Jan Hemby, Author

Comfort Zone

I just completed a procedure this past week that is a rite of passage for those of us who have reached a certain age. It was actually my second such procedure. Without getting too graphic, let’s just say it’s the one that gives you a chance to catch up on your reading. The instructions tell you to “not travel after you drink the preparatory solution.” Now, I don’t know about you, but drinking 64 ounces of what tastes like ground up chalk flavored with cough syrup doesn’t exactly make me want to jump up and drive to the mall. Quite the opposite, it made me nervous to be any farther than twenty feet from the bathroom. This concoction is designed to create that familiar urge that is unsettling, even when you have a facility nearby that is equipped with all of the necessities.

As I approach this weekend after having experienced a thorough “inner cleansing,” I will be visiting with my daughter and her husband before they move next week. It will be a busy time for them as they try to squeeze in last minute visits with friends and family. I’m looking forward to seeing them and, of course, to grand-dog sitting while they’re out and about.

I remember when my daughter first told me that they would be relocating. It seemed like a long time away, or at least far enough into the future that I could push it aside. After all, it wasn’t like they were moving overseas. But going from a 100 mile drive to a five hour plane ride was going to be an adjustment. I think I was in a type of “Mom Denial” that it was happening. Now that it’s here, I can no longer put off dealing with it.

We all tend to procrastinate when it’s something we don’t want to face. I was actually a few months late scheduling that unpleasant - but necessary - procedure I referenced in the first paragraph. I was dreading the temporary side effects, even though I understood the long-term health benefits. There always seems to be a list of things we know are good for us in the long run, but we don’t want to deal with the short-term pain that might be involved in tackling them.

Believe it or not, for quite some time the book I have coming out this month fell into that category. I knew that God had given me a powerful story, but I had already had my writing rejected by several publishers. I didn’t want to go through all of the hard work - and putting myself back out there - just to be rejected again. But then I realized that perhaps the comfort zone that I was so desperately trying to stay in was keeping me from experiencing new life and opportunity that might exist just outside of it.

From the time our parents made us transition from that nice, warm, infant formula to those questionable green beans in a jar, we have been moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. It’s how we grow. But our tendency is to want to stay with what’s familiar, even if it no longer provides us with what we really need.

When Jesus called his disciples, He knew it would involve them moving out of their comfort zones. In Matthew 4:18-22 we read the account of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew. It says that they left their nets and followed Jesus. I’m sure that, as professional fishermen, they also had a boat and other equipment. But only the nets are mentioned. I think that is interesting, as nets are like comfort zones in that they can entangle and entrap. Jesus was asking them to leave what was familiar and what could potentially keep them from their destiny. They were skilled at spreading their nets to catch fish. Jesus wanted them to spread the gospel to rescue souls. When they took that step, they became what he had called them to be: fishers of men.

I would love for my daughter to continue living close by. However, I know God has plans for her and her family that require her moving beyond the North Carolina state line. And I’m glad I risked putting my book out there one last time. It debuts on Amazon January 26th. It’s called The Gates Manor Band and contains a message of encouragement that there is so much more that God wants to do in us and through us. To experience it, we have to leave our comfort zones. For many of us, it’s time to make that move.

And if my procedure this past week taught me one thing, it’s that “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go!
 

Snow Globe

This past week there were brief snow showers in areas of North Carolina that typically don’t see that much snowfall. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what happens in the South when this sort of thing takes place, allow me to give you a crash course in Southern Winter Weather Preparedness 101.

Winter precipitation is something we Southerners get really excited - or at least really worked up - about. All it takes is the mere mention of the “s” word in a weather forecast, and there is a rush on grocery stores much like that on the banks at the start of the Great Depression. Staple items such as bread, milk and eggs begin flying off the shelves. At closing time, many of these stores resemble ancient Egypt just after the plague of locusts passed through.

Now, it is important to understand that we are not talking about forecasts predicting several feet or even several inches of snow. Just the threat of a dusting sends us Southerners into a frenzy.

Over the years, experts have tried to arrive at possible explanations for this irrational behavior. One theory is that, since we Southerners have less experience than our northern neighbors at dealing with the frozen stuff, we overcompensate. Another theory suggests that, similar to a dog circling his bed several times before lying down, this behavior has been passed down from our ancestors, and we really don’t know why we still do it.

Either way, winter weather is a big deal in the south. I’ve always loved to watch it snow and cross my fingers whenever there is the possibility of it in the forecast. I’ve also always been fond of snow globes. Even though we now have the fancy, battery-operated variety, I’m partial to the old-fashioned kind. I remember as a little girl enjoying the simple pleasure of shaking a snow globe and watching the snow gently fall on the picturesque winter scene contained therein.

I was thinking the other day about how life is a lot like a snow globe. Just when you think things have settled into a routine, something happens that shakes everything up again. For instance, last March my older daughter got married and moved an hour farther away. I had just grown accustomed to the extra time tacked on to my drive to visit her when I found out she and her husband will be moving out west for six months for his military training. Following this move, they will relocate even further west for his next assignment. For a mom who cried for two weeks after her firstborn went off to college thirty minutes from home, it feels like she is moving to Mars.

In addition, my younger daughter decided on graduate school recently and will actually be finishing her undergraduate studies a semester early. Her dad and I were glad about this, until she broke the news that this new career track will also involve more international traveling. I had just (barely) recovered from her last trip abroad and the subsequent pictures of her white water rafting and repelling down a steep waterfall in the middle of the rain forest. Now I can look forward to even more of these Maalox moments!

Most of us, at one time or another, have wished that life could be like the scene in a snow globe when everything is calm and settled. We long for that safe, Christmas card-type image instead of the Weather Channel blizzard photos that life can also resemble. I think that part of this longing is because we want the challenges we face to be manageable. We don’t want to feel overwhelmed or out of control. But life’s trials don’t usually present themselves in the form of flurries, but rather as storms.

There are two accounts in the Bible of Jesus and his disciples dealing with storms. They are referenced in Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-31. The first is the familiar passage of Jesus being asleep in the boat when a storm arises. His disciples wake him up, and he calms the storm. The next account - again familiar – is when Jesus walks across the wind-swept waves and calls Peter out of the boat to join him.

In both cases, Jesus responded when he was asked to help. In the first, he stood in the middle of the boat and told the storm to leave. In the second, he stood in the middle of the water and told Peter to come. Scott Krippayne penned it beautifully:

"Sometimes He calms the storm
With a whispered 'peace be still'
He can settle any sea
But it doesn't mean He will
Sometimes He holds us close
And lets the wind and waves go wild
Sometimes He calms the storm
And other times He calms His child"

We may not always understand why God takes away some trials and requires us to persevere through others. But we can trust that He knows when the snow globe needs to be stilled and when it needs to be shaken. And with Him in the picture, there is beauty in both.

Where I live in North Carolina, we haven’t experienced any winter precipitation so far this season. Perhaps the only snow I see will be in my snow globe. It’s not quite the same, but it will save me a trip to the grocery store!

Leap Year

Christmas in North Carolina this year felt more like spring break on the bayou. Instead of coming inside to warm our hands by the fire, we came inside to cool off from the heat and humidity. In fact, as I was taking a walk around the neighborhood a few days ago, I came up with this version of a classic favorite:

Raindrops on roses
that shouldn't be blooming
Santa is sweating
And thunderstorms looming
Brown UPS trucks
delivering bling
The calendar says it's Christmas
but it feels just like spring!
Cream-colored lattes that taste better cold now
We're pulling out lawn chairs
to rinise and unfold now
While others wear mittens
we're applying sunscreen
The calendar says it's Christmas
but it feels just like spring!
When the kite flies
When the bee stings
You might think it's May
But here in the good old Tarheel State
We're just approaching
Christmas Day!

Whether your Christmas was white or, like us North Carolinians, that white Christmas was experienced only in your dreams, soon we’ll be getting ready for that final celebration of the year: New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s Eve is sort of like the last course in the whole Christmas holiday meal. The main dish - and all the preparation that goes with it – is Christmas. New Year’s is like coffee and dessert. It's the time where we can relax with friends and family and watch football, host a party, or whatever it is we do to celebrate. But the underlying reason for the celebrating is universal. New Year’s provides us with something we all want (and need) from time to time: a chance to start over. It’s an opportunity to evaluate our lives and see where change is needed. And we have a fresh, New Year to take steps to implement those changes.

As we approach this particular New Year’s, I want to challenge us to not just take steps, but to leap.

2016 is a Leap Year. And with this in mind, I think we should approach it a little differently. Instead of making resolutions in an attempt to correct past errors, how about we instead focus on goals that cause us to move – or even leap - outside of our comfort zones?

It's interesting that I have a book coming out in a leap year. If you had told me a year ago that I would be just weeks away from a book launch, I wouldn’t have believed you. At that time, getting my book published was just a dream. Now I’m in the final stages of writing the acknowledgments and deciding if I want the cover finish to be glossy or matte. This time last year I had received a couple of rejection letters and wasn’t excited about putting my writing – or myself – out there again. But then I realized that the book publication wasn’t about me at all. It was about getting the message of God’s love to people who desperately needed it. And that was something that would be worth twenty rejection letters – or more – if that’s what it took.

We’ve all heard Bible stories about people who accomplished great things for God. We often think of them as super-humans, but they were just ordinary people like you and me. What set them apart was that they were willing to step out of their comfort zones and obey God. After they did their part, they believed God to do only what He could do. Noah built a boat, but God brought the rain. Moses threw down the staff, but God turned it into a serpent.

Obeying God’s calling on our lives is always going to require us to believe for things that are just beyond our reach and just outside of our human ability to make them happen. The Bible calls that faith. Paul defines faith in Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There is a song lyric by Nichole Nordeman that says it so well:

"What if you're wrong?
What if there's more?
What if there's hope you never dreamed of hoping for?
What if you jump
And just close your eyes?
What if the arms that catch you
Catch you by surprise?"

Maybe that’s why it’s called a “Leap of Faith”. Happy 2016!

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

As the holiday season approaches, we’re all visited by childhood memories of Christmas past. I’m thankful that mine are those of candlelight church services, home-cooked meals, and time with family.  My parents didn’t have the means to gratify every sugar plum vision that danced in our heads, but Christmas around our house was special all the same. Christmas and birthdays were the two occasions my parents designated for gift-giving.  Bonus rounds were Easter, where a candy-laden basket awaited us on Sunday morning; and Tooth Fairy visits, where net gains averaged around 25 cents per tooth.

One of my favorite Christmas memories was that of my dad arriving home with the family Christmas tree. We rarely purchased a tree, but made use of the few acres of farm land that my grandmother owned out in the country.  Armed with a shovel, bucket, and a bundle of twine, my dad would dig up a tree - usually a cedar - and bring it home.  We would cover the bucket with tin foil, decorate the tree, and my dad would plant it after the holidays.  (He was eco-friendly decades before it was cool!)

I’ll never forget the Christmas he pulled into the driveway with what we dubbed the “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.” My siblings and I were self-proclaimed experts at determining if the evergreen houseguest he brought home each year was ornament-worthy. One look at this scrawny arrangement of branches in a bucket, and our verdict was a unanimous, “No!”

But for some reason – a reason we wouldn’t understand until years later – my dad liked this tree and insisted that we keep it. After Christmas when our street was lined with discarded trees shedding needles and stray pieces of silver tinsel, he planted it. The humiliation we had experienced in the privacy of our home had moved outside to the front yard.  As children with a sense of Christmas tree pride – and a cousin next door who was a bit competitive about such things – this public shame was almost more than we could bear.

Our fragile egos recovered, however, and the next year my dad redeemed himself and brought us home a proper tree. We almost forgot about the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. And then something akin to a Christmas miracle happened.  That little cedar began to grow and take shape. A few years later, it had matured into a towering masterpiece that would rival any tree displayed in a store, much less in our cousin’s living room. My dad adorned it with hundreds of lights and lit it every Christmas in the years that followed - 40 to be exact. People from all over town came to see it. Finally, the Christmas after my mom died, my then 89 year-old dad decided it was time to pull the plug on the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

For those of us who grew up watching the Charlie Brown television specials, we’re well-acquainted with the title character who was consistently the underdog. He never got to kick the football, and on Halloween he was the crestfallen trick-or-treater who went home with a bag full of rocks. At Christmas he continued his legacy of never-getting-it-right. When given the task of selecting a Christmas tree for the school play, he browsed through an impressive inventory of aluminum trees only to choose a small, spindly one that was ridiculed by his classmates.

My dad always had a place in his heart for the underdog.  If he was watching sports on television and didn’t have a favorite team, he would pull for the team that was losing.  His compassion for those less fortunate was never more evident than around the holidays. Each year he set out gifts by the roadside for the garbage collectors.  One Christmas he had us to gather the toys we weren’t playing with anymore, and he took them to a needy family.  So when he, like Charlie Brown, was drawn to a little tree that would have been passed over by everyone else, we weren’t all that surprised.

An Old Testament story that contains a hidden Christmas message is the account of Samuel the prophet anointing David as king. In I Samuel 16, God told Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons was to be the next king of Israel. Saul, the current king, had failed as the leader of God’s people. Though he was a head taller than everyone else, his heart wasn’t right before God. David, on the other hand, was the runt of the litter whose job was to watch his father’s sheep. Jesse had his older sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel declared that that none of them had been chosen. He had to ask Jesse if he had any other sons. Jesse was so sure that God wouldn’t choose the youngest and the smallest, that he didn’t even have David there for the lineup!

When David was presented, God spoke to Samuel and said, “He’s the one.”

God saw something in David that no one else could see. He saw his potential, and more importantly, he saw that David’s heart was completely surrendered to Him.

At Christmas, if we only recognize Christ’s coming without celebrating the manner in which he came, we miss something important. Jesus didn’t arrive in strength and stature like David’s older brothers, but in weakness and humility as a child.  If we had seen him as a Christmas tree in the forest, perhaps we would have passed him by. Maybe that’s why many of His own people did. They were expecting a warrior intent on defeating their enemies. Instead, they got a king intent on winning their hearts.  

When life’s disappointments leave us feeling misunderstood, overlooked, and left out, Christmas brings us good news. God sees our value, even if others don’t seem to. The casual observer would have missed it that first Christmas.  It would have been easy to take in the sights and sounds of that cold, dirty stable and conclude that Jesus was just an unfortunate baby whose parents couldn’t provide better accommodations. Those who came to worship him saw past all of that and saw something more: they saw God’s chosen one, the King of Israel.

The Charlie Brown Christmas tree still stands in the front yard where my dad planted it all those years ago. Someone else owns the property now, so one day it may not be there anymore. But the lesson that it taught us will live on in our hearts forever.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Christmas is all about. 

Leftovers

Even though I’m a Cleanie, I’m a sucker for keepsakes. If you walked into my house, you would never know that the same woman who doesn’t like clutter - and has a bottle of Windex in each bathroom - also has an attic bulging with memorabilia. With my daughters grown now, I felt it was time to let them take possession of the dance recital costumes, baby blankets, and other remembrances I had saved for them. The impending challenge was obvious: what should we keep, and what should we throw away?

Before I began what I anticipated would be a marathon of box-sorting in the attic, I decided to do a warm up lap in the kitchen. I knew there were dishes and trays that I wanted my daughters to have. This would be easy; or so I thought. I began by looking through some stoneware that I had received as a wedding present years ago. I climbed onto the counter to reach a shelf that I rarely use to see what other serving accessories might be stored there. That’s when I made a gruesome discovery.

Let me pause here and say that, for Cleanies, there are certain standards that we try to maintain. While my oven may be a disaster, I do try to keep my pantry cleaned out and generally don’t let food expire in the refrigerator. That’s why when I found a leftover cake from Christmas 2014 in my cabinet, I was horrified.

This cake was covered, but as soon as I saw the plastic grocery store container, I recognized it. The bakery at Wal- Mart featured this particular cake last year around the holidays. It was designed to look like a circle of snow-capped Christmas trees. Well, let’s just say that the seasons changed during the twelve months that this cake spent in my cupboard. Evidently springtime followed winter as those snowcaps had been replaced by a plateful of lush, evergreen mold.

I immediately grabbed my phone and took pictures of this penicillin pastry. I sent it to friends who laughed but also probably made a mental note to never eat dessert at my house again.

Finding this cake was a lesson for me regarding the difference between keepsakes and leftovers. Keepsakes represent memories that you want to preserve. Leftovers represent something that you know you can’t keep but aren’t ready to let go of yet.

I wonder how many of us have leftover anger, unforgiveness, or bitterness. We know we shouldn’t hang on to it, but we aren’t quite ready to release it either. What we don’t realize is that negative emotions take up space in our hearts and produce all sorts of toxins. We may think we’re “managing it” when God wants us to get rid of it. If we took an honest inventory of our heart, is there a chance we would uncover an attitude comparable to that of a moldy old Christmas cake?

Psalm 119: 11 offers a solution. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” If we have God’s word taking up space in our hearts, we won’t have room for other things that can hide there. It’s impossible for light and darkness to co-exist. And, more importantly, as we allow God’s word to transform us into His image, we’ll develop His love towards the very people who have hurt or offended us. Unforgiveness imprisons, but God’s love empowers. Again, we have a choice: Which do we keep, and which do we throw away?

In addition to finding a year-old cake in my kitchen, I made another interesting discovery that day. Even though the cake was covered in mold, the marshmallows scattered around it for garnishing were perfectly intact. I still have no idea how that cake landed on my cabinet shelf. However, I do know one thing for sure. Marshmallows may not be a nutritious source of food, but they make great, long-lasting keepsakes.

 

This blog is in loving memory of my Uncle Bill. My prayers go out to his wife, children, and all of the family and friends who will miss him dearly.

Finish Line


I’ll always remember when my older daughter participated in her first elementary school Field Day. Her teacher had signed her up for the marble spoon race. She awoke early that spring morning ready to take on the world, or at least the other kindergarteners who were competing for those coveted blue ribbons. When her event began, I had my camera strategically positioned to capture the Kodak moment of her victoriously crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, she only got a few steps down the field when that marble rolled off her spoon and landed in the dirt. I can still see the swish of her blonde ponytail as she whirled around to look at me. Her expression was one of disbelief and heartbreak. Needless to say, the next year we took on the marble spoon race as if it were an international Olympic competition. And somewhere in our attic is her second place ribbon. The following year, she won first place.

With sporting events, there’s always a finish line or a goal. And it’s different with every sport. With football, it’s running the ball into the end zone. Basketball courts have the two opposing hoops. With soccer, it’s kicking the ball past the goalie and into the net. But all of these sports have one thing in common: a clock.

Time is a tricky thing. When you’re young, it seems to crawl; especially when you’re waiting for your birthday or Christmas to arrive. As you get older, Father Time begins to move along at a much faster clip. Each year when the holidays arrive, I feel like I just put my decorations away from last year.

I found out yesterday that a dear uncle of mine had died. He was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy with a calm, quiet strength. He was a devoted family man and an honest hard worker who was always willing to help someone in need.

With his passing, I was reminded that life has a finish line. The only difference is that, unlike sporting events, we don’t get to see the clock ticking down. When a running back knows that there are only seconds on the clock, he is going to make sure that he makes the most of the time to score a touchdown. In life, we don’t have that luxury.

But that’s a good thing.

There is a familiar passage in John chapter 14 that is often read at funerals. Jesus said, “In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus was referring to a Jewish wedding custom of the day. After a young man received a “yes” from his prospective bride, he would go away for a period of time to build a house for them. When everything was ready, he would come back for her. Not knowing when her groom would be returning, the bride couldn’t afford to get lazy or distracted. She had to be ready at all times.

This is a beautiful depiction of how the Gospel is a love story. Jesus refers to the Church as His bride. And not knowing when He will be returning means we need to keep our love for Him fresh and our hope alive. It’s designed to keep us from getting lazy or distracted. We need to be ready at all times.

My daughter’s blue ribbon has probably faded by now. It was only a marble spoon race, but it was an early life lesson on how to finish strong. My uncle crossed his finish line last night. He entered heaven not because of an attic full of blue ribbons based on his own merit, but because he had said yes to Jesus. He will receive an eternal inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade. It’s based on the ultimate victory that Jesus won on our behalf on the cross. And one day I will see him again.

Final score: Jesus - 1 Death - 0

 

 

From The Dust

 

I like order. I’ve been both commended and criticized for being such a Cleanie. However, one thing that doesn’t bother me is dust. This is evident if you look at the inch or so of it collecting on my furniture. I’ll dust if I’m having company, but otherwise it’s something that I rarely think about. And while I’m on the topic, another thing I don’t do very often is clean my oven. The only time I undertake that messy chore is if we’re moving. My philosophy is that the inside of my oven is something my guests will never see. I’ve yet to have someone come into my home and head straight for the oven for an inspection. For me, a fresh sheet of aluminum foil does the trick until there’s a for sale sign in the front yard.

My children are polar opposites in their attitude towards household chores. By the time she was eight years old, my older daughter was making her bed every morning and picking up her clothes. When my younger daughter came along, I naively assumed that she would follow in her older sister’s tidy footsteps. But I soon learned just how different two children from the same womb can be. I tried everything in an effort to mold her into a second generation Cleanie. Nothing worked. Even the Barney Clean-up song, which converted many a messy youngster into a cheerful picker-upper, had little to no impact.

In light of my younger daughter’s propensity towards letting dirty laundry ferment under her bed, over the years I found myself cleaning up for her. This was for my own benefit as I would rather look at a straightened room rather than one that resembled a breeding ground for biological warfare.

As parents, it’s often easier to do things for our children rather than letting them learn by doing it on their own. It never ceases to amaze me how God delegated the responsibility of spreading the eternal message of His love to beings created from dust. Genesis chapter 2 teaches that, after God spoke the rest of creation into existence, he formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed life into Him. It’s interesting to note that Jesus used dust twice during his earthly ministry. The first time is recorded in John chapter 8. This is the account of Jesus writing in the dirt when the Pharisees were accusing a woman of adultery. It’s the familiar passage of “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he offered the woman forgiveness. The second time was recorded in John chapter 9 when he spit in the dirt to make mud to heal a man’s blindness.

I think a valuable lesson from both the Old and New Testament accounts is that dust was just dust until it came into contact with the creator. It’s that breath of life, that touch from the Savior that can take us beyond our human abilities. It’s what enables us to love the unloving and forgive the undeserving. It’s what empowers us to believe for the impossible. And, most importantly, it’s what transforms us from a handful of earth to the Hands of heaven.

This past week I moved my living room furniture around in preparation for the holidays. I discovered a lot of dust that needed vacuuming. I actually remembered the Barney clean-up song and tried to keep a good attitude. I guess cleaning the oven should be next on my list….

 

 

First Thanksgiving

Even though I’m certain I tripped over a plastic candy cane while buying sunscreen back in August, the stores are now officially teeming with Christmas decorations. With the overlap in marketing, it is odd to see Santa, angels, and snowflakes just aisles away from scarecrows and the Grim Reaper. And unless you’re in a grocery store, one holiday that doesn’t seem to get equal representation is that holiday that, as my sister once pointed out, tends to be the speed bump between the two: Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I have fond memories of being in elementary school and learning about – and dressing up like - the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. It was like picking a team as to which costume you would wear. If I remember correctly, the girls favored the black and white construction paper Pilgrim attire, while the boys preferred the colorful feathers and fringed paper vests consistent with Indian-wear.

Another favorite childhood memory of mine was that of waking up to the smell of a slow-cooked turkey. My mom always put ours in the oven just before bedtime on Thanksgiving eve and let it cook all night. I’ll always remember the Thanksgiving many years later when I offered to cook the turkey. More of a canned cranberry sauce kind-of-a-girl, my extended family was taking a bit of a risk by entrusting me with the cooking and delivering of the main dish.

I woke up before daybreak that Thursday morning and put the turkey in the oven. I set my alarm for a few hours later anticipating that aroma similar to what I had experienced growing up. However, when I awoke, my olfactory senses told me that something was seriously wrong. I went downstairs to discover the turkey patiently waiting in the oven for me to do something important in the cooking process – press the start button on my new digital oven. All I had done was create an environment just warm enough to dish up an 8 pound batch of salmonella with wings.

My family partly blamed themselves for their naivety; so, like my par-cooked turkey, I didn’t get a lot of heat. My sister came through with the ham that year which we filled up on, along with extra helpings of stuffing and sweet potato casserole.

When I think about that very first Thanksgiving several hundred years ago, I’m reminded that it was a meal of gratitude following a year of immense suffering and loss. At some point, we all have a first Thanksgiving. It’s that first time that a parent or grandparent’s chair is empty at the holiday table. It’s the first Thanksgiving following a divorce or the death of a child. At a time set aside to give thanks for the abundance of what we have, we still can’t help but notice what’s missing or different.

A story that shows us God’s heart towards us during these times is the story of Lazarus in John chapter 11. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were friends of Jesus. When Lazarus died, it was the first account we have of Jesus weeping. Even though He knew that he would raise Lazarus back to life, He still cried when he saw the grieving family.

When our hearts are hurting, our Heavenly Father wants to remind us that He has a plan. His ways are not our ways and His timing may not always make sense. But no matter what is going on around us, we can trust in His faithfulness and unchanging love.

So whether we prefer the Pilgrim variety with the buckle, or a feathery Native American head dress, God’s love and faithfulness are something we can always hang our hat on. And that truly is a reason to give thanks

 

The Present

My dad was a little like Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” minus the long hair and DeLorean. He loved clocks. He had several antique clocks that he had collected over the years and one “rescue” that he saved from the trash heap at his parents’ estate.

But his pride and joy was a grandfather clock that stood in the den -and later in the dining room – until he passed away in 2013. It came as a kit in the mail from the Emperor Clock Company in June of 1975. A proj...ect that was supposed to take him and my mom a week or two consumed the better part of three months. Since my older siblings were no longer living at home, I was the one who ended up fetching tools, sweeping up wood chips, and otherwise shaking saw dust out of my hair for an entire summer that year.

One of the reasons this project took longer than the Emperor Clock Company had projected was because my dad was a perfectionist when it came to carpentry and any type of craftsmanship; hence the long, mid-summer’s night hours of sanding and weekends spent going to the hardware store. But the end result was a glowing reflection of his dedication to detail. The clock was a masterpiece, and its quarter-hour chiming punctuated many a memory in the years that followed.

My dad’s obsession with time pieces was fitting as he was always conscious of time and, in particular, time gone by. His tendency to be reflective was a trait has been passed down to his children. Lately, I have caught myself looking back more and regaling my family with encore performances of “this time last year”. They are continually amazed that the same woman who can’t remember where she put her car keys can vividly recall events from a year ago!

But all of this was interrupted the other day when I was driving to work. I was thinking about how - indulge me just this once - this time last year we were busy preparing for my daughter and her fiancé’s engagement party. Now we're preparing for their move out west for six months for his military training. As I was reflecting, I felt the Holy Spirit prompt my heart to remind me that one day I’ll be looking back on right now. I don’t want to be so focused on yesterday’s memories that I miss the ones that are being made today. And today is really all that we have.

Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In His love and mercy, God gives us a chance to start over every 24 hours. Each morning when we wake up, it’s a new opportunity to live the adventure of serving Him. It’s a reminder to look forward and trust Him for what is ahead. And that truly is a reason to rejoice and be glad.

The grandfather clock that my mom and dad worked so tirelessly to construct now proudly stands in my living room. While it's part of my heritage representing the past, it's also a reminder that today - right now - is a gift.

Maybe that’s why it's called “the present.”

Seventh Inning Stretch


If you’re a baseball fan, then you’re familiar with the “Seventh Inning Stretch”. It’s that time when the announcer instructs everyone to stand up, stretch, and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to the organ music blaring over the public address system. Beginning October 27, this time-honored tradition will be recognized once again at major league baseball’s championship event of the year, The World Series.

Besides affording muscular and vascular bene...fits to those who actually may have been sitting down for seven innings, I wonder if the Seventh Inning Stretch has another purpose. The late baseball legend Yogi Berra coined a phrase that I think might provide the answer: “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”

Despite Yogi’s glaring lack of mathematical aptitude, I think his logic applies to the Seventh Inning Stretch. The physical part is the standing up which improves circulation, and helps you discover that there are several pieces of stale popcorn in your seat. Then there’s the mental component which is the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

If your team is winning, then your excitement and optimism overshadow the fact that the guy sitting behind you dripped hot dog chili down the back of your jacket. But if your team has no hits and no runs, you might be tempted to pack up your acute case of heartburn and go home. Then you’re asked to sing a song about going to a ballgame, and you’re reminded of the big picture.

Life’s struggles can be that way. Sometimes we get tired of waiting for our team to score. We grow weary of painful situations that never seem to get better. We don’t know if we can deal with that illness or broken relationship one more inning, much less into overtime.

The apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Just when we want to throw in the towel, God reminds us that it’s the bottom of the seventh, and therefore, our faith is being stretched. We have exhausted all of the start-up energy and have entered the phase where it takes something more. If we give up, we won’t benefit from the growth, maturity, and perseverance that these situations are designed to build in us. He encourages us to not lose heart.

If we quit when things get tough, we might miss out on a home run that’s right around the corner. After all, if it’s the bottom of the seventh that means there are still two innings left. And to quote Yogi Berra once again, “The game isn’t over until it’s over!

 

 

 

Beggar’s Blessing

We’ve all driven past the guy on the street corner holding up a cardboard sign. Sometimes we’re reluctant to give because, unfortunately, there are scam artists out there. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you don’t have any cash on hand in the first place. In fact, let me pause here and issue a public service announcement of sorts: To anyone who would ever consider mugging me, I seldom carry around more than $2.75 in spare change. And if you’re thinking about taking my credit cards, think again. They’re usually maxed out, so that’s not going to help you either. In short, robbing me would be an unprofitable - and frustrating - venture at best.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to share something that happened to me recently. I was running errands, and my last stop was Wal Mart. Since it was a Saturday, and I enjoy neither long lines nor the sound of crying children, I decided that the toilet paper we had at home could last another day or so.

As I was driving past the shopping area, I noticed a man standing out in the rain with a cardboard sign that read “At Least Smile”. My mind immediately went to the words of another man in a similar situation who was interviewed by a local paper a few months ago. He recounted having been spit on, cursed at, and simply humiliated for asking for help. Something about this man’s sign tugged at my heart. His message was simple: If you can’t help me, that’s okay. Just don’t make this harder than it already is.

After discovering that I had only 45 cents and an old piece of gum in my car console, I went to the ATM to get some cash. When I came back, I could see that this man was genuinely someone in need: he was thin, his face was weathered, and he had lost most of his teeth. I offered a warm “God bless you” with my gift to which he replied in all sincerity, “Thank you so much. God bless you.”

As I drove off, I wondered what he would do with the money. Perhaps he would use it towards a warm meal or a warm jacket. Perhaps not. Perhaps he had a home somewhere in the area. Or perhaps his refuge was the inside of a bottle. I hope not, but I know that’s a possibility. But regardless of what I had just given him, he had given me a blessing. This man whose socio-economic station had landed him on a strip of earth between a stop sign and the Wal-Mart parking lot had offered me a blessing. Bankrupt financially but rich in kindness, he gave me the only thing he had in abundance: gratitude.

I hope that my small donation helps this man in some way. But I think I was the one who received the greater gift. I was blessed by a man who Jesus would have hung out with. I was blessed by a man who, more than money, wanted someone to smile at him and not further deprive him of his dignity.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus instructs us that when we feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, and visit those in prison, it’s as if we’re doing it unto Him. Hebrews 13:2 also reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

I’m not saying that this man was an angel, but wouldn’t it be true to the nature of Jesus to stand in the rain as a homeless man reminding us that everyone has value? He has always had a way of showing up in unexpected places. 

 

 

 

Talents


Most of us can look back and remember having a childhood dream. My dream was to become a singer. When I was in the fourth grade, I was convinced that my big opportunity had arrived.

Our church had just hired a new music director who had started a youth choir. Every kid in the church with vocal chords signed up. I secretly had a plan to get discovered. I attended every practice and helped out in any way that I could. During one particular practice around Christmastime, I sang “Silent Night” not so silently in hopes that this new director would notice me. She did notice me and asked me to stay afterwards to sing a solo for her. When I was singing with the group, I had blended in and sounded okay. But when I began singing alone, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I could barely be heard above the howling of every dog that was within earshot of the church that night.

We’ve all been given certain gifts and talents by God. I learned early in life that performing in a Broadway musical was simply not going to be in my future. Now I know that I’m a better writer than singer. Childhood dreams can linger, though, and we may still wish we had been given different abilities. There are some that just seem to be more glamorous than others. But it would be a tragedy if we went through life thinking we’ve been shortchanged and never fully develop the gifts that make us uniquely us.

Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) teaches us that it’s not as much what we’ve been given - whether it’s money or other resources – but how we steward it. The doctor who performed my dad’s heart surgery and the guy who rotates my tires have different skill sets. We need them both. My husband is a brilliant financial planner and investment broker. But we hide all of the power tools from him, particularly those with sharp edges. I enjoy projects around the house but couldn’t solve an algebra equation if my life depended on it.

Paul instructs us in Colossians 3:17 “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Doing what God created you to do, and having a thankful heart in the process, brings Him honor. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make a difference. God values each of us. Our contributions matter.

Whitney Houston will always be one of my favorite singers. I remember the first time I heard her sing the national anthem on the radio. Her voice was so flawless that I cried. I also remember a few years ago when my mother was sick. It was a difficult day for me, and I stopped by Starbucks for a cup of coffee. The people in front of me in the drive-through paid for my order. Again, I cried.

I’m not sure which of the two touched my heart more…

 

 

Heart Peel


While I don’t believe in evolution or reincarnation, my scaly feet do make me wonder if one of my ancestors had a fling with an Iguana. All kidding aside, I have the toughest feet of anyone you’ll ever meet. When I get a pedicure, the dead skin that is scraped off resembles a small snow drift. The salon where I get my pedicures done is mostly staffed by Vietnamese technicians. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but some types of communication are universal. The way they grimace when I walk through the door leads me to believe they’re not exactly happy to see me. Then there’s the huddle that follows where a coin toss appears to be taking place. But what tells me that I’m anything but their favorite customer is when the unfortunate employee, who gets stuck with what amounts to thirty minutes of chiseling concrete, repeatedly gestures towards my feet and grumbles.

Recently, a friend of mine introduced me to a product that she thought could help remove my picture from the dartboard in the nail salon break room. It’s a foot peel that can be administered at home. This product contains potent fruit acids that come in two plastic bags, one for each foot. You slip your feet into these plastic bags and let them soak for an hour. Afterwards, you wash off the solution and wait for the results which show up 4-5 days later.

After this period of time, most people experience an exfoliation that immediately exposes that baby soft skin underneath. However, for me the process was a bit more complicated. First of all, I knew those fruit acids had their work cut out for them. I wasn’t convinced they could completely soak through the bottoms of my feet which are similar in appearance and texture to an old leather wallet. But, much to my delight, my size six mediums began to peel right on schedule. But the peeling was so extensive it was more like an insect shedding its exoskeleton. For example, I pulled off one piece of skin so large that it maintained the exact shape of my left heel.

Later, as I was changing the vacuum cleaner bag which was full of foot debris, I realized something. We all have situations that come into our lives that serve to, shall we say, scrape off that top layer of dead skin from our hearts. We may be doing all the right things to keep our hearts healthy such as Bible study, time in prayer, and fellowship with other Christians. All of these disciplines are necessary and beneficial. But even these will have limited impact if our hearts aren’t tender and able to receive life-changing seeds.

When Jesus told the parable of the sower in Matthew chapter 13, one type of soil he referenced was the rocky soil. The seed planted in the rocky soil germinated, but the roots never penetrated. So, the plant withered as quickly as it had sprung to life. Even when we have the best Bible teachings at our disposal, if our hearts are crusty, then the life-giving instruction will only sit on the surface and produce minimal change. The word itself still contains truth and blessing, but we won’t experience the full effect that was intended.

Difficult situations are often allowed in our lives to cut through the dead traditions, complacency, and other wax build-ups that can form and make us dull. If we allow tough times to do their job, then we can be more receptive to all that God wants to in us and through us.

My new goal is to be able to wear a cute pair of sandals I found on sale that are a little too small. One more of those foot treatments should do the trick!

 

 

Lions and Tigers and Bears (And Spiders)

I really do love the season of autumn. (See previous blog) However, one part of this lovely time of year that I could do without is the noted increase in the spider population. (I really hate spiders – see five blogs prior!) And even though it’s still August, the spiders in my neighborhood are already making a comeback. This became evident to me early yesterday morning as I was taking a walk and spotted two geometrically perfect webs along my route. In the dead center of each was the resident eight-legged homeowner/ builder. While I managed to dodge both, my neighbor wasn’t quite so lucky. Before I could warn him, he was doing karate chops in the air as he plowed right into one.

On future walks this fall, I plan to shift my path from the sidewalk to the nearby grass beside the street where, hopefully, the spiders won’t have anything to which they can attach their webs. However, in the past I actually have witnessed webs that seem to be suspended in mid-air. I’m not sure how these trapeze artists of the arachnid world manage this. But the unfortunate conclusion is that, no matter what precautions you take, nowhere is completely safe.

As I began pondering this dilemma, it dawned on me as to why small insects and other tiny pests bother us so much. It obviously isn’t because they are bigger than us, or because we have no way to combat them. On the contrary, they are a mere fraction of our size, and all one needs is a good shoe, broom, or a can of Raid for a guaranteed victory.

I think what fundamentally bothers us is the fact that they ARE small and can creep in unnoticed. They can slip into your house without your ever knowing it. And while most aren’t dangerous, a few are deadly. Bigger intruders would be much easier to detect. Here is a story that I think will illustrate my point:

It’s a Saturday morning. You wake up to the smell of coffee brewing. Your thoughts automatically go to your spouse who, evidently, arose early to start perking a fresh pot. You then begin to hear the rattle of pots and pans. Now you’re really impressed. Not only did your sweet husband make the coffee, but these sounds indicate that he is also preparing breakfast for you. But as you get up, you notice that your better half is still unshaven and snoring in bed next to you. You carefully descend the stairs and enter the kitchen where you are shocked to discover a tiger sitting at the counter and sipping on a cup of your French roast.

Intent on evicting this unwanted guest, you first employ diplomatic methods. You open the back door and issue directives such as, “Shoo!” and “Go home!” To this, the tiger looks disinterested and proceeds to the refrigerator where he begins to take out ingredients to make an omelet. You search the cabinet for your tranquilizer gun which is conveniently located next to the bug spray for occasions such as this. You aim at the tiger and, in minutes, he is purring peacefully. You check online for that tiger service everyone in the neighborhood has been raving about. A few minutes after dialing 1-800-Tiger Out, the problem has been solved.

It’s important to point out that, later that same evening, you won’t be lying in bed wondering if the tiger had cubs under your sheets. Or, if a tiger web will land on your face while you sleep. In short, there is no way the tiger can “slip back” into your house. And, in the rare event that it did, it would be easy to detect.

Similar to the odds of finding a tiger in your kitchen, the chances are slim to none that anyone reading this blog will ever rob a bank or steal a car. But chances are good that we all will gossip in some form, harbor unforgiveness, or withhold love and mercy. These offenses won’t land us in jail, but they certainly can cause us a few sleepless nights.

Jesus was radical in his approach to such matters. Unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the law of his day, Jesus’ focus wasn’t as much on outward behavior, but on the attitudes of the heart. Like the spider that can construct a web in the dark and unseen places, hidden sins can grow unless we expose them to the light.

One way to prevent creepy things from forming in our hearts is to maintain regular fellowship with other believers. I John 1:7 instructs us that “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.” Fellowship positions us for accountability and to receive the light and life of Christ that is living in others. We become inspired to do the things that keep us healthy and strong, such a reading scripture and spending time in prayer. And when sin is exposed, the precious blood of Christ provides cleansing and deliverance.

As I was re-reading my story, I realized that the tiger must have made the coffee. Perhaps I should have let him go for the omelet. I wonder if he is free for lunch?

 

 

 

 

Changing Seasons

I love the idea (emphasis on “idea”) of summer. I envision romantic nights with gentle, warm breezes blowing through the trees. Flowers are at their height of bloom, and the morning work commute is punctuated by the sound of sprinklers watering green, well-kept lawns. Children have more daylight hours to play outside and dot the neighborhood with lemonade stands.

All of this may be true where you live. But where I live, it is miserably hot and humid. I actually think I heard my begonias gasping for air yesterday. The weather channel tells outright lies about rain just to give us hope. I wake up each day to my phone app showing a cloud with a lightening bolt descending, indicating an encouraging forecast of thunderstorms. But, by 10 o’clock, the cloud has been replaced with a bright, yellow sunshine that looks like it’s laughing at me. I realize that it isn’t, but here again, it’s probably just the heat.

Fall, on the other hand, delivers the goods. It doesn’t just tease us with the possibility of changing leaves and football Saturdays. It comes through on its promises of cooler temperatures and colorful landscapes. Less humidity makes for crisp mornings that are a welcome relief following summer’s brutal assault on our sweat glands.

But whether you favor the the crack of a baseball bat hitting a pop fly over second, or the music of a marching band at kickoff, we all have our favorite seasons. Ecclesiastes chapter 3 teaches us that life also has seasons. This familiar passage begins with, “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The list is extensive but includes the following: A time to be born and a time to die. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.

It's only natural to look forward to the times of celebrating, laughing, and dancing. But, as this passage instructs, life delivers a variety of experiences, such as seasons of difficulty and suffering. It would be great if we could skip over these. But, unfortunately, they are required courses. And some produce pain that, at times, can seem almost unbearable. It could be a situation we’re going through personally, or one that's affecting someone close to us. But, either way, we’ve all witnessed trials that could pack a powerful punch.

So, how do we endure summer’s oppressive heat of financial distress, or wake up to another day of feeling snowed-in with loneliness following the loss of a loved one?

Verse 11 of this passage provides the answer. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

Difficult seasons are always served up with a side of purpose. This purpose is to develop strength and perseverance in our lives. These times teach us to have faith when we don’t have all of the answers yet. We learn how to stand on the unchanging truth of God’s word that assures us of His presence and ultimate victory in our lives. There is no situation too complicated and no mountain too big. For with our God, nothing is impossible.

And, most importantly, our Heavenly Father uses our trials to conform us into the image of His Son. And that truly is a beautiful thing.

Now, for those of you who are collegic sports fans, I don’t need to remind you that football season is just around the corner. Hopefully it won’t be a time of losing and weeping for your team!

 

 

 

 

Moving Day

My husband and I have moved a total of eleven times during our thirty years of marriage. A few of these were to different houses within the same town, but a move all the same. We moved our older daughter seven times during her college career. My younger daughter just completed move number three. So, as a family unit, we have achieved twenty-one moves collectively. And now that my older daughter has married into the military, we anticipate this number to increase exponentially.

Moving is exhausting, grueling work. However, I do remember hearing in a bedtime story as a child that there are companies who will actually do all of this back-breaking labor for you. These fairy-godmothers of the moving world will both pack up your possessions and then deposit the loaded boxes into a large, climate-controlled van. We’ve never had this luxury, so moving day for our family continues to be defined by late-night trips to the drug store to pick up yet another tube of Icy-Hot.

I caught a glimpse of a bumper sticker in traffic once that I thought summed it up quite eloquently. It was on a truck that looked like it had helped many a mattress and box springs find their new home. The bumper sticker simply read, “Yes, this is my truck. No, I will not help you move.”

My daughter and I returned from the mountain town of Boone, North Carolina last night having relocated her apartment furniture into a storage unit. With this project only involving one bedroom set, a desk, and some kitchen accessories, we thought we could handle it on our own. After all, how hard could it be?

However, upon our return we looked like we had just stepped off the set of “Gladiator.” While we were calculating our ability to accomplish this feat without additional manpower, we neglected to factor in that her apartment in Boone is eye level with low-flying aircraft. Had I planned better, I would have brought along oxygen for the endless flights of stairs we had to navigate in order to transport her belongings.

But for me, the worst part of moving isn’t the just the lifting and carrying of items that require a follow-up appointment with a chiropractor. It’s the scary sights you discover while cleaning afterwards. Without a coroner, it would be impossible to determine the time of death of the granola bar that is found where your child’s dresser once stood. Or, how about the dust bunnies so large that you suspect metabolic steroids were involved?

We all know that we wouldn’t have to be afraid of what’s lurking behind the washing machine if we would slide it out periodically and do a little investigating. Sometimes we hit a situation in life where everything is moved around and the accumulated dust and dirt overwhelm us. If we would take the time to pray and ask God to show us where maintenance is needed on a daily basis, these issues could be dealt with on a much smaller scale.

Psalm 119:105 reads, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And Psalm 19:8 teaches us, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.”

God’s word brings illumination to our paths and exposes the cobwebbed-corners of our hearts. His truth will uncover anything hidden. And with it, He brings cleansing, forgiveness, and joy as we apply it to our lives.

Regarding the dust bunnies, up in the mountains they resemble dust bears. Parents of students at Appalachian State - proceed with caution this fall! 

 

 

 

Outward Appearances
(Christmas in July)

From the time they were toddlers until my older daughter left for college, my two children had their picture taken each year for the family Christmas card. In the early days, I used a professional photographer. But as the years (and technology) progressed, I was able to take the picture myself and have the cards printed at a local department store.

I’m sure that when our friends and loved ones received our greeting in the mail with my two cherubs smiling in their holiday attire, they were filled with the Christmas spirit. Perhaps they were taken back to when they themselves were children and were joyfully anticipating the magic of the season. In movie reel fashion, they envisioned my putting the finishing touches on my little ones’ dresses as we listened to Christmas carols. Occasionally we would pause to hang yet another shining ornament on the tree. The fragrance of apple cider simmering on the stove filled the room, as a gentle snow fell outside. The scene would be made complete by the family dog nostalgically napping by the fireplace.

What really happened:

The day starts off with a weather report predicting unseasonably warm temperatures. Before they are fully awake, my children are already whining about having to get their picture taken. In a moment of weakness and desperation, I resort to bribing them with a trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s if they promise to sit still for the camera. Breakfast is punctuated by my younger daughter crying as she throws her food at the dog from her high chair. The rest of it she puts in her hair. I frantically throw her into the bathtub while my older daughter begins to dress herself, forgetting to wash her hands after breakfast. I sprint into her room with my younger daughter wrapped up in a towel and tucked under my arm like a football. In the nick of time, I rescue the white, starched blouse from further defilement imposed by grape jelly fingers. The next phase of the morning constitutes department-of-social-services-worthy screaming as I try to brush and, God forbid, curl their hair. We are finally on our way out the door when we hear the unmistakable sound of the dog throwing up on the living room carpet.

We all want our lives to resemble that Christmas card picture we send out each year. We regularly strive to make it look like we have it all together. We sanitize the bathrooms before the in-laws visit and brush our teeth for twenty minutes prior to each dentist appointment. And while none of us would want to greet our hygienist with a chicken leg wedged between our molars, reality is that we don’t dust every day and sometimes go to bed without flossing.


The good news is that, when it comes to inviting Jesus in, we don’t have to clean up first or wait until everything is neat and tidy. The Bible teaches us that Jesus stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. He’s fully aware of the piles of dirty laundry and unswept floors that wait on the other side. In fact, he wouldn’t knock if he didn’t know that we needed him to come in and remodel. He understands that we are incapable of doing it on our own. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says, “Come unto me all you that are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” His offer is for us to hang up our broom and dustpan in exchange for his gift of forgiveness and salvation. Then we are promised that our sins will become as white as that Christmas snow that we all dream about.

Even if it’s still July.

 

 

 

It’s the Little Things

We all have little things that we don’t like. They are things that, in the big scheme of things, don’t really matter. But they bother us none the less. Here is a quick list of my top five:

1) Spiders ...
I could list spiders more than once. I really, really hate spiders. They just look diabolical. And they have too many legs. Nobody needs that many legs. I’m glad they contribute to society by eating insects. But beyond that, they are the stuff of horror movies and nightmares.

2) Fitted Sheets
I have gotten into more than one tussle with a fitted sheet as I was attempting to fold it and put it away. And they routinely pucker on the ends of the bed. If you’re not a detailed person, you wouldn’t even notice. But they drive me crazy.

3) That unidentified watery substance that squirts out of the mustard/ketchup container on the first squeeze
No comment necessary here. It’s just gross.

4) Lanes that end for no apparent reason
You’re driving down the road and then, all of a sudden, you run out of lane. What happened to my lane? And, more importantly, WHY?

5) Dishwasher Scum
That mysterious algae-looking film that occasionally forms on your dishes after they have been “washed” in the dishwasher.

We all have little things that bother us or get on our nerves. Your children’s dirty clothes that seem to have a magnetic attraction to the floor but repel landing in the hamper. The time-tested genetic predisposition in men to leave the toilet seat up. The way your hair will fall perfectly into place on a day when you’re planning a trip to Wal Mart followed by hours of yard work. But on the night of your high school reunion, you can’t get it right to save your life.

I believe God uses little irritants as powerful teachers. When I’m ready to sentence that annoying fitted sheet to a life of hard-time as a drop cloth, I can remember that I have a nice bed to sleep in. When dirty clothes litter the floor, I can be thankful that these are signs of life from children with whom I’ve been greatly blessed. When the mustard container graces my ham sandwich with a substance resembling amniotic fluid, I am reminded that I have a refrigerator full of food.

In I Thessalonians 5:18 Paul instructs us to “Give thanks in all things. For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Cultivating a thankful heart enables us to see the goodness of God in all situations. It’s the little things that are with us daily that serve as a practice range for us to trust God and develop a posture of gratitude. And when we encounter the big trials, we are conditioned to run with perseverance and peace.

Regarding spiders, I am thankful that I can go to Wal Mart with my great-looking hair and purchase a large can of Raid.

 

Replacements

My mother could make anything grow. She had house plants that she nurtured for years. If I had a memorial for every houseplant that I have killed, the compilation would rival Arlington Cemetery. I’m convinced that the houseplants at Home Depot breathe a collective sigh of relief when I reply to the store clerk that I’m “just looking.” They instinctively know that being placed in my shopping cart constitutes an automatic death sentence. Ever the optimist, I rema...ined resolute in my pursuit of a green thumb for many years. But I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I am much better at replacing plants than growing them.

Some things in life are fun to replace. For those of us who like to decorate, replacing those dingy throw pillows on the sofa is relatively inexpensive and often improves both your room and your mood. Furniture replacement is even more fun. How memorable was the day when you finally replaced that old, broken recliner – the one that required assistance from the fire department to retrieve your Aunt Edna - with a new one that came with a cup holder.
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And then there are the things that aren’t so much fun to replace. Utility items such as hot water heaters and toilets fall into this category. And then there are the dreaded high-ticket items that we all hate to deal with. The pain of these is mostly felt when you write the roofer a check that you’re certain could feed a small third world country.

Replacing simply means exchanging one for the other. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul instructs us, “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won't be doing what your sinful nature craves.” He is encouraging us to replace our bad habits with new ones that honor Christ. It’s impossible to travel east and west at the same time. If we’re seeking to please God and love others, it’s difficult to be ungrateful and unforgiving. And the result is that our lives, like a fresh coat of paint to match those new sofa pillows, will bring a touch of His beauty to our surroundings.

By the way, I’m missing a fern that was last seen at the bus station. If you happen

to see it, please make sure it finds a good home.

  

Under Qualified

I have a bad habit of starting projects for which I am under qualified. Over the years, this tendency has necessitated numerous visits to Urgent Care and/or the Emergency Room where I have had fingers sewn up and x-rays taken of most of my appendages. But it would only take one tantalizing window treatment to make me forget the pain of dropping a dresser on my foot and be inspired to hop back in the project saddle once again.

My proudest achievement was when I refinished our back staircase. This began with the removal of several thousand staples that evidently are required to hold eight feet of carpet in place. By the time I was done, I looked like I had been attacked by a large cat. The next step was the sanding and staining, which I also did myself. While the end result looked good enough, the drawback was how long it took me. A carpenter could have done the job in two days. It took me every bit of three weeks.

When I had recovered from that project, I decided to tackle the front staircase. This staircase is larger and, well, is in the front of the house. So it definitely had to look like a professional had done the job. I had begun the process when my older daughter came to my work site. She took note of the pile of (sharp) tools on the floor beside me and, more importantly, the look in my eye that was unrealistically optimistic. Her response was, “I really don’t have time to take you to the emergency room today.”

I knew she meant business. So I only went as far as removing the existing carpet. Afterwards I called my neighbor who is a general contractor. He did the carpentry work and then had one of his painters complete the sanding and staining. It was amazing how great it looked, and we didn’t even have to be concerned if our medical deductible had been met.

How often do we attempt to do God’s job? I think it goes without saying how under qualified we are, and yet how often do we still try? This is evidenced by our worrying, fretting, and having our emotions look as though they’ve been hit by a round of carpet staples. As hard as it can be to release certain situations to our Heavenly Father, it’s even harder to deal with the fallout from trying to fix them on our own. We usually make a mess of it before we allow Him to come and do things His way and in His timing. I Peter 5:7 instructs us to “Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you.” When situations are bigger than we are, we have a God that can handle it. We just need to let Him do it.

My family has been aware of my biting-off-more-than-I-can-chew propensity for years. In fact, when my father passed away, my siblings lovingly suggested that I take his old wheelchair home with me. At the rate I was going, they figured I had three more projects tops before I would sustain an injury that would impair my mobility. But by that time, I had learned my limitations.

And besides, there was no way I could maneuver a wheelchair on that back set of stairs. And as hard as I had worked, I was determined to walk up and down them for as long as possible.
 

Distances

I am the original “Hover Mother.”

There are moms who are reasonable and remain calm when they are unsure of their children’s whereabouts. If their teens are a little late getting home from the ballgame, or if they forget to turn on their cell phones after school, these moms don’t jump to conclusions. They assume that their youngsters just lost track of time, or that there is some other logical explanation.

I am NOT one of those moms. If my kids were ten minutes past their curfew, I had the FBI canvassing the neighborhood. In addition, I have the single largest collection of my children’s friends’ cell phone numbers of any mom that I know. At my daughter’s rehearsal dinner in March, I asked for a show of hands from her friends of those I had called in an attempt to get in touch with my daughter. The room was immediately transformed to look like we were auctioning off a date with Channing Tatum.

As moms, from the time that second line shows up on a pregnancy test, we are connected to our kids. Or, if your children are adopted, it’s that first time you see a picture or hold that little one in your arms. And, by design, as our kids grow, they get further away from us. They go from sleeping in the bassinette next to our bed, to spending the night at Grandma’s house, to going to school, college, and eventually marrying and starting their own families.

When my first daughter went off to school, she was only thirty minutes away. There are some who contend that this doesn’t really count as “going off to school.” But she did complete a study abroad in Italy which definitely challenged my hovering tendencies. A few short years later, my younger daughter chose a college located four hours away. During that transition, if you opened your window on a quiet night, you could probably hear my faith being stretched. Much like labor, it was that ongoing process of releasing my child out into the world.

I thought that the worst was behind me. But God wasn’t finished (with me) yet.

Recently, my younger daughter informed her dad and me that she has elected to do a study abroad next year. When she first brought this to our attention, I smiled, thinking, Okay, I’ve got this. I checked my invisible mom uniform and put a little spit shine on that “Study Abroad Survival” badge. But then I made the mistake of asking her where this study would take place. To which she replied….New Zealand.

My first response was, “So, they no longer offer a study abroad on the MOON?”

You don’t have to have a graduate degree in geography to know that New Zealand is literally as far away as you can get and still be on planet Earth. She went on to present her case of why she wanted to travel to this land that is the last stop before assistance from NASA is required.

I felt like I was in a bad dream where I was falling and couldn’t catch myself. I started thinking of all the things that could go wrong: a plane crash where the only rescue technology available was provided by a remote tribe of Aborigines. Or a rare bug bite that causes her to lose an ear. Or, God forbid what if the commode water really does flush in the other direction, and she gets sucked into some weird vortex?

And then the Holy Spirit began to remind me of a very important truth. Psalm 139:7-10 encourages us, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me; your right hand will hold me fast.”

While I can’t always physically be there for my children, I can release them to their Heavenly Father who can be everywhere they are. And He loves them even more than I do. If I truly believe they are under his protection, then hovering really isn’t necessary.

Now, there is the small matter of returning this private jet I found on E-bay… 

 

Name Change

Years ago there was an old television show that would begin with the disclaimer, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The producers of this series could have included the names of these victims for my viewing, and they would have been perfectly safe. I hold the equivalent of an Olympic Gold Medal for both forgetting names and butchering their pronunciations. You can tell me your name, and five minutes later... I’ll sheepishly ask you to repeat it. Or, if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll cross my fingers and call you what I think you just said. In either case, I routinely get it wrong. And that’s if we’re family. For strangers, it can take months or even years before your name and face permanently connect in my brain.

My knack for forgetting names is genetic. My father was the Grand Poobah of name misplacement. Not only did he call the guy I was dating at one time “Tom” (his name was Bob), but he would call me by my aunt’s name, my sister’s name and my mother’s name before arriving at my name. At times it was reminiscent of a reading of an Old Testament genealogy account.

In scripture, names and their meanings are important, which is why we have those seemingly endless lists of who begat whom. Personally, I have always felt bad for the Old Testament kids whose names represented a less-than-favorable state of the union. Ichabod (pronounced Ick-a-bod) stands out most to me in that category. It means “the glory has departed.” I’m sure middle school was tough enough back in ancient Israel without being the young man saddled with the name “Ichabod.”

Name changes were also significant. A name change would take place when someone’s destiny was about to be transformed. God changed Abram’s and Sarai’s names to include the letter ‘H’ which, in Hebrew, represents God’s Spirit. (We know them better as Abraham and Sarah.) This signified that, going forward, their destinies wouldn’t be limited to what they could do in their own human abilities. God had just been inserted into the equation and, with Him, all things are possible.

Abraham was referred to the “the friend of God”. If you have ever identified yourself as a loser, a misfit, a failure, or any of the above, I have good news for you. God wants to give you a new name. Jesus loved you so much that he took your sins upon himself. And he rose from the dead so that you could have newness of life. When you accept this gift, your destiny will change. And so will your name. God wants to call you “friend.”

I am continuing to work on my name recollection skills. If we are ever introduced, I will probably have to ask you to repeat your name. If I keep getting it wrong, feel free to just say your name is “Friend.” I’ll know exactly who you are.
 

Bye-Bye Red Bird

With my daughter two weeks away from returning home from college for the summer, I decided to use her empty upstairs bedroom to do some writing. Her window overlooks the front yard where I had a view of our oak tree budding back to life. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something red. I put my laptop aside to take in the beauty of a cardinal that had chosen a branch on our oak tree as a perch. I don’t know if he found our tree particularly accommodating, or perhaps he was checking out a female nearby. But, for some reason, he lingered. I promptly texted my niece. I knew that she would understand how this bird had not only captured my attention, but my heart.

At the age of 90, my dad had a signature red cardigan sweater. It had been a Christmas gift from years earlier. He literally wore it until it had holes (large ones) around the elbows. In fact my niece, who lives in Georgia, commented that it was hard to picture Grandpa not wearing that red sweater. It encapsulated her favorite memories of him. Eventually my sister made the inevitable decision to “take it to her house to wash it” from which, of course, it never returned.

My dad was my hero. He was both a World War II veteran and probably the kindest, most selfless person I have ever known. He lingered at my mom’s side for the ten-year duration of her brave battle with Alzheimer’s. While grieving her loss following 62 years of marriage, he lingered another two years after her passing. He lingered after two heart attacks, defying the odds and coming home from the hospital and living yet another two weeks. In his final moments, he was still determined to linger for as long as he could.

This bird, in his feathery red vest made me think of my dad. It wasn’t just in his taste for scarlet accessories, but in the way that he lingered.

My dad’s lingering was an outward demonstration of an inward decision to not give up. He never gave up on the possibility of my mom getting better. He never gave up on his own health. In short, throwing in the towel was never an option for him.

The storms of life come to all of us. My dad was able to remain steadfast through his trials because he had an anchor for his soul. His hope ultimately was not in the temporal of this life but in that which he knew to be eternal and unchanging.

The writer of the hymn penned it beautifully:

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus name.”

My dad went to his heavenly home two years ago on a November morning. In similar fashion, this cardinal, after lingering for another moment, flew away. It was a reminder to me of how short our time here on earth really is. Compared to eternity, it is much like this bird’s brief perch on the branch of our oak tree.

Now, for those of you curious about the fate of that red sweater…we secretly saved it (holes and all), and I found it while sorting through my dad’s belongings. It migrated south to Atlanta last winter where my niece opened it - as a gift - on

Christmas morning.

 

 

Keeping It Clean

My husband loves pillaging the refrigerator. I think he views it as a sacred mission to keep it as clean as possible. To the casual observer, this may seem innocent enough and even ecologically responsible. However, living with Mr. “No-Leftover-Left Behind” has its downside.

For example, he has been known to confiscate an entire slab of lunchmeat, meant to be portioned out for school lunches over a week, and pack it with the food he’s taking to work. Some y...ears ago it escalated to the point where our children resorted to labeling their food. The Skull and Crossbones symbol was the common indicator of which items were off-limits to their dad. In extreme cases, the food went into a type of Witness Protection Program, where we would store the fruit salad designated for the sports awards banquet in a container disguised to look like outdated hamburger.

While my husband’s behavior has incited some, shall we say, “lively” conversations around our house, the alternative would be worse. There is nothing more stomach-turning than to uncover a bowl of broccoli and cauliflower that expired during the Reagan administration. Or the disappointment felt when the last container of yogurt has turned into a block of provolone.

It is equally important that we maintain a vigilant watch on our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 instructs us to “Guard your heart above all else, for everything you do flows from it.” We should keep our hearts free of toxic inventory such as unforgiveness and bitterness. We don’t want people to open the doors to our lives and experience the likeness of bad potato salad. Paul also encourages us in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “Now thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place.”

When people begin to see what’s inside of us, let’s make sure it’s life-giving. The knowledge of Christ is both aromatic and satisfying, sort of like that last piece of Mom’s pumpkin pie.

Just make sure you grab it before my husband gets home