It was becoming a danger in it’s old age.  It was time to let it go.  And so we did.  But it felt like we had lost an old friend.  Some might not understand.  Some might point out that it was “just” a tree.  But they would be wrong.  It was the “gathering place” of a happy childhood.  And gifts like that aren’t easily replaced.  Good memories seem harder to make these days.  Long carefree summer afternoons are fewer and far between.
     I am thankful for the gift God gave us all those years ago.  The seed he planted and nurtured.  I am thankful for those sturdy familiar limbs where we whispered secrets and dreams.  I am thankful for parents who didn’t structure our time and energy, but turned us loose to explore and imagine.  I am thankful that I learned the seasons of life not from a book in the school library, but from vivid changing colors of an old oak tree that allowed me to nap often in its leafy branches, under a calm and clear blue sky.  I am thankful that I got my first glimpse of what heaven may be while lying in the limbs of that old tree, watching clouds drift lazily by, far above my little world.
     I am thankful, most of all, for the gathering place of my youth.  Thankful for the lessons it taught me and the adventures it gave.  My tree is gone now, like it never existed at all.
     But always, always…my sweet memories remain.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"The Holy Hush" ~Zephaniah 3:14-17

“Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion!  The Lord has taken away His judgments against you.  He has cleared away your enemies.  You will fear disaster no more.  He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in his love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” ~Zephaniah 3: 14-17

     I’ve never heard these verses before.  Never studied them that I remember, but I heard them in a sermon recently and they shook me to my core.  When they were being read, the tears just streamed down my face, and even now, weeks later, they threaten again as I type these words.
     I struggle with my sins.  Even now.  Years after being saved.  Years after God’s mercy washed over me.  There is rarely an alter call when I don’t confess them again, and again, and again.  Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to convince God just how bad I really am.  Like He doesn’t already know.  He does.  He’s heard all the details.  Many times over. And over. And over.
     It's always been hard for me to wrap my mind and soul around mercy and forgiveness.  The truth is I crave judgment instead of mercy.  I feel ashamed.  I often sit in a church crowd and hope they won’t discover how bad I really am. An imposter.  Not worthy.  Not clean.
       I am serving a prison sentence inside for things I’ve done.  A prison sentence that no one sentenced me to.  It is self-imposed.  But just as stifling.  My invisible bars sometimes keep me from speaking up, singing loudly, teaching, serving, reaching out.  Which of course, is a form of failure resulting from failure, sin resulting from sin.  It’s a cycle.  And a prison.  My bars are solid.  My jumpsuit striped black and white.  Sin and mercy side by side.
      It’s been pointed out to me on occasion that my feeling this way is a slap in the face to the power of Jesus’ blood to cleanse.  Do I not believe his grace is sufficient?  Do I not trust His mercy?  My sins were wiped away.  He can’t see them anymore.  I believe that.  I really do.  But I can still see them clearly.  They are etched on my soul.  And they still hinder me, cripple me, every day.  Consequences remain.
     You can understand why these verses hit me so hard.  It’s been years since I shouted for joy.  Or even spoke it loudly.  I don’t shout.  I don’t speak up.  Satan has his hand firmly over my mouth.  My failures have smothered my "joy shouts".  I’ve always felt like God knows this.  We have an understanding.  The shouting part is for other people.  The people with enduring marriages, perfect children, bills paid and savings accounts firmly in place.  The “got-it-all-together-and-know-where-I-put-it-people.”  You know some of them, don’t you?  The holy hush crowd.  Sometimes it’s hard to shout for joy in the midst of them.  When I can clearly see the road behind me.   A long dirty road that is littered with heartaches and potholes.  Broken dreams.  Soul shattering sins.  My sins.  When I look back on that, all my shouting gets swallowed and choked on.
     And then the next verse speaks straight to me.  The Lord has taken away His judgments against you.  Maybe the most powerful words He could say to me.   He has taken them away.  They are gone.  Not waiting for me somewhere.  Gone.  Gone.  Gone.  So the big question now is, who could I be without my sins smothering my shouts?  Without my prison bars?  Without the ball and chain of regret that weighs me down.  Can I really let go and let Him cover the mess I made?  Can I?
     He will exult over me with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over me with shouts of joy.    The idea of My Father in Heaven shouting over me brings me to my knees in humility.  I am so undeserving.  So dirty.  Such a failure.  How can He shout over me?
     So many times I get in my comfortable Bible study rut.  I read my old favorite verses, my Psalms, my much studied parables and underlined passages.  I find such comfort in the familiarity of them.  I find reassurance in the sameness of scripture.  It’s always there for me.  A trusted friend.  And then something like these verses hits me right between the eyes and slays me.  A fresh and new word.   A message from God written straight to my heart.  A wake-up call that knocks the wind out of me.  Just when I start to feel comfortable. Hidden and safe.   He knows me so well.
     So today I will try to shout.  Even if it’s just to Him alone.  I will shout.  I will sing to Him.  I will praise Him for His mercy.  His cleansing, soothing, snow white love and forgiveness.  I will rest in it.  And I will try to accept my pardon from sin.  My release from prison. His mercy shines a bright spotlight into the deepest black pit of my sinful soul.  And I will rejoice, just for a while, with shouts of joy.  Just as He does!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Broken Pieces..." ~2 Corinthians 12: 9-10

     There's a beautiful church in the little town where I grew up, built with ancient stones and colorful stained glass windows.  The first time I visited it as a child, I stood amazed.  I couldn’t concentrate on the message, the songs, the people.  Just the windows.
     They were amazing.  The sunlight poured through the color, changing the scenes minute by minute.  They told the story of Christ.  Scene by scene, image by image.  They  showed His suffering, His glory as clear as day.  Without using a word.  Amazing.
     I was an innocent little girl then.  But those windows stayed with me as I grew.  As a teenager, I sang a favorite “special” over and over in our little country church.  It was called “Broken Pieces.”  The words are embedded in my mind, even today.  The song was about God being able to put things back together, when life has fallen apart.  At the time, it was just a song I memorized.  But it seemed to speak to my heart somehow.   I realize now that God was preparing me, even then.  Giving me tools.
     Fast forward many years, my well-ordered, perfectly-planned life had fallen apart.  I was filled with pain, ugliness and sin.  Broken.  Shattered in a million tiny pieces that ripped my heart and soul apart with every deep breath I took.  I couldn’t go to work, couldn’t see friends or family, found it impossible to walk into church and face people.
     But I could pray, and  I did.  Constantly, without ceasing, asking for Him to restore me, rebuild me from scratch, make me feel whole again.  Take the ugliness away.
     And amazingly, over the days, months and years, He began to put my pieces back together.  One tiny slice at a time.  It seemed an impossible, time-consuming task.  It seemed hopeless.  Pointless sometimes even, at least to me.
     Some pieces were jagged and rough.  Some smooth and liquid.  Some ware dark and stormy, others clear and pale.  But patiently He worked, day by day, reattaching the shreds, fitting the tiny pieces gently together and pouring His grace in the cracks.
     And a funny thing happened. The more scripture I studied, the more I prayed, the more I suffered, then the more He revealed Himself and His truths to me.  I lived in His world.  I depended on Him completely, trusted Him deeply, relied on His strength, wisdom, and forgiveness to get me through each hour, each long day.  And all that time He was rebuilding me into His plan.  In His grace, He still is.  All these years later.
      As I say often, my favorite Bible character is Peter, without a doubt.  Peter, Jesus’ loudest cheerleader.  The one who pledged to witness and protect.  Big plans, big promises, loud praises for all to hear.  But God knew Peter was shallow.  Nothing to back up the claims.  No spiritual depth or knowledge.  And when the chips were down, Peter folded, fell apart.  The hardest thing for Peter, I think, must have been the next morning.  Waking up to the truth and the consequences.  Waking up knowing the world as He planned it was shattered and broken.  Wondering where to go from there.  Feeling like an embarrassing failure. But Peter is a story of redemption.  Of God slowly and lovingly rebuilding him from the ground up.  And in the end, God used him mightily, in spite of his own weaknesses.  He put Peter’s pieces back together again, just like in the nursery rhyme.  Just like me.  Me and ‘ole Peter have a lot in common.  
     These days, I can’t look at a stained glass window without tears springing to my eyes.  For they represent what I strive to be.  Many jagged, hopeless, shattered pieces that have been restored to make up colorful, changing pictures of Christ.  That’s me.  Stronger than before, better in spite of the breaks.  My edges have been smoothed, my gaps filled in.  Yes, I am a work in progress.  I have to be maintained, patched up here and there.  But I am so much stronger and better that the big shallow piece of clear glass that I once was.
     And I hope as people look at me, at my jagged pieces, my different colors and textures, as they delve more deeply into my picture, all they will see are the images that are reflected of His life, His work, His grace and forgiveness.  His amazing, patient, loving Restoration.
…That is, just like Peter, the finished picture I want to reflect.

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Angel Sightings..." ~Matthew 26: 47-56

     Most days I move through life uninspired and un-amazed.  It is my belief that most of us do.  With my husband working out of town and my children grown, there are many weekdays that I am robotic like in my daily life.  Wake and have Bible study, hot shower and hotter coffee, long drive to work, eight hours of work, drive home, cook, wash dishes and laundry.  Read a little bit (or sometimes a lot). Sleep, wake, rinse and repeat.  It’s called the “daily grind” for a reason.
     Most days I find relief in this reliable repetition.  I am thankful for the predictable parts.  
Most days I am okay with the sameness of my days.  The lack of drama.  
     But once in a great while, without warning, a day comes along that demands a little more. 
     Once in a great while, I wake and feel rebellious.  I drink an second cup of coffee, read a few extra pages, stop at the grocery store on the way to work.  In my own tiny ways, I break the daily cycle.  (Even in my great rebellions, I’m not too adventurous! Ha).
     Yesterday was such a day.  I deviated from the norm by reading a few extra chapters in my Bible study, and ran across something that changed my perspective for the entire day.  Love when that happens.  It’s like a sweet, heavenly cupcake sent straight to me from God.
     I was reading in Matthew about Jesus defending himself.  He was saying He could call down twelve legions of angels to help Him if He wanted.  I looked it up.  That’s around SEVENTY-TWO THOUSAND  angels…I imagine them with swords, muscles and sweet voices.  The beautiful blond haired female angels of my childhood get all mixed up with the long-haired muscled men with flaming swords found in my adult Bible studies…my mind just takes off trying to picture them.  The image in my head is vivid.  Seventy-two thousand!   Probably more!
     All day yesterday, when my mind should have been on the piles of work on my desk, concentrating on my job duties, it was in the clouds imagining angels in heaven instead.
     I think we get bogged down in the ordinary here on earth.  We stare at ballgames and nightly news, bills and dirty dishes.  We stress over wrinkles and weight loss.  It’s so easy to make these our priorities because they are right in front of us.  Facing us.  Taunting us.  Taking our time and money.  Draining our energy.  Demanding attention.  These are the things that seem important.  Things that have to be dealt with.  Real and tangible.  They are “earthly’ things.
     That’s why a day like yesterday was such a gift.  Because right in the middle of my earthly duties and predictable daily schedule, God gave me some very dramatic heavenly thoughts.
     All day I imagined those angels.  I don’t think they are dealing with dirty dishes this evening.  I don’t think they dread the bills in the mail or worry about gaining weight.
     I think they are singing today.  Praising today.  Every day.  I think there are at least SEVENTY-TWO THOUSAND of them up there having a big celebration right this minute.  Clean, beautiful, happy.   Free of stress and schedules.    Close your eyes and think of that.    
      All my life I’ve heard of storing up heavenly treasures…concentrating on heavenly things…yesterday was a day when that made sense.  I got excited.  I felt ready.  I would have gone on to join them gladly if God had called my name.  Instead he just gave me a glimpse of what is to come.  A little slice of heaven in my mind.  A cupcake to start my day.
     I get too caught up in this earth.  I forget that I am just living in the first chapter of the book.  Maybe even just the introduction.  These are the opening credits.  I’m not even into the body of the book yet.  The body of Christ.  There is so much fun up there waiting on me!
     I am so excited to get there and see what it’s all about.  I am so excited to stand in the middle of seventy-two thousand angels singing and praising.  I can only imagine.  I can only imagine.  I can only imagine.  They are waiting on me and I can’t wait to meet them!
     For today, I will carry on with my “rinse and repeat” cycle.  I have already broken up the routine by taking time for extra reading and writing this morning.  I will go to work and sit quietly at my desk for the next eight hours.  I will look very earthly on the outside, with my wrinkles and weight gain.  But if only you could look into my heart and soul, you would see what I am imagining, anticipating.  Worshipping, praising, beautiful angels.  Thousands of them.  
Praising my Lord.  With me standing right in the middle, singing with the loudest voice of all!  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The Drama Queen" ~Jeremiah 29:11-14

     For a long period of time there was drama in my life…I don’t mean little drama.  I mean big drama.  Divorce, unpaid bills, kids rebelling, house fire, church strife, homelessness…not only big drama, but bad drama.  The gossip and pain was humiliating.  I hated it. 
     I would say the number one goal I’ve set over the last fifteen to twenty years is to achieve peace and stability, for myself yes, but mainly for my three babies.  Peace and quiet for some people is a very elusive thing.  I am one of them.  Sometimes it seemed to be one calamity on top of another.  At times, it seemed that I would just stand up from one wave when another knocked me down.  It’s a gut-wrenching way to live.  It’s exhausting to struggle through each and every day, hour by hour.  But it taught me a couple of good lessons through the years.  Lessons I am grateful for, in spite of how I learned them.
      The first is, there is nothing like a painful disaster to put you flat on your face grasping at God’s promises.  Desperation equals dependence which equals God.  When we are torn in half by struggle and hurt, without fail, we turn back to Him.  Over and over.  Again and again.  It’s when I am closest to Him.  He knows it and I know it.  I am stubborn by nature.  Sometimes it was the only way He could really get my attention.  I used to joke that I had prayed for God to let just enough trouble into my life to keep me on my knees, but I quickly gave that particular prayer up when I got blisters from kneeling!  Seriously, if I can maintain that kind of closeness to Him when I am living easy days, then I will feel like I have achieved something.  He knows me too well.  He has to keep me dependent.  So I have learned to thank Him, even for the trouble.  The trouble He allows always has a purpose!
     The second thing is when some relatively peaceful days do come along, I don’t even know how to live them.  I am constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting , waiting, waiting, for the next blow to hit.  I’ve found out that being happy, settled, and drama free is not a natural state for me.  I don’t know how to handle it.  I’m not sure how to thrive.  I am suspicious of the easy life!  I’ve noticed this in a lot of people…they seem to almost anticipate the pain of the next tragedy.  They look for the attention and care from others that trouble brings.  It becomes a cycle of emotions, almost like drug use or alcoholism.  The focus is on dealing with the drama.  They have the prayer chains on speed dial!  And I know there are some friends and family members who began to cast me as the one that lightening always seemed to strike.  They became accustomed to my struggling and couldn’t imagine me in any other state.  After a while, normal doesn’t seem natural anymore.  Which brings me to the third and most important lesson…
      That drama filled life I lived for so long is a sin.  Bottom line.  No way around it.  Those attention seeking, needy, pain-filled  days are not what I was created for.  The sobbing, middle of the night break downs.  The deep heartache and stress.  That kind of daily existence is NOT God’s will.  Not for me.  Not for anyone else.  Period.  End of story.  
     God tells me that. Flat out.  I have plans for you.  Plans to PROSPER you. Actually, I like my translation, which says it this way in Jeremiah:  I have plans for your welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.  You will call upon Me and come and pray to Me and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.  Then He goes on to talk about restoring me (which is a whole other page I could write about!) and bringing me back from exile (which is a familiar place I've visited often!).  Now read that again.  AMAZING!  God wants me to prosper.  To be restored.  He wants me to thrive.  I used to think that meant to be happy.  But I've come to believe it means to be at peace instead.  Peace from drama, pain and turmoil.  He wants me to be quiet in my soul.  To pray, seek Him and trust Him.  He will handle the rest.  He’s a big God.  A really big God.  He's got this!  Sometimes we lose sight of that in the middle of the storm we are fighting through.
      He wants contentment for me.  Instead of focusing on the trouble of the day, He wants me to focus on Him.  Things will work out.  Trouble passes.  Time heals that gut-wrenching pain.  I've seen it happen over and over in my life.  Problems that seem impossible, insurmountable, overwhelming, eventually just become another chapter in my (rather long and interesting) testimony.  Perhaps God can use my story to help someone else through theirs.  Perhaps He can use yours.  And maybe it’s just one more step on our journey toward a land of milk and honey.  A land of prospering and peacefulness.  That’s His plan for me.  And for you.  He said so!  He promised. 
     I read once that real peace is not absence from trouble and heartache.  Peace is calmness in your heart and soul in the midst of trouble and heartache.  It is knowing that my God is a God of restoration and deliverance from exile. A God that has created that peaceful land of milk and honey in preparation- just to give us something to look forward to.  Just for the people like me.  People with drama filled earthly lives.  
     I’m going to love it when I get there!  Hope he's got me a big warm milk-filled bathtub full of peace and quiet just waiting!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"I Remember..." ~Mark 11: 23-24

     Today is a Praise Day.  I have those randomly.  Un-expectantly.  In every other way, today was ordinary.  I put in eight hours at work, dealt with all the usual frustrations of a busy weekday.  It seemed like a repeat of many others.  But it wasn’t.  It was special.  Let me explain.
     I was looking for some old pictures of my kids this morning.  Digging through snapshots of memories. And they weren’t all good.  Isn’t is funny how a photo can take you back in time.  Make you again feel a forgotten moment.  That’s where the snapshots took me this morning.  Back to a time when every day was a mountain to climb.  Mountains of bills.  Mountains of broken dreams.  Mountains of heartbreak.  Thinking back to my days as a single mom.  
     I remember plainly what it felt like to be alone.  Really alone.  Alone in every way.  Alone with a house to clean, alone with a yard to mow, alone with kids to bathe, supper to cook.  Alone with laundry for three busy kids.  Alone with all the adult responsibilities, both large and small.  Waking alone and falling asleep alone. 
     I remember sitting in my church pew alone.  Nothing is more alone than that. 
     There were days that I didn’t want to climb out of bed in the mornings.  Days I didn’t want to work two jobs.  Times I didn’t think I could keep putting one foot in front of the other.
     Days the mountains looked too big. I didn’t want to climb anymore.  I wanted to give up.
     I remember.
     My pastor said last Sunday that ministry is done in the valley.  He is so right.  The valley is where we are broken.  The valley is where the mountains look the highest.  The valley is lonely.  I never needed Jesus and His people more than those days I spent in my deepest valley.
     The valley is dark and scary.  It’s Satan’s playground.  His favorite illusion is to convince us that the sun is forever hidden and the peaks are far too high.  He uses earthly heartbreaks.  He uses money problems and family issues.  He uses divorce and death.  He uses empty church pews and late night tears.  He has so many weapons in his arsenal. The grief feels overwhelming.  The loneliness feels like a wet blanket thrown over our faces.  It makes us struggle for each breath.  
     I know.  I remember.
     Years have passed since I climbed out of my valley.  And I didn’t do it alone.  God climbed beside me.  It took time for me to realize that.  Time for me to understand how close He was the whole time.  I couldn’t see him in the darkness.  I could only call out to Him and stumble forward.  Crying until I was blinded.  
     I was blind but now I see.  And He was with me.  Every minute in the valley.
     Time has a funny way of smoothing things over, fading the worst of the memories.  Blurring the edges of the most painful times.  Hurt eases a little and tiny steps are taken.  Tiny accomplishments celebrated.  Hours turn into days and days turn into weeks, then months and finally years pass.  We make it somehow.  We breath in and out.  We put one foot in front of the other.  And all the time we are climbing higher and don’t even realize it.
     Finally one day I stood in the sunshine.   I was still a single mom.  I still had bills and laundry.  I still went to bed alone at night.  But God and I had climbed my mountain, together.  Other mountains of mine He has simply moved out of the way.   Many times.  One tiny shovelful at a time. While I stumbled around lost, praying and crying.
     “My God- He can move the mountains...”  That line is in a praise song we sing.  I love it. It brings tears every single time.   It’s so true.  He formed the mountains.  But He formed the valleys too. To teach us faith. And praise.  He has reasons for forming both places.
     Every one of us faces mountains.  Scary, dark, steep and smothering.  The valley seems too deep.  The burden seems too much.  Our issues seem too big.  We stumble and cry, searching for His arms to hold us.
      And always, unfailingly, He does.  He is there.  Right where we need Him the most.  
     Today is a Praise Day for me.  Full of memories of the valley that He and I climbed out of together.  Full of recognition that He will always either climb beside me or move my mountains.       I am so thankful that I have never really had to face my deepest pain alone.  I am so thankful that Satan’s weapons are not stronger than my Saviors love. The mountains aren’t too high.   
     I am having a Praise Day today.  Just because I remember.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"In the Trenches..." ~Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12

     Uploaded some of my son’s wedding pictures onto Facebook the other day.  I only picked the best ones.  Didn’t want the extra pounds or wrinkles to show.  Eliminated the ones that showed stressful or hurried expressions.  Set aside any that didn’t meet my high standards.  I worked hard to customize the images that I showed the world.  It looks like a perfect day.  A perfect wedding.  A perfect family.  
     I do that often.  Pick and choose what people see about me.  Don’t want the cracks in the armor to show.  Don’t want anyone to doubt that I’ve got it all together.  Even when I don’t.
     Recently I spoke to a struggling young single mother who has been reading some of my online blogs.  She told me she had known me for years and had no idea about some of the hardships I had been through.  She identified with the pain in some of my writing.  She felt encouraged to keep on keeping on after reading about some of my experiences.  To keep fighting.
     It made me remember something that my husband pointed out to me long ago.  We love people for their weaknesses.  Not their strengths.
     I have a beautiful friend in my church.  She lives in a nice home, has a fancy car, a toned body and a beautiful face.  Strong marriage and pretty kids.  I have known her for many years.  We had been casual friends.  I had admired her from afar.  In my mind she was one of those have-it-all-together-women.
     Then our relationship changed drastically.  We went to a third world country together.
     We shared a small room with a bunk bed and a cold shower.  Shared one outlet for electricity when it worked.  We gave up on makeup and hair-styling by the second day.  Mud and sweat mixed with the tears on our faces as we fed hungry children.
     We lay in bed at night and shared our life stories.  We stood in front of strangers far away from our little town in Arkansas and gave our testimonies.  We talked quietly about where we came from, how we got there, and where we wanted to go.
     I received so many blessings from my time in Nicaragua.  But one of them is that I gained a sister in Christ.  When all the chips were down, and the barriers gone, we saw each others souls.
     Coming home was a hard adjustment.  Trying to fit back into “normal” was impossible.  We were changed forever, and our daily lives became a reflection of that.  
     I occasionally see pictures of my friend with her beautiful kids on face book.  Her make-up is back in place and she is beautiful as always.  She looks the same as before we went.  But she looks different to me now.  And I’m sure I look different to her too.
     I know her story.  I know her hurts and celebrations.  I know her dreams and wishes.  I know that her life is not the perfection that the Facebook pictures show.  And she knows the same about me.  We formed a bond in the trenches.  Our lives are tangled together now. 
     It’s so easy these days to only have surface relationships.  To only show our best side.  To pick and choose the best images.  In a day when everyone has total access to each other through all kinds of communication devices, somehow we have managed very well to hide our inner selves.  I think it is a dangerous thing. 
     It’s hard to love someone who looks perfect on the outside.  Houses, cars, marriages, smart and beautiful children.  The Christmas cards paint a pretty image.  All smiles and sunshine.
      We have to learn to share our pain.  Ask for prayer in our struggles.  We have to learn to tell our stories.  Maybe that’s the purpose of us living them.  One story can inspire hope in another.  God designed the Body of Christ as a support system.  He didn’t create one single perfect Christian.  And it’s the flaws that make us loveable.  Not the pretty pictures.
     Our natural response to pain should always be compassion.  That’s how we’re created.  And maybe the reason for our story is to encourage someone else.  So tell yours.  Pass on the faith.  Lift up the fallen.  It’s what the church is for.  It’s the design behind the fellowship.  
     Today, when you see someone whose life seems perfect, dig a little deeper.  Ask a few more questions, look beyond the plastic smile.  There may be a treasure chest of faith there.
     Everyone has a story.  Everyone is lovable.  And you may, like me, make a forever friend.

Monday, October 7, 2013

"The Anchor Holds..." ~Matthew 8: 23-27

      Are you fighting through a storm?  Do you feel like a little boat being tossed around by huge waves, crashing rain?  Do you feel helpless, hopeless, afraid?  Like you have lost all control?  Have you really "given up" and feel you‘re about to drown?  I know those feelings well.  
     There were so many people in scripture who shared those frustrations.  Some oblivious ones were Jonah, Noah, the disciples in the storm.  Other, less oblivious characters, were people Jesus encountered along his travels who were struggling with sin, with disease, with failure.  Broken, hurting people.  Not the great speakers, city leaders, kings.  Jesus was drawn to the people in the storm…to rain and pain.  To fear.  To failure.  To hopelessness.
     I’ve fought the rain and wind in a boat without a steering wheel, drifting without any control of where I would land, just like Noah.  I’ve run from God, tried to hide, and found myself swallowed up in dark nasty places, just like Jonah.  Sadly, I’ve run from God more than once.  
     But the story that really speaks to me is the one about the disciples in the storm.  I’ve been in that little boat struggling to stay afloat as wave after wave crashed down on me.  I’ve felt that fear as I struggled to catch my breath before the next disaster hit me.  I’ve tumbled around, trying to get my feet under me, just to be knocked down again and again.  Day after day, month after month.  I’ve been there.  I’ve wondered if Jesus was still with me.  If He saw what was happening.  If He even cared.  I’ve felt alone.  Abandoned.  Exhausted.
      The sad thing for the disciples is they had Jesus right there with them.  Not ten feet away.  Such an untapped source of strength and peace and stability.  They had traveled with Him, watched him heal people, forgive people, perform miracles right in front of their eyes.  They looked into His eyes every day.  Saw His power.  And yet, in the middle of the night, in the raging storm, they got scared.  And so do I.
     I think they got a little angry.  A little resentful of Jesus.  Sleeping soundly as they fought the waves.  I think they felt a little abandoned out in the that dark scary place.  And I think they thought for a while that they could handle things on their own.  And waiting so long to call on Him for help almost got them drowned.
     I have watched Jesus perform miracles.  Over and over in my life.  I have walked with Him, looked into His eyes.  Watched Him heal people, forgive people.  And yet, just like these men who fought the storm, I have gotten scared in the dark waves.  I have tried to fight on my own.  Rely on myself.  And have almost drowned because of it.  Sadly, not just once, but over and over.
      At times I have turned to Jesus as a last resort, just like Jonah.  After I’ve been swallowed.  After I have run and tried to hide.  After I have caused more damage than was there to start with.  I have waited until the storm had me beat down, the waves had taken all the life out of me, and finally I turned to Jesus in despair.  And there He was, waiting for me, just like the disciples, ten feet away.  Peaceful.  Strong. My life preserver.
       My favorite thing about the storm story is His calm.  He got up and rebuked the waves, and the sea. I love the peace after the storm.  I love the thought of Him speaking quietly to the waves, the chaos, the drama, the powerful forces of nature.  I love the way the weather instantly obeyed Him.  That’s my favorite part.  His quiet and steady power.
     He’s waiting in my storm.  He’s my peace.  He can speak to my chaos and drama.  He can make it stop with just a calm word.  Why do I wait so long to go to Him about it?  Why do I go as a last resort, when I am exhausted and almost drowned?  I’ve seen His miracles, His power, so many times.  And yet, sometimes I still choose to fight the storm on my own.  To struggle in the tall waves.  To gasp for breath when I could breathe easily.  I don’t understand why.  But He does.  And He lifts me gently from the deep water and places me back on solid ground.
      Because always, in the end, he’s my Lifeguard.  My Anchor.  Always.  Oh, thank you, God, for rescuing me, over and over, from the storms.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Living on rice and beans..." ~Acts 1: 6-8

    My baby boy has a stomach virus today.  He is almost sixteen and is a head taller than me.  But he is still, and always will be, my baby.  We were up most of the night together, me feeling helpless while he lay in the bathroom floor in misery.  Now and then he would call out to me, wanting a drink of water or a cool wet towel.  Now he is resting, so of course I am writing. 
     I’m at my desk now, but I’ve kept the house quiet, listening in case he calls out to me.  Waiting and ready for whatever he needs.  Several times, he has roused up from sleep and called to me.  Each time, I drop what I am doing and say “Here I am.  What do you need?”
     It wasn’t long before God began to talk to me and use the situation as a parable for me.  I have a lot of those “Parenting Parables.”  God knows my dense and stubborn self all too well.  He knows how to talk to me.  And often, he uses situations with my children, knowing they are so close to my heart and soul.  Knowing my love for the them may be the closest I ever get here on earth to understanding His love for me.
     I am leaving on my first foreign Mission Trip in two weeks.  Traveling to a third world country to help fill the most basic need we human beings have: food.  Both for physical hunger and spiritual hunger.  Rice and beans to nourish the body.  Scripture to nourish the soul.  It will be a life changing experience for me.  Out of my middle class American comfort zone.  Everything there will be different.  Different language, different culture, different temperature, different way to dress and act.  Different style of worship.  Only one thing will be familiar.  The most important thing of all.   My God will be the same.  Whether I am at my kitchen table in hills of Arkansas or in the poorest part of Nicaragua.  He will pave my way.  Guide and protect me.  He will be my tour guide, my body guard, my inspiration and my interpreter.  
    I am getting more excited each day.  There is a part of my soul that has been preparing for this trip, and possibly others to come, for many years without even knowing it.  There is a part of my heart that feels this is really the beginning of something very important.  I am praying hard, packing carefully and counting the days till I board the plane.
     I almost said no to this opportunity.  It was last minute.  Someone had to drop out due to health.  I got the call to go.  My first reaction was to let Satan answer my phone and say “wrong number.”  Not me.  I had no vacation time at work.  No money.  No training.  Not enough time to prepare.  I don’t know people who do these things.  My church sends money.  I read books about people who go.  I study scripture about the disciples who went.  I enjoy the slideshows about modern missionaries.  I tape their names on my fridge.  I give extra during the Mission drives at Christmas and Easter.  I do my part.  No thank you.  I’ll stay here at home where it is warm and safe and familiar.  I’m a sinner.  Not a Missionary.  God will understand.  Only He didn’t.  
     My second reaction to the call was to grab my Bible and search.  I looked for any place where God would confirm my “no.”  I looked for where He says it’s okay to stay home and pray.  I looked for where He says He understands that I don’t like rice and beans.  I looked for the verses where He says he wants me to be comfortable, to stay in my own house, in my community, in my familiar home church and watch the Missionary slideshows on Sunday nights.
     I looked and looked and looked.  I couldn’t find those verses.  I was sure they were there, because I’ve been living by them for years.  But I couldn’t find one single verse where God says “stay.”  Instead I found “go, go, go.”  He even chose those as his very last earthly words.  Go! Go! Go! To the remotest parts of the earth.  To wherever we are called, to whatever chance we are offered.  To the places that are hot and cold.  Dirty and hungry.  Hungry for physical food.  And more importantly, for spiritual food.  The kind that lasts forever.  I have it.  They need it.  So I am going to go and give.  I am going to share.  I am going to say yes to the chance.   
   I am scared.  Not of something physically happening to harm me.  Not of death or disease.  I am scared I will fail to do enough, to say the right things, to make the most of this opportunity.  I am scared I will mess up and let God down.  But I will go and I will trust. Because He told me to.
    And because, just like when my son calls out to me…I should be willing, waiting and ready to answer God the same way.  “Here I am.  What do you need?”

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"My Brother the Sheep Trainer...not!" ~John 10: 7-16, 21:15-17

     For many years, my brother has been my small claim to fame.  Often when I am trying to describe who I am, where I am from and what I do, the only connection I can make with a stranger is to mention my brothers name.  In our part of the world, lots of people know him.  Of all things, he is a Professional Rodeo Clown.  He travels all over the United States, stays in all kinds of places, meets thousands of interesting people, and has lots of adventures.   I stay home, punch a time clock and raise kids.  And yet, neither of us is one bit envious of the other.   (Well, maybe just a little and then...)
     We were raised on a farm in the country.  Had horses, cows, chickens, dogs, cats and anything else that happened to wander onto our land.  Once we even had pet squirrels who lived in the living room.  Lots of “animal adventures” in our childhood.
     These days, as an entertainer, he is constantly working on new “acts” involving training live animals to perform.  He has had a goat or two that I didn’t see eye to eye with, or I guess you could say horns to eye.  He trains them to do all kinds of tricks, and I have to admit to being impressed at times at what he can teach them to do.  But I’ve never seen him teach a sheep.  And I probably never will.  After some insightful study, I can tell you why.
     My Sunday School lesson recently was on one of my favorite passages of scripture.  My Bible translators titled it “The Love Motivation.”  John 21:15-17.  They didn’t ask me, but I would have titled them “Peter’s Second Chance.”  Love these verses.  Love Peter’s story.  But I find it interesting that Jesus refers to us as “lambs” and “sheep” several different times.  It got me thinking and reading about sheep.  What I found wasn’t very encouraging.  
     Sheep are not very smart.  They are stubborn and slow.  They tend to follow blindly and without thought when led.  They think about food a lot.
     Sheep can’t easily be trained.  Even after learning the same dangerous lessons over and over, they will continue to wander away from the flock and put themselves in harms way.
     And sheep have no way to defend themselves.  No fangs, no claws.  They can’t even run fast enough to get away when pursued by an enemy.  And they have many of those.
     They must be fed regularly, sheared often and protected constantly.  Most importantly of all, sheep can’t even clean themselves.  It has to be done for them.
     Are you getting the idea here?  Following along?  At any point I could stop typing the word “sheep” and start inserting the word “me or I.”
     I like to think I am fairly smart.  But God might argue that I have often made poor decisions.  I might say that I’m not stubborn.  I think He would laugh out loud at that one.  Anyone who has ever seen me run would say I would have a hard time outrunning a lion or wolf.  So I think my chances of outrunning any enemies are pretty much non-existent.  Not sure how well I could defend myself in a good fight, although some might swear they have seen my fangs and claws.
     I often reflect on all the times I’ve followed blindly and without thought.  Away from my church family, away from God’s word, away from my flock.  Away from sure protection and provision. Forging my own path through the woods.  On my own.  In harms way.
     I have some vivid memories of times God allowed me to be sheared by other hands than His.  Times when I have shed some layers, lost some parts of me that I thought I couldn’t live without.  Ended up healthier.
     Are you starting to get the picture?
     And now, the most important comparison.  Just like a sheep, I’m not able to clean myself.  
     My soul gets muddy, my heart grows thick wool.  My feet get heavy and planted in place.  
     The Saving Grace for sheep is that they are never left alone to deal with the helplessness.  They don’t have to outrun the enemy, fight the battles, learn the tricks or find the way.  They don’t have to shear themselves or give themselves a bath.  Because sheep have someone standing by to take care of all the big stuff.  Someone to keep the danger away and the food close.  Someone to fight the wolves.  Someone who won’t leave them.  He’s called a Shepherd.
     I’m so thankful I have a Shepherd too.  To fight my enemies, clean off my dirt and feed me daily.  I’m so thankful that He shears me when I need it and leads me to the lush green pastures. I've so thankful He has never left me.  He has a perfect track record of caring for me.
     My trust is strong in Him.  And always, no matter what, He is the Shepherd of my Soul.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"In the Fire..." ~Matthew 6:25-34

        Thinking today about how God provides.
     I learned this lesson as a young wife and mother.  Times were hard.  Money was scarce.  We stopped at a lot of garage sales in those days.  We clipped coupons.  Patched tires.  Lived paycheck to paycheck.  Things weren’t always easy.  In fact, they rarely were.   I spent a lot of time on my knees, making sure God knew what bills were due and what our account balance was.  Just in case He didn’t.
     Perhaps the greatest lesson I ever learned is that in fact, He did.  He knew exactly.  We made it.  Day by day.  Week by week.  Month by month.  We rarely had plenty but we always had enough.  God knew our young family’s needs and He filled them.  It made all the difference.   I knew  Jehovah Jireh, my Provider.  
      Later, as a single mom, it was a lesson I was determined to teach my three children.  In good times and bad, our God knows our needs.  He meets them day by day.  So many times I couldn’t understand how we would make it till the next payday.  But we did.  Struggle made me stronger.  I worked harder.  Day by day.  Week by week. Month by month.  I began to think I could make it on my own.  I began to feel relief.  And a little pride in my ability to provide all by myself.
     And then the unthinkable happened.  As we scratched and struggled through a long hot summer, tragedy struck.  I got a call at work saying our house was on fire.  By the time I got there it was engulfed.  Hours later, we owned just the clothes on our backs.  The contents weren’t insured.  I couldn’t afford the extra insurance.  I had three kids and less than $100 to my name.  No where to go.  No food.  No clothes. I was at the bottom of the barrel.  The end of the line.  The lowest of the low.  Nowhere to turn.  No one to turn to.  Except Johovah Jireh.
      My children looked to me with fearful and questioning eyes…and I looked to God.
I remember sitting in the yard of my home, covered in black soot, feeling sick and empty.  I will never forget the smell of our belongings burning.  I thought about the pride that I had felt in the past few years in my ability to provide for my kids.  The pride when they went to bed with full bellies and clean clothes.  I thought about how hard I had struggled to pay the bills, to keep gas in the car, to mow my yard.  I thought about the two jobs I was working.  How so many nights I had cried myself to sleep, tired and scared, but knowing I was making it on my own.  And how everything we owned, everything I had poured my blood, sweat and tears into for almost twenty years, was gone in a few hours time.  I felt like God had knocked the wind out of me.
      As I sat in that yard watching my last hope burn to the ground, I felt Him whispering in my ear that I had not done any of it.  I had not held things together.  I had not had things under control.    He had and, in fact, He still did.  The fire was a reminder of a lesson I will never again forget.  It is all His.  He is My Provider.  Day by day.  Month by month.  Year by year.
     In the following days and weeks, my children saw Him provide every morsel of food we ate, every piece of clean clothing we wore.  God used his people to carry us through the wilderness.  Out of the ashes came some of the biggest blessings of our lives.  Some of the most important lessons of our lives.  My children met Jehovah Jireh in the flames.  Our Provider.
     It was a long road back.  Many years have passed since those days.  But I have never forgotten that my possessions on earth are temporary.  There are things I cried over losing.  My children’s baby pictures, my Grandma’s quilts and wedding ring, so many memories.  Things you take for granted until they are gone.  
      But the things I gained in the fire are greater.  A belief in the goodness of people,  a compassion for those in need, a broken heart for those who have no where left to turn.  And mostly, a closer trust in my Provider.  The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the Name of the Lord.
     I don’t worry so much anymore about my bills, or what clothes I wear, or the car I drive.  I don’t worry about what I will eat or what house I will live in.  I learned where my treasure is when I was sitting in that yard watching the flames.  I know my God will Provide.  I know Jehovah Jireh.  
And that changes everything.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"The Reason for it All" ~Acts 9:1-31

     Why are we here?  Have you thought about that lately?  God, in all His glory, wanted us to exist.  He created deep and vast oceans, cloudy blue skies, sandy deserts, multicolored birds, shining stars and endless galaxies, swaying palm trees and soaring mountains.  Then He took a deep breath and breathed life into Adam.  Ever wonder why?  What if it was all because He simply wanted a friend?
     For many years I believed in God, respected Him, and tried my best to obey Him.  I thought it was enough.  I knew about Him.  I went to church every Sunday.  I knew the parables by heart.  I tried to be a good Christian.  I was saved.  But I didn’t know Him.
     I heard a preacher a few weeks ago say that “Satan knew God well and he never doubted Him.”  I had to think about that one for a while.  Remember where Satan started out…worshipping God.  Along with all his demons.  Satan understood God’s power and glory.  He knew scripture forward and backward.  He knew the parables too.  He understood God’s power and pull.  He knew His characteristics and miracles.  Satan knew all about God. Just like I did.
     Then I think of Saul.  The Christian Serial Killer.  Scary guy.  Smart, cultured and highly educated.  The thing about Saul is that he was a stubborn man. He had a strong will and the blood of God’s people on his soul.  All those years, he thought he was doing right, while God knew he was so very wrong.  Saul knew more about God than almost anyone of his time.  About the laws.  About the church.  About God.  Just like Satan.  Just like me.
     Some people come quietly and peacefully to Jesus, conversion without resistance.  They walk an aisle on Sunday morning and settle into a lifetime of worship.  Some people, like Saul and me, don’t convert without heartache.  People like Saul and me get Damascus-type conversions.
     Saul had to be knocked down and blinded before God got his attention.  He was blind for three days, as helpless as a child.  How hard and humbling that must have been for a man as powerful as he.  How embarrassing to be led through the streets terrified and trembling.  How humiliating to depend fully on the very people he had spent years persecuting and murdering.  Saul wasn’t one to walk quietly down the aisle on Sunday morning.  Wasn’t in his personality.
     But God knew Saul’s personality well.  He created it, after all.  But He also knew his potential.  He knew the impact Saul could have for His kingdom.  So He knocked him down, physically…then He built him up, spiritually.  And Saul became Paul, and Paul became best friends with God.
     I have a story similar to Paul’s.  I inherited some of that stubbornness from my murderous ancestor.  Needed some of his humility.  Needed to walk that Damascus Road.  To depend on others and God.
     And though it took me many years to say it, I am so thankful that He struck me down and built me up.  Thankful for the suffering that built the trust.  Thankful that I didn’t waste a lifetime just knowing His stories.  Knowing about Him.  So thankful I can now call Him my Best Friend.
     I heard the results of a poll recently where 70% of Americans claim to be Christians.  I don’t second guess it.  Only God could do that.  But I doubt that 70% are friends with Him.  If they were, this earth would look a lot different than it does.  If 70% of us really knew Him, really understood Him, really were friends with Him, we wouldn’t have to worry about elections, world hunger or prison overcrowding.  Orphans and widows would be loved.  Families would stay together.  Friendship with God changes a person’s soul.  And when your soul is changed, your actions follow.
     I think about Paul often.  About all the good he did in Part 2 of his life.  I think about how hard he worked for God.  And I think about the friendship they shared.  In the end, what could be better to say about someone than that were friends with and truly served God?
     My deepest prayer for my children is not physical health or immeasurable wealth.  It’s not happy marriages or dependable employment.  It’s not a growing church or a thriving ministry.
     My deepest prayer is that each of them will find friendship with God.  A relationship of trust and love, study and devotion, consistency and worship.  It changed Saul into Paul.  It changed the fishermen into Disciples, it changed the Woman at the Well into a tool for Revival.  It changed Abraham and Noah, and Enoch and Joseph.  It changed Esther and Miriam and Mary Magdalene.
     And last of all, best of all, it's changing me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

"The Perfect Coach" ~1 Corinthians 9:24-27

     My kids all played sports.  My oldest was a high school quarterback, my middle child a 5’3” hustling basketball player and most recently I spend my days on golf courses with my youngest, who made it to State play-offs as a high school sophomore last year.  Each of them played at least two sports, sometimes more, and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed most of the hundreds, maybe thousands of games I have attended.  I am a proud parent, often to their great embarrassment.  I stand with a camera in one hand and a cell phone in the other, ready to upload pictures.  I’ve never been good at understanding all the rules, following the plays or sometimes even keeping up with the scores.  I often don’t care who wins or loses.  I’ll never be called competitive.  But I am a parent.  So I am there, and happy to be.  
      My kids have been MVP’s and state champions.  They have been recognized in our small town and sometimes in bigger arenas.  They have made many friends and had exciting opportunities because of sports.  They have learned lots of lessons.
       And they will tell you I am always proud of teamwork, effort and most of all, “emotion control,” whether in them or in their coaches.  A good coach is a rare and precious thing.  It’s sometimes been hard for me to watch my kids disciplined on the field, court or course.  Many times I’ve had to bit my tongue when they were being “coached” to be better.  
     From an early age one of the things I told them often was if the coach is disciplining you, instructing you, correcting you, then he is watching your actions and cares about your performance.  It’s when he doesn’t know your name that things get miserable and hopeless.  
The very best coaches my children improved and thrived under all had two very important things in common.  They knew the players and they knew the rule book.
      Often what I’ve seen is the tougher the practices and the more pressure that is applied by a good coach to an unsure player in pre-game situations, the more sure of himself that player is when game time comes.  It’s a fine line, a balancing act.  It’s a special relationship.
      And when the clock is ticking, when points count, time after time, the players the coach will put on the field, floor or course are the ones who can withstand the pressure.
     You (along with all my friends and family) may be surprised to know that I too am an Athlete.
I may not look the part.  I may not be in great physical shape.  I may not wear a State ring.   
     But I’m on the field.  I’m in the game.  I have a Coach who works with me one on one every day.  I’ve had some tough “practices” of my own.  I’ve been yelled at, disciplined and beaten down by the pressure.  I’ve wanted to quit.  Run and hide my tears in an empty locker room.  I’ve been bruised, sore and exhausted.  I’ve sometimes lost championship games in the heat of battle.    
     But my Coach knows my name.  My Coach knows just how much pressure I can stand.  He’s my biggest fan, my harshest critic, the one who disciplines, corrects and teaches me when I need it most.  He’s my Coach.  He’s my Lord.  And it’s a special relationship.
     He created me.  He knows my strongest muscles and my weakest ones.  He knows my heartbeat and my pulse.  He knows my endurance and my strength.  He knows when I’ve had enough or when I can take a little more.  He knows when I need to stand in the spotlight, or when I need some time off to process my losses.  He knows me.  He’s my Coach.
      He knows the Rule Book too.  In my case, he actually wrote it.  Word for word.  Chapter and verse.  I have to trust Him on the legalities, the obscure points, the rarely quoted sections.  
      He can handle my critics in the bleachers.  He can handle my teammates failures.  He can handle my opponents, who don’t always play fair.  He can handle the referees when they call the fouls in my life that no one else sees.    He can handle my injured muscles and my injured pride.  He’s my Coach.
      So cheer for me when you can.  Boo me when you have to.  I can take it because I am an Athlete.  I was built for this game.  I was designed by my Coach.  He knows the Rule Book.  He knows the Player.  He is the only one who can keep a record of my wins and losses.  His job is to Coach.  My job is to show up for practice every day in this game called Life. 
And listen to my Coach.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"An Apple a Day...or maybe just a tiny bite..." Genesis 3: 1-24

     Can you imagine life without any sin?  Don’t you wonder about Eve, living in the Garden of Eden?  What must it have been like…walking with God in the mornings, naked, open, without sin or shame? 
      I don’t think I have ever even experienced a morning without sin or shame.  Don’t think I have ever started a day without feeling a little guilt and failure.  I would love to have been in Eve’s shoes for just an hour, to see how it felt to be pure and unashamed in front of God.  But she ruined that possibility with just one big bite!  No doubt she was related to me.  No self-control when it came to something that looked delicious!
     Eve took the apple, ate it, shared it with her man…and has shouldered a heap of blame since.  We don’t understand how she could be so stupid!  God WALKED with her, for heavens sake!  Offered her the whole world, a perfect world, a sinless world.  How could she make such stupid choices? Why couldn’t she just feel satisfied with what He provided?
      Eve had it all, but didn’t understand that.  She always wanted a little more.  Thought there was something out there in the world that she was missing.
     Eve was just like me.
     How many times have I reached out and taken a bite of an apple that God had clearly instructed me to leave alone?  How many times have I wanted just a little more than what I already had? Relationships, possessions…people, places, things that God told me to stay away from, but I just wanted one little bite.  Wanted to see what I was missing…and wound up with a belly full of sickening sin.  It’s so much harder to bite the fruit of self-control than the fruit of that sweet, juicy sin-apple.  It tastes so good for just a second...
      And then I follow the exact “sin steps” Eve did.  First I hide from God.  Slack off on my Bible study.  Stay busy and distracted.  Say quick, routine prayers.  Don’t want to be alone with God.  Don’t want to be still or quiet enough to face what I‘ve done.
     Next, the excuses start.  It wasn’t my fault.  I’m under so much stress.  Too much on my plate.  No one can be expected to live like this.  I deserve a little relief, a little reward.  I need a little “feel good” time.  My life has been so hard lately!  Can’t do this!
     Then comes the blame.  Everyone else is doing stuff like this…actually I’m a little less sinful than my neighbor.  Lord, have you looked at her lately?  And the world around me does it.  I can’t be expected to hold up in the middle of such pressure and temptation!  Everyone else gets by with stuff like this all the time!  It’s so hard to be good all the time...
     Finally, anger and resentment...I argue with God.  State all the reasons I shouldn’t be punished.  Try to bargain my consequences away.  I wind up whining about my situation to Him.  Praying tearfully for Him to “fix” the mess I’ve found myself in…and then the cycle starts over. Again.  
     The sweetest part of the “apple story” is not the juicy bite Eve took.  The sweetest part is when God covered her after with his own hands.  I guess you could say he sewed the first fur coat.  He showed her the road back to him.  But life would never look the same for Eve.  Or for any of us who live in this sinful world today.
     It took me a long time to truly understand the difference between forgiveness and consequences.  He will forgive me when I eat that apple, every time I ask.  But the results of my sneaking that bite will still be there  in my belly to live with.  Eve may have introduced sin into my world.  But I’ve done an awesome job of keeping it here!
     I’m ashamed when I look back at all the times I’ve asked Him to forgive me.  But then I think of my sin in comparison to  His infinite grace and mercy.  It’s bottomless.  And so instead of shame, I feel amazement.  I feel humbled.  I feel loved.  He knows me so well.  
     Yes, I bite that apple, over and over.  Even when I know the consequences.  And yes, He forgives me, over and over.  Even when He sees my weakness.  Because ultimately, His forgiveness is so much bigger than my sin.  And these days my gratefulness is so much bigger than my shame.  It grows every morning that I walk with Him. That’s my Father.  My Faithful Forgiver.  And He and I both know, my only hope.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"My First Call" ~Psalm 91

     Facebook, Twitter, Texting, Instant Messaging, multiple email accounts, cell phones…how communication has changed in the last ten years!   My husband will tell you I’m not any good at setting these things up or maintaining them, but I use them constantly.  Most of the time I find them convenient and helpful, although sometimes God has to remind me not to let my usage time and focus on them take the place of more important things.
     I use these tools daily at work and also to stay connected to old friends and distant
family, but I find the most important role they play in my life is that of “kid-tracker.”  Because of my divorce and circumstances surrounding it, it became important years ago for my children to have a cell phone so that I could reach them directly when they were visiting their father.  It was a handy and easy solution, which worked out very well.  Maybe a little too well.
     I quickly became accustomed to details, details, details.  I spoke to my kids sometimes several times a day, and heard about what was going on in their friends lives, what they were wearing that day, plans for the evening…etc, etc, etc.  I heard it all.  The good, the bad and the ugly!  And that’s exactly what I wanted.  It’s why, even today, when they are much older, we are still very close.  I’m still involved in their daily lives and decisions.  Although as they become adults, maybe my opinions are not counting quite as much anymore!  They still like to talk to mom at least once or twice a day.  I’ve “got their back.” And they know it!
     Sometimes those calls are to cry on my shoulder (or technically, very loudly in my ear!).  Sometimes they are just for directions or discussion.  Sometimes they need help.  Sometimes just  to celebrate good news or update me on plans and ideas.  Sometimes to say good night or good morning if they are far away from me.  And sometimes there really is no reason, except that we need to hear each others voices and know we are each just a call away from the other. 
     Oh, how I enjoy and look forward to those calls from my babies.  They help me feel connected and centered in the middle of my sometimes chaotic and crazy world.  They stop the activity and daily business for a moment to remind me what is really important.  They reassure me that my offspring are doing okay.  That they are healthy (mostly), wealthy (in love) and (sometimes) wise.  They convince me that I am still important and needed.  Many times the last few words I say as they walk out my door are “I love you.  Call me.”
     Light bulb moment for me was when I realized these were God’s very words to me.  Almost exactly.  Over and over in scripture He says “I love you, call on me.”  Daily, hourly, often.  He wants the good, the bad and the ugly.  He wants to know He is important to me and needed by me.  He wants to cry with me, celebrate my victories, large and small, to give me directions and discussion.  He wants me to “update my status” with Him hourly.  He wants me to call and say good night and good morning.  He wants me to call him just to make sure we stay close and available.  He really does.  He’s my Father.  He wants the very same things from His offspring as I want from mine.  Details, details, details.  Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? 
     Even though I was saved as a child, for many years I thought of God as a large, imposing, distant presence in the sky.  He was all-knowing and very important.  I always had respect for Him and a sure knowledge that He was there and very much in control.  But in my mind, I needed to hide all my ugliness from Him.  Cover up my sins as best I could.  Only show Him the good parts of myself (many times, that made my time in His presence pretty limited!).  I am thankful for tragedies and heartache through the years that caused me to change my view of Him.  What an untapped resource I would have missed.  These days He’s my Counselor, my Defender, my Protector.  He hears all my details.  But mostly He’s simply my best friend.  My first call.
     When my kids disappoint me, when they make decisions that I don’t agree with, when they stumble and fall, it does not affect the deep love I feel in the core of my being for them.  And what I've learned is that even hearing about and seeing the most ugly parts of my life does not cause God to turn away from me.   His love is deep, constant and unconditional.  It is part of the core of His being.  He’s “got my back.” And my heart.  And my soul.  Nothing, ever, will change that.  Not even all my details details details!  These days I have Him on speed dial!  I call on Him many times a day...And I am so very grateful that He answers when I call, without fail, every time His phone rings!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"My Normal Life" ~Luke 1: 26-38

     Woke up thinking about Mary.  Imagine that.  And it’s not even Christmas time.  I have always been intrigued by her.  Awed by her story.  Not as the mother of Jesus.  Just as her.  
     A young teenage girl.  Living quietly in a dusty village like thousands of other girls her same age.  Maybe doing a little flirting with her boyfriend Joseph, giggling with her friends over lunch…maybe dreaming of having her own house someday to bake and clean and raise babies.  I imagine her a little quieter than usual, a little more introspective.  I imagine her normal.
     Mary was, as far as we know, a good girl.  Obedient and innocent.  Doing her homework, helping her parents, going to “church.”  Not perfect.  Not sinless.  But trying very hard.  
That’s what make me hurt for her.  Sympathize with her confusion. Her normal got broken.
      In my mind, she was sound asleep.  Middle of the night darkness.  Not sure why I picture it that way, but I do.  The angel Gabriel “appeared to her.”  The Bible says it so casually.  I’m afraid that would have been the end of the whole story had I been the one awakened!  I would probably have messed up the whole plan when I died on the spot of fright!
     I like to think about Gabriel.  He’s my favorite angel.  He always brought good news.  I like that.  And I think he was gentle with her that night.  He called her “favored one” right off the bat.  Mentioned her Lord.   I think he tried to soothe her.  Reassure her.
     My translation says Mary was perplexed by the news he gave her.  That makes me laugh.  I think it was the understatement of her lifetime!   The news he gave didn’t make sense.  The news he gave wasn’t possible.  The news he gave was about to turn her innocent little life upside down.  Those thoughts probably ran through her mind frantically.  This news would destroy her dreams, embarrass her family, run off her friends and end her engagement.  Make people gossip.
     Mary would never live a “normal” day again.
     That’s what keeps me awake at night.  The recent revelation of how much I love my normal.  
     Mary’s story is not the only one where “normal” disappeared when Jesus stepped into the picture.  There are dozens more.  Zacharias and Elizabeth, Peter, James and John…they are just a few of his first documented encounters.  There are dozens more that we can read about.  People from all walks of life…fishermen and tax collectors, priests and commoners, prostitutes and farmers.  All of them had “normal” lives.  Struggling with the mundane.  Celebrating births and deaths and marriages.  Feasts and famines.  Sunshine and rain.  
     All of these people likely dealt with cranky kids, overdue bills,  sickness and unfulfilling careers.  The Bible doesn’t tell us those parts and I’m so glad.  Got enough of that stuff already.
     What the Bible does tell us is that each of their stories really starts at the point when Jesus walks in.  The stories that matter, the stories that have been preserved for centuries don’t talk about the common every day parts of their life.  The part that matters always starts when Jesus walks in and normal ends.  Makes me think about how normal things still are for me. Maybe too normal.  I cling to it.  And all the examples He gives me tell me God won’t tolerate that.
     The thing I admire about Mary is her response.  Scared and alone, not understanding what was ahead except to know that all her plans and dreams were likely over before they began.  Mary simply thinks about it for a few minutes (or “ponders” it as my Bible says) and then says some of the most glorious words ever spoken.  Words that changed my life and yours forever.  And hers.  And millions of others.  Words that should be our example of obedience.
     Mary simply said “May it be done to me according to your word.”  Amazing, glorious, trusting words.  Words we should all memorize and use every single day when talking to God.
     Those may be the hardest words for me to say.  The hardest to really mean.  I like my plans and dreams.  I like my normal.  But God doesn’t seem too fond of leaving normal alone.  Normal is not what He wanted for Mary.  And I feel sure it’s not what He wants for me.  He likes to step in and change the course of everything.  Blow the socks off normal and replace it with adventure, with love that we can’t imagine, with changes we aren’t comfortable with.  With something so much more glorious and eternal.  What Mary got.  And Peter, James and John.  So many stories.
     He wants to shatter our normal with His Will.  Fill us up with the difference.  We’ve got to learn to say the words and mean them, daily.  “Not mine, but YOUR WILL BE DONE!”
        And then get ready for the ride!