Going Deeper

Recently I had the opportunity to take my Sudanese friend and seven of her children to the beach. She and the three oldest girls jumped in and swam like dolphins. The three little girls, following their lead, ran headlong into the surf – and immediately wiped out. Salty and distressed, they retreated to a very nice tidal pool, eased their way in, and played for hours. It was safe there with no pesky waves, just calm, serene water. Still, there was this pull to the ocean, to frolic in that wild surf.

Eventually the little girls could resist no longer; they decided to brave the waves once more. Carefully, very carefully, they dipped their toes into the surf, breath shallow and hearts pounding. As soon as the water hit them, they ran screaming onto the dry sand, then immediately went back again. The oldest younger daughter, Sahiba, is eight. She is all dark chocolate arms and legs and dimples. Sahiba was determined to learn to swim, but she was scared. She grabbed my hand and took a couple of steps past the shore and into the water.

Sahiba was too afraid to go any farther than knee-deep. The only thing was, that’s where the waves were breaking and she (and I) was being tossed about badly from the full impact. I kept telling her, “Go a step deeper, Sahiba. Hold onto me and take one more step.” Though they have only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, my friend and her older children are reasonably proficient in English; however, once she got excited, Sahiba reverted to her native language. She pointed at the waves and began telling me all about it in Maasalit. Even though I know very few Maasalit words, I definitely understood her meaning: “Can’t you see these big waves? They are knocking me down? I can’t go any further.” But I also understood what she did not – that if she would just go a little farther out, the water would be smoother.

Later on, I was trying to teach Sahiba to float on her back. She would stretch her arms out, stick her toes up, but as soon as I made any move to release her, she immediately stood up. I told her, “If you fight me, you are going to sink.” In that instant, God spoke to my heart: “What about you?” The sun still shone, the waves still pounded, little girls still giggled between waves, but for me, it was a moment frozen in time. I simply could not get away from that question.

Little by little, small successes sprinkled with failures, Sahiba worked her way into deeper water. She still held onto me for dear life, but she conquered her fear – driven both by her desire to move beyond the tidal pool and her trust in me.

On the ride home, the girls chatted quietly about their day at the shore, then one-by-one, they fell asleep. I, however, smiled as I fought back tears. This simple day at the beach was absolutely rich with meaning as God impressed His truth upon my heart.

  • Sometimes when we rush headlong into something, we will wipe out.

We see other people doing things that we wish we could do, so we hurl ourselves into them with great gusto. Only we have no idea what we’re doing, and we might fail. Our enthusiasm can propel us forward, but it may not completely prepare us for the task at hand.

  • But that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Failing the first time, or even the 53rdtime, does not make us a failure. We may not be great at something right away. It often takes time to hone a skill like swimming or playing an instrument or developing the discernment that comes from reading Scripture. We have to practice again and again and again, learning from our mistakes and building on our successes.

  • Playing in the tidal pool builds confidence.

While it lacks the intensity of the ocean, a tidal pool still has its benefits. Sahiba found a small section about knee deep and began practicing putting her head in the water. With a few attempts she became more comfortable being under the water and holding her breath.

  • That doesn’t mean we should stay there forever.

The tidal pool is calm and serene. The baby (age 18 months) wanted nothing to do with the ocean. He was perfectly content to sit and splash in the warm, ankle-deep pool. The noise and the waves terrified him and he wanted no part of that. Sahiba, however, began to long for something more. The tidal pool may be safe, but the excitement level was quite low. More and more often Sahiba began to fix her gaze on the ocean, so close, yet just beyond her reach.

  • We want to go deeper, but we are afraid.

Sahiba saw her mom and sisters swimming and she wanted to join them. But the waves! They were big, so very big! They’d already knocked her down once. That’s a scary, out-of-control experience. But still, her family members were obviously having a great time and she wanted to join them. Sometimes following Jesus is a lot like this. We want to grow deeper in our relationship with Him, but it’s so frightening, so beyond what we are used to, so very…unknown. We long for it, but we can be afraid of what it might require of us. Our inadequacies might be revealed. People might think we are weird. Shoot, we may even have to (GULP…) change certain habits or become a missionary or something crazy like that. Scare-ree!

  • When we stop short, the waves will crash all around us.

Sahiba took a couple of bold steps that brought her into water about knee-deep. She was brave to even try. It took an act of courage to get her to that point. But she stopped at exactly the point where the waves were breaking. She was tossed about, clearly out of control. This made her nervous and she retreated to the safety of the shore. Time and time again she would wade out, get knocked around by the waves, then dash back to safety. She kept trying the same thing and ended up with the same results. Sahiba could see what she wanted, but she was too afraid to go past where she had already been. I think I have done the same thing hundreds of times in my walk with Jesus. I see the faith of other people and long for that kind of intimacy with my Father. There have been times, for example, when I’ve started a Bible study with great enthusiasm. Then things start getting personal. Holy Spirit starts revealing things to me. I don’t like what He’s bringing up. It will hurt if I have to deal with that stronghold. It will cost my comfort level if I actually deal with the issue at hand.  I then dash back to the safety of my status quo, gazing at the freedom Christ offers, but unwilling to take the step past the waves of guilt and remorse and pain crashing all around me.

  • A step beyond our comfort zone things are often surprisingly smoother.

As we step beyond what we have always known and into who we could be, we discover that the surf here is not as fierce as we expected. The waves are still coming in as they always have, but from this vantage point we are able to see them coming and position ourselves to gently roll over the top of them as they crash further on, well past us. Maneuvering through the waves is not nearly as difficult as we expected. It took a dedicated effort to get here, and while our vigilance is still required, the effort is not so great as it once was. Spiritually, we are able to recall our trust in our Father. Recalling the promises He has kept and the ways He has rescued us in the past gives us courage to face the future. This remembering is what I call Practicing the Goodness of God. Problems will surely come so we have to remain aware, but He gently lifts us above them, secure in His love.

  • If we fight Him, we will sink.

It took several tries for me to relay the concept of floating on her back to Sahiba. She was tense, ignored my instructions, and quickly went under. I knew what she needed to do. I needed her to listen to me. I needed her to trust what I was telling her, even if it seemed a little crazy: “WHAT? Point my toes? Let water get in my ears? Stretch my arms straight out??? I don’t think so!”  Unlikely as it may have sounded to her at the time, I knew that if she would trust me, she would float on top of the waves. If she fought even one part of the process, she would sink. As we grow in our trust, Jesus begins to develop our character. Sometimes the things He asks of us are uncomfortable and even a little scary: “Spend time with Me each day. Deal with this deep pain from your childhood. Tell that lady over there how much I love her. Quit pretending with Me; I want you to be gut-level honest in your prayers.” It’s hard sometimes. Yet Jesus knows us inside out. We need to listen to Him and to trust that not only does He know best, He also has the best in mind for our good and His glory.

  • When we are in deep water, we can cling to our Father.

Sometimes Sahiba clung tightly, eyes wide with fear, chattering away at me in Maasalit. Other times she let go for a minute and tried out her own abilities, laughing as she practiced navigating the surf. Several times Sahiba’s head went under, but she always popped back up, and I was there to catch her while she caught her breath. I never left her side. She knew I was right there with her and I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Similarly, as we begin to grow deeper in our faith, Jesus is right there beside us. It is His hand we cling to. His Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us. No matter what our fears may try to tell us, no matter what the circumstances look like, this is a truth that is steady and unchanging. When we go through deep water, He is there. Always.

Adventures with Carlos the Cardinal

Not too long ago, my husband and I received a pet we neither expected nor asked for. A cardinal has taken up residence on our porch in a most bold fashion. We’ve all seen the adorable pictures of bird nests in mailboxes and in attic rafters. In all fairness, birds are creatures of nature and in many ways we have encroached upon their habitat. As such, they tend not to recognize or respect our property lines. While I don’t blame them for that, the simple truth is that sometimes their presence can be cute and charming, at others, annoying or even destructive.

As spring bravely attempted to arrive in GA (truthfully, this took several tries), our back yard was suddenly filled with birds – bluebirds, cardinals, finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, and doves. In a flurry of stunning songs and colorful feathers, they clamored and flitted and staked out nesting sites. It was quite a spectacle for several days, I must admit. Eventually turf was established, nests were built, and things generally settled down into a comfortable rhythm. Then there was Carlos.

Carlos is a beautiful red male cardinal. He and Mrs. Carlos have a nest among the wisteria vines on the trellis twelve feet off our back porch. We’ve had nesters here before and were perfectly content to share the space with them. We’ve always enjoyed having birds around, especially now that we don’t have an attack cat trying to single handedly consume the entire Southeastern bird population.

I learned that there is quite a bit of mystique about cardinals. Here’s what Google had to say:

“Cardinals have long been symbolic of beauty in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sorrow, and renewal in the midst of winter. Whether these symbolic meanings came from the folk proverb, or the proverb came from the traditional symbolism, in any case many people are reminded of the presence of a departed loved one when seeing a cardinal bird land nearby. “

I was home alone a few weeks ago, just wiping the sleep from my still-groggy eyes when I heard a racket on the back porch. Our elderly chocolate diva Lucy is now rather ottoman-shaped and more inclined to napping than frolicking these days. Surely that wasn’t her. It sounded for all the world like someone beating on the back glass. I dressed quickly and tentatively stuck my head around the corner to see what it might be. There he was. Carlos. Rather I should say, the cardinal-soon-to-be-named Carlos. When you invest this much time in a bird, he gets a name.

Carlos sat on the porch swing, then hurled his body at the window, wings spread wide, beak crashing into the window. Over and over and over again. For thirty minutes this went on. I thought surely he would eventually tire of whatever game this was and move on to catching worms or something. Surely I was wrong. He never stopped. That sucker was relentless.

I did some further research and discovered that male cardinals are prone to this behavior. They see their reflection in the window and believe it to be a rival male. They are highly territorial and seek to ward off the offender. Swell.

In an effort to distract Carlos and end this madness, I decided to cover the window. In doing so, I reasoned that it needed to be outside so he wouldn’t continue to see his reflection. Wouldn’t you know it? There are no curtain rods on the outside of my house. Eventually I duct taped a beach towel over the window then added a piece of cardboard at the bottom. Success! The window was covered! Carlos inspected this new development and flew away. For about ten minutes. Then he was back – at the next window. Have mercy!!!

So it has been all day every day for the last two weeks. Sunrise to sunset. On and on and on he goes.

Since this is how my brain works, I began to consider what observations we might take away from Carlos the Cardinal, or as I sometimes call him, Tenacious C.

  • He bravely defends what’s his

Those soon-to-be-born baby chicks have a father who valiantly defends those under his care. He is not afraid to take on that shiny red bird in the window if it means protecting his little brood.

  • He never seems to tire

Day in and day out, Carlos never calls in sick and he never sends the Mrs. out to do his job. He is fiercely dedicated and untiring in his efforts to protect his family. His beak must be throbbing, yet he shows up again bright and early the next morning.

  • His focus is entirely wrong

Like Don Quixote, Carlos spends his entire day fighting a foe that is no foe. The shiny red bird in the window is an illusion. There are, however, bigger birds and probably snakes in the vicinity of his nest. None of these seem to have his attention. How often do we burn emotional energy on all the wrong things, while very real dangers go ignored?

  • He does not want or welcome my help

I went out of my way to help Carlos. In the past, we’ve had birds come crashing full-tilt into our back door, knocking themselves to the ground. The moment they landed, there was a dog or cat, highly offended at the encroachment upon their home, who gobbled them up without blinking. I was hoping to spare Carlos this fate. He did not recognize my assistance for what it was and simply moved on to the next window. This can happen to us as well when we see someone else’s need and step in to offer assistance. Sometimes they are too deeply involved in their circumstances to recognize that they even need help. Sometimes they don’t appreciate us butting in uninvited. Sometimes we are the towel hanger; sometimes we are the bird. Not every situation requires our input. It takes wisdom and discernment to know the proper time to offer and to receive help.

  • He made a mess

Having camped out for two weeks on my porches, Carlos has left behind some tangible evidence of his presence. There is bird poop strategically placed near the porch rail, the bench, the swing.  My windows are covered with literally thousands of marks his beak left behind. I can tell exactly where Carlos has been. Eventually someone will have to clean all that up, and you can rest assured that it won’t be Carlos.

  • He’s incredibly distracting

It is hard for me to even hang out in my own living room right now. The fluttery attack, tap-tap-tapping on my windows take place ad nauseam. It is difficult to think of anything else. I keep hoping that it will be like having a home near the railroad tracks and eventually acclimating to the rumble so that you don’t even notice the trains anymore. We have not yet reached this point. While I appreciate his efforts as a good father, I must confess that there are days I contemplate cooking up a little Carlos cacciatore. (I’m kidding. Mostly.)

  • He’s both endearing and frustrating

Some days I feel sorry for Carlos. He will never, ever defeat that bird in the window. Likewise, he will never completely rest because obviously attacking that shiny bird is always on his mind, his first and last act each day. Some days I’m amused by all the flutter. Some days I’m frustrated by the non-stop tapping. It can be that way as well when dealing with problems in life. Something that should be a minor irritation, when it continues and continues and continues, can grow into something much bigger in our minds. Our attitudes definitely shape our perspective.

Short of reapplying our wooden Hurricane Irma window coverings, I’m not quite sure what to do with Carlos. Like the rest of us, Carlos is a mixed bag of positive and negative attributes. We can be fiercely dedicated to an ideal and invest every ounce of our time and energy into it – but it matters greatly whether or not that passion, that chosen path, is worthy of our time and effort. Is it really accomplishing what we hope it will? Or are we wearing ourselves out over illusions – perhaps well-intended, but illusions just the same?

How can we tell the difference? I leave you with two verse of Scripture that speak to this question.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” – James 1:5

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on these things.” – Philippians 4:8

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Cardinal info found online: http://www.usurnsonline.com/memorials/cardinal-appears-yard-visitor-heaven/

 

Prayer Ax Part 3 – FOCUS

As we continue comparing chopping wood to a daily time of prayer, today we turn our focus to, well, focus. Such a simple but important thing.

  • Random whacks here and there accomplish very little

My first attempts at chopping wood were rather pitiful. I was whaling away with great gusto, but you never would have known it to look at the log. There was about a three-foot span that bore the scars of my higgledy-piggedly swings. There was no discernable method to my madness, more like a beaver with ADD had happened by on his way to someplace else. Our prayers can be like that when their primary focus is to present a daily wish list to God: “Give me this. Do this for me. Here’s the plan, Lord. If you could make this happen, that’d be great.” Certainly our God is both able and willing to supply our every need, but if all we do is fling out orders in our prayers, we have sadly missed the point.

This reveals one of my concerns about the traditional prayer list. At any given time, these tend to be made up, I’d say about 95%, with sick people. Now does God care about sick people? Of course He does. We are admonished in James 5 to pray for the sick. When I am sick, I certainly hope that my friends will be praying for my healing. But that not the ONLY thing we are supposed to pray for and about. God is more concerned with our character than our comfort, and sometimes (though no one enjoys it at the time) it is through illness and adversity that God reveals things about Himself that we would otherwise miss.

A related issue I personally experience with an extensive prayer list is that I find it overwhelming and hard to focus when I look at two columns of bullet-pointed requests. They start to blur together in my mind and I find myself resorting to blanket statements, like, “Please heal all the sick people,” or “Bless all the needs listed here.” I simply do better with one or two specific needs to concentrate on. The other thing is that I am very forgetful. When someone asks me to pray for them, my best plan is to do so right at that moment. Even though my intentions are absolutely to intercede on their behalf, the six hours that pass before my regularly established prayer time will consist of thousand different thoughts. Will I remember that particular one? Maybe. Maybe not. It is easier for me to honor my promise if I do so right away. (These last two paragraphs are not intended as an attack on prayer lists. We cannot intercede for someone if we don’t know they need it. If prayer lists are meaningful to you, by all means use them. These are merely concerns based on my own personal struggles with using them effectively.)

  • It is not necessary to chip up the entire log

Once I finally got that ax sort of headed in the right direction and there were actual wood chips flying through the air, I started to feel pretty good about my lumberjack skills. Then I paused to take a look at my portion of the tree. Hmmm. Now if I had intended to create a dugout canoe, I’d have been well on my way. Only I was indeed NOT trying to make a canoe. I wanted to turn the giant root ball into smaller, burnable pieces. What I needed, and so obviously lacked, was focus.

Each night before we go to sleep, Jeff and I pray together. Jeff is a concise kind of guy. He can say all he needs to say in about five minute. I, however, love words. Sometimes I will catch myself going on and on about every little thing you can possibly imagine. It pops into my mind and I pray about it. He and God both must wonder sometimes if this ADD chick (not beaver) will ever get to the point.

One of the things that I’ve found helpful is a mental outline to keep me on track. Certainly the “Lord’s Prayer” gives us a structure to follow, and an acronym like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – aka requests for yourself and others) makes it easier to stay focused.

  • Lock in and don’t let up

When swinging an ax, where you look is what you hit. At different seasons of our lives, God will reveal certain things we need to turn our attention toward, whether a character trait we need to develop, or preparation for a new job, or a relationship that needs attention of some kind. In our daily, concentrated times of prayer, we turn our hearts to these matters regularly and consistently. We speak to God then listen to what He has to say to us on these matters. This can take time. Lots and lots of time in some situations.

  • Have a plan, but don’t hesitate to try something a bit unconventional 

I love order. I love having and executing a well-made plan. But one thing I learned from 20+ years in a middle school classroom is that while a plan is a great place to start, don’t think for one minute that you will be able to follow it to the letter every single day. Some days you just have to toss the script. In the classroom, it seemed like those were often the golden days when real learning took place.

While I was inadvertently creating that dugout canoe, I’d been chopping away from the same position. I moved my feet over just a few inches and took a left-handed swing. Man! What a difference! Even though this was definitely not playing to my strength, attacking from another angle gave me a fresh perspective on what I was doing. When it feels like our prayers have become stale, sometimes we need to mix it up a little bit, whether that means ditching the normal routine, going to a different location, speaking out loud, or adding a musical soundtrack in the background. Even strategic prayer can become rote, and our minds disengage. Every so often, we just need something new.

  • Learn from others

Jeff realized I was making that canoe a few minutes before I did, but he was smart enough to wait. When the ax started gliding over the top instead of removing chips of wood, I stopped and cocked my head to one side, as I do when I’m thinking. He asked if I wanted some help (SUCH a very wise man!) and I gladly accepted his offer. He showed me how to make a small V that led to a point of ever-thinning wood. Ohhhh. Now I get it!

There is so much we can learn about prayer from other people. There is no reason for us to try and reinvent the wheel. We have examples in the Bible from great pray-ers like David and Daniel and Solomon, we have books written by mighty people of faith over the last few centuries, we have people in our churches and circle of friends who just seem to know how to talk to God, and as Romans 8:26 reminds us, we also have the promised Holy Spirit who will lead us in our times of prayer.

  • Generic wishy-washy prayers get the same result

If we are not careful, a daily and consistent time of anything, including prayer, can fall into a rut. Just like swinging the ax all willy-nilly does nothing but waste my time and effort, so too can a half-hearted time of prayer. Our daily communication with God should be specifically targeted and deeply personal.

  • Not quick, but very effective

It sure would be a whole lot quicker to lop up those trees with a chainsaw, and sometimes that is exactly what we do. Other times, however, it is the slow work done by hand that brings great satisfaction. When we pray each day, our intent should not be to get it over with as quickly as possible. Sometimes God is gracious and answers our prayers right away. More than likely, however, it takes time. Lots of time. More time than we would prefer. But in the end, as we look back, we can see the incredible value of the leisurely pace. After all, this isn’t about getting what we want when we want it. It’s about developing a relationship with our Father and growing into the likeness of His image.

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Just as a quick aside, my two favorite books on the subject of prayer are The Circle Maker by Mark Batterton and Moving Mountains by John Eldredge. Both revolutionized my personal times of prayer.

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Prayer Ax Part 2 – Tools & Preparation

Prayer is one of those amazing gifts from God that is as simple or as complex as you care to make it, kind of like the advertising for the game Othello: minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Some of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard were from brand new Christians who hadn’t learned all the flowery language and rhetoric that can slip in over time. They only knew that they were in love with Jesus and He was in love with them. Prayer can be lovely in its simplicity. It can also be deep and complex, without being complicated, which is also beautiful. At its core, prayer is simply talking to Jesus, then listening to what He would say to us.

Just like my back yard, scattered with downed trees after Hurricane Matthew, opportunities for prayer are all around us: a friend rushing her son to the ER, communities around the globe in need of medical care and clean water, an upcoming real estate exam, deciding where to attend college, the need for forgiveness, and any of a thousand things that may come to your attention during the course of an ordinary day.

In considering the idea of the prayer ax, I am referring to our regular, consistent times of communing with our Father in prayer. Certainly there are times of emergency or despair when our approach will change. And, please bear in mind that this is simply an analogy. Anytime we compare the spiritual with physical things, eventually the analogy will break down. This is not intended as a deep theological treatise, but rather a few word pictures that helped me solidify some understandings about time spent talking with God.

So what does chopping wood have to do with prayer?

  • There is an order to things

In chopping wood, it is important to properly prepare and employ tools that are effective. So it is with prayer. We are not manipulating God, and we’d be ridiculous to even think that we could; rather we are learning Who our Father is and aligning ourselves to His will.

  • Use the right tool

One of the best tools we have for prayer is Scripture. While Facebook memes, or even advice from well-meaning friends, may sound quite clever indeed, if the words don’t line up with absolute and unchanging truth of Scripture, they are simply someone’s opinion. You can whack away at a tree all day with a plastic spoon but achieve no results. Same principle applies here.

  • Use a sharp ax

Similarly, make sure your ax is sharp. It is important to spend time in the Word of God in order to know the heart of God. As we meditate on the Word, we become sharper, and our prayers more effective. In addition to your own time spent with God, it is SO helpful to be aligned with like-minded believers. Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” We need godly people, iron, in our lives. A dull ax is highly ineffective, no matter how strong its wielder is. It is important to have – and to become for others – properly prepared tools.

  • Use the correct end

One of the things we love to do is grab a certain Scripture out of context and apply it to our situation. My sister says that we love to scan the Bible for verses that make us feel better about our circumstances. Certainly there is a time and place for that. The Bible is, after all, His Story. We were given the words of God as a guide for knowing Him and for living our lives as His children. When we take things out of context, however, we are again losing effectiveness. Some things in Scripture are general principles and some are specific promises; some are intended for everyone and others for a certain group of people at a certain moment in time. It takes a great deal of discernment to tell the difference sometimes. Beating on a tree for hours using the blunt end of the ax will only produce a badly bruised log. Use the sharp end.

But what if you don’t know what the sharp end is? Ask God: Does this particular Scripture apply to my situation? What is a promise that I can claim here? How would You have me pray about this?

  • Sometimes you only need a hatchet

Not every situation requires the full resources of heaven. Sometimes short and simple will be sufficient. Other times, a season of intense prayer is required. I experimented with three different sizes and weights of tools before I found the Mama Bear medium-sized ax was my best fit; on occasion, however, a tiny handheld hatchet was just the ticket. Use the right tool for the job, but understand that it may change periodically.

  • Let weight of ax head do its work

We can work ourselves into a frenzy trying to “help” God do His work. Here’s a real news flash – You are not the ax. You were never meant to be the ax. You just need to apply the proper tool in the proper way at the proper time. Then it can do its work.

  • Maintain solid footing

When I first started swinging the ax, I was all over the place. My feet kept shifting and I was unstable. I may or may not hit anywhere in the vicinity of my target. Flailing away required a great deal of effort but produced no meaningful results. Eventually I figured out how to stand firmly and to calmly approach the task at hand. So it should be with our regular times of prayer.

  • Watch your eyes

For the first few minutes, I just hacked at the tree root. A few minutes in, as my swings became more efficient, I actually began removing chips of wood….which flew straight at my face. So, I got the safety glasses I should have been wearing all along. When you begin a time of regular, consistent prayer, make no mistake, stuff will come flying at you. We are engaged in a spiritual battle. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life is one of absolute ease has never paid much attention to the life of Jesus or His disciples. As we draw closer to God, the enemy takes notice. It is essential that we protect ourselves. Fortunately, Scripture teaches us how to do that.

  • Start small and build up

This is sound advice for any new endeavor. My first few swings were with an ax too heavy on a root too large. Jeff, recognizing my imminent failure, quickly helped me adjust my tool and my focus. I also had to change my technique. With an experience base from the gym rather than the forest, I began chopping wood with what can only be described as a dipping bird method, which used my legs and back but not my arms. And ax-wielding is all about the arms. (That name comes from a garish pink plastic bird my grandmother had back in the 1970s. It dipped its beak in water for some reason, stood upright, then did it again. All day long.) Once I got the idea of how an ax operated, I was able to move on to larger tasks with greater success. With prayer, too, we do well to start small then progress to more complex issues. If you are in the beginning stages of establishing a regular prayer time, you will likely find that the nature of the topics you discuss with the Father become deeper, richer, more intimate over time.

  • Dress for the occasion

My first attempt at becoming a lumberjack diva was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I trotted out to the tree line wearing a pair of shorts and old running shoes. Both tangled briars and angry ants found my exposed ankles. I spent an embarrassing amount of time flapping around trying to get away from both. The next time out, I donned a pair of jeans and some work boots. My footing was more solid and there were less distractions to deal with. On a spiritual level, Ephesians 6:10-18 elaborates on how important it is to clothe ourselves in the full armor of God: the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel, helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and our only offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Putting on this armor every single day – not just in preparation for the five or fifty minutes we may spend in prayer – but for the dangers of everyday life is nothing short of crucial.

Now we have our preparation and our proper tools. Next time we will turn an eye towards our focus when praying.

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What IF….

At some time or another, I’m sure we’ve all heard some pretty amazing God stories. You know the ones: someone goes on mission trip or participates in a special event in the inner city. Ordinary people find themselves involved in extraordinary encounters which can only be explained by the power of a loving, Almighty God. We are stunned and a bit in awe. It’s easy to listen to these stories with a bit of envy and think, “Well, that’s great for them, but nothing amazing like that ever happens to me.”

But what if it could?

Recently at my church we heard some fantastic God stories from Honduras. What did Jessica do that was so utterly amazing? She said Yes to God’s invitation. Inexplicably prepared by a lifetime of difficult situations, she simply showed up with a willing heart, and then God pretty much took it from there. People’s physical, emotional, and eternal healths were waiting to be transformed, just on the other side of one little Yes.

It’s easy to let fear and circumstances keep us from going deeper in our walk with God:

  • What if it’s dangerous?
  • What if I don’t know what to do?
  • What if I say the wrong thing?

But what if instead of asking those questions, we asked different ones:

  • What if God has been preparing me my whole life for this moment?
  • What if I am exactly the right person for this specific situation?
  • What if God has bigger things in store for me than I ever dreamed?

When I was a very chubby girl, I used to look at lean, healthy people with envy, feeling that somehow something good like that would never, ever happen to me.

Only one day it did. The transformation began when I dared to believe it was possible, then took the necessary steps to change. It took a Yes.

So I ask you, What If?

  • What if you embraced the thought that there are God stories inside you, eager to be written?
  • What if you dared to believe that God has perfectly equipped you for the mission at hand?
  • What if all those God stories are right there, waiting, just on the other side of one little Yes?

What If Jesus said, “Come, follow Me”…and you simply said YES???

 

~~~~~~~

Photo credit – https://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/4228

Women of the Year

Each year a certain mainstream magazine publishes its Women of the Year. Their choices range from the obvious to the obscure, featuring women who have made remarkable impacts on their little corners of the world. That got me to thinking: What women have made a difference in my life in the last year? Who would I dub my Women of the Year?

2017 was one of the most extraordinary years of my life. I had recently resigned from a 24-year career in teaching and had more flexibility than before. I traveled to places I’d only dreamed of: Israel, Alaska, and Poland. I saw my only daughter marry into an absolutely terrific family. I began and ended a second career. 2017 was hard and wonderful and everything in between.

As I reflect on the last twelve months, the people and experiences that shaped me, I see that two very different ladies have taught me the same very important lesson: gratitude.

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From the time I met a group of Holocaust Survivors four years ago, I began praying about going to Israel. It is a tiny, mysterious land, ripe with historical and spiritual significance. It was also home to some new friends who had almost immediately wrapped themselves around my heart. But making a trip to Israel is no small feat. There are places where it simply is not wise for a woman to go alone. I have never been farther than the shopping mall by myself, and I can get lost going somewhere I’ve been a dozen times. There was no way I could do this on my own. Enter Karen. I shared with her my dream of making the trip to Israel: I had the time and the money (a totally cool story in itself) but I needed someone with experience to go with me. She immediately volunteered.

Here’s the thing. I could not have chosen a more perfect travel companion if I’d tried. Karen is a former airlines employee who has literally been all over the world, including several trips to Israel. While I am a very much the introvert, Karen has never met a stranger. She has contacts in most any country or culture you can possibly imagine…and even when she doesn’t, she knows someone who does. She’s also extremely laid back, which was a much needed balance to my OCD tendency to over-plan and then nut up a little when the plan doesn’t work. So this woman, this amazing woman, at her own expense, gave up a month of her life to accompany me on the trip of my dreams. Wow.

That’s not even the best thing about Karen. Karen is a woman who has this uncanny ability to breathe in chaos and breathe out peace. If you are around her for more than five minutes, you will hear her say, “I’m so grateful….” All day. In any situation. Now most people have a pet saying, like, “You know what I mean?” or “Ummm” or some such. That can get annoying. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. Not so with Karen. A genuine heart of gratitude continually flows out of her. It is, without question, who she is. And after spending time with her, it starts to color who you are and how you see the world around you.

More than once we got lost in questionable neighborhoods and the two block walk back to our lodging might easily turn into a mile or more. Somehow we always managed to find our way back, fueled by her optimism and excellent memory. Even the wrong turns became mini adventures. I saw new places and ate new foods and tried new things that I probably never would have on my own. And I am grateful for the experience.

IMG_0042The second woman who has taught me gratitude is my friend Hawa. She is from Sudan, the mother of nine of the sweetest children I’ve ever met, and though we are different in practically every way imaginable, she is my sister and I cannot imagine living my life without her.

I first met Hawa a little over a year ago when I began volunteering in an English language class. The second week, the leader asked me if I could give Hawa a ride. I was so nervous about having someone in my car who I could barely communicate with. But we both survived it, and I drove her again the following week. Somewhere along the way, things just sort of clicked. A few weeks later I spent the day with Hawa and she taught me how to make a traditional Sudanese meal (which was unbelievably delicious!) Periodically I go over to visit her and play with the children. We will build with blocks and put together puzzles. Before too long, someone will bring out a book, and we have an impromptu English lesson. Two of my favorite memories were last year when my family had the opportunity to introduce Hawa, her husband, and all the kids to their first American Thanksgiving and Christmas. We played in the floor (all of us), ate together, then taught the adults and older children how to drive the golf cart. Now THAT was hilarious! Language can be an issue sometimes, but never a barrier. Usually our miscommunication moments leave us laughing, and laughter is the same in any language.

One of the things I’ve learned from watching Hawa is how naturally the social graces are a part of her DNA. She always asks about my family and friends that she has met, then shares greetings from her friends I have been introduced to. And she feeds me. Have mercy, she feeds me! A visit to Hawa’s house is always accompanied by coffee (which she confessed she doesn’t really like, yet she always makes and drinks some with me) and snacks, or even a light meal. This beautiful woman spoils me rotten.

My Sudanese friends have a close bond that many American families would envy. It is not at all unusual to find the entire family together outside, sitting on a blanket in the sunshine, drawing pictures, practicing writing English words, or kicking around a soccer ball. They are affectionate and kind and always take care of each other. You have not lived until you have held a sleeping Sudanese baby. They just sort of melt into you…melting your heart at the same time. Hawa’s family lives very modestly by American standards. Their small home is humble, impeccably clean, and somehow there’s plenty of room for everyone. There is no pretense. No putting on airs. What they have is enough. They are grateful for it, and more than willing to share.

Karen and Hawa have both quietly made an incredible impact on my life, not so much because they set out to teach me lessons in tranquility and gratitude, but simply because that is who they are. It is impossible to be around them and not soak that up. I am a better person, calmer and more loving, for having spent so much time with these two special ladies.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Who’s The Genius?

Tonight the Haywood’s played a little game called “Who’s the Genius?”

When our paths finally converged this afternoon, Jeff and I met at a building where he needed to do an electrical job after the business closed. When he was finished, we planned to do some Christmas shopping for three little girls who have wrapped themselves firmly around our hearts. 

As we walked out to leave, Jeff said, “Follow me.” Sure. That sounded simple enough. The parking area behind the building was like a dirt bowling alley – long and very skinny. We had to drive all the way to the far end, turn around, then head back out the way that we had come in. I didn’t quite understand the logic of that, but Jeff said to follow. So I followed. When he reached the back of the lot and made his turn, it occurred to me that my car needs considerably less space to corner than his truck. I went ahead and made my left turn – right into a giant mud pit. I never saw the gaping expanse until the moment I sank into it. I quickly noticed that I was indeed not the first to slide into its soggy depths. This was no consolation. The hole was about a foot deep, black mud was up to my bumper, and I just so happened to be wearing the single most expensive pair of shoes I own. Face palm. Actually several face palms. 

I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh. 

Completely unfazed, Jeff went straight to work. He removed a tiny circle from my front bumper (which I never even knew was there), attached a short bar from the jack, then stretched out the chain that he ever so conveniently had in his truck. With a brilliant rooster tail of black mud, he pulled me right out. Christmas (shopping) was saved!

Some observations:

1. My husband is an amazing man in both attitude and abilities. 

2. The car extraction plan my brain feverishly conjured up would surely have ripped the bumper right off the car. And I’d probably still be stuck. 

3. I am convinced that southern men with pickup trucks secretly long for the day when they can pull out a big ole chain or a set of jumper cables and rescue people like me who accidentally do stupid things at inopportune times. 

4. Sometimes when you are given directions it is sufficient to follow the general spirit of the instructions. Other times it is imperative to observe the full letter of the law.