August 24, 2016

Sweet Like Honey

I almost missed the best sermon I ever heard. It was preached on a Sunday night and we had thought about staying home, skipping church. 

It seemed to be a usual worship service like many others I had attended until the preacher stepped behind the pulpit and began quoting the Sermon on the Mount. He didn’t preface what he was about to say. He preached Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 5-7 with inflection in his voice. The room hushed like no service I’ve ever been in before or since. No one got up to go to the restroom. It was awesome.

My first attempt at memorizing a passage from the Bible happened the year after I graduated from college----Philippians 2:1-11. The verses flowed from my tongue like a glorious poem. Not that I actually said the verses to anyone. That wasn’t the point. I was beginning my walk into legalism back then. I was intent on getting God on my side and making him proud. 

For a long time, I could have quoted those verses if the opportunity presented itself, but I couldn’t do it today. In fact, I doubt I could say the 23rd Psalm aloud and get all the words straight. 

I’ll confess something about my efforts at memorizing Scripture. I've memorized chapters of the Bible but they've never stuck in the place in my brain where I can spit the words back out. As I look back on these efforts, I realize the Holy Spirit was in my failure. During an attempt to memorize Romans 1 several years ago, when I got to the verses near the end, the lists of sin man has exchanged for the glory of God, I would be undone with grief. (I am an ENFP --my feeler is strong!) I came to understand my grief was nothing compared to the grief the Lord has toward those who are trapped in sin---the grief He feels when I’ve stepped into a pit of my own undoing.

God’s word is a sword. It cuts to the core of who we are. The piercing of God’s Word is crucial to living a transformed life, what some call living from the inside out. 
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)
It occurred to me in the middle of my exasperation that God wasn't helping me memorize the chapter. He wasn't the least bit interested if I could spit out what I was repeating to myself day by day. He knows me and how being able to quote long passages could lead to self-righteousness and pride. His desire was for me stay in one place and dig in. My struggle to memorize became a gift, transforming my life in ways difficult for me to describe.

God’s Word always fulfills his purpose to lead us deeper into relationship with the One who loves us most.

I spent most of this past year “memorizing” Hebrews 12. I had forgotten the lesson from my days in Romans 1 and became frustrated when I couldn't speak the powerful verses verbatim. Although I was failing miserably, I couldn’t let it go.  Let’s just say, I’m a little bit of a scrapper. I kept at it thinking that one day if I was faithful, everything would click.

Something clicked, but not in the way I thought it would. One Sunday afternoon it was 110 degrees outside and I was curled up on the couch. I decided to give the verses a run through. All of the sudden, the verses began to open to me with fresh insight. God used his words to speak to me personally, meeting me right where I was. After all those days of learning and repeating, reading and writing, the words began to awaken my spirit and move me closer to the heart of God.

God’s words may or may not be in my brain, but no doubt his Word is in my heart. My inability to memorize has become a means to meditation, what I call steeping.  Steeping in God’s Word is transforming my life, helping me grasp the depth of  God's love for me, and for others.  

I may not have the words of Bible memorized but it doesn’t mean I don’t know truth. Truth is a person. He has given us the words of life in our language. It is an incredible gift that we need but often neglect. 

The prophet Ezekiel ate God’s words and they tasted to him like honey on his tongue. 

You may be asking, what of the hard passages in the Bible?  I ask you to consider even the difficult words of the Bible can be swallowed because God’s plans always include redemption. Whatever God gives to eat, even if it’s tough and we have to chew on it awhile, is holy and leads to life.

There is no need for a big study book to go deep into the Word of God though you can learn a lot from them. If you keep digging in one place, you’ll me amazed at what you unearth. 

Here a few other suggestions for tasty passages you might “memorize” (all or part):

Romans 8
Ephesians 1
I John 3
I Peter 1
John 14
Psalm 27, 84, 91, 103, 121

The past couple of weeks I’ve been having Psalm 62 for breakfast. 
Will you share what passages have tasted sweet on your tongue? What words of life have you gobbled up lately?

August 15, 2016

Five-ish Things I Learned This Summer

Welcome to my inaugural post of things I’ve learned. I’m joining Emily Freeman’s community this month, sharing a few things I’ve learned in the last couple of months.

Here it goes my list of five---ish things I learned in the summer of 2016:

1. I’ve caught the poetry bug. I’ve always had a touch of it.  I’ve written poems over the years on and off, but began a journal a couple of months ago using poems as my prompts. 

I was inspired to begin the journal after reading a book/memoir/apologetic by Waco,Texas writer, and poet, Megan Willome called The Joy of Poetry. I credit this little book for helping me unlock a writing block that had plagued me for some time. I collect poems from the Internet or find them the old school way in books or magazines. It’s amazing to me how poems unlock my memories---things I would have never thought of had I not read a particular poem. Who would have thought poetry could pick apart your brain? I’m thinking that reading poetry---and writing about it----is good brain exercise like doing a crossword or playing Sudoku. 

Poetry [is] like a fingerling potato, growing quietly
in a dark space. Dig it up, saute it in a little olive
oil, give it a chance.
~ Megan Willome, The Joy of Poetry

2. I’ve loved trees for always. I was reading in a local magazine about the how largest of each variety in the state have been measured, marked, listed as Champions. Last winter the giant deodar cedar at White County Court House went down in a storm. It was on the Champion list, the largest tree of its variety in the state of Arkansas, We ran upon the champion Black Gum on a trail on the property of the Crystal Bridges Museum back in June. There’s another in Batesville’s city park, a Chinkapin Oak. That’s what the plaque says. I had never heard of a Chinkapin. When I looked it up, I discovered the forest service spelled the name incorrectly. It’s Chinquapin, people!!! Oh well… 

Here’s a picture I made of another large oak up in the middle of the Ozarks that I had to hug. I don’t know if it’s been measured, but it’s a champion in my book. I'm not sure of the oak variety, but I don’t think I don’t think it’s a Chinkapin.

3.    I’ve always loved the Bible, even as a teenager. I love all of it but have recently have come to identify my favorite parts in several categories:

Favorite Old Testament Book:  Jeremiah
The book of Jeremiah is not chronological and can be confusing for a read through, but it is relevant. The Weeping Prophet is one of my heroes. He did what God asked him to do even when it was difficult. His passion for God was deep. He inspires me.  I pray God will raise up Jeremiah's in our day, and that’ll we listen to them. Eugene Peterson’s book, Running with the Horses, is one of my favorite reads on Jeremiah's life. I read it at least once a year. 

Favorite Psalm:  Psalm 13O
“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness...”  Enough said.

Favorite Gospel:  Mark
The Gospel of John would come in a close second of the four, but I love the action packed pace of Mark. There is some conjecture that Mark wrote the book as he recorded stories told to him by Peter. So while I’m sharing favorites, I might as well state it plainly, Peter is my favorite apostle. 

Favorite Epistle: Hebrews
I’ve been studying the book of Hebrews on and off for about four years now. I’m especially keen on Chapter 12. This book underlines and puts exclamation points on the preeminence of the New Covenant. It takes a lot of soaking in Hebrews before it sinks in. Like Jeremiah, Hebrews is relevant in our day. (Hello, the Bible is relevant!) It is a sobering call to perseverance in the faith; its words are an anchor for uncertain times. I finished up another study of Hebrews in July, and my pastor preached through a series through the book as well. I'm still drinking from its well, but this summer, the book has been particularly filling, opening my mind and heart to new understanding, and bolstering my faith.

4.  The first week in June, some friends and I took a tour of P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm. The beautiful farm sits on a ridge above the Arkansas River Valley.  We were welcomed into Allen’s beautifully decorated home and his gardens---vegetable, rose, and flower---after making a reservation and paying the pricey admission ticket. His aunt served us warm cookies fresh out of the oven and later, his staff served chicken salad and homemade pie for lunch before we headed over to the chicken house. We were told that Heritage poultry varieties are one of Allen’s passions. I could see why after I saw them. The Heritage breeds are really pretty, especially the roosters strutting their stuff around all the girls.  Before our June trip to Allen’s farm, I had been clueless that chickens could be so beautiful. 

5. If you would like to read some new insights on perspective God gave me while looking down from and conversely, up to the tops of mountains, you can read here (seeing growth by looking back) and here (clarity). 

There was so much to learn while Jeff and I were on our trip to Switzerland in July----how to properly greet people, how to ride the trains, how to pack a light backpack, to appreciate well-made chocolate and local cheese. I'll admit, those last two took no effort.

We learned that one of Switzerland’s greatest resources is water. Every town has places to get cold mountain water that’s potable. Hiking and altitude required us to drink often. When we were low on water, there always was a place to fill up. No need to buy water. It’s the cheapest thing in Switzerland by far.

Another thing that I already knew, but is now confirmed: I will never base jump. We crawled down the side of a mountain in Murren, Switzerland to watch the jumpers, some in squirrel suits, disappear off the side of the mountain. I don’t know if they pray before they jump, but they should.

What have you learned this summer? Have you determined your favorites in the Bible? Do you love poetry or trees or chickens? Have you decided where you stand in regards to base jumping?

August 9, 2016

Perspective (Part Two): Clarity isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

For three days the mountain peaks of the Alps were hidden from sight. Clouds moved in and through the valleys with such beauty that had we not known we were missing the views of them and from them, we would have been without regret. Thunderstorms and lack of visibility made hiking to higher altitudes risky. We enjoyed valley hikes in raingear---one day in spitting snow.

Our longest stint of staying in one place during our hiking trip in Switzerland was in Zermatt, a touristy ski town at the base of the Matterhorn. 

Though the town is abuzz with languages from all over the world, our room was quiet and comfortable. To our surprise, it had a balcony with an unimpeded view of the pyramid-shaped peak that everyone and their dog was taking pictures of, including us, of course. The inn-to-inn itinerary was great for the most part, but it was nice to settle in for longer than a day or two. We hiked from our base in Zermatt with the Matterhorn looking over our shoulders at every turn.

After three nights, our itinerary sent us back to the train station. We made arrangements to ship our bags ahead to Lucerne and carried the bare essentials in our packs for an overnight trip to a mountain hut. 

I loved riding the trains in Switzerland. The transportation system is really amazing and the views out the windows never disappoint. We rode the rails through a wide valley with sweeping views of beautiful vineyards before switching over to ride buses through hairpin turns up a mountain road. We stepped out into a parking area below the Moiry Glacier on a warm sunny afternoon.

Jeff and I flipped the hinges on our trekking poles, lengthening them for the short hike up to the Moiry Hut, our overnight accommodation beside the giant ice field. We had been in the mountains for over a week and altitude wasn’t bothering us nearly as bad as it had in the beginning. We had walked many trails by that time and knew what was a challenge for us and what wasn’t. 

The trail before us wasn’t long in distance, only two miles, but the Moiry Hut sat on a ridge at 9300 feet---an increase of 1500 feet from our starting point. The last half mile would be steep, 800 feet in only a half mile. The sign said the hike should only take an hour and twenty minutes. We could take our time. The reality was, we wouldn’t have a choice.

We began our hike on a gentle slope beside a mountain lake, the water the color of mint ice cream. The lake’s glacial melt was so thick with minerals that it looked like it had been filled with paint. Up above, the giant Moiry Glacier was silently receding in inconceivable mystery. On the glacier's left bank, we spotted the hut’s roofline outlined against the blue sky.

I wrote in Part One of my thoughts on "perspective" that as we hiked on our first day in the mountains, I was clueless, only able to see my progress looking back. I thought if I could see where I was headed that would be the best motivation for reaching our destination. That’s what I thought until I saw the tiny outline of the Moiry Hut above me. I turned back toward Jeff standing behind me and said flatly, “I don’t think I can make it.

The truth is clarity isn’t all it's cracked up to be. 

Often in life, and especially in times of transition, we want clarity. We want to see where we are going and how to get there. We want the goal to be in our sight. When we can't see, our lack of clarity can be an excuse for not going forward and the reason we get stuck. We pray (maybe beg) for clarity. When God, in his grace, gives us a glimpse of what we asked for, we feel dejected because the place we're headed seems so far away.

I'll admit I've had a stronger "need" for clarity as I’ve gotten older. When I was young, I was willing to take more risks. Life stretched out before me. I didn’t want to fail but I knew I had to time to take another route if necessary.

But as I have gotten older, I’ve tried to convince myself that I should be able to use the wisdom of years to discern where I’m supposed to go and exactly what I need to do to get there---an attitude that hasn't served me well.

God is a giver beyond comprehension or imagination. Our inclination is to only desire what we think we can successfully accomplish, but God has more for us. He wants to give us what we cannot comprehend. We must learn to embrace mystery and be willing to move forward regardless of whether  or not we understand the path before us.

There will be times when He’ll take us to a place that is a complete surprise, to a room with a view. Most of the time, we'll walk in a "long obedience in the same direction."* The challenge of faith is to see with the heart and not the eyes.

We made it to Moiry Hut that day after walking across a moraine, a patch of ice, and then, for the last hour, in a zigzag path over rock piled up by the glacier. It was short in terms of distance but difficult because of the grade and the altitude. As we traversed the hardest part of the trail, the hut was not in sight. 

    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 ESV)

I am letting go of the need for clarity. Our hiking trip taught me that I don't have to know much to start where I am. I only need to see the place before me, the next step. If I will trust the Holy Spirit as my guide, I am sure to reach the heights and someday, come face-to-face with the Beautiful One. I'll get there in due time.


August 7, 2016

Perspective (Part One): When You Can't See Where You are Going

My feet were tucked into my hiking boots with a triple turn in the lace at the crease, then a loop through the hooks near the shoe’s collar; a redirect sent it through a triangle created by weaving the lace around the eyelets that when pulled, kept my heel steady in the bed, and finally, a bow knot, doubled. It sounds complicated but tying the boot has become second nature like running through to Jacob’s Ladder with a piece of string. 

I've learned that perseverance and a good pair of shoes are the two things you need to take with you when hiking a mountain trail. Boots won't do their job if you don't put them on. I think the same is true with perseverance.

One of the first lessons I learned on our hiking trip was how little I needed to comprehend about the trail or the destination in order accomplish the hike. We had a map but a trail looks so flat lying on a piece of paper.

When I considered the heights of the mountains around me, it seemed impossible that I'd find myself at the top of any of them. I wasn’t opposed to going to the heights. My stubborn streak urged me to try, although self-talk reminded me that I am a fifty something lowlander who though her interior age is young and eager, lives in a body that is more mature and not as resilient as it once was.

The trail across the meadow led to a turnstile positioned to keep cows corralled. We entered the forest and walked in the damp shade until we came upon a bench high on a rock ledge where we could sit for a bit and gaze out at the “Three Sisters”----the peaks towering into the blue sky, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. It was tempting just to sit there and take it in----breathe. But as they say, the mountains were calling so off we went to the heights.

Eventually, the trail dumped us into a valley with a farm where we came face-to-face with the first cows we'd meet wearing bells. Jeff studied the trail map as we stood in the meadow pasture. A cold stream raced past. In the distance, a waterfall fell silent from a towering peak. He turned his body with the map considering whether we were off course. He thought we were, but wasn’t sure. We crossed the creek at a bridge until we found a yellow trail sign pointing the way to a hut somewhere  on one of the mountains above us. We began our ascent.

Holding our trekking poles in our hands, we put one foot in front of the other, after another, after another. Because we had been in the mountains for less than twenty-four hours, our bodies had not acclimated. The air was thin and we gulped it down through gaping mouths.

We climbed steadily but had to stop often. We learned that when we did, our heart rate lowered quickly. Soon we were in a rhythm of walking and stopping, walking and stopping. It seemed we weren’t making much progress. 

As I look back and reflect on our slow hike to the Lobhorn Hut, it's slow rhythmic nature seems to be a metaphor for my spiritual life the last few years, a time that has slowed in regards to activity but has recently given me the perspective of growth. It's taken time for me to understand that I was making progress even when it seemed impossible at the  tedious pace of the "trail" behind me.

Christine Heister echoed similar thoughts I've been having regarding seeing growth with the perspective of time. She wrote these true words as part of a caption for an Instagram post:

“We often don't see our growth until it's done, and eventually, we look back and wonder how it happened. Sometimes I get so frustrated with what seems to me like backward, anti-growth, but then God answers with a flash of understanding and compassion and shows me, from His own eyes, where I've been. The minute and incremental day to day growth needs the balance and perspective of time…” 

When we walked out of a wooded stretch of trail into an open meadow, I turned around and I couldn’t believe where I was standing. The towns and farms down below sat miniature in the distance like they could be held between my thumb and forefinger. I thought at our slow pace we were making little progress. I was wrong. Some may say you can't get anywhere looking back but the truth is, there are days, we need to look back to see how far we’ve come. The perspective showed us even with our labored, not-even-close-to being-acclimated-to-the-altitude climb, we were making progress. 
The town of Wengen is over my head. It is a good size village famous for its downhill skiers.
My boots carried me over miles and miles of trails over our ten-day trip. They were my foundation. When I think about the journey of life, I realize that the trail is before me. I can't see its twists and turns. I need a strong foundation for my life in Christ. I've learned to lace my life with eternal things, unfading treasures that nothing on earth can destroy rather than building my life on accomplishment and efforts in order to be found worthy of love. That's not the Gospel. I am persevering on the path that leads to life eternal dependent on Christ's love for me and his perfect sacrifice on my behalf. 

Perspective tells me the slow path I've taken of late has been fruitful, though for most of the past four years, I wasn't able to see it. As I stop and look back, all the little steps I have taken are adding up. I am changing, transforming, and with hindsight, realizing I have arrived at a place that is my new normal. 

I pointed to several different places above us that I assumed were our destination. Every time we'd reach those places, we'd see the trail markers sending us on. Several hours after beginning our hike, we sat down at the picnic table at the Lobhorn Hut where we promptly ordered a Coke Zero.
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. (Hebrews 10:35-36 ESV)
Whether you running up the mountain before you or make a slow, steady ascent, don't give up. Endure. Persevere. Believe the impossible. In time, you'll look back at the journey and see it was worth it.

August 1, 2016

Not Yet August

Swimming, One Day in August
——By Mary Oliver

It is time now, I said, 
for the deepening and quieting of the spirit
among the flux of happenings.

Something had pestered me so much 
I thought my heart would break.
I mean, the mechanical part.

I went down in the afternoon
to the sea
which held me, until I grew easy.

About tomorrow, who knows anything.
Except that it will be time, again,
for the deeping and quieting of the spirit.

Red Bird: Poems p. 56

I was on a poem hunt this morning when my internet friend, Sandy, replied to a comment I'd left on an Instagram post where she had quoted this poem from Mary Oliver. I had forgotten about liking the poem and responding in the comments. Like so much information that flashes in front of my eyes every day, even a poem that hits a nerve at a moment in time is whisked away into some locked corridor in the mind until someone takes a key and lets it out again.

It’s not yet August, but it’s acting like it. I lost track of the days of July while we were in Switzerland. It was amazing that lost feeling without the anxiety. I think it could be best described as being present.

We weren't flying by the seat of our pants around Switzerland. We were on a "walking holiday" and had an itinerary that set the course for our days. The points on the journey became our guide rather than a calendar of dates. It was freeing to have a plan that was somewhat flexible which added to its appeal because it gave us the sense of getting lost in our mini-adventure. Even on our last two days in Lucerne, I didn’t feel offended that our glorious 30th anniversary trip was ending. What I felt was more like satisfaction, like turning the last page in a really good book or pushing away from the table after a superbly prepared meal. I was full and grateful even as the moments passed and hid themselves away among so many lovely things tucked into the corridors of my memory waiting for release at some later time.

We missed the tumult of some really horrible events in the history of this country while we were gone. The issue of race has been rekindled and the heat rose with the thermometer mid-summer hitting a boiling point that has been costly. Black men are dying from the bullets of policemen. The bullets were turned back on the men in blue in Dallas and Baton Rouge. And I remember---there will be wars and rumors of wars…

And not only at home, not too far from where we sat at a mountain restaurant eating locally made cheese and craft tea in giant beer mugs, eighty-four people were run over, killed, by a terrorist in Nice, France. Jeff and I acknowledged the loss, prayed for the grieving, but didn’t dwell on it. We took advantage of the distraction of beauty as if we had no choice but stand enraptured to its embrace, hypnotized, and unable to grasp what would have had us reeling if we had been at home listening to the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

I care about those things though when I think about a response, I feel small——maybe better said, helpless. As Christians, it's hard to know when to pray and when to demand justice. (I don’t think both can be accomplished at the same time.) It seems that it will be impossible for real justice to happen in this world now underscored by the philosophy of relativism. The moral law established through the ages, affirmed by culture after culture, is being cast aside and mocked as short-sighted and unloving. In this world, there is no plumb line. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis.

The summer day is warm and I’m so far from the ocean, but I can imagine being held by its soft warm water, buoyed even as I go into the deep, quieting of the spirit. Sitting in her gentle arms, I turn away from distraction, my back to the shore. I don’t read the banner trailing behind the Cessna teasing me to buy t-shirts down the street in the store next to the snow cone trailer. I avoid the thought of who's swimming lane I’m in, what gilled-creature might be following some feeding current moving me, with the waves, away from the place I entered this longing. I look to the horizon with its illusion, a dark gray line from east to west. I remember: the truth can’t always be seen even though it can be known. I hear the muffled sound of children laughing. I wonder about my blind spots; close my eyes so I can see.

I decide prayer is the better choice than placing demands on the world already with too many demands craning for its attention, a clamor like drums playing bass notes heralding a coming doom. If everyone quieted, they might have ears to hear the Whisper in the wind. 

When the sun rises on a new day, I’m praying they'll run a green flag up the pole, call a truce and taste peace, sweet and salty like a meal of oysters on the half shell finished off with pecan praline on a sugar cone. If the ocean won't do, maybe we can find a mountain to climb, sit among the clouds, steep in hope and "grow easy."