A Tug of War

Like many people, I have a morning routine. Mine varies as to starting time—dependent on what my health issues decide to throw at me. This morning was a late start. Although awake at a decent time, (for a nearly empty nester that is) the action needed to get out of bed was slow in coming this morning. Some mornings it is quite plain, before my feet even touch the floor that the day ahead of me is going to be a difficult one. This was one of those mornings.

I said good morning to one cat who was sitting patiently at the foot of the bed waiting for me to open the curtains so she could peer into the backyard world and perhaps dream about catching all the squirrels that taunt her as they run by the window. I went to pour my morning glass of orange juice, stopping in the living room to say good morning to the dog who was sleeping on a blanket on the couch…a cat blanket ironically. I opened the drapes in the living room to let the morning light inside. As I poured my juice, another cat appeared at my feet, meowing his good morning to me. Shower, dress, and make the bed are the next steps in my regimented procedure. I then grab the two containers of food for the outdoor critters and head outside. I put down some corn, sunflower seeds and peanuts for the resident squirrels and fill the bird feeder with a mixture of bird seed. A usual morning for me, except this morning, this last task was accompanied by tears—tears I didn’t want nor ask for, yet tears I couldn’t hold back no matter how hard I tried.

As I stepped outside this morning with the food containers in my hand, the crisp, coolness of the October air hit me and filled my senses with delight. In my mind, there is no feeling better than a crisp October morning. Ignoring the burning pain in my right foot, I set down one container, picked up the other, and headed over to the side of the house where the bird feeder hangs on a tall shepherd’s hook. I heard the crunch of the leaves as I walked. I looked up to see the now empty tree branches towering above me. I do love the look of tree branches in the fall, free of the weight of the leaves that clung to them throughout the summer. The outdoor fire pit is full of leaves waiting for an autumn fire. I glanced to my left and saw my garden, once bursting with lettuce, peppers, chard, squash, and other delights, now empty of everything save for the empty plants withering under the kiss of Jack Frost. The tears I had been fighting back all morning finally won the fight as they rolled down my cheeks.

Next week the final eaglet will fly this nest that has been his home for twenty-four years. He will set out on his own journey to face this cruel world. To say I’m proud of him would be an understatement. He has faced many challenges yet is forging his own path in spite of them. Mingled with that momma pride, though, is an intense sadness. I will miss his presence here. The little things that make him unique will always bring a smile to my face—like how he is SO much like his momma in that he has the need for routines in his life. His moving also ushers in the next move in my life—literally. There is no need for a husband and wife, one dog and two cats to stay in a five bedroom home. Each of those rooms was once filled with a child and his/her belongings. Those rooms are silent now, empty of the precious possessions once held there. The colors on the wall, hand-picked by each child, now sit alone day after day. The light switches, some special to the personality that resided there, no longer turned on and off several times a day. The carpet sits waiting to be vacuumed and cleaned. The walls of these rooms hold so many memories—happy ones, sad ones, difficult ones. They reach out and engulf me at different times…or, like this morning, all at once. The empty garden cannot go with us to be filled again next spring. The clothesline will never again hold my son’s soccer clothes or my husband’s lawn cutting shirt. The birds, squirrels, and rabbits cannot relocate with me. The sense of loss is tremendous right now. The sadness rolls over me as ocean waves roll over a small sandbar, disregarding its very existence.

In the midst of all the tears, I can find it in my heart to thank God for all those memories that speak to me from the walls of the various rooms in this house. I thank God for the children He blessed us with. I thank Him for the privilege of staying home full time to be their mom and, for many years, their teacher. I thank Him for the late night talks, the laughter, the meals shared with them and often with their friends who were almost like a part of our family. I thank Him for the son-in-law we love so much and for the new grandbaby that will come as a result of that marriage. I thank Him for the future daughter-in-law who will share our last name in the spring. I thank God that each of them seem to be figuring this life out despite the hardships they face. There is much to be thankful for.

The tug of war inside me continues–Sadness vs. Thankfulness. Today, Sadness is winning. I have no choice but to ride the waves as they roll in, much like a surfer rides the waves of the mighty Pacific. The difference though…

the surfer is enjoying the ride.

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Two are Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up. (Ecc. 4:9-10)

One of my biggest struggles is the feeling that I am on the outside looking in.

Imagine a little child standing on the very tips of her toes, trying to make herself tall enough to see into a window whose pane is just beyond her reach. On the other side of that window pane is a delightful animated holiday display or perhaps rows and rows of scrumptious chocolate candies. As hard as she tries, her best efforts to add to her stature fall short. (No pun intended) Even balancing on the very tips of her toes does not add enough height to satisfy the desire to see what others around her, taller than she, can easily view. Some of those around her, trying to be helpful, describe the scene to her: “Santa is holding his list in his hands…you know, the list of good boys and girls who will be getting toys for Christmas! The elves are circled around him. Oh Susie! You should see the elves! They are SO cute! They have stripes on their hats and red pointy-toed shoes and they all look so happy! And Santa is smiling and—Oh my gosh! Susie, your name is on his list! So is mine! It says Susie and Chrissy right in the middle of it! Mrs. Claus is in the back part. It looks like she is helping some other elves wrap presents. There are so many bows! There are red, green, blue, striped, pink—pink is your favorite color, Susie! Some are small and some are really big! I wonder if Santa uses the big bows for big presents—like a bike or a big playhouse…” As nice as Chrissy is trying to be to her little sister, the words just do not satisfy Susie’s desire to see the whole scene with her own eyes. If she could only see it for herself then she could share in the excitement that Chrissy has.

Most of the time, I play the part of Susie. I see and hear others around me talk excitedly about some thing or some experience, yet no matter how much effort I extend to see or experience that thing, it is never quite enough. The fact that I am unable to reach it makes me sure that I am missing out on something wonderful. In my world, though, it isn’t my name on Santa’s list or a pile of bright, pink bows waiting to be put on a present just for me. No, in my world, I find myself looking through the windows of my eyes and seeing things in others that I desperately desire to be in me as well. I look out my eyes’ windows and see joy around me, yet I am unable to grasp it. I look out and see tremendous levels of faith, yet faith seems just out of my reach. I look out and see acceptance, yet am unable to feel accepted. I look out and see friendships—genuine friendships—yet so often I can only reach loneliness. I see gifts, talents, health, service, and other desired qualities, but they are just out of my reach. Sometimes, well-meaning people will try to help by describing what my life would be like should I finally succeed in grasping them. “If only you could grasp that faith you see in others,” they say, “then you would feel so much better.” “If you just found the joy of the Lord, then you would have the strength to face the difficulties life throws your way.”

Seriously? Just like Chrissy’s description only fed Susie’s desire and possibly made her even more saddened at the fact that she couldn’t see it, those kinds of statements are not always helpful.

I am currently participating in a book study. The title of the book is Let’s all be Brave by Annie Downs. Before you think something along the lines of “How can you be lonely when you are part of a book club,” let me mention that this study is an online book study. There is a reading schedule to follow, questions for thought and discussion sent to my e-mail every few days, and a Facebook group to post thoughts and questions. Today I was reading the assigned chapter and came across the following lines:

“I think that’s what I need most to be brave—a place where I belong…No one is brave alone. Every superhero has someone they come home to; every Bible character has someone they depend on. Jesus had his disciples. Batman had Robin. Paul had Barnabas. Ruth had Naomi. The Incredibles had each other. Moses has Aaron, Hur and Miriam. We see, even in the Bible, the truth that the bravest among us do not stand alone.”

At the core of every human being is the need to have a place of belonging. I personally think it is one of the reasons God designed families. After He created Adam, God said that it was not good for man to be alone. Adam had a big job to do—naming all the animals that God had created, but as Adam carried out his task, he noticed that none of the animals resembled him. None could talk with God as he did. Surrounded by the perfect environment, Adam was lonely. Even if a person is living in the nicest house money can build, has everything he or she could ever want and all the money desired within easy reach, if there is no like companionship, no other person or persons to fellowship with, life will not seem complete. We tend to enjoy the company of those who are somewhat like ourselves. Football enthusiasts tend to enjoy conversing with other football enthusiasts. Monday mornings may find them all gathered around the coffee pot at the office debating if the Vikings should have started THAT quarterback or brainstorming ways the group could score tickets to a game at Lambeau field. An employee who has never watched a football game in his life would most likely have a difficult time fitting into that group, but probably has some other type of people he enjoys being with. Perhaps they talk about computers or car engines or the latest medical research…regardless, it is important to feel part of a group.

For the majority of my life, I have been the one looking for a group. I was very much a tomboy growing up. I could throw a football better than most boys I knew, put a hockey puck past the best goalie in the neighborhood, and feared nothing. (Except spiders and bees. I definitely feared spiders and bees.) The problem with that was, most boys didn’t appreciate being shown up by a girl. That meant most of the time I wasn’t allowed to join in the game. The girls in the neighborhood didn’t understand why I didn’t enjoy things like Barbies, hairstyles, and other girly things. I certainly didn’t fit in with them, nor did I want to. That meant, for me, many days in the elementary school years were spent alone. I became accustomed to enjoying my own company and being my own entertainer. In junior high I met my best friend—a kindred soul. I still consider her my best friend even though we live hundreds of miles apart. As an adult, it has been difficult for me to fit in—in the community, in church, or any other place, I usually feel like an outsider surrounded by insiders. Perhaps this is why social media has such a powerful grip on me, for on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, I don’t have to conform to a preconceived image. I don’t have to worry about not knowing something or not feeling like my contribution is worthy (one of the biggest stumbling blocks I have in Bible studies). Online friendships are wonderful for those reasons and I am quite appreciative of those who have willingly accepted me as an online friend.

BUT…

Online friendships can’t always be as deep and intimate as real life friendships. Sometimes when the pain in my heart is great, it would be nice to have a real human sitting next to me, helping me be brave through the trial. Plus, some things just aren’t meant to be put out in the unknown technology called cyberspace. My husband is an IT auditor and has warned all of our kids about the fact that nothing is private once you put it anywhere on the internet. A difficult trial, then, isn’t something I’m always willing to spell out in an e-mail or Facebook message.

The verse from Ecclesiastes at the top of this entry is what came to mind as I was reading my book chapters today. Of course, I know my husband is always there for me—he supports me and listens (in a man’s way of listening) to me. Sometimes, though, a woman needs another woman to encourage. I know that I love to encourage young moms, especially homeschooling moms. Having gone through 20+ years of raising kids and struggling through difficult years of homeschooling, I know not only how immensely draining those days can be but also how quickly they go by. I imagine the same principle holds true for men. There are some things that a man just needs another man to walk him through. Our small group breaks up into two groups—men and women separate—for prayer time for that very reason. I will share more with just women present than I would if men were there as well. Plus, men don’t get tears. At least my husband doesn’t always get them. He wants to fix them, but sometimes it isn’t “fixing” that I need; I just need someone to listen, encourage and be there.

I truly hope that someday I will not feel as though I am standing on the very tips of my toes, trying to see something that is just beyond my reach. As I continue to open up via words on a screen, I pray that I would begin to open up to real people, to allow them in when my heart screams to lock them out.

Maybe then, when that happens, I will not feel like I am always outside looking in.

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Family

This post is difficult. It is difficult to think about as it has tormented me for the last few days. It is difficult to put into words—something I usually have no trouble with when I sit in front of my keyboard. It is also emotionally painful. It is something I feel I need to write about, yet I fear that those who may read it will not fully understand the big picture. The greater fear is those who read it will be quick to offer platitudes that I know are true (to a point at least), yet they really do not reach the heart of the issue. I also know those words will come from others who love Jesus. I am already in the process of figuring out a way to protect myself from those words as well as working on a response that says I understand what you are saying but this is just really different…

I get this feeling several times throughout the year. Sometimes it lasts only a short while; other times it persists for weeks or even months. This time of year is of the latter duration. Always. It doesn’t necessarily have to be triggered by anything, but this time its trigger was one that seems to trigger many of my downward emotional spirals—Facebook. I have such a love/hate relationship with Facebook. It has so much power in my life. At times I log in and read something or see something that brings a smile to my face and warms my heart. Other times, I log in and read or see something that causes sadness, heartache, jealousy, and other negative emotions. (That was a very difficult sentence to type, by the way. I want to be authentic so I admit the power a social media website has over me, but I am ashamed of it still) I know that most people only post the good things about their lives. Their posts often contain smiley emoticons, exclamation points, little hearts and a happiness that flows out of the computer screen. A glance at their timeline reveals what seems to be the perfect life—perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect days, perfect peace. I am very much a realist so not only do I know that no one has all those things, I make it a point to not be one of those people. Perhaps I go too far the other way too often—only posting negative things, but I would hate someone to look at my Facebook page and think that I live in a Mayberry world where problems are only as big as Opie telling a white lie to hi pa. Of course there are moments like that—moments when I am proud of my kids or happy about something. The other side of that, though, is life is messy and often difficult.

Where is this all going?

If you know me well, you know I am not a fan of spring or summer. The heat and humidity of summer cause my illness to flare and make my daily life quite difficult. I don’t really like sunshine all that much either. Spring is just muddy and the pretty white snow is all black and gross. The salt and mud get tracked into the house so our entryway always looks horrible. I’m sure a man chose the flooring for this house; a woman would never have put white linoleum in the entryway. Fall and winter, on the other hand, find me enjoying the weather. I love clouds and rain and snow and falling leaves and colder weather. I know—I’m strange. (It’s why I seldom fit in with people but that is for another post) Fall brings a great candy selection as Halloween approaches, roasted pumpkin seeds, Thanksgiving, and, of course, Christmas. The months of September to December are without a doubt my favorite months of the year. There is one thing, though, that these months bring that is like a dagger to my heart. It is in these months, the last two especially, that families get together for celebrations. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with pictures of holiday gatherings of parents and offspring, brothers and sisters, kids and cousins. Smiling faces look at the camera as extended family gather around a beautiful Thanksgiving table. That scene doesn’t show up in any of my photo albums. My Facebook photos do not show me with my siblings or cousins or even parents. Dave’s family, with the exception of one brother who lives in the metro area, is absent from the pictures as well. It is not even common now for us to have all of our own kids in the pictures. They have grown and have lives of their own. Getting home for Thanksgiving just doesn’t happen due to job responsibilities or weather issues. Don’t misunderstand—I am very thankful for the times I do get to see them and I cherish those moments. There is something about a day like Thanksgiving, though, that their absence rubs raw emotions even more.

I cling to the hope that someday our home will be filled with our own kids with their spouses and children around our Thanksgiving table. I want to be the one in my family to break the generational pattern of hatred. We are off to a good start so far…our four kids all love each other and, I think at least, want to be around each other. One is married and expecting our first grandbaby. One is getting married next spring. Last Christmas all four plus our son-in-law were here for Christmas Day. My heart was overwhelmed with happiness. The seven of us, plus Dave’s oldest brother, all sat down to a wonderful Christmas meal. I don’t know what this season will hold. I am hoping for a repeat of last year with an added presence of our future daughter-in-law. It would do this heart good—that’s for sure. But I also know that things don’t always work out like I want them to.

I’ve heard it said that the church is a family. We are all part of God’s family, therefore we are brothers and sisters in Christ. That is a wonderful thought—someday we will all gather around God’s table as one big family with our Father, God. On earth, though, most of these Christian brothers and sisters have real family to spend their special days with. Can I ashamedly but honestly say I envy them? Can I admit that even though it is wrong, jealousy creeps in as I see the pictures of extended family gathered around your Thanksgiving table? And even though I don’t deserve it, can you show mercy when I don’t always click the “like” button on those photos? It isn’t that I don’t like them; it is more that they cause me to really see that for the here and now, family gatherings of moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins will not be a part of my life. The church may be a family but it is a different kind of family. I’m not sure it can take the place of real family. I know, at least in my life, it has been unable to soothe the deep wounds left by that real family. The Bible says that God puts the lonely in families…what is one supposed to do when the family is the thing that made you lonely in the first place?

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God’s Waiting Room

“Wait your turn.”

“I’ll be waiting for you in the lobby.”

“Wait here. The doctor will see you in a few minutes.”

Does it seem like we spend a lot of our time waiting?

As a young mom I remember impatiently waiting for a baby to give me a smile that was a reaction to his mommy and not just gas. I would finally get that smile and I would begin waiting for that baby to sit up on his own. That would finally happen and I would begin waiting for that child to crawl, walk, sleep…the list could go on. It took me too many years to learn that I was so busy waiting for the next stage that I was missing out on the joys of the present one.

As the babies grew into bigger people, I have said that all the time I spent waiting for my kids must add up to at least five years of my life. Before any of the kids had a driver’s license, I was the chauffeur. If an activity was scheduled to end at 5:00, being the OCD mom that I was, I made sure to be there at least five minutes early just in case it ended sooner than scheduled. You would think after a couple years of this I would have learned that very seldom does anything end early. In fact, more often than not, it didn’t even end on time. I found myself waiting most of the time. Some activities were worse than others. For example, one of our sons participated in the theater program in high school. Rehearsals were every day after school and scheduled to end at 5:00 PM. I would arrive by 4:55 PM and take my place in the line of cars waiting to pick up a cast member. Waiting. There’s that word again. And waiting is exactly what I did. Five o’clock would come and go and still no son. My neck would be sore from staring at the door. When one cast member appeared, I watched more intently for the one who belonged to me. It seems he was always the last to leave! Theater practice never ended on time. I remember being so stressed on Wednesday afternoons. He was supposed to be done with rehearsal at 5:00. He had to be at church at 5:30 for worship band rehearsal before leading worship for middle school youth group which started at 6:00. Of course, a teenage boy has to eat dinner, especially after having spent the last ten hours at school. Sometimes I would pack a peanut butter sandwich, some cookies, and a bottle of water or Gatorade and he would quickly snarf it down on the five minute ride (depending on stoplights and speed) from the school to the church. Sometimes I would have to drop him off at church so he could start that rehearsal while I ran back to McDonalds to get a #2 cheeseburger meal to then take back to the church for him to eat.

Waiting at the school.

Waiting at McDonalds. (His cheeseburgers HAD to be plain so of course that took longer)

Waiting after youth group to bring him home after a long day.

Theatre, soccer, band, choir, marching band, voice lessons, basketball, track…you get the idea. I spent SO much time waiting for someone.

Our society is not good at waiting. We have microwaves that cook our food quickly so we don’t have to wait for a slow oven like my mom did. We have remote controls so we don’t have to wait the extra few seconds it would take to actually get up and change the television channel. We have remote start on our cars so we don’t have to shiver waiting for the heat to be hot. The car is all toasty and warm when we get into it. We don’t even have to wait and take the time to scrape our windows. We just press the remote start button and let the defroster do its work. (By the way, I do not have remote start on my vehicle but I have been known to whine about it) We have access to worlds of information at the touch of a finger or the click of a mouse. We don’t have to wait until the library is open in order to look up the information we need. We have fast food that is bagged and in our hands much faster than a home cooked meal would take. I don’t know about where you live, but it seems where I live there isn’t a driver on the road that actually stops when making a right on red. If a car is coming, they have to wait and the look on their face reveals the frustration rising in their bodies. A green light turning yellow, especially if it happens to be an arrow only turn at a busy intersection, is not respected by most drivers. In fact, it seems to be a challenge—how many cars can get through the light before the cars given the green the other direction start coming through? A children’s television show once said, “Red means stop, green means go, Yellow means WAIT—better go slow!” Yellow no longer means wait—it means floor it so we don’t have to sit here and WAIT for another cycle of lights.

Why is it so hard to wait? Is it because we are so busy that we feel we don’t have a second to spare? Is it because we are so accustomed in this instant gratification society that we no longer know how to wait? Does waiting accomplish anything good?

I’ve been thinking a lot about waiting lately because I have found myself in God’s waiting room. When God puts you in a position to wait, He is always aware of our thoughts and frustrations that come with the waiting. Thoughts like:

“Doesn’t God realize I do not have time for an illness right now?” or

“Come on, God. Surely you know that I am called to preach your Word. How do you expect me to do that if I have this big trial in my life?”

What if we looked at waiting from a different perspective? John Ortberg said, “Biblically, waiting is not just something we have to do until we get what we want. Waiting is part of the process of becoming what God wants us to be.” Likewise, A. W. Tozer said, “Problems patiently endured will work for our spiritual perfecting. They harm us only when we resist them or endure them unwillingly.” It seems these men understand something about waiting that I need to learn.

I was (once again) reading Psalms this morning. Remember, I said I am in God’s waiting room. We’ve all experienced the waiting room scenario. You show up on time for an appointment only to hear those words, “Have a seat. The doctor will be with you shortly.” Next thing you know, “shortly” is 45 minutes after your scheduled appointment time…and you are still waiting. As I was reading through Psalm 27, I came across a verse highlighted in my Bible. It reads, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (v. 14) Next to that verse, I had written the words, “Waiting time is not wasting time.” I remember when I wrote those words. They were spoken by my former pastor and friend and he told them to me in the middle of a fiery marriage trial. (Sometime soon I’ll tell that full story here) You see, as humans we operate on time, and if time seems like it’s being wasted or is taking too long, we get frustrated. God, though, doesn’t operate on time. God puts us in situations and circumstances for the purpose of refining us. We are uncomfortable in the fire so we pray for the fire to be put out. When it isn’t, our mind may begin to wonder if God is really aware of what is happening. Of course He is aware…He is in control of all things, even my trial. David said to take heart and be strong and WAIT. Too often, I wait but not with strength or willing endurance. That is where I have found myself lately. I am not proud of this, but I am willing to be honest about it. When in that waiting room of wondering and doubt, what is most needed is encouragement from brothers and sisters in Christ. Unfortunately, when in that waiting room, I tend to isolate and become reclusive. I feel like such a burden to those around me, and I am convinced they see me that way too, so it is best for me to avoid interaction while I wait in misery. BUT, that is not what God’s Word tells me to do. I did a search on the word “wait” in the Bible. It didn’t take very long to see that waiting is something God not only wants me to do, but He wants me to do it willingly.

Waiting through depression…

Waiting through disease…

Waiting through a change of life’s seasons…

In God’s plan I guess we are called to wait much more than our society is comfortable doing. I know I would welcome the prayers of friends as I wait through some tough things in God’s waiting room right now. I know there have to be others in the same place. Let’s pray for each other—to wait patiently, to endure willingly, and to come out the other side of the trial stronger in our testimony for God.

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Fear…Not

It is something that I have struggled with since I was a little child.

When it rears its head anywhere in my direction, its invisible grip on me is paralyzing.

It has caused me to miss out on events and other things that would probably have been good for me.

It is a constant lurker in every one of my days.

It fights to control my mind and my heart–and often wins.

It is FEAR.

As a child, I had some of the fears that many children have. I was terrified of thunder, bees, spiders, darkness, and our basement. If any of those listed things entered even just a fraction of my day, internal panic would begin. Many children outgrow fears experienced in their early years. For me, this was not the case. In fact, those fears seemed to not only intensify but also multiply to additional fears. Darkness, already a source of fear, would bring additional thought that someone would certainly break into the home where I was living. My imagination would conjure up all sorts of dark scenarios at the least noise heard. I began sleeping with a fan running to help drown out the noises heard at night–a necessity still to this day.

If you’ve never experienced what psychology refers to as anxiety or panic attacks, you may struggle to understand why an adult would be so afraid of the dark or a basement. If you fall into that category, may I just admit that I am somewhat envious? Because I write honestly but tactfully, I see it as important for me to admit the struggle yet, for now, keep to myself what I believe to be the source of all the fear in my life. In fact, I’m not sure the source really matters. What matters, at least today, is what God is doing in me to address the deep-seated and paralyzing fear in my life. Make no mistake please–my fear is often completely paralyzing. At times, it is so real, it feels as though I am struggling for each breath and will most surely die before I can find the next one. This absolute terror and panic can hit anywhere, anytime, and without any warning. There have been times I have been driving and the fear hit. There have been times I have been quietly sitting and watching TV and the fear hit. Most often, though, it is in the darkness of night that fear finds me and puts its death grip on me. In those long and difficult nights, I try with all my might to break free from the death grip of fear.

A few years ago I found myself paying weekly visits to a Christian counselor. She was a wonderful listener who understood the root of my fear. We often discussed ways to help myself should the fear pay a visit at night time. One tool she recommended was a stack of index cards on which would be written Bible verses that would help. I went through the process of finding verses of comfort and wrote them on the 3×5 cards. The problem was, they didn’t really help. Fear was much more powerful than words on a card. I put them in my desk drawer for lack of something better to do with them. Before I gave up on that idea, though, I had read some of them enough to have them memorized. One of my favorites was Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life–of whom shall I be afraid. ” I found myself repeating that verse many times in the dark hours of a long night when sleep was elusive and fear was very much present.

Since I’m writing much in the present tense, you can go ahead and assume that fear is still a battle I face. Some of my fears have changed. Thunder no longer terrifies me, although if a storm hits in the middle of the night, I do still feel that initial terror. I don’t like spiders or bees, but I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of them. The fear of darkness, though, is still very real in my life. I have also found terror gripping me at the thought of something happening to my husband or one of my kids. I fear driving at night–so much so that I will avoid any night time commitments. I am also finding that fear I setting in just being in a car at night. Our small group meets Friday nights and even though my husband always drives, I find myself wishing I had stayed in the safety of my home. These fears are not only terrifying, but I allow them to run scenarios through my head–scenarios that probably won’t happen. You don’t know how many times I have heard a siren and started to believe one of my kids was in an accident. The news headlines can trigger fear. As the Ebola virus threatens to spread, I find my mind giving into the fear of being in public places or coming in contact inadvertently with the virus. Even the thought of isolating myself at home for safety is shattered by the thought that the mail still needs to be brought in and who knows how many hands touched it!

This morning I was working on my Bible Study Fellowship homework. The year is studying the life of Moses. We just reached the part where Pharaoh let the Israelites leave Egypt. They have arrived at the Red Sea with the fickle Egyptian leaders hot on their trail, regretting the fact that they allowed them to leave. I know the story–Moses raises his staff and the sea parts. Heard it many times. Today, though, the following verses caught my eye: “…Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today…Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them.” (Ex. 14:13,19) Because my mind often thinks musically, the words from Chris Tomlin came to me:

“I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind,
The God of angel armies is always by my side.”

I decided to do some research. The words “do not fear” are said over 365 times in the Bible.

For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. (Is. 41:13)

Do not be afraid little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Lk. 12:32)

I could list many more–over 300 more. My heart and my mind scream “FEAR!”

God tells me to fear NOT.

I think I have some hard work to do.

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Snared Feet

Yesterday was a rough day.

I guess if I admit it, many days over the last month or so have been pretty rough. I’m sure everyone around me knows that. One of the things God has been trying to convict me of for a while is complaining. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty big job. Thankfully, He is a pretty big God.

Anyway…

I think I’ve stated before that I spend a lot of time in the book of Psalms. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I have a few favorite Psalms that I turn to again and again. It seems no matter the source of the pain, there are some Psalms that tend to just bring a measure of peace to my soul. Today I opened my Bible to that trusted book and began reading the worn pages there. I came to Psalm 25. This Psalm, especially, brings my soul to quietness and reflection. I’m convinced that part of the reason for that effect is because the first several verses were put into a song by a summer intern pastor of the church I attended as a junior high school student. Each summer our church loaded two buses and drove from western New York to a small town in Ohio for a week of summer camp. That is where I learned this Psalm put to song. I have read this passage countless times–enough to almost have it memorized. Today though, a certain verse jumped off the page at me. It reads:

My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare.” (Ps. 25:15)

I re-read those words a few times…release my feet from the snare…release my feet from the snare…

Have you ever watched a fly right after he flies into a spider web? The fly, desperate to be free from his predator, struggles to spread his wings and fly to safety. The problem, of course, is the web from the spider is sticky. That is how God created the spider in order to insure his survival. The web of the spider is designed to attract prey in order to provide him with food. The fly, of course, doesn’t see the web. If he did, he would certainly fly around or over or under it. The fly wouldn’t knowingly fly into the trap of his predator; it just happens. As the fly realizes he is suddenly unable to move his wings, he fights with all he has for his freedom. It is no use though. The more the fly tries to free himself, the more tangled he becomes in the web.

The last several weeks I have felt like a fly caught in the spider’s web. Sometimes I have been going about my business and BAM! Next thing I know I’m caught in a sticky mess. Other times, I’ve sensed a sticky web but figure that it’s just a web made of string. I figure getting out of s clutches can’t be all that hard. I may make a weak attempt to avoid it, but do not take its threat very seriously. (For me, this mainly comes in the form of putting myself in a place where I know my emotions will be affected, i.e. Facebook) Regardless of the circumstances that actually landed me in the web of my predator, getting out is usually my number one aim. The problem is, just like the fly caught in the spider’s web, the more I try to free myself, the more entangled I get. Soon, I find that even though I have exhausted every ounce of energy in my body, I am still stuck and, even worse, I give up and try to accept the fact that my predator has won. His web–his snare–has proven to be much more powerful than my strength and I hang my head in defeat and wait for the attack to be over.

Is the scenario above inevitable? It has played out so many times in my life that it would seem to be the case. The pattern is predictable: walking along the best I can, hit a snare, struggle to break free, exhaust all physical and emotional strength, give up, wait until my predator has his way with me, walk away in shame after being released, start over again by walking along the best I can…

“My eyes are ever on the Lord, for ONLY HE will release my feet from the snare.”

Like an arrow shot out of a high powered bow, those words hit and pierced my heart. The truth is, I can’t fight my way out of the predator’s web. In my own strength, I’m no match for the snare he lays. The Israelites thought that David, the shepherd boy, was toast as he stepped up to face the giant Goliath, and on his own, he certainly would have been. But, David knew he was not fighting the battle alone. He knew that someone much bigger and more powerful than Goliath was fighting with him, so David boldly stepped up when no one else dared to do so, and Israel was saved. To try on my own to break free from the sharp teeth of the traps set for me only causes more pain and results in my feeling defeated. It is only with the power of the One who saved me, the One who loves me, the One who promises to never leave or forsake me, that I can be set free from the snare of the enemy. This enemy presents in different forms. Some days it shows up in the form of depression and/or discouragement. Some days it shows up in the form of physical pain. Many days it shows up as both. Some days the weight of the snare and the exhaustion of attempting to break free combine and make me feel as though I am being crushed. It seems the last several weeks have held many such days.

As I meditated on the words of the Psalmist, my heart was broken, for you see, I knew I was guilty of something critical to the process of being released from the snare. The Psalmist started the verse with the declaration that “his eyes are ever on the Lord”. My eyes? More often than not, they are on the snare. Depression, pain, and negative emotions and feelings fill my vision. How can I possibly have my eyes on the Lord and on the snare at the same time? I can’t; it isn’t possible. One of the things I taught our kids as they were learning to drive is to keep your eyes and your mind focused on driving–the road, your speed, your mirrors. If you turn your eyes to your phone or the radio station controls, you are more likely to get in an accident. I need to follow my own advice in the emotional arena.

In my own power, I am toast against the snares of depression, negativity, pain, and discouragement. But, the promise that I don’t have to face the snare alone is real. I have the power of God available to me, and that power is greater than any power found in the world…including the power found in the snares that entangle my feet. I know there will be bad days. We live in a world that is full of trouble and pain and all kinds of snares. It is a choice, though, as to where I put my eyes. If I stare intently at the snare, surely I will just become more entangled, but, if I stare intently on the One who has the power over all things, then I can rest in the assurance that He does see and only He has the power to release my feet from the snares.

 

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Living the Mystery

I have not been able to write lately and it has frustrated me. My beautiful, loved, red Dell laptop, my companion for the last five years, finally used its ninth life last week. I knew the day would come when the little tricks that had been working would no longer work to allow my red Dell to continue its partnership with me. Losing a computer is like losing a part of one’s heart. So many memories contained on the hard drive of that computer–pictures, documents, videos, favorite places, all tucked neatly in one space to be accessed at the press of a key. I sincerely felt like a part of my heart died with it.

Ok. I have publicly displayed my grief over a temporary thing on earth. I know it is not the end of the world and that my life will continue. Somehow, I will adjust to the different feel of new keys under my fingertips. Until then, I have the use of an extra laptop we have in our house–one repaired under a warranty but replaced before the repair could happen. Its keys are not nearly as cooperative as those found on my red Dell and its cover is a plain black, but the charging port works, so at least I am able to type again, all be it slowly.

The “mystery” referred to in the title of this post has nothing to do with the loss of my laptop friend. I included that bit of information because I had someone e-mail me and ask if I was okay because I hadn’t written. Asking if I am okay is a loaded question and usually one people try to steer clear of with me. When living with chronic illness and chronic depression both while adjusting to a new season of life, one is seldom “okay”. I used to be really skilled at faking it…I could put on a smile and say all is fine and make small talk like every other person out there who does not want people to know that her world is far from perfect. I’m not so good at that anymore. I now find that most people who know me don’t ask me that question now. The majority of the human race doesn’t know what to do with a non-standard answer. The expected answer to “How are you?” is “I’m fine. How are you?” Yeah. That isn’t always easy to fake now.

Back to the “mystery” that inspired this post to begin with…I’m getting there. Really.

The past week or so has found me questioning some things about life. Specifically, I am referring to the Christian life. Please understand that these are my thoughts–not necessarily my truths. There is an important distinction there that needs to be clear. I can know something is true yet still have thoughts counteractive to that truth. A good example would be I know my husband loves me, yet there are specific times that I wonder if he does. Usually those times fall when I am beating myself up for some mistake I made or some words I said. My thoughts go to, “How could he still love me after I said that?” This past week, I found myself once again facing the doubt that I understand anything at all about God and the life He wants me to live. It really hit me Sunday after church, although it started a few days before that.

Very often as of late, I wonder what purpose I am supposed to be filling right now. I have raised my kids and while I am still a mom, the needs and demands that came with the role of full-time-mom-to-four-kids-in-five-years have definitely changed. My days used to be filled with laundry, cleaning, laundry, homeschooling, laundry, sports, laundry, cooking…did I mention laundry already? Now with a nearly empty nest, one married, one almost married and the married one expecting a baby, I no longer fill any of the roles listed above. That’s where I get stuck; I don’t know what role I am supposed to fill. One evening last week, after not being able to finish something we had committed to because of not feeling well, the feeling of uselessness hit hard. Not only do I not know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, often the activities I try to do end up frustrating as I am unable to do them because of my health. When Sunday rolled around, we went to church as usual. I often wake up not wanting to go but am glad I did once there. This week, I woke up not feeling well and was tempted to stay home but remembered that so often I am thankful I went. So, I went. And I wished I had stayed home. Our pastor talked about how a potter fashions clay from an impure lump of nothing to a vessel formed for a specific purpose. You know, I get all that, and I believe it; yet, as I left there, my mind was replaying the words “It’s so easy for him to stand up there and say because he knows his purpose” over and over again. I tried to discuss my thoughts with my husband who just didn’t understand where I was coming from (what is that saying? Men are from Mars…). That led to more tears, more frustration, and a very quiet lunch.

The crux of the issue, for me, is the fact that living the Christian life is often so mysterious. There isn’t always a clear cut path to take. Some people, though, don’t seem to have that problem. It’s like they have this thing all figured out and they’re busy doing the work God made them to do. I know several who have left careers in other fields because they believed God was “calling” them into ministry. And, it appears they were right. One of my sons felt God calling him into full time ministry when he was in high school. He went to college to prepare for that calling but has yet to actually find a job in full time ministry. I know of another person who felt that same call, prepared for it, found a job doing it, and then ran into so many obstacles he was sure he had heard God wrong. He went back to school to get a degree in another field. There could be many combinations of the above scenarios, but each one asks the same question in my mind: How can anyone be sure what God is wanting them to do? Are obstacles a sign that you heard God wrong? Or are they an attack from satan who is trying to stop you from living for God? Perhaps some obstacles are the former and some the latter. But, the bottom line is how am I supposed to know which is which?

Is living the Christian life supposed to be confusing? Am I supposed to be always wondering what God’s plan is? The “Christian”answer to that is to trust God. I get that. But what does one do in the meantime? And, in trusting, how does one know if a series of events are actually from God, or from satan, or the fact that we live in a world with millions of other people and circumstances?

All of this is a battle that takes its toll spiritually. I find myself second guessing life much of the time. Like many other moms, I had planned to go back to work once my kids were adults. After all, my husband had unselfishly been the sole provider for those years and it was only right to contribute once the workload at home eased. Those plans went up in smoke with the worsening of my health. I have worked from home for the last eight years or so–very part time. I love my job, but I only have work about five months of the year. That doesn’t ease the financial burden from my husband very much. I have a degree but that degree is not recognized by the state in which I reside. To be certified here would mean more school–something we can’t afford, and even if we could, my health would not allow me to do the job anyway. Instead, I add to his burden with medical bills that could not have been anticipated just five years ago. So, is my illness an obstacle from satan to keep me from doing something for God, or is it God trying to tell me something else? Or is it just because we live in a world full of all kinds of evil–disease being one of them? The mystery rears its head in this form time and time again for me; I see others who just seem to get it and it makes me wonder if I am missing some important part of the puzzle of the Christian life.

If you can understand any of what I wrote here, and you happen to have some insight, I would be very appreciative if you would share that insight with me. It is so easy to get bogged down in the semantics of things, especially when one thinks as I do. The problem is that kind of thinking can potentially drive me to the edge of doubt–doubt that there is any purpose for me right now. And, if you have read much of my writing, you know that is NOT a good place for my thoughts to be.

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Suffering

The last few days it seems that God is trying to tell me something. I can be somewhat of a blockhead when it comes to knowing if God is speaking to me or if what I am hearing is my own thoughts echoing inside my head. I’ve been known to be oblivious to something in my own life that others see immediately as God’s involvement.

What makes me think God is trying to tell me something?

The first issue I see taking place is a recurrent theme popping up all over my days. I check my E-Mail and there have been several involving suffering. I check my Facebook newsfeed and as I scroll down, I see several people have shared blogs or personal stories about suffering. I go to Bible study and the topic is suffering.

Hmmm. Could it be that God wants me to tell me something about this topic that has caused me much emotional turmoil throughout my life?

You see, I once believed in a God that used suffering as a strong arm against those He claimed to love. Suffering was sent by God to punish for wrongdoing. If you really stop and think about that, you may be able to see why for years I questioned God’s motives in my life. If things were going well, I believed I was being rewarded for doing something correctly. If things weren’t going so well, I believed I was being punished for something I had done, said, not done, or not said. As you can imagine, living like that can drive a person nearly insane, for God never really revealed what the good thing or what the forbidden thing was that (I believed) was causing the circumstances in my life.

I still succumb to that thinking too often, even though I now know a different God than the one I used to know. God didn’t change; God changed me. Through some amazing orchestrations, God led me to people who were patient enough to hear not only the skewed beliefs I held but also the anger at God that had festered inside of me for so many years and they were willing to talk those things through with me. Before that, I know of several who prayed for me and planted the seeds that would eventually sprout into salvation. Admittedly, those sprouts are still small and that fact is what bothers me, for I believe it is the suffering in my life that I have allowed to block the growth God wants to give me.

So back to God trying to get my attention with this subject of suffering.

If you ask anyone if they would wish for suffering in their life–financial difficulties, a disease, the loss of a loved one, the rebellion of a child–I am inclined to think that most would answer with an emphatic “No!” Who in their right mind would want anything bad to take place either in their own life or in the life of someone they love? Of course, we know that bad things do happen in everyone’s life. No one walks this earth and escapes some degree of suffering. That was never promised. In fact, we were forewarned of just the opposite. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. If Jesus, who suffered far more than anything we can ever imagine, and He did so for you and me, why would we, a mere human created by Him, expect that we should be able to walk through life scar free? We shouldn’t expect it and it won’t happen.

In reading through the blogs and E-Mails and listening to our pastor and other people educated on this topic, I am beginning to believe that God is wanting a paradigm shift in my thinking. I certainly don’t believe God wants me or any of His children to pray for suffering. That’s not the paradigm shift I’m thinking about. But, what I believe God is wanting of me is thankfulness in spite of, and maybe even, dare I say it, FOR the suffering He allows in my life. “Why would anyone ever thank God for something bad?” you may wonder. I admit, it does sound a little crazy. And yet, at the same time, it makes perfect sense. It was in the midst of marriage difficulties so taxing that divorce seemed imminent that I sought help from godly people who planted seeds of God’s Word in my heart. It was in the midst of a fiery trial that I thought for sure would take my life that I found myself seeking answers from godly people who had the patience to demonstrate the unconditional love I needed to see. And it has been in the midst of the darkness of depression and the pain and suffering of a chronic illness that I have found myself driven time and again to the Psalms. The Psalmist was real with God; he used no flowery language to cover up the fact that he was often in despair. I treasure those Psalms and have started to commit many of them to memory, for on days that are so tough that I am unable to even will myself to grab my Bible and read, those words stored in my heart are brought to mind by the Holy Spirit. They are an affirmation that even though I am in the deepest despair or tremendous pain or complete loneliness, I am not alone. It is the suffering that drives me to God and it is God who is always there. No human on earth can always be there for me. Only God can completely meet my needs for He created me and knows me the best.

That paradigm shift is painful. In all honesty, it is very painful. I wish I didn’t have days so dark I wish to die. I wish I didn’t have a chronic illness that is robbing me of basic abilities. I wish we had finances enough to cover all we need and desire to do. Yet, if I had all those wishes, if tonight I was granted all of them as truth, would I still desire God? Would I still be driven to Him in desperation and humbleness? I don’t think so. If I had all those things, either I might be tempted to think I don’t need God or I might be tempted to think I am all God needs. That just isn’t reality. Reality is suffering is real and painful and discouraging and beautiful. That last one doesn’t seem to fit but without the beauty of suffering, I may never know the extent of God’s provision.

A paradigm shift that will probably take me a lifetime to learn.

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Of Praise and Poetry

I have mentioned several times how much I love to write. I have stressed how much I need to write. Writing is therapeutic because it helps me process my thoughts which are often just tangled messes squirming around in my head. Often when I write I feel like a little child who discovers a knot in her shoelace. Instead of my little fingers untangling the knot so I can tie my shoes, I find the knot gets tighter and tighter until I am so frustrated I start to cry. Writing untangles the knotted thoughts in my head, and even though putting those thoughts into words sometimes leaves me with tears of frustration, at the end of all the typing, deleting, and re-typing, I find a satisfaction in knowing at least that part of the knot is untangled. Just like shoelaces, though, more knots appear, but it is far easier to untangle one at a time rather than a shoelace full of them.

One thing that most people do not know about me though is that I enjoy writing all kinds of genres. I discovered a love for storytelling as a teen and it was one of my most effective methods of capturing class attention when I taught school. I used to have notebooks full of short stories written in my junior high years. I have no idea where those ended up. My guess is in a load of garbage when my parents moved out of the house where I lived. I also enjoy writing poetry. I’m not much of a free verse kind of person. The OCD in me needs syllables and rhymes to line up. As a young person, I could look at something and come up with a poem about it in a few minutes. When my dad passed away and I had to say something at his funeral, I sat on the balcony of their apartment and composed a poem to read. Being an introvert, public speaking wasn’t my most favorite thing, yet reading a poem I had written was a much less daunting task. Many years since then, my mom has asked me to write poems to remember my dad for different occasions. Others have asked me to write poems for birthdays in their family or some other special event. I do find it more difficult to write poetry when put on the spot. I also need to be alone when I write poetry. I talk the lines out loud so I can hear how they sound when spoken. Needless to say, I do very little poetry writing in public places. People tend to look at you strange when you’re sitting at a table or on a park bench talking to yourself. :)

So where is this all going?

Last week I had a great amount of time in which to just think about some difficult things. I believed God was calling me to do something that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do. That led to my thinking about God and who He really is to me. One of the things I absolutely love about our church is that it is a vertical church. This simply means that everything about it proclaims the name of God–not the name of people. It is the opposite of that statement that has caused me to be frustrated with the majority of music played on our local Christian radio station as well as the stories people call in to tell. So much of it is “me-centered”. A line from a song instantly comes to mind: “My heart and my soul, I give you control, Consume me from the inside out.” There’s a lot of “me” and “my” and “I” in that line. Don’t misunderstand–there is nothing wrong with petitioning God on one’s behalf. The issue for me is more of the fact that it seems the majority of songs are about what we want God to do in us instead of praising God for who He is. I love songs that describe the character of God, songs that ascribe to Him the glory He deserves. One of my favorites is “The Great I AM”. Some of the song goes like this:

“The mountains shake before you, the demons run and flee, at the mention of your Name, King of Majesty; There is no power in hell, or any who can stand before the power and the presence of the Great I AM…”

I get chills just typing those words. When we sing that song at church, there is so much worship being ascribed to God–hands raised, voices lifted high as God is praised. He should be. He is the only One who deserves it.

As I started thinking about that, a poem began to form in my head. I grabbed my notebook and searched for a pencil (I need to write poetry in pencil, not pen; I know, OCD…) I started to write and an hour or so later, I had a poem that I hoped revealed just how praiseworthy God is. Although I seldom share the poems I write (some from the days of depression are honestly dark), I decided to go out on a limb and put this one on my blog. Perhaps it won’t mean the same thing to you for maybe you are in a different place than I am right now. Just maybe, though, someone needs to read these words today–to be reminded that God is the only One who deserves all our praise. Without God, nothing would be. He is in control of everything, yet He chooses to love me. That thought amazes me. Especially me–one who rejected Him for years, one who doubts more than I care to admit, one who gets discouraged, one who fears…you get the idea. Even through all those flaws, and many, many more, God loves me. And God loves you too. I hope you know that.

Worthy of Praise
The heavens declare your glory,
The mountains proclaim your story.
The sun and the stars reflect your light;
All creation displays your power and might.
The creatures of nature–a treat for our eyes,
Animals of earth, birds of the skies.
Nothing exists apart from your hand,
All could vanish at your simple command.

Who am I that You care for me?
My life is a vapor, a mist o’er the sea.
Here one day, the next no more
As waves disappear on the ocean shore.

Everything that has breath is at your command;
You uphold the world with your powerful hand.
You set kingdoms in place and cause others to fall;
Still your ear is atune to my cries when I call.
Your strength is made perfect when I am weak;
In joy and in sorrow it’s your face I seek.
Eternal life you have given to me
In the death that you suffered on Calvary’s tree.

Who am I that you care for me?
A wretched sinner in you now set free;
Apart from you I have no good thing
Forever my lips will sing praise to my King.

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Listening Power

Words.

I love words. There was a time in my life, like everyone else, that words meant nothing to me. I could see them in print in a book or a newspaper but had no clue how to unlock the mystery of what they were trying to say. Once I did learn that secret, though, I was driven to fill my mind with more and more of them. Reading, spelling and vocabulary were my best subjects in elementary school. To this day, I seldom have to look up how to spell a word. If I come across a word whose meaning is unfamiliar to me, and I am unable to figure it out by context clues, I do not hesitate to look up its meaning. After all, if an author believes a certain word in his or her writing is the exact one that is needed there, it must be important enough for me to know what it means. Scientists say we need to use a new word seven times in the correct context to make it a part of our regular vocabulary.

Words are all around us. After all, we live in the digital age. Most every form of communication exchanged in today’s world is in the form of the written word. You are reading this because I sat down at my computer to type it. Major companies conduct a tremendous amount of business through written communication such as E-Mail. I seldom hear the voice of my children. Text messaging is the way to go for this generation. Just last week, my mom, who is eighty-five and has no clue how to text, send E-Mail or use Facebook, met some old friends for lunch. They asked about our family and my mom, in turn, asked how their son, my best childhood friend, was doing. They filled her in on his life and then said something to the fact that they do not hear from him, he never returns phone calls, but if they text him, they get a reply. I’ve tried to explain this fact to her on more than one occasion. Every time she calls me–remember she doesn’t text–she asks how each one of my kids is doing. She is always surprised when I tell her that I know they are alive because they updated their Facebook status or sent me a text the other day. “Don’t they call you?” she asks. “No, Mom. This generation isn’t much for talking on the telephone.”  Even looking for a first job has changed. A few of my kids wouldn’t even consider a place that didn’t have an online application process. They didn’t want to have to go into a store and actually talk to someone to get an application!

The written word has killed the spoken word. So what? After all, one can accomplish so much more via E-Mail rather than taking the time to call several people. One mass message sent to a group and the job is taken care of. A text message is so much more efficient in that one can say only what needs to be said instead of running the risk of being tied up on the phone for hours talking about the weather and what grandma and grandpa are planning to do with the farm. Surely people know how busy life is and there is no time for chatting about something that isn’t of utmost importance at the moment. The problem is that this new reality has led to the loss of the skill of listening. I didn’t really think about it much. I am a modern mom and have jumped on the text messaging-Facebook-E-Mail wagon. I thought nothing of it. Until this week at least. This week, the following words jumped off the page of my Bible as I read:

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)

I stopped reading and looked at those words again.

Quick to listen.

Slow to speak.

Quick to listen.

Slow to speak.

Let’s focus on the listening part first. Do we really know how to listen? I have been in situations where I am talking to someone and that person is nodding their head in agreement with me, yet their eyes are on their cell phone or the giant TV screen playing the football game in the restaurant. I have also been the person guilty of the latter scenario. Perhaps there are no distractions–the cell phone is not out and the restaurant has no televisions. Even then, can we honestly say that we are fully engaged to what is being said?

What about slow to speak?  I know I am guilty of trying to formulate what I am going to say in response to the person before they even finish speaking. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget something they said that I desperately feel needs my response so I “mentally rehearse” my reply as I wait somewhat impatiently for them to stop talking. Worse yet, I interrupt so I don’t lose my train of thought. At the least it is rude; at its best, it is narcissistic.

James, however, couldn’t be any clearer in his instructions. We are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. We often reverse the order of the two and, admittedly, it is often when we are slow to listen and quick to speak that anger flares. Remember, James’ final instruction in verse 19 is “slow to become angry”. Perhaps if we really listened to someone, really heard their heart, and we held our tongues long enough for that person to truly communicate what’s going on inside them, we would be slower to become angry. I know in our marriage, arguments ensue and escalate quicker when words are flying from the mouths of both parties at the same time!

One day this summer I was watching the old television show Little House on the Prairie. (I know–call me sappy. I love that show though.) Mary and Laura were in the one room school house with the other children from Walnut Grove. The teacher, Miss Beadle I believe was her name, was standing in the front of the class giving them a dictation. She would say a sentence and the class would in turn write it on their slates. She would then go around and see if the students had listened carefully and had written down the correct words. She would correct where necessary, return to the front of the class, and give another sentence, this one a bit longer. The students needed to pay close attention to the teacher in order to catch not just the right words, but also the pauses and inflections so they would know where to punctuate with a comma or a period or perhaps a question mark. The students were being trained in the art of listening.

In the first century when James wrote his epistle, the literacy rate was at best ten percent, and most of those were men. People didn’t go to church with their Bibles and follow along as the pastor read. The Bible as we know it didn’t exist at that time. Instead, the letters would be read aloud to those gathered. When Paul wrote each of his epistles, he wrote them as letters. They were mailed to the churches and read aloud to the people. They had to listen carefully in order to understand the message being conveyed. Even as recently as the 1940’s, programs for entertainment in the home were listened to, not watched. Can you imagine a child of the 21st century being able to only listen to Dora the Explorer rather than watch it on TV??

We live in a very different era. The spoken word has been replaced by the written word. Where I live, in the last year, two new churches have opened and have sent out mail advertisements stating things like casual dress, upbeat music, and short sermons. You can get in and out of church in less than an hour. We passed one church a while back that advertised “Sunday Express”. It was a 30 minute church service. In other words, you need to do your duty for God but we know your lives are busy with the NFL and soccer games so we won’t make you stay here very long. I wonder what the early church would have thought of such an idea? Even today, in places like China and some countries in Africa, the ability to get to church gatherings is not easy, so when the people meet, sometimes they are together for several hours. I recently read of a church in Uganda where the pastor arrives early in the morning and as people come in, they join the worship already started. He waits several hours to start preaching though because some of his congregation has to walk many miles to get to church and he wants to be sure to wait until he feels all have arrived. Church there is an all day affair and it is welcomed and held dear by these people. In America, anything over an hour in most cases has people fidgeting in their seats or browsing Facebook on their IPad while the preacher is talking. (Just for the record–this does not describe my church. Our services are at least 90 minutes and sometimes longer if our pastor or worship pastor is really fired up :) )

As far as I know, schools no longer require dictation exercises as part of the curriculum. How could they when so much learning takes place via a computer or television screen? It’s a shame though. Children today aren’t being taught to listen. They see mom and dad looking at their cell phones or a television screen and when they try to say something, they are often shushed because something important is happening–like the Vikings scoring a touchdown is the biggest miracle in the world! Okay, maybe that could be considered one of the biggest miracles in the world, but you get the idea. The Bible is a timeless book because it is the actual words of God, and since God never changes, His instructions found therein do not change either. Therefore, James’ words still apply to us today. Be quick to listen slow to speak and slow to become angry. I wonder how many relationships would be saved if everyone got back to learning how to really listen to others?

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