We attended a wedding and got a thank-you note. But I wasn’t expecting one. The bride and groom had already sent us a note for the gift we’d given them. ‘Hmm,’ I wondered as I opened it, ‘maybe they were worried they had overlooked us, so they’re sending another one.’
“Thank you both so much for joining us as we celebrated our big day. We hope you both had a great time as well!!”
Who does this?
Who spends postage to thank guests for their presence, instead of their presents?
Almost no one. And that’s why it’s so remarkable. And sweet.
The truth is, we are grateful to have special people with us, in good times, bad times, and in-between times. The trouble is, we neglect to tell them we are thankful that they are there.
Jesus said, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
I was at the gym yesterday (a minor accomplishment in itself), and I took a pure barre class. I think of it as “Ballet for Dummies and Non-Dancers.”
We didn’t have a barre on the wall; instead, we used folding chairs, balls, and elastic straps for balance and resistance. I hadn’t been there for awhile, and it showed.
The full-length mirrors made it possible for me to check my alignment (or lack thereof) during each exercise and, like three-way mirrors in department store dressing rooms, they dispelled any illusions I had about my physique. Further, the rubber bands we used proved that my arms are not as strong as I thought they were.
In short – I’ll just say there is work to be done. And I am loathe to do it.
But I made it through the class, vowed I would be back, and trekked off to the locker room to shower and get on with my day.
That’s when I heard her crying – a woman in the aisle of lockers adjacent to mine. She was on the phone, upset, and angry.
“I’m at the gym, God damn it!!” she said. “I’m trying!!”
I’m not sure what the conversation was really about. Whether it had to do with fitness or myriad other things. But I could tell her spirit was depleted. For whatever it was that was bothering her, she needed reassurance. She needed help in letting go of expectations – her own or someone else’s. She needed to know unconditional love.
This world would have us believe that we are measured by our output. That we have to perform every day. That these things determine our value. But that’s not the Truth.
We are loved beyond measure, simply because we ARE, by One who calls us “lilies among thorns.”
Today, as I tend to my sore spots, I will rest in that.
I hate snakes. Really, really, really HATE snakes.
I know, I know. Not all snakes are bad. But when I come across one, everything in me recoils. And last week, I came across three. So I’m not feeling any intellectual “warm fuzzies” for them right now.
One was under a pile of dead leaves that I picked up – with my hands – while gardening. (Lesson learned. Use a rake.)
The next – a baby – crawled into the basement through the back door, which my husband had left ajar. (Open screened windows are OK. Doors? Not so much.)
The last snake startled me the most.
One of our hounds was sitting beside the backyard fence, howling at 9:30 p.m. In a valiant attempt to be neighborly, I grabbed a flashlight and briskly set off across the lawn to fetch him. On the way, I stepped over a long silvery line in the grass. I realized what it was a split-second later. I shined the beam back onto this creature (who probably thought he could avoid humans at that hour) and I clearly saw a bulge in its middle. Yuck. Thank God for good foot placement.
None of these serpents were poisonous. And none of them were longer than 15 inches. They were probably all very young. A herpetologist would say that the presence of brown snakes and rat snakes indicates a healthy ecosystem, and would suggest that I should be grateful for natural control of the rodent population. There’s significant merit to these views, of course. Snakes were designed for a purpose. But my nerves don’t typically respond to logical arguments.
A quick Google search revealed that snakes in MD are most active in spring and fall, and they are biurnal.
Well, then. Now I know. Snakes. Night and day.
I’ve been working hard to overcome this creepy mental obstacle – ignoring my bad dreams and reassuring my husband that I will continue to help with the yard work. But having serpents in the garden dulls its shine, doesn’t it?
Serpents are reminders that things are not the way I want them to be.
I want to see flowers, but not snake skins. I want cool shade and warm sunshine, but I don’t want to share them – with creatures who don’t have legs.
And it’s the way snakes have invaded my sanctuary that irritates me.
They are stealth. Quiet. Ugly.
They inspire fear.
They are not unlike the whispers in my head that slink into my creative thoughts and rob them of joy. You know the ones….
Why are you doing this?
You are not good enough.
No one cares about your point of view.
Your contributions are irrelevant.
There are so many other people saying and writing the same things.
You should give up.
Ignoring the serpent, setting him aside, or disturbing his surroundings with bold noise so that he’ll shove off and go elsewhere – is hard, hard work. And some days, pushing past his lies takes all the energy I have.
But we are called to be brave. We are called to be faithful to what we know is Truth.
So we move forward.
We cultivate our garden so its’ blooms overshadow anything ugly lurking within it.
My goodness the candidates and pundits are busy these days. The election conversation just never ends. TV, social media, magazines, newspapers – everyone is putting in their two cents. It has never been easier to promote your point of view, or to ask questions intended to make someone else defend or reconsider theirs.
People like to say that this election year is “the worst,” and in some ways, it just might be. The characters are sure colorful, and the mudslinging seems to be getting worse every day. But then again, my own personal history reminds me that division along political lines is nothing new, and it often becomes ugly because arrogance and self-righteousness run deep in our human hearts.
Around 8 a.m. on November 8, 2000, I went to my voting precinct in Arlington, Virginia. There were, of course, many candidates on the ballot that day, but two were attracting the lion’s share of attention. Bush. And Gore.
The line to the precinct door snaked around the side of the building and then back and forth in gentle curves like a fat roll of ribbon candy. I got in line and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be there for awhile.
About 10 minutes into my wait, I somehow started chatting with the elderly black woman in front of me. She was a beautiful, petite woman with salt-and-pepper hair, bright eyes, and an easy laugh. We talked nonstop for at least 30 minutes about where we’d grown up and our current lives in Northern Virginia. Naturally, she told me all about her grandchildren, and I could see how proud she was. I felt a deep enough kinship with this sweet woman, that when we ascended the steep steps leading into the building, I was perfectly comfortable encouraging her to be careful.
A yard or so from the precinct door, she looked at me with an earnest smile and said, “So I guess you’re voting for Gore.”
“Uhm, no actually,” I replied.
Her eyes grew wide. She seemed startled.
Then, she turned away from me.
As she squared her shoulders and faced the front, I heard her murmur under her breath, “I thought you were nice.”
I stood there – stunned and uneasy – for the next few minutes until we were finally admitted and each assigned a voting booth.
At the time, I worked for the Close Up Foundation, a nonpartisan civic education group, and I wrote books about federal policy for high school students. Our texts were designed to encourage young minds to think about issues from myriad points of view before forming political opinions. From that experience, I learned that issues are not simple. There are no easy answers. And NO candidate is a perfect choice. We all do the best we can with the small minds and limited information we have, and the experiences that form our consciences.
At Close Up, I worked with many people whose political opinions differed from mine, and a few of them became beloved friends.
Because when you live in close proximity to others and take the time to listen – really listen – to their stories, it’s nearly impossible to develop resentment and hatred toward them.
If we think we know more than the next person…
If we think we have perfect solutions…
If we think ‘our guy’ is going to make everything better…
then we are arrogant.
And we are wrong.
“Those people” – the ones I don’t hang out with – the ones who seem different from me – God made them, and loves them, and has called me to serve them with His Love.
So before I enter into another tense conversation, before I send that snarky email or post an incendiary link, I’m going to think…
What does Love require of me?
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
On a bright spring morning, a walk does my spirit good. And as I circle my block, I come across her garden.
I can almost see her standing there in the shadow of her home, wearing spring pastels and kelly green tennis shoes, pointing out weeds and asking her husband to pull them. Her white hair shines like a crown in the sun. Her eyes dance and her arms wave a happy hello as I walk up her front path.
So I stand looking at Mrs. Schab’s garden. Her flowers are beginning to bloom.
First, I see a single red tulip.
Then the blue vinca minor (periwinkle).
Then the viburnum.
And her bright pink azaleas.
Colorful, vibrant life springs from the brown, hard earth.
I seldom see their family visiting the house anymore. I suppose it’s been mostly cleaned out.
But you can’t remove everything that’s been planted, deep in fertile soil. You can’t strip it all – even from ground that appears, on the surface, to be nothing but weeds.
The garden renews my hope in the Promise. That with God’s help, our tiny seeds of peace and love – in our families, communities, nation, the world – will surely blossom into something beautiful, when the appropriate time comes.
I’ve only attended one Easter sunrise service in my life, but looking back I can see how very blessed and privileged I was, for it took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Reflecting Pool, in Washington D.C. I was with my dad and I think I was about 13 or 14 years old. The sunrise looked something like the one pictured here. Pretty. Spectacular. Pretty spectacular.
And there is one memory that stands out for me the most, aside from the triumphant Easter music and the rousing sermon.
During one especially moving song, I glanced up at my father’s face. Tears streaming from his eyes reflected the morning light. I was caught off guard and mystified.
‘Why is Dad crying? Is he ok?’
The questions boomed in my mind like thunder, but I was paralyzed. It seemed completely wrong to ask him – to interrupt what was clearly an important moment – so I didn’t. I held my tongue. But I never forgot.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my own 13-year old son after school. He and I have been having pow-wows to go over his assignments as a way of staying on top of the demands of middle school. At the end of our discussion, I found there was something on my heart that I needed to say.
“You know,” I began, “You’ll be leaving my house in 5 years, and there are things I want you to understand before you go. What do you think is the ONE thing I really want you to know?”
“That you love me,” he said, rolling his eyes while giving me a charming half-smile.
“Yes, yes. Ok, that. But what else.”
“That I should get a job.”
“Ha! Ok. That too. What else?”
“I should go to church.”
“Well, sort of….I mean, yes that’s good and all, but what’s more important is that you have a relationship with God. That you KNOW Him. That you understand our God – Jesus – is FOR you. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“Ok, we’ll discuss this again. Because this, this is the most important thing I want you to know. In this life, you are going to encounter stuff that Dad and I can’t help you with, and your friends can’t help you with, and whoever you marry can’t help you with. Only God can help you. He is the One who can meet all your needs because he created you. This is why I tell you about Him, and why He’s so important.”
The conversation kind of ended from there, and that’s ok; I’ve found that faith is best fed to kids in small bites.
What my dad knew that Easter morning so long ago is exactly what I wanted to explain to my son: Faith in Jesus is a personal experience. It’s a one-to-one encounter with a risen Savior. It isn’t a community deal. It isn’t a cultural tradition. It’s SO MUCH BETTER than that.
Jesus rose from the dead to prove to us His absolute authority over the powers of this world. We can totally rely on Him. He is our Protector, Provider, Defender, Champion, Friend, Redeemer…the list goes on and on. And all we have to do to know Him is turn our hearts to Him and ask Him to enter in.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
I railed against this Truth for a long, long time. I understood it to mean that God would condemn me to an eternal torment if I did not follow his Son, and I just couldn’t square this with a loving God. I couldn’t even see that I could ‘perish’ in the here and now – that life today could be far less than was envisioned for me.
But I finally came to a point where anger, depression, and fear burdened me so much that I fell to my knees and cried out to God – and guess what? He answered. I found I could trust in his name. His name has a rock solid reputation of Love. Every single time I turned to Him, He was there. And the condemnation I had been suspicious of in Him, was actually in me. With my lack of faith in Him, I had condemned myself to life without Him, and it was bleak indeed.
I went back and re-read John 3:18, and then I understood.
“For every cross, there is a resurrection,” the saying goes, meaning that with Christ, all burdens, no matter how impossible they may seem, can be mitigated or overcome. A man who can defeat death can do anything. Don’t ever underestimate Him.
This Easter, let’s surrender our hearts, minds, souls, and strength to Our Risen Lord – Jesus Christ – in full trust that He is worthy, because He is absolutely FOR us.
“That daffodil looks funny, Mom!” she said, laughing and pointing at the new bud.
“Well, it has to start somewhere. And that’s where it begins.”
I knew what she was saying – sometimes things strike us as odd. That tiny, fragile bud pushing its way up through our rocky, leaf-strewn, unkempt garden bed.
But I could felt a tinge of criticism in the air. Whether she implied it or I just created it, I don’t know, but that’s human cynicism for you. We color the beauty of growth with judgement.
Was it meant to be that way?
I would posit that No – it wasn’t. That life was supposed to be carefree. We were supposed to rest in the knowledge that we were created in love and are loved unconditionally from day one through infinity.
But instead, the liar came and whispered in our ears that we could be more.
He’s still whispering – doing his dirty work of telling us we’re unloved and then making us compare ourselves to others – and I fall prey to him too often. My big downfall is ‘wasting time.’ I always think I’m not getting enough done. As if this life is a big race to finish whatever it is we’re supposed to finish.
Ten days ago, I was sitting with my grandma, lamenting my general lack of industry, when I told her my ‘battery theory.’ “I think people are born with different sized batteries,” I said. “Some people get D batteries, others Cs. I got triple-As!” She laughed and said, “I think you get that from me.”
I was surprised. But then she told me about some of the things she hadn’t done – like photo albums – and I loved her all the more. Because I don’t care about her accomplishments. I love her for her.
All the people I love most are the ones who are so genuinely themselves. Sometimes they have even persisted in a rocky atmosphere. Yet, they always maintain a certain air of grace that is unique to them.
Some of these loved ones are successful in a worldly sense. Some are not. Some seem to be well known, while others are like hidden gems. But they all have one thing in common: they have not stopped growing, and reaching for the Light.
I can’t help but think that that’s what the Lord wants from me too.
2009 was the year. I signed on to Facebook and so did just about everyone else I knew. It seemed like people were coming out of the woodwork. Men and women from high school, college, jobs I’d had, and my community, all became ‘Friends.’ It was nifty really, to find that despite all of the dreaming, planning, and working we’d done, we had similar lives. In essence, we all cared about the same things.
Like most people, I typically only post good stuff on Facebook. Or the things in my life for which prayer or consolation are appropriate. I hope they are events that my ‘Friends’ see as relevant and noteworthy, because we all want to find that others relate to us. But we don’t need to share everything. No one wants to see dog vomit, right?
Several years ago, my dad asked me how many ‘Friends,’ I had. When I answered, he probed a bit.
“Do you actually know all of them?”
I told him, “Yes. Or I knew them fairly well at some point in my life.”
That all changed sometime in the last couple years, because now I have ‘Friends’ of Friends. They are people I have minimal knowledge of. People who really don’t know me. You probably have some ‘Friends’ of the same sort.
If, in real life, I would usually have no idea that ‘Jen So-and-so’ vacations in the Caribbean twice every year, why in the world am I spending time viewing photos of her beachy getaways? And if ‘Dave What’s-his-name’ has political opinions that unnerve me, why am I allowing his caustic comments to get under my skin? I have learned to switch my news feed settings, but there is A LOT of stuff out there that doesn’t pertain – in any way – to me.
I justify my time on Facebook by acknowledging its value. There is useful information that helps my writing and guides my reading. And if it weren’t for this social medium I wouldn’t have known that an old, dear friend lost her niece to suicide, or that the prayers of thousands are helping to heal another friend’s husband – a Marine who was gravely injured overseas. I want to know what’s going on, and if I can contribute something worthwhile to my friends’ lives, however remote they might be.
But instead, I am sucked in by catchy (though not original) everyday truths about coffee, friendship, parenting, or the mourning process. ‘LIKE’ and Repost if You Agree!
Last week, I shared my woes with a friend. A “real-life” “in-the-flesh” “we met for coffee” friend. Together we renewed our vow to only look at Facebook at certain times and for certain reasons (mine having to do with participation in a writer’s group). My efforts have been valiant, but I am still not following through on that promise. I have wasted time – scrolling.
This morning, the Word spoke to me loudly.
Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power.
As a Christ follower, I have been made a new creation and given the enormous power of the Holy Spirit to overcome my flesh, which is prone to stray from the abundant life that He has envisioned for me. If I’m struggling in my inner battle, it’s because I have NOT relied on Him.
This life is a concrete, physical life – NOT a virtual one. God designed it that way. He gave me, you, and all my ‘Friends,’ bodies with which to taste, touch, smell, hear and see the physical world. In these ways, we can truly experience the richness of life, and by extension, the richness of Him.
Lord, renew me today. Help me to dispense with the wasted time I spend dabbling in worldly chatter – which I KNOW diverges from the fullness I have in You.