Bill loves taking sunrise and sunset photos over the lake and posting them on facebook...he likes to say that God is painting a lovely picture. Bill gets lots of response, both verbal and written. Recently, after a long stretch of gray and/or rainy, misty days, a friend came up and said, with a grin on her face, how much she missed seeing color in Bill's photos. Of course, on those gray days, there is no color to see, but he gets some moody introspective shots on those days that have a beauty of their own. The mist may be rising up over the lake or the clouds hanging low over the trees, making a statement of a different kind.
Our lives are much like that...some days are full of color, vibrant with life and an intense awareness of God's presence with us. But many days are quiet, misty, even stormy. God's presence is just as much with us during those times in our lives, painting those days with a very special loveliness of haunting beauty. Although we enjoy the colorful times, we need to appreciate how God speaks to us on those ‘other' days.
Bill gets a great deal of enjoyment from taking sunrise and sunset photos at our lakeside home. There are slight differences almost every time and he gets and gives a lot of pleasure by sharing those photos on Facebook. Some mornings his pictures are of a bright and cloudless sky, some mornings there is glorious color, some mornings clouds partially obscure the sun, and some mornings the fog and clouds completely block the sun...BUT the sun is still there! Even when we cannot see the sun, we know it is there. The sun comes up every morning, whether or not we can see it, or if, as with me, we are still asleep at sunrise and rely on someone else, in my case, Bill, to tell or show me about the sunrise.
Just as with the sun, we, as believers, know that God is always there. Some days it is easy to be aware of God's presence with us and we walk joyfully through our day. And some days we have ‘mountaintop' experiences where we have been touched in a special way by God's love. Other days God's presence may be obscured by clouds of doubt, fogs of sorrow, the pollution of sin, selfishness, pride, or the pains of illness. But regardless of our situation or perception of God's presence, God is there. God's love is unending and can reach through anything that blocks our awareness. Sometimes God uses other people to touch us with that Love, sometimes we find it more easily in worship or reading God's Word...and sometimes we see it in the beautiful sunrises and sunsets God paints in the sky.
Riding down through the pine forests of Georgia and South Carolina when the leaves have not come out on the deciduous trees, one sees only a bleak sight. But every so often there will be a lovely dogwood in full bloom. In the midst of so much brown, the beautiful blossoms are a welcome reminder that spring is coming and loveliness can brighten the bleakness.
In our world today there is much that is brown: violence, poverty, disease, racism, and the list goes on. But those of us who are believers have the opportunity and the responsibility to be blossoms of God's love, reaching out in that Love in whatever our circumstances are and to whomever crosses our paths.
My cousin, Kathie, and her husband, T, were missionaries to the Romany people. They met a Roma man who told them that gypsies were mentioned in the Bible. The man then showed them Luke 14 where the lord of the manor, whose invitations to the banquet had been ignored, was instructing his servant. The new instructions were to go to the highways and byways and ‘compel' those people to come in. The Roma man said that they, the gypsies, were the ones who lived in the highways and byways, and these verses assured them of a place for them at God's table.
What an example of a dogwood blooming in a drab stand of trees.
The Sunday School lesson last Sunday was based on Col. 4:17, where Paul, in closing his epistle to the church, sends a message to a person named Archippus to do his best in the job he had received from God. That verse stirred up a lot of thoughts, but one in particular came to my mind. We were coming home the other evening and slowed down when we spied two rabbits on our road. The first one scampered off, but the second stopped still and stared us down. The rabbit never moved, so eventually I had to pull into the other lane to get around him and not hit him.
Neither Bill nor I had ever seen anything quite like it, but I thought about Archippus...who Paul was encouraging (or admonishing) to keep at it. Most of us are like the first rabbit...when we are confronted with something that discourages us, we head for the hills, or in this case, the shoulder of the road. I don't know that we are often putting ourselves in danger as the other rabbit did by standing still, but we are called to love others as we have been loved. Loving in that way may mean taking a stand for justice, for equity, or risking something of ourselves to keep doing our best to be what God has called us to be.
Azaleas in Bloom
It's springtime and the azaleas are in bloom...such lovely, lovely blossoms. When we built our new house, we hired a landscape designer to turn our Georgia red clay into beauty. She asked me about my favorite plants and I mentioned azaleas and camellias. We were blessed to have some wonderful old camellia plants that she was able to save and utilize, but she was not happy with my request for azaleas, saying, 'but they're only pretty when they bloom...the rest of the year they're kind of blah.' Fortunately, she acceded to my wishes and put in a few, for which I am very grateful.
We, as believers, are kind of like those azaleas...unless we are in ‘bloom', we're not much of what we should be. And how do we ‘bloom'? We ‘bloom' by following Jesus' commands: loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Sometimes our neighbors, such as ours, are easy to love and it is easy to ‘bloom' around them. But our neighbors are not just those very pleasant folks who live next door to us. And if we are to blossom all year ‘round, we need to be conduits of God's love to all of those with whom we come in contact.
'How well God must like you—you don't hang out at Sin Saloon, you don't slink along Dead-End Road, you don't go to Smart-Mouth College. Instead you thrill to God's Word, you chew on Scripture day and night. You're a tree replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month, Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.' Psa.1:1-2 (MSG)
Lately the coming eclipse has dominated the news, and it should certainly be quite an event. We can understand how frightening it must have been years ago when the sun disappeared in the middle of the day. I understand the Cherokees had a legend that a frog devoured the sun. Many folks back then believed that it meant that the world was coming to an end. Today, scientists will be studying all aspects of it, but for us it is mostly a curiosity and a spectacle.
I got to thinking about how, just as the sun is the source of life for us, God's love is the source of how we live and act as believers. It is important for us to not allow sin or busy-ness or anything else to obscure the brightness of God's love, both to us and for us to share with all with whom we come in contact. Fortunately, even when that love is obscured, we can ask for forgiveness and shine brightly again, just as the eclipse we hope to see on Monday will end and the sun will shine again.
On my way this morning, I noticed a bed of yellow lilies that added a beauty spot to the grounds. When I spoke of its beauty to the person walking beside me, she replied, "but how much prettier it would be if this bed were dead-headed and weeded." And she was correct. The spent blossoms and weeds detracted from the overall appearance even though the remaining flowers were lovely.
I got to thinking about how in our walk with God there are many things that should be dead-headed: accomplishments that were meaningful in the past but are no longer worth lauding; relationships or associations that have lost their bloom; parts of our lives that are like the clothes hanging in our closets that haven't been worn in years. Then of course there are the weeds in the gardens of our lives that need to be yanked out: pride, selfishness, prejudice...and the list goes on.
While we can be grateful for the beauty that graces our lives, we need to be careful that we don't allow the things that detract. Dead-heading and weeding will enable our love for God to shine through and bless others.
Beauty is Fleeting
Bill enjoys taking photographs of the beautiful sunrises that grace the horizon across the lake from us, especially on winter mornings. The color on most of them is very dramatic, but the drama only lasts for a few minutes...and then, as this morning in particular, the clouds move in or the sun changes to its more normal golden glow. Fleeting beauty...that's what it is. I know the verse in Proverbs 31, when taken in context, is talking about a woman's looks fading, but just as the sunrise's loveliness soon morphs into the ordinary setting of the day, our lives are like that as well. There are times of extraordinary beauty and the much more mundane times that are the majority of our lives. We need to enjoy the beauty that God gives to us and let it continue to grace our lives as we move through the mundane.
Bill is our harvester of blueberries, stopping at our bushes on the way back from getting the paper each morning. He has noticed that berries, even on the same branch and often tightly bunched together, ripen at different times. One berry may be plump and ripe while its neighbor is still obviously unripe.
We, as believers, are very similar to those berries, with all of us maturing in Christ at different times and different rates. We can sit in the same Bible study group, attend the same worship service, pray, serve and work together, but be at completely different stages of our walk with God.
Just as Bill knows which berries are ready to be picked, so do those who choose believers to serve in various capacities need to use discernment. Some folks are ready to be used in one way and others need to 'ripen' a bit more before being utilized. All of us need to be patient with one another and recognize the differences between us without being judgmental.
Gwynn and I were driving in the early morning through dense fog. At sunrise the fog was infused with rosy light and it was as if we were driving straight into the sunrise. When we arrived at First Presbyterian Church in Anderson, Dr. Dennis Tedder preached a sermon based on Zachariah's Spirit-led proclamation that is recorded near the end of the first chapter of Luke and reads, in The Message translation, like this: God's Sunrise will break in upon us, Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.
What a blessing it was that morning to have our driving and 'preaching' experiences coincide so beautifully. But it is even more blessed to realize that even in the 'fogginess' of our everyday lives, God's Sunrise shows us the way, but only a step at the time, to walk in faith while it is still dark, knowing that the sunrise is on its way.
One of the special things for me about springtime is the loveliness of the blooming trees: the Bradford pears, the red buds, the Japanese magnolias, the dogwood, and especially the Japanese cherry trees. We lived in Macon for a number of years and our home was in a neighborhood lined with cherry trees. Their beauty was spectacular and the whole city benefitted from the generosity of Bill Fickling, whose vision graced the city. While we lived there, an entire festival was built around those cherry blossoms, and thousands of visitors were able to enjoy the beauty.
But, of course, after those few brief weeks, the blooms fade, the leaves emerge. In Macon, the visitors go home, along with the tour busses and life settles back into its normal routines. All of the trees I mentioned are only ornamental, but at the same time there are other trees with blossoms: apple, peach, and pear trees, among others. When the blooms on those trees fall, not only do the leaves emerge, but the buds that will become luscious, tasty fruit emerge as well.
Those trees do not have a choice in whether they are ornamental or fruitful; they just fulfill what they are. We as believers have a choice. We can be decorative only, or we can be fruitful.
Sitting in the chair at the dentist's office on a beautiful March morning, I watched out the window as a snowfall of cherry blossoms fluttered to the ground. The earth outside the window was soon littered with what had once ornamented the Japanese cherry tree. As lovely as the blooms of springtime are, they are only around briefly. I was reminded of how fragile beautiful things and times can be.
These particular cherry trees are ornamental, not fruit-bearing, but the nature of both kinds of cherry trees is that the blooming phase of the cycle is brief. For the fruit-bearing cherries, the blossoms and the pollination of those blossoms is absolutely essential for the fruit to appear. Even the ornamental cherries are not meant to bloom all the time.
Just so, our lives as believers are not always full of lovely times. The fragility of our happiness, ease or contentment is similar to the spring blossoms. In order for us to be fruitful in the growth of our Christian commitment, there will be cycles of good and bad, of happiness and sorrow, of beauty and pain. But as we trust in the faithfulness of God, we can know God's presence with us and be assured of the underlying joy that comes in being obedient to following God's way.
Riding along the rural roads, I noticed again how many trees have been trimmed or truncated around the power lines. Now there are two ways to look at that: one way is to regret that the natural shape of the trees has been marred almost beyond recognition and the other way is that maintaining the integrity of the power lines ensures that those lines won't be damaged by falling limbs or intrusive growth.
There are also two ways to apply that illustration to our Christian lives. The first is that the shape of who we are intended to be as servants of the most high God can be impacted by the materialistic culture in which we live. Instead of growing in all directions as our individual gifts and talents, led by the Spirit, should be, we are mis-shapened by the world that intrudes.
The second way of thinking about this idea is that the power lines carry electricity to any individual or business that connects to those lines. Just so the message of God's grace needs to be carried to those who need God's power in their lives. And anything, especially our selfish desire to be 'ourselves', should be pruned away.
So as we are being transformed (Romans 12:1-2), we need to be conformed to God's image of us, and at the same time be transformers who are not conformed by what detracts from God's will.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A late winter storm damaged the trees along the highway. It was now early summer and the magnolia trees were blooming, but almost every tree had at least one branch that was brown and ugly, marring the beauty of the trees.
I was reminded of how much like those magnolia trees most of us are. We may have blossoms of obedience, when we have loved and ministered to others. We may have shiny green leaves of growth and sanctification. The rising sap of grace may be enabling us to reach toward the sun. But we also have flaws: dead branches of selfishness, pride, thoughtlessness and other sins of omission and commission.
I expect that someone will prune the dead branches off of the magnolia trees, and we can be grateful that our God offers us forgiveness when we confess our sins and turn in repentance from our wicked ways.
Fields of Gold
It's been a good year for canola, and the fields of northeast Georgia were covered with a golden glory for many weeks. What a beautiful sight it was!
It's been a good year for dandelions, and the yards and waysides of northeast Georgia were covered with a golden glory for many weeks. What a beautiful sight it was!
Canola and dandelions…one bloomed early and was the best crop in years for the farmers in our area who plant canola in a rotation with other money crops. The crop has been harvested and the processing plant near us has been busy converting that crop into the prized and popular oil.
Once the canola's golden beauty had turned brown, we noticed more fields of gold. This time it was dandelion, the prolific weed that had sprung up on its own. The fields were almost as pretty as the canola had been, but unlike the canola, these plants won't yield a crop that will benefit many. I have known one or two folks who enjoy dandelion leaves in a salad, but other than that rare occurrence, dandelions don't bring much benefit; dandelions are generally a nuisance.
In our lives as believers there is much that looks golden. Some of that beauty will be fruitful and productive as we are sensitive to the leadership of the Spirit in our lives. But a lot of what appears beautiful can choke out good growth, can interfere with what God would have us doing, or spread seeds of discontent or disobedience.
There is probably nothing that speaks of an area of our country more evocatively than a Southern magnolia blossom. Although the trees themselves are impressive with their shape, their height and their waxed leaves, when the blooms emerge, they almost speak, saying, 'Deep South.'
The next day as we entered the Y, we saw that the magnolia blossom was wilted and brown around the edges. It was looking pretty sad. Almost all of us saw only the fact that the blossom was past its prime and we shook our heads at the briefness of the flower's beauty, especially when it was cut from the tree.
My husband, however, saw something else: as he peered closely at the bloom, he was able to appreciate both the structure and photographic possibilities of the carpel and the wilted petals. The first day we had been so caught up in the surface beauty that we had not even noticed the rest of the bloom. We brought the blossom home, Bill set up his tripod, selected the correct lens and shot away. The resulting photograph was outstanding, in a word, beautiful.
Most of the people whose paths cross ours every day are less than perfect. Not any of us is as perfect as that magnolia blossom was on the first day we saw it. Unfortunately as we interact with others, many of us have difficulty looking beyond the surface to see what lies beneath. Often we make judgments about others based on how they are dressed, the color of their skin, their religion or lack thereof. Sometimes we are critical of another's grammar, political orientation, educational level or other choices he or she has made. Perhaps our interests don't mesh; there might be a language barrier; or a perception based on our age or the other person's age might stand in the way.
But the flawed people who are a part of our lives still offer beauty. Perhaps it is in the smile that lights up a face, the twinkle in an eye, or the affectionate touch of a friend. Another person may have a flair for dressing just so, or have the gift of including someone in a conversation. Still others can reach out with kindness and thoughtfulness to touch someone who is hurting.
Every one of God's children has a beauty that may be
easy to overlook if all we're looking for is an ideal beauty. When we look as
carefully as my husband did at the wilted magnolia blossom, our lives will be
enriched and deepened by the attractiveness around us.
'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.' Isa. (NIV)
As I sit in my snug, warm house this day after Christmas,
snowed in with the first white Christmas in
And yet, having grown up in the mountains of
God's promise to us that our sins will be turned from their ugliness into the pure whiteness of forgiveness is true. When we first turn our hearts to God, we are cleansed and purified, but it doesn't take long for our robe of white to be sullied with the slush of selfishness or pride, the mud of the lack of love or forgiveness. We are soon splashed by sins of omission and commission.
After a spring storm, we drove past an enormous white oak tree that had blown over in the high winds, crashing in all its leafy splendor to the ground. Having stood for years, the tree had been the emblem of strength and solidity. But after its demise, it was easy to see that the interior of the trunk had completely rotted away. While its leaves were green and it stood more than two stories high, there was nothing within it to hold it upright when the strong winds blew through that night.
Just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees, calling them ‘whited sepulchers' and saying they looked clean on the outside, but were filthy on the inside, so, too, do we need to make sure that our thoughts, emotions and actions are clean and pure. We do that by continually searching our hearts and asking God's Spirit to convict of us that which needs to be confessed and cleansed. Otherwise, we'll be like that tree: lovely on the outside, but prone to coming crashing down as a result of our sin. (Matthew 23:27)
One of my favorite parts of springtime is when the azaleas are in bloom. I love the older varieties as well as the newer ones. We have a friend, an excellent horticulturist, who disdains azaleas because their blossoms are short-lived and the plants themselves aren't her favorites when they're not in bloom. Although I respect her perspective, I disagree. For me, just seeing the plant reminds me not only of the promise of their seasonal loveliness to come, but also of the visual memory I have of precious springs.
My father, in his later years, was very hurt by how little his previous commitment to, and contributions (both of funds, time and leadership) to the church had been forgotten. When his age and health problems prevented him for continuing to serve as he had in earlier times, he felt shunted aside and undervalued.
Jesus talked (Matt. 6:30) about the beauty of flowers and grasses that are soon cut and thrown on the compost heap, illustrating his care for those of us whose tenure is normally much longer than flowers. Somehow I think God appreciates short-term beauty, in us and in the creation that sustains us, both literally and figuratively.
Our lovely lake has been affected by a significant drought, although it has risen slightly due to some much-appreciated rain. In the years we have been visiting this lake, we have seen several drought cycles—the present one not being the most severe. The lake is down about seven feet now, it was down about 11 feet during the winter, but it was down 13 feet some years ago when we bought our home. When we had a cabin before that on another part of the lake, the level was down 18 feet. But every time, after that period of dryness, the rains have returned, and the lake has returned to full pool.
Many times in our Christian lives we go through periods of drought, sometimes prolonged periods, when it seems as if our prayers go no further than the ceiling, when nothing we seek to do brings fruit, when the waters of inspiration seem to have dried up. At such times, it is easy for us to think that the drought is a permanent situation and we will never get beyond it. But the testimony of the lake tells us that the difficult period will be gotten through, that the wellsprings of God's grace will continue to flow, and that the rain clouds of blessing will return to our lives. Although it is not always easy to believe, the promise of our God to be faithful (Lamentations 3:23) is one on which we can depend.
During a drive through the spectacular Canadian Rockies, we stopped several times at waterfalls. Fed by glacial run-off, the waters of these falls contain small dirt and stone particles that act as diamond drills, the eddies gradually boring perfectly cylindrical 'pot holes' in the stone. As the decades and centuries pass, the water moves on and begins to create new 'pot holes.'
So many times in our lives, we think that the things we do for the Lord are so insignificant that they are making no difference. It is easy to then get discouraged, to "get weary in well-doing" (KJ). But just as the accumulation of grit in the glacial streams carves its way through the solid mountain rock, so, too, do our individual and collective acts of obedience to God have an impact on those with whom we come in contact, on our culture, and on our own lives.
"So let's not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don't give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith." Galatians 6:9 ,10 (TM )
YOUR WAY/MY WAY
There are few things in our marriage that can spark a disagreement more quickly than when it comes time to trim/prune the shrubs around our house. We hold diametrically opposing views on whether or not various plants should conform to a certain shape or be allowed to grow more naturally. Through the years we have handled the difference of opinion in several ways, but neither of us has changed our basic stance. Fortunately, our love for each other is much stronger than either of our points of view on how our landscape should look.
Styles of worship and service in our various churches and denominations are much the same—many of us feel very strongly about the nuances of our faith and how they are expressed. Jesus told His disciples not long before He went to the cross, "This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you." (John 15:12[The Message]). Because of our love for our Lord, we need to love each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord in spite of our differences. We need to learn to reach above that which separates us to join hands in serving and loving God and those around us.
A GNARLED TRUNK
"That woman will bear the consequences of her sin." Numbers 5:31, "That man will bear the consequences of his sin." Numbers 9:13(NIV)
The trunk of the small dogwood outside the motel window looks much like a corkscrew; evidently at some point a vine was twisted tightly around it. As the tree grew, the trunk was forced to conform to the vine that held it prisoner. Somewhere along the line, the vine was cut or pulled away, and the tree now grows straight and free, except for those twelve or eighteen inches of corkscrew near the base.
Sin is much like that vine in our lives. When we allow it to grow uninhibited, it twists and distorts us. When we recognize the sin, repent and ask forgiveness, we are completely forgiven, but the destruction, the pain and/or the scarring caused by the sin are not removed. Just as the corkscrew of the vine constricted the development of the dogwood tree, so does our sin mark our lives and the lives of those harmed by our sin; the consequences must be borne.
On a visit to New Zealand, we were privileged to take a trip across one of the high passes of the Southern Alps. The driver of the bus pointed out a scar down the side of one of the mountains that had been caused by a tree avalanche. The mountains in that area are very rocky, mostly covered by ferns and mosses. Occasionally a tree will sprout, but there is almost no soil, so the roots are insubstantial. When something, shifting ice or snow, for instance, puts pressure on a tree, the roots cannot hold it, and down it comes, stripping everything in its path off the rocky face of the mountain. It can take 75 years for the growth on the mountain to be restored.
There are a number of passages in the Bible that refer to believers as trees and the need for us to be "rooted and grounded." (Ephesians 3:17[NIV]) When the pressures of life, the sorrows, the difficult times, come into our lives, as they are sure to do, we, too, are prone to be swept away, damaging everything and everyone in our paths. To avoid an avalanche, we need to send our roots down into the soil of God's Word, be nurtured and taught by the Holy Spirit, and live in communion with our Lord.
CLIMBING THE FALLS
"Whoever serves me must follow me…" John 12:26a(NIV)
At the end of a mission trip to Jamaica, we had the privilege of visiting and climbing Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios. To climb the falls, a series of cascades that drop several hundred feet to the sea, the group must hire a guide and then form a human chain. Standing at the base of the falls looking up, the top of the falls cannot be seen, much less any way of navigating the slippery rocks. The task appears daunting, and it is tempting to stay and play in the clear water at the base of the foot of the falls.
But the guide knows the way, and shows the first person in line exactly where to step and assists that person along the way. The second person must step in the same spot and so on. Each person is aided by the one in front and, in turn, aids the one next in line. Together, following the guide, the entire group is able to do what none could accomplish alone.
What a beautiful picture of the Christian life: as we follow our Guide and pass along what we learn to those who share the climb with us, we make progress. Together we travel ever upward on the path of service, obedience and love.
The house is now abandoned; the roof's in disrepair
And scattered beams of sunlight dance 'round the boards so bare.
Once laughter rang, children played, parents loved and wept;
Now only dust inhabits the rooms once neatly kept.
And yet, each year at springtime the bulbs push through the soil
Where busy hands once placed them with care and loving toil.
They bloom in great profusion; a testament of love
To life and hope and mem'ries and One Who reigns above.
The house, it lies abandoned…
But daffodils still bloom.
"See, the winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come .." Song of Solomon 2:11(NIV)
HELP WITH THE HONEYSUCKLE
"[Lord], your arm is endued with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted." Psalm 89:13(NIV)
We have a beautiful old flowering quince in our yard that fights an unending battle against honeysuckle and potato vine. Through the several years when the property was untended, the roots of the vines became so entwined with the quince that it is nearly impossible to get to the 'root' of the problem, so we get out every year or so and de-honeysuckle and potato vine the quince. It is a difficult task requiring lots of pulling and tugging, not to mention judicious avoidance of thorns (both on the quince and the potato vine). Although I generally start out doing this task alone, my husband always has to come assist me—my hands are simply not strong enough for the task. Without his assistance, I would have to let the honeysuckle and potato vines take over the quince and obliterate the loveliness of its blossoms as it announces the approach of spring.
So many times the honeysuckle vines in our lives, which seem so graceful and fragrant in their place, can develop into choking ropes that strangle our faith if not kept in check. The thorny potato vines do not even have a redeeming fragrance to counter their habit of wrapping around the branches of the quince. When we attempt to pull up the vines of addiction, excessive pride, overindulgence in that which brings us pleasure, lack of concern for others, our hands are often not sufficient for the task, so we give up. But we have been given the strength of the Lord in the form of the Holy Spirit to enable our faith to flower and show the unfettered beauty of the One Who created the honeysuckle, the potato vine and the quince.
"Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see—how good God is." Psa. 34:8 (The Message)
We had the opportunity of staying at a bed and breakfast in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. From our bedroom we had an indescribably beautiful view out over the glacier-blue waters of the lake to the snow-capped mountains beyond. It was an awe-inspiring scene—and indescribable is the correct term. I am incapable of capturing in words the loveliness of that place. My husband, who is an outstanding photographer, took several shots and they turned out very well, but are also incomplete in depicting that setting. In talking to our hostess at the B&B, we realized that even she had never seen a picture that 'caught' the magnificence. "You have to experience it," was her remark.
Every time someone 'oohs' and 'ahs' over one of my husband's pictures of Lake Tekapo, I am reminded of how limited we are in our descriptions of things that have great meaning or significance to us. As we walk with God, we can learn a depth of love that cannot be transferred to another. We can talk about it, sing about it, encourage others to try it, even introduce them to it, but until they actually experience it for themselves, they will not know the joy of that walk with the Lord.
"This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference." Romans 3:22(NIV)
Driving past some blooming morning glories, I was reminded of times when our girls were little and their father, who is definitely a morning person, used to awaken them early for school days with the words, "Morning, Glories!" The three of them, who like their mother, are more like the night-blooming cereus, would react with an audible groan. Their father had difficulty sympathizing with such reactions when his belief was that the best part of the day was before 9 a.m. It took him a long time to appreciate that those of us who are not morning glories have a value, too.
All of us are different from one another. Some of the differences are not as diametrically opposed as morning people and night people, but some of them are even more so. The Lord has created each of us with distinctive personalities, preferences, abilities and talents. It is very easy to think that only those who are 'like us' are correct or acceptable to God, but the Lord has made love and forgiveness available to all. Just as the Creator made flowers to bloom in the morning and those that bloom at other hours of the day (and night), so did the Lord create differences between us. Some prefer shade, others thrive in full sun; some have thorns, others just blossoms; some have a fragrance, others do not; all are precious to the One Who made them.
"NINE, TEN, DO IT AGAIN"
One version of the children's counting rhyme says, "Five, six, pick up sticks," then later, "Nine, ten, do it again!" Our home is graced with lovely old oak trees that bring us much pleasure, but after a wind or ice storm, the yard is littered with branches and twigs—Nature's pruning, my husband calls it. We get out and pick up the dead wood, only to do it again after the next windy occurrence.
As I stooped again and again the other day picking up the oak trees' debris, I thought of how when the winds of God's Spirit blow through our lives or our churches, the dead wood of things that we do that we should not, or things that we ought to be doing but are not doing, is revealed. We confess those things, and then, again the Holy Spirit blows through, and we find the need to confess anew. As we grow and mature spiritually, we are gradually shaped by pruning into that which bears fruit, provides shelter—honors our Lord.
"You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God." John 3:7 ,8(TM)
As fall approached, my husband offered to go get the pansies I wanted to put in the flower boxes on the terrace as well as the pots on either side of the garage. When he returned, sure enough, he had two flats of pansies for me to use on the terrace. But the pansies looked so 'puny' to him that he had bought two mums in full bloom to put in the garage pots. As the weeks turned into months, my 'puny' pansies flourished and bloomed and bloomed and bloomed on into spring. In the meantime, after that first full flush of beauty, the mums faded and froze, and although they came back, they were not the objects of beauty my husband thought they would be all winter.
Many times we make judgments about people (and other things) on the basis of first impressions or beauty instead of the potential that God might see in that person. Because I knew the nature of both pansies and mums (whose rich colors I love in the fall), I knew that pansies would work better in the particular setting I had in mind. We need to be careful in making judgments; "for the Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." I Samuel 16:7b(NIV)
Our teen-aged nephew was visiting us one summer and offered to help me shuck the corn we were having for supper. He had never before shucked corn except the partially prepared corn from the grocery store. He was dismayed and grossed out by the process of removing all the silk, not to mention the various worms and bugs associated with the chore at hand. I don't think he ate much corn that night.
Most of our lives are pretty much insulated from the realities of what it means to follow Christ. Just as much of our corn comes with the worst of the job done, so our Christianity comes in air-conditioned and/or heated sanctuaries. We may be aware of the cost of discipleship, we may sense the hurts and needs around us, but too few of us are willing to get down and do the dirty work. We like to love the lovely and embrace the clean. While that kind of loving and embracing is necessary, it is not all we are called to do. Our Lord touched the lepers, ate with the shunned and called out in love to all the enslaved and overburdened. We are to follow His example by "walk[ ing] in love, as Christ also hath loved us." Ephesians 5:2a(KJ)
TAKE IT FOR GRANTED
"…on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without His unfolding grace." I Corinthians 4:16(TM)
When we were living part-time on the lake, it was easy to appreciate the loveliness of the setting we are privileged to have. The views of the lake, the reflections of clouds on the water, the ever-changing look of the lake itself were all special to us each time we drove up. Now that we have been living on the lake full time for several years, we tend to take the beauty of this place for granted. Since it is there all the time, the lake becomes something we get used to. I try to take a few minutes every day to look with grateful appreciation at the canvas of beauty set before me.
Those of us who have been Christians for a long time are prone to the same malady in our spiritual lives. We have walked with the Lord for a long time, and it is tempting to take for granted His faithfulness to us. Often we don't take the time to acknowledge God's love for us and our love for the Lord. Our access to the Bible and worship are so easy that we sometimes don't take advantage of them regularly. What joy and blessing we are missing when we neglect the nourishment of our spiritual lives and take our Lord for granted.
THE BEAUTY OF DEATH
"In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:
'Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh Death?
Oh, Death, who's afraid of you now?'" I Corinthians 15:53-55(The Message)
Driving along one fall, my eyes were captivated by the beauty of the autumn leaves. As the intensity and variation in colors drew my attention, the realization dawned that this lovely display was the result of dying leaves that would soon fall off the trees and decay.
Our culture likes to concern itself with life and the living; death is treated euphemistically, if at all. The idea that beauty can be associated with death is totally foreign. But because of our faith in Christ, death can be beautiful, and although we mourn the loss of those we love and miss, we are comforted by the joy that has been a part of who they were and the gladness of knowing they are with the Lord.
THE PERILS OF SPRING
"But blessed is the man who trusts me, God, the woman who sticks with God. They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers—Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season. Jeremiah 17:7 ,8(The Message)
Some years winter has difficulty letting go. One recent winter as the daffodils and pear trees were in full bloom along came a freeze and damaged them all. One day all was bright and beautiful; the next day everything was brown and frozen. The experts said that the damage was superficial to these particular plants, and the next year they came back in all their glory, except that they are hardier than they were before. The peach crop was damaged more severely; the early crop in some places and almost the entire crop in others was lost. But the fruit that was produced was larger and sweeter.
There is no way to explain the vicissitudes of the weather (I think even the meteorologists are making educated guesses) any more than we can explain why bad things happen to good people. It seems that one day we are walking along, minding the business of producing God's fruit, or perhaps even in the full blossom of happiness or the beauty of service when something comes along that knocks us or those we care about off our figurative feet. Sometimes the damage is only superficial; other times it is a mortal blow.
The Lord has not promised that our skies will always be bright and our fruit easily produced. But the promise of the faithfulness of God is one on which we can rely, in times of drought, late freeze or other catastrophe.
"The man [or woman] who trusts in the Lord….will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream." Jeremiah 17:7,8a(NIV)
Trees have always spoken to me of stateliness and beauty. Our home is surrounded with lovely old oak trees that provide wonderful shade, not to mention plenty of leaves in the fall! The thought of the roots of the oaks going down into the earth reminds me of stability, especially in the face of strong winds and storms. In other words, I tend to think very positively about trees. But some time ago, when trees were mentioned in a Sunday School lesson, a friend from church, who puts in wells, water and sewer lines for a living, grimaced and said something to the effect that trees were the bane of his existence—the roots were forever intruding into his water and sewer lines and causing problems.
My friend's words caused me to think about how often something that is lovely and meaningful to one person is an impediment to someone else. Even the best of things, if done to excess or in the wrong setting, can be inappropriate. Prayer and Bible study, for instance, are essential to the life of a Christian, but if done to the exclusion of helping someone in need, spending time with our families or even doing our jobs, they are misplaced and can be detrimental. There needs to be a sense of balance in our lives in order for us to be gracious oak trees without intruding into the life-lines of others.
WEATHERING THE STORM
"He quieted the wind down to a whisper, put a muzzle on all the big waves. And you were so glad when the storm died down, and He led you safely back to harbor." Psalm 107:29 ,30(The Message)
One sunny afternoon some members of our Sunday School class decided to have a dinner outing, so we all piled on a pontoon boat and headed off. About halfway to our destination we noticed storm clouds in the distance and a flash or two of lightning, so we altered course down a long cove on a fruitless search for an alternate restaurant. Meanwhile the winds had kicked up and the white caps were emphasizing the height of the waves on our normally placid lake. We managed to stay in the lee of the cove and several islands for a while, but when we headed out, either to turn for home or to continue onwards, we were buffeted severely. Finally, after much dithering on our part, and some false starts in both directions, the storm abated and we were able to proceed on our way and enjoy a much delayed, but delicious dinner.
Our journey was neither nefarious nor necessary, just a pleasant opportunity to fellowship together. But as we sat in the midst of the wind and the waves, it was quite a picture of how often, in the midst of our tranquil lives, an unexpected storm blows up. Suddenly we are confronted with fear, uncertainty, even physical danger. We have done nothing to incur the storm's wrath and can do nothing to make it cease, but eventually the storm eases, and we are able to continue on the path toward our goal. A beautiful sunset may even punctuate the loveliness of our way, as it did that night as our class returned home after dinner.
There was no miracle to calm the waves that evening; no sudden stilling of the winds. The storm ran its course, moved on, and we continued on our way, grateful for safety, calm, peace, and the assurance of the presence of the Lord with us during the storm and before and after it.
My husband bears the heaviest load of yard work at our house, but weeding is generally my chore. Weeding is one of those things that isn't noticed unless it has not been done! No matter how often I go out, or how thoroughly I think I have weeded, there always seem to be more weeds out there waiting for me. Sometimes I will have worked several hours with only my small cart full of weeds (but lots of neater beds) to show for my effort. If I keep at the job regularly I can keep a reasonable handle on the weeds, but if I don't get a good start in the spring the cause is almost lost. Some of the weeds are big and easy to spot; others are small, taking tedious care to get them all. If I can get out soon after the rain when the ground is soft, the difference in the amount of effort involved is immense.
Sin in our lives often seems like those weeds - constantly cropping up and needing to be pulled out by the roots, going back over the same ground again and again, and much easier to deal with if we don't let it go too long without attention. When we let the rain of God's Word and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit soften our hearts, we will find the weeding out of sin goes much easier.
"[We're] blessed when [we] get [our] inside world - [our] mind and heart - put right. Then [we] can see God in the outside world." Matthew 5:8(The Message)
WORK IN PROGRESS
"…we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Ephesians 4:15(NIV)
When you look at our yard from a distance, especially in the spring, it looks lush and green—the ideal of a grassy lawn. But if you get up close to that grass, you can see all of the weeds, the bare spots, and the uneven places. When we bought our house, the lawn had been neglected for some time, so if you compare the lawn to what it was then, there has been an amazing amount of change. But even though my husband cuts and trims, seeds and fertilizes, waters and works at getting rid of the weeds, there is still much room for improvement.
Most of us are much like our lawn: if you look at us from a distance (perhaps on Sunday morning), everything looks pristine and immaculate. But if you get to know us more intimately, you will see that we are still works in progress; the Lord has lots more to do to make us truly presentable. We need to be patient with ourselves and others as the work of the Holy Spirit continues in our lives and theirs.