Bird or Leaf

Pine Tree

“It’s a game you’d like,” my friends insisted.

As they waited for their daughter to finish her activities, they would ponder whether the sudden flutter on a distance branch was a bird or a leaf.

“It’s harder than you might think,” they said.

“So how do you decide which it is?” I asked.

“Well, once you’ve sat there for more than an hour it’s probably flown away if it’s a bird. And if not, it’s a leaf.”

I was reminded of this conversation the other night when I unwittingly began to play this game. When the breeze ruffled the branches of a nearby pine just right, I glimpsed a flash of red. Was that a cardinal? (Those who are long-time readers of my blog may know that I have a thing about spotting cardinals.)

I waited for another glimpse, but when it came, I was less certain. Was it just dead needles? No, it looked too red! Or – when the wind blew again – maybe the sunlight was hitting some brown needles just right to make it appear red.

Several minutes passed while I pondered this tree. Then, not willing to wait the full hour of the official bird or leaf game, I wandered over to take a closer look. And the thought that came to me, the thought that felt as though God whispered it directly into my heart was this:

I can outwait you.

Pine Branches

I don’t think He was talking about just the bird or leaf game. I think He was reminding me that no matter what I do, no matter how badly I go astray, no matter how long I run, He can outwait me. The causes that seem hopeless, the pain that does not seem to let up, the struggle that seems to never progress – God can outwait it all. It may seem as though it is never going to get better, but God is still waiting. He can outwait the pain, He can outwait the struggle, He can outwait our stubbornness.

When we have given up, when the devil has given up, when the pain of this world has given up – God is still waiting.

There is hope in His waiting.

The vision is for an appointed time… the Bible tells us. Though it tarry, wait patiently for it. It shall surely come and will not be late (Habbakuk 2:3). He who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).

Once closer to the tree, I could see more clearly. When the wind blew just right, the needles parted to let me glimpse not a cardinal, but a message. About waiting. And about having faith in the One who outwaits us all.

I’m Not Looking for a Dog

This post first appeared at inspireafire.com

Crate Bars

So what am I doing here?

The first time my answer was simple. I carried in a nearly new bag of dog food. Some flea and tick prevention. A bag of dental chews with just two missing.

“Do you take donations?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

“Of course we do,” she replied. “Thanks so much for thinking of us.”

And since I was already there, I signed the waiver holding the animal shelter harmless, and wandered back through the kennels.

Crate

That was the first time.

Three days later, my answer is much more complicated. I’m still not looking for a dog, but I cannot stay away from this place. With its noise and smell and sense of desperation, it is an unlikely place to find what I am looking for. And yet I know, instinctively, that here I am looking for the same thing each of these dogs is looking for.

Hope.

It is a terrible place to look. Amidst fear. Amidst rejection and abandonment. And yet isn’t that the very place to look?

Who hopes for what he already has? Paul asked. Hope that is seen is no hope at all. But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24)

Hope is found in the most unexpected places. Because it is pain that begets hope.

I know this, as I look at the bars separating me from the inside. The spilled dog food, the soiled toys, the little touches that cannot hide the dismal nature of these holding pens.

Hope is not found in the sunshine; it is not needed there. Hope is found in the shadows.

The staff here know that I am just looking. Looking at cages. Looking at the lives inside of them. And looking at freedom.

Cartoon Dog & Hearts

Tags appear even as I wait: “On hold for someone special – adoption pending.” One staff member tells me he started just over a month ago, and already most of the dogs that were here when he started have been adopted.

This is both unbelievable and wonderful to me.

This place – this frightening and confusing and horrible place – can be the start of a beautiful new beginning.

If that is true for these cast-off canines, could it not also be true for me? And for you?

We have a Heavenly Father who is not only our supreme caretaker, but who can break off chains and knock down prison walls. When Israel was at one of the lowest points in their history and held captive in Babylon, God sent a word to them through the prophet Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

While this particular proclamation was to Israel, the premise is true for us today. Our Heavenly Father has told us that he has good plans for us, and they are still unfolding. Because of His great love for us we are not consumed. He will teach us in the darkness how to hope. He will prod us in the present toward our future.

Hope can be found even in a cage. Do not forget this.

A Tribute to Fasting and Grief

Kitchen Timer

A post I wrote this week for Inspire a Fire http://www.inspireafire.com/a-tribute-to-fasting-and-grief

The details of my experience aren’t significant, but the lessons are. A few months ago I did my first-ever fast. Let me tell you what l learned.

First, once I knew the fast was approaching, I became hyper-aware of everything I ate. I expected a new-found appreciation for dinner time, I was surprised when that appreciation started even before the fast.

spoonfulSecond, I was tired and cold. And no matter how much water I drank, I still felt dehydrated. This made me appreciate food as energy in a whole new way.

Third, and most importantly, once the fast had started, there was nothing I could do to speed it up.

Fasting is not something you do. Fasting is something you endure.

Most things in life you can work harder and do better. You can work faster and finish quicker. You can put more in and get more out.

Fasting does not work that way. Because even though the fast may be planned, fasting is not an action you take. It’s an action you don’t take.

Several times over the course of just one day I would catch myself feeling the unpleasantness and wanting to do something. I was willing to go through this. I just wanted to go through it a little faster. And I would have to remind myself there was nothing to be done but to continue on with my day while the fast slowly ran its course.

I had no idea then that God was preparing me for what was going to happen next.

Exactly two weeks after my fasting experience, my father passed away unexpectedly. Exactly six weeks later, my dog of 15 years similarly passed away.

And here I am.

Paw print stoneGrief, like fasting, leaves me tired and cold. I sleep and do not get rested. I eat and do not get energized. I can tell I am not quite functioning like I should, but I am powerless to change it.

I find myself thinking back to that lesson from fasting.

Grief, too, is not something you do. It’s something that happens to you. It is something you endure.

Grief, like fasting, is not an action to take. It is the absence of a million small actions you no longer take.

There is nothing that can be done to speed the grief process. There may be grief-coping skills. There may be people who come alongside you. There is the Great Comforter himself who shows up in surprising ways. But all of that does not speed the process; it merely helps you endure.

Strangely, I find a modicum of comfort in recognizing this.

My job is to endure. That’s it.

Three strands and crossIt’s okay if I feel cold and tired and am not functioning like I should. My job is to endure.

It’s okay if I feel sad or angry or lonely. My job is to endure.

It’s okay if I try something new and fail. I will try again. Because my job is to endure.

I learned this lesson before, and I am re-learning it every day: there is nothing to be done but to continue on with my day while the grieving slowly runs its course.

“Let them grieve as one having hope,” my pastor often prays.

And hope, according to Romans 15:4, comes from two places: The Bible. And endurance.

Whether you are currently grieving or will someday face a new grief, hold onto this, my friends. Let us endure, moment by moment, to the end. We cannot speed the journey, but we can choose to live each moment while we wait.

The Law is Gentle

 

No Parking Signs

I first posted this thought at http://www.inspireafire.com/the-law-is-gentle/

Martin Luther famously said that God’s Law serves three purposes. First, it acts as a curb to prevent violent outbursts of sin. Think of a curb along a road, or a curb bit in a horse’s mouth. The law is like that barrier saying “you can come this far… and no farther.”

Danger SignSecond, the law acts as a mirror. When we compare ourselves to the perfection demanded by God’s law – perfection not just in outward action but in thought and desire, too – then we begin to see ourselves in a new and unflattering light. Like a little league star tested against the professionals, we suddenly realize we might not be such hot stuff after all.

Finally, the law acts as a guide. Although we can never attain perfection on our own, we know from the Law what it looks like. We know what to aspire to. We know what to ask God to help us achieve.

And God does help us.

So often when we think of the Law we think of the rules and regulations. We may think of these curbs, mirrors, and guides. We may think of how far we fall short. But today, I’m also thinking of Jesus, weeping over Jerusalem with the words “How often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37).

All of the law’s harshness can be summarized in one gentle command: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).

Like chicks under a protective wing, we are called to press against Jesus. Do not beat against the curb, distress over the mirror, or try in vain to follow the guide. There is another way.

Bible in MirrorLove God.

That’s it. Love God.

Pursue Him. Run after Him. Seek Him. Love Him.

It sounds so simple, but there’s a catch. We have to want it. We have to want God more than anything else. More than any other relationship, more than any other passion, more than any other pursuit.

It is a gentle command. Which means it can be so easy to ignore. God will pursue us, but He will not force us to obey. We can choose to love so many other things. And I have found through my own wandering ways that when other loves begin to supersede the First Love, life begins to unravel in devastating ways.

The greatest command, Jesus said, is to love God. That one comes first.

Not second. Not somewhere down the line.

First.

Love Never Fails signAre you struggling? With loving others or loving yourself? With sin you can’t shake? With broken relationships, broken dreams, broken hope?

Refocus. On. God.

Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these other things will be given to you. “You shall seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart,” saith the Lord (Jeremiah 29:13).

It is not a harsh command, but it is the most important one.

Love God.

Love Springs

Toy groundhog in plants

I posted this earlier this week at www.inspireafire.com/love-springs. Enjoy this re-post, and Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

I heard that Punxsutawney Phil is predicting an early spring this year. Legend has it that this Pennsylvanian groundhog can predict the approach of spring when he sticks his head out of his den on February 2nd. If he sees a shadow, he flees back down into his hole to slumber for another 6 weeks. This year, no shadow means spring is on its way.

clouds parting

Regardless of how much trust you have in this furry, four-legged prediction, the real question we should be asking is: What season follows spring?

I often picture spring as a gradual transition from winter into summer. The days get longer and warmer; little buds appear and then begin to pop. Color flows seamlessly from winter greys to joyful hues.

But that’s not how it happens.

More often than not, spring approaches like last year’s rusty tractor. It roars to life only to sputter and fade. It coughs and wheezes and jerks into motion only to stall half-way across the yard. It promises summer only to retreat back into winter.  You may need three different weight coats just to make it through one day, and the next day you may need to wear the same three coats in reverse.

Welcome to spring.

Winter

Ah, spring! Not only is it the precursor to summer, it is also the season of love. I think of that when I see my daffodils shoot out of the ground one day only to be blanketed with snow the next. Or weeks later when  they raise their yellow blooms toward glorious sunshine only to be whacked across the face with a deluge of ice pellets. Anyone who thinks that spring is gentle has never really paid attention.  And anyone who thinks that love is gentle has never really been in love.

What season are you walking through in your relationships right now? Equally important, what season is coming next?

Perhaps you’re in the thrall of romance. Absorb it like rays of sunshine, and let it grow deep roots to sustain you.

Perhaps you’re in a season of dark desperation, not sure how much more battering you can take. Hold onto the truth that the Son will never leave you. Seek Him harder than you have ever sought Him before.

Or perhaps you’re in a season of turmoil as chaotic as spring itself – blown about by life’s demands and twirling in confusion. Identify just one small thing that you can put in order, and start there. Sometimes changes to the smallest tributaries can divert the most raging torrent.

Desert flower

Love is not always easy, but we know that love is always worth it, because God Himself is love. No matter what season of love you’re in, pursue God with open arms. Through rain and snow and sleet and sunshine, seek God. He can bring order. He can bring healing. He can bring joy. One day, you will find that your arms are no longer empty. You are holding onto Love.

Because here’s something else about spring: it never gives up. No matter how many times winter throws another punch, spring always gets back up. In the end, spring always wins.

And so does love. Even when it hurts.

Memories. And a Net of Thanksgiving.

This post first appeared at http://www.inspireafire.com/casting-a-net-of-thanksgiving/

Memories can turn bittersweet in a second.

I can be happily following the rabbit trail of my thoughts, hopping between afternoon plans and pleasant reminiscing when WHAM!

Thoughts in a rabbit candy dishIt’s like a hole suddenly opened up beneath my feet, or a rock slammed me back twenty yards. Use whatever analogy you want – perhaps you’ve experienced it too? – but a wave of sadness, or anger, or fear (or all three) has me pinned and wriggling beneath its weight. My happy little thought trail just turned deadly.

Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, or a struggling relationship, or a transition you’re trying to navigate. There will be a time when memories bring you joy and comfort, but not right away. First, they hurt. They hurt like a red hot poker you can’t get near enough to touch. And so you stay away. But eventually those memories start to sneak in. A familiar location, a familiar scent, a familiar sound. Between the red hot poker phase and the happy memory phase there is this in-between time. A memory starts out so innocently that you glance its way. And then it pummels you.

I’m navigating that in-between time right now. Trying to learn when it’s okay to look, and when it’s not. When it’s safe to let my mind wander, and when my mind is about to turn against me. It is a journey by trial and error. But it’s a journey I have to take. If I never touch the thoughts, I never progress. I would simply harden my heart, withdraw, turn cold. But on the other hand, if I move too quickly, I will drown in the floodgates of emotion.

I am learning to walk my thought trails with a weapon at the ready, and the weapon I have found most effective may surprise you. There is a fraction of second, a space barely the size of the gap between two thoughts, when I feel my thoughts turning against me, swinging me over a pit of grief.

TrailAnd in that thought gap, that fraction between thought and emotion, I throw a net.

A net of thanksgiving.

“I am thankful for this memory,” I say. And then I transition immediately to the present. “I am thankful that God is continuing to take care of me and preparing new moments for me to enjoy. I am thankful God is restoring old relationships and bringing new relationships. Thank you…”

The secret to success with this weapon is three-fold. First, I have to throw the net the milli-second I feel myself being swung over that pit. I can’t test the thought to see if it’s really turning on me; I can’t think a little further to see if it’s really all that sad. I lose that battle every time, and once I’m on the way down, it’s much harder to grab a handhold.

Second, I have to move away from the memory that threw me over the pit to begin with. Too many times I’ve tried to weave a net of thanksgiving by stringing together everything I’m thankful for in that old memory. The problem is that while my brain is saying thank you, my heart is feeling the loss of every one of those old memories. Before I know it, I’ve used my net to climb down into the very pit I was trying to avoid.

View from hammock.Third, this is a safety net, not a hammock. This strategy disrupts the spiraling thoughts just enough for me to get back to safer ground. Whatever train of thought brought me to the edge, now is not the time to hop on board again. Too many times I’ve swung myself out of the pit just to ride my thoughts right back down into it. If I can’t lead my thoughts elsewhere on my own, I need to turn on music, a podcast, or call a friend. Anything to move to a new location in my mind. I can go visit that train of thought some other day.

Memories are finicky things. They don’t always announce whether they are friend or foe, whether they carry joy or sadness. Often they carry both. Memories allow us to learn, to grow, and to relive moments. But their power should propel us toward our future, not hold us mired in the past. There are times we need to thank them for their service, and walk away.

Waiting Patiently – A New Understanding of Rest

I originally shared this post at http://www.inspireafire.com/waiting-patiently-a-new-understanding-of-rest/. I hope you enjoy!

Hammock

Fall always seems like the busiest time of year. School is back in session. Work emails quadruple. Outside it’s the season of harvest – that narrow window where all the accumulation from the summer sun must be bundled in before the winter. And just the other day I heard a flock of geese sounding their way south. Already!

Despite the bustle of the changing season, I’ve found myself staring out the window and thinking not about all I have to do (though there is plenty). I find myself thinking instead about the exact opposite.

Autumn orchardI’m thinking about rest.

Perhaps because I’ve had more changes at work and home than I generally care to tackle all at once, but summer seems to have slipped by without me noticing. I’m staring into the tumult of fall and yearning for rebirth, for regeneration, for the hope of spring.

It seems a long time away.

I find myself gravitating to scripture passages like “He gives to his beloved sleep.” And “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Not my typical “no time to be idle” fall verses. But I pause when I study Psalm 37:7, which in the King James Version says, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.”

At first reading, this verse has the same soothing balm as the others. Then I look up the original Greek.

The word translated as “wait patiently” is not the wait-in-this-sunny-meadow kind of waiting that I first assumed. It isn’t even the cast-your-cares-upon-the-Lord-and-stop-worrying kind of waiting. The word actually means to writhe in pain as in child birth.

I do not like this.

I want to think about waiting patiently as something pleasant. Something I can meditate on while drifting off to sleep. I don’t want nightmares of writhing in pain.

But the more I’ve thought about this, the more I see the hope embedded in the words. The connotation is one of enduring, with the promise of a joy so complete as to make the pain worthwhile. “A woman giving birth has pain,” Jesus said, “but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy.” (John 16:21)

View from hammock.Waiting patiently for God is sometimes hard work. Resting in the Lord may not always mean peaceful slumber. God’s transforming power in our lives may in fact feel like our insides are writhing. But this transformation also comes with the promise of a peace and joy so complete as to make our current trials seem light and momentary, even if they don’t feel that way right now.

The springtime regeneration I am looking forward to actually begins now. Now – as I snuggle into the fall season, holding onto God’s promise that He will never leave me nor forsake me. I can trust that He will bring to completion the good works begun in me. He will give me the strength, courage, and wisdom to walk out the path He has laid before me. He will restore my soul and make my joy complete. He will do all this, as I rest in and wait patiently for Him.

Resting in the Lord and waiting patiently for Him may not be the lazy summer day kind of resting that I first envisioned. It might be more of a fall activity after all.

And it might be exactly the type of rest I am actually yearning for.