Friday, July 24, 2015

Oh, those robber robins!

Robins were not my dad’s favorite birds, at least when they tried to harvest the crop off his small blueberry patch. He had planted about six bushes by his work shed, and as they matured, the plump, tasty berries became a banquet hall for the local bird population. Finally, he caged the entire patch with chicken wire, an enclosure that was six feet tall with a door so we could still go in and pick them. Sometimes, however, a little gap at the bottom of the enclosure was all it took for an enterprising robin to sneak in and feast away.

Despite the haul of bandit birds, we picked enough to freeze for our enjoyment through the year. My memories of fresh-picked blueberries resulted in planting a few bushes at the back of our garage. And guess what.  The robins found them. Although these berries lacked the size and flavor of those from my childhood,  the bushes still brought the enjoyment of summer’s “blue gold."

I couldn’t build a wire cage for them, so draped them instead with bird-deterring netting. The robins still found a way in, but I settled for a less-than-perfect system.

My “berry guard” system got me thinking about spiritual guards.  Psalm 91 speaks of God guarding us when surrounded by evil. But the scripture I cherish most about “guarding” is from Philippians, written by a weary apostle who was “guarded” by hardened Roman soldiers as he served out an indefinite sentence for preaching Christ.

“Rejoice!” Paul wrote, likely as chains clanged from his wrists. “Be gentle!  Pray about everything! Be thankful! Tell God your needs!”  And then:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

One of the misconceptions about being a Christian that I had to work through in my early faith walk was that all would be hunky-dory once I crossed the line to say “Jesus is my Savior.”  Some problems will fade as our values and priorities change to good. But we live in a fallen world, and problems will come. Instead of robins after blueberries, those pesky crows and vultures of “fallen-ness” will attack when we least expect.

What are we to do? Rejoice! Be gentle! Pray! Be thankful! Tell God your needs! So doing will “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” And the sweetness of knowing the Savior—far sweeter than the plumpest blueberry, for sure!—will help feed a Christ-hungry world.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The buzz on "busy"

A busy bee got my attention one day when I looked out my office window at the blooming rhododendrons.  As he floated from one blossom to another, I thought of a children’s book I’ve been reading my grandson Josiah. It follows a diligent bee who says “no” to farm animals inviting him to play with them. “I’ve got work to do,” he says, buzzing to the next flower. The bee finished his work by the last page when he rewarded the farmer with honey—and the book’s electronic cell rewarded the reader with a happy “buzz.” Toddlers love those surprises in their books!
“I’ve got work to do” often comes out of my mouth. The work ethic modeled for me in childhood continued into my working life as a reporter with its stressful deadlines requiring focus and productivity. I still remember the loud clatter of old-fashioned typewriters in the newsroom, the mechanical version of buzzing bees. Now, juggling housework, writing, and care of others keeps me buzzing from project to project.

 Sometimes I think about how busy the Bible’s Martha felt, especially when Jesus dropped in for a visit. What a privilege to have Him come.  But she didn’t have a microwave to zap Him and His companions a ready-made meal, or an “app” to have one delivered from the pizza parlor. In those days, everything about homemaking was labor-intensive. I “get” her desire to serve a meal worthy of this amazing Person.  But I also understand Jesus’ admonition, “Only one thing is needed,” to mean that a simple meal, not a showcase menu, was okay. Yes, she got a bit snippy toward Mary, who wasn’t helping. But stomachs would have rumbled if they’d both sat at Jesus’ feet.

We need the balance of Martha and Mary in our spiritual personalities. In his book The Attentive Life (IVP, 2008), former Graham team evangelist Leighton Ford explained how some of us lean toward the mundane things of life, and some toward the so-called “spiritual,” but both traits are necessary. As an example, he quoted Mother Teresa, talking of the work of the Sisters of Mercy in caring for the dying poor in India: “Do not think of us as social workers,” she said, alluding to the “Martha” side.  “We are contemplatives in the midst of life. We pray the work” (p. 107).

Like Martha, we need to be diligent about serving God (akin to the bee making honey). James 4:17 says we sin when we know what we ought to do, and don’t do it. But we also need the “Mary” side that savors the spiritual nectar in God’s Word, “sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb” (Psalm 19:10).

Friday, July 10, 2015

Rest assured

Pictures of contentment, these horses reminded me that life is a rhythm of activity and rest. God’s plan is a balanced life of service and renewal that brings Him glory. It’s the sense of “rightness” conveyed by Isaiah 30:15:
            In repentance and rest is your salvation,
            In quietness and trust is your strength.
This verse is one you might find on a plaque in a religious gift shop. But be careful of scripture plucked out of context. It’s embedded in a chapter full of reprimands for national obstinacy. With vicious northern empires chewing away at their borders, the Jews decided God’s protection wasn’t enough. So they decided to form an alliance with a heathen nation to the south, Egypt. Time would prove the folly of that treaty.

“Return to me for safety,” God was telling them through the prophet Isaiah. “Rest in me. Quietly trust me instead of making a frenzied alliance with Egypt.”

Of course, they didn’t, and in 606 B.C. the nation was overwhelmed by the Babylonian powerhouse. Yet 2,600 years later, the principle still speaks. We’re prone to fall on our faces in failure when we rely on something other than God. For some, it’s technology, fame, beauty, or wealth. In the end, all these fail.

So what do “repentance, rest, quietness, and trust” look like in real life?  Longtime Billy Graham evangelist Leighton Ford, in his book The Attentive Life (IVP, 2008) offered one idea. When he suffered a heart attack, his son-in-law brought those words to his attention. Ford began praying those words in his morning walk and wrote them daily in his journal. “They became a reminder to slow down,” he wrote, “to savor the goodness of the Lord each moment, to remind myself that I did not have to ‘do it now’ every time a new thought came, to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from my life and soul” (p. 174).

If your life has gotten so busy that there’s little space for spiritual rest, you too may need to absorb the truths of this verse. Don’t worry about finding it somewhere on a plaque. Write it on an index card and post it where you can see it, like the bathroom mirror, car dash, or a corner of your laptop. “Rest” assured: the reminder will be helpful.

Friday, July 3, 2015


The temperature had reached 108 degrees F. that afternoon of June 28, so I watched smoke clouds on the horizon with concern.  We live in an arid area, prone to wildfires. I hoped firefighters could knock it down quickly. They couldn’t. Erratic winds pushed a firestorm several miles over parched lands, into the edge of my town.  By early evening,, the radio was broadcasting emergency evacuation alerts affecting thousands. Seeing the encroaching orange glow, I quickly filled two boxes with “must-keep” documents and address books.  I slipped in my Bible. Should I take my violin? It was my father’s. I decided not to.  I handed my husband an overnight bag for a few changes of clothes and filled another for myself.  Would we have to flee in minutes? The border for “Level 2 evacuation” (“be ready to leave on a moment’s notice”) was about one-fourth mile away.  Would it soon change to Level 3 (“get out immediately”) and include us?  I looked around our small, cozy home of 34 years.  We decided to wait and listen to radio-announced evacuations.
By morning, we were still in our home. But from the end of our  block we could see blackened hillsides less than half a mile away. We’d later learn that 28 homes were destroyed.  We knew some of their owners, two of them retired teachers who'd taught our now-adult children. A mile away the other direction, flying embers had ignited industrial buildings related to the valley’s fruit processing industry. Acrid smoke boiled for a day.
Living through a “natural disaster” (and emerging unscathed except for the physical letdown when it’s over) made me think again about the big questions of suffering.  This nugget from the Old Testament prophetic book called “Lamentations” (so appropriately named) came to mind: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is his faithfulness”  (Lamentations 3:22). The author of this book (possibly Jeremiah) had watched enemies press in on his native land.  Eventually they’d come to the bloody “last call” of foreign invasion. Did God know? Didn’t He care?  Of course He does. His compassions fail not.

 I pray for that assurance for the stunned fire victims.  I pray it for people I care about who are going through some of life’s spiritual “firestorms.” The day a doctor sits down after tests and says, “I wish I had better news.” Those caring for a loved one they’re losing to dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Dying parents.  Overwhelmed adult children. Wayward adult children.  The devastation of drug addiction or arrest for crime.

The morning after the firestorm, a rainstorm helped wash away the smoke-laden valley air.  As I watched the ten-minute downpour, I remembered, “New every morning.”  It doesn’t say, “Everything is made okay every morning.” It says God’s compassions are new every morning. They’re ours to claim as we walk through the ashes of life, holding His hand.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Worrier's Hymnal

You probably know, as I do, some chronic worriers. If they
 wrote a hymnbook, it might include songs like these:

THE GLOOM GOSPEL (sung to tune of “Rock of Ages”)
I’m a worrier, I think the worst,
I’m so anxious I could burst.
I dwell on the negatives,
All the awful life can give.
Yes, I know that it’s a sin,
But my worries always win.

EXPECTING THE WORST  (sung to tune of “God Will Take Care of You”)
Worry, worry, life is not fair,
I might be breathing polluted air.
Every new ache and pain gives me alarm.
Inflation might force me to move to a barn.

An-xi-ety is my way.
Anything bad might happen today.
Accidents, illness or robbed by a bum—
Worrying expects it to come.

Maybe you caught the irony, that the tunes to both bogus “hymns” are stalwart hymns of trust in God. “Rock of Ages,” begins the first, “cleft for me,/Let me hide myself in thee.” As for the second, there’s an interesting story about its composition in 1904 by a pastor’s wife, Civilla Martin. She was among the prolific hymn lyricists of her time, reportedly writing several hundred songs. Next to “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” this is her best known.

Civilla had some health issues, and one Sunday wasn’t well enough to accompany her pastor-husband to a preaching request several hours’ journey from their home.  He seriously considered cancelling it so he could stay home with her.  His young son persuaded him to go, saying, “Father, don’t you think that if God wants you to preach today, He will take care of Mother while you are away?” While he was away preaching, Civilla wrote the four stanzas that begin:
Be not dismayed whatever betide,/God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide,/God will take care of you.
Chorus: God will take care of you,/Through every day, o’er all the way;
He will take care of you,/God will take care of you.

 What specific Bible text inspired her isn’t known, though she may have been thinking of some verses in Philippians 4:
“Do not be anxious about anything” (4:6)
“My God will meet all your needs” (4:19)
Or, from 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you.”

Civilla knew the best cure for worry: a steady dose of trust in the God who “will take care of you.”  By the way, her husband, also a musician, wrote the tune to it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Last edition

My work as a newspaper reporter taught me the value of the “last edition” deadline. If a news story needed updates or corrections, five minutes after deadline was too late! That work-day experience came to mind on Memorial Day, when my husband and older sister made their annual trip to the cemetery where their parents and many relatives are buried. While they trimmed grass away from headstones and left flowers in the bouquet cylinders, I wandered among older headstones that included epitaphs. Pausing at this one, I wondered who chose the verse. A parent, hoping their lives as a couple pleased God? Or their children, seeing the steadfast fruit of the parents’ lives? I know I’d want “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” spoken over my life.
The verse comes out of Jesus’ parables about servants, one told in Matthew 25 with “talents” and the other in Luke 19 with “minas.” In both cases, two servants invested to the master’s gain, and one did nothing. The angry master called the neglectful servant “wicked” and “lazy,” hardly what you’d want put on your tombstone.
Later, walking under the cemetery’s entrance arch, I thought how those of us on “this side” of the sod still have time to invest our lives in God’s priorities. But only He knows how much time that will be. Eternity could beckon after a short or long illness, or surprise our loved ones with its swiftness. A few months ago, a church friend was getting ready to go to Bible study. In her kitchen, she collapsed and died. My entire family could have perished in 1997 when a drunk driver smashed into our car.  Then last fall, a careless teen driver totaled our car. Crawling out of it, we realized we’d been given another “second chance.”
I’ve been reading a book by Gerald Sittser, professor at Whitworth College in Spokane, who lost his daughter, wife and mother in a wreck caused by a drunk driver (who also perished along with his passenger).  Left to raise his surviving three children alone, Sittser wrote: “I chose in the aftermath of the accident to try to live a redemptive life. I had had enough of suffering and wanted no more” (The Will of God as a Way of Life, Zondervan, 2000, p. 95).
Whenever we redeem pain for the good of others and the glory of God, we are being “good and faithful servants.”  Sittser added this perspective, that our role in life is like the Jewish expression Tikkun Olam, meaning “fix the world.”  As God’s co-workers in “fixing the world” we “serve the common good, care for the needy, strive for justice, produce useful goods, provide helpful services, and create beautiful works of art” (pp. 207-208).
I didn’t know the couple whose headstone recalls Jesus’ parable of the faithful stewards. When their final deadline came—death—there was no more adding to their story. The time to “edit” our lives and make needed spiritual changes is now. The readers of our “story” are all around us.          

Friday, June 12, 2015

Roots and blisters

I made a blistering attack against our lawn dandelions the other week.  Yes, “blistering,” for my garden “poker” gouged a large, painful blister in my palm. Despite my best efforts, most of the roots broke off mid-way down, giving then a second chance to bloom. Indeed, they did, their sunny heads turning to airborne seeds that laughed “Gotcha” before I could attack the offspring. Oh, those rascal roots of our fallen, weedy world. I’m grateful the Bible gives us another picture of good roots: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love…” (Ephesians  3:17).
Rooted in love.  That was big on Paul’s mind as he reflected on his ministry of taking the Gospel message to Gentiles—that is, the rest of the non-Jewish world. I like how the Amplified New Testament  opens up the English equivalents of the original Greek of this text:  “May Christ through your faith [actually] dwell—settle down, abide, make His permanent home—in your hearts! May you be rooted deep in love and founded securely on love.”

I recently read a helpful word picture of “rootedness” while reading Leighton Ford’s book The Attentive Life. He told of the day he and a friend took a hike and came to two hardwood trees perched on top of a large boulder. Unable to draw sustenance from rock, the trees had grown a long root system that snaked over the boulder to the soil below. “As we looked at this ingenious root system, it seemed to pose a question: What is the root system of my life?  Is it deep and wide and long and strong enough to withstand the pressures of each day?" (The Attentive Life, IVP,2008, p.82).
Paul adds to the picture of “love roots” in this passage:  “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7).  The result of “love roots” is the flower of gratitude!  I re-read that verse after an blistering encounter with an ungrateful person who has some significant "anger" roots. That person's high on my prayer list!

But thankful for dandelions? Okay, I can find some reasons. They're  a cheerful yellow that begs to be picked for a bouquet for mommy.  Doing that is a rite of passage for little children, right?  Plus, I’m due to teach my toddler grandson the fine art of blowing off their woolly seed heads. I’ll try to time it so the wind doesn’t blow them into my neighbor’s yard!