Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Gift of Hope

Christmas is coming! Just like the stockings I will be hanging and stuffing soon, the days ahead will be full of people, music, family, long enjoyed recipes and of course beautifully lit Christmas trees. Amidst all of the wrapping, parties, concerts, carols, card writing and family visits, this time seems to me to be one that is saturated with hope. Hope, in the form of a God designed plan, the sound of prophets’ pleas, in steadfast hearts of many. Hope in the action of God becoming man.

Jesus came in the most unlikely of circumstances; not what the random observer expected for the 
Creator God and Holy King. He came, fully God and fully man, in a method that brings hope still today - as a baby. He who designed our legs to walk and knows every language, chose to come as a baby who learned to walk and speak by toddling and jabbering. Tiny, dependent, and utterly precious; he chose to defy our expectations of the extraordinary.

Hanging ornaments and singing songs, the memories of family come flooding back. Ornaments remind me of my own family, a perfect time for considering again God’s use of the ordinary to create the extraordinary. The cry did not well up from the streets that the King of Kings had come. It was the arrival of a baby and the gift of life to give us the most extraordinary thing of all, giving us grace.
Luke’s excitement over the details of these events were captured in his letter to Theophilus. He shared the story of the gift of hope with us. 

“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

Luke 1:1-4

Sunday, October 18, 2015

River of Stories

This week has been a time to slow down and listen to the storied currents swirling around me. Every city, large or small, is a holder of the collected stories of the people who live there; New Orleans is certainly no exception. This place, where the dichotomy between poverty and wealth is clearly seen often places them within a neighborly reach of each other. Yet, the overriding theme I have heard in a slow southern drawl this week speaks of the path from tragedy to victory, testifying to God’s goodness along the way.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The impact was felt all along the region as water and wind rushed into the area leaving failed levees, flooded communities, and extreme damage in its wake. People found themselves in impossible situations, not being able to hear from or contact family for weeks, and feeling intense relief as they finally heard the voice of a loved one; even while realizing homes and businesses were destroyed. Lives were changed forever.

The stories of the devastation are still fresh in the minds of people who survived the storm. The losses experienced of people, pets, homes, businesses, plans and investments are still felt. However, in the midst of the losses, the continuation of the rebuilding of the city is shown through the hard work of restoration moving ahead with purposeful intensity.

Listeners might expect such stories to end in the loss and frustration found in the face of such a storm. Rather what is heard is an undeniable hope and resilience in the face of damages. Stories swirled around, as vital as the waters in the Mississippi River weaving through the city, pointing over again and again to the overwhelming goodness of God. Deep, heartfelt thankfulness spoke to those who have embraced the ability to participate once again in the day-to-day normalcy of life.

I loved hearing the stories of people, resilient faith tested by fire and water, coming out shining and beautiful through the forge of Katrina.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Marking the River

A river courses through the land below. Watching it from the airplane window, I wonder how many times the banks have been reshaped. How many times has silt pushed together to create new land or been pushed further down the stream to deepen the path.

Life has changes. Every day is different. I start with my calendar in place, noting the events, people, places and plans. It syncs up with my map and with materials gathered to take me through the day in a productive and orderly fashion. Yet, for all of my planning there can be a series of changes, small and large that completely move the course of a day from its expected path.

Ecclesiastes three talks about moving of things in our world happening at the time of God’s choosing. I read the words and the list below, a time for this change and that change; a time for this bank to be reformed, a time for that river to be depended. The words at the top though, those are a reassurance that in drought or flood, the everyday meanderings occur in God’s timing.

He is the drawer of the map, the definer of the river bank. I can rely on him to guide through the changes; letting me sit back and watch what unfolds. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fixed in Change

The seasons are changing. I can see it in the changes of the soybean fields from their deep summer green to the almost sunflower yellow that is shown now. Soon, they will look like so many sticks lined up in the fields. The corn’s long leaves of green tapered points are drying into their russet gold. The squirrels seem to be extra busy gathering nuts for the winter, hauling them across the still summer warmed ground to whatever hiding hole they might be using. Somewhere north of here, the eagles are preparing their strength to fly south, marking their seasonal route down the Mississippi that will celebrate the arrival of winter here. Every evening, the constellation of Orion is becoming more and more visible in the sky, arriving earlier to admire as the Big Dipper slips past the horizon sooner.

It seems we all have our opinion on which season is the best. I love the cool crispness of fall and the beautiful colors it brings. Others favor the heat of the summer, the new greenness of spring, or the beautiful snows of winter. Regardless of the favoring of one season over another, they pass in succession. It does not merely remain fall because that is my favorite; just like the summer sun will continue to be farther from the earth, the land will continue to cool into winter. 

As I enjoy this particular season, it is a good reminder to me to seek out the beauty and good in each period of life. There are times of harvest, where what has been so carefully tended is now being enjoyed. There are times of want, when things are lean and difficult decisions are required. There are times when the world is cold. And there are times when you can share the warmth of love with the people around you, basking in the glow of their response. So many more seasons than four pass through our lives, more than the changing of the orbital position of earth. And yet, like the earth, I choose to remain fixed on my center axis, on the Son of God.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lesson from a Cowboy

Visiting an area of unsheltered plains as winter was turning into spring, I looked out and saw land covered in shades of brown. Only a few bits of green were there to be seen; made of low-lying scrubby-looking prairie plants which were nutrient rich for any grazing animals that might be passing through. Wind caught the scents of thawing ground, carrying a fragrance reminiscent of a rich patchouli oil.

The old cowboy got out of his jeep and pointed with a stick to a small flower. Dainty white blooms with yellow centers reminded me of an orchid, leaves stretched out along the ground as if they were attempting to gather warmth from earth and sky. “These are what we call Easter lilies,” he said with a smile. It was one of the first plants to bloom there in the spring. The arrival of these flowers means that spring has come, soon the ground will be warmed and return to being a canvas for thriving new growth. 

One of my favorite parts of Luke, as if I can pick a favorite, is where Jesus is encouraging his disciples. Not overlooking their worries, he instead speaks words of comfort. “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” Think of these beautiful flowers, starched white blooms with sunshine yellow centers; each is a delicate work of creation. Though they are not found in the flower market, not highly praised in horticultural circles; they are still lovely designs of the Creator. 

It is all a matter of perspective. I can choose to see a bare land, whipped by the wind. Or, I can look for the first flowers of the spring, and see delicate creations that thrive in such an environment. We choose to look for beauty from the Creator, just as we choose to trust in His plan and see the sovereign touch in the creation of His splendor. 

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Luke 12:27-31

Monday, September 7, 2015

In Need of Living Water

The weather has been very hot lately; and as someone whose personal preference is cool weather, I find cold water important to have around. Sometimes though, even as I keep drinking water, the heat takes its toll. Chilling in the heat, I know my body needs to rehydrate and cool off. It can be easy to take clean water for granted where the turn of a handle gives that in a reliable fashion of varying temperatures. Yet, water is a necessary liquid for our bodies to function. Found in cells, tissues and organs, water allows our body to function properly in varying temperatures and is a large portion of our physical makeup.

Visiting the Des Moines Botanical Garden, I walked to the waterfall at one end of the outdoor gardens. The sun was hot, my hands were hot, there wasn’t a sign saying don’t touch; so my hand went into the waterfall. I was splashed with droplets and felt the cooling impact where the moisture landed. Wonderfully refreshing, it took a measure of self-control to not just remove my tennis shoes and opt for a stroll through the pool in front of the falls.

Water to nourish, to cool, to bring life to arid places; indeed a liquid necessary for life. Then, there is this living water referred to in John 4. Living water, a self-replenishing gift, is offered. The liquid that is necessary for our physical life to continue is found in the well. The living water found in Christ is offered freely, as a gift, drawn from his well spring that never runs dry. It is not the refreshment from the heat of the day that it offers; but healing from the burns of the world.

 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John 4:10

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Riding the Currents

I have often wondered what it would feel like to be able to fly without an airplane or extra external gear. To go from standing still to lifting wings and suddenly I am free to ride the unseen air currents. After the initial stage of awkwardly trying out these feathered limbs, there would be a mastery developed to stretch out for lift. Then, think of the heights that are now available, the new places that are visible. 

Still, there is a certain vulnerability in taking to the sky. Gentle breezes can turn into twisting rollicking winds; taking sudden turns, drops and roller-coaster worthy bends. Made to ride the winds, the wings cannot be completely made of inflexible bone. They have smooth feathers to reduce their drag. They have wing structures that allow for lift and thrust to work together; flapping and propelling, gliding and soaring.

The birds are uniquely made to take to the air. They have learned to trust their wings and see the unseen air currents. We are uniquely made to have faith, to see the unseen with confidence. Hebrews 11:1 starts with, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Just as the wings work with confidence, faith is a confident action as well. Not based on paths that are easily seen, but in assurance about what is not seen. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Just a Sheep V – The Scattered and the Gathered

I’ve been taking a slow stroll through John 10, pausing frequently to digest the richness and depth of meaning behind the initial reading. Told at a moment when the Pharisees were in a flurry of tense and defensive tempers, I can imagine how they looked with postures of arms crossed and shoulders hunched in the body language of dissent. Jesus speaks with authority to them, confronting and teaching, challenging and storytelling; using a culturally familiar account of a shepherd, a wolf and a flock of sheep.

Three dogs bound out of the door each morning. One runs to the bushes, searching with great enthusiasm for a rabbit or squirrel to chase. Another ambles up the driveway at her own pace looking for butterflies to hop after. The third waits at the door for her owner to appear, like a permanent attendance taker who wants her paw held. When all three are running at full speed, and in opposite trajectories, it can be challenging to capture their attention and regroup them to move in the same direction again. A slight distraction appears and off they go, scattered across the yard.

Animals grouped into flocks, herds or schools all have their own instinctual response to the presence and attack of a predator. In the case of the sheep in John 10, we are told that the wolf scatters them. If it can take considerable effort to return three happy dogs to one spot, I would imagine it would be very difficult to recall many scared sheep running in terror. Hold that thought for a moment, allow your senses to play a role in taking in the scene. Imagine the vibration in the earth as hooves hit the ground, the stinging smell of adrenaline and dust heavy in the air, hearing the low growl of the wolf and the panicked bleating of the runners. It is a scene of chaos, where on top of it all, the employee who has been hired to care for the sheep decides to make a run for it to find a safer job. 

The Pharisees are not happy, they have just been compared to ones who are part of scattering the flock with fear and not protecting them as leaders are called to do. Middle class businessmen, trying to uphold the strictest interpretation of the Old Testament laws and traditions; I can understand why they were perturbed. It is easy to hold onto something that we feel is concrete and correct, something that is safe and steady to guide ourselves and others by. However, when we let tradition become law, become an idol in and of itself, we run a risk of scattering and causing serious wounds. 

Standing there insulted, they now hear Jesus telling them that not only is he known by and knows his sheep, but he will gather them to Him. The image takes a drastic change. Instead of creatures running in terror, we are comforted with the true shepherd who does not abandon the sheep in time of trouble and does not bring about predatory attacks, laying down his life for the sheep instead. Just like a big smile appears on my face when I speak to a dear friend whose familiar voice I love to hear, there is comfort for the gathered sheep in hearing the voice of the shepherd, it is not that of a stranger.

Then, Jesus goes one step further. He speaks of more sheep in a different pen who are going to be gathered to him as well. A different pen? More sheep? Where are these sheep coming from? What is he talking about? Can’t you imagine the questions flying through the minds of those listening? They might have drawn two different assumptions. As this was coming on the heels of the man who was just ostracized from the synagogue (and now a large part of his social and spiritual world) due to an act of healing, some might have thought the reference was to him and others like him. Some may have grasped that this could have referenced a group other than the Jews, the gathering of the Gentiles. Thoughts are churning, it is not a comfortable moment to be listening to these words.

In the hindsight of a vast amount of time I still find the thought of scattering and gathering very relevant today. We need to consider if we are part of the scattering or the gathering. Are we so reliant on tradition and social assumptions that we turn out sheep that do not meet our self-imposed prerequisites and niceties? Do we follow employees who run and look for safer jobs when the wolf comes around or the shepherd who will defend his sheep? Are we so caught up in law that we forget the true heart and voice of the law, instead making up our own imprisoning interpretations as we go? The questions can pinch any who look at them honestly. But, after taking that long look, I would encourage us to focus on the ending of this part of John 10, at the second part of verse 16, “… and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The gathering is happening – exciting times!

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd." ~ John 10:11-16

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Just a Sheep IV – The Bridge Isn’t Out

Networks of railroad lines cross over the countryside, moving people and things from one location to another. As planners designed the original rail lines, they had to take into account the rise and fall of the land. A path had to be planned over the plains, across rivers, past mountains, and through steep valleys. Even when starting with the most gentle of grades, eventually a geographic difficulty would be encountered and they would need to encompass a new plan.

Imagine crossing a gentle land, then approaching a deep divide with sheer drops cutting away from the ground ahead. Stone sides seem to go down forever, plunging with such a severe fall in height that it makes my head spin. I know that if there is not some alternative measure, this trip ends right here and now. I also know that I cannot possibly force such a thing from thin air. I need a bridge that I cannot construct to move safely from one side to the other. 

Now imagine that same location, the same sheer drop. This time however, a bridge is in place. It is safe, secure, solid and just waiting to provide a way to move across the decline. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing. 

Fourteen words, just fourteen words and yet they create a bridge. Jesus is the good shepherd, the good bridge. Not a mere structure to move people from one place to another, but as one who lays down his life for his sheep. Starting with the first two words, “I am,” I hear an echo of Exodus three, where God is speaking to Moses. Moses, in a moment of witnessing God’s glory, listens and hears the words, “I Am Who I Am.” (Exodus 3:14) Notice again how the phrase starts, “I am the good shepherd.”

I am is a shepherd, but not just any shepherd. He is the good shepherd. The word, kalos means good; but this is not any ordinary kind of good. This type of good inspires and motivates others with a noble and pure goodness. This is the word of one who speaks with authority, who claims his name with no wondering or worrying.

Again, the words do not end here. The good shepherd is not merely a presence, but takes action in giving His life for the sheep. It is the ultimate moment that speaks to the bridge being there, safe and ready; and Jesus being the bridge. It is the bridge of a shepherd who has chosen to give His life for His sheep. It ties into the word of Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Chris died for us.” The good shepherd chose to be the bridge so that we could cross the divide that we could not cross on our own from death to life. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Just a Sheep III – Life Giver of Abundance

A heavy rain just ended. The clouds carrying evaporative moisture experienced cooling and condensing, turning the vapor into rain. It is as if a cloud were like a towel, too heavy with moisture and it was wrung out. The soil received the rain, it seeped into the dirt and watered the roots of plants burrowed into the ground. With the rain the world turns shades of lovely lively greens; and from some of these green organic structures a harvest can be picked. This season of abundant harvest is shown in the multi-colored farmer’s market stands, as they hold a literal cornucopia of vegetables and fruits. From these harvestings, we are physically nourished for daily life. However, this is no lackluster nourishment. This harvest is rich with color, fragrance, texture and taste. It is abundant, abundance being a wave, a surge and an overflow. Late in the summer, the harvest is ample. But the life that the shepherd provides is more abundant than any a garden can produce.   

Listening to the words of Jesus at the beginning of John 10, it seems as though he might have received some blank stares and puzzled looks talking about sheep and shepherding. Picking up the subject again, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between himself and robbers. While the shepherd seeks the best for the flock to keep it safe and healthy, the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. No doubt some were pondering these words and felt their tempers rising, realizing that they – the spiritually favorable – had just been referred to as thieves. Thieves comes to rob us of joy, peace, hope, faith and to destroy the relationship with the shepherd.

I love this last contrast in verse ten. Watch the word I, “I have come.” The Lord has come, the Lord is come. And, he comes for a purpose! I have come to give life, a more abundant life. In other words, I am the shepherd and I will take care of my people. Not in a minimal way to just get them by; rather I will give of myself so that they have life more abundantly. This abundance is the kind that is measured, pressed down, shaken together and running over, (Luke 6:38). This is the abundance we cannot contain, it simply keeps overflowing from our hands, running down our arms and seeping into the ground below our feet. 

“Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”  John 10: 7-10

In a world of achieve more, faster, higher and better, I occasionally hear someone speak honestly of the desire for an abundance that they cannot make. It is an abundance of life, which has nothing to do with earthbound accomplishments. It is the more of eternity, the more of agape, the more of freedom that comes from reliances on the shepherd. This is the more that cannot be destroyed or taken. This is the more of Jesus, the giver of abundant life.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Just a Sheep II – One Gate

On a trip to South Dakota, time was spent at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Beyond being a beautiful ranch where a variety of wild horses live in a sanctuary environment, this was also once a homestead. If you ever have the chance to travel that way, I highly recommend making the stop. Make sure to take a moment to look at the remains of a fenced area where a few animals would have been kept by the settlers. A natural wall of rock stands along a portion, then a fence structure meets them, with space left for one opening. I would imagine that this type of arrangement is not unusual in many places still; using natural resources to make a safe holding area.

It probably didn’t look all that different in ancient Israel where sheep were gathered for the evening. The gate itself however wasn’t made of metal or wood, it was the stretched out body of the shepherd; it was here that the shepherd would rest, keeping the predators out and the sheep in. If either the former attempted to enter, or the latter to leave, the shepherd would know as they would have to pass over his body. With one gate, and that being the shepherd, suddenly the impact of the words in John 10:7 carry new weight.

Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  John 10:7

I imagine a sheep, suffering from a bout of insomnia and after not overcoming it by counting everyone else standing around in the pasture, decides an evening stroll would be just the thing to do. Moving over to the gate, the sheep sees the shepherd and not wanting to disturb him (or get caught), tries to quietly and stealthily step over the shepherd and out into the area of supposed freedom. No matter how the sheep tries, the shepherd is aware of its presence and moves to intercept. Finally, the sheep is discouraged and gives up, returning to the flock muttering the whole way there. “Always has to be in charge, never lets me do what I want. I just wanted a little walk!”

Suddenly, there are chaotic sounds and motions coming from the gate as the shepherd rises to block a wolf from entering to prey on the sheep. Where the wooly headed creature had just been grumbling, it is now tucked in with the others and loudly singing the praises of the shepherd. “I didn’t know there was a wolf out there! He is such a good protector, always looking out for us.”

I’ve been that kind of a sheep before. I get a little bored and see something beyond the boundaries of where I have been told to stay and am inclined to wander. It is as if there is something on the other side of the fence being dangled to grab my attention. I fidget my way over, knowing the entire while I’m not supposed to wander off. Then, I get annoyed when told again to stay where it is safe. Haven’t you ever rationalized it in your mind? If I can just do this small thing, then I will come back into the fold where the rest of the sheep are. Or sometimes I get turned around, my phone battery must be dead – thus no GPS, and I can go wandering out in what I think is the right direction. However, it really is leading me to places of dangerous drops and thorns.

Yet, the gate itself is the shepherd. And to enter or exit, I would have to pass over his body. It reminds me of how Jesus stretched out on a cross, allowing himself to pay for my sins, your sins. As the ultimate gate, he opened the way to eternal life, showed his love and continues to do so. One little verse in John and I am held awestruck with its meaning. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Just a Sheep I – Selective Listening

I stood on a small ridge, looking over a shallow gully where a herd of sheep was staring back at me. Sharing the same pasture, I had hoped for some sort of friendly sheep connection leading to me getting to pet them. They stared at me, I talked to them. They watched me and I tried to think of a sheep song I could sing to convince them to overlook my being a stranger. I tried to convince them that they really were very nice sheep that would like to have their heads rubbed. The glares I received in return stated clearly that I was not winning these sheep over. They didn’t know me, nor did they have any inclination to get to know me. My voice was not recognized.

As much as I would have liked to pet at least one of those wooly headed creatures, I understand their reluctance. This caution for any unknown was part of how they defended themselves. They were listening for a familiar voice, the voice of their shepherd. My voice was that of a stranger, and did not appeal to their sense of security. However, if the shepherd were present, things might be greatly different. The voice of the shepherd is the voice of protection, good pasture, care and adequate shelter. Knowing the voice and trusting it, the sheep will follow the shepherd from place to place.

As Christ is my shepherd, I need to rely on his voice. As a shepherd, he provides me with truth, grace, love, nourishment, protection and refreshment. This means I need know the voice I am listening for, and that I actually need to be listening. It is so easy to be distracted by other voices, I know it doesn’t take much sometimes for me to lose that focus. The background noises crank up the volume and I forget to listen, wandering off on my own. Pretty soon I am stuck. I may not be entirely certain how I got there and will need some assistance to get out. Standing there, stuck, I am forced to wait and listen, hoping to hear the familiar voice of my shepherd coming to assist. What a sweet sound that is, especially because I am not great at waiting for rescue - I get squirmy and impatient.

Towards the end of Tuesday on this very busy week, a few of us agreed that surely it should be Thursday. Can we just make the next day Friday by group decision? I was tired, feeling the pressure I place on myself as I watch the list of projects I want to participate in grow. Wednesday came, the group vote for Friday was overruled by calendar makers, and again the day primarily passed in a blur of rushing. Where in the midst of the hectic movement around me was the shepherd’s voice? It was hard to listen – let alone hear in all of that commotion. I felt stuck in the pace of the moments, and was waiting impatiently, hoping to be hearing my shepherd’s voice once again to calm my heart and mind against the ticking of the clock.

Sitting at a picnic table that evening at a Bible study and fellowship time, I felt my spirit being refreshed even as my eyes grew increasingly tired. In the midst of this great conversation, a young man with his hand behind his back left the road, came down the hill, took the steps and crossed the pavilion. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect to see when the hand returned to his front. What I did not anticipate seeing was a beautiful yellow rose, tinged in coral. My favorite of rose colors is this, the one that looks like a sunset was shaped into a flower and smells like all the sweetness of summer. I looked into the face of a young man and his big grin. I couldn’t help but smile in return. “This is for you,” is all the rose giver said.

I’ve never seen this fellow before, nor do I expect to meet him in the future. The interaction lasted for a moment and contained less than a dozen words between us. But that moment will stay with me for some time. I was tired, feeling caught up in the background noise and wondering exactly how I was going to fit the rest of my week into the actual span of a week. Then, in an unexpected way, the voice of my shepherd burst through the noise with a friendly smile and a beautiful rose. It was an encouragement, a refocusing of listening for my distracted thinking. And in the moment, through the actions of a stranger, I listened to the familiar voice of my shepherd. He whispered to me through a sunset colored rose, caught my attention with the fresh fragrance, and told me that he was with me.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 
John 10:1-5

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Big People Music & Little People Music

Leading worship is a big responsibility and a great joy. Leading worship while teaching children in this charge is an even greater responsibility and a greater joy; purposefully instructing and building future leaders. In a recent experience, one child joined us at rehearsal and heard the adults talking about the need to incorporate the children’s songs from Sunday School. Hearing the discussion, the child quickly spoke up about being able to sing “the big people music.” I loved that spur of the moment response; a beautiful, open hearted and intuitive answer that is worshipful in and of itself.

The thing about leading worship is that it is not really about whose music (i.e. big and little) is being sung or played. It is an act of sacrificial joy noted for leading ministry, armies and nations. These are the players of cymbals, harps and trumpets, amongst other instruments, specifically mentioned in the Bible. The singers conducted services of song and ministered with music, some even having their names added to the text. Yet, I think even with these details, it is important to note that there is not one word about style, personal preference or music wars.

Worship is done to honor God. It is not about what music I like, don’t like, prefer and don’t prefer. It is not about my mood, my circumstances or my particular activities on a given day. I may have to move past morning sleepiness, arrangements I love or don’t particularly care for, the need for many rehearsals, growing skill sets as we all seek to improve and technical difficulties. When I step up with a team to lead worship on any given day, you could see me after a morning of smooth sailing or it may be everything I can do to keep it together while on stage. The gist of this, is that worship is not about me or you. And that, that was what was contained in those words, “I can sing the big people music.”

“…when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying:
‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever,’”
2 Chronicles 5:13a

The end of the week approaches. People will be practicing for Sunday, preparing music once again. As we prepare our own hearts to worship, on Sunday and each day, I want to encourage you to reach out past the moment and circumstances, to worship the Lord because you love him. Maybe you can even learn the “little people’s” Sunday School music.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Blueberry Muffin Bread

I love the smell of summer fruits and vegetables in the kitchen. Ten pounds of blueberries sat in the kitchen sink, washed and ready to be frozen. Little packets of goodness will be pulled out later in the winter, and fresh berries will waft the sun warmed smells back into the house. While most of the berries went into the freezer, some stayed out to make fresh blueberry muffin bread.

As the oven is preheating to 350 degree Fahrenheit, pull the butter out of the refrigerator and let it start warming. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add to this mixture the liquid ingredients of milk, vanilla and eggs. Mix in the remaining ingredients of baking powder, salt and flour.

Once everything is thoroughly incorporated, slowly add in the blueberries; taking care to gently fold them into the batter. Lightly grease a nine inch round pie plate and pour in the mixture.

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ t. vanilla
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
2 c. flour
½ c. milk
2 ½ c. blueberries 

Let the bread cook until it turns a golden brown. Pour the coffee, set out the plates, serve up the bread and enjoy.

Sharing food from the kitchen has always been my mom’s gift. Someone comes to the house and eventually there is an offer of food. It is a skill I have learned, using food to share friendship and caring. Over the years, my collection of trusted recipes that will be served friends has grown, and each bring back memories of special visits.

There is simply nothing quite as warming as sitting down with a fresh baked food, a cup of coffee, and time with a friend.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Voice in Fragile Silence

Pairing my favorite writing music, Chopin, with the sound of the summer rain, I made my way to the front porch this morning. Picking up my pen, journal, coffee and Bible along the way, I sat quietly waiting for actual words to translate from thought to ink on the page. As the dogs played in the rain (or avoided it all together), the words came in waves like the sprinkle to deluge coming from the sky. Today, this is my time of quiet.

It’s hard to be quiet, not meaning the absence of sound, but the stilling of my mind and heart. I choose to put aside my things to-do, things to think through and things to plan out. Distractions are numerous, roosting in the tree in front of me and singing a siren song of urgency, people, prayers, must-dos, needs, when am I going to-dos, whys, how comes, contingency plans and don’t forgets. Each feathered member of the flock is chirping in my mental ear, saying pay attention to me because I’m important. And, they are – but in the scale of priorities, this must rank higher.

This time is when I consciously choose to seek the gentle whisper of a voice in a fragile silence that is easy to miss. My spirit craves this time, my heart is strengthened by its power. Why? What happens? As I sit here, it would appear to be a time that is nothing more miraculous than the goodness of another day. But, it is when I am quiet in mind and heart I can hear God’s voice best. 

Though not an audible voice, he makes himself heard nonetheless. Like sitting in companionable silence with a friend, this is a comfortable place to be this morning. I can trust the words my friend, my God, says. He waits and encourages me to listen, an act of love. This is where I am stretched and challenged to be more like Christ. This is where I can run when the journey is too much for my strength. This is where I can turn when I am broken over the cry of my heart. This is my place of navigational refocus when I am stymied on which path to take, especially when there are many great options available. This is where I am redirected when I have made poor choices. This is my greatest place of praise, celebrating those abundant everyday miracles.

And the response of that gentle whisper, many times it feels like the answer Elijah hears, “What are you doing here,” from 1 Kings 19:9b. Different emphasis can be placed on distinct words in that question and subtly change the meaning.
                What are you doing here?
                                What are you doing here?
                                                What are you doing here?
                                                                What are you doing here?
                                                                                What are you doing here?
I find my responses to this question come in the same starts and stops as the writing does, as I pause to think through each phrase. Praise, friendship, connectedness, supplication, restoration, protection, hope, the need to hear that voice – The Voice, that is my motivation. That is why I am here.

I say the silence is fragile because it can be easily broken. It demands a discipline and desire from me to actively step away from my calendared, socially connected world of IMs, emails, texts, posts and messages to focus elsewhere. It is time for me to listen and hear from the most important messenger, to hear from God.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Missing Blessings

This morning quickly went from my normal get ready for work routine to something unplanned as turning the key to start the car resulted in nothing but silence. I tried again and there was not a click or sputter. Thankfully, there was another vehicle available and the silent car was left behind as I headed to work. When the key turned and the engine didn’t, I had an opportunity to choose my response. I could either let this moment completely throw off my entire day, or I could take a breath and regroup. I can honestly say that I have responded well to these unexpected moments at times, and not so well during others. However, this morning as dogs were barking and I was scrambling for a different set of keys before heading out the door again, a friend’s words came back to me about gratitude for blessings that are often missed during each day, those that we are completely unaware of. 

That thought has lingered with me all day. What blessings am I missing? What am I oblivious too and taking for granted? My world is alive with the nature around me, bright flowers greet the day as I walk down the block; intricate forms that seemed to have caught sunshine’s light. From the darkness of the day after the sun slips around the curve of the earth until the orbital trek is made again, the sky is steeped in beautiful light of the greater and lesser. I have food to eat that is both nutritious and tasty. The house is a sturdy shelter, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Three beautiful, though noisy, dogs greet my every arrival with great excitement that leaves me smiling in return. Friends near and far offer hands of help and let me help in return. They are all blessings.

But these, though I can certainly take them for granted at times, these seem too obvious. I think I miss the blessings that are more of the kind that hold the next breath, the next heartbeat. I’m aware of them, but don’t spend much time thinking of them, let alone praising God for them. I think I miss the blessings for the events I don’t understand or when things don’t turn out as planned. When my path is turned in a direction I didn’t anticipate and cannot predict, I think there may very well be a missed blessing there.

As I hear tomorrow about the car and the repairs, I will endeavor to continue to both seek to see the missing blessings and to praise God for and through them.    

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Power of a Smell

Yesterday evening, walking at the park, I reached to touch a new pinecone. Thick sap clung to my fingers and I held them to my nose to enjoy the fresh smell. It is the smell of a memory, of walking in woods where the sound of footfalls are dampened from layers of pine needles, and every step disturbs the pollen and brings the woody scent closer to me. I can hear the lake’s waves touching the shoreline with a steady rhythm, the driftwood caught on a shallow point hitting the rocks with a hollow echo. On the other side of the water, mountains rise, skirted in green at their feet and covered in snowy caps. Strains of “How Great Thou Art” still float above the water as the last note ends.

The smell of fresh pine makes me think of snowy morning moments at home. Wood smoke stings my nose as I build a fire in the potbellied stove, as the pine and kindling woods catching fire mingles with the aroma of fresh yeast bread rising in a sunny window. The coffee pot is waiting to refill my cup and a pot of soup bubbles on the stove for later in the day; both adding moisture rich aromas to the house. Outside in the snow, every breath drawn in feels somehow fresher; and when the pine tree smell drifts my way, it feels like Christmas.

On a summer trip, campground spaces in a deep pine wood are shared with friends. I remember laughing until I cried and then laughing some more. Pancakes were cooked on an outside griddle as we stood around and just enjoyed being together. Prayer, songs, more laughter, and soon we were clinking forks onto plates with sweet syrup and fluffy pancakes. The pine woods held little birds that sang above our heads and crows that floated through announcing their passing-by with much volume and fanfare.

It always amazes me how a single smell can cause biological triggers, bringing back rushes of memory in a moment. I traipse down sentimental neurological paths that have been cobwebbed since last visited, dust them off and look for the pine trees.  

Friday, July 31, 2015


My five point harness had me locked into a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) training chair. This piece of equipment is used by astronauts to train for work in a microgravity environment. I was excited to be part of this simulation, preparing to “fix” a broken part of the external components of the International Space Station (ISS) as a team member on a mock spacewalk. In a space simulation, I quickly learn that unwieldy space suits and simulated microgravity environment exercises can make me go swishing across the polished floor. Laughing, I felt myself going backwards until at 25 feet out, my safety tether snapped taught. My momentum was changed as I started to slowly move forward again towards the black and white structure. Still smiling, my hands and feet braced to gently catch myself coming back to the station wall. The tether, made of strong woven fibers and thick metal buckles, has to be able to withstand the simulated great temperature variances found in space, resist abrasions and still maintain flexibility. It didn’t take long to discover that more than a gentle movement would send me inadvertently moving away from the mock-up station; and be grateful for the safety tethers that keep me from careening off across the floor. 

A book titled The Untethered Soul caught my attention the other day. Let me put in my aside here, I have not read the book - it could be good, my reaction is purely to the title. An untethered soul, and all I could think of was simulations of fixing a mock-up of the ISS. My response to the title was thankfulness for the tethers in my life.

Sitting for a few quiet minutes today, I thought of who and what makes up my safety tether. Some of the fibers are short and others of inestimable yardage are woven in throughout. Buckles, forged from unbreakable love of Jesus are ones that do not fail. The webbed lengths are strong in family, friends, love, retain joy in abundance and resist abrasions with compassion. These cordage systems keep us from drifting away into space. They are our life lines that pull us back, reversing the backward momentum. And we in turn serve the same purpose for others.

At least until it’s time to take your MMU for a little spin, and go drifting slowly across the floor for the fun of it. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Sparrow Falls

A small brown sparrow lay near the edge of the sidewalk, much too still. I thought of how a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from God’s will. As my feet continued down the sidewalk, my thoughts took two different paths as the complimentary roles of pragmatist and dreamer played thoughts through my head.

The pragmatist, my practical side, thought of an acquaintance once asking, “If God is so good, and knows about that little sparrow, then why let it die?” Thankfully, God is large enough for all of our questions. The answer is one I have muddled through at times, when confronted with the “whys” in life, especially when taking my own limited viewpoint into consideration. Why God did you let this tragedy occur? God, why didn’t you take care of this need the way I thought it should be taken care of? Why God have you not answered on my timeline? And, while we are on the subject God, why did you answer that other prayer in that manner? Like the curious child, I can catch a case of the incurable whys. My desire is for real answers – not a stuffy, “because I said so,” or interminable silence where my impatience causes me unfruitful exercise in jumping to incorrect conclusions. I want to understand and the question is worth consideration. I think it is in the searching itself that my mind and heart are forced to stretch; as if thought were a stiff muscle yielding to new directions and allowing me to consider my presupposed answers differently.

God allows tragedy and discord on earth, but does so with a complete picture in place, and a purpose that cannot be overridden by our life happenings. It is the sovereignty of God that I must first point to, and my assurance that his plan will not fail. Let me reiterate that as the ultimate authority, God is in complete control, with an understanding and perspective that is complete and whole; very different from my own. My choice in the matter is whether I will trust, if I will rest, in God’s sovereignty. Although I have already made the lifetime decision to trust in God as my Savior, there are many moments when a life turns a path in a direction I have not expected and I renew my decision to trust my Father to guide me along the correct path. It is with this restful trust I can hope, that I can keep faith, trust rooted in the solidity of love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulations, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” This is not a trust made of tissue paper, easily torn and crumpled; but one of strength which breaks down walls, redesigns lives, and builds beautiful new creations. 

 Of course, I must let the dreamer have a voice as well. It is what allows me to see the potentials, the possibilities and beautifully abstract ideas. My thoughts took a completely different path along this route, thinking of the sparrow as a metaphor. A little bird, small and in the amazing world of feathered creatures, rather unremarkably colored. They eat seeds and insects, living amongst flocks of like creatures and chattering away in cloud of song. How many little sparrows are in my world that can rise or fall on a given day? Little things make up much larger parts of my life, like bricks paving a walk. Remove a brick and the absence is noticed briefly; remove many and the absence is felt. Knowing God is aware of the feathered flying sparrows in life reminds me that he is also aware of my own sparrows. It is not a far away and distant stranger to whom I pray, but a friend who walks along with me.

Little sparrows in my life are often the things I find myself wanting to hang my mood on. If I feel I have been productive, receive an unexpected compliment or criticism, watch my plans go slightly awry or be improved; these are just a few of my sparrows. It’s when the car won’t start, windows need to be washed, too many good things force prioritizing of time, and a stranger brightens my day; those are all little sparrows. I remind myself that the car repair is cheaper than the car payment, I’m grateful to have windows and ways to clean them, what a blessing it is to have so many good things that prioritizing is necessary, and try to pass along that stranger’s brightness to someone else. These are all sparrows for me. Small happenings, but regardless are known by my Father. Just as nothing is too large to be taken to God, nothing is too small as well.

“Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10:27-31

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Courageous Gifts of Roots

About four hundred years ago, a family left Wales for a newly founded Penn’s Colony. With a few older boys in tow, and one who made his appearance when crossing the Atlantic (aptly named Seaborn), they made the voyage successfully. Settling into the colony, the family became established in their community. Time passed, generations branched out and moved southwest into Kentucky. Deep into timbered hills, where shadows rest late in the morning and pull along evening’s approach early, families were established. Gardens were planted, homes were built and a few lone settlers became communities.

On a recent trip I was reminded of the gift of roots. It took courage to leave a home in Wales and travel across an ocean; to later say goodbye to the established colony and settle the frontier of the Appalachian hills. Generations continued, learning to lean on each other as they formed their own families, taking root and becoming communities.

I watched and listened as family surrounded me last week. Each unique in their gifts, each very special. This beautiful hilled place will be forever my family home, a holder of stories and songs that rise in the memory like the morning mist. Each generation has the opportunity to be a builder for the next, to give them another strong layer upon which to place their own structure. I also am part of the branching out, and in so doing found a new home.    

Monday, July 20, 2015

Scanning the Skies for a Covenant

Recent flash flooding has devastated portions of Eastern Kentucky. People have been left without homes, mourning tragic deaths, celebrating heroes, scrambling to meet needs and raising their eyes to scan the sky and river banks with every new thundercloud breaking into rain. When out driving, it is easy to find evidence of mud slides and a few sharply curved corners where the road has crumbled. After another gully washer two evenings ago, I watched impromptu waterfalls form to race down cliff faces. Those who have been impacted, either directly or through concern for loved ones, experience apprehension with each new rain storm.

Just two nights ago, sitting back on a deep porch and relaxing in a rocking chair, I watched one more storm break across the sky before going to bed. I admired the beauty of the lightning and watched the reflection of the porch lights in the light rain. Though for me that summer thunderstorm was quite enjoyable and relaxing; I could not help but think of those not very far away who must be looking at this storm with trepidation. 

The storm wasn’t the only thing in the sky that day to catch my attention; a rainbow had appeared as well. With subtle color, it was nearly lost to view after being disrupted by a cloud. Subtle or no, it reminded me of the covenant that it shows us. A covenant, a promise or commitment, is shown in that and every rainbow. This promise was made when the earth was very young and recovering from a terrible flood. Genesis 9 tells us that the rainbow was provided as a “sign of the covenant between (God) and the earth.”

We all have storms and floods that occur in our lives. Sometimes we can sit on the porch, enjoying rain cooled air and the lightning show. There are other times when we are buffeted about and swept down in the currents of the floods. But in each, I keep my eyes open to look for the covenant of hope, seen in a beautiful but quiet display of dispersed light across the sky. I love seeing God’s promises, quiet and beautiful, made for us to take notice and comfort.

“And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’”  Genesis 9:12-16