Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Home Sweet Home

As you walk around my house you’ll probably notice a few odd things. One of them would be the stacks of books and papers haphazardly piled here and there, some of them even tumbling over having been stacked too tall and too hurriedly. Reading and writing are two very important things to me, and while most piles are associated in one way or another with my faith, there’s also the ‘bills to pay’ pile, the ‘junk mail to shred’ pile, the ‘recipes to try’ pile, and the list goes on and on. Another thing, in contrast to my apparent hording tendencies, is that I’ve uncluttered my living spaces. For the most part I don’t have a lot of nick-knacks sitting around my rooms. The one’s I’ve kept on display are all pretty important to me. They each tell a story, some obvious, others not so obvious.

One of the not-so-obvious things is a heart-shaped sign that reads, “Home Sweet Home”. It hangs from one of the pegs on a cup holder on my kitchen wall. The sign was a welcome gift from the ladies at my church when I became a member a few months ago. It isn’t very valuable, but I treasure it. It really is one of those things that no one would realize how important it is unless you explained it. But it hangs there so innocently, who would think to even ask for an explanation. So here it is . . . .

I’ve lived in too many places to really remember them all. But still, I’ve tried to do that for the sake of this essay, and I’ve come up with a list of 36 different residences. If you take out that one childhood place of 4 years and the other place as an adult of just over 6 years, then you come up with the average of one move per year. You can see why I’ve grown fond of traveling “light”; taking too much stuff with you each time is just too much of a hassle.

But mostly, all this moving has just been hard on my heart. I ache to finally feel settled and comfortable, to get connected into a church and a community without the fear and reality-check that in a few months I’ll likely be somewhere else. It has made me a very guarded person and I hate that about myself. Those first 20 or 30 moves seemed adventurous and I was a willing participant. I know that sounds absurd, but for the longest time I just thought it was sort of fun. However, the last few moves have been accompanied by tearful rants, a lot foot stomping, empty threats, broken promises, etc. The reasons for all the moves blur together in my head, but in the end, it always boiled down to finances. In hindsight, I’m not sure there was ever a move made for any other reason.

So you can imagine why my sign reading, “Home Sweet Home” might be so meaningful. And you’re partially right, having a place to finally call home and feel like the Lord is going to let me stay for a significant amount of time is wonderful, and overwhelming, even frightening. Am I up to the challenge? Building and keeping long-term friendships is something I haven’t had a lot of experience with. Eventually I move away and both our lives get too busy to keep in touch for long. But for me, there’s more to this sign than just this very obvious meaning.

When I see that sign hanging in my kitchen I’m reminded to make others feel welcome here too. The friend I’m sharing a cup of tea with may be feeling like she needs a place to come and escape, to feel safe and secure from whatever storms are raging in her life. Maybe her heart aches and she’s in the middle of some tearful rant and doing a lot of foot stomping too. She needs a place to hide from all these problems, even for just an hour, a place to feel comfortable and let down her guard. And so I’m reminded to practice hospitality, sharing my “Home Sweet Home” with whoever may come knocking on my door that day.

The sign also reminds me of my new church family and how wonderful it was for these ladies to reach out to me the way they did. It wasn’t much; it didn’t take a lot of time or money. But it did take some thoughtfulness, and I am so thankful for their efforts. The gift came with a card that welcomed me into the Church Family and it was at a time when I felt so lonesome, I just wept as I read it over. I truly believe that the Lord has given me this church home – a “Home Sweet Home” where I can get comfortable, become involved, and even make a difference. And so looking at this simple sign I’m reminded to try and be equally welcoming with whoever may visit our church each week, making them comfortable and feeling like they’ve found a home too.

But lastly, the same sign oddly reminds me that my home isn’t here at all. No matter how wonderful my church is, no matter how many fabulous friends I gather round me, no matter how grand the house I’m blessed to be living in, or many years I’m allowed to stay in one place, in the end I’m still just a pilgrim, wandering this earth until I can go to my true “Home Sweet Home” in heaven. For you see, most of all, this sign reminds me to not get too comfortable here; Jesus has promised me I have at least one more move to make!

John 14:2In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.”

Journal Suggestions:

Describe a place you lived as a child.

What does “Home Sweet Home” mean to you?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Retreat

In 1993, my mother’s sudden death from cancer left me stunned and spiritually depressed. Eighteen years later, I’m still not comfortable talking about it, not the death, but the way in which I dealt with it – or failed to deal with it. Christians aren’t suppose to be depressed -- we have joy, peace, and the abundant life. I’m unsure if I should be sharing this story with the world wide web, my Church, or even my family. But I’ve learned that depression is pretty much universal and I’ve also found that talking about it can help us all heal.

During my mother’s brief illness I didn’t want to see her suffer and I was thankful the Lord took her home quickly. But I was still hurting. Eventually I realized I was harboring a deep feeling of disappointment towards God. What I had really wanted was for her to be healed. Or, better still, never ill in the first place. Following her death in May, I entered a time of spiritual waywardness that lasted throughout the summer months. The Fruits of the Spirit had been replaced with grumpiness and resentment. Ever so tenderly, the Lord showed me that my faltering spiritual walk was affecting those around me. Then in that September, I had the opportunity to go on a church-sponsored weekend retreat. Here is the essay I wrote while on that trip . . . .

On Friday morning, women of all ages gathered in the parking lot with their gear for the weekend. I was particularly anxious for the ladies’ retreat to get underway. I was hoping this weekend would enable me to get back on track, living my life as God intended. After four hours on the road, our van pulled into the mountain camp. Immediately I was drawn to a wide, long bridge on the other side of the chick-in building. I was eager to walk over there and gaze at the rushing water and listen to its soothing trickle of water. The width and height of the banks left no doubt there was once a ranging river. But this sorry sight left my soul feeling as empty as the riverbed.

The next afternoon, I left the craft activities of the group and found a quiet spot by the river’s edge to sit and think. As I looked around, I found myself still filled with so much sadness. The row boats were overturned on the river bank. Their blankets of pine needles testified of the long drought. The fishing dock no longer jutted out into the river. Instead, it sat awkwardly several yards away from any water. The river’s usefulness was gone: no fishing, so swimming, no boating.

My quiet contemplation soon led me to realize my own life was just this empty and sad. It seemed that lately my spiritual life had dwindled down to a tiny, immeasurable trickle. And like this once mighty river, my usefulness was gone without the flow of the Holy Spirit. Whatever good I am for the Lord is lost when I fail to walk by the Spirit. But, if I will drink from Christ, my river will never run dry. Revelation 22:17 says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” This is the mark of a Christian. That’s an odd thing to say: Christ gives us both peace beyond all understanding and an unquenchable desire to be still more righteous. Thirsty, yet satisfied; the wonder of this paradox can only be surpassed by ‘sinner, yet saved’.

As I continued to look around me, I saw the trees and shrubs that once flourished at the river’s edge. Now they showed signs of stress from their prolonged unmet need for water. Some of the plants were already dead. I reflected on how the people around me suffer when my spiritual river runs dry. My family and friends can begin to droop as well. Unlike these plants, however, they do not gain their life from me. But the example of my godly, Spirit-filled life can make them thirsty and then they can come to the Lord to drink on their own.

I know the force and power of a rain-swelled river kept it steady and on a straight course. Rocks and logs could pose no obstacle; the water would simply pick up the debris and carry it all downstream. This tiny trickle before me, however, was swayed by every twig in its path. Rocks and logs once submitted to the river’s mighty force, but now they were overwhelming, causing it to meander aimlessly. Likewise, I had gotten off course. I had allowed countless tiny obstacles to redirect me and I was wandering aimlessly.

I sat there remembering the spiritual power that once had been mine and I became keenly aware of God’s sadness over my situation. I thought how disappointed he must be at the tiny trickle of water that had replaced His power and the Holy Spirit in my life. Like rain for the river, I needed soul-drenching prayer to be flowing strong again. Revelation 22:17 promises that all I need to do is desire to drink and I may – “Whoever is thirsty”. I spent the remainder of the afternoon in prayer, confessing the sins that led to my waywardness and praising God for His wonderful promises and this beautiful lesson.

As we were leaving, I went to say good-bye to the little stream. The sadness I had felt was now replaced with hope and peace. And the spiritual river within me was running higher and stronger as we drove off towards home. The Lord is indeed faithful!

Psalm 34:17, 18The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Journal Suggestions:

Describe how you once overcame depression or disappointment.

How is your life like a river, mountain, or tree?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

True Worship

Church buildings represent a place set aside for God’s people to gather and enter into His presence, praise Him, and find strength for the week ahead. Our church services are not really intended for the lost and unbelieving, though, everyone is welcome. Yet I’ve learned first hand, that the practice of “true worship” provides a powerful witness of faith to anyone who visits. For you see, I was led to Christ by an entire congregation of over 3,000 believers, all worshiping their Lord.

In 1983, my husband was serving in the Navy and we had just been stationed near my husband’s home town. Before being deployed, he introduced me to several of his high school friends. A week or two passed and they invited me to church for a Sunday evening service. Right away I knew I was in for something different. The church I was raised in didn’t even have Sunday night services. They came by my apartment and drove me to a church in the downtown area of the city. We had to drive around for a while looking for a parking place. It was January and the night air was particularly cold. As we walked several blocks to the church building, I wondered what all the cars were doing downtown on a Sunday night.

Opening the first door of the church building a great sound swelled in my ears. Then the inner door was opened for us by the usher and the singing was almost deafening. I was completely overwhelmed. The church of my childhood had never sounded like this – not even on Christmas with the pews packed full. I was more used to hearing a few squeaky voices while most of the people simply stared off into space. But here tonight; young and old, men and women, were all singing and they sounded so glorious and joyful! We managed to find a place in the back row. We sat elbow to elbow – packed in like sardines. I couldn’t imagine what would make all these people leave their warm fireplaces on a cold winter night.

Eventually the singing stopped and it was time for prayer. The pastor prayed for things I had never thought to pray about – for school teachers, for the President and Congress, for flood victims in another state, for Christians imprisoned in foreign countries, for Bibles to be sent to China, on and on. It seemed he was praying for the whole world. The prayer was long, longer than I thought I could possibly sit still. But I was frozen in place and there was an awesome hush over the entire building. Now and then I could hear a quiet whisper from someone around me: “Yes, Lord”, “Praise You”, “Amen”. This prayer was completely foreign to the recited prayers of my childhood.

Next, the offering plates were sent around and another startling difference became painfully evident: the plates were full. We had to be careful to not spill the contents as we passed the plate down our row. But even stranger to me was that they were filled with little envelopes. My friend pulled hers out of the back of her Bible and placed it in the plate as it went by. I realized that she had thought this through ahead of time. She wasn’t just pulling coins out of her pocket at the last moment with some vain hope of not looking cheap. And each of those envelopes represented someone who had also prepared ahead of time to put something in the offering plate.

Finally the sermon started. The pastor invited everyone to open their Bibles and read along with him. The sound of the rustling Bible pages was even drowning out this man’s words. I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t have a Bible so my friend held hers so I could see it. But when I saw writing all over the margins I realized that she must actually use her Bible. At the time, I didn’t know of anyone who really did that, except preachers of course.

As the sermon went on, I was amazed to see my friends taking notes. They were eager to learn about what this man was saying. And as I looked around, I saw lots of other people taking notes too. Then I noticed a funny thing – a sad thing really – no one was snoring. In my home church that was the custom – to fall asleep during the sermon.

At the end of the service we sang a song. Everyone held hands and stretched across the isles so the chain would be unbroken. The words and music echoed loudly and the people were all smiling. When the song ended, the people were dismissed, but most of them stayed. It seemed no one was in a rush to get home and the isles were all blocked as they hugged and talked. Everyone was enjoying just being there with each other.

The marvelous corporate worship of this congregation overwhelmed me; I felt surely God was in that place on that cold winter night. So I kept going back to this church each week. I wanted to see if the wonderful faith I’d witnessed really lived on in these people. And week after week, I asked countless questions of my husband’s old friends and the many new friends I met at this church. They encouraged me as I began investigating the Bible and they shared books with me like More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. Through it all, my eyes were opened; not just to a new way of doing “church”, but a new way of relating to God and living my life. Then finally, on the first Sunday in February, I went forward at the service to receive Jesus Christ for myself. I had found salvation, forgiveness, peace, and much, much more. And now I was ready to become a true worshiper of the one true God.

Acts 2:42, 47They were continually devoting themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . .And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Journal Suggestions:

Describe the details that first brought you to the Lord.

Compare and contrast two seemingly similar experiences that were actually quite different.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Rings

In my top dresser drawer there are several rings that were owned by my grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, and husband. They’ve all passed away and I have this mis-matched assortment of rings to remind me of them. Well, sort of -- I know they are their rings and so they do remind me of them. But, for the most part, I don’t know what those rings meant to them, why they bought them or if they were a gift. All that part of my family’s history is gone, and it makes me sad. A couple rings are obvious. There’s a man’s wedding band, and one is a high school class ring. Then there is a ring that says “mom” on it that belonged to my mother-in-law, I can only assume that it was a Mother’s Day gift one year, but I can’t know for sure now. The other rings are more generic looking and I’m not at all sure how special they were to their owners.

The other day I happened to open this drawer and, of course, I let out the usual heavy sigh at the sight. But then it occurred to me that I wanted to avoid this emptiness for my family in the future. You see, I have a college class ring I wear on my right ring-finger. My children have a sense of what it means -- they were in the audience at my graduation. But they don’t know that I wear it every day as a constant reminder of who I am and where I came from and, most important, what I should strive for in my life. This particular ring represents a 20 year struggle to finally earn my bachelors degree. And I want my children (and their children) to know this story about me and my ring. . . .

It was while I was in college studying biology that I became a Christian. At the time I was an evolutionist, but it didn’t take long for that to change. I quickly realized that I couldn’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible I would believe. If I was willing to accept the New Testament story of Jesus, I had to also accept the Old Testament story of the creation. I think at first my reasoning was just that simple. After all, I thought to myself, they’re in the same book! You can’t say this part over here is SO true that you’ll change how you live your life but that part over there is just a phony fairy tale that should be dismissed without a second thought.

Armed with really no more information than just that simple logic, I went to my college professors and tried to show them the errors of their ways. Every time one of them would mention evolution I would raise my hand and remind everyone in the class that this was an un-provable theory and that the Bible held the real truth about our beginnings. Of course I was verbally beaten up every time I opened my mouth. By the end of the next semester I had had enough. I quit college and really thought I’d never go back.

Over the next fifteen years I had an unquenchable thirst for any knowledge related to Creationism. I read and studied anything I could get my hands on. And my faith grew stronger and more mature as I read the Bible through several times, listened to countless sermons and attended weekly Bible studies whenever I could. The Lord was working in my life.

When I finally decided it was time to get that bachelor’s degree I knew I would have a challenge ahead of me. It wouldn’t be easy to remain faithful to my beliefs and not anger or alienate my professors again. Part of the required curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in biology is a course devoted to just the study of Evolution. I protested to the dean of the college on the grounds of my faith, but my arguments fell on deaf ears.

After months of appeals, I finally took the class and surprisingly earned an “A” without ever compromising my Christian faith and the teaching of Divine Creation. I can only guess that my years of reading and study had given me tremendous insight, because I saw clearly how their “faith” in the theory of Evolution was shaping their thinking. It seems I was able to understand where they were coming from and it made me a better listener. All my private studies also gave me the ability to argue factually rather than emotionally. These are all very important lessons in my life and they have served me well in the years since.

However, an even more important lesson was learned while earning my college degree: I was able to remain faithful to my Lord and speak the truth with both boldness and compassion. Yes, I was bold before, but I just made everyone around me angry. Now I had learned how to speak that same message of truth but without causing all the hurt feelings and resentment. Today, when I look down at my right hand I see my class ring – the sides of it say “biology” and the top of the ring has a gold cross. It is a constant reminder of how easy it is to offend someone and still be “right”. And it reminds me how important it is to speak the truth in LOVE, with understanding and compassion.

James 3:17
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”

Journal Suggestions:

Recall a time when you were in disagreement with someone in authority over you.

Describe a special possession of yours and tell why it means more to you than the object’s simple face value.