Shut Up And Write Already

Today is one of those days when I really KNEW for sure that I am a writer girl. I don’t just enjoy writing; it is something I need. There are observations to record, stories to tell, connections to make. If I don’t write these things down, I may explode. And that’s not good.

I was invited to join a writing group. All the books on writing that I’ve read recommend finding one. That just sounds so stinking cool – and so incredibly intimidating. On the one hand, I was pretty excited, like I’d been invited into some sort of inner sanctum, confirming to all the world that I was indeed an actual writer. What better way to get sound advice on my craft than to hang out with fellow writers? On the other hand, there is the fear that I will be way out of my league. What if I totally stink at this and no one has had the heart to tell me? Like all those awkward bird/house/tree pictures I have on my refrigerator, treasured because they were gifts from my daughter – but not exactly museum-caliber art.

As it turned out, the first meeting I was invited to was cancelled because the leader had to go out of town. Aw, man! As I hoped she would, the lady who invited me suggested that we still meet for some dedicated writing time. My friend, a fellow writer-girl, and I decided to give it a shot. We met her at a cozy old southern home turned coffee shop. This lady was someone I’d met before but had never had a real conversation with. Coffee in hand, the three of us started chatting about our lives, our writing, our dreams, our plans. The conversation flowed quickly, with many varied twists and turns. Before I knew it, well over two hours had passed. Truth be told, not one of us had jotted down a single syllable.

The interesting thing is, I believe that each of us walked away with some valuable information and ideas to spur on our individual writing projects. At one point during our discussion, my mind was swimming with fresh Inspiration. I wondered if it would be rude of me to blurt out, “Could y’all just shut up a minute? I need to write some things down!” Deciding it would, I softly made the comment in jest. We all laughed and agreed that we’d been thinking the same thing. But the conversation was so good, we just kept going. As we drove home later, before I could even talk to my friend, I immediately began to scribble down as many ideas as I could remember, willing the thoughts not to flutter out of my active memory before I could record them. Many did fly away, but the few that remained provided solid material for several upcoming blog posts.

When I got home I was so frustrated, I was grumpy. There were these amazing ideas burning holes in my mind, butterflies of stellar sentences, lighting but never staying still long enough for me to capture. And there were so many annoyances demanding my immediate attention. The dogs insisted on darting inside when I opened the door. Evicting them again took a bit of cunning, accompanied by a beef-flavored treat. There were meals to prepare and eat, dishes to wash, three separate text conversations that needed a response, and 17 emails to either answer or delete. I had five hours until my next scheduled event, and already I felt rushed. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone so I could write! I paused and considered this. It was a moment, both terrible and beautiful, that I felt deep within. My soul smiled at the knowledge that I am indeed a writer. I don’t know why it is so hard to acknowledge this. But it is.

It’s kind of like when I admitted that I am a “real runner” and a “real musician.” Certainly there are others – many, many others – who are more skilled than I am, but I count myself in their number. I am a writer.

While writing I find myself in a perpetual sparring match between the chirping crickets of a blank page and the monsoon’s raging mudslide of not being able to type the words fast enough. Both can make me a little nuts! Writing is such an oxymoron: wonderfully horrible, and yet horribly wonderful at the same time. It’s a lot like running. While I’m doing it, it’s torture. I just want it to be over. The thing is, I’m happier and more relaxed when I do these activities, and as soon as I’m done, I can hardly wait until the next time.

So what’s a girl to do? First, I take a deep breath. Then another. Maybe a few more after that. Our brains really like oxygen so I’ve started breathing every day. Turns out this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Then I prepare my environment. One thing I’ve learned is that I tend not to write especially well when the television is on. That adult ADD kicks in and I’ll be knee-deep in a “7thHeaven” mini-binge before I know what hit me. I also cannot write while listening to certain genres of music. I simply cannot have all those other people’s words cluttering up my brain. The two things I have found that I can handle, and indeed enjoy as a backdrop for my writing, are Tchaikovsky and Beethoven playing softly in the background. The “Immortal Beloved” soundtrack is a particular favorite. Ludwig gets me. Perhaps that makes me a nerd, but that’s okay. I’m willing to own it. Sometimes I write in my cozy office upstairs, sometimes while reclining on the living room couch. Lately I’ve become a yuppy writer who hangs out in coffee shops. It’s a rite of passage.

Having settled my breathing pattern and pulled up a blank document, it’s time to get busy. The allure of the unfolded laundry is strong; yet I persevere. I gather up my writing idea book, or hastily scribbled hieroglyphics on a sticky note, or church bulletin, or Dunkin Donuts napkin. At the top of my document, I name it something clever to help me remember later what on earth I started writing about. This one is called “Shut Up”. Please, don’t judge. I transfer my erratic conglomeration of ideas into bullet points at the top of the page. This helps me remember where I intend to go with the particular piece. Often a bit of shifting and combining or adding will be required. This has a mystical, dare I say, ethereal effect. My page is no longer glaring white. This takes off an incredible amount of pressure.

Having organized my thoughts, it’s time to begin. And let me tell you, nothing makes me more productive than a sense of purpose combined with a solid plan. I write some absolute poop at this point. I gush and spit and sputter and generally hurl my random assortment of thoughts onto the page. Having spent two decades as an English teacher, I do have a fairly decent internal editor; but even so, my rough drafts are indeed rough. Embarrassingly so. I squeeze the words out of my head and onto the page, safe only in the knowledge that unless I die an untimely death and my family dares open the unfinished draft, no other human will ever be subjected to these pitiful first attempts at saying something meaningful.

First drafts are wonderful in that they are supposed to be bad. I chase rabbits and say stupid stuff and generally fail to make my point in any kind of coherent fashion.  I often mix metaphors and change tenses three times in the course of one paragraph. It’s a hot mess. Finally, I just quit. A person can only produce so much garbage in the course of one day. Then I let it simmer for a day or two. Like good southern chili, the flavors deepen and improve with time. The revision is where the real art begins. Having slopped the words onto a page, like ingredients waiting to go into a pot, I sauté and stir, chopping and dicing sentences, adding a pinch of this and a dash of that until the blend is just right, or as close as it can get on that particular day.  Eventually, I call it done. Most times I read the whole piece out loud, because sometimes what I mean to say and what I actually type are two very different things. This also gives me a better sense of whether or not the words convey the message I have in mind. I fix it up, send it out, and pray for the best.

So, what am I learning as I begin to see myself as a “real writer”?

  • Write more often. That, combined with voracious reading, is the only way to improve. I’ve started setting aside certain days/hours each week that are designated writing time, just like a regular job.
  • Make the most of my minutes. When it’s writing time, those other things have to wait. The dishes will still be there when I’m done. (Where are those minions when you need them???)
  • I have things to say.
  • First drafts are going to stink. This is why editing/revising is so important.
  • Have a notepad ready at all times to record ideas, great sentences, quick impressions.
  • I may never be God’s gift to the writing world, but writing is God’s gift to me. How I use it becomes my gift back to Him.

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 4 – Diligence

Our daily prayer times have much in common with chopping wood with an ax. We achieve better results when we understand the order of things. Our efforts are improved when we use the proper tools and prepare ourselves. We achieve more when we are focused rather than swinging away at anything and everything. Today we turn our attention to one last, necessary trait that prayer and wood cutting have in common: diligence.

You know what I tend to think would be incredibly terrific? If God would just go ahead and answer my prayer before the words were out of my mouth. I mean, seriously, wouldn’t that be fantastic??? Well, maybe not. Sometimes I am overly emotional or angry or scared when I sputter a prayer, and on those occasions I might blurt out things that I don’t mean at all once I’ve calmed down and rational thought returns. Then I am incredibly grateful for the calm patience of our loving Father. He never gets in a hurry. He never gets flustered. He has thoughts of us and plans for us that go so far beyond our current level of comprehension. Left unattended, my thoughts and plans would just create one big ole hot mess after another. His timing, His responses are perfect.

During our regular, consistent conversations with God, we need to go in expecting some wait time. God’s timetable is rarely as quick as ours. We want Him to use a microwave, when He’s actually got some nice coals smoldering under a stone oven. The outcome probably won’t be quick, but it surely will be good. With this in mind, it is so important that we learn to be diligent in our prayers.

  • There’s more than what meets the eye

Roots – even those for pine trees – don’t grow straight. One root has many attachments that you don’t see at first. Actually, much like an iceberg, what’s underneath the surface may be a whole lot bigger than what you can see. When God leads us to pray about some particular topic or character issue, it can seem like no big deal. So we pray. And expect immediate results. Which don’t come immediately. So we pray some more. Through it all, as we seek God and read His Word, learning and growing in the process, we begin to see that there was so much more to that issue than we ever imagined. Often there are smaller attachments that need dealing with as God grows our roots deeper in Him.

  • Dirt gets packed in over time

One of the things that makes cutting up tree roots so difficult is the accumulation of dirt, decades’ and decades’ worth of dirt. It packs in tightly and does not want to leave its cozy spot. But If you are going to successfully chop up the root ball, the dirt has to go. Our lives can get dirt-packed over time as well. Sometimes these are things we have done; others are things done to us. We need the cleansing power of Holy Spirit to lead us through to repentance, forgiveness and sanctification.

  • Stir up ants

Sometimes once you start chopping wood, you stir up tiny woodland creatures who are never happy to see you. They are grumpy and they bite. As we draw closer to God, we suddenly find ourselves on the enemy’s radar. Make no mistake. This is an all-out war. There can be physical manifestations of a spiritual battle. Our enemy is sneaky and stubborn and he wants you gone. However. Take a deep breath. This is a time for faith, not fear. 1 John 4:4 reminds us that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

  • Keep plugging away

Once you start swinging that prayer ax, you are eventually going to get tired. Don’t quit. Every stroke is one step closer to breakthrough. Sometimes praying the same thing more than once feels like a lack of faith. Actually quite the opposite is true; it shows faith not to quit. Even as we make that same request over and over and over, God is refining us, shaping us. Just like the man in Luke 11 who kept knocking on a neighbor’s door and eventually received the bread he sought – not because of their friendship – but because of his “shameless audacity”, we are admonished to ask, seek, and knock. And knock some more.

  • Know when to take a break

When I got to whaling away on those roots, I could tell my newly-developed form was beginning to slip. I was approaching exhaustion, but I had a goal and I was flat out determined to accomplish it. No. Matter. What. When the ax began to sink a little lower with each swing, however, I finally gave in and took a small break. Five minutes and some cool water gave me the boost I needed to finish strong(ish). Sometimes when we diligently apply ourselves to praying for a specific matter, we run out of gas, whether emotionally or spiritually. Our prayers become like chewing the same piece of gum long after the flavor is gone and our jaws are aching. It’s not a bad idea to take a break from that particular topic for a day or two, then you can resume when you are rested and refreshed. You may even need to ask for help. In both prayer and log chopping, we are certainly better together.

  • You need a shower 

After hard work, especially of the manual labor variety, you kinda stink. You need a long hot shower to wash away the grime and to relax your weary muscles. Similarly, after a particularly strenuous season of prayer or ministry, you need a break. Spending time alone with God in nature is an amazing way to recharge your batteries. Living in a coastal area, one of my favorite mini escapes is a walk on the beach: no prayer list, no agenda, just showing up and allowing the Father to nourish my soul. If there’s a sunset or sunrise included, that’s just gravy.

  • Weakness at the moment makes you stronger later

Swinging an ax for more than six seconds was difficult and awkward for me. The weight distribution is weird, and my puny upper body strength was quite apparent as that ax head landed anywhere except where I wanted it to. It took determination and focus; eventually my technique improved. The second time out things were better still. So it goes with prayer as well. Our first attempts at praying through a difficult time or learning to trust God can be equally as pitiful and awkward. We need to stick with it in spite of all that. We will learn a great deal along the way, and we will grow in the process if we don’t give up.

  • Blisters today = roasted marshmallows tomorrow

…or a house or a table or a bonfire. In prayer as in life, when any kind of skill is involved, whether learning to play the guitar or drive a car or do long division, we have to pay our dues up front. But that is more than okay. Eventually the results will come. Small successes, or even failures, today prepare us for the future.

  • All you can do is all you can do

Just because we pray about something, we are not guaranteed to get what we want -or what we are convinced at the time that we absolutely need. We like normalcy and order. We like things to make sense to us – using our own logic as a frame of reference. Neither God nor tree stumps work according to the rules we would create.

A.W. Tozer says, “We do not pray in order to persuade God to change His mind. Prayer is not an assault upon the reluctance of God, nor an effort to secure a suspension of His will for us or for those for whom we pray….God will never be other than Himself.”

Prayer is not about us turning the head of God with our clever words. Prayer is about relationship, about developing intimacy. It is, in its simplest form, a conversation aligning ourselves with Him, not the other way around.

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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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An Aspiring Writer on Writing – Part Two

Yesterday I called myself out for what can best be described as fiddle farting around with writing. Mostly what I’ve been doing is shuffling around stacks of hastily scribbled notes and occasionally looking busy without actually accomplishing a whole lot. Today I have drawn my own line in the sand and put myself on a writing schedule. Some days the fruits of that labor will show up on this blog; some days it will never again see the light of day. Both are okay. The important thing is that I’ve given myself a tangible goal to achieve each week. It’s one thing to set a goal and not quite make it, and quite another to not really try. I am determined to avoid the latter, since one undeniable truth I’ve learned over the last few months is that words don’t write themselves. They’re kind of stubborn like that.

Today I’m going to take a look at the pros and cons of being a writer. I strongly suspect that the principles here can be applicable to any artistic or practical endeavor that involves stepping outside of the norm, whether that means painting, composing a symphony, getting your carcass to the gym, or launching your own retail business.

One of my biggest issues, without a doubt, is procrastination. Things that I find absolutely no joy in – like cleaning the bathroom, or sweeping the living room, or possibly cutting the grass with a pair of fingernail clippers – take on an immediate appeal when it’s time to sit down and write. Why on earth is that?? I love to write. I find joy and freedom in this form of expression. But man, let me just get these dishes done first, whoops, forgot all about posting that picture on Facebook. Next thing I know, an hour has passed and it’s time to start dinner. Well, maybe tomorrow….

Finding the rhythm to my day, choosing the best time of day to put words onto the page has been harder than I expected. I volunteer in several different capacities, so my schedule is different from one day to the next. However, having a specific goal – whether to produce a certain number of pages or to write for a specified length of time – does lend itself to my OCD nature. I thrive on being productive. Not to say that I have been lately, but it makes me feel better when I am. One of my least favorite questions is, “How’s the book coming along?” because well, honestly, it hasn’t been. I say something like, “I’ve got the outline figured out now,” which is really writer-ese for “I’ve been lazy and distracted and haven’t written a doggone thing.”

Another related factor is distraction. One thing that I have started being more intentional about is unplugging from all electronics throughout the day. I don’t know what it is about that little red notification that is SO very compelling. If I see it, I can’t not check the message. So I try to put my phone down periodically and not even look. John Eldredge calls this “creating soul space,” and rightly so. Even five minutes of stillness and silence can make a huge difference. This continues to be a work-in-progress for me, but each day I increasingly see its value. I can think more clearly and focus on things that matter. My soul is more at peace without these electronic Chihuahuas continually nipping at my heels, demanding my attention.

There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with writing. Publishing, or even sharing with a friend, what you have written is very much like standing on the stage of a very large theater wearing nothing but a very small bathing suit. In that moment it is extremely challenging to feel cool and confident. Exposed is a better description. And that’s kind of the two-edged sword of writing. There are words inside me that are clamoring to get out. A writer simply must write, even if on occasion he is the only person who reads the words. At the same time, each shared piece opens him up to trial by the Court of Public Opinion. Truth be told, I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my gut each time I hit the Publish button on my blog: “Oh no! What have I done? Will anyone like this? Anyone at all? Is it meaningful? Does it make any sense? What was I thinking???”

Having read this far, you may be thinking, “Why doesn’t this lady just get a job selling moderately priced home furnishings at Target and be done with it?” That’s simple: because I love writing! Actually, I love words – the subtleties and nuances and shades of meaning within the English language are fascinating. (Yes, I have known and willingly acknowledged for years that I am a word nerd. There is a certain coolness in being so very uncool.) There are feelings and thoughts and understandings of the world around us that I need to express. Though no writing is ever 100% completely “done”, it brings a degree of satisfaction, to know that a particular piece – whether a chapter or page or paragraph – is as good as I can make it at this moment in time.

I’m not sure that I will ever at any time in my life write something so deeply meaningful that will inspire the masses, but there are times when I learn important truths from the ordinary, the mundane, the easy-to-miss. I figure that if this was a lesson I needed, perhaps someone else does as well.

So, I will be true to myself and write more words. I hope that you enjoy them and find value in them.

If not, no worries. Just be thankful that the cover photo features a cute little kid.

 

 

Photo credit: goo.gl/images/TwJaLq

When The Going Gets Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough go tromping through mud and wet grass for a three-mile run. It was a great plan. I’ve been in such a purple funk lately, fighting my way back to solid ground after letting the circumstances of life toss me about. Over the last few years, running has been both my physical fitness activity of choice and my emotional release from the stresses of life. It was the obvious choice.

I had determined that this summer would be the time I got my running game back on track. Or at least on treadmill. And wouldn’t ya know it, we have experienced one of the rainiest summers in recent memory. On any given day, once I got finished with work or whatever else needed doing that day, the monsoon had begun. I do own a treadmill. It is totally accessible. I just hate using it. So, most days, I don’t.

This particular day was surprisingly sunny, though not surprisingly, humid. I suited up in a cute runner girl ensemble and headed out the front door for a run around our property. To say that I went for a run is, I must admit, a liberal use of the term, but I was running at some points, so you will have to give me the benefit of the doubt here. Truth be told, our land has never been pane-of-glass smooth, but after a visit from Hurricane Matthew last year, it was even less so. Running in the grassy sections would be unwise because there could be a hole there and I would never know it until I found air instead of solid ground beneath my feet. So mostly I was doing some brisk power walking through two sides of the rectangular area and running when I hit the road and my driveway. It was a great plan. Until it wasn’t.

In my closet there are any number of running shoes, various types for various purposes. I wore my old favorites because they are comfortable, and I wasn’t too worried about getting them all muddy. It seemed like a logical choice at the time. I was about halfway through my distance goal of three miles. There were about five running strides left before I shifted back to power walking. Without warning, I did a face plant. I’m not even sure what I managed to trip over, but in a movie-like slow-motion sequence, I watched the muddy ground get closer as my left ankle twist painfully and awkwardly to one side. The ridiculous thought that raced through my mind at the moment I bounced off the terra firma was, “Woman! You have trail shoes in your closet!”

In one slightly less than fluid motion, I picked myself up and scraped the worst of the mud off my legs. The ankle was none too happy but could support weight, so I took a step, then another, and decided to press on with the run. After one slow and steady lap, I felt confident that there was no damage and returned to the running segments. While I was chugging along, I remembered a time when I’d had a much more serious fall while running down a street in near-total darkness. With the help of my friends, I hopped up, ignored the blood, and kept on running. Recalling that incident gave me the courage to not wimp out this time. If I bounced back from a tough run once, I could surely do it again.

That made me think about King David. Long before he assumed the title of king, David was the runt-of-the-litter little brother who was left behind to take care of the sheep while his older brothers, by all accounts burly and impressive young men, who were off having exciting exploits as members of Israel’s army. Only things weren’t going so well for them. David showed up and offered his assistance. When the brawny brothers pointed out that David was indeed a runt, he remembered times in the past when he’d faced tough situations and how the God of Israel had strengthened him. He said, “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (2 Sam 17:37). You might say that David had a giant problem. This is quite literally true because David was about to face off with a giant, not in a figurative sense, but in the original, honest-to-goodness, for real and for true giant named Goliath who was nine feet tall and not at all a nice person.

In that moment, David recalled the way he had faced challenging situations before and triumphed. He knew that his God provided the strength necessary. He didn’t cower in fear and run for cover. He didn’t complain about how he’d been in much better shape when he faced the lion, or that the conditions had been better on that day. But what he did do was remember a success from the past, which in turn gave him the courage to face the giant on this day.

Now I don’t claim to be a David, and getting up after a small stumble may not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. But perhaps there are some lessons we can learn here.

  • Remembering the trials we have overcome in the past can give us courage to face different, but equally challenging, difficulties in our present.
  • We often need to think of our circumstances differently. In a crisis situation, it is easy for molehills to become mountains in our minds. Taking a step back and calming down can do wonders for our perspective. When we are calm we simply make better decisions.
  • Sometimes we just have to develop the best plan we can and go for it. I’m sure David’s sling and rock attack didn’t look like an especially wise military maneuver to anyone else. But he trusted his God and slung that rock. The results speak for themselves.
  • My Faith not in my Strength – that comes and goes – but my Strength is in my Faith. More specifically, my Strength is in the One who is the source of my Faith.

Psalm 121:1-2, written by David, this same shepherd boy turned mighty warrior, says, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (NIV)

When the going gets tough, the tough call on Jesus.