V is for …

copyright Kathryn Finter
image copyright Kathryn Finter

 

The first time I ever played the piano in public was during the offertory at a Sunday night church service.  I am completely convinced the church pianist must have greased those keys with butter just before I took the bench.  My fingers slipped up one way and slid down the other. Despite all the weeks of practice, I am not sure if I correctly played a single note of my solo.  To this day, I wonder if anyone in that sanctuary recognized I was playing the old spiritual Brethren We Have Met To Worship.

Believe it or not, my parents paid for a decade’s worth of piano lessons.  The result? I can play most of the songs out of the Baptist Hymnal, but only as the notes are written and without any embellishments whatsoever. Though I am not a talented musician, I can play the piano decently.

Correction: I can play well just as long as no one but the Lord is listening.

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The summer I was in the 7th grade, our church got a new youth pastor. I think he must have volunteered to take the youth to the local nursing home to lead a worship service. To this day, I am not sure how he knew I played the piano, but he asked me if I would play the piano for the service. Ever the people pleaser, I was unable to say no.

There were three hymns for me to play:  Victory in Jesus, Onward Christian Soldiers, and Just As I Am. I don’t remember particularly enjoying being a part of the service, or feeling as if I had done anything to share God with those lonely, hurting people in the nursing home. I do remember being somewhat astonished people could sing to the music coming out of the piano as I played the hymns. And I remember the deep sigh of relief that came out of my mouth as the last note was played.

Not long after that, Mrs. Ellen, a lady from our church, approached me about playing piano on a regular basis for her Tuesday afternoon nursing home devotional.  Still a profound people pleaser, I found myself agreeing to join her even though it was the last thing on earth that I wanted to do.

That’s how I came to be the nursing home pianist.

The “congregation” was about ten or twelve patients, most of whom were suffering from some sort of dementia or Alzheimer’s, though a blind man who played trumpet often came to the services and joined me in making music for others as they sang along. It was a rather odd sound, I’m sure. I continued to fumble my way around the keyboard on that old, out-of-tune piano. No one had a very good singing voice. And the motley crew of worshipers had about 5 songs on the regular playlist … the favorite of which was Victory in Jesus.

downloaded from fotosearch.com
downloaded from fotosearch.com

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For four years, my entire high school career, I faithfully showed up at the nursing home every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 pm. I never once wanted to go. I would have quit in a heartbeat if I could have found the courage to just tell someone I wasn’t coming. But I didn’t. Instead, I continued to come and play. I didn’t feel called to the job or talented enough to be the one sitting before the piano bringing forth music. But, you know, I did feel wanted, and somehow I felt needed because I was doing something no one else was willing to do.

To this day, I can play Victory In Jesus without the hymnal to guide my fingers. Every time I hear those notes, I think back to the old nursing home in my tiny hometown and to the Tuesday afternoons I spent there playing the piano. My attitude wasn’t great. My piano skills weren’t any better than my attitude. And yet, God took that experience and blessed me for it.

I believe God loves it when His children voluntarily serve others. There are plenty of scriptures to back this point, beginning with “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Matthew) and “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). But there are so many other places in the Bible with words encouraging the followers of Christ to be first in service to others.

 

This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. These are good and profitable for everyone.   ~Titus 3:8

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  ~Galations 5:13

 Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.  ~1 John 3:18

V is for Victory in Jesus …

which reminds me to volunteer in service to others, even if I don’t feel talented, called, or have a desire to do the job which needs to be done.

U is for …

“You know what I think is over-rated? Bacon. Bacon is really over-rated.”

Nathan stared at his older brother. “Joel!  Are you serious? Dude, bacon is not over-rated.”

Joel shook his head vigorously. “No,” he said emphatically. “Go buy a hamburger at any restaurant and they will charge you an extra $2 to put on one little piece of rubbery bacon and it doesn’t improve the taste at all. That’s why bacon is over-rated. It’s good, but definitely not everything people make it out to be.”

“I don’t think you understand the meaning of over-rated, Joel. Now cupcakes … that’s something that is over-rated. People act like cupcakes are a really big deal. It’s just a little cake! Nobody would make such a big of a deal over a piece of cake, and it’s essentially the same thing as a cupcake. Completely over-rated!”

Megan broke into the conversation. “What are you talking about?”

“Cake and cupcakes. Cake is an under-rated food. Cupcakes are over-rated.” Nathan seemed slightly annoyed at her question.

“CUPCAKES? Are we having cupcakes?!” Julia suddenly came to life over her bowl of cereal.

“No!” Joel and Nathan at practically the same time.

“Oh.”  Julia was obviously disappointed.

“I still don’t get it,” said Megan, who was obviously confused.

“You wouldn’t.” Joel stated calmly. “You’re a girl.”

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My boys love to rate things. Movies. Books. Sports mascots. Foods.

When they rate foods, it drives me insane. In fact, I have a rule that anyone rating food actually being served with anything less than a “delicious” rating will have to eat that food (and only that food) for the next three days.  So far, it’s worked. My cooking is rated as only delicious. I’m happy with that.

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Daily Drop Cap project by Jessica Hische
Daily Drop Cap project by Jessica Hische

If there is one thing in this life I believe is under-rated, it is the realities of heaven and hell. No one can give us first-hand information about it. There are no photographs or pictures. We have no way to visit until our own death.  One place no one wants to go; the other most think they will get a back row seat based on their efforts at living a moral life.

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  ~1 Corinthians 2:9

No doubt about it, heaven is for real. It’s not just real; it is unfathomable. Many descriptions of heaven can be found in the Bible, including the following:

~ a city wall made of jasper, a entire city of gold adorned with every sort of precious stone (sapphires, emeralds, and amethyst), gates of pearls, streets of gold, a river sparkling like crystal  (Revelation 21-22)

~ no night, no death, no mourning or crying or pain of any sort (Revelation 21)

~ no hunger or thirst, no scorching heat, we will drink from springs of living water (Revelation 7)

~ there will be a wedding feast (Revelation 19)

But the Bible also tells us not everyone can enter heaven.

But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. ~Revelation 21:27

So what happens to those who are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life?

They will spend eternity separated from God in a place we call hell. Just as real as heaven; just as unfathomable.

~ lake that burns with fire and sulfur (Revelation 21)

~it will be a place of eternal punishment, separated from God  (2 Thessalonians 1)

~ there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13)

~ torment goes on forever, with no rest day or night (Revelation 14)

Hell is a terrible place to wind up. It’s a place where those who have not paid the price for living a less than holy life will be sentenced to stay for eternity.

You see, heaven is the home of God. He is so holy and pure that only holy and pure people can be there with Him. Can you imagine the grandeur of heaven from the descriptions above? Now imagine it filled with people who lie, steal, and cheat regularly? Even our good moments do not begin to compare with the goodness of God. The prophet Isaiah wrote that even our most righteous deeds are like filthy rags when compared to the holiness of God. (Isaiah 64:6).

God is merciful and loving. He does not want anyone to go to hell. And yet, sin, which is the breaking of God’s laws, must be punished. As a parent, I know that in order for my children to learn to behave, I must discipline them. Even in society, we recognize that lawbreakers must pay a penalty. It’s just and right.

God is a just and right judge. He gets the authority to be the judge because He is the Creator. In our society, we would call a judge corrupt if he let a convicted felon go free on the basis of previous moral acts. If God is a perfect judge, then He certainly cannot be corrupt. He must punish sinners, and all of us are convicts. (Who among us hasn’t told even just one lie? And, according to the Bible, if you are guilty of breaking one part of the law, then you are guilty of breaking the whole law.)

God made a way for our penalty to be paid. God humbled Himself to become a man, walk this earth and not commit a single sin. Not one wrong thought. Not one white lie. Not one curse word. Nothing. And then He died a convict’s death on the cross. He took our place. He cried, “It is finished!” for He had done what needed to be done to pay for the sin’s of all mankind.

All we have to do to spend eternity in heaven is allow Him the privilege of paying our penalty and, through His power, are able submit to living our lives under His authority.

U is for Under-Rated …

We may have under-rated views of the realities of heaven and hell,

but we can be assured of our place in eternity.

T is for …

Her tiny fingers curled around my thumb. With her other hand, she fingered the edge of the blanket. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes.  It didn’t take long for her breathing to become slow and regular.  Her dark lashes brushed against her perfect baby cheeks, her lips pursed together as if she were about to give a sweet kiss, the weight of her head heavy against the crook of my arm; baby Eloise was asleep and I was content to pause in that fleeting moment, reflecting about when my own children were very tiny.

Somedays, most days actually, I miss have tiny, little people surrounding me.  I am not saying I’d trade my own growing crew. I wouldn’t, even though parenting them seems to be harder as they grow bigger. With the youngest turning eleven before the summer’s end, these kids of mine aren’t so tiny anymore.

Well, most of them aren’t tiny …

letter-T

I’m not sure exactly from where Megan gets her petite body. Her biological mother is average size; her father is rather tall. But, despite her tiny size, Megan has a powerhouse personality. She is a bundle of energy that moves in a thousand directions at one time. After Jon and I married, I learned quickly that if I didn’t keep Megan busy, she would keep me busy! She’s been known to rearrange entire rooms in half an hour, organize closets with one hand tied behind her back, and create enough art projects to empty a craft bin of all its supplies in a single afternoon.

If there is one thing Megan does not like, it is being such a tiny girl.  Her biggest disappointment this week has been that most people are surprised to learn she is turning thirteen in just three days. Truthfully, she looks more like she is about to celebrate birthday number eleven. Of course, having a younger sister who is physically bigger doesn’t help in this matter at all. At best, strangers assume Meg and Julia are twins. At worst, they believe Julia to be the older one based solely on her size.

There’s no use reminding Megan that Julia is not even her blood relative. To her, this makes no difference whatsoever. And please, whatever you do, don’t suggest she might feel differently when she is older (say 40 or so) and looks much younger than  her actual age. She firmly believes she will still feel the same way she feels now. And what Megan wants, or at least believes she wants, is to be big.

I cannot relate to Megan’s desire to be big. Blessed with good ole’ Irish blood, I am what some people might refer to as “big boned” or others would call “large framed.”  However you put it, I’m not a petite person. When I was in elementary and jr. high school, I was always the tallest girl in my class, and often even several inches taller than the girls in the grade ahead of me. For most of my growing up years, all I dreamed of was waking up the next morning to discover I was suddenly a tiny girl. Even though I prayed for this to happen on an almost nightly basis, I never did feel tiny compared to others.

Well, except for that one time …

short-people

Shortly after my ex husband left our marriage, I returned to work as an elementary school teacher. I already felt small emotionally, weakened by the shock of all that had occurred. One morning, as I stood in the hallway talking to several teachers, school employees and a mother or two, I realized I was the shortest one there. Everyone and everything seemed so tall, as if I had suddenly become very, very tiny.  The feeling of insignificance was overwhelming in that moment. I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide there until I was able to grow more.

Honestly, I think my reaction in that moment had more to do with my emotional and mental state at the time than it did to my body size, but I’ll never forget the scripture God brought to my mind as I stood there feeling so tiny and small and insignificant:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him?

~Psalm 8: 3-4

It’s a hard truth to fathom. Who am I, out of all people on this earth, that God should notice me?  Who am I that He would listen to my cares, bend His ear to my concerns, offer His help in my troubles? Who am I that God would desire for me to know Him as He knows me? Who am I that God would call me His beloved?

T is for knowing that I am a rather TINY part of God’s creation …

yet He desires me (and every other soul on earth) to know Him, love Him and spend eternity with Him.

 

I hope you enjoy this music video of the song Your Beloved by Brent Helming, and know that no matter how tiny you feel, God’s love for you is bigger than anything you could ever imagine.

O is for …

“I don’t know what to write about for the letter O,” I sighed. “It’s a hard letter. My mind is just blank. And unfortunately,  I don’t even think I have an old writing I could edit and recycle for O.”

“I don’t think it’s unfortunate at all, Paige.  You don’t need to edit something old. You need to write an original.  See, just like that I came up with an O word for you. Original. You can thank me later.”  Giving me a wink, Jon turned back to his book.

Five minutes passed in silence. Nothing but the sounds of my vigorous typing as I feverishly tried to catch up on my A to Z Challenge Blogposts. I should have been working on my blog post for the letter P (for which I already had a great topic idea), but instead I was working to get N posted, all the while worrying over what to write for the letter O.

“What, exactly, do you mean by ‘I can thank you later?’ And who said I am going to write about the word original anyway?” I realized I probably sounded annoyed. Well it was with good reason. I was annoyed. Not at Jon or his suggestion, but rather because I was behind and stressed. My week had been crazy, and my overloaded schedule left me feeling like I would never catch up.

If Jon picked up on my mood, he didn’t let it bother him at all. “Why would you not want to write an original essay about being original?” he quipped.  “God is all about originality. Think about it … out of all the billions of souls, no two throughout history have ever been the same. Talk about original! You … me … each of our kids … all of us, one of a kind. Amazing!”

I rolled my eyes in mock agitation. Truthfully, it wasn’t a bad idea. It just wasn’t my idea. And besides, at the moment, his enthusiasm rubbed me wrong, in an overwhelming sort of way.

With a sudden realization, I recognized my mood was actually rooted in several O words:  overwhelmed, overloaded and even old.  I felt tired, unable to go on. Participating in this challenge was stretching me to include writing as a daily task, and yet I wasn’t dropping any of my other responsibilities as wife, mother and homemaker. Now I found myself at the end of a busier than normal week. It seemed I had come to the end of my abilities. I had nothing more to give.

As far as I was concerned, the challenge was over, right here at the letter O.

letterO

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Almost two thousand years ago, on another Friday, everything seemed to be over to a group of eleven scared men. Their teacher crucified. Placed in a tomb. A massive stone rolled to cover to the entrance to His grave.

The Bible describes that horrific event in great detail. We read in the Gospels of how Jesus was mocked, beaten beyond recognition, and then brutally nailed to a wooden cross.  As the Roman soldiers gambled over his clothing and gave him vinegar to cool his tongue, the Son of God, who hung in agony, chose to forgive. And then He said, “It is finished.”

But it wasn’t over, at least not like what those disciples imagined. Through his death on the cross, Jesus overcame sin and death. His work finished, not by His death, but by His willingness to take the punishment for the sins of the world. A way was made for man to be reconciled with God.

And with His Resurrection on that first Easter Sunday morning, nothing would ever be the same again. The proof is not just in the stone that was rolled away, but also in the millions of lives which have been changed by faith.  Ask any true follower of Christ, and they will testify to the  hope and power found in the Resurrected Son of God, Jesus Christ, to overcome this life of sin and sorrow in exchange for a peace and  joy like they have never known.

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Some days it feels like everything is over, like a terrible, black Friday in my soul.  But, praise God,  it’s not over. Sunday’s on the way!

O is for Overcome …

which we can do all because of the Jesus Christ’s death on the cross,

on a blessed Good Friday nearly two thousand years ago.

And they overcame him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony … ~Revelation 12:11

 

L is for …

Today’s an incredibly busy day for my family. Three of my five children are competing at the State 4-H Ambassador Commodity Talks (a public speaking contest). Last night, I felt pressured over preparations for the contest day as well as writing something for today’s blog post on the letter L. I had absolutely no ideas of what to write about, and figured that there wouldn’t be much time to write it even if I did have an idea. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was asking God to give me something easy for the letter L post.

And He did.  This morning I woke up and remembered a little thing I had written about a year ago about a lesson I learned Lunatic Luna. So, with much thanks to God (who has been so consistently faithful to provide me with material to meet the A to Z Blog Challenge), here’s my Letter L post … 

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letterL

Jill called her “Lunatic Luna” and she really was a lot more than just a little bit crazy. Luna was plain nutty, a very scary sort of nutty. Still, despite her mental health issues, Luna was perhaps the most beautiful fish in Jill’s large 50 gallon tank.

I had heard all the stories from Jill. She told how Luna would jump out of the water, nipping at fingers as she literally bit the hands of those who fed her. Other times Jill recounted how Luna had eaten all of Big Daddy and his mate’s wee ones.

“Surely Jill exaggerates,” I thought. After all, how could such a beautiful fish be so cruel and heartless. But I soon learned for myself that Luna was just as much of a lunatic as Jill had ever implied.

When Jill’s family was in a moving transition, she asked me if we could keep the 50 gallon fish tank at our home for about three or four months.  Even though our only experience with fish had been the solitary betta variety, we jumped at the chance to play host family to Jill’s tank.  Initially,  my family of seven was completely enamored with the fish, finding much enjoyment in simply watching their gracefully motions and discussing the details of all we saw occurring in the large tank. We delighted in discovering the personalities of each fish, and found their interactions captivating.

Before long, each of us had a favorite. The kids loved Big Daddy, the gentle giant of a fish who preferred resting in one particular corner of the tank over doing much actual swimming. Jon seemed to especially enjoy Goldy, the tiniest fish. She was bright in color and quick as lightning, flitting from one side of the tank to another almost as quickly as it took to blink an eye. My favorites were the pair of enormous sucker fish. They often arranged themselves in symmetrical poses against the glass sides of the tank, delighting me with their synchronized sucking action.

No one really liked Luna. She was an irritable, mean fish, controlling the waters from her hiding spot in the plastic log at the bottom of the tank. The other fish swam wide circles around her, avoiding the area that was Luna’s dark hole. A nasty bite was often the reward for getting too close to Luna’s hideout.

One morning about a week into our fish sitting stint, we got up to discover one of the smaller fish in the tank had died during the night. The dead fish lay right at the entrance to Luna’s log, a large chunk missing from its side. It didn’t take a detective like Sherlock Holmes to put the pieces of the mystery together. Luna was a murderer.

Immediately, the kids voted that Luna should be kicked out of the tank, execution style. Jon, however, had more of a heart of justice mixed with mercy. He removed Luna from the large tank and put her in a plastic bowl. Later that day, we bought Luna a smaller tank of her own, handing down a sentence of permanent solitary confinement.

Beautiful Luna. She swam around her smaller tank for several days, rearranging the rocks and pushing her new, larger log into a different position. Though she didn’t exactly seem miserable to be left alone, even in her solitude she never was an enjoyable fish to watch … somehow still unhappy, irritable, and moody if it is even possible for a fish to be all of those things. We fed her and she ate. We took care of her needs. Mostly she stayed hidden in her private log, remaining about as unloveable as a porcupine is unhuggable.

After spending three months in her new, private tank, Lunatic Luna died. In life she wasn’t much loved; in death she wasn’t much mourned. Despite being one of the more beautiful fish I’ve ever known, Luna’s beauty was definitely all on the outside.

It’s almost ridiculous to think that one could learn much of anything from a beautiful fish with a bit of a bad attitude. After all, the expectations and responsibilities for Luna’s life were exceedingly low. A fish isn’t capable of learning polite behaviors or improving upon character flaws.

It is not so for me. My life is filled with the demands of being a wife and mother, a teacher in my home, a daughter and sister and friend, a writer of encouragement. Each role comes complete with its own set of pressures and stresses. Often, in the thick of my day-to-day life, I find my temper far too short and my voice much too harsh.

Most mornings, I spend a chunk of time in my bathroom making myself presentable for the day, focusing solely upon the reflection I see in the mirror. Like most females, I long to be beautiful and work hard to make myself appear so for my husband. Yet the deep truth is all the beauty products in the world will not make me a beautiful woman if my heart is not right before God.

Each time I recall Lunatic Luna, I am reminded of these words from 1 Peter 3: 3-4:

“Your beauty should not consist of outward things … instead it should consist of what is inside the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable
in God’s eyes.”

L is for Lunatic Luna and the Lessons I learned from her Life:

work hard each day at being beautiful … beautiful from the inside out. 

H is for …

 “I’m hungry.”

This is perhaps the most common phrase you’ll hear in my home. I’m completely serious. I’ve got five children, all between the ages of 10 and 15.  Each of them loves to eat. In fact, they enjoying eating so much, that this is how a typical morning in my house might go: 6:30 am Julia:  Momma … I’m awake. Can I have some breakfast? I’m hungry. 7:00 am Joel: I’m hungry, Mom. Are you planning on feeding me breakfast anytime soon? 7:10 am Nathan: Mom, can I make myself a couple of fried eggs? Please?!? I’m soooo hungry! 8:00 am Maddie: GiGi, I’m hungry. I ate a peach for breakfast, but I need something else to fill my stomach. 8:10 am Megan: GiGi, I know we already ate breakfast, but I’m still hungry. Can I eat something else? 8:30 am Joel: Mom … I checked, and, seriously, there is nothing to eat in this house. What are you going to do cause I’m hungry?!

9:13 am Julia: Hey, mom … how much longer until lunch? I’m hungry! 9:25 am Nathan: Mom, I just realized it’s over 2 hours until lunch, but I’m hungry. Can I have a little snack to hold me off? 9:47 am Maddie: I hope lunch is soon, GiGi! All this schoolwork has made me hungry! 9:58 am Joel: mom … Mom … MoM … MOM … MOMMA … I’m hungry. When’s lunch? 10:04 am Megan: GiGi… did you hear that? My stomach is growling!! 10:28 am Maddie: GiGi … I’m so hungry I think I might faint.  10:32 am

Julia: Momma, isn’t it lunch time yet? I’m hungry. Megan’s hungry. Nathan is hungry. Everyone is hungry. 10:46 am Joel: I gotta lay down. I am so hungry that all I can think about is my stomach. Seriously, Mom … I need food. You can’t expect me to go on much longer. 10:58 am Megan: GiGi, I’ve noticed it is practically lunch time. Do you need me to help you make lunch or can you handle it by yourself? 11:03 am Nathan: Yay! Mom’s in the kitchen, everyone! It’s lunchtime! Maddie: Great! I thought I was going to starve to death! Joel: I hope it’s not peanut butter sandwiches again. I’m too hungry to just eat peanut butter again. Julia: Thank you, Momma! I was beginning to think you were never going to feed me! 11:15 am Mom: Lunch is served! 12:14 pm Megan: GiGi … what’s for afternoon snack? I’m feeling a little hungry.

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So, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration … but not all that much!

There are seven people and two dogs in our home.  It takes LARGE amounts of food to keep everyone feeling full and happy. Not only do we eat a lot of food, we spend enormous amounts of time thinking about food, talking about food and shopping for food. A significant portion of my day is spent in my kitchen cooking and creating delicious meals. Even with all of the focus on food, it seems that we are never full.  We constantly are looking for the next opportunity to fill our stomachs and ease the hunger pains. But the question racing through my mind is this:

How can we possibly be hungry? And exactly what are we hungering for?

letterH

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Hey, Ma’am … can you help me?”

I turned around from my task of carefully arranging $300 worth of groceries in the back of my minivan.  A tall, lanky boy, not much older than Joel, approached me. Blond-headed, blue-eyed, burned from the summer sun, the acne on his face told a tale … this boy was far older than his years, and I knew it wasn’t in a good way. I gave him a smile. “I don’t know if I can help you, but I’ll be glad to listen and see if I can. What’s going on?” He stuck out his hand to shake mine, and said, “Thanks. I just need some money so my sister and I can catch the bus home. Maybe if you have some change or a couple of spare dollars … just enough for two bus tickets. Can you help me?” I looked him in the eye, searching for signs of dishonesty. There was no sister to be seen. And yet, something told me that this child needed real help. I just wasn’t sure of exactly what sort of help. “Well,” I said thoughtfully,  “I don’t ever carry much cash, but I probably have some change. Let me look and see what’s in my purse. While I’m looking, why don’t you tell me where your sister is at and how it came to be that you are here without enough money for a bus ride home.”

He looked me right in the eye for several seconds, as if he were deciding how much truth to share. Finally he said, “My sister … she’s in the store trying to get us some food. We came over here today to get food for our family to eat. There’s nothing at the house. I got kicked out of the store for stealing. And about the bus money … well, I guess we didn’t think much about the getting back home part.” “Oh. I see. So you are hungry.” “Yes, ma’am, I am hungry. My whole family is hungry.” “I see. Do you have parents? Do they work?” “Yes, ma’am …  I got parents. They mostly work temp jobs. Lately, there haven’t been any temp jobs. No jobs means no money. No money, no food.” He shuffled his feet on the pavement, looking uncomfortable now that he had answered my questions. Making a display of digging around in my purse for change, I silently pleaded with God for wisdom to help me figure out what I should do in this situation. “I’m sorry,” I said.  “That’s got to be very hard on your parents. Listen, I found $1.07 in change, but that seems to be all I’ve got. However, I do have a car full of groceries and I would be happy to share some of what I have with you.” “Oh, no! No, ma’am. You can’t do that. I can see them kids in your car. You got mouths to feed.  Besides, I’ve got no way to get any groceries home … you know, without it all going bad.” “I thought you said that you came here to steal groceries. Besides, I can give you a few things that don’t have to be kept cold. Let’s see …  I’ve got some granola bars and apples, things like that.”
“No ma’am. I won’t take your food.” His chin jutted out in a proud sort of manner. “Besides,” he continued,  “I done got kicked out of the store for stealing. If they see me out here in the parking lot with a bag of food, they might call the cops, thinking I stole something from a customer. Nope. I won’t take no food. But thank you, anyway.” “Well, I wish you would, but I understand your concerns.” I handed him the change.  “By the way, do you know about the shelters in town? They serve hot meals for free to the hungry. I can get you information and maybe even a ride to one of them.” “Oh, I know about ‘em. It’s just real hard to get there for meal times cause we got to take a bus … and besides that sort of thing isn’t for my family.” “Well, you know … stealing shouldn’t be for you either. In fact, I’d rather know you were going to a shelter for a meal than stealing from a store. Today you got caught and kicked out of the store. Next time you get caught,  it could be worse.” Once again, he looked down and shuffled his feet in embarrassment. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll think about that …but you know even in a jail they feed you meals.” He paused, looking up at me. Then as he turned around to walk off, he said, “Thank you again for the money, ma’am.” I watched him walk off for several seconds before I called out one last time, “No problem … I just wish I could do something more for you today.” My young friend stopped, slowly turned back to me and then said, “Maybe there is one more thing you could do … well, if you didn’t mind, that is …. I guess, what I want is … I mean, would you just give me a hug?”

The biggest grin broke out on my face. “That is one thing I’d be happy to do.” A second later, I felt him sort of melt into my arms the way my own boys do.  Deep down, I knew that this young man was hungry for something far greater than food. A meal would certainly appease his growling stomach, but the longing for love was much deeper and more intense than the hunger pains he felt. “God bless you!” I whispered in his ear. With those words, he quickly turned and jogged off, leaving me standing there to watch him depart. As I turned back to my minivan with its backend filled with bags and bags of groceries, my eyes filled up with tears and my heart overflowed with prayers.

As I started the car, the child sitting in the front seat turned to look at me and said,

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

H is for a world Hungry for more than food. 

For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness.  ~Psalm 107:9

G is for …

eletterG

G is for Germany.

In a little less than two months, three of my children are headed there. Joel, Nathan and Julia are going over to visit their father, who has been stationed in Germany since last September. They will be spending approximately six weeks of the summer with him … from Memorial Day all the way through Independence Day.

Can I just be honest and admit I miss them already? I do. I think about it so many times each day, already dreading the very moment they will step onto the plane and fly away from me.

Encouragers in my life try to remind me of the fantastic opportunity being handed to my children. “They will learn so much in Europe! Think of all the amazing things they will see and do. What a blessing for them!”

I usually nod my head in agreement because I understand, so completely. And yet … honestly … I just wish they didn’t have to go. I’d rather them stay home with me.

Even so, I’ve been helping them prepare for the trip. I bought a book for learning German phrases. Ever so slowly,  we are working our way through the lessons, with me learning along next to my children. My dear friend Esther is German. She moved to the States 20 years ago or so, after she married an American soldier.  One day soon, Esther is coming over to give all of us some cultural lessons about German life. “Perhaps,” she said, “I will even prepare a German food.”   I’m looking forward to that. I might even try out a German phrase or two on her, just to see if I am anywhere near the correct pronunciation. Mostly though, I’ve just been surprised to discover that, despite my desire to keep my kids home, I feel incredibly grateful to be involved in this part of the trip, even if it is just the preparation before leaving.

Lately I’ve wondered if my emotional reaction to my children’s upcoming trip to Germany might be something of a delayed grief. Seven years ago, another trip to Germany was in the works. It was my trip, one which I planned to take to visit their father on his 2 weeks of R&R during a deployment to Iraq.  I read all the German travel books I could find, wrote long lists of places I hoped to see and visit, spent hours scouring the internet for places to stay, tucked away every penny I could spare to cover the costs of our European vacation.

Unfortunately, the expectation of that trip never came to pass. Instead, the unexpected happened. My marriage fell apart. He walked out on fourteen years. I have never really understood why.

Grief is an odd experience, so different for each person to process. Yet, counselors tell us every person in mourning goes through through the same stages before they reach a place of acceptance: denial, isolation, bargaining, depression, and even anger.

I am not an angry sort of person. Truthfully, I’m an emotional stuffer. It takes me a long, long time to get good and angry. Unfortunately, when I do, it takes me a long time to get over that anger.

I can clearly remember the day not too long after my ex-husband left when I woke up mad, more offended than I’d ever felt in my life. Strangely, at least initially, my impassioned outrage was focused mostly on the loss of my trip to Germany. My entire life I had wanted to travel overseas, particularly to Europe. Years of dreaming. Months of planning. Now, after plans had been made, it wasn’t going to happen. I had gotten that passport for nothing. It was a bitter pill, stuck in my throat. Nothing I seemed to do could make it go down.

Over the course of the past seven years, I’ve worked through most of the indignation resulting from my divorce. Well … at least everything except the trip to Germany. Until recently, it didn’t come up all that often. Perhaps from time to time, as I opened the firesafe box looking for a birth certificate or some other important piece of paperwork, I would notice my passport tucked away safely inside, never used. Irritation would surface, but soon enough it would subside again.  For the most part, this was a non-issue, or at least that’s what I thought.

But now, with my children’s trip to Germany clearly marked on the calendar, I realize I’m still dealing with one last emotional wound,  dating back seven years. The memory of that unused passport still haunts me.  As I help my children get ready to travel to a place I’ve never been but longed to see, I have felt God wanting to resolve the ache of that loss.  A loss I’d rather not think about or face.

Seven years ago, in the midst of the deepest sorrow of my life, I discovered the truth in the words of the psalmist:

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.   ~Psalm 34:18

God was certainly near to me in those days. Over time, in His care, my ashes became something beautiful. And that gives me hope.  Though I may still ache a bit over the loss of my own trip to Germany, I am choosing to see it as a gain for my kids, who certainly would not have this opportunity if I not lost mine. I expect my heart will be sad while my children are away. Even so, I can trust God will be near to me in those moments, and continue to bring good out of the losses in my life.

Learning the truth of that promise has definitely been worth the cost of an unused passport.

F is for …

letterFMy eight-year-old daughter Julia peered at me, confusion etched into her round face. Amidst the chaos of Christmas morning wrapping paper and laughter, she held the contents of her gift: a small white card on which was drawn a simple fish.

“What does it say?” I asked.

Julia studied it for a moment, and then she read the words printed on the card aloud.

“What will you name me?”

Slowly, a small grin spread across her face, until she had a look of  sheer delight.  She let out a small gasp. “Really, Momma? A fish? You mean, I’m finally getting a pet …”

To say Julia was excited about owning her very first pet would have been a complete understatement. For days she could talk of nothing else. The wait until the pet store reopened after the holidays seem to be unending. Julia’s excitement mounted as she counted down the hours until she could go and pick out her already beloved fish.

Finally, the much anticipated day arrived. Julia raced into the pet store and hurriedly found the area of the store in which the fish were located. She nearly swooned from the excitement when she saw the floor-to-ceiling tanks filled with fish in every color, shape, and size imaginable. There in the corner we saw a shelf filled with small glass bowls. In each bowl swam a single betta fish.

The manager brought Julia a stool to stand on so she could carefully inspect each fish. She solemnly peered into every bowl, sometimes talking softly to the fish contained inside while other times silently stroking the glass.

As I watched my daughter go about the serious task of choosing her pet, I began to fear that this could be a torturous process. There were so many fish from which to choose that the process seemed to be overwhelming even to me. No two were alike, and each one seemed more stunning than the one in the bowl next to it. Brilliant reds, shocking blues, soft purples, iridescent greens … there was even a shimmery gold one with bright orange and black flecks resembling a leopard print.

My 13 year old daughter Maddie spotted an unusual blue betta fish with tiny black stripes. It had spiky fins which somehow gave it the look of a bird’s feather. She tried in vain to get her younger sister to choose this spectacular specimen, but Julia was not impressed.

Ten year old Megan pointed out a fancy betta fish, vivid red in color with fluttery fins that whorled around it in the water. The manager, who noticed Meg’s interest, said, “That’s a Half Moon betta. Very pretty. Quite popular. A bit more costly. It will set you back $20.” As I steeled myself for the task of telling Julia we were not going to buy the $20 betta fish, I realized that my littlest girl wasn’t interested in this one either for she was already quite enchanted with another fish.

With a quick glance, I looked to see which fish had captivated my daughter, discovering with surprise the fish at which she gazed so lovingly was truly the most unremarkable in the entire collection of dazzling fish. It was a dull, pale pink, and its fins weren’t very long, wispy, or elegant. Yet my smitten daughter watched with rapt fascination.

When Julia caught my eyes, she exclaimed, “Oh, Momma … did you see how she follows my finger! I’ve found my fish!”

So that’s how it came to pass that we took home the plainest betta fish in the store. I must admit I felt twinges of disappointment in Julia’s final choice. I had expected something more exotic, something more flashy.

Julia did not seem to notice or share my disappointment. Instead, she beamed all the way home as if she knew she had found a rare treasure among all the glittering gems.

Once home, Julia named her beloved fish Sushi, and cared for her as if she were the most amazing fish on the planet. Sushi lived in a glass bowl on the bedside table next to Julia’s bed. She never missed a meal. Her glass bowl was kept sparkling clean.  It was obvious that Sushi’s presence brightened the small bedroom.

As the weeks went by, I began to see such beauty in what I originally thought was just an unremarkably plain fish. Sushi would swim over as I entered the room. She seemed aware of my presence. And when Julia summoned me to watch Sushi perform a special trick, I had no more doubts that this plain little betta fish was indeed a unique treasure.

Unfortunately, a few months after Sushi came into our home, Julia noticed a small bump on her side, near the fin. Obviously, there was nothing we could do but watch and hope our little friend was okay. Time passed. Sushi’s bump grew larger. It effected her ability to swim. I knew she was dying, but Julia continued to hold out hope.

Then late one night, Julia came to me in a panic. She had woken to the sound of splashing water, and had discovered Sushi laying on her side, flopping around in a jerky sort of manner. Hugging Julia, I said, “Baby, I am so sorry, but I think Sushi is about to die. There’s nothing more we can do.”

Through her tears, Julia said, “Well, I’m going to pray.” And she did. I stood in awe as I watched Julia pray for a miracle for her fish. And when she stood up, she seemed convinced her small fish would live, not just through the night but for a long time yet to come.

Sure enough, in the morning, Sushi was swimming around her bowl, peppier than we had seen her in months. As Julia fed her, I watched with rapt fascination as the little miracle fish practically inhaled her food. I felt grateful our special friend had survived the night.

Sushi lived on another two months, before quietly passing away while we slept. There were tears as we said our final goodbyes because Sushi was more to us than just a beautiful, flashy fish in a bowl. She was a good pet who brought a lot of happiness to our home.

After Sushi’s death, I recalled my initial emotional response to fish Julia had chosen. I didn’t think she had made a good choice because Sushi didn’t have a beautiful outside appearance. But after the fish came home, I began to see my first impression was wrong. Suddenly, as I remembered the plain little fish, I felt God whispering in my heart, reminding me how He loves to use the unexpected and unworthy to carry out His plans.

He used an elderly man to father an entire nation of peoples, as numerous as the stars and as countless as the grains of sand upon the shore.

He turned the uncertain stutterer into a man who would confront a pharaoh, bring forth plagues, and lead an entire nation out of slavery.

He used the very youngest and smallest soldier in an army of underdogs to overcome the impossible giant.

He found the coward hiding in the threshing barn and used him to lead a tiny ragtag army into battle to defeat their unbeatable enemy.

He took the young virgin maiden barely old enough to leave her parents and brought forth from her His perfect salvation.

And that salvation … well, it turned out to be a babe born in a barn instead of King triumphant in battle glory.

It was this same God who called out to a few weary fishermen, with their torn and empty nets, asking them to follow, using them to bring His gospel message of hope and peace to the far corners of the earth, so that He might turn them into bold fishers of men.

And He even uses the insignificant, like a plain betta fish, to be a reminder to me of forgotten truths:

His ways are not our ways, for He continues looks beyond outer appearances, into the heart of each soul. 

He still calls out to the weary.

He still uses the small, the weak and the scared. 

He still defeats the enemy with the wounded sinner. 

And He promises to us that He has great plans for our lives too … if only we are willing to be used for His glory.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

F is for the Fish who reminded me God wants to use me just as I am.

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.”

~ 1 Corinthians: 26-31

E is for …

I woke up this morning wanting a little extra time.

This past week I’ve had too many irons in the fire. Saturday has arrived, but my “to-do” list has a list of chores a mile long.

With my head still on my pillow, I began to mentally consider all I needed to do before the day’s end. I quickly realized I had more items to complete on my list than I had hours in the day. I wished, not for the first time, that there was a way to get an extra 3 or 4 hours added to my daily allowance of time.

With a few more hours, I would have time to be responsible by tending to necessary housework, piddle around with my own activities (read, write, garden, and sew … and, of course, I want to do them all … today, please), while still fitting in that 2 hour afternoon nap. Oh, I can’t forget I’ve got people to feed. Naturally, in order to do that, I’ll need to grocery shop.

I hadn’t even gotten out of the bed, and already I felt worn out!

“Why,” I wondered (for possibly the millionth time this year), “does it always seem like I run out of time?”

Truth be told, I could use a few lessons in time management. Occasionally, during the course of our marriage, Jon has indicated there might be a need in my life for some prioritizing skills. And while I don’t really suffer from an inability to organize myself, doing so consistently has proven to be another lacking area in my life.

 

letterE

E could easily be for EXTRA.  In this life, I am always needing a little extra something … extra time, extra money, extra love, an extra set of hands.  I have to wonder:

Am I never satisfied with what I have? 

The truth is that on my own, I will never have enough. Thankfully, I don’t have to depend upon myself to supply all of my needs.

God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work.

~ 2 Corinthians 9:8

 

It’s one of my favorite God promises. And today, I’m glad I can rely on the the truth of the letter E:

E does not stand for needing EXTRA.

Rather E is for ENOUGH, which is what I will always have when I put my trust in God.

 

D is for …

letterD

Even though I am 41 years old, I am still a daddy’s girl. My dad is one incredible man.  In my opinion, he is just short of being able to part the waters and calm the seas.  And while my dad is truly just a man,incapable of performing miracles, there was a time when I actually confused the voice of my father with the voice of God Himself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Throughout my childhood, my family kept a tiny flock of sheep in the backyard, as part of a 4-H project.  It was not uncommon for the sheep to find a way of escape from the small pen in our backyard.  It seemed we only become aware of their fugitive state whenever some neighbor telephoned to let us know our wooly pets were out wandering along the roadsides. Additionally, our  lambs were infamous for taking midnight walks, and whenever this happened there was no waiting until morning to go and fetch them home.  My father always insisted we immediately track down those sheep, no matter the hour day or night, and return them home to the safe pen in our backyard as soon as possible.

I could tell many tales about these sheep-chasing escapades, but one in particular always stands out in my memory.  It happened on a humid night the fall I turned sixteen.

The ringing of our phone roused me slightly from my deep sleep.  It was soon followed by my dad’s hard knock on the door of the bedroom I shared with my sister.   “Paige,” he said, “get up! The sheep are out along the highway, somewhere toward the high school. Your brother and I are heading out now.  You follow along just as soon as you get dressed. Meet us on the other side of the bridge.”

I heard the front door shut as they walked out of the house, and then their voices carrying softly as they walked across the front yard, headed toward the highway that stretched out in front of our brick home.  A wave of jealousy swept over me as I looked over at my younger sister, snugly tucked into dreams instead of up to go chase sheep in the night.

Five or six minutes later I was dressed and walking out of the house.  The night sky was dark.  No moon or stars lit the ground. The street light shone dimly on the other side of the highway, providing me with just enough light to dodge a puddle of water at the edge of our driveway.

Walking down the center of the highway, I suddenly felt very alone in the deep darkness. At shortly after 2 am, the roads in our rural town were quiet.  The only sounds I could hear were the sounds of tree frogs, crickets and the occasional hooting of an owl. I walked along, the fear in my throat growing thicker and sharper with each step that took me away from the safety of my home.  I quickened my pace, taking hurried steps as my shoes pounding against the dark pavement in my efforts to reach my father as soon as possible.

Soon I approached the bridge.  It was darker there. The trees overhung across the road, creating deep shadows.  The intense darkness blocked out even the reflective yellow stripes dividing the two-lane road. I hesitated before stepping onto the bridge, part of me knowing that in order to reach the safety of my father I had to get to the other side while another voice in my head screamed for me to run home.

Breathing a prayer, I put my foot forward and started across.  Toward the midpoint of the bridge, I heard a noise, a sort of rustling that didn’t sound like the leaves on the trees. I paused, but didn’t hear anything other than the pounding of my own heart.  I started walking again, but after another step stopped, feeling as if I wasn’t alone on the bridge.  Unable to see or hear anything, I shook off my fear and picked up my foot, determined to get to the other side.

At that exact moment,  a voice boomed out of the darkness:

“Paige!  Go back and get the truck!”

Immediately, I turned on my heels and began to run, faster than I had ever run in my entire life.  (Honestly, this wasn’t a huge feat. I was never a fast runner to begin with, and so it wouldn’t have taken much more than a steady jog to beat my all-time fastest run. Still, I rather like to recall this run as if I made it back home in record time.)

I ran straight for my dad’s truck, the beat-up old Ford that he drove back and forth to his job at our family hardware store.  Yanking open the door, I dove behind the steering wheel, slamming myself inside the truck. I took several deep, long breaths. My heart thumped wildly in my chest, though I wasn’t sure if it was due to the running, the fear coursing through my body or the realization that I had just heard the voice of God in the night.

The keys were in the truck’s ignition, just where I expected them to be, for in rural Louisiana during the mid-80’s, most people never bothered to take their car keys into the house. I turned the key and the truck rumbled to life. Three minutes later, I pulled over to the side of the road.  Ahead was my father and brother herding the small flock of sheep toward me.  I quickly hopped out, leaving the headlights on and the engine idling.

As my father approached, he said, “Thanks for bringing the truck! You got here just at the right time.”

I nodded.  “No problem, Dad. I’m just glad God told me to do it … and that I obeyed even though I was really scared.”

My father looked up from his task of calmly guiding the bleating lambs to give me a brief confused look … And then he started to laugh, deep and hard until it seemed as if he might never stop.  He finally caught his breath.  “Paige,” he said between chuckles, “that was me.  I told you to go back for the truck.  Didn’t you recognize my voice?!”

“That was you?  You were on the bridge with me?” It was my turn to be confused.

“Yes.  I hate to disappoint you, but you heard my voice and not the voice of God.” My father was still obviously tickled by my confusion.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s been at least 25 years since that deep, dark night when I thought I heard God in the sound of my father’s voice.  Yet each time I recall that bridge and the voice that boomed from the darkness, I reminded of two ways that my earthly father taught me important truths about my Heavenly Father.

Almost any Christian will tell you that hearing and recognizing the voice of God can be difficult. Many Christians go through life without ever really learning how to listen for God’s voice.  I was fortunate.  My dad taught me to listen for God’s voice by placing a great importance on studying the scriptures, daily prayer, attending weekly orship services, and expecting me to learn and obey the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus once said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me.” (John 10:27)  I am grateful for my daddy who taught me how to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

The second truth is a reminder that in this life we will have troubles.  Jesus Himself said, “You will have suffering in this world.”  (John 16:33).  But He also said, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)  Just like my dad was with me on that dark bridge so many nights ago, my Heavenly Father is also with me whatever my circumstances.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

D is for Dad … and I’m grateful for mine!