Trimming Back the Branches

For a long time now, I've been embarrassed to tell people what I studied in my post-high school days.

It's not because it's shameful or inappropriate. It's not even because it's an Associate's Degree and I always thought I'd end up with at least a Bachelor's (funny how life does not go as you plan).

My degree is in Horticulture (a fancy word for the study of all things plants) and specifically, Landscape Design.

Why does this embarrass me, you ask?

Because we have anything but what you would think a Landscape Designer's yard would look like. Between a lack of funds, a plethora of small children and various other factors, our home's "curb appeal" has not exactly been on the top of our family's priority list.

I've even had people remark (after telling them what I studied after high school and in what field I worked in for the first 10 years of my "career"), "Oh wow, I bet your yard is beautiful!" And don't get me wrong: in it's own way, it is. We have a fence, which manages to keep the kids and dog in and unwanted kids and dogs out. We live in a nice little neighborhood with mature trees and sidewalks lining the roads. There are gardens, some with beautiful peonies and an incredible bed of Lily of the Valley, one of my all-time favorite flowers.

But our grass is patchy (to say the least), the severely overgrown yew shrubs in the front of our house threaten to overtake the first floor windows each spring (I have nightmares about those beasts) and the only "patio" we have is a 10' diameter concrete circle which has no rhyme or reason when it comes to placement or purpose.

So I am embarrassed. I've often looked at those overgrown plants and suffering lawn and thought, "Sheesh. I bet a stranger wouldn't even believe me when I said I had a background in Landscape Design and once had my own gardening blog."

But as I was tackling the arduous task of trimming those yews back the other day, I began to think about it: Why do I care so much if someone could tell I was skilled in landscape layout and had a decent knowledge of shrubs and perennials just by looking at our property? Sure, there is something to be said for maintaining your yard and taking care of the space God has blessed us with. But does my core identity really depend that much on what degree I've earned or knowledge I posses or life milestones I've reached?

And if I care so much whether or not people can tell I am a Horticulturalist just from looking at our yard, shouldn't I care even more if they can tell whether or not I am a Christian just by looking at my actions?

While we know and understand that our salvation does not depend on anything we do or do not do ("For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:8-9), the Bible is quite clear about faith without works. In His word, God tells us that "faith without works is dead." (Take a moment to read James chapter 2 for the full context.) Just as an unkempt property is evidence that a homeowner may not have yard work on the top of his or her priority list (for one reason or another), so an "unkempt life" can also be a window into a person's heart and faith life.

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?...In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." ~James 2:14, 17

If I spend my days at work complaining about my co-workers or my days at home grumbling about the kids, my husband and the never-ending housework, am I really living a life in which my faith is evident? When I go to the grocery store, do I patiently wait for the person who just happens to be lingering in front of the exact same item I need or do I make it clear that I'm frustrated as I push past them? When I'm checking out in the lane at Target and the cashier is less-than-pleasant, do I still share a smile and wish her a good day despite her attitude or do I give it right back to her as a "taste of her own medicine"? When a friend disappoints me by showing up late, cancelling plans or failing to return a phone call in what I have considered a reasonable time frame, do I offer her grace and understanding or do I hold it against her and carry it with me into our next conversation?

Am I continually working on "trimming" back those branches which want to overshadow my faith? Am I daily asking God for His help in this? Am I doing all I can to put the Word of God in the front of my mind throughout the day so that my actions reflect what I believe?

It is true that we are all sinful human beings, incapable of saving ourselves or living free from sin's clutches ("For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23). We fail and will continue to fail on a daily basis in living a life in which our faith is completely evident. Therefore, our heavenly Father is the only one who can truly see a person's heart and faith -- this is not our place to judge. But aren't we supposed to be a light to the world? Shouldn't we be more concerned about the world knowing that we are a Christian rather than knowing what we've accomplished or earned here on earth?

I'm going to continue to tend to our yard as time and pennies permit -- for it is something that brings me happiness and satisfaction. And one day, I do still hope that a passer-by would actually believe that I now a thing or two about plants. But, through the help of God, my bigger concern and much more important focus will be on shining the light of Christ into a dark world and proclaiming to that world that I follow Him, and Him only.

"We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light." Colossians 1:9b-12

 

 

 

A Monday Like No Other

Early that Monday morning, I awoke to the beeps and whirrs of machines, muffled voices and muted lights. My clothes were binding me as I rolled over in a bed crackling with the sound of plastic underneath my body. I stole a glance at the bed next to me to assure myself that she was still there. Exhausted as I was from the endless questions created by the concussive state of her mind, I managed to breathe a prayer: “Yes, Lord, I know. She’s alive. I thank you for this gift to her and to us.” Less than 24 hours before, everything had been within our normal routine for a warm Sunday in May: church, lunch and a few moments of rest before a trip back to church for the afternoon confirmation service.

Then the phone rang. My husband answered and immediately walked to the bedroom as he often does for important phone calls. I heard him asking a few pointed questions which I could not fully hear. Immediately he was standing in front of me. What he said next changed my perspective on life forever.

Our daughter was in a flight-for-life helicopter on her way to the hospital. Reeling with disbelief I numbly followed my spouse to the car, hopped in and asked what had happened. The car lurched onto the road before he was able to speak.

He choked out the fact that our daughter had been involved in a freak motorcycle accident during the training that she was attending. Her bike had gone out of control and launched her off the machine and face-first into a tree. Classmates and her instructor had found her unresponsive. They gave her CPR. After just minutes and a flurry of activity she was on the helicopter.

All this was going through my mind as I lay there trying to figure out if this was a bad dream or had truly happened. The dread in the pit of my stomach told me the truth; this was anything but a dream.

What do you suppose was going through Mary’s mind on the Monday after the Sunday we now call Easter? As a mother of a child who was severely injured, recovered and lived, it is incredible to think of what Mary witnessed and endured during the first Holy week. Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, the trial before Pontius Pilate, crucifixion, and burial. Had Mary witnessed many of these events first hand? Scripture tells us she was stationed at the foot of the cross. The words of aged Simeon,

And a sword will pierce your own soul too... Luke 2:35b

must have reverberated loudly in her ears as one injustice after another rained down upon Jesus.

And then the fantastic news came early Sunday: the empty tomb, the confusion of John and Peter, the claims of Mary Magdalene and the joy-filled message of the disciples of Emmaus. Was Mary there in the upper room when the Lord appeared? What did her heart feel while her head was trying to make sense of it all?

And now it was Monday. This day was a Monday like no other. I imagine Mary and all the disciples rushing to the temple to share their experiences with all the others who were hearing the rumors and wondering if the impossible stories were true. As she gathered a new chapter in the life of her marvelous, amazing Savior Son, I wonder if the words of the angel Gabriel came back  to Mary:

For nothing is impossible with God. Luke 1:37

Perhaps Psalm 46 came to her mind over and over again. It definitely entered my brain during  the tough time with our child.

Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

How is it possible to be still and let God do his thing when your child is hurting or someone else is causing him pain, or when both are at another’s mercy? For me, standing in the emergency room with our daughter, and watching all that was going on around us was surreal. Like her, I may have been in shock, but no one and nothing could have taken me away from her during her time of need. Feeling helpless, I tried to pray, but prayers of the Holy Spirit were the only ones I could formulate.

One thing I do know is this: when you are still because there’s nothing else you can do, the Lord will comfort you. He will fill your heart and mind with courage to face the trauma. He will send your mind one scripture verse after another to share with your loved one or to calm your own soul. He will put just the right people in the right place at the right time so that even though you are not thinking of your own needs at all, they are being met.

I watched every one of the few hundred or so stitches that reconstructed her face and God gave me the courage to do so. After she was taken to recovery and I was told, “No, now she rests,” some kind man came out of nowhere to ask if I needed a hug. I had a good cry and uttered my mantra again, “Yes, Lord, I know. She’s alive. I thank you for this gift to her and to us.”

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Easter is past and gone. Now it’s Monday, but since the first Easter, every Monday will be a Monday like no other. What a glorious day it is! What a wonderful day every day is! Because of what Jesus did for us by dying on the cross and rising again, we can get through any trial, temptation, horror and worst nightmare. God does have our back. He IS God. We can be still. He has given us the power to trust him. We can marvel at his plan of salvation and we can tell everyone else we meet about our Savior. Most of all, we can say with certainty and joy, “Yes, Lord, I know. You’re alive!”

The resurrection changed my perspective on life forever. How about yours?

Dearest Lord, we praise you for your ever-present love and care for every aspect of our lives. Most of all we stand in awe of your resurrection from death and redemption of the world. Even with your amazing display of power over life and death, we are being true to our own nature when we are afraid during times of trouble or uncertainty. We begin to doubt your love for us. We forget to ask for your help and we try to control situations that we are powerless to remedy. Forgive us, Lord, for our lack of faith and trust in you. Renew our sagging spirits and fill us with the joy of your salvation. Deliver us from the evils that surround us and instill in us a desire to help others during their time of need. We ask all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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** Picture taken at Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, California where the first sunrise service in America was held back in 1909. 

But A Breath

image-13 A few nights ago, I took my dog for a late evening walk. With the sun setting in the distance, casting a warm glow across the brilliantly decorated trees, the scent of campfire hung in the air. A thick warm sweater, hand knit wool hat and gloves, and bright orange scarf kept me warm and cozy against the refreshingly cool wind. My dog and I strolled slowly around the block, reveling in the soft clicks of leaves meeting pavement, crunching piles of them underfoot as we walked. The evening was as perfectly Autumn as they come.

Caught up in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, I felt the sudden urge to use my body to the fullest of its capabilities, and I began to jog. The dog and I ran the length of 3 blocks before slowing to a walk again, panting slightly as we caught our breath together.

I stopped at a corner to stretch my muscles, surprised at how limber and able I felt. It had been well over a year (possibly two) since I’d run like that, and several months since I’d managed to even walk without waddling. Toward the end of my recent pregnancy, I had endured chronic hip pain, severe heart burn, loose joints, insomnia, and extreme fatigue. I had slept on my side while wishing I could sleep on my stomach, caught myself panting after climbing a normal set of stairs, and held on to furniture for dear life as I struggled to put weight on my legs without pain first thing every morning. Now, just a month and a half past the birth of my fourth child, those problems were largely gone or disappearing. Not only was my physical strength returning, but my mental clarity as well. No longer pregnant, I once again had the stamina to do more with my days than nap and mope.

In retrospect, I can see that my “preggo problems” were zapping my energy and preventing me from accomplishing things my non-pregnant self easily accomplishes. For nine months I lived in something of a fog, unable to meet deadlines or keep commitments or remember what I ate for breakfast. My children went through periods where they watched a lot of tv so that I could rest, and we only ate healthy food for dinner if my husband made it. (Which was often. Thank goodness he likes to cook!).

Despite the hip pain and heart burn, if you would have asked me during my pregnancy how I was feeling, I would have told you, “pretty good! Can’t complain too much!” I had normalized and accepted all of the pain and discomfort of pregnancy to the point that I might have even told you I was rather enjoying being pregnant. At times during my second trimester I even thought with delusion how nice it would be to remain pregnant forever. I wouldn’t have to endure the pain of childbirth that way! ;)

But pregnancy does not exist for pregnancy’s sake. Pregnancy was designed to develop and nurture a beautiful person created by God. Lord willing, the physical pain and discomfort of pregnancy does not last forever, but is replaced by a new life with a baby and a body on the mend (albeit stretch marked and saggy!).

Just as I enjoyed my pregnancy, accepting the pain and discomfort I lived with daily, I often find myself enjoying this world as I willfully ignore the pain caused by sin all around me and within me. Sometimes I even think with delusion how nice it would be to live here on earth forever. I wouldn’t have to face death that way! I cling to this life as though it’s the best there is, as though I don’t hope for something greater to come.

But this world is not all that God has planned for us. This temporary life of pain and sin will eventually be replaced with a new, perfect, eternal life. God has Heaven in store for us after our earthly death! When we compare our time in this world to the one God has in store for us, this time is so brief. The Bible refers to our life as “a breath.”

Psalm 39: 4-5 “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.”

As Christians, we can approach this short time we spend on earth surrounded by sin and the pain of death much the same way an expectant mother suffering from “preggo problems” views her pregnancy: focused on the end goal. Just as a mother yearns to hold her baby in her arms at the end of her gestation and labor, we can yearn for our heavenly father to embrace us one day at the end of an earthly life of suffering and death.

Acts 20:24 “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”

Rather than cling to the pain that we know, we can cling to the hope that we have.

Hebrews 6:19a “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

How do you feel about death and the life to come after it? Are there times when you cling to this imperfect life fearfully as though it’s all you’ve got? What reassures you of the hope and assurance of eternal life with God that we have as Christians?

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When Plans Take a Detour

Have you ever made big plans? Plans for a vacation? a renovation? your career? your family? your life goals? This is what my kitchen looks like right now.

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We've been planning our kitchen since before we even moved into our house. Two years and about four different plan ideas later, we have finally embarked on a crazy renovation of the entire center of our home involving raising the ceiling two feet, adding sky lights, and essentially moving our kitchen over to a new location. Oh yeah, we have two kids too-- a 6 month old and a 2 1/2 year old. I mentioned we were crazy, right? We thought with a good plan we could get it done easily enough. Being that this is our third remodel, my husband and I figured we had a good idea of what would need to happen. My husband made very detailed plans about what was to happen almost down to the day. Demolition for these two days. Framing everything the next week. You get the idea. We had big plans. Detailed plans. Seemingly perfect plans with even a little wiggle room for the things that inevitably come up whilst renovating.

The first week went really well. I had plans to stay at my parents while my husband and his dad tore apart our existing kitchen. There was excitement and energy in the air. We were smiling. Three weeks later, the smiles are starting to fade. Tension is mounting. There may or may not be a snarky comment under my breath to my husband while he frantically tries to get the floor placed while the babies are crying.

Things are not going according to the plans nearly as perfectly as we thought they would.

The drywall isn't going to be finished the week we planned for it. Okay, we will work around it. The drywall won't be finished the second week we planned for it. Okay, we'll work around it. The plumber has a vacation coming up. The floor took longer to place. The countertop took longer to order then we anticipated. I think you get the picture.

Isn't life like that sometimes (although usually much more serious than a kitchen renovation)? Don't we often think we have it all figured out? That we have the perfect plan.  And then life becomes difficult... You don't get your dream job. Your husband loses his job. You lose a very dear loved one. You can't make ends meet. You want a family, but don't have one. Your health is deteriorating.

Sometimes we forget God in all of our haste to perfectly plan. We think we can do it all on our own, but we can't. However, God knows what is best for us, and it just so happens he is a fabulous planner. After all, he planned and executed creating the entirety of the universe in just 7 days, right? (Talk about a crazy remodel!)

Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

God has it all figured out. He has plans perfect for our lives. While this doesn't necessarily guarantee happy trails ahead, it does give us the guarantee that if our lives take a little detour, or even go the complete opposite direction of what we had planned, that our Heavenly Father is by our side throughout our journey. He will lead us through life and to our eventual home in heaven.

I leave you with the lyrics to a well known hymn to hopefully provide comfort for those of you who are currently in need of a little hope and direction.

 

Christian Worship #422:

Jesus, lead us on Till our rest is won; And although the way be cheerless, We will follow, calm and fearless. Guide us by your hand To our fatherland.

 

If the way be drear, If the foe be near, Let not faithless fears o'er take us; Let not faith and hope forsake us, For through many a woe To our home we go.

 

When we seek relief From a long felt grief, When temptations come alluring, Make us patient and enduring; Show us that bright shore Where we weep no more.

 

Jesus, still lead on Till our rest is won. Heavenly Leader, still direct us; Still support, console, protect us Till we safely stand In our fatherland.

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