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

IMG_2810

~~~~~~~~

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.

IMG_2325

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.

~~~~~

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.

IMG_2328

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.

IMG_2323

Prayer Ax: The Overview

About two years ago, Hurricane Matthew paid a visit to the coast of Georgia. We lost about 30 or so trees on our property and the task of removing them has been neither quick nor easy. The pine trees, slim and tall, assaulted by the intense wind and rain, fell over from the roots. Whereas an oak tree has a shallow and wide root system, a pine tree has a tap root – straight and deep. Even when the tree is on the ground, a pine tree’s root is still firmly in the ground and it takes quite a concerted effort to extract it. Once the storm passed, my family cleaned up the tangled mess of oak limbs right away and used chainsaws to chop up the pine trees somewhat in order to clear major pathways. Then we waited. Pine trees, of course, are full of pine tar, which surely must be the stickiest substance known to man, so we gave them some time to dry out.

My husband is one of those outdoorsy guys who has trouble sitting still. After a hard day at work, he will come home and work in the yard for relaxation. Perhaps this goes far to explaining why, at age 53, his jeans are within one inch of the waist size he wore at age 20. Another thing about Jeff is that when he gets stressed about something (or frustrated with me) he will go outside and chop down trees – with an ax. It’s his special kind of therapy and it has certainly served him well over the years.

A few weeks back, he stood up from supper and announced that he was going outside for a few minutes to chop wood. My eyes flew open wide and my mind began to race: “Oh no! What did I say???” He looked back over his shoulder, and added, “It has nothing to do with you.” Whew! I felt myself release the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

Jeff went straight to work. Have mercy, there’s certainly plenty of material out there. From my current vantage point I can easily count over a dozen trees yet to be processed. He chopped and burned off small bonfires of stout pine logs, making a small dent in the lingering storm destruction of 18 months ago. Three or four nights each week, this has become his regular practice.

Last week I was feeling frustrated about some things, including the fact that every month I pay $48 for a gym membership I cannot seem to rouse myself to use. It’s one of those crazy Catch-22s of life: I love working out and feeling strong; yet getting in the car and driving ten minutes to the gym just feels like some sort of Herculean task. So, I donned my most ancient running shoes and joined Jeff at the tree line. If he was shocked to see me there, he was at least kind enough not to show it. Nor did he laugh when I said I needed to chop wood too.

After a pine tree has been felled, one of the first things after lopping it into manageable-sized segments is to get the root out of the ground. This is quite a task, you may be assured. Tree roots are deep and incredibly heavy, partly because they are packed with dirt, or in our case, red Georgia clay. Dirt doesn’t burn, so it is important to remove as much of the soil as possible in order to fully extract the root. Jeff assigned me one root and gave me his smallest ax. I began whaling away with great gusto, expending a great deal of energy but accomplishing nothing. To his credit, Jeff still did not laugh.

While I was whacking away at that poor root, I felt my mind free up, much as it did when I used to go on long runs. I began to think about how chopping wood with an ax is a great analogy for prayer.

In the coming days I will share with you some of the parallels that came to mind. The next installment of this four-part series will focus on Proper Tools and Preparation.

An Aspiring Writer on Writing – Part One

Two years ago I resigned from my teaching job to become a full-time writer. I dreamed of writing a book about the lives of the Holocaust Survivors I’d met. I spent a month in Israel, reconnecting with my friends on their home turf. We visited, shared meals, and toured historically significant sites. It was truly amazing. Guess how many pages of this book I’ve written? That would be zero.

Then I had the idea of writing a scripture-based devotional for women. I polled a group of friends and asked for some topics they would find interesting and helpful. They shared. I pondered. I made a very long list of ideas and even started an outline. Guess how many pages of this devotional I’ve written? That would be zero.

After a season of prayer and seeking God’s counsel on my writing, I had a thought for a book on the subtle “good” things that we allow to replace the “best” in our lives. I immediately began doing research. I found several reputable sources that touched on similar territory. I read and took careful notes. Three months later, with about three pages of information left to transfer into my notes, I still haven’t quite finished the job. A foggy outline swirls around in my head. Guess how many pages of this book I’ve actually written? Yep. Zero.

There can only be one problem here. Look at the title of this article. See that adjective. That’s the problem.

The thing holding me back is that word: Aspiring.

“Aspiring” is the infinite difference between a Writer and Wanna-Be.

My husband is an electrician, a really, really good electrician. What is the difference between him and me? I think and plot and plan. Jeff does. He gets out there every single day – rain or shine, hot or cold, sick or healthy – and he does his work. He got good at his craft by doing his work. It’s just that simple.

I recently finished reading an amazing book called the War of Art. Man, that Steven Pressfield guy is vicious. And he’s right on the money. I’ve been letting fear and distraction and procrastination rule the day. What I really need to do is show up, turn on the computer and write some words. They don’t even have to be incredibly inspiring and meaningful words. Just words. Black characters on a glaring white sheet. The crafting and sculpting and subtle nuances of meaning will come. It’s okay if they start out ugly and disorganized, with mixed metaphors and boring sentence structure. Right now, I just need to write some words.

So, that’s what I’m gonna do.

Stay tuned.

 

Photo credit: goo.gl/images/G3oDcA

But God…

One universal truth is that at some time or another in this life, we all face storms. In fact, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” This can come in a myriad of forms – cancelled plans, sick children, wayward spouses, failing businesses, you name it. These can appear to us as anything from the proverbial raining on your parade, all the way up to the complete and utter devastation of a category five hurricane. The one thing we can be sure of is that at some point a storm will come along and we do well to be prepared up front, then to handle it as best we can during its onslaught.

I have read – from both grammatical and psychological perspectives – that the word “BUT” negates all that goes before it. For example, if someone tells you 99 great things about yourself, then adds, “but you leave wet towels on the bathroom floor,” this last comment is the one you remember.

Another case in point. Say you ask a friend to go with you to the mall. Consider his responses:

  1. I’d love to go with you to the mall, but I am so tired.                         (Interpretation = Your bud is bailing.)
  2. I’m so tired, but I’d love to go with you to the mall.                           (Interpretation = He’s riding shotgun.)

In nerd-like wonder, it occurs to me that it is not just the words we say, but the order in which we say them that is important. (See what I just did there?)

When storms come, I try to make it a habit to practice the goodness of God: to recall Who He is, His attributes, and His promises to His children, of which I am one. Lately, well actually for the last two years, I’ve been in a doozie of a season. It’s been sunshine and tornadoes and everything in between. My efforts to beat down the storms with this goodness of God have gone something like this:

  • God is faithful, but man, I am weary in this fight.
  • God is truth. His Word endures forever, but my heart is broken.
  • Jesus love me, but I just want to scream.
  • The Holy Spirit gives wisdom to anyone who asks, but I feel so incompetent.

Then recently, in one of those lightbulb moments while on an outdoor run, my mind connected these dots. By putting a “but” after a promise or statement about God, I (in my mind, and therefore eventually in my practice) negate His strength and His truth in comparison to the difficult circumstances of life. In doing so, I am essentially saying that the power of God is not really a match for my particular storm, that this is the one thing in the history of all time that He simply cannot handle.

Wait. What???

Doing this is agreement with the enemy who does all that he can to undermine our understanding of Who God is and His heart towards us. With that in mind, let’s rearrange those statements.

  • I am weary in this fight, but God is faithful.
  • My heart may be broken, but God is true. His Word endures forever.
  • Sometimes I just want to scream, but Jesus loves me. He holds me in His arms. He rejoices over me with singing and quiets me with His love.
  • I feel so incompetent right now, but Holy Spirit gives wisdom to anyone who asks.

Now the promises of my Father are negating the struggles. And that’s good, so very good!

This is new territory for me, so I’m sure it will take some time to make this the automatic response to the challenges life throws my way. I trust that in two weeks, two years, two decades my perspective will change as I learn, little by little, to see past the problems and fix my gaze firmly on my Father. He is, after all, the ultimate Authority here.

 

Photo Credit: https://goo.gl/images/C3NnvV