Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Best and the Worst

It was the best six months of my life. It was also the worst.

My dad had a brain tumor removed that was metastatic from lung cancer. My mom was rapidly deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. My own kids graduated; moved out-of-state; moved back to the area; got married. My two youngest daughters left for out-of-state colleges—within two days of each other!

And during that time I also took a new leadership position at my church.

Now all this was normal stuff, most of it even good stuff. College and graduations and weddings are times to celebrate. But they also mean change, and even good change takes a lot of energy to process. This much change happening all at once knocked me for a loop. It was like being in the water at the beach when one of those huge waves catches you by surprise, churning and tumbling you in somersaults so quickly that you can’t figure up from down. You end up swallowing too much seawater and getting sick to your stomach.

big waves for best & worst

That’s how I felt. Out-of-control, sick to my stomach, and not sure which way was up.

As a believer in Jesus I knew there was a firm foundation beneath me, but I just couldn’t seem to find my footing. I knew the importance of spending time with Jesus. Every time I did He faithfully restored my perspective. But inevitably another wave, another change, would slam into me and I would go tumbling off-kilter all over again.

It took time, a lot of prayer, and a lot of surrender before those waves let loose of me, and equilibrium fully returned.

As I look back, I realize that I learned a lot from that time in my life.

I learned that you can’t learn to swim if you don’t go out into deeper water. While we might prefer otherwise, sometimes the Lord deliberately puts us in situations where we are in over our heads. He wants us to learn things there that we can’t learn any other way; things like how to trust that He won’t let us drown, or that His grace truly is sufficient in our weakness (2 Corinthian 12:9). Spiritual depth is often cultivated most deeply in those times when we hurt and struggle and desperately seek Jesus’ help.

I learned that there are times when, no matter how much we love Jesus, we get surprised by one of those huge life-waves that knock us down and disorient us. It is not sin that causes it to happen, nor sin when we struggle with it. It is only sin when we give up, doubt our Father’s love, and quit seeking help from the One who can best give it.

I learned that it is the daily habit of prayer, surrender, and time in the word that sustains us when life is chaotic. Those truths that we meditate on and the unchanging reality of God’s presence and care are what stabilizes us and rights our world.

I learned that regardless of how I felt, the firm foundation never moved. I’ve heard it said that the only constant is change. I disagree. Change ebbs and flows. There are times when life moves along placidly, and it’s easy to remain on an even keel. Other times, like that summer, change slams into you, leaving you reeling. Yet Jesus never moves away from us, nor does He cease to hear us call to Him for help. He always works in our lives in response.

No, change is not the only constant. Jesus is.

No matter what challenges we are facing, Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us(Hebrews 13:5).  He reassures us that all things work together for good, even the changes we neither sought nor wanted (Romans 8:28).  He is our lifeguard who sees us struggling in the deep, turbulent water and comes to rescue us, tenderly keeping our head above water, and helps us regain our footing on the firm foundation of His love.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my foes, who were too strong for me….He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because He delighted in me.         Psalm 18:16-19

Further reflection:

  1. Has there been a time in your life when you experienced overwhelming change?
  2. What are some of the lessons you learned?

Father, You alone are constant. You are my Rock. Thank You that even when my world seems topsy-turvy, Your presence and Your word are unchanging. You always hear me, and You always provide the only firm foundation that endures.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Cheerful Heart

I heard it for myself, and it was a sound that I treasured.

We were Skyping with my son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. The two girls, Addie and Kacie, are moving targets. They don’t light very long in one place, so I heard them more than I actually saw them.

Eric and I were talking about the latest soccer score when I heard it: three-year-old Kacie broke out singing in her lispy sweet voice. The words were to a song I had never heard before: “Chicken pot pie! Chicken pot pie!”

Kacie 2

Eric says she wakes up singing and doesn’t stop until she goes to sleep at night. She sings songs from Sunday School; “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, then waits for us to respond by clapping before she continues. She sings songs from her favorite TV show, “Dora the Explorer“. And as evidenced by her rendition of “Chicken pot pie!” she even creates songs based on what her mom says they are having for dinner!

Kacie takes such great joy in the little things, and lets that joy infect every detail of her life. She is the epitome of Psalm 15:15b: “The cheerful heart has a continual feast...”

I imagine God takes great delight in her.

It true that life isn’t always easy. It can be tough; full of trials and challenges and disappointments. Grief can be an altogether too familiar friend as we experience seasons of devastating loss. But we do have a choice in the middle of those circumstances; to focus on the problems, or on the One who is with us during them.

Don’t get me wrong; God expects us to experience normal emotions. The one who created us knows our frame and remembers He created us out of dust (Psalm 103:13-14). Fear, anxiety and sorrow are part of being human. But He does encourage us to fix our eyes on Him (Hebrews 12:1-3). It takes our center of attention off of our own weakness and places it on His strength, and exchanges our inadequacy for His sufficiency.

It enables us to say, like King David:

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.                                         Psalm 42:5

I think I will learn from Kacie, and choose to focus on the joy of the little things and the One who gives it.

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.                                 Psalm 28:7

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.               Psalm 95:1

Further reflection:

1. Is it easier for you to focus on the hard things, or does finding joy in the midst of them come easy to you?

2. How might focusing on God’s presence in all of life’s circumstances change your perspective?

Father, my heart sometimes yearns for life to be easier, yet I know You are with me no matter what. Help me to find and focus on the everyday blessings You give so freely. May my heart find its greatest joy not in circumstances, but in You alone.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Just Sleeping

I snuck into the room, hoping to remain undetected. I couldn’t help myself; it wasn’t the first time it happened, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last, either.

I sat there for a time, just watching my son sleep. He was only 3 weeks old, but already more precious that I can describe. Blue-eyed with wispy blonde hair, it was amazing to look at him and reconcile that this little person was the very child I had so recently carried inside of my own body; the baby that God, in His infinite, amazing, faithful grace, had chosen to bless me with.

sleeping baby 2

I could think of nothing I would rather be doing than to simply enjoy the gentle in-and-out of his breathing. An overwhelming sense of love, fierce and protective, swelled and grew within me. It filled my heart to the point of pain, bursting with joy and gratitude at the gift He was.

Ironically, he really wasn’t doing anything to earn that kind of response. He was just sleeping, yet I loved him with every fiber of my being simply because he’s my son, and I am his mother. I still feel that way about him today.

God loves me with that the same kind of love. It is fierce, and constant, and undeniable. I haven’t done anything to earn it, and I certainly don’t deserve it. Yet, I cannot lose it. His love for me will never change, and never waver, because it is unconditional.

He loves me simply because He is my Father, and I am his daughter.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!                                                                                 1 John 3:1a

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.                                                                                                                      Jeremiah 31:3

Further reflection:

1. If you have children, did you ever wander into their rooms at night, just to watch them sleep?

2. What were the emotions you felt?

3. How is that, in small part, a reflection of God’s love for you?

Father, You are a perfect parent. If I love my own kids with such deep feelings, how much more do You love me! Thank You for Your unfailing, unconditional, and unwavering love. I love You, Father, and would be lost without You.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Now and Forever

I saw it coming out of the corner of my eye, but before I could react there was the sound of splintering glass and screeching metal-on-metal impact. Then…nothing.

I’m not sure how long I was out, but I woke slowly. I remember wondering: “What is that sound? And that horrible smell?” The car horn was blaring, and the acrid chemical odor was from the airbags that had deployed, but it had yet to make sense to me.

wreck 3

Slowly raising my head, I saw a man run up to the car. He came to the window, telling me to turn off the car that I hadn’t realized that, though motionless, was still running. Unable to think for myself, I looked at him again, waiting for the next directive.

“Get out of the car.”

About that time I began to comprehend that I had been in an accident. Immediately I looked to see what happened to the other car. My blood ran cold when I spotted it, flipped upside down, roof partially caved in, lying in a pool of glass.

“I’ve killed someone! I’ve killed someone!” That was all my fuzzy brain could grasp.

I got out of the car, and the man led me to the curb. Two women ran up to check on me.

“Are you Christians?” I beseeched. “Would you please pray with me?” And these two women, unknown to me, bent their heads and we prayed for the others involved. I heard the paramedics arrive, and then the fire truck. The women asked if there was someone I could call.

I pulled out my phone, but could remember neither phone numbers, nor how to work the phone itself. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the church I worked at was #1 on the speed dial, so I hit that and had them transfer me to my administrative assistant. I asked her to call my sister for me, and told her where I was.

Once my sister, Annette, arrived I fell into her arms, sobbing. My chest ached from the seat belt impact, and my head felt like it was going to explode. She provided a safe place for me to let go.

Then the paramedic came, wanting to do a quick check on me. As he walked me around the fire truck I spotted my brother-in-law Pete, who was a fire captain. It was his truck that had responded. His calm, encouraging manner was a blessing. They wanted me to go to the hospital, too.

fire-truck11

“How are they?” I asked, referring to the other people involved in the accident. Pete had actually been the one to crawl inside their car and pull them out. His words were encouraging; they were alive, and on their way to the hospital. I hadn’t killed them after all!

The policeman met us at the hospital to take our statements. He reassured me that the accident was not my fault, and the other people were doing okay.

His summary? “When I saw the accident scene, I thought for sure there were fatalities. I can’t believe you all walked away.”

While there are some lingering physical effects from that accident ten years ago, I know there was so much grace and mercy God extended to all of us. It could have been so much worse.

Sometimes it’s frustrating when I hear people telling kids, or each other, that God will protect and keep them safe. I know they mean well, but God never promises that we will be safe. Hard things happen; people lose jobs, they get in car accidents, their homes burn down. Sad things occur; mothers die of cancer, planes crash, and soldiers die in war.

God never promises that we will not suffer; in fact, He predicts we will (John 16:33). What He does promise is to be with us when we do (Hebrews 13:5b), and reassures us that He is close to us when our hearts are breaking (Psalm 34:18). He assures us that He will sustain and renew us (Matthew 11:28-30) and that He is our friend, who sticks closer even than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). He is near—He is always near—and He is present in whatever hard situation we find ourselves in (Psalm 46:1).

When I had that accident I felt the presence of God. In the prayers of the two women, in the hug from my sister, and in the presence of my brother-in-law, He was very near.

That is His promise, and along with David my heart responds:

I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness; for your promises are backed by all the honor of your name.                                                 Psalm 138:2 (NLT)

Because He promised, God is near both now and forever.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.                                                                                                                    Romans 8:38-39

Further reflection:

1. Have you ever communicated, intentionally or inadvertently, that God will always protect and keep us safe?

2. Look up the verses mentioned above. Pick one that speaks to your heart, and write it down on a 3x5 card. Carry it in your wallet to refer to when you need it.

Father, thank You that all Your promises are backed by the honor of Your name. Your love and faithfulness are unfailing. You are near, and no matter what, You always will be. I am never alone…

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

African Joy

Hot. Dusty. Primitive. Fascinating. These were the words I would have chosen to describe Africa before I went there. And it was definitely all of that, but it was also so much more.

Several of us from church camped in tents in the village of Doudan; we wanted to participate in the lives of our Senegalese brothers and sisters as much as possible. We ate with them (mostly rice with a few vegetables eaten one-handed. Don’t ask why). We shared our faith with them and their kids, and we went to church with them.

African-Hut

Different is an understatement. It seemed like a scene straight out of National Geographic, and I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a movie set, but a way of life. This village had no indoor plumbing—only a rickety wooden shed that served as a communal restroom—but without the toilet paper. Scattered baobab trees provided random bits of shade from the scorching sun. Livestock were left to free-range, causing me to wake up at night hearing a strange noise, and groggily realize; “It’s a pig rooting outside the tent. You’re in Africa. Go back to sleep.”

pig-rooting-in-the-dirt

Water was a scarce and precious commodity. It was used mostly for cooking and drinking, and rarely for washing. Interestingly, though they lived in the desert they were farmers by trade, and extremely dependent on a good rainy season. Unfortunately, the rainy season also brought mosquitoes and the malaria they carried. It wasn’t the easiest life.

In stark contrast to those challenges stood the picture of their joy. The people wore broad grins, and the vibrant colors of their dress were in stark contrast to the monotones of the desert. Even in the midday heat, they were always ready to express their joy. The kaleidoscope of colors swirled as the women danced, breaking out at random times and for no apparent reason. That dancing, filled with passion and abandon, was fueled by the ever-present beat of the drum, lending rhythm and structure to both their work and their play. Little children learned from the example of their elders that there is joy to be found in the small, common, everyday mercies.

african dance

One of my favorite memories is the look of utter joy on their faces as they danced—in church! They danced as they went forward to present their offering. They danced during the worship time, and beckoned us to join them in their celebration of Jesus’ goodness. They laughed with us and not at us, as we clumsily joined them. There was a unity there seldom seen at home, as expectations and comfort were stripped away in the light of the reality of Jesus, whom we each worshipped.

It was as if their struggles, their challenges, and their perspective were strained through a filter of the joy of knowing Him, saturated with the reality of God’s presence, and sustained by a total dependence on His grace.

I—not they—am the poor one.

This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!                                                                                              Nehemiah 8:10b

Come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come to him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him. For the Lord is a great God, a great King above all gods.                                                        Psalm 95:1-3

The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.                       Psalm 28:7

If you would like to see a video overview of our time in Senegal, you can access it here: http://emote360.com/Senegal2010/

further reflection:

  1. What do you think it would be like to have all material conveniences taken away?
  2. Would you still be able to be joyful?
  3. Would it change your perception of the goodness of Jesus?

Father, You alone are the unchanging One, and my joy is deepest when it is drawn from my relationship with You. Help me to let go of those material things that I think will make me happy, and cling instead to You, the one who satisfies my soul. Then the joy You provide would indeed be my strength.