Seasons

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 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; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Nature’s Seasons

I once attended a presentation where the speaker began with, “Summer, fall, and winter are seasons – spring is a miracle.” I’ve thought about her comment every spring since. Early warm spells begin to nudge plants from their winter slumber in January here in the South. Witchhazel, Lenten roses, and paperbush start the floral parade that continues for multiple weeks as plants take turns in the spotlight. Trees, flowers, baby birds – all embody the joyful message of rebirth, which in turn stimulates hope and rejuvenation in us.

But spring gives way to summer, and tender ephemerals disappear for another year as heat-loving specimens flourish. Summer annuals and perennials bloom, then set and disperse their seeds before beginning their decline. Fall arrives. Crops are ripe for harvest, the fruit of spring planting and summer tending. Soon daylight hours decrease, as does the temperature, and autumnal leaves create a riotous display of color – one last hurrah before they let go and blanket the ground for the winter.

Ah, winter. Based on my observations, I’ve concluded it is the most misunderstood, under-appreciated season, at least from a gardening standpoint. Those unfamiliar with the ways of plants scan the leafless, apparently lifeless landscape and pronounce, “everything’s dead.” I used to think that too, but my horticulture studies dissuaded me from that notion. For instance, some seeds won’t germinate without scarification, some bulbs won’t bloom without adequate chill time, and many plants depend on the decreased daylight and increased darkness that accompany winter to flower at the appropriate time.

My newfound knowledge has given me a different perspective. Now when I contemplate winter vistas, I prefer to think the plants are resting while building reserves for the next season of fruitfulness.

Seasons of the Soul

Contemplating the bedraggled state of my summer annuals one early-September day reminded me of a book I’d been reading. Instead of equating the aging process with seasons as is often done, author Mark Buchanan explores what he’s deemed “cycles in our hearts.” In Spiritual Rhythm, Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul, he describes different periods in our lives in terms of the four seasons, each with its own set of challenges and blessings, each necessary if we’re to bear fruit.

The friends who gave me the book thought the analogy would resonate with me because of my love of gardening. And so it does. Year after year, I’ve observed and anticipated the changes, as one season follows another, each dependent on the ones that precede.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a constant state of springtime, emotionally and spiritually speaking – productive, energetic, surrounded by resurgent, hope-producing, joy-filled circumstances. But like the plants, God knows we need all the seasons to produce abundant fruit and to become more like Jesus.

We need to slow down and be still, to rest and draw near to God in all seasons, but we’re most likely to do so during the winters of our souls – times of loss and suffering. For it’s then we realize our utter reliance upon God, a dependence present every moment, but most evident when we come to the end of our supposed self-sufficiency.

My own winters have convinced me of the veracity of Elisabeth Elliot’s declaration, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” (1)

Yet, like the trees and flowers, I’ve emerged able to bear more fruit, because I know my Father and His ways more intimately (Romans 5:3-5). Signs of life return, as our winter gives way to another cycle of spring planting, summer tending, fall harvesting, a cycle that will continue in us and the natural world until our final winter. Our bodies will rest in the ground, waiting for reunion with our souls when we’re called Home, glorified, and welcomed into the joy of eternal spring (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).

Dear Lord, just as we savor the changing of the seasons in the natural world, please help us to embrace the seasons of our souls, knowing that You have a purpose and plan for each as the cycles of our lives continue until Jesus’ return.

(1) Elisabeth Elliot, “Suffering is Never for Nothing”, lecture series, 1989.

Exfoliation – Reprise

(You) were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,  to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:21b-24).

Throughout most of the years I worked for a large corporation, I held the role of colorist. As such, I developed, named, and presented new carpet color options to our customers. After all the time spent honing my skills at work, I eagerly embraced the opportunity to select the interior and exterior colors when we built our home in Georgia.

Ray’s specialty, horticulture, was an equally creative endeavor. I didn’t realize how I’d narrowed his flowering plant possibilities when I picked a terra cotta color scheme for the bricks and shutters, especially when it came to choosing the requisite southern plant on our list – a crape myrtle.

Nonetheless, being a skilled horticulturist, Ray made an excellent choice. Unlike other cultivars whose pink or purple flowers would have offended my color sensibilities as they clashed with our cinnamon-colored exterior, the creamy-white blossoms of the stately Natchez create a harmoniously floriferous cascade each summer. But the brilliance of Ray’s choice is most apparent in the fall. For it is then that the annual process of exfoliation occurs.

As summer wanes, cracks begin to appear in the bark along the mighty trunk, signaling the coming changes. Soon the cracks turn into fissures, and the old skin lifts away from the tree, before finally letting go completely, falling to the ground in long, jagged shards. To the uninitiated observer, this series of events may be unsettling. How could such a process possibly be beneficial for the plant? Yet that very act allows the trunk to increase its girth and grow stronger. Best of all, it reveals the most magnificent cinnamon-colored covering. Ray saw the potential in the sapling he planted so long ago. He knew what it could become.

There are several concepts that I consider to be spiritual touchstones. One such idea is that of putting off and putting on. In Jesus’ analogy of an unclean spirit leaving a man only to return to its neat but empty former abode, He made it clear it’s not enough to make a show of getting rid of sinful thoughts and behavior  (Matthew 12:43-45). Instead, our repentance must be true, the kind that produces fruit in keeping with our profession of faith, as we put on right-thinking and conduct pleasing to God.

The Apostle Paul affirms this teaching in his letter to the Romans.  He encourages his readers not to conform to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). And in his letter to the Ephesians, he goes even further. After urging them to put off the old self and to put on the new in the introductory passage above, Paul goes on to provide specific examples of behavior to put off as well as corresponding replacements:

  • Put away falsehood and speak the truth (v. 25).
  • Let the thief no longer steal but perform honest labor (v. 28).
  • Do not use unwholesome language, but that which benefits and builds up those who listen (v.29).
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, and every form of malice. Be kind to one another, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you (vv. 31-32).

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, God already sees His righteousness when He looks at us (2 Corinthians 5:21), but there is much refining left to be done. We are not yet holy as He is Holy, nor will our makeover be complete until He returns. Nonetheless, the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us with the same mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20).

At times our refinement is painful as the Helper strips away bits of our old nature. Our Savior suffered much. How better to know Him than to endure loss, sorrow, and persecution as He did (Romans 8:17)? Such challenges may cause outside observers or even believers themselves to question God’s methods, but we can trust the One who made us to have a good and perfect plan and to work all things together for good (Jeremiah 29:11; Romans 8:28).

Just as Ray knew what the crape myrtle could become, given sufficient time and proper care, God knows who He created us to be. Furthermore, He’s promised to complete the work He’s begun in us (Ephesians 1:6) and to never leave or forsake us at any point in the process (Deuteronomy 31:8). The Helper will be with us to empower us to do His will and to persevere to the end (John 14:16-17, 26).

O Lord, how I look forward to Your return! On that glorious day, our transformation will be complete and all vestiges of our former selves will be gone. We will gather around Your throne, our new selves robed in white, to forever praise You, our Redeemer King.

Soil Amendments

When we moved from Delaware to Georgia 28 years ago, we had the opportunity to start from the ground up. We chose our lot, chose a house plan, chose a builder. Though most of the construction communication occurred long-distance, business trips provided opportunities for me to stop by the construction site periodically during the months leading up to our relocation.

After years of working as a colorist and carpet stylist for a large corporation, I enthusiastically put my job experience into practice. I selected all the finishes for the house – from bricks to shingles, wall colors to carpet – and amassed a burgeoning file of paint chips and swatches. My late husband, Ray, was equally excited about using his horticulture training in designing our landscape. His task proved to be much more challenging than mine.

For starters, most of the top soil had been scraped away by bulldozers cruising back and forth grading the site.  Compacted Georgia clay – think terra cotta pottery – remained in its place. I watched as Ray struggled to dig holes in the hardened ground, thinking he might as well have been chipping away at the concrete driveway.

Next, there was the appalling, but then-legal practice of burying construction debris on the property. Among our stranger discoveries – the lid to a 5-gallon paint bucket and a caulking gun containing a half-empty caulk canister.

051And then there were rocks to deal with, some too big to dig up, others temporary yet annoying obstacles. The distinct clank of the shovel hitting their unyielding surfaces accompanied Ray’s efforts to install carefully-chosen plants.

053Born and raised in South Dakota farm country, Ray was accustomed to soil so rich it’s nearly black. When we lived in Delaware we would occasionally get a load of mushroom compost to top dress the yard – smelly, but effective when it came to adding nutrients to the soil. These experiences plus his horticulture degree informed Ray there would be no shortcut when it came to improving the hardpan he’d been left with. Thus he began the tedious process of amending the clay by tilling in top soil and compost.

But was it ever worth it!

Now, almost 30 years later, the soil is dark, easy to dig, and full of busy earthworms, a sure sign of health. When I cultivate those beds, my thoughts often drift to the early days when Ray was challenged by the conditions he’d been dealt. Nonetheless, he persevered, patiently applying the principles he knew would yield the longed-for results.

By now, I bet some of you are thinking about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Recounted in three of the four Gospels[1], Jesus described different kinds of soil and compared them to one’s ability to accept and sustain the seed of Gospel truth.

Certainly, there are parallels to the various soils within the saga I’ve described, however, I want to focus on the good soil that yielded a bountiful harvest. Though Jesus’ parable begins with sowing, other passages introduce the idea of preparing the heart to receive Truth (Ezekiel 36:26). After our stony hearts are replaced with hearts of flesh, the Master Gardener sends the Spirit to tend the now-receptive plot.

Though the heart exchange is a once-and-done event, the tending will continue until we’re called Home. With the Spirit’s help, we’re to amend our softened hearts with the Word, working it ever-deeper into our lives. Then our roots will have room to grow and we’ll be like the trees planted by streams of water described in Jeremiah 17:8 – unafraid of drought, consistently bearing fruit.

And there will no doubt be rocks and debris to be removed as we dig deeper into our souls, stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. Here too, we can depend on the Spirit to empower our efforts as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29)

When I went back to school to study horticulture, I gained a whole new appreciation for soil. Structure, drainage, nutrient-holding capacity – all are important in determining what kind of life it can sustain.

How about you? Are you amending the soil of your soul with the life-giving, life-sustaining Word of God?

 

[1] Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.

 

I love to tell the story – epilogue

I have a confession: I struggled to bring last week’s post to a satisfying end. I added words, moved sentences, and deleted phrases for several hours without making any meaningful progress. This, even though I’d worked diligently on the post across several previous days and had a clear mental outline of what I wanted to say. As bedtime loomed before me, I finally conceded and published the result of my efforts. Nonetheless, doubts lodged in my subconscious and accompanied my restless sleep. They continued to invade my thoughts the next day and the next, making me wonder if I should have published the piece at all.

I now realize I needed the experiences of the intervening week to be able to write the rest of the story and a more comprehensive conclusion.

A Look Back

Some 30 years ago, the Lord ordained a series of events in my life that forced me to deal with long-buried hurts I alluded to in “I love to tell the story”. After years of trying to keep the box of painful memories securely closed, I could no longer keep the lid on. The kind Physician came to heal the sick (Mark 2:16-18). Unwilling for us to remain stuck in a quagmire sin, guilt and wrong-thinking, He opens the wounds, gently cleans out the infection, and applies the balm of truth. My time had come.

In most cases, transformation is a long, often arduous, process. In fact, when I entered counseling, my therapist made it clear that it takes, on average, 5 years for new ways of thinking and responding to replace the old. That seemed like an eternity for determined, goal-oriented me. But she was right and eventually, bit by bit, a new normal settled in. (The grieving process is similar, but that’s a story for another time.)

As my sessions wrapped up months later, my counselor added a warning: “Although you’ve been very intentional about working on your issues and have made significant progress, you’ll always be vulnerable to the old beliefs, especially when stress and exhaustion deplete your emotional and physical reserves.”

The events of the past week left me in just such a state.

The Enemy

A line from a song by one of the early contemporary Christian groups plays in my head from time to time: “Satan is a liar and he wants us to believe we are paupers when he knows we are children of the King.” (Maybe one of you reading this can remind me who sang it!)

I hold fast to the admonition of the pastor who also counseled me during those early months of healing: “Rebuke the lies, no matter how many times you have to tell yourself, ‘That’s a lie!’”

And rebuke I did, over and over again, until I could recognize and embrace the truth more often than not. There are still times when what I’ve come to call my “old stuff” pops up and I recite, “That’s a lie!”

Even so, Satan doesn’t give up easily. He knows he can’t ultimately defeat us, but he delights in keeping us off-balance and making us ineffective (1 Peter 5:8). Since writing my last post, I’ve been distracted by many things, as the evil one stacked the kindling, stick by stick, preparing a target for his flaming arrows. His aim, perfected over millennia, hit the mark and soon I was surrounded by flames of self-doubt, choking on the smoke of his incendiary lies.

Nonetheless, the intensity of the attack opened my eyes to the source of the week’s trials, piled one on top of another, until I had no strength to fight. But He who is in me is infinitely stronger than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). I called on Him whose ear is ever-attentive to the cries of His children (Psalm 34:15). When the flames subsided and the smoke dissipated, I could see clearly that I was safe in the grasp of the One who’ll never let me go, just as I had been all along (John 10:28-29).

The Ultimate Victory

Our past informs our present. God is the Author of our stories. He redeems our brokenness and works even the hardest, most hurtful things together for our good and His glory albeit in ways we may not comprehend until we get to heaven.

I don’t know where you are on your journey, my friend. But whether you’re just learning to rebuke the lies or have been fighting to hold onto truth for years, victory is certain. Jesus will return to deal the final death blow to the ancient serpent and to make all things new (Revelation 12:7-10; Revelation 20:9-10; Revelation 21:1-7). We’ll know as we are known and, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Most Glorious One (1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18). No more lies. No more tears. No more battles.

IMG_1469Until then, may we avail ourselves daily of the comfort and protection God has provided, confident that we have nothing to fear because the Lord goes before us (Ephesians 6:10-18; Deuteronomy 1:30). His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). And His grace is sufficient to meet every need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Becoming fluent

The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.

Our 2-year stay abroad resulted from my dad accepting a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.

Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.

IMG_6898Just as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together. (Hebrews 10:24-25) Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given. (Romans 12:3-21)

In addition, we have a responsibility to tell the younger generations of the mighty deeds of the Lord and to instruct them in His ways. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Psalm 145:10-13) Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s directions to Titus are clear regarding the role older women are to play in tutoring the younger women, teaching them the finer points of Biblical womanhood through both word and action. (Titus 2:3-5)

I don’t remember how long it took, but one day, to my amazement, I realized I could speak and respond in Spanish without a conscious translation step. The second language had become second-nature.

And so it is with our spiritual transformation. Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, we’re no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we’ve become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6) Through the Spirit’s power at work within us, we’re able to discern what is right and true, something we could never do when we were dead in our trespasses. Furthermore, as our sanctification progresses, Christ’s light shines ever-brighter in us and we produce spiritual fruit. (Matthew 5:14-15; Galatians 5:22-23) More and more, our renewed nature becomes second-nature as we seek to please God and abide in Him. (John 15:5)

Nonetheless, aspects of our old selves will persist until God calls us Home, as Paul so eloquently describes in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 7:15-20) And so we press on to become fluent in God’s ways, by studying His Word, praying and joining with fellow believers to worship Him and stir one another to love and good works.

Even now, over four decades later and without daily use, I’m apt to spontaneously sprinkle Spanish sentences into conversations with my grandchildren. They’ve become used to these linguistic detours and know an immediate translation-repetition-translation mini-lesson is sure to follow. Yes, I can speak Spanish, though far from flawlessly – I still can’t roll my Rs and I mix up verb tenses – but I enjoy the language and sharing it with my grandchildren.

How much more I savor sharing our Savior with them. I’m far from perfect when it comes to fluency in my Christian walk as well. But I pray I’ll always be faithful to spontaneously sprinkle His ways and words into our conversations as I point them to the only perfect One who loves them even more than I do and encourage them to take their places in His family. May His nature become increasingly second-nature for us all.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

It’s all about Him

I had the privilege of attending the funeral of a dear saint who was suddenly called Home last week. The bold type on the front of the program proclaimed it would be a memorial and worship service in honor of her Lord and Savior.IMG_6739

Read that again. Let it sink in.

The focus wasn’t on the departed, though her faith, kindness and devotion to family and friends were certainly mentioned during the service. No, her family desired to give glory first and foremost to God, no doubt honoring the wishes of their loved one as well. They asked the pastor to preach the Gospel. And so he did, reminding each of us not only of our helpless estate apart from Christ, but also of our assurance of eternal life in God’s presence because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. (Romans 5) It was a message of hope in the midst of sorrow because it emphasized the sovereignty of our loving LORD.

I’ve been studying the book of Ruth in preparation to teach an upcoming Bible study. On the surface, Ruth certainly appears to be the main character. After all, the book’s named after her, right? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, and kinsman redeemer, Boaz, fill important supporting roles and the townspeople are there to provide occasional commentary.

But look again. God is the main character.

After losing her husband and both sons, Naomi acknowledges God was the one behind her bereavement, though she doesn’t appear to blame God or lose faith in Him. (Ruth 1:20-21) As the narrative progresses, we see how God goes before them to redeem Naomi’s brokenness and bring Ruth into His family. In fact, He orchestrated every detail of their redemption. And, wonder of wonders, Naomi, the woman who returned to her homeland empty, became King David’s great-great-grandmother. Talk about working all things together for good! (Romans 8:28)

Though each one of us navigates a unique set of circumstances throughout our lives, our stories are ultimately about God as well. It’s so easy for us to think in terms of “I”, “me”, “mine”, yet it’s really all about Him. Everything we have and are is His.

God:

  • Chose us before the foundation of the earth. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
  • Spoke the world into being. (Genesis 1)
  • Wrote every one of our days in His book before even one came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
  • Provided His only Son for our salvation. (John 3:16)
  • Called us out of darkness. (John 8:12; John 12:46)
  • Is working to transform us more and more into Jesus’ likeness through the power of His Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
  • Is preparing a place for us. (John 14:1-3)
  • Will return to take us Home. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

Yes, it’s all of Him, from beginning to end.

I don’t know about you, but I’m so thankful it is. Even though I’m dust (Psalm103:13-14), and my best efforts are filthy rags (Isaiah 54:6), and I have no way of saving myself (Ephesians 2:8-9), I can be certain everything will be ok eventually and eternally. Because God is sovereign. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) He keeps His promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 10:23) And nothing can ever separate us from His love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So even when death comes unexpectedly or circumstances take an unforeseen and unpleasant turn, we can be assured nothing catches God by surprise and no detail escapes His careful plan. We can trust Him to weave all our stories together in a beautiful, epic masterpiece whose end we can be certain of because He’s promised to return and take us to the Home He’s preparing even now.

Hope. Hope in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty. Hope because it’s all about Him.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

New box, old post

The door of my aging mailbox refused to stay closed. After several episodes of retrieving its damp contents, I knew it was time to replace it. Upon inspection, the wooden post appeared to be sturdy, despite its slight tilt, which dates back to its initial installation and has been a source of irritation ever since. Being a frugal sort who adheres to the philosophy “waste not, want not”, I decided to replace the box and make do with the leaning post.

I made my way to Home Depot, determined to leave with only a standard-size mailbox and no new plants. I resisted the temptation to stroll through the garden department, went directly to the aisle where the mailboxes are located, paid for the one I selected and returned home.[1] Upon removing the old box, I realized the wooden board it had been attached to was warped and the holes that accommodated the screws were compromised. Not to be thwarted, I decided to use longer screws in an attempt to secure the new box to its perch.

After I attached it, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The sight of the shiny new box contorted into place atop its aged roost was disappointing to say the least. The effect was similar to viewing photos of me and my granddaughters. Just as their unlined faces make mine look more wrinkled by comparison, the post appeared so much older once topped with the gleaming mailbox. And, while I’m ratting on myself, I may as well admit that it took exceptional effort to open and close the door because of the box’s forced mis-alignment. Nonetheless, I decided to live with it.

From the moment I took the initial step back and beheld the disparity between old and new, as well as multiple times since, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ parable warning against mixing old and new. His examples of using a new patch on an old garment and putting new wine into old wineskins appear in three of the four Gospels, underscoring the importance of His admonition.[2] As recorded in Matthew, after replying to some disciples of John the Baptist regarding fasting, Jesus went on to say, “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

The parable was most likely directed at the ever-judgmental Pharisees hovering nearby. Over the centuries since Moses received the Ten Commandments, the religious legalists had tacked on more and more requirements and drifted further and further away from the Spirit of the Law. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the spiritually-blind leaders who misled those who looked to them for guidance. (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) as so beautifully foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. Nonetheless, some of the early believers thought they had to add their formerly-mandated works of righteousness to Jesus’ all-sufficient sacrifice. The Apostle Paul made it clear that was unnecessary, for them and for us. (Galatians 5:6; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:8-9) Likewise, we are told to put off our old selves, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds and to put on our new selves. (Ephesians 4:20-24) In addition, we are called to walk as children of light, having nothing to do with darkness. (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8)

IMG_6600The incongruence between the old post and new mailbox continued to grate on me, so I gave in and contacted the HOA-approved mailbox supplier. He came to rectify the situation yesterday. Even though I returned home after dark last night, I breathed a sigh of relief when the new post-new mailbox ensemble appeared in the light of the street lamp. Ahh, the incompatibility was gone.

Oh that we would be similarly perturbed by inconsistencies between the faith we profess and our actions. May we never think we can simply patch our old natures with a dab or two of Christ’s righteousness or live in twilight on the edge of darkness when we’re called to a life of light. And may we long for Christ’s return when the old will pass away completely, all will be made new and our struggles against darkness will cease forever. (Revelation 21:1-5; Revelation 21:21-27)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

[1] Long-time readers will recognize the self-control this required of plant-loving me!

[2] See Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-39.

A proper diagnosis

Even though I’ve faithfully stretched and exercised throughout my adult years, I have stiff muscles. Various stressors, both physical and emotional, have no doubt contributed to my tightly-wound state. The tension increases and decreases, often without a clearly-discernible cause and effect, but it never disappears completely.

Earlier this year, a prolonged period of tender-to-the-touch joints and knotty muscles left me feeling dejected. Thankful a series of medical tests ruled out several serious possibilities, but being no closer to a solution, I procured a referral for physical therapy.

When I went for the initial evaluation, I told the therapist she was my last hope. She maintained a professional demeanor, but I’m almost certain she thought, “Just great! How did this woman end up on my schedule?” Nonetheless, she proceeded with the assessment, asking questions and directing me to bend first one way, then another.

In summarizing her findings, she stated, “Your overall strength is good and your range of motion is somewhat greater than normal. Your joints are loose.”

Attempting to interject some humor, I replied, “Then I guess it’s a good thing my muscles are tight so they can hold me together.”

The therapist didn’t laugh. Instead, she provided the missing piece that allowed me to solve the years-long mystery: “Oh, your muscles really are working over-time to provide the stability your joints and ligaments would normally provide.”

And what did I do with this critical bit of information? I turned to Google, of course! A search of “loose joints, tight muscles” yielded a name for my condition: joint hypermobility syndrome. As I read article after article, years of confounding experiences began to make sense. In trying to help myself, I’d unknowingly inflicted more harm, specifically by over-stretching and requesting too much pressure during my periodic massage therapy sessions. Sadly, my body interpreted these efforts as an assault on the alternative stabilization method it had established. The outcome: more tightness, more trigger points, more tenderness around my joints.

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Physical and spiritual training require the proper equipment.

The relief of finally understanding what I’d been battling for so long mingled with deep disappointment at the realization I can’t fix it. It’s the way I’m put together. At best, I can learn how to manage it. Now enlightened, I’m focusing on strength and balance, paying more attention to posture, and being vigilant when it comes to adding pressure (physical and emotional) to an already-stressed system. I’m hopeful consistent implementation of these changes over time will be beneficial. Even so, I’m finding it difficult to be patient while my body adjusts to this new approach.

The spiritual parallels are hard to ignore. Before God calls us to himself, we lack a proper diagnosis. We sense something’s awry, something’s missing. Our attempts to feel better frequently result in the opposite or are short-lived. Because we’re created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), made to glorify Him (Psalm 86:8-10) and enjoy fellowship with Him, nothing else can satisfy our souls’ deepest longings.*

At the appointed time, He replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26) We begin to understand our condition and the sin that separates us from our Father. There’s nothing we can do to repair our brokenness. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Fortunately, He doesn’t leave us in our helpless state. He sent his only begotten Son to heal our souls and restore the family bonds broken at the fall. (Genesis 3; John 3:16) Jesus, the Great Physician, took our infirmities on himself and bore our iniquities. His wounds brought about our healing. (Isaiah 53:4-5) His righteousness, graciously granted to we who were once lost, ensures our eternal inheritance. (1Peter 1:3-5)

Even though Jesus’ perfect obedience has been credited to our accounts, fully paying the debt we owe our Holy God, we will struggle with the effects of sin, ours and others’, as long as we’re in the this world. Like my impatience with my physical progress, there are times when, with the Apostle Paul, I bewail my inability to consistently obey my Father. (Romans 7:18-20) Nevertheless, with the help of the Spirit, we’re being conformed more and more to the likeness of our elder Brother. (Romans 8:29) Bit by bit, we shed the old and put on the new. (Romans 12:2)The transformation will continue until Jesus’ promised return, when all will be made new and perfect – no more sickness, no more sin, no more tears. (Revelation 21:4)

Until then, may we abide in the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power at work within us. (Ephesians 3:20)

 

* Several well-known quotes alluding to our “God-shaped void”:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1692

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” St. Augustine, Confessions, c. AD 400.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

 

Thrashing about

I suppose I should preface this post by saying I don’t consider myself to be particularly punny – that’s the province of my daughter, Jessie, who inherited her dad’s sense of humor – but this title, well, I couldn’t resist . . .

Since the weather’s been more seasonably cold, I’ve added suet to the feast I set out for my bird friends. IMG_0377 (2)Brown thrashers are among those who want to partake of the high-calorie goodness. To say they have trouble steadying themselves on the suet basket would be a significant understatement. Inevitably, when one lands on the suet, it starts to wobble. This in turn causes the bird to flap frantically which results in the basket spinning around, bringing about another flurry of desperate flapping. It’s a rather comical sight, but also somewhat sad because the thrasher’s behavior keeps him from the nourishment he’s seeking .

Compare this to the behavior of the stately woodpecker who frequents the suet. Every bit as big as the thrasher, he has no trouble positioning himself on the basket and consuming the nutritious treat. Even if the suet shifts slightly, even if he has to hang from the bottom of the basket when the suet’s almost gone, there’s no anxious flapping of wings or shifting about. The woodpecker remains calm, focused on the sustenance before him.

Just as I recognize I’m not exceptionally adept with puns, I’ll also readily admit I don’t know very much about birds. No doubt a knowledgeable ornithologist could explain the behavior I’ve described. But, as often happens when I’m working in my beloved sphere of horticulture, I see a spiritual analogy. The birds’ behavior reminds me of Peter’s attempt to walk on water, recounted in Matthew 14:25-31:

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (NIV Bible, emphasis mine)

As long as Peter kept his gaze firmly fixed on Jesus he was able to walk on the water. But when he shifted his focus to the storm, he was quickly overwhelmed by his situation.

Too often, when I’m confronted with changing circumstances or buffeted by winds of uncertainty, I become flustered. Like the thrasher, I begin to flail about, thwarting any possibility of finding the stability I seek. And before I know it, I’ve lost sight of the One who is my sure foundation. The One who never changes. The One who still speaks to his followers, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

As I reflect on the disparate behavior of the woodpecker and the thrasher, may I be reminded to rest in the promises of the One who calms the storms.