Friday, May 22, 2015

Joy-gifts

Last week the Seattle paper featured a Norwegian immigrant who just turned 100, and whose life story included eluding capture by the Nazis by a daring, two-day journey by skis over the mountains to Sweden. Eventually, he immigrated to America, settling in Seattle.  When the reporter asked what helped him live so long, he nixed his daughter’s suggestions of eating lots of fish and drinking ten to twelve cups of coffee a day. Instead, he said, “It’s not good to be a sourpuss.  Learn to be happy.”

His reply reminded me of the apostle Paul’s advice: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Remarkably, this advice with the bookmark of Philippians 4:4 came from someone who was also a hunted man, and would be executed by the Romans.  Paul wasn’t saying we would live trouble-free lives and be happy-happy-happy.   Instead, no matter what happens, we’re to keep our focus on Jesus, the crucified, risen, and coming-again Lord. It’s called perspective.

I've learned that God has creative ways of reminding me about perspective. The other morning, after praying about some negative people in my life, I was feeling discouraged.  Would they ever let God change their lives? Walking outside, I noticed a freshly-opened rose, sparkling with water drops from the night’s rain. Yes, it had thorns up and down the stem, just as daily life holds its share of pokes and pains. Sourpusses dwell on the thorns. But God continues to remind me to focus on the beauty He offers.  This rose was absolutely splendid, so I took this photo and also downloaded it for the “wallpaper” of my computer screen.  If that rose brought me such pleasure, how much more it must have pleased God when He created it!

To repeat the counsel of that old Norwegian man, “It’s not good to be a sourpuss.  Learn to be happy.”  We can opt to fuss about life’s thorns, or choose to behold the gifts of beauty, grace and hope we have in Christ. By the way, the old man’s birthday will include meeting the king of Norway, for the third time, when that monarch comes to Seattle.  It’s unlikely I’ll live to 100, but I’m confident of meeting the King of Kings in eternity!

P.S.  In an earlier blog (April 24) I included a photo of my second grandson, Zion, born with a cleft lip and palate. Here he is two weeks after his first surgery to close the nose and lip gap. I look at this and say, “Beautiful!”  Too bad you can’t hear the baby laughter when I took this photo with his dad. More surgeries are ahead, but we’re focusing on the rose, not the thorns, and thanking God along the way.

 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fraidy Cat

I was vacuuming the house and had just pushed the cleaner into the bedroom when I heard a scuffle and saw a gray form streak across the bed.  I soon realized I had just experienced a close encounter with a “fraidy cat” who had been sleeping under the bed. Our family cat, who yowls and hisses down any feline threatening his territory, has two traumatic fears in his furry brain.  One is our toddler grandson coming through the door.  The other is a vacuum cleaner. That benign machine, which sucks up his constantly shedding fur, becomes to him a yowling monster.
 
As we laugh off his antics, we jokingly attribute them to his “deprived childhood.” He came to us as a kitten of about two or three months, rescued from a culvert at a park next to a hydroelectric dam. My husband and son had gone there one August 1st to escape the blistering summer afternoon (while I sweated out cooking dinner at home). These men of my family have soft hearts, and hearing a weak “meow,” lured out the critter with chicken nuggets found in a sack in a nearby garbage can. At that time, many illegally dumped unwanted small animals in the park’s shrubs, leading to feral rabbits and cats. Nearby coyotes found the area a wonderful feeding station.

 The old movie title “Guess who’s coming to dinner” took on new meaning when my husband and son walked in at dinnertime with a wide-eyed, scrawny kitten wrapped in an old towel. He inhaled a saucer of milk and made a dent in another saucer of tuna.

 “If we keep him, he will be an ‘outside cat,’” my husband said, knowing my allergies to cats.  Famous last words.  He will soon start his fifteenth year with us, half of that as the “only child” (feline type) after our son and daughter grew up. Well into his senior “feline” years, he much prefers the inside of the house where he can keep an eye on his food dish.

As I pondered the life of Augie (so named for being found on August 1), I thought of the fears many of us pull out of the culverts of our lives. My 50th high school reunion is coming up, and my adolescence isn’t really something I want to review. I did okay in high school. I was in the top ten academically and concertmistress of the high school orchestra. But I wasn’t into makeup and trendy clothes. And hair? My mom cut my hair while I sat on the rim of the bathtub. Beauty shop “cuts” didn’t fit in the family budget. One of my favorite classes was trigonometry, where we were seated alphabetically and which put me right in front of (be still my soul) the student-body president. But I didn’t date or go to dances. My friends came out of a core of similarly down-to-earth teens who were a part of “Horizon Club,” the teen version of Camp Fire.

As for the fear of “not fitting in”—oh, the adolescent mind. Oh, the adolescent bullies. One time on a crowded stairwell between classes, I felt someone poking into my back. When I arrived in English class, someone pulled a paper with an uncomplimentary name off my back. Did that ruin me for life? Of course not. The bullies were the ones “not fitting in.” As I grew up, God prepared the experiences that helped me learn to relate to people and stand out above the conforming crowd. High school was, well, high school.  I left that way behind.

Most of us have learned the old King James version of 2 Timothy 1:7:
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
That verse comes out of Paul’s last preserved letter to Timothy. The old apostle knew his own death was likely not far away. He was urging the young pastor to be a confident, bold Christian leader. And so it is for us. God is greater than any fear based on a long-ago event. He changes us as we walk in faith with Him, with the purpose of bringing glory to Him. We often quote that verse to someone who, as a chronically worried and anxious adult, needs the gentle reminder that such behavior doesn’t honor God.

When we behave like “fraidy cats,” unwilling to face down what we perceive to be a threat, we’re forgetting the principle just a few verses later: “God…has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9).

Grace thanks the noisy vacuum cleaner, and Purpose rubs up against the toddler.

 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sew & Sow: A Mother's Legacy


The "triangle quilt." When
the backing rotted, I took it
apart and sewed a new
back to it. Oh, all those
yarns to place and tie!
When I changed our winter blanket the other day for a spring-weight one my mother made, I relived some memories of her. Composed entirely of triangles cut from her sewing scraps, it reminded me of how she made use of all the “scraps” of her life, including an impoverished childhood and chronic illness. When she died at age 59 of cancer, I told God I felt she died way too young. But I knew in His wisdom He had allowed that, considering her life’s work done.

The phrase “sew & sow” might well characterize that work. A sewing skill that began with the printed cotton bags of Depression-era flour sacks, and ended with tailoring suits for my father, wore out three sewing machines.  When I moved from home, my little 10x10 bedroom became stuffed with sewing paraphernalia previously tucked throughout the house. Her sewing “stash” required an entire estate sale day by itself. Like the noble Proverbs 31 woman, she made sure her family (including the two grandchildren she lived long enough to meet) was adequately (and thriftily) dressed.  Though she didn’t sew for income (Proverbs 31:24) she spent hours sewing for others, including clothes for her disabled mother, and lap blankets for the residents of a local convalescent home. 

As for “sow,” that word covers two aspects of her lifestyle. When my parents had a garden, she overestimated the power of zucchini plants. She could have written a zucchini recipe book. What we couldn’t eat right away ended up shredded in bags in the freezer. But she also sowed spiritually, known as a woman who loved God and the scriptures. Though her formal education ended at first year of junior college, she read her Bible faithfully. One of the cherished Bible versions I keep in the “reference shelf” above my computer is her “Amplified New Testament” with her red-pencil notations.

My mother and me, late 1947
She also sowed a legacy of overcoming. She was born prematurely, in a log cabin, to an impoverished Norwegian immigrant farmer and his polio-disabled wife.  She was the oldest of nine raised in the hardships of eastern Montana dry-land farming. A relative, knowing she had no future at home, sent for her to come to Washington state to junior college. That’s where she met my father. Together they weathered the sparse war years and she birthed my sister and, six years later, me. I think they had hoped for a “John Jr.,” but went with the feminine form of “John,” Jeanne.

I never matched her “sowing” (as in gardening) or “sewing” (as in men’s suits) skills. But she permitted me to grow in the unique ways God gifted me, applauding my achievements and not wanting her poor health (asthma, broken bones, finally cancer) to get in the way of being there for us.

Someone recently wrote about how to honor one’s parents. There are obvious ways, like remembering them on birthdays and holidays, and making sure their needs are taken care of.  But what of parents who have died, like mine both did in 1978, when I was 30?  I think the apostle Paul gave us a clue when he wrote, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). My “sew & sow” mother was no slacker, and I hope I have shown that trait. I am confident she is in the presence of the Lord for that “someday” reunion, when we can compare notes, woman-to-woman, mother-to-daughter, child-of-God to child-of-God.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Keeping Room

Grooooan....sigh....ohhhh......There, you have the audio of me reacting to yet another crisis in the lives of people for whom I’d prayed for years.  I had become weary of praying for them in what seemed a never-ending negative drama.  There, I admitted it. How many times had I come to their names on my prayer list with a sense of gloom? Was God listening to how I thought things could be “fixed”?  Would things ever change for the better for them?  If I quit praying, would things go from bad to worse to terrible?

I actually thought those things—as if the world turned on my prayer life!  Talk about spiritual arrogance. Yet I really cared about these people and wanted to see God-pleasing changes in their lives—changes that would bring them a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11).  Would I be a spiritual slacker if I quit praying for them?

As I pondered these questions, I  came across some notes from reading Virelle Kidder’s book, Donkeys Still Talk (NavPress, 2004). The title of her book references Balaam’s talking donkey when Balaam resisted God’s instructions. Virelle had struggled with praying over loved ones’ needs that weighed heavily on her heart.  One day, she asked herself, “Why can I not carry those I love into the sanctuary of God’s power and love, lay them down at Jesus’ feet, and then leave in His divine safekeeping my broken dreams and the lives of those closest to me?”  And that is what she did, starting a page in her journal titled, “The Keeping Room.”  As she wrote names there, she prayed:
Lord, here is one I love and You love.  I leave him in Your keeping, asking that Your best be done in his life. I release him to You with great thanks and praise for all You will do, even if I am not privileged to see it. Keep him, Lord, in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.  (p. 149)
Virelle admitted that, despite that prayer of surrender, she sometimes wanted to peek through the keyhole and see what God was doing. But surrender meant letting God be God.

Yes, it is right to pray for others.  It is wrong to pray to the point of fretting.  It is right to take our most frustrating situations to God. It is wrong to keep grabbing them back, as doing so implies that God is incapable of handling them.  We need more of the holy abandon Paul articulated when he wrote, “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard ["keep"--KJV] what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12 NIV).

These were part of Paul’s “last words,” written to his protégé Timothy as the seasoned apostle realized he’d probably be executed by the Romans.  But he was not ashamed of the dramatic U-turn his life took in submitting to Christ. He was confident that God would take care of the spiritual children he’d leave behind when his life was taken.  In other words, Paul affirmed that he wasn’t the only person through whom God could work in advancing the Gospel.

I think that’s the big message behind a “keeping room.”  When we get discouraged or in a dither over praying for people with stubborn problems, God may need us to back off and allow Him to handle these loved ones with His wisdom and compassion.  Our prayers will move from “God, change them,” to “God, thank You that You love them infinitely more than I do.  I thank You for the way You are working in their troubled lives. I trust You for an outcome that glorifies You.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

What's next, Lord?

Here’s my second grandson, Zion—and what a winsome smile!  He was born with a cleft lip and palate, and next Friday, the day he turns four months old, he will undergo his first surgery to repair his cleft lip. We have known he had this condition since several months before birth, when an ultrasound revealed both “it’s a boy!” and the cleft. It has complicated feeding, but not taken away his endearing baby ways. He now smiles and coos when we hold and feed him.

Cleft lip and/or palate occurs in varying severity in about one in six hundred births. Especially when a mother was diligent about healthy living during her pregnancy, there are “why” questions. But as we have walked alongside our son and daughter-in-law, I’ve learned that “why” isn’t the right question. Instead, it’s “What’s next, Lord?”

Once when feeding Zion, I was reminded of some Bible verses that speak of  physical challenges evident at birth. They’re packaged with the story of God calling Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. After a hot-headed murder forced Moses to flee Egypt, abdicating his privileges as an adopted son in Pharaoh’s family, he roamed the wilderness for years, pushing sheep around.

When the time was right, God caused a nondescript shrub to burst into fire and get Moses’ attention. Then, establishing that place as “holy ground,” God told Moses his next step would be leading a nation, not sheep. Moses reacted, “Who, me? You’re kidding. Send someone else. I’m a clumsy speaker” (Exodus 4:10, personal paraphrase).

God’s response was a reminder that our entire selves--physical, emotional, intellectual, even societal—are part of God’s permissive plan. None of us is perfect. Some have more visible “not-perfect” parts. Others have imperfections buried deep in their thinking. “Perfection” ended when sin entered the world.

When Moses focused on his imperfections and refused God’s high call on his life, God replied, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or dumb?  Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). God knows all about the “not-perfect” parts of our lives, and none limit His power. If He insisted on using only perfect people, His work force would number “zero.” But He takes us where we are, and promises His help to do His work. He told Moses, “Now go: I will help you speak and teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12).

As for “help you speak and teach you what to say,” I think of the learning curve his brother Josiah (older by 17 months) is experiencing with language skills. Josiah learned the usual “mama,” “dada,” “papa,” and “nana” (grandma/banana), and not too long after that came “duck” and “drip.” Right now, his favorite word is “cocoa.” As I warm up the milk for his cocoa, I smile and wonder, “What’s next, Lord?” in his language acquisition.

The same phrase comes to mind as I pray for little Zion. Right now, he loves to be held and is unaware of the discomfort ahead to fix his sweet, gapped grin. We’re at the beginning of a journey, one best navigated with hearts that ask, “What’s next, Lord?” and then go forward in faith.

Friday, April 17, 2015

View from the Thinking Bench

Think-stops are good in life.  Sometimes, spiritual wisdom needs to settle in our hearts before we can share it with others. Recently, someone who is going through faith struggles asked, “How can I hear God speak?”  The easy reply is, “The Holy Spirit helps us hear Him.”  But that’s not always enough for the people seeking more of God.

A good answer to that comes from writings of respected Christian author and pastor A.W. Tozer (1897-1963).  Tozer knew how to reduce deep issues to terms that people could understand.  In the last chapter of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), he said the secret of knowing God is to:
1. Forsake our sins. 
2. Commit our whole life to Christ in faith.
3. Reckon ourselves dead to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus, and open to the Holy Spirit and the disciplines He requires. 
4. Repudiate the cheap values of the fallen world and become detached in spirit from it.
5. Practice the art of long and loving meditation on the majesty of God.
6. Obey the imperative of greater service to our fellow men as knowledge of God becomes more wonderful.

I’m glad my friend wants to have a deeper relationship with God. But working through this list with honesty will bring pain. It’s apt to pry open festering problems that need a spiritual antiseptic.

Such cleansing doesn’t happen easily when our worlds are cluttered with media and other false busyness. It often helps to get off alone, to some sort of “thinking bench.” When open-hearted and alone with God, we’re apt to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s teaching.  He’s already waiting to teach us how God sees us through the sacrificial lens of Calvary love.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Fresh starts

The “Dynamite House”—the local ramshackle house whose basement cache of unstable TNT forced evacuation of our neighborhood two summers ago—is gone. Bulldozed into a splintery pile and clawed into dump trucks, the old house left us. Now a new one is taking its place. As I watch the progress, I think of how the Bible likened Christian growth to house-building. I also allow the process to remind me to pray for those who need to let go of “old stuff” (like the crumbling TNT of anger) and let Christ rebuild them from the ground up.
            “Unless the Lord builds the house,” says Psalm 127:1, “its builders labor in vain.” This well-known verse opens one of the “ascent” psalms sung by ancient pilgrims going to Jerusalem for worship. The first verse is well-known, but a closer study shows the psalm actually uses four common activities to teach how God needs to be at the center of all things.
            House construction (v. 1): We can move ahead on a project or dream, thinking we know it all, but forget to ask God’s blessing until it’s all done. The alternative is looking to Him every step of the way.  Little is much if God is in it, and, conversely, “much” is nothing without God. I see that in how my vocation moved from rookie newspaper reporter to Christian writer/speaker. Many agonizing, prayer-bathed changes marked the way.
            Security (v. 1b): “Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” How thankful I am to live in a land of police and fire protection, just one 9-1-1 call away. But while God has permitted these agencies to be a part of our lifestyle, our ultimate security is in Him.
            Work life (v. 2): “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat, for he grants sleep to those he loves.”  This was a favorite verse of college finals week and parenting a sleepless, wailing newborn!  Seriously, the Bible does teach us that it is normal to work, and sometimes that requires long hours. After all, it’s called “work.” We’re to supply our own needs, those of our family, and those around us. But if we work without a thought to God, there’s an ultimate emptiness in what we do. As for the “sleep” phrase, that, too, is a gift from God. When we’re really tired, sleep is sweet.
            Family life (vv. 3-5). More than half the psalm is taken up with the blessing of family:
            Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.
            Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth.
            Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
            They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
This verse needs to be understood in the context of early history, when jobs were labor-intensive (like farming or building). Having many sons meant many hands to support the family. (Though it’s not added, many daughters helped the mother on the home-side). It’s also assumed that those children are believers. Otherwise, they’d bring heartache and shame to the family, not blessing.
            An unbroken chain of godly families is not the norm.  But God is in the business of taking away the rubble and doing a new “build” on top:
            Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has come, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
            Before we know it, that house down the block will be done and a new family moved in. But I’ll still remember the old “Dynamite House,” and be glad that in real life, God does lead the way for fresh starts.