Gym Love

Two months ago, I joined a gym. It was time. It wasn’t about weight loss, and I won’t pretend it wasn’t at least a little bit about vanity. (I’m 42. At some point, you have to admit you’re going to have to work a bit harder to keep whatever it is you’ve got, right?). But mostly, it was for my heart –  I was panting after climbing two short flights of stairs (and we have six in our house, so that most definitely was not good). And, it was for my bones. By themselves, those chocolatey calcium supplements are simply not going to fight my genetic predisposition toward osteoporosis. No matter how much I wish they would. It was time to start pumping some iron.

I brought up my need to some friends, who told me where they go, and that’s where I joined. By grace, and yes, I’ve asked for His help in this, because I can’t tell you how I loathe to work out, I have faithfully made it to the gym 3x a week ever since joining. Just knowing that there are others in the same pursuit of health is what gets me there. I know I’ll never have the figure of a supermodel (and hello! I LOVE cake), but it has made me appreciate my body and its remarkable capabilities once again, too.

Today, I was reflecting on where my body has taken me in this incredible life so far:

It gets up every morning.

It has lived in 6 U.S. states and traveled to many, many more.

It has taken my soul to Western Europe, a bit of Northern Africa, and much of North America.

It has enjoyed and absorbed nutrients from thousands of meals.

It has loved – in all senses of the word – and, with my amazing husband, was given the privilege of carrying and birthing three people.

It has embraced and learned from others every single day, and miraculously, kept working with relatively few problems for just over 42 years. Indeed, through none of my own doing, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14).

It’s taken me a long time to say it boldly, but I LOVE my body. And I’ll keep on using those medieval-looking machines to show my gratitude – by taking care of it.

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Day of Rest

When I really do what I’m supposed to do on Sundays – rest – I am deeply blessed.

Yesterday was a great Saturday. My husband and I chauffeured the kids to their activities – daughter’s piano recital, son #1’s Tae Kwon Do tournament, son #2’s soccer game. All good. But by the time we were home, the kitchen floor was scrubbed, two loads of laundry were done, miscellaneous debris from the week was put away, and I had sewn two patches on a Boy Scout uniform, I was ready for this:

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And I was telling the kids, “Go get your own cheese and crackers. These are mine.”

We need down time to refill the wells within ourselves. If we don’t find a way to take care of ourselves, we’ll have nothing left to give to others. Which is why I woke up this morning, grateful that it is Sunday, and slightly thankful, believe it or not, for the ever-so-faint signs of a coming migraine.

After Mass, I did what my body demanded and took a nap. When I woke up, my meds had kicked in and the nap had done wonders, so I sat at the desk beside my bed and dug into the Bible study on Galatians that I’m currently doing with two close friends.

Shocker! In the still of this day of rest, the Lord had something to teach me!

Did you know that for the first 3 years after Jesus revealed Himself to Paul, Paul didn’t consult with the apostles? Instead, he went into Arabia and returned to Damascus. Remember, in that time, there were no Gospels. Paul was very educated in the Torah, but his knowledge of Christ was based first on his personal revelation – when Christ, manifest as a bright, blinding light, called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

Foregoing contact with the apostles strengthened Paul’s reliance on and personal faithfulness to Jesus Christ alone. He simply couldn’t fall back on anyone else’s faith for inspiration. He relied on that lifeline of connection to God which promises us the same strength that Paul experienced – prayer. And Paul’s testimony changed the world.

Imagine if we all took this day of rest seriously.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

– Psalm 46:10

How to Sleep Well

One summer evening 9 years ago, I was holding the reins of life so tightly that the tension had crept into my jaw. I knew I was grinding my teeth at night; it’s one of my body’s telltale signs that I’m seething with something that needs to be vented and hasn’t been. You’d have thought that pain in my jaw, neck, back, and legs would have brought me to some kind of reckoning – but No. People are stubborn. And if you mess with an animal in pain, often you just aggravate them further. So it was with me.

I was physically miserable, but I was compounding my misery by arguing with a few people – the main one being my husband. Today, I don’t even know what I was fuming about, exactly, but we were working through some tough things, individually and together, and it was all crashing in on me. So I was letting him have it.

Disagreements can be productive, but the problem on this day, and others like it, was that no amount of arguing was going to solve the issues at hand. Primarily for one very good reason. My husband was not in the room. He wasn’t even in the house. Whether he was traveling, working late, or out with friends, I don’t recall….it was long ago….and his whereabouts then are not germane to this story. What is germane is that I was very angry and resentful – feeling ‘put upon,’ as they say – and my rant with him, and some other people, lived entirely in my head, was leading me exactly – nowhere.

Our two kids at the time were ages 3 and 8 months. I had spent much of that day on a chore no mother can ignore. Laundry. I’d done 4 or 5 loads of it. But because I couldn’t find precious minutes to fold those loads between picking up toys, making meals and snacks, cleaning up messes, and entertaining my charges (especially the ‘older’ one of our babes), I had deposited the clean clothes on the only large, flat surface available – our bed in the Master bedroom. Through tight eyes, I was staring down a mountain of ‘lights,’ ‘darks,’ and ‘colors.’  I was NOT happy.

I wanted to crawl into that bed and shut out the world. Stop the spinning. Stop the incessant demands on me. Forget about life. And sleep. Front time to time, I was doing too much of that, too. Sleeping. It was an effort to refresh my body, sure, and I justified the mid-day naps by saying I needed them to cope. But the truth is, I used these breaks to not cope. It was a means of escape. And it wasn’t good, restful sleep. I wasn’t waking up feeling a whole lot better than when I’d laid down.

So, back to my tirade…I wanted to take that pile of laundry and hurl it across the room in a fit of rage. But I had hit a wall. I just couldn’t do even that. And that’s when, for some unknown reason, I sank to my knees next to the bed, buried my face in my hands, and prayed.

I hadn’t really prayed – in that position, or in that kind of way – since I was a little girl. A jumble of tangled thoughts, fears, concerns, worries, complaints, and frustrations tumbled up and out of me as I talked to God. And the longer I went on, the more I felt His steadying hand on me, the reality of His presence with me in my room, telling me that peace is possible – even for me. I was down there on the floor for about 20-25 minutes. I know because I looked at the clock when I got up and was shocked at how much time had passed. I had entered into a timeless space with God during our dialogue, one that in hindsight I’d see marked the beginning of a new way of living.

That singular experience with prayer changed my way of viewing God – from some distant, remote ‘being’ who has knowledge of me but no real interest, to a God who was approachable. Someone I could talk to. And in time, I stopped venting to Him, and started thanking Him, because I could see evidence of His love for me in my daily life, and then in my life in general, and finally, even in the parts of my past for which I felt ashamed.

Today, I know beyond the shadow of any doubt, that The Lord is my truest friend, the Lover of my soul, who cares for me so much more than I care for myself. And the key to a good night’s sleep is not my chamomile tea, or a few carefree moments with a novel – though I enjoy both of these before I turn in. No, the key for me is to lay everything within me at God’s feet, knowing and expecting Him to handle my present concerns with the same undivided attention He has given to me all of my life. His Hand on me is peace.

In peace I shall both lie down and sleep,

for you alone, Lord, make me secure. 

– Psalm 4:9

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Three Italian Women

We’re standing in the church sanctuary, a place of holy refuge, and I know she feels safe. She’s facing a very tough day. She’s been carrying heavy burdens for several people, trying to help where and however she can, and I can see the weight of many hard weeks bearing down on her.  She’s got herself together – she’s beautiful and graceful, keeping up with self-care, but none of us can do the impossible. We can’t bring people back from the dead, or stop the march of a loved one’s disease right there in its tracks with one desperate, pleading prayer.  Her eyes fill up and flood over and I don’t have words so I do what friends do then.  I hug her.  And I don’t let go until she lets go first.

Later in the day I remember three women I haven’t thought of in many years.  I dig up their picture:

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Three friends. Rome. January, 1993.

Arms linked together, they were a bit of an obstacle walking down the Roman street at dusk on that cold, January day.  I followed them for a little before snapping this photo.  They were in no hurry, and didn’t sway from between these yellow lines.  People went around them.  I was wishing I  spoke Italian so that I could catch snippets of their conversation, though I’m fairly sure the bulk of it was the same as that of women’s talk everywhere – mostly family, the work of homemaking, marriage, schedules, maybe some chit-chat about clothing, books, and other entertainment thrown in for fun.

But I took the picture because I was most captivated by the fact that they were linked.  They were unified. They were together. They were walking through life, sharing the journey, and their joined arms confirmed to one another not just an intellectual support system, but a true physical presence.  My arm in yours says, “You are really not alone.”  Touch comforts when words can’t.

Valentine’s Day is coming up.  Who else needs a hug?  Maybe even a walking hug  – where we join arms and travel some of this life together, sharing what we can, and letting the silent strength of one another’s arms be the reassurance we need when words fail us?

A friend loves at all times, 

And a brother is born for adversity. 

– Proverbs 17:17

 

Worth the Extra Effort

Today I set out to mail two packages containing Christmas presents to family members across the U.S.  At the post office, I was quoted an absurdly large fee for each one – a base cost plus a surcharge, which was determined by the dimensions of each box. I was flabbergasted.  The base costs were expected – but the surcharges?  Highway robbery.

I felt the heat rise to my face – a combination of shock and embarrassment, knowing that I just couldn’t in good conscience pay that sum – at least, not without a fight. The clerk was obviously miffed when I politely told her I would take my packages back. But I did. And I turned on my heel and walked right past the long line of waiting customers, threw the boxes in the car, and drove 1/4 mile to the UPS store, where I mailed them for a whopping $33 less.

Later, I told my 11-year old son about this incident. I also happened to mention that I hadn’t written a blog post in several days. He told me to write about how I made an extra effort today – and that it was a good thing.  I told him my blog is mostly about faith, so I didn’t see a connection.  He said:

“Going to UPS was worth the effort, just like spending time with Christ is.”

I was so surprised, that I giggled and started to object – then realized he was absolutely right.

He smiled and said, “And you can give me credit for the idea.”

I told him I would.

Then, just to make sure I had heard him correctly, and to confirm that he really understood the meaning of what he’d said, I asked:

“When YOU make the effort to spend time with God, do you think it’s worth it?”

Without missing a beat or looking up from the Minecraft world he was building on his iPad, he said:

“Absolutely.”

Finding a few minutes to pray, read Scripture, and reflect on my blessings takes work and commitment, but even a kid knows that time spent focusing on God is always worth the effort.

 

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Cut Me Open

I watched a video this morning that pinned me to my chair.  I was consciously overriding nausea, because I just had to see. It was of a dead shark being cut open, and I get weak at the sight of blood.  In 9th grade Biology, I fainted while trying to help dissect a fetal pig (and knew right then I’d never go to medical school). I’ve even sworn off ever baking a red velvet cake. I did it one time. And once was enough. When the bright red batter accidentally splattered all over the counter and walls, my knees buckled and I had to grip the countertop repeatedly telling myself, “It’s only cake!” to be able to clean up the mess. So, it’s no small feat that I watched this video.  There isn’t even that much blood in it. This is a fish we’re talking about.

Anyway – the amazing thing is, inside this dead shark are 3 living baby sharks. And I was gobsmacked by the message I got from watching.  I am the dead thing, and there is a hand that wants to free me. 

Lately, for more than a couple days or hours, I’ve heard some edginess in my tone of voice.  I’ve become irritable with other people and with situations when they didn’t live up to my preconceived expectations. I’ve harbored a couple specific resentments, pathetically mulling over injustices done to me. And this shark video conveniently showed up in my life right after I read these words to my daughter in her devotional last night:

“When you sin, it’s like slowly cutting your soul off from God, and your soul starts to wither and die.  The result of sin is not a bad day or a bad mood, but a dead soul. The signs are easy to spot – lying lips and cursing mouths, feet that run to do evil and eyes that don’t see God. But….the soul can be healed- through Jesus. And all you have to do is ask.”*

I used to think the word “sin was antiquated. And that “sinner” really didn’t apply to me. I could justify anything I’d done that I knew was just “a little bit” wrong. But eventually, I realized that sin is just the term for anything that keeps me from a close relationship with God – and that I was full of it. I may not have lied constantly or committed a heinous crime, but I had murdered people’s reputations by speaking poorly of them, I’d stolen people’s happiness with sarcastic remarks that took advantage of their soft spots, and I’d cursed others by harboring jealousy in my heart for things they had but I didn’t, while failing to see blessings – signs of God and his love – in my own life.

When I came to this realization, I also knew I couldn’t free myself from what I’d done, because the voice inside – the one that told me all along what was right and what was not – had become so faint and muted. My justifications had been, to my mind, quite witty, and smart.  They were overpowering that voice.  I almost couldn’t hear it anymore.

Yet, I wanted to get rid of that dull, heavy, dead feeling I was carrying around all the time.  I needed to be free, and nothing I’d tried before had worked. So I tried the one “crazy” thing that lots of people before me had apparently tried – I asked Jesus if He was really out there, and could He help me?

The conversion of my heart was an unfolding event – a slow process of discovery that confirmed my suspicions. He really was out there.  And also, really right here.  And most of all, really real.  No, He doesn’t text, or email, or use the phone (though how I wish He would), but He does show up and talk to me all the time – through people I meet, things I hear and see, and when I’m still, often when I pray, through that little voice.  I can go along for a time ignoring Him, but the longer I do that, the deeper I sink into ugliness, until my I know my life is wasting away, because that’s what sin does: It kills me. 

So – back to the shark mother, dead on a beach… How does it apply to me?  For life’s sake, something must be done.  Today I choose to roll over and expose my vulnerable belly – to be gutted – by a loving hand.

I have come to accept that I will always be a sinner, because my time on earth is not about me doing everything perfectly.  I can’t.  Only He can.  But I can be free from the deadness within myself by asking Him to come in and strip it away, to let loose the new life in me. He does. And He will. Always. For this is His promise to us.  And as I’ve said before – He is absolutely pure.  Without sin.  So He cannot lie.  He can only keep His promises.

So Jesus said again…”Amen, amen, I say to you…A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” 

– John 10: 7, 10

* Max Lucado, Grace for the Moment – 365 Devotions for Kids (Nashville, TN: Tommy Nelson, 2012), 355.

 

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Day 26 – When I Heard

It was at least 6 years ago, in the springtime, but I didn’t write the date down in a journal, so I don’t know exactly what year it was. We hadn’t redone our kitchen yet, so I remember the dark cabinets and sand-colored tumbled tile countertops that my husband and I had installed ourselves. I was standing in the corner, between our dishwasher and microwave, looking out the window at our neighbor’s trees.

That’s when I heard, or should I say felt, His voice tell me, “Be still. Know ‘I Am.'” It was the first time I’d heard Him speak directly to me, and I obeyed. Stock-still, mesmerized. My oldest son and daughter (my only children then) were playing just behind me in the family room, but they seemed much farther away, and I was unconcerned.  Everything was safe – there was no fear in me – my need to be in control had vanished. When I think of it now, I consider it among the most holy moments of my life.

At the time that this happened, I was unaccustomed to moments of silence and stillness. But I took this experience as another step in His unfolding invitation to go on a journey – one He knew I was ready for.

As I prepare for Thanksgiving this week and the start of Advent next Sunday, I’m trying to build margin – by that I mean, white space – into my holiday schedule. Without it, there will be no room for silence. The shopping, parties, gift-wrapping, and kids’ holiday events will dominate my days if I don’t prioritize right now.  Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting. For a child. For a King. Advent says, “‘I Am’ coming into the world.  Will you hear me?” 

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Day 25 – The Little Plant

My daughter’s little plant, in its clear plastic cup, was drooping when I came down for breakfast this morning. It sits in our kitchen bay window, where the night’s cold weather probably exacerbated its fragile state. Its’ tightly curled leaves clung from limp stems and for the first time, I noticed that its roots were pressed firmly to the sides of the cup, begging for H2O. ‘If it survives,’ I thought, ‘a repotting would be in order.’  I took it to the sink, sprinkled it carefully, and put it back in the morning sunlight.image

Often, things are more resilient than they appear. By the time I’d eaten, finished my tea, and read the paper, the plant was completely revived.  I had met its most basic need – water.

We all know there was no magic involved. The roots carried the water upward and nourished the plant’s cells.  So it is with me. I too, need water. Living water.  Too often I forget that it is always available to me – a gift freely given.  I rely only on insufficient ‘helps’ – my intellect, my creativity, my willpower, my handy electronic gadgets – to reach out in all directions, micromanage my time and my life, and cover as much ground as possible. The end is always the same. I hit my walls of exhaustion, resentment, and anger.

When I have done this to myself, and am therefore left weakened and easily battered by the elements of this world, the help I need is within.  The roots of my soul must reconnect with the living water. The Spirit is my refreshment, restoration, hope, and source of love and comfort.  And it gives me the assurance that I need never go thirsty again.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God

and who it is that asks you for a drink,

you would have asked him

and he would have given you living water.”

– John 4:10

Day 22 – Who’s Calling?

The phone rings.  Thank goodness for Caller ID.  It tells me the caller is “Unavailable.” I roll my eyes. We get too many of these calls.

It used to be that no one had a choice; we all had no idea who was on the other end of the line when we picked up a ringing phone.  But today, technology is demystifying almost everything. Even the political calls I got earlier this month were each labeled, “Political Call.”

“So,” I want to ask this caller, “why should I listen to you – someone who won’t identify himself?”

I would only ask hypothetically, of course, because the truth is, I’m not going to pick up this call, or any other “Unavailable” or “Political Call” coming my way. I mean, why does anyone want to talk to someone who won’t reveal what he’s about and what he wants? That sounds kind of dangerous, doesn’t it?

About 10 years ago, this is how I thought of God, and frankly, I was ok with that.  I believed in a benevolent being and knew a few Bible stories, but the idea of pursuing a relationship with God sounded freakish and threatening.  And there was a lot I just couldn’t square – like how the God of the Old Testament had anything to do with the God of the New.  The heart of the issue was this – keeping Him at a distance seemed safer than asking questions that would give me more information about Him, because if I dared ask, I might find something that turned me upside down.

Like what, you ask?

– Like answers that cleared up confusion I had about His story

– Like a new way of understanding my own past

– Like people in Scripture I can relate to (who would have thought?)

– Like peace and wholeness I could not explain

But I eventually, tentatively entered into the conversation because He had been nudging me for a very long while – piquing my curiosity through my interests in literature, art, and places I’d visited around the world. He’d also made my path cross with certain people, sparked conversations that left me wondering, and whispered truths to me that my soul recognized instantly.

Now I understand. He just wanted me to come home.  He cares for me and protects me, and always has, even when I didn’t acknowledge Him. And now I’m so, so thankful that I finally accepted His call.

Day 20 – Thunderbird Pizza

Day 20 – Thunderbird Pizza
Photo credit: Thomas Schweighofer, www.unsplash.com
Photo credit: Thomas Schweighofer, www.unsplash.com

If you’re from Philadelphia you have your favorite place to go for a cheesesteak (which you probably just call a ‘steak’), and you know whether that’s a ‘whiz’ place or not; you also have a favorite place for hoagies; and you have a favorite place for pizza. These places may or may not be one and the same. Philadelphians are VERY particular about these foods, and VERY loyal to their neighborhoods. There is no “best place to get a cheesesteak” in the city. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t lived there.

I went to high school in the western Philly suburbs, in a town called Broomall to be precise, and my family’s one-and-only for all three of these staple weekend foods was Thunderbird. If we weren’t squeezing into one of the tiny booths in this very basic building, we were having Thunderbird delivered – and I knew all the delivery guys.  Each one was either a friend, or a friend of a friend. To a kid who grew up moving around a lot, and then having moved to Broomall in 10th grade, it was exciting to open my front door and know the person carrying my dinner. I think that’s what made me smile so much when I saw the Facebook post. That and the memories of celebrations that involved Thunderbird food – lighthearted moments – like eating the 6-foot long hoagie with my cheerleading squad over my dining room table after we won the regional championships.

High school is a difficult time for many people and for lots of different reasons. I was no exception. My parents had divorced and remarried, and although I think I held it together on the surface, I was churning inside – learning to navigate relationships and deal with pain that would take years of searching and prayer to heal from and understand. But it wasn’t all bad – not nearly so.  I was blessed with very good friends, and was accepted in the community enough to feel some sense of ownership in it.  I was very proud of the service my dad gave to our country as a military officer, but it meant that until that point I had never lived in one place longer than a couple years, so I had never been “from” anywhere.  Feeling linked to the town through the high school and friends who worked at Thunderbird made it feel more like a permanent home.

I’ve heard it said that, more and more, people feel worse about themselves after they look at Facebook. So, reflecting on my own happy reaction to this post about my favorite pizza joint, I offer this: I can use Facebook as a spiritual barometer. It can tell me how the weather is in my soul. If I look at a post and feel uneasy, jealous, resentful, angry, haughty, proud, or greedy, I know that there’s trouble brewing with me.  If, on the other hand, I read posts and feel genuinely joyful for others’ success and loving toward them, and my demeanor remains happy, peaceful, tolerant, kind, gentle, good, and rooted in faith and self-control, I’m on the right track and will not leave Facebook feeling worse than when I got on it. And given how far I’ve come in the nearly 25 years since high school, that’s certainly where I want to be today.

 

Me in my "Thunderbird" (i.e. high school) years.
Me in my “Thunderbird” (i.e. high school) years.