Returning to Joy

Walking the nature trails, I wander across a large meadow, at least ¼ mile long and just as wide. Everywhere I look across this open countryside, I see dead, dry, native grasses. Deciduous trees dot the landscape. Winter weather has shorn them of their green garments, and their barren branches stretch nakedly toward the wintry sky. A slight breeze blows, rustling the dried grasses. The scenery is dull and bare.

My soul feels as dry and barren as this meadow. The enemy has frosted the joy from my heart and I hear the rustling of negativity and loss of hope.

But then I think about the creator of the meadow, the grass, and the trees. I notice the graceful lines of the barren tree branches and the lovely contrast of those dark brown limbs against the pale blue sky. I look toward the light and watch the seed heads on the dried grasses shining in the winter’s low sun. In my heart I praise God for the stark beauty of this field. Without a whimper, the enemy slinks away. He’s no match for my creator.

Once again, joy blooms in my soul.

PRAYER: Thank you, Father, for opening my eyes to the beauty of your creation and restoring my joy in you.

Dropping the Stones

She was caught in the act of adultery and dragged into the temple courts.

Head down, hands trembling, she avoided the eyes of the angry men surrounding her.

They couldn’t wait to pass judgment on her.

Their faces turned hard as the stones they longed to throw. After all, that was God’s law.

But the man who wrote on the ground, the pure man, the innocent one, the creator, savior, shepherd of men. He spoke to the crowd.

“Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”

Angry muttering ceased.

Hearts of stone softened.

Angry fists opened.

Stones thudded to the ground.

One by one, with empty hands, the men turned away.

No stones were thrown that day.

So why do I harden my heart?

Why do I look for stones to throw?

Why do I feel the weight of these stones in my hands and on my heart?

I, too, am a sinner.

I am not the sinless man drawing on the ground.

Creator, shepherd, savior, teach me to open my heart and my hands. Teach me to drop the stones of judgment. Teach me to accept your grace and to offer it to sinners like me.

Hear the Crying

Imagine if you will, Christmas day more than 2000 yars ago in the town of Bethlehem.  Jesus is born.  Do you feel the crisp morning air?  Do you smell the animals and the hay?  Listen.  Do you hear the newborn crying?  Can you see Mary, seated on the floor of the stable, holding her tiny son?  Can you see her rock back and forth to comfort her babe?

Thirty years later, behold a dry and barren land.  The voice of John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness. “Make straight the way for the Lord,” he calls to any who will listen.  Now that the crying baby is grown, his cousin John cries for the repentance of his people.

Three years later the mother of Jesus cries.  She weeps at the foot of a rugged Roman cross.  High above is the broken body of her baby boy.  The once tiny babe is grown, and men have nailed him on a cross.  She cries for her son as he suffers and dies.

In just a few days, everything changes. Now those bitter tears, those agonizing cries have turned to miraculous cries of joy.  The son who was crucified on a cross is no longer in the tomb.  He is alive!

As you contemplate these cries, think about your preparations for Christmas.  Did you spend many exhausting hours shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, and baking?  Did you cry in anger, frustration, or fatigue? 

Through your tears, remember, the babe who cried in the manger is the Lord who died on the cross.  He is the same Lord who was resurrected and is alive.  He is the same Lord who washes away our sins so that we, too, may become blameless and live forever in heaven. 

Once again, we hear crying, the crying of our hearts.  We cry, remembering our sins.  We cry in repentance, preparing our hearts for His coming in our lives.  We cry in grief, remembering His sacrifice.  We cry in joy, recognizing His resurrected life in us and anticipating eternity with Him.  We cry tears of delight, for we realize that even though all the preparations are not yet finished, we are, finally, ready for Christmas.

May we never overlook the reason for the celebration.  In all the busyness and scurrying, let us take time to reflect on the miracle of our Lord’s birth. Let us cry tears of repentance and gratefulness, remembering our greatest Christmas gift.  We have worked so hard to prepare for Christmas. May we work just as hard to prepare for His birth and life in our hearts.  May this precious life within us cry out joyfully for all to hear.           

Psalm 34:15 “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry.”

Is There Room at the Inn?

For several weeks I’ve busily prepared for the holidays. The house is decked out in Christmas finery: the tree is lit, garlands cover the stairway and windows, and angels and nativities adorn the tabletops.  Holiday meals are cooked, and the pantry is stocked. Treats wait for children and grandchildren to indulge. Gifts, wrapped in red, blue, and green, sit under the tree. After all the work, I’m finally ready for Christmas! Once my loved ones arrive the celebrating will begin!

While I’ve worked, I’ve wondered what preparations Mary made. Like all pregnant women, she must have made special plans for the birth of her little one. Since Joseph was a skilled carpenter, Mary surely asked him to make a cradle for her soon-to-be-born infant. She must have arranged for her mother and at least one other woman to assist with the birth.

I wonder how the trip to Bethlehem impacted her plans. Did it make her fret and worry? Did she cry, thinking she might have her child while on the trip? Or did she calmly prepare, packing swaddling clothes and trusting God to provide?

In spite of her preparations, Mary surely wasn’t ready when she started labor in a town far from home. Did she cry for her mother? Was she frightened when they could not find a room? In a quiet corner of a little village, in the company of stable animals, Mary gave birth. Surely this birth didn’t happen the way she had planned. But the birth of the son of the living God as a tiny, helpless infant happened precisely as God planned.

I suppose the real question isn’t how Mary prepared for the birth of her son.  The question is this: as I make my preparations to celebrate the savior’s birth, have I left room for him in the inn of my heart?  Perhaps I need a little more time to truly prepare for Christmas. What about you? Are you prepared?

Ephesians 3:16, 17a “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

December Waiting

December Waiting

December is a month filled with contrasts.

Days are shorter. Nights longer.

Clouds fill the sky and darken the sun.

Winter’s wind breathes frost on the grass and trees.

Once again, we don gloves, scarves, and warm winter coats.

But under the darkness, under the cold, lie promises.

Promises of longer, warmer days. Of flowers dancing in the breeze.

The promise of a Messiah. A child, born in a manger.

A man who would change history forever.

Our God, filled with sacrificial love for all mankind.

And so, we hang up lights. We decorate the house and trim the tree.

We wrap gifts. We anticipate.

We wait. We wait to celebrate our Savior’s birth.

Just as Mary waited for His birth, we wait, anticipating, hopeful.

But are we missing the true blessings?

Do we wait to welcome Him in our hearts and homes?

Do we wait to celebrate Him all year long?

While waiting for the remembrance of His birth,

While waiting to celebrate the babe in the manger,

Do we feel the glow of His light, shining in the darkest corners of our hearts?

Do we sense His presence, chipping away all our rough edges?

May we reflect His image to a world that waits.

To a world that desperately needs a Savior.

First Kiss

Frost has kissed the forest.  Dead leaves flutter from the trees, making Autumn’s golden snowfall litter the stream. My feet crunch through the leafy debris as the trees lift barren branches skyward.

It’s silent here. No cars roar. No people chatter. High in the treetops the wind blows, roaring past leafless branches. All around me seems dead, lifeless. Yet, the forest lives. I hear rustling in the leaves; small animals run from this human invading their territory. I stop at the stream, listening to the water rushing over the rocks. It soothes my soul. I imagine the roots of the brown grass and the barren trees delving deep into the soil. Even though the plants appear dead, their roots draw nourishment from the soil.

So it is with my soul. Sometimes it feels brown and lifeless. I struggle from an unresponsive spirit and lack of enthusiasm. I go to a still place. As the wind rushes through the trees, God’s voice rushes through my soul, giving me peace. I listen. I learn. I allow the roots of my soul to draw up spiritual nourishment. I rejoice, waiting for the green blush of spring to sprout in my soul.

Thank you Father, for the many ways you renew my soul.

“Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5b NIV)

Flowing Over Obstacles

Flowing Over Obstacles

The stream meanders, making its way through fallen leaves, gray, broken branches, and rich, fertile earth.  My feet crunch the dried leaves as I approach the stream. Bending and twisting, it flows around rocks and under the narrow walking bridge. Algae flourishes just beneath its green water.

I find a large, flat rock and sit to enjoy the stream’s beauty. From my vantage point, I can observe its meandering path. As it flows from one bend to another, the lazy waters move silently.

As I scan the length of the stream, I notice how the water changes when it hits an obstacle: a rock, a fallen tree limb, or a constricted pathway. The smooth flow changes. The water roils, bubbling up out of its bed, falling back again, foamy and white.

 The stream flows quietly until it hits those obstacles. Then the stream finds its voice: a musical, joyful gurgling sound. Where the path is free and easy, the water flows silently. It’s only when obstacles lie in its path that the water sings.

How often I find myself complaining instead of singing when difficulties snag my way.

Lord, when the way proves tough, give me a song to sing.

Isaiah 49:13 “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth, burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.”

Safe in His Arms

Today I venture off the usual broad path through the mowed natural grasslands. I wander onto the narrow, curving paths that transport me into a tree filled shadow land, cool and welcoming. I marvel at the quiet calm, broken only by the sound of my footsteps and intermittent bird calls. The shadows provide a welcome respite from the late afternoon sun.

As we trekked down a steep incline, Susan caught her foot on one of the tree roots and fell forward, screaming “James!” At the bottom of the incline, James calmly turned. Her toe stayed captured by the tree root, and her body stretched parallel to the ground, her foot at the top of the incline and her upper body shoulder high to James, who caught her from below. She escaped injury because James held her safely in his arms.

Over the years Scott and I have often laughed over this incident. Although Susan’s tripping could have injured her, all turned out well because of James; he safely caught her, preventing harm.

Continuing my woodland walk, I focus on the roots beneath my feet. The tree roots I see on my path represent only a small portion of the roots filling the ground below me. Throughout this woodland the roots grow underground, only occasionally surfacing along my path, only occasionally visible to my eyes.

As I travel through these twisting woodland paths, I carefully watch where I place my feet, as tree roots crisscross my way. While absorbing the beauty around me I remain aware of the roots below, surfacing on the trail.

I remember another time, another path, other tree roots. It was prom night. My boyfriend (now my husband) and I went to prom with two other couples, both good friends. After prom we walked in the woods, enjoying the pre-dawn scenery and longing to watch the sunrise together. My friend Susan walked in front of me and her boyfriend James walked in front of her.

A passage of scripture runs through my mind, over and over: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). Just as the roots create a vast network in the ground below me, so my Father’s arms stretch beneath me, ready to catch me when I fall, ready to support me when I falter.

Even when I cannot see His arms, they provide comfort and strength. To feel that strength and comfort, I only need to call out His name. Just as my friend James caught Susan in his arms, so God will catch me. I may stumble, but He will catch me and protect me.

Recently, at my high school reunion, I learned that Susan had died earlier that year. Even though we had not kept in touch, I mourn the loss of a dear friend. But I am comforted by two images: James catching her on that walk in the woods and our heavenly Father catching her in his everlasting arms. Never again will she fall. Never again will she need to call out for help, for she rests in our Father’s arms.

Those everlasting arms long to hold us, too. As we navigate this treacherous life, He calls to us, “Come find joy in my presence, come rest in my everlasting arms. Come, rest in Me and know peace.”

A Deeper Look

Do you remember how the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking Him which was the greatest commandment in the law? You know, the one where He passed the test with this reply: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:37-39 NIV).

As I’ve been meditating on these verses, I realize Jesus spent much of His ministry showing us who our neighbors are and showing us and how to love them.

In Jesus’ time on earth, people believed illnesses occurred because of sin, either the person’s or his parents. Still, Jesus healed people from all kinds of maladies. Many were blind, crippled, deaf, or paralyzed. Some were even untouchable lepers. Yet He healed them; He had compassion for them all. Even though they were sick and unclean, Jesus loved His neighbors.

He taught about the good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help another who’d been robbed and beaten. Other Jewish men had chosen to ignore him and walk on the other side of the road, but the foreigner, the Samaritan, stopped to help. Even though the Jews hated him, the Samaritan loved his neighbor.

When with his disciples, Jesus walked through Samaria rather than skirting around it as others did, for they wanted nothing to do with the detested Samarian people. In Samaria, Jesus stopped to talk with the woman at the well, a Samaritan who had had five husbands and currently lived with a man she hadn’t married.

Jesus looked past a hated Samaritan living in sin and saw a woman who needed a Savior. Jesus loved His neighbor.

He talked Zacchaeus, a cheating, hated tax collector, out of that tree. He went into his home, ate with him, and talked with him. No respectful man would even have even thought of doing this, but Jesus loved the cheater.

Jesus even had a despised tax collector as one of his 12 apostles and Mary Magdalen, a former prostitute, as part of his larger group of followers.

The Pharisees criticized him for eating and drinking with sinners. They didn’t look below the surface, didn’t take a deeper look. They didn’t see individual people. They saw groups of people:  impure Samaritans, sin-filled diseased people, cheating tax collectors, and immoral women, nothing more.

But Jesus took a deeper look. He looked with holy eyes, deep into their souls. He saw unique individuals created in His Father’s image. He saw beloved neighbors, and He loved them, with words and deeds.

I have always viewed myself as caring and compassionate toward others. But when I look again at the scriptures, when I look again at His loving actions, I hang my head in shame.

Yes, there have been times I have stereotyped people rather than seeing individuals created and loved by God. I have seen and judged their sin, not the beloved neighbor. And I realize I’ve sinned.

I ask for forgiveness. I seek His wisdom so I can view others through Jesus’ eyes. I long to learn how to love them.

What about you? Are you ready to take a deeper look?

After 9-11

Television reveals the horrors: smoking ruins, shattered lives, loved ones lost, distraught survivors. Voices drone: retaliation, anthrax, fears of hijacking and destruction. Bombs drop, troops search for terrorists. There are wars and rumors of wars.

Walking in the woods, all this recedes. Nature’s orchestra plays a peaceful melody, directed by an unseen hand. The wind plays the treetops—a loud crescendo diminishing to a still, quiet voice. The locusts’ song harmonizes, and the calling jays and cardinals trill an occasional solo. Periodically, a reminder of nearby civilization echoes above the symphony: the drone of an airplane, the muffled roar of nearby traffic, the distant bark of a dog, and laughter of children playing. I follow the path to a stream cutting a gully through the woodlands. A wooden bridge spans 15 to 20 feet from one bank to another. I sit on the bridge and gaze at the muddy water flowing eight feet below. A man and his two young sons walk across. The bridge vibrates as they walk, their footsteps hollow on its wooden planks: the only reminder that I am not alone.

The yellowing leaves fall, fluttering to their autumn repose. I watch one slowly descend until it lands in the brown water, creating rapidly expanding ripples. The leaf drifts in the lazy stream, turning this way and that, wondering where this new journey will lead. Watching from above, I spy danger ahead, but the leaf floats on, oblivious of its future, stopping occasionally to explore a sand bar or a branch snaking out of the brown waterway. Now, the leaf is caught in the eddying swirls of the narrow stream, spinning, lost and confused. “Hold on little leaf,” I want to say, “still waters lie ahead.”
So nature reminds me of the constant ebb and flow, the cycle of life. In autumn everything dies and winter lies ahead, stark and bare. Gray skies and bare landscapes shiver in the cold. Once, we were like the leaf, green and glorious in the top of the tree, part of a beautiful symphony of song. Now, our greenness lost, we are torn from the tree of our security and have fallen into unknown waters. We know not where the currents will take us. We know not what lies ahead—calm, peaceful waters, or dangerous currents and eddying whirlpools. From above, one can see the path of the current. So we must be borne along by the current of our times, knowing we are watched from above.
The leaf falls and winter comes, but spring always follows winter—the stark landscape replaced by the green blush of spring and the riot of bright flowers joyfully glad to be alive. Rest and be at peace as you travel on your journey, little leaf. Be secure in the knowledge that you are watched from above.

The voices of gloom and terror clamor all around us, but the voice of God speaks to us in nature, in the leaves falling silently in autumn and in new life bursting forth in the spring. Be not afraid. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NKJ). Let that still, small voice speak to your heart and give you peace.

Oh God, when troubles threaten to overwhelm me, help me remember you are always with me and will never forsake me.

Deuteronomy 31:6 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”