Friday, March 8, 2019

Rightside Up View of Neighbors

Neighbors are an important element of adjusting to a new community and calling a place home. Neighborliness generally comes easily for me but most of my neighbors through the years have been “good neighbors.” Neighbors. What comes to mind when you hear the word neighbor? Does it conjure up memories of sitting on the front porch drinking ice tea together, a home cooked meal dropped off when you are sick, or an extra pair of hands to lighten a task? Those were the neighbors of my childhood. Or is it loud music, arguments on the lawn, police visits, and borrowing or stealing from you? This is a bit more in line with some of my current neighbors. Though I do not fear my neighbors, I have been put off by their brokenness.

I say "their brokenness" as if I am not broken as well. I am not proud of my difficulty in embracing neighbors here; I have been ashamed. I am convicted when I consider what Jesus said about neighbors in Luke 10:25-37. A conversation between Jesus and an expert of the law ends with this question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the parable of the good Samaritan (the Samaritans were a hated race) and ends His story with this question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert of the law answers, “The one who had mercy on him.” Then Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus didn’t tell the man who his neighbors were, He showed Him how to be a neighbor. Jesus seems more concerned with what kind of neighbor I am than who I call neighbor. Do I turn away when He drops an opportunity into my day to show mercy and kindness? Do I genuinely pay attention and show compassion? As expected when open to the Holy Spirit stirring up truth inside of me, a test is not far behind.

It was late afternoon and I was putting together a pot of chili. The beef was brown and I was adding the tomatoes and beans when it occurred to me one ingredient was missing from the pantry: a 4 ounce can of tomato sauce. Ugh! I did not want to make a drive to the store for one little can of tomato sauce; I was tired and running out of time to get things done before the evening closed in on me. I considered checking with my father-in-law since he is located closer than the grocery store. Bubbling up inside of me was the memory of neighbors borrowing from one another. Our neighbors have certainly borrowed from us but I have not felt inclined to beholden myself. This self-protective space I created was one of being needed, not needing. Being the one with, not the one without, choked out the possibility of humility needed to be a merciful neighbor in my neighborhood.

OK,” I think to myself. I will ask the next door family east of us. I felt within my comfort zone asking them for tomato sauce. But the only person home at the time didn’t speak English. Walking back toward our drive and reconsidering calling my father-in-law, I see the neighbor across the street (the one who often plays loud music) digging in her flower-bed. I sensed the Spirit nudging me with these thoughts, “What if being vulnerable and in need is a good place for you to be a neighbor?” This seemed opposite of what the parable spoke to, but I knew the haughty attitude I had toward this neighbor; humility wouldn’t come without me being vulnerable and in need.

I made a sharp turn south and crossed over to this neighbor’s drive. I greeted her and asked if I might borrow a can of tomato sauce. She yells into the house for someone to look in the pantry. The can was handed to me. I thanked her and promised to replace it when I next went to the store. She said, "Don’t worry about it, that’s what neighbors are for.” Knife to the heart. Tears stung my eyes as I crossed back over the street, humbled by my noisy neighbors’ kindness.

Learning the names of the trees in my community is another way I have learned to form an attachment to a new place. Christie Purifoy marries the topics of neighbors and trees so beautifully in her new book Placemaker. She writes, “A tree within a forest is included in a special, protective ecosystem. Nearby are other trees who will feed it in times of injury or sickness and help buffer it in storms. Forest trees are united in maintaining the forest canopy; it is their shared shelter from summer heat and winter squalls. The trees know what we struggle to accept: it is right and good to love my neighbor as myself. My fate, and my neighbor’s fate, are bound up together. No human and no tree is an island.”

I desire to become a merciful neighbor – releasing my self-absorbed ideals and embracing the “made in the image of God” people in my neighborhood. I want to collaborate with them to create a safe space to leave a burden or borrow a tool. I want to learn from them – the neighbors west of us who landscaped their yard with edibles only, the neighbor who enjoys thumping, loud music seems positively resilient fixing her own car, the family on our east side making ends meet by renting out their garage, and others up and down the street. We are an eclectic group and I may be the oddest one on the block.

Christie Purifoy closes Placemaker with these words, “If peace is a state of harmony, if it is a kind of wholeness or completeness, then we will never find it by running away from broken things and messy places. . . . We achieve harmony not by walling ourselves off from difficult neighbors, but by reaching out to them and opening our gates to them.” I weep with sorrow for wasted time closed off from my neighbors and for the generosity I do not deserve from people I have misunderstood.

In what ways have you closed yourself off from those who are different? How have you learned from these experiences? Who has surprised you with their kindness? I would love to hear your stories.

Note: Placemaker by Christie Purifoy is available March 12 and can be pre-ordered through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Freedom From Fear

For over an hour I lay frozen in fear; I dare not reach across the bed for the phone to call for help. I kept hearing the sound of creaking. I was certain a stranger was in the house creeping up the hallway toward the bedroom. My shallow breathing was an attempt to be as quiet as possible. I tried to reason with myself, “If someone is in the hallway they would surely have reached the bedroom by now.” There is no reasoning with fear when its talons have dug deep into the brain. Eventually I was able to reach for the phone to call someone and the crazy power of fear ebbed away, leaving me muscle sore and ashamed. Slowly I became aware of the rhythm of the sound – over and over it creaked; unbeknownst to me the numbers from the flip clock beside the bed, changing and dropping every minute, made a creaking sound.

I was in my late teens when I first realized I was afraid when home alone. By the time I was 20, married and living in a different state than my parents the fear had escalated. I didn’t want anyone to know; it seemed so childish. My husband was working nights and going to school. I spent a lot of time alone and found myself depressed. Slowly I began making friends which presented a new challenge: how could I go out at night with friends and return home to an empty house? I couldn’t.

Eventually I broke down and told my friend, Deb. Her husband also worked nights and she would invite me over. To go out in the evening, especially for any length of time meant I needed to find a way to stay out until my husband returned home. I refused to go home alone. Nights were the worst, but even in the daytime I often looked over my shoulder when I vacuumed for fear someone would come up behind me taking me by surprise. It was illogical but I could not talk myself out of these overwhelming fears. The humiliation of calling my husband several times a week at work just so he could stay on the phone while I checked the house kept me in such bondage. I never told my parents but my brother knew.

One time when I was home alone, I fell asleep and had a bad dream. I called my brother in the middle of the night. When he came, I pulled the mattress off my bed so he could sleep in the same room with me; I slept on the box springs. It was a maddening way to live and I was constantly in conflict with my need to socialize and the fear of going home alone.

After living in the area a few years, we made friends with a couple: Bob and Sharon. Sharon started attending a class at our church about healing prayers. We were visiting with them when Sharon excitedly told me about what she was learning. I took the risk and told her about my fears; I was desperate. Sharon assured me I could be healed. She invited me to describe the first time I remembered being alone and frightened. As I described the setting she began praying over me and invited Jesus into the setting. Making sure I was fully aware of His presence in the memory, she continued praying over me. There was no evidence that evening anything had changed in me.

But the next day I knew. I knew I was free! I didn’t look over my shoulder while vacuuming. I was no longer unreasonably fearful. Time proved this to be true. After this healing we moved to the country and I often found myself alone in our big house. I was able to work around the house even when no one was there without calling for someone to be nearby. I am now nearly 60 and am still deeply grateful for the night His Spirit delivered me from paralyzing fear. There are so many wonderful adventures I would never have experienced if I had remained imprisoned by fear.

Is there something in your life holding you back: fear, anxiety, depression, etc? Over the years God has brought healing to other areas of my life through both counseling and prayer. Sometimes we need to seek professional help on the journey of healing and sometimes we need a friend who can pray over us believing we can be healed. Often we need both. But I believe our God is a God of freedom and He means for us to walk in freedom whatever route the journey of healing takes us. I encourage you to reach out to a safe, godly person who will walk with you on the journey of healing; resist the lies of shame. I hope you will not give up. God cares.

Transformation and healing always begin in a place of desire. There needs to be some deep inner willingness to take a risk on Jesus and begin again and again. . . . The struggle for wholeness is not simply happening on a physical level. To RSVP to God’s invitation to be well is to walk straight into the mystery and responsibility of desire. When a desire for change is awakened within us and shouldered in the presence of God, we risk a new ‘normal’.” --Adele Calhoun

If you have a story of freedom to share as an encouragement to others, please share in the comments. If you need prayer to be set free from something that has you bound and imprisoned I pray you will be given courage to seek help and the desire to do whatever is required of you to be set free.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Normal Is Just Dust

When I was a child every classroom had a large chalkboard hanging on the wall. At the end of the day the chalkboard was wiped clean with chalkboard erasers. To clean the erasers you would pound them together until the air filled with white dust, which then settled on everything around you. I always think of New Years as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and make a new start, but I now recognize I have deceived myself. Rounding the corner into a new year is a bit like cleaning chalk boards at the end of the day. The old year has been neatly packed away along with the Christmas decorations. Or has it? This is a good time to start anew, but the old year doesn’t just vanish as if nothing happened. I’ve pounded the erasers but the dusty residue of the previous year clings to me still. I can do a new thing but the old year holds on and rides in with me.

Someone posted on Facebook that they hoped this year would be back to normal. I have
been considering what this might mean. I have said this very thing. What is it we hope for when we long for life to go back to normal? I think we imply that we want things back to the way they were before some big, disruptive event happened: like Christmas, a death, illness, a deadline, etc. What would normal look like for you?

Whatever in my life that has interrupted my normal has also certainly changed me in some way, therefore my normal will never look the same. I suspect normal is a wishful idea, it is illusive, always changing. I wear last year’s dust; I have been permanently impacted by last year’s experiences and I am not the same. There is no going back to the way it was. I wouldn’t fit in that space any longer even if I recognized it for what is once was, my idea of normal.

Feel free to disagree, but I don’t believe “normal” is a real thing. I believe it is something we created in our minds to make ourselves feel safe, but life is always changing and we can’t pin this thing called normal down to one place. According to Merriam Webster, “normal” means: “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern”. Some people manage to conform to a regular work schedule for a number of years and that becomes their normal. We need routines and standards to keep our lives from falling completely apart and spilling out all over the place.

But overall how many people do you know who have a “normal” life that stays the same, one they can go back to? Someone whose kids never grew up or moved away? Someone who held the same job, without having to learn new skills? OK, this may be splitting hairs, but why do we want to go back? And why are we convinced that the “normal” of yesterday still exists?

Recognizing and embracing change can be challenging. But whether or not we recognize it, the dust of all we experienced the year before hangs about in the air and rests upon our very souls. We can’t shake it. We can spend all our energy denying it and wishing it away, which in itself changes us, or we can expand and step into our new space. It is a space that enlarges us and increases our trust in God. Going back to what we consider “normal” shrinks our very existence to the limits of the past – long past anything exciting, scary, sad, tragic, wonderful, or adventurous ever happened. Though I may wish to go back to normal; I can only imagine it because in reality I am not sure what it looks like.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up in you: do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19). How do I forget the former things and move forward into the new, especially if it is painful? I have found no other way than to grieve what was, lay it at the Savior’s feet and seek His comfort. In the five stages of grief the final stage is acceptance. It is the painful movement from loss to acceptance that brings us to a place of embracing what is new and shedding sad or angry feelings toward what I may experience as a loss. I speak from my own hard work of letting go of what was and embracing all things new.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentation 3:20-23). Knowing Him more profoundly increases trust. A deep knowing of who Jesus is and how the Father works in our lives, and recognizing His never ending love and compassion for us carries us forward and holds us up with hope when we move into a new year, new neighborhood, new anything. Living in the reality of His love and His kingdom is the only way we can embrace the truth of transformation and our inability to return to “normal”.

Lysa Terkuerst (Proverbs 31 Ministry) wrote on Instagram: “Dust doesn’t signify the end. It’s often what must be present for the new to begin. . . . Dust happens to be one of God’s favorite ingredients. After all, He had access to every ingredient and He chose to make [His] favorite creation, mankind, from dust. From the dust came new life. And the same is true for our circumstances as well.”

I challenge myself and anyone else who cares to be challenged, we are wearing the dust of last year and there is no going back. Embrace the journey Jesus has placed you on. He means to make us into His likeness and this isn’t meant to be a comfortable or normal journey. What are you doing to cultivate a closer relationship with Jesus? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to experience the new thing He longs to do in you? Can you embrace the dust leftover from last year? Watch Him do a new thing!

Friday, November 30, 2018

From the Quiet

It’s raining. A rare and beautiful thing in southern California. The last hours of November are closing in on us as our late afternoons are swallowed up in darkness. I find myself yearning for a soft blanket, a cup of tea and a good book. Autumn rustled up old memories needing to be penned in ink before the slippery slide into winter and the Christmas season. I give Autumn the opportunity to linger a few more days before brushing aside its warm colors to make room for winter and Christmas decorations.

As the light burns out of another month I sit and sift through the meaningful moments Autumn handed to me. With the mind’s eye, like clicking through the story reel of a View Master, I look at the highlights one by one: the first Spiritual Formation retreat in Mundelein, seeing classmates for the first time in 42 years, Ohio during harvest, the new red tin roof on grandpa and grandma’s home (now my cousin’s), opportunities to walk in the woods, a road trip to Arizona and all the words spoken, snow, a husband waiting at the airport upon my return.

There have been stories pieced together like a patchwork quilt. “Boro” mending done by the Japanese is a beautiful representation of how tattered pieces of others’ lives can be stitched together, bringing support and strength to places worn thin from ruminating over them alone. It wasn’t something we could see or hold in our hands, words mending a story, the gentle repair of asking and receiving.

Today a rough version of a centerpiece owns the dining room table, books stacked to represent a tree. Bromeliad (Spanish moss) collected from my yard encircles the books like a wreath. Air Plants will be tucked into the gray-green moss. I study the display to consider what may be missing. This takes place in preparation for the first Christmas event. I hold tightly to my calendar, not willing to add one more thing claiming to be necessary to the Advent season.

This full week between Thanksgiving and Advent is a rare gift. Easing into Christmas is counter-culture; there’s been a Christmas aisle in many stores since mid-summer. Each year I make adjustments to how I approach Christmas. Approaching it slowly appeals to me. Christmas calls to me this year from the quiet, to listen. The light penetrates the darkened corners with hope and deliverance. Arms open wide to maintain balance as I cross the thin line between the humanistic “should” of the season and the sentimental sweetness to reach for and accept an invitation to wait. It is in the anticipation of more, something I cannot see, that frees me.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Finding God in the Everyday Ordinary (Part 3)

The day after my mother-in-law’s body was placed in the ground and yellow roses were dropped upon her casket, left to whither, I received a disheartening letter in the mail. The words in the letter told me I had not done enough. I had worked long and hard to put in hours for licensing and had started studying for my exam, but a particular 150 hours had not been enough. These hours pushed me to apply for numerous internships, call strangers with questions, and network with colleagues who would listen in an attempt to find a way for completing the requirement. My efforts were deemed unacceptable. After working one job which was unwilling to give the required supervision, and later an internship without pay, I was worn thin trying to accomplish this unaccomplishable task. And so I set it aside to wither or steep, I know not which. Here I sit in the midst of loss and change – a common enough setting.

In the midst of this upheaval I found my heart fixated on all things domestic. Tending to the simple things of everyday life gifted me with stability and peace. I began reading books and blogs on homemaking; I could not get enough inspiration regarding daily tasks – those activities tied my days together with purpose. Even in the mundane I am made known to God and He to me. I am finding God in the middle of simple daily tasks when I suspend judgment of myself and let this be what it is: transition and transformation. All the time I was devouring homemaking books and blogs I was releasing the work that gave me significance, or so I thought. I say “I am between jobs” but I am finding the simple work of making home meaningful and healing. I am learning to seek God’s guidance in the most basic decisions of my day. He is with me in the meal prep and planning for a holiday.

What happens when the “most important” work no longer exists? How do I find satisfaction in the simple stitches around the edges of the work that once came with an income and was marked “significant”? I found myself at loose ends. I began looking for a sense of connection to my surroundings and to God in my surroundings. At first I felt I had nothing to contribute to our family life. I apply for jobs regularly and do the basic tasks I have always done, but now I have the time to be more thoughtful in making an environment both inviting and nurturing. I am on a pilgrimage of being more aware of His presence, even in the ordinary.

This has become a soft place to land, a soulful space in which the Father reminds me my significance comes only from His creative fingers and not from the work of my own hands. In the place of a dark, wet womb He made me who I am (Psalm 139). There is joy in recognizing we all share the same designer; all are made in His image, yet He used a different pattern creating each of us unique. Your significance and my significance comes from Him. If I learn to accept this truth I am sure I will be freed up to accept that being without a job doesn’t make me a loser, just a creative budgeter.

While waiting, I sip coffee, sifting through and savoring the ordinary moments where God has met me over the past several weeks. The breath of His Spirit blew across noisy family conversations, looking over old photos and sharing memories. The warmth of His nearness escorted me to a room of women exploring grief. While placing bits of autumn decorations around our home in celebration of my favorite season, He joins me. I am choosing to open my heart to Him while chopping vegetables, making space for a friend, planning a family gathering, and in the midst all the ordinary tasks throughout my week. He is present. Always. When I am tuned in, there is heartfelt awareness that I am called to be in His presence no matter what I put my hand to. And that makes all the difference. This results in my being more present to others.

How does this happen? I intentionally make space to be in His presence and listen – to practice sharpening my awareness of Him throughout the day. It is taking time, inviting Him into the dailiness of my life – every bit of it. And it is sitting in the silence waiting for His invitation. I journal. I read. I pray. This is all I know to do, but when I do it regularly and purposefully I am more aware of His presence in my everyday, ordinary life. And though anxiety attempts to detach me from the Presence of the One who wove worth into my DNA, I turn my heart’s gaze toward Him and discover His reassurance. He is present and it is going to be okay.

It is my desire to encourage you to grow in awareness of the presence of God. The words of Juliet Benner say it so well, “God’s presence is constant, and his invitation to union with him always extends to us and constantly waits for us to share our lives with him. The challenge is to choose to turn to God and learn to discover him in the midst of our life experiences.” The invitation is to tune in and listen. Feel free to share a comment describing how you experience God in the everyday.

I have been listening to this beautiful weekly podcast by Lisa-Jo Baker and Christie Purifoy: Out of the Ordinary. I hope you find time to check it out.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Finding God Between Here and There, Part 2

From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!”
Dr. Seuss, One Fish, Two Fish Red Fish, Blue Fish

In between here and there life is filled with lots of experiences but not all of them are funny as Dr. Seuss suggests. Yet most of life is spent traveling between here and there. It is my guess we spend more time living between here and there than in arriving and being. Frustrations can mount in between. It rarely crosses the mind to consider a place of transition as significant, a place in which we are invited to regard the possibilities, and not to dismiss such place as inhospitable. It is hard to accept the value found in living life as a process and not an achievement. Living is an investment in the life we’ve been handed; and we are either actively immersed in embracing this space in our lives between here and there or we are withering in the want of something more. I have experienced both.

The transition between our dream and it’s fulfillment can be a bit like a tipsy walk across a log bridging two sides of a river. Waiting to get from here to there can make a person feel unsettled, wringing out doubts and questions about decisions made and halfway crossed off. Neither forward nor backwards seems a good option. How can I experience God in the in-between moments, months and years? Some of the places in between here and there are more difficult to navigate than others. How can the in-between be as meaningful or possibly more so than arriving? It seems impossible.

I am aware I am in-between but of what I do not know. I get glimpses but in the process, what I think is the end result goes all wonky and then the from here to there stretches out like an endless, bumpy dirt road in a foreign country. One day this week I felt like crawling out of my skin because of this uncomfortable in-between place in which I found myself. In April it was as if I was dropped down a rabbit hole like Alice, and I found myself pressed to contortions navigating from there to here to there. I’m not sure where. But this last week in August I let go of something I worked long and hard to attain and while I don’t know what’s next, I am learning to recognize God in this clumsy transition.

It seems I am to let go of more than something I worked hard for; I am invited to let go of the form in which I find significance. And so like Alice in Wonderland, I must transform to move through an unfamiliar space. This place I don’t traverse alone; I need support. The Holy Spirit is my guide, and I find my support within the Christian community. I need a discerning spirit when choosing people to walk alongside me in this journey. Not just anyone is able to provide healthy support without trying to fix the uncomfortable fit as if it is a problem.

I’m more certain than ever that prayer is at the heart of transformation. And also that God’s will has a lot more to do with inviting us to become more than we previously have been than about getting us to a specific destination.” Shauna
Niequist, Savor
I agree with Niequist; I am certain we are in-between to become and not so much to arrive. At least while living this earthly life. I find Him here when I release my expectations and open up to the possibilities in the midst of the all the unplanned moments. I am learning to be more intentional about listening to what His Spirit has to teach me; I find Him in solitude and prayer. Surrendering to Him and His transforming grace isn’t easy, but it is where I find the One who surrounds me with His love and makes more of my life between here and there than I ever could.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Finding God in My Circumstances (Part 1)

North of Chicago in a little town called Mundelein there is a small lake in the woods. As I walked around this small lake, crossing over several bridges, I spied the shaggy bark of a hickory tree. Scattered on the ground were tightly closed, light green husks. After all these years, my brain pulled up a distant memory of hickory nuts. I was so surprised that I used my phone to research the hickory nut tree confirming I had correctly identified it. Being in the presence of this tree brings back memories of gathering hickory nuts. Joy bubbles up inside me as I recall a sunny autumn day on a neighboring farm; grandma had been invited to harvest hickory nuts. A handful of cousins, my brother and I helped gather nuts and played underneath the tree.

The hickory nut is a small delicious nut worth the great effort it takes to crack and extract the meat inside. It was worth the effort back then because grandma did most of the tedious work and added them to chocolate chip cookie dough. Chocolate chip cookies loaded with hickory nuts are a beautiful autumnal combination of flavors and a favorite of mine. It has been years since I have tasted a hickory nut.

Throughout the woods around this small lake were other reminders of growing up in Ohio: lichen, puff balls (a type of fungus), tree bracket fungus, red maple leaves, gray squirrels and cicada. Why does this thrill me so? Maybe it was because I was the girl who talked to trees and found comfort in nature. A small ranch house plopped down on an acre shaded by 100 trees taught me to fall asleep with the raucous sound of the cicadas and to wake early in the morning with enough bird calls one would think I lived in an aviary.

Under the trees I imagined myself living a different life than the one in which I had been planted. Isn’t that the way we are – often looking for a dreamier, better life and missing the best of life we are meant to be living. Though my family lived in chaos, I was given the gift of experiencing the woods in every season with each of their distinctive qualities. And I could often be found outside no matter the weather. On the far side of mid-life my childhood behavior of re-imagining my life has become a bad habit and has planted weeds of discontent.

In recent months I read a passage in Jeremiah 29. Those of you familiar with this chapter may have jumped straight to the popularly quoted passage of verses 11-13, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’”

But verse 14 says, “I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.’” Captivity! That turns my head and eyes back a page to the beginning of the chapter. Israel had rebelled against God again and we find them exiled in Babylon – enemy territory. Jeremiah sends them a message from God, chapter 29 verses 4-7 (NIV) are the first portion of this message.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”
This place God has planted me is not a place of captivity; I am no longer a child trapped in an alcoholic home. I am married to a godly man who is like home to me. But I have been discontented with my neighborhood, my city and sometimes my church. This is a place the enemy loves for me to camp out – this place of deception and self-pity. I don’t like it and am not proud of my struggle. But when I read this passage in Jeremiah I was jolted out of my complacency and recognized I have some serious work to do. As I read, I felt the Holy Spirit challenge me to quit looking beyond this place.

I am to put down roots and to pray for the good of my neighbors. It is easier to grumble about them, but nothings changes when I do. Nothing changes with the neighbors and nothing changes inside me. Have you ever lived in a difficult neighborhood? Loud music and screaming, a dog yapping in the middle of the night are some of the irritations. It is loud, and sometimes disturbing noises, salted with cursing that affect me most. Some of these sounds take me back to the harsher memories of childhood, the painful years of growing up in an alcoholic home. I can let the memories hold me captive or I can take them captive by His Spirit and seek to have compassion and mercy for my neighbors.

It is essential for me to look for God in my neighborhood; to see His work, His calling and His beauty. I only have to walk a few blocks east of my home before I have a view of the Pacific Ocean. On an evening walk I may get a glimpse of a beautiful coastal sunset even though I don’t live on the beach. What is my turquoise table on this street? This is still unsettled. I am seeking God’s direction. I enjoy baking and am wondering if sharing baked goods will be the way of blessing my neighbors and inviting my heart to care. What is going well for me here and now? My own home life. Also, God is working to transform me in this neighborhood.

Brokenness breeds brokenness unless someone decides to do some mending. Mending is hard, tedious work, even more tedious than grandma cracking hickory nuts, and many do not recognize mending as an option to wholeness and peace. Living in brokenness is hard work also but the payoff is pain. So I am learning to pray for neighbors who scream and curse at one another, and to recognize the neighbor whose car alarm goes off nearly everyday is struggling to make ends meet and get kids to school on time. These people aren’t here to make my life miserable. This isn’t my childhood. These are the people around me who need Jesus; there is hope for them just as there has been hope for me. I am to make a garden in this neighborhood. I am to make home in this neighborhood. And I am to pray for this neighborhood to prosper – for God to bless these people and bring hope and healing into their lives.

In what ways have you seen God in your situation? What is He teaching you? I have added a link here to a podcast that moved and inspired me to be content and live fully in the blessings He has given me for this time.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Stablilizing a Wonky Summer

I looked out the car window while we waited at a stoplight. There was a tree in the medium draped in generously large yellow blossoms. And all around the tree, yellow butterflies flitted about as if they recognized how perfectly well-matched they were to the flowers. A day or so later I noticed a large yellow butterfly touring our backyard; I waited for it to settle somewhere hoping to get a good look. It didn’t settle on my watch. The days have been rather warm and muggy causing both plants and humans to wilt, parched while waiting for the dry, cooler air to come. It hasn’t and we are left waiting. Meanwhile all through the house, fans whir creating artificial breezes giving the illusion that it’s not so bad.

These summer days have been a bit like watching for the large yellow butterfly to settle someplace; I check weather apps in hope of a change in the weather. Instead of the weather changing, the topography of our lives comes to a sharp turn. It has been a transitional summer – one leaving us searching for a new normal to organize our days around. Nothing feels quite settled yet and I wonder if we will ever find our days held together by the scaffolding of regularity again. I don’t expect humdrum but right now it is as if we are on an endless moving walkway. We aren’t, but it feels so. It is as if the rhythm of our days seems a bit unstable – a bit wonky. We wait for a recognizably new blossom to come forth as Friedrich Schiller wrote in Act IV, scene III of William Tell, “What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.”

I find myself restless in the midst of lots of little decisions wrapped around a few bigger ones. The big decisions seem to get made; it is the little decisions that ruffle my feathers and drive me to escape into a more comfortable space in my head. As the decision/action list increased I found myself reading about making home and rethinking what nesting means to me. Just when life seems less than normal I rethink something solid under my feet, but the rethinking doesn’t cause a cosmic reformation of my days; it merely helps me feel some sense of control. The way I cook, do laundry, clean house and maintain order is something that grounds me in the midst of change. The big changes and the zillion little time consuming decisions may settle with the dust when I get my homemaking done, but I design and control the homemaking. It isn’t helping me make decisions, but it does help me keep my sanity.

I vacillate between frustrated and unhappy about the weather, and grateful I have a roof over my head with electricity to run those fans. A nice breeze moves in through the screen door as if to remind me it gets better. The breeze stirs up the wind chimes and the sound calms me. I fluctuate between concern about the cost of changes reshaping our lives to experiencing the flutter of anticipation waiting to see what God is doing in all this. If I could I would be out and about floating around with the butterflies, but here I sit rock solid without wings. In the ordinary corners of my day the Spirit meets with me and lifts me from this heavy place.

I ride on the wings of joy and hope in expectation of my life direction being turned this way and that until it is refocused. The Spirit helps me to be brave when I am not naturally brave. In a way it is like changing plots in the middle of a story. No surprise to God, though. How do you handle change? Do you find yourself in an unsettled place right now? What, if anything, do you do to help normalize it? I have a wonderful support system: my husband, friends, daughters, my mom and most of all my Heavenly Father. What about you? The people who wrap me in their love and encouragement in the midst of change increase my sense of peace and joy in spite of all the unexpected surprises and waiting.
Have you found a loving bunch of people to support you?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Organic Work of Transformation

We do what we can to invite nature into our yard, and often we’re given surprises. I spent the greater part of my childhood living on an acre occupied by 100 trees, mostly walnut and oak. To my delight upon marrying Jim, I found we are in agreement, our southern California yard is a nature preserve of sorts. We invite birds, butterflies and a wide variety of plants onto our property, a slightly larger piece of land than the average postage stamp lot in our city. Visiting friends enjoy watching the birds splash about in our birdbaths and dine from the various feeders, but these same friends usually don’t want the mess in their backyard.

I have to say birds are very messy, but oh so entertaining. The regular entertainers are hummingbirds, sparrows and hawks, though they are not all compatible. Apart from bird doings, a thriving plant also brings great satisfaction. A recent post on Instagram expressed the writer’s concern for the survival of her plants when leaving town for an extended period of time. It seems no one else in her family is aware of the of plants the way she is, offering them the care needed to keep them alive. This is a BIG concern when we take a vacation!

A few weeks before embarking on a trip I asked my husband who is going to take care of our plants? Now we don’t have just a few house plants and a little bit of landscaping to water; we have PLANTS. We have heavy drinkers and drought tolerant plants all needing different kinds of care. So it is a relatively big task to take on and I don’t envy the person doing it. Jim knows our plants and even under his fastidious care we occasionally lose one. The mourning that goes on around here when we lose a favorite plant might make some wonder if we have a life outside of our yard.

When tuned into the details of nature, God’s creation, the surprises never end. Jim and I delight in walking around the yard together and taking inventory of the latest changes. We dote on our plants like grandparents with grandchildren. For instance, I planted various flower seeds saved over time a couple of months ago. We misted the seeded areas waiting and watching for something to happen. I don’t normally do well with seeds, so I looked online to find out how to plant seeds for each of the following: Hollyhocks, Cosmos, Zinnias and Sunflowers. The Hollyhocks emerged and disappeared. No Cosmos. The Zinnia’s came up and seem to be doing well. I dug deep and loosened the soil for the Sunflower seeds and added compost as suggested.

I was so excited when I saw tiny plants emerging where I made the extra effort planting Sunflower seeds. As they grew larger Jim noticed something unusual. He asked me, “Are you sure you planted Sunflower seeds?” Sunflower seeds are rather distinctive. I was sure! “They look more like tomato plants,” he said. They sure did and they sure are! The Sunflowers didn’t emerge at all, but the rotting tomatoes in the compost sprouted. We have 5 thriving tomato plants and they would not be doing so well if I had intended for them to grow there. Tomato plants have always started in random places in the yard as a result of using compost to enrich our soil. But I now have a nice line up of tomato plants looking exactly as if I planned it.

Jim introduced me to composting seven years ago when we got married. It is a marvel! Compost is a great way to make use of organic waste like eggshells, vegetable scraps, dried leaves, etc. Mixed together, occasionally watered and stirred, then left to marinate; this results in a rich humus attracting worms making it perfect for adding to the poor soil in our yard. Nature has much to teach us about living richer lives.

It seems what we grow depends on two things: whether we bury our hurt in dark places or whether we give them up to God for compost. When life hits us with pain and hardship we need to invite God into our pain and give Him these experiences to be composted – “accumulating experiences and letting them ripen into the rich soil” (Janice Elsheimer) – as opposed to being buried deeply into our spirits.

All of us have gone through difficulties, been hurt and even suffered at one time or another. When I think about composting I often consider how the hurtful mess of life can be composted and then worked into our lives to transform us like scraps can be transformed into rich soil. There have been times when I allowed the pain of life to dictate negativity and hopelessness. But when I choose to come crawling up into the lap of the Heavenly Father and let it all out on His shoulders something different happens. When I see Him as for me and not against me in the difficulties, over time I am transformed. Rich growth unimaginable takes place and I am released to become more the person He designed me to be. It is the beautiful side of pain.

I love Deborah DeFord’s picture of this in her book, The Simpler Life. “Personally, I prefer to consider old, outdated thoughts and actions along an organic model. They’ve had their day, for better or worse and now they’re like a garden’s stubble. We can plow them under and allow them to decompose without rancor. In that way they come to enrich the living material of our present and future.”

We can plant one thing and harvest another with compost. It was Sunflowers I planted, but I was given produce to enjoy throughout the summer. My desire was for a bloom that would not last long and I was given nourishment instead. How has God enriched your life when difficulties were given over to Him to decompose and transform into something beautiful and meaningful?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Closed Door of Opportunity

Last weekend we were wrapping up vacation; back home putting things in order and attending a family birthday event. Upon returning home, as soon as we inserted the key in the front door, endless activity began. Yet the scent of home filled the air welcoming our return, and we felt great appreciation for this place in which we find sanctuary. I feel much the same coming back to this blog; I have been a bit absent. Today I take a deep breath, roll out the welcome mat and invite you to join me again at Out of the Woods.

Writing is like coming home to myself; I love words. When I thread words together, like beads on a string, I find it challenging work as well a form of play. And it is also an opportunity to create a safe place to recognize our humanity bearing the thumbprint of the Creator. How unbelievably wonderful!

Currently my life looks like an unfinished finger painting. In recent months I drifted away from writing publicly; a lot of personal writing has been going on behind the scenes. Sometimes life gets messy and I am one who needs a lot of solitary time to process the big stuff. Change in the early stages almost always seems undefined and difficult to pin down. My emotions can also get wonky. Eventually it
comes together and I begin to see a clearer picture of the next step and then I inch my way toward embracing and getting comfortable with my new norm. But only for awhile. Change is a constant in life, big or small.

We all experience change, some more than others. For my husband, change is a relatively calm lake fed by an underground spring. There is movement but it is quiet and undramatic. But change clings to me, this ordinary, country girl who couldn’t dream past being a homemaker and a mom; and I have loved being both. God has a way of expanding me, stretching me to fit His grand design. And that always involves change. I guess I am one of those people who need lots of stretching; I’ve a natural bent toward finding a comfortable little nesting space and settling in. A number of changes in my life have looked more like white water rafting.

Several years back on a family camping trip in Colorado, my brother-in-law signed us up for a Class 4 white water rafting adventure. None of us had ever gone white water rafting. During the training I thought, “This shouldn’t be too bad as long as I follow the rules.” When we started out, we drifted along easily through Poudre Canyon (short for Cache la Poudre River Canyon). The Poudre River begins high up in the mountains along the Continental Divide. Just as we were learning how to remain in the raft, using our feet to hold on while bouncing about on the river, our guide warned we were entering a tricky spot. The turn was full of rushing water and we would pass between two boulders. If we tipped up just right way, we would come out of the rapids right side up. In my wildest dreams I did not imagine it happening any other way.

We tipped. Completely over. It was like being in an angry washing machine. Water was swirling around me and I panicked a little, or maybe a lot. I grabbed for anything and got nothing. Struggling for air and to free myself from the river’s grasp, twice I bumped against the bottom of the raft; all potential air gaps were filled with water. I knew I shouldn’t panic but my panic increased. I could easily drown right in front of my family. And then suddenly I bobbed out of the water into the sunlight gasping for air and choking on water. It was a frightening experience and I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the ride. The guide assured me I did not have to finish, the bus had been traveling parallel to us.

While attempting to compose myself, I considered what was best for me to do. Everything in me wanted to give it up and play it safe. No one could blame me; after all I was the last to surface from the rushing water. My mind went back to when I was in early elementary school and my dad had gave me a Shetland pony; it was stubborn and uncooperative. Many times that pony bucked me off and my dad would say, “If you want to get over your fear you have to get back on.”

If I didn’t complete this river trip I might never get over my fear of the water. I agreed to stay in the raft. Thankfully, the remainder of the ride was rewarding and without mishap. Sometimes change is exciting, sometimes challenging, and at times painful. Change can require a lot of mental and emotional energy. There are some people who can publicly write their way through the pain. At this point in time I lack the skill. The shared pain of watching my mother-in-law die was hard enough but one day after her burial I experienced a different sort of loss.

The envelope I had been waiting on was dropped in our mailbox. Like my rafting experience, I expected nothing less than a favorable response, instead a proverbial door slammed in my face. It rocked me. I worked very hard a number of years to bring this work to completion and ended up searching for a place to curl up, grieve and pray. Some difficult decisions had to be made. Was I going to get back in and slug it out or take this as an opportunity to move in another direction? I had to get to a place of calm in order to hear the Spirit’s leading and not my own reaction. Out of it all comes this glorious upheaval of personal change. Maybe closed door open to something new like what Lucy (from The Chronicles of Narnia) discovered as she climbed inside the wardrobe.

“‘This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!’ thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her.”

The wardrobe seems never to end. Lucy comes to the end of the fur coats and finds herself scratched by tree branches and being covered by snow.

“Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her should and there, between the dark tree-trunks, she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe.”

It was just an ordinary wardrobe door but once opened and stepped through it led to Narnia. An opening may not lead where it seems but in His hands it will take you where you need to be. It is the beginning of something new; too soon for all the details. Like Lucy, I am curious, excited and a bit nervous. It is a beautiful thing when change draws support from old and new friends. It buoys me to have learned this truth: God wastes nothing on our earthly journey. When we seek to live in His will, one experience flows into another, feeding into eternal life and His plans for each of us. Do you experience change like an unpredictable, raging river or like a slow flow from a spring? What helps you embrace change? Would love to hear from you.