Sunday, April 16, 2017

Be grateful for life's thorns

My childhood was spent in the bright lights of a major metropolitan area. Every couple of years or so, we would make the trek to my father’s rural roots in middle Georgia to visit extended family. Those trips were always an adventure for this little city girl, because the way and pace of life there were so different from my own.

One of those trips included a visit to my great-uncle’s farm. Besides getting up close and personal with cows and watching young men in dirty overalls fill a barn with curtains of tobacco, we also picked blackberries. It was a hot summer day and I was wearing shorts. We were all happily filling our buckets with berries when someone in front of me moved quickly, causing a bush to whip back against my bare leg. One by one, the thorns on the branch that blew back bit into my skin from ankle to knee. The barbs dug into my flesh and wouldn’t let go as blood trickled out around each pierced point of entry.  I felt paralyzed, too afraid to move for fear of further injury. Eventually my father came to my rescue and slowly, one by one, pulled out each thorn.  I have no recollection of ever eating the berries, but even all these years later I haven’t forgotten the sight of those thorns in my leg, the blood, or the pain.

Can you imagine a world without thorns? It started out that way — thornless. Then, Adam did the one thing God told him not to do and, as a result, the ground was cursed with thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17-19). Thorns are the blemish on God’s perfect paradise. From the moment when Adam disobediently ate from the forbidden tree, thorns became the reminder of sin and how it completely changed the landscape for every single human being ever to walk on this earth. Sin separates us from God and his perfect paradise.

The next human on record encountering thorns is Moses. Moses murdered a man and left town to escape the repercussions. He was an experienced sinner and other people knew it. That’s painful on many levels (don’t ask me how I know). Moses was still living with the pain of his past when he came face to face with a ‘hassәnәh’ (Exodus 3). The original Hebrew word ‘hassәnәh’ is translated as a thorny bush. This thorny bush was on fire, but it stayed green, never charring. The voice calling out to Moses from that fiery, thorny bush was the same one that Adam heard curse the ground with thorns. Moses’ eyes saw sizzling thorns but his ears heard God’s voice telling him to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land. He said it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Can you hear the hope of paradise coming through the pain of the curse?

It wouldn’t be the last time God showed up in the midst of the flesh-piercing curse.
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.”  John 19:1-3
Jesus suffered being beaten and then, the thorny exemplification of sin pierced his forehead as he, too, was killed. All of it was an act of total and perfect obedience to God. His obedience in taking on the thorns of this world is what bushhogged that path for you and me. It is the ultimate message of deliverance for us.

Have I been disobedient? Have I eaten from the wrong tree?  Have I killed somebody?  Maybe not physically, but what about with my words?  Maybe.  Absolutely. Whatever I’ve done to place myself close enough for the thorns of this world to grab me and try to take me down, God has provided a way back to Him. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to get hurt or that I’m not going to bleed.

That day in the field of blackberries, the thorns clinging to my leg got my attention. I was suddenly aware of the danger surrounding me and never more grateful for a loving father who would gently take them from me. It was a reminder that the thing that brings you down just might be the very thing God shows up in with his message of deliverance and redemption.

This was originally published April 16, 2017 on the Press and Standard site.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I am the resurrection and the life


I have recently been participating in a women’s Bible study at Bedon Baptist Church. I am not a member of that church, but that didn’t matter to the precious ladies there. They have welcomed me as one of their own, and I am so grateful for their love and care.

We’re using a study book written by Lysa TerKeurst titled “Finding I Am.” It’s a six-week study that guides us through specific scripture readings each week and poses questions about personal application of those verses. We meet together weekly to talk about it. The focus of the specific scripture readings are the situations and circumstances when Jesus started a sentence with the words “I Am.”

“I am the bread of life.”  John 6:35

“I am the light of the world.”  John 8:12

“I am the good shepherd.” John 10:11

Last week we studied John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  The circumstance that caused Jesus to make this “I am” statement was the death of Lazarus. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were good friends of Jesus. The scripture says that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Both Mary and Martha were obviously grieved over the death of their brother and were missing the presence of their friend, Jesus. Jesus was out of town at the time and didn’t get back until days later.

In our study workbook, we were prompted to consider a time when someone we loved died too soon. That wound is still fresh for me. I was devastated just a few months ago when my college roommate and lifelong friend, Lynne, died much too soon.

Lynne was diagnosed with cancer four years prior. The struggle seemed manageable the first three years. The fourth year was hard. In one of the last conversations I had with Lynne shortly before her death, she told me that she still firmly believed Jesus had the power to heal her here on this earth. She believed that physical healing was absolutely something Jesus could do. However, she told me that at this point, she no longer wanted him to heal her physically. She said she didn’t want Jesus to heal her because she didn’t want to have to go through the four-year dying process all over again some time later down the road. Once was enough.

The story of Lazarus came up in that same conversation with Lynne. We talked about how Jesus did make his way back to Mary and Martha’s house and that he called for Lazarus to come out of the tomb where his body had been rotting for four days. Miraculously, Lazarus came alive again walked out of the tomb.

Jesus told Martha, before it actually happened, that Lazarus would rise again. Martha didn’t quite catch Jesus’ context because she responded that she knew it would happen someday when it was the end of the world as we know it. Jesus wanted her to know that she didn’t have to wait until then to see new life. She could experience it that very day.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ”
Her sister Mary and some other friends showed up with their own disbelief about Jesus’ immediate power to give life. Jesus loved this family. They were his people. They stood next to him, hugged him, spoke face to face with him, ate meals with him; yet they still had difficulty grasping the hope that Jesus could give them. This brought Jesus to tears.

Lynne and I also talked about Jesus’ weeping. The people closest to him didn’t believe in him — then there was poor, dead Lazarus. There was plenty to cry about. Maybe Jesus cried because he felt the same way about Lazarus that Lynne did about herself. Yes, he could heal Lazarus, but then Lazarus would have to suffer through death again later. Surely, once should be enough.

Lynne believed. She believed that heaven now would be better than suffering through the dying process again later. I can’t imagine what Lazarus must have thought when he was told he’d have to leave heaven to go back to earth for a little while.

Not long after Lazarus’ mournful wake and subsequent miraculous awakening, Jesus faced his own death here on earth. Unlike Lazarus, once was enough for Jesus. It was enough for all of us.

He is the resurrection. He is life. Believing that allows us to live even after we die.
“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.” Hebrews 9:27-28

This was originally posted March 26, 2017 on The Press and Standard site.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wait…what just happened?

In June 2016, the United Kingdom passed a referendum to exit the European Union. That Brexit event stunned much of the world. We just weren’t expecting that to happen.

Then there was the American presidential election in November. If you went to bed early that evening, you likely were surprised by the results the next morning.

Large numbers of football fans thought the Atlanta Falcons were going to bring home the Super Bowl LI trophy in February 2017. The New England Patriots never held the lead throughout the entire game, but won the whole shebang over the Falcons in the first-time-ever Super Bowl overtime. Shocking, I know.

The wrong envelope was handed to Warren Beatty and then Faye Dunaway read “La La Land” as the winner of the Best Picture at the Oscar Awards ceremony. Only “La La Land” wasn’t the winner, “Moonlight” was. What in the world?

Has anyone else seen the chickens pecking around down near the curve on Wichman Street? I saw them earlier this week and thought to myself, “Well, that’s odd.” For a brief moment I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere down the road. It might make sense on dirt road out in the country, but on a paved road in town?  Is this really happening?

Later that same chicken-sighting day, I hurried home after work to do a few chores before heading back out to church for choir rehearsal. In the half an hour that I was home, I gathered up the trash and rolled the bin out to the street, tended to the cat, sorted the laundry and tossed a large load of whites in the washing machine. I added the detergent, turned the knob to start it, and then headed out the door.

A couple of hours later that evening when I returned home, I opened the lid to the washing machine to find that the laundry that was white when I put it in was now brown. Wait. What? How bizarre. It was completely the opposite picture of what I expected to see when I opened the lid. I was so confused.

After some investigating I learned that the fire department had been flushing fire hydrants earlier in the day which resulted in some kind of sediment in the water lines. Who knew?  At least it’s one peculiar incident, in a string of many, thankfully with an explanation.
Teenage Joseph had been waking up as his father’s favored son, over eleven other brothers, his entire life. He must have woken up with that what-in-the-world-just-happened confusion the day after his brothers threw him in a dry well and then sold him into slavery. Although he was prone to wild and crazy dreams, this is new slavery reality was something he probably never dreamed would happen to him.

Joseph made the most of his slave days. He worked hard and was good at his job, so much so that he was given charge of the entire household of a government official. He probably felt that stinging tase of confusion again when he was accused of making the moves on the official’s wife and was unjustly thrown into prison.  First a pit, now prison, both of which he ever expected and both because other people wanted what he had. He was smart, handsome, skillful, and adept.

He met some other dreamers in prison who were, eventually, his get out of jail free card. Upon his release he again made the most of it, was successful at his work and again ended up in charge. I imagine his knack for dreams helped him envision how things should be done.

Yet, in all his wildest dreams he probably never thought he’d actually see his brothers again, but years later they showed up and they were hungry. Wait, what? The same brothers that sold Joseph into slavery now wanted Joseph to feed them. In the end, Joseph was able to take care of his brothers and their families and had the grace to tell them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

The number of circumstances that cause me to be stunned, startled, surprised, flabbergasted, taken aback, confused, dumbfounded, astonished, or whatever words you want to use, seem to be piling up these days. Sometimes I find an explanation, but for the most part I find myself still shaking my head wondering what in the world is happening in our world.

I tend to associate the good things that happen as blessings from God, but it may not always be the good things that give us what we need. There were a whole string of nearly unbelievable negative circumstances that Joseph faced. In the end he realized that God used all of them to help not only him, but many others as well. More specifically, not merely helping but actually saving their lives.

I may never know why or how, but based on Joseph’s experience, I believe that God can make something good out of all the craziness. God can use it to save lives, maybe even my own. 

The was originally posted March 19, 2017 on the Press and Standard website.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

How to deal with it and keep on moving

A few months ago I kept complaining about pain in my left foot. It wasn’t a constant pain. It mostly hurt when I walked and the longer I walked, the more it hurt. There were certain shoes I could wear that eased the pain, but unfortunately those athletic shoes didn’t go with everything in my wardrobe, nor were they appropriate for some of the places I needed to go on a regular basis, like work. 

I finally made an appointment with a doctor and the x-ray confirmed that I had a couple of fractures in my fifth metatarsal bone. I have no idea when or how it happened, but was glad to finally know what the problem was. I left the doctor’s office that day with a pneumatic orthopedic boot on my left foot. 

Walking in the boot was a little awkward at first. The bottom of it is not flat on the ground. It rests on a small ball so that your foot rocks on it when you walk. It also raises your height a couple of inches, so one of the first things I had to do was to buy a new pair (you can’t buy just one shoe) of shoes for my other healthy foot so that it would be the same distance from the ground as the booted one. 

It took a few days and little practice to get used to wearing and walking in that boot and to get to the point where I wasn’t constantly aware of it. The longer I wore it the more I began to realize how much better my foot felt when it was in that boot. The other thing that happened was that it caused me to meet some wonderfully interesting people.

Whenever I was out and about in that boot, it became a topic of discussion with people everywhere. I ended up in several wonderful conversations with total strangers who asked about it or joked about what my husband must look like after that kick. 

When I was wearing that boot, I noticed a lot of other people wearing similar contraptions. I don't know if it was the peak season for foot injuries or if being in one made me more sensitive to them, but orthopedic booted feet were everywhere. I found myself drawn into conversations with most of the wearers whose path I crossed. They were conversations I would not have had otherwise and often went beyond anything foot related. 

A little pain, injury, and inconvenience put me in a position to consider my steps more carefully and see things from a different perspective. I have always thought my short, stubby feet and bulbous, crooked toes were ugly. I’ve envied others with long, straight toes and slender feet. This whole metatarsal fracture and orthopedic boot experience reminded me, however, that function is way more important than appearance. 

My fractured state took me places I’d never been and put me face to face with people who likely felt their own pain as they acknowledged mine. The thing that resonated between me and other sufferers was not injury details, but instead how we’ve managed to deal with it and keep moving. 

That’s the example Jesus left. He suffered pain, injury, and agony on this earth, obviously much worse than mine, but there was purpose in it. That purpose was for us. That purpose gives us hope to move forward with the good news that it is possible to get beyond the suffering. 

No matter what the injury, the good news is this, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is hope worth sharing, even in conversations with strangers. The bonus for ogre-footed people like me, as it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10) 

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21 

This was originally posted February 26, 2017 on The Press and Standard website

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hello 2017. I'm glad you're here


Hello, 2017. I’m so glad you’re here. I have a lot of hope for you.

It seems I’m always thankful when December 31 rolls around. Every year I celebrate New Year’s Eve by being grateful that the struggles and challenges of the year are over and done with and that I’ve been given another chance. This past year was no exception. The bookends of my 2016 were the death of my mother in January and then the death of Lynne, my longtime best friend and college roommate, at Thanksgiving. The absence of two of the most influential women in my life made for a different kind of Christmas and changes my outlook for the days to come. Looking back at the days in between those losses, the activities and emotions that kept me spinning throughout were of hurricane force. The hurt was a true reminder that I was very much alive and they were not.

Both Mom and Lynne made it known to all those around them that they had placed their faith in Jesus for whatever happens after death. I have confidence that they saw His face the very minute they left this world because of this: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).  Heaven truly is a wonderful place because Jesus is there, but also because Mom and Lynne are there too.

So, I am of good courage. I love Jesus too. Following the leadership and example of these women, I walk by faith.  I walk, but my steps may not always be steady. Some of the paths I was forced to walk in 2016 were not what I would have chosen and therefore, I was resentful. Angry. Hurt. I’m sure there were days when I let it show. I probably spoke harshly to someone I loved or was snippy to someone I didn’t even know.  I may have ignored your need because I was too wrapped up in selfishly nursing my own wounds. I didn’t try to hide my ugliness.

Looking back, I realize how desperately I need a savior, the Savior, to make it all right. I deserve so much worse than the beautiful life that I have.

John’s gospel recounts the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. He records Jesus’ first post-resurrection encounter with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her not to cling to him because he hasn’t been to His father yet.

I’m not a theologian, but to me that means Jesus didn’t immediately go to heaven when he died. He was absent from his human body, but not present in heaven. Where did he spend that weekend between death and resurrection?

I believe he made the deliberate choice to go down the deepest, darkest, debris-strewn path of my own personal sin and suffering. He voluntarily experienced the death that all humans, regardless of their belief in the afterlife, know is the final enemy of this world. He made it there and back and lives to tell about it.

He did it so I won’t have to. He did it so that I can face 2017 with hope and courage even though I will be without my mother and my friend. He did it because, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.’” Lamentations 3:22-24.

Welcome, 2017. I’m looking forward to living and telling about it too.

This was originally posted January 8, 2017 on The Press and Statndard website

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The God who never sleeps was an infant in their arms


It’s been something every day for the last month. Holiday luncheons, Christmas programs, rehearsals and practices leading up to those programs, shopping for those in need and getting the gifts wrapped and to the drop off site by the deadline, staff dinner parties, work receptions, and everything else in between. The hustle and bustle of it all is part of what adds excitement to this season.

Doing so much more than you normally do can also wear you down and out. I succumbed to the exhaustion pretty early this year. By Dec. 3rd, I had chills, fever, congestion, and everything that goes with it. Since then, it has managed to stay with me in some form or another.

A couple of days ago it was late in the day and I was the only one in the building at work. It was quiet inside and dreary outside. I wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t concentrate on anything because my eyelids were so heavy. I may or may not have put my head down on my desk and taken a five-minute nap.

I just wanted to sleep. I needed the rest but I kept putting it off and moving it to the bottom of the to-do list. I’m old enough to know that humans can’t do what they need to do without sleep. The truth is, I’m not a very good sleeper. I’m a light sleeper and will allow any little distraction to keep me awake. Often the distractions are in my head. If there’s something that I need to do, I lie in bed thinking about it until I can get up and do something about it.

Usually my lack of rest or sleep can in some way be tied to worry or fear. There’s worry that I won’t meet the deadline, fear that I might let someone down if I don’t show up or measure up, and it goes on and on. All throughout the Bible there are verses that encourage us not to fear, not to worry, and instead, to rest. I think I need to go back and re-read some of those verses.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” Psalm 121

My rest is found right there in verse 3:  “He who keeps you will not slumber.”  God never sleeps. He never sleeps so that I can. I need to quit trying to do what only God can do.
Many Christmas carols sound like lullabies. “Away In a Manger” and “Silent Night” are good examples. They encourage us to consider the birth of Jesus, to think about how he came to earth as an infant.

When an infant is born in the world today, establishing a sleeping routine is important. Parents are proud and relieved when their baby finally sleeps through the night, or at least several consecutive hours.

How was it for Mary and Joseph? The God who never sleeps was an infant in their arms. Mary and Joseph, as newborn parents do, surely wanted to eliminate distractions and encourage his slumber. Jesus, who had never slept before, could hear Mary and Joseph singing cradlesongs not long after his birth. Wouldn’t that be a little awkward? Awkward enough to cause me to lose some sleep.

Jesus’ birth was only the beginning of the story. His life on earth, His death and His resurrection have shown us that He became one of us so that we could become like Him. He traded never having to sleep with fighting for time to rest, at least temporarily. Because of that, we can know that He knows firsthand how hard it is to be us.

He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:7-10

So, He speaks with authority when He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Matthew 11:28

Our help does come from Him. He will keep our lives, for this time forth and forever more. That’s Christmas.

This was originally posted December 25, 2016 on The Press and Standard website

Monday, December 19, 2016

The angels have never stopped singing


‘Tis the season for singing! I like and listen to a lot of new music, but when it comes to Christmas, there’s something about traditional carols that resonate with my soul. The whole story of Christmas comes from the ancient text of scripture, so in this case, it seems to me that old is good.

I sing with the Voices of Colleton Community Choir. We started practicing in August for the two presentations that were offered the first week in December.  When you prepare for the weekly rehearsals and listen to recordings of the music throughout the week, you know how it’s supposed to sound. Sometimes in rehearsals, it just doesn’t make it up to the “how it’s supposed to sound” standard. The basses and tenors drag the tempo, the high sopranos are flat, and everything else is the alto’s fault. In a full program of nine or ten songs, there always seems to be one particular song that trips us up. This year’s program was no different.

The night of the first performance arrived. Before it began, I took my place in the center of the choir loft among the 65 other singers. I silently prayed that no matter what we sang, especially on that troublesome song, that the audience would hear only the voices of angels. Not that our voices would sound like angels, but that actual angel voices would be joining us, singing over and above us. Certainly their voices would get it right. They have been singing God’s praises longer than anyone.

Angel voices have been heard on earth by human ears before. The shepherds heard an angel voice say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Several traditional carols mention angels singing in the lyrics.

“Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new born King.’”

“Silent night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing Alleluia to our King; Christ our Savior is born.”

The words of those carols are centered on the night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But what about today?  Can you and I still hear angel voices?

Edmund Sears must have wondered the same thing.  In 1849, he penned the words to a poem that became “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” It’s a Christmas carol about angels singing, but not solely about the first Christmas night when Jesus was born. Most of it focuses on the era in which it was written.

We rarely ever sing them today, but based on the second, third, and fourth verses, Mr. Sears must have longed to hear the angels singing:

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long, beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong: And man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring: O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

“All ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; Oh rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

“For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold, when with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold; When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”

When these words were written 167 years ago, America had been at war with Mexico. Zachary Taylor’s heroic efforts in that conflict catapulted him reluctantly into the presidency. There was a lot of noise in 1849 that distracted the world from the voices of angels.

Simply update the usage of the words “ye” and “lo” in those verses and you might think they were written about 2016. We’ve suffered long this election year — we’re still at war with each other about rights, the load of healthcare and education can be crushing. There have been many large decibel words spewed in 2016.

I don’t think the angels have ever stopped singing. I think they’ve been singing since before Jesus was born. We’re so busy making noise ourselves that we miss it.

As the Voices of Colleton Community Choir sang about the good news of great joy, I tried to listen for the angel voices I’d prayed for. I realized that angels did not join us in singing. What really happened was that we joined the angels in their glorious song of old. We proclaimed with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

The message that came clear that night: Peace on the earth and good will to men will come from heaven’s all gracious King.

This was originally posted December 18, 2016 on www.walterborolive.com