Often life is hard, but God is always good

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When I Can’t Go On

“When I called you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.” Psalm 138:3

Thank God it’s not my turn to lead today, I thought as I stared down at my muddy hiking boots. They didn’t feel like a part of my body, as if they were trudging through the wilderness on their own while my mind roamed free.

After two weeks of bushwhacking through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I was fit, but I didn’t feel strong. The terrain, the rain, the pace, all had drained everything from my 17-year old self. Gone were the dreams and excitement of being a “Vanguard” student who would win out against the grueling elements.

I lifted my leaden feet over the fallen log, but I didn’t clear it and I fell, headlong, into the brush. The crash didn’t alert my teammates up ahead and I lay face down in the leaf mold alone and closed my eyes. I am done. I can’t go any further.

This experience when I was young of coming to the end of my rope was the first time I felt such despair. Now in my fifties, I have been at that same place several times– the “I can’t go on” place.

It’s very real, not a product of weakness or laziness or wrong thinking. Life is just too hard, too painful.

What happened next in the wilderness has occurred each time I reach my limit: I got up. My teammates came back to check on me, but I stood up and started walking again.

Where does this resilience come from? I am not exactly sure.

I do have faith that God is real and helps us.

Lately my prayer of gratitude goes like this: “Thank you for having my back, Lord. I need you.”

I have changed my Bluebirds Always Fly tagline from “Sometimes life is hard…” to “Often life is hard”. The second part needs no alteration: “but God is always good.”

John Newton wrote a little known verse of his hymn Amazing Grace:

“The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

Today is a day to go on!

 

I Belong, Don’t I?

mizzy-pacheco

Photo Credit: Mizzy Pacheco, Pacheco Photography

“And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:6 NIV

My childhood in the ‘70s included lots of hippie food, clothes, and activities. That set us apart from our wealthy, conservative, suburban neighbors. The grass on the lawn grew too tall. The hair and beards of the men in the family grew too long. Our cars and houses were simple, and kind of funky and neglected. Although I felt loved by my family, as an adolescent I also felt my “oddness” keenly. I felt like I didn’t belong.

Some of that  sense of “odd one out” traveled with me into adulthood. Surprisingly, I didn’t find too many other flower children out there.

However, over time, I have come to experience a deep sense of belonging. It comes from being loved by God and a part of a worldwide diverse Christian family.

Ironically, I, who am a Gentile, worship a Jewish Savior. Jesus came to his own and chose disciples from among the Jewish people. I cannot remake myself into a Jew. But, I know He wants me, too.

Recently, I found evidence for this claim as I re-read the account of Jesus Clearing the Temple in the gospel of John:

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get out of here. How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”   John 2:14-16 NIV

My NIV Study Bible note on the verses explains: …”The cattle, sheep and doves were for required for sacrifices. Jews who came great distances had to be able to buy sacrificial animals near the temple. The merchants, however, were selling them in the outer courts of the temple itself, the one place where Gentiles could come to pray.”

Jesus purposely and with intensity cleared the temple for the Gentiles to have a place to pray.

This obviously mattered to him.

So he made a place for me – how meaningful for a flower child like me.

“From my mothers womb

You have chosen me

Love has called my name

I’ve been born again, into your family

No Longer Slaves, We Will Not Be Shaken album, Bethel Music, 2015

 

 

Chicken Before the Egg: Thoughts on Faith

bluebirdschicken

Photo credit: Julie Weatherbee

“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” Psalm 100:5

My grandmother had faith in Jesus Christ. She walked it out by her acts of kindness, her faithful church attendance, her daily devotional reading of the Bible, and her teaching – mostly through the songs she sang us at bedtime (“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.)

My mother followed in her footsteps, after wandering a while in the fog of Eastern religions during her hippie phase. Mom has faith in Jesus Christ and his love for her.

I do, too.

Today I am reflecting, with gratitude, on how my faith is in God’s faithfulness. The chicken comes first, then the egg, so to speak. His faithful love that is enduring leads to my faith and trust in that love.

Recently, I was served at a restaurant by a young waitress with a tattoo of a Bible verse reference on her forearm: I John 4:19. This is the classic chicken before the egg truth: “We love because he first loved us.”

I pray my children and grandchildren will experience faith – the precious commodity of knowing personally the unending goodness and love of God that “continues through all generations”.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11: 6

 

Swimming in the Shallow End

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 12.12.01 PMThe Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deuteronomy 31:8 NIV

I lay back on the hospital bed, trying not to concentrate on my thirst, my hunger, my pain, or my fear. In just an hour or so, the operating room would be ready for me – an add-on surgery patient at the end of the day. After 24 hours of fasting and waiting I would be wheeled in to have my foot opened up toe to ankle for the second time in a week, to fix bones that had popped apart.

As I prayed through the swirl of physical and emotional sensations, I found these words of contrition formed in my mind and I whispered: “Please forgive me for swimming in the shallow end, Lord.”

My personal life wasn’t perfectly smooth, but enough had been going right that I didn’t exercise much faith muscle in my daily activities or decisions. I just did it, as the Nike commercial commands, and then thanked God for the results.

Now, when the fear and pain swelled up into mountainous proportions, I was left with atrophied faith to help me. But I found God’s kindness for my spiritual condition, even as the tears leaked from my eyes and coursed backwards into my ears, I heard His comforting words: “I am with you, even when you are weak.”

This just happened last month. I am still laid up with my foot in a cast and pain and depressive thoughts continue to be my daily companions. Yet, I know that I when I was submerged in the deep end, I came out with a better understanding of the faithfulness of God to be with me, no matter whether I am strong or not.

 

 

Are You My Mother?

Are you my Mother? bluebird

Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman

“He shielded and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. The Lord alone led him;” Deuteronomy 32:10-11 NIV

Are you familiar with P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s book, “Are You My Mother?”: The newly hatched bird emerges to an empty nest and begins a prolonged search for his mother, asking extremely unlikely candidates, “Are you my mother?”, until his own mom returns to his nest with a worm and his heart is filled with a rush of recognition and affection.

I want to point out the parallel between mother love and God’s heart for us. He is like a mother in his protective, compassionate, and intense emotionally-connected nature. When his protective nature is described using the analogy of a mother eagle who “stirs up its nest” and pushes the fledglings out to fly, we are not shown a God who leaves and flies away as the babies tumble earthward. Instead, in this Scripture, the mother eagle spreads her wings and carries the young eagles on them. Our motherly instinct is to allow our kids to grow and be stretched, but we do not leave them. Our hearts, our prayers, and our help remain entirely present for them.

When my son married, my mom’s heart expanded to include his new wife and stretched, with acute pain, to accept his independence, yet at the same time, I am intensely connected to his well-being, and that of his new family.

In addition, we, as moms, feel for our kids when they have physical or emotional pain: injuries, sickness, heartbreaks, or disappointments, God feels for us as well. “Jesus wept” (John 11:23), often used as an example of the shortest verse in the Bible, represents the loving sympathy of God for those two sisters who lost their beloved brother Lazarus.

Our Heavenly Father is depicted as a mother who wants to gather us up under his wings like a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). The Lord is “compassionate, and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” (Psalm 103:8 NIV) This truth is echoed in Psalm 145, and 86. We can trust this warm, protective love of God and “like a weaned child” can rest upon his breast in trust and contentment. (Psalm 131:2 NIV) Let’s open our hearts to be mothered by God.

Broken Hearts and Infertility

bluebirds - infertility

Photo Credit: Miroslav Petrasko

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34: 17, 18 (NIV)

I was twenty-six years old when I got married. My plan for kids was to work full-time for exactly two years then start a family.

Having trouble conceiving was nowhere in my frame of reference, so I was emotionally blind-sided when it happened. Add to that living far away from friends and family when we began going to specialists and taking tests.

The result of all the anxious medical effort was “undefined infertility” and no guarantee if or when we could have a baby.

My yearning for a child burned like fire. How could I feel that horrible? No one ever told me about this desperate pain! For months, I followed my inner city pastor’s wife down the aisle of the church to the prayer altar after services. She always passed my pew with streaks of tears down her face. If she – a church leader- wore her heart on her sleeve, so could I.

My inner world was one quivering cry of doubt and despair. I had no trust in the outcome. I held onto one tiny scrap of faith that God was good and wasn’t punishing me.

There is no way around any mountain of suffering. Honestly, even now, my trust in God is mostly based on what He has already done, not what He will do, but He still acts on my behalf even with that “little faith”.

Now that is a good God – one who doesn’t hold back mercy or help until we are wise, strong or filled with faith.  He leans in when we are in despair and breathes life into our lungs.

Years later, I did become pregnant and we had a beautiful baby boy. Two lovely girls followed. “He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children.” Psalm 113:9. I am overwhelmingly blessed with the gifts of my children, but they didn’t come as a reward for my faith-filled prayers, spiritual surrender, or organized plans. God just gave them to me, and I am profoundly grateful.

I don’t know why I was spared more years of infertility heartbreak.  I pray diligently for those women I know who are walking through disappointment in this area – for strength, for hope, and for their heart’s desire.

No burden of bitterness

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Photo Credit: Rhino Neal

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31 NIV

 I jumped back as if stung; the words on the page had leapt, too. Not mine, but my grandmother’s. Why had I opened her journal? Entering her bedroom was innocent enough – checking on whether she was ready to go to the church service. An open door and an empty room don’t excuse reading another’s personal diary! But, the damage was done. I had opened the worn leather cover and read the first page that opened to my touch.

What had I read? Her personal and anguished thoughts about moving away from her family and familiar Philadelphia environs. It must have been an old journal because my grandmother had lived for many years in the Chesapeake Bay area in this unique house by the water, designed by her husband to boat to and from. She had always seemed serene, busy, and connected to church and community in the Northern Neck of Virginia during these retirement years.

So what did it mean? It was another evidence of my grandmother’s faith and maturity – that she didn’t become bitter and isolated, even when her initial feelings about uprooting from Pennsylvania were so intensely painful.

I do not endorse or excuse my own actions to violate her privacy. I am ashamed that I never confessed to her what I had done, and now it is too late because she has gone to glory. This “story” came to mind recently because so often we don’t know what another person has had to overcome – so often the cheerful person we know has already moved far beyond hurt and pain, having won their personal battle with resentment.

I would like emulate my grandmother, carrying no burden of bitterness with me as I move forward in life. The Bible describes bitterness as something that can take root and grow– that, too, is something I pray to avoid.

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Hebrews 12: 15

Lord, please remove any small or large bitter roots in our hearts. May we follow Paul’s exhortation to “get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger”.  In its place, please grow kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

Amen

 

 

Competition vs. Intrinsic Value

Photo Credit: H. Kopp Delaney

Photo Credit: H. Kopp Delaney

“Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” (Ephesians 2:10 CEB)

In this culture of competition we Americans receive messages from all sides that we must be the best, the smartest, or the most good-looking to earn our place on sports teams, college campuses, job sites, and media platforms.

The bar is always set high and we must strive to achieve excellence.

“Work hard.” “Always do your best.” “Go for the gold.” I personally endorse these messages and have passed them on my kids. My second child is now prepping for college admission and competing for scholarships. I want her to contest for these awards.

But we all need something else – something more – to truly live successfully; we need a foundation within our very souls of our great value in the Creator’s eyes.

If we build that truth solidly, then we operate out of a sense of being cherished and indispensable to the world, no matter the outcomes of our cultural competitions.

We can even give that appreciation to one another.

“Love is to reveal the beauty of another person to themselves.” Jean Vanier

If we don’t lay down these truths in our inner man, our cultural competition will demoralize and, eventually, crush our spirits.   Our Heavenly Father looks at our value and purpose and never relegates anyone to “the bench” to just watch the first string players make history.

Paul the apostle, the great orator, church planter, and author of much of the New Testament, in all his letters to the churches, gives us a glimpse into the existence of many others who also worked to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the longest lists he made acknowledges 27 people by name and mentions numerous others described as “sister”, “brothers” or “church members”. (see Romans 16: 1-16)

These are not “little people” with “little lives” because they are only mentioned once in the Bible. Their stories may not have been told in that format, but they had rich lives. I would love to hear more about Urbanus, Rufus, Trphena, Pryphosa, Persis, Phlegon, Apelles, Ampliatus, Julia, and Olympas.

We Westerners, in this current day and age, may not receive media coverage of our sports prowess, best-selling publication of what we have written, or other acknowledgements from public platforms, but we each matter to God…

…and to many, many others.

More Grinch Lessons for Our Hearts this Christmas

Dr. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas over fifty years ago. When it was first published, he was quoted as saying,

“I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinchish countenance in the mirror. It was Seuss! Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

This classic children’s story dives deep. Here are some “pearls” I found to enrich your Christmas season:

Grinch Christmas Lesson #1: We are all “grinch-ish”

As the story opens, the Grinch stands at his cave opening, peering down on the Whos as they prepare to celebrate Christmas down in Whoville with extravagant noise, gifts, food, and singing. grinch bluebirds Like the Grinch, our human hearts are naturally tight and small – self-focused, unforgiving or unconcerned. People are just hard to love. In contrast, God our Father is tender-hearted and expresses that through the effort he made to come down to us through the birth of his Son at Christmas.  Let’s take an honest look at our own grinchy hearts as the first step in reaching out to God who has the power to soften and enlarge.

“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32 NKJ

Grinch Christmas Lesson #2: Circumstances don’t need to steal our joy

The Grinch crafts a plan to “stop Christmas from coming” by stealing all the gifts, food, and decorations of the Whos he hates. He sneaks into the town after all the “Whos were asnooze in their beds” and strips the town bare of everything – all the toys, food, and decorations. grinch #3 bluebirds Thankfully, the Grinch made a great mistake in thinking he could kill the spirit of the Whos by taking it all away. How did the Whos react when they woke up on Christmas Day and beheld their plundered homes and wasted town square? They came out and held hands and sang together. Sometimes we, like the Whos, lack possessions or money, or perhaps are suffering emotional loss at Christmas, and we choose to still sing. On the other hand, if we are experiencing abundance and have an overflow for others this year, we have the opportunity to be generous and grateful. Whatever our circumstances, we have the high calling of singing praise to God who loves us and will be close to us – no matter what.

“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
 his greatness no one can fathom. One generation commends your works to another;
 they tell of your mighty acts…They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.” Psalm 145 NIV

Grinch Christmas Lesson # 3: God has the power to change the heart

This is the probably the most well known story moment. The Grinch hears the Whos singing after he has robbed them and his heart grows “three sizes that day”. God can tenderize human hearts like no other force. If we think back to the times that we had a true “Grinch heart moment”, it was simultaneously painful and pleasurable; it was not only miraculous, it was evidence of the power of God. He can do it again, if our hearts need it today. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26

Grinch Christmas Lesson #4: We must connect to others for strength

The Whos clasped hands and sang in their circle on Christmas morning: “It came without packages, boxes, or bags”. We also need to hold someone’s hand – God’s hand first and foremost, but also trusted family members or friends. This time of year our losses sting more sharply; loved ones are not with us this year or maybe our families are not all we hoped they would be.

“By yourself you’re unprotected; with a friend you can face the worst.
 Can you round up a third? 
A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.” Ecclesiastes 4: 12 (MSG)

Grinch Christmas Lesson #5: God wants to speak to us at Christmastime

The Grinch was right about one thing, all the “NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” can be intolerable. It can also prevent us from receiving his messages to us. The Grinch retreated to his isolated cave as a way to avoid people, but later he went to the Summit of Mt. Crumpit and there heard the singing.  God was able to touch his heart. grinch #4 bluebirds We need some respite from the busy, pushy crowds, and all the events and goals of Christmastime.  We need a quiet place to hear God.

“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.  After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,…” Matthew 24: 22, 23 NIV

Grinch Christmas Lesson #6: Even a “lost cause” can be saved

We often “write someone off” as being too messed up to change (or perhaps we discount our own lives as being worthy of saving). We can all think of someone who is “Grinchy”. Old resentments and hurts we have suffered at the hands of others become painful at Christmastime. grinch 2 bluebirds But this time of year is also an opportunity for forgiving, releasing resentment, and giving second chances. Warmth of kindness can draw someone from his cave. In the story, “Cindy Lou Who who was no more than two” exerts a sweet influence on the Grinch that helped stretch his shriveled heart. Sometimes we are like Cindy Lou Who to others, so let’s keep praying and hoping for ourselves and others.

“That brought him (the prodigal son) to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.” Luke 15: 17-20 NIV

Merry Christmas from me…. and the Grinch!

All Lit Up With Eternal Rays

Photo Credit: Tim Hamilton

Photo Credit: Tim Hamilton

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” Psalm 46: 1, 2 NIV

I recently read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis because I assigned it as English homework to my tenth grade home schooled daughter, Rachel. Radiant beams of sunshine shot out of the pages of letter fifteen and lit up my heart from C.S. Lewis’ meaningful words in the chapter on the temptation of worrying about the future.

Uncle Screwtape, the senior demon, warns about God’s view of time in his letter of advice to his nephew Wormwood about how to tempt his human “patient “: “He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” (The Screwtape Letters copyright 1942 by C.S. Lewis. p. 75)

I have heard “live in the present” as a theme for years, but never really understood so profoundly “why?” The answer lies right in C.S Lewis’ pithy statement – “because the Present touches eternity”, and we desperately need eternity in our Present.

In this letter, C.S. Lewis goes on to describe what happens when we live in the Present: “He would therefore have them continually concerned with eternity…or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.” (p. 75-76)

Doesn’t this cover all of our circumstances? Eternity meets our Present and gives us the following: obedience to do what we must, strength to bear up under hardship, grace to make everything better, and gratitude for enjoying a pleasure.

No matter what is happening in my present, I go to God for His grace and help. Like Paul tells the Ephesians…. I “approach God with freedom and confidence” (Chapter 3, verse 12) and I feel His warm strong hand on my bowed head.

I saved the best quote from Screwtape’s letter fifteen for last: “In a word, the Future, is of all things, the thing least like eternity – for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”

As Uncle Screwtape knows, living in the Future will rob us of the presence of God. Our Heavenly Father doesn’t ask us to go there – where He is not able to touch us. Planning in the present for upcoming work would be an exception, but the fear and worry associated with looking ahead are not our portion. In The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a little Dutch girl, asks her father how she can cope with the future, especially regarding the death of those she loves so dearly:

“Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. ‘Corrie,’ he began gently,
‘when you and I go to Amsterdam when do I give you your ticket?’
‘Why, just before we get on the train.’
‘Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we are going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time.’” (p. 44)

Those essential “eternal rays” make it possible for us to live in our Present in full receipt of whatever we need. God is our ever-present help! I will trust God with my future and put my face in the sunshine of his Presence today.

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