Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Simple Pleasures

Pippy and Molly trotted alongside me, basking in the rare February sunshine. Fifty five degrees and not a cloud in the sky is unheard of in a northern Pennsylvania winter and the dogs knew it. Their furry faces were downright cheery.
Together the three of us breathed in the fresh air and familiar scent of lake water brushing up against the rocks at the bay's edge. Pippy and Molly pranced with all of the thrill and excitement of liberated hostages. They sniffed at tree stumps and dirt with exuberance, as if they were discovering nature for the very first time. In their prancing paws I could practically hear the refrain, "Free at last, free at last, thank God I'm free at last."
Along the surface of the bay I took in the sight of dozens of small little boats dotting the surface of the still blue water. The small crafts bobbed up and down and swayed left to right as fishermen stood up and cast their lines into the chilly waters below. Not a chunk of floating ice in sight, the men could cast their line and reel while leaving the ice-pick at home - a fisherman's February dream.
Back on dry land little tricycles and big wheels went zooming past me. Parents followed in hot pursuit, reminding kids to use their manners. But what child could possibly remember manners when a rare winter bike ride was underway? One youngster struggled to make her little legs pump her shiny pink Barbie bicycle. Thankfully her Mom came to her rescue and gave the fledgling rider a much needed push. The little girl went speeding effortlessly down the pavement as she let out a few "yipees" and many bouts of joyous laughter. Glee was written all over her face.
It was on this snow-less pavement, in the middle of February, walking with my furry friends, that nothing truly significant happened.
And yet everything significant happened because it was on that ordinary walk that I remembered how God is in the little things.
Under the unexpected February warmth, basking in the winter sun, I was reminded that life's simplest pleasures can be God's greatest gifts. Watching Pippy and Molly enjoy the natural beauty and wonder of God's creation prompted me to follow their lead. As the dogs sniffed at the tantalizing treasures of soil and earth below, I decided to embrace the awe and enchantment of their wandering noses by looking at the sky above. Gazing overhead, I simply reflected on the wonder of God's creation and as I did a smile broke out across my face.
How awesome is our Creator God! 
In the shining sun I could see and feel the mercy of God and the abundant warmth of His love. Blessing and thanksgiving washed over me like a tidal wave. Without a single word or sound uttered my heart began to cry out passionate "thank yous" to the Maker of the beauty and the designer of the precious simple pleasures surrounding me.
The scene was so lovely that Pippy, Molly and I added an ex
tra mile to our walk bu all walks, even the best of them, must come to an end. Thankfully, recognizing and rejoicing in God's simple pleasures and abundant goodness need never end.
On warm days and cold frigid days, it is my prayer that I will keep the lesson of the simple pleasures forever in my heart, prompting me to look upon the beaming face of God and say with all my heart and soul, "Thank you."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lunchables and Life in 1999

Today I made a routine stop at the gas station to refill my car's empty tank. This is usually an uneventful occurrence and today was no exception. As I watched the screen click by in gallons and dollars I decided to play the fill up game. You know the one where you pick a dollar or gallon amount and challenge yourself to stop the flow of gasoline at that one particular moment on the pump's digital screen? The "stop on the precise cent" gas pumping game has no reward but I'm quite sure that most every adult plays it. I play it nearly every time I get gas and nearly every time I lose.
Today I chose to stop the fueling ritual at "$20.00." I watched the screen like a hawk with my hand gripping the lever, prepared to release the latch at the perfect moment. At nineteen dollars I slowed down the flow of gasoline. I judged the fueling speed as I counted down. Three, two, one. Release.
On the screen I saw defeat. "19.99." So close but yet so far.
When playing the fill up game this is normally when I go for the fueling equivalent of a Hail Mary pass by attempting to swiftly pull and release the gauge with such precision that only one cent worth of gas releases. I almost never succeed in my feat and today I didn't even go for such a play. The moment my eyes looked upon the numbers 1-9-9-9 I knew the game was over. It was supposed to be over because 1999 was, today, precisely where I was meant to stop.
When I gazed upon 1-9-9-9 I didn't see dollars and cents. I saw a year; my ninth year of life. In 1999 I was in the fourth grade. I remember that year well. It was, in many ways, a challenging year for me. It wasn't the school work that created a problem. It was the feeling of being alone.
In 1999 all of my friends were in other classrooms. That was tough enough during math, science and school projects but it was at its worst during lunch. Since the seating in the elementary school cafeteria was separated according to classroom no friends in class meant no friends at the lunch table.
I remember eating at the end of the table, feeling like an outcast as I munched on my Lunchables. I could see my friends across the cafeteria but I couldn't sit next to them. I couldn't join in their conversation or share in their laughter. I could see companionship and belonging but it felt a world away.
I've done a lot of growing up since 1999. I no longer eat Lunchables and I don't get my meals from ladies in hair nets. Adulthood has freed me from the cafeteria of my childhood but it hasn't freed me from feelings of loneliness. I often feel just as alone as I did as a nine year old girl.
Being trapped in a body plagued with MS, a condition that is so hard to explain, can be utterly isolating. No one can see the pain and torment gripping my body. No one can truly know the toll on my spirit caused by a malfunctioning body. There are days I feel just as removed from companionship and alienated from the world as I did during fourth grade lunch.Today as I reflected on my loneliness of 1999 I realized that it is not so different from my loneliness of today, in 2017. But there is one glaring difference.
Now I know the truth. I am not alone and never have been.
In 1999, as a young girl, I didn't understand this truth. I didn't see that God was right there with me at the lunch table. God never missed a day or skipped a lunch. He was never absent and never even dreamed of going to sit at another table. God was there with me for every Lunchable and every soggy chicken pattie. As a vulnerable nine year old girl I never looked up to behold His presence. I didn't reach out to Him to keep me company.
But today, in 2017, I see that God was with me then and He is with me now. In my physical struggles, pain and suffering God has been present as my comforter and sustainer. He's never missed a single spasm or flare up. During every hot flash He's stuck by me. God has never let me endure my pain alone. When I've cried, God has been there. When I've laughed, God has been there. When I've had bad days, lamented my lot in life and begged for it all to end, God hasn't even contemplated switching tables.
God has and always will be with me. From the gourmet meals to the worst of the cafeteria offerings; from the highs to the lows of my physical condition. God is always there as my companion and friend. I am never alone because God takes a seat right next to me at every table.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I am well

I used to think my sickness was a curse. Some cruel form of punishment for past wrongdoings. When I became sick I believed I was the cause of my illness. Something I had done in my previous life, my life before I became one with Christ, must have brought about my malady. I believed that my sickness was a consequence for my rebellion.
Years ago God lifted that veil of misunderstanding. He showed me that when He forgave me and when I accepted that forgiveness, my transgressions and every evidence that they were ever perpetrated was removed. God forgave and forgot. When my eyes were opened to this truth a heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders. I wasn't the cause of my health crisis. My sin didn't bring about my sickness. I was and am forgiven and free.
The burden of self-guilt and blame lifted years ago but one question has remained. Why am I sick? I've asked this question so many times I sound like a broken record. I question why my health took a drastic and sudden turn for the worse and what set the whole decline into motion. Like a young child longing for understanding I've raised my question to God, seeking clarity and truth. If I am not the cause of my condition, then what did cause it and why?
For years I have been waiting for God to answer my question. From my knees on my floor I've been calling for help, writing messages of SOS in the sands of my heart's desperate cries. Little did I know that I was asking the wrong question.
All this time I've been defining my sickness in terms of my physical condition. God's definition looks much different. And so is His answer.
You see, here is where I went wrong. I thought that being sick was all about the failing of my body but God's definition of sickness is entirely different. He defines sickness as a weakness in heart. Sickness is not a condition of the body. It is a separation from Christ.
In that moment of revelation God showed me that His primary concern for me is not the functioning of my body. It is the wellness of my heart.
And that's when I received the answer to my question.
You are not sick. You are not weak because you're heart is strong in Christ.  
God had to cleanse me of my faulty definition of sickness before I came to realize that I was asking the wrong questions and seeking the wrong answers. The right answer, the one my heart has longed for all along, was written long before I ever posed the question.
I am not sick at all. I am well because all is well with my soul.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stink Bugs Squashing

It was my freshman year in college when I first encountered my first Halyomorpha halys, more commonly known as a "stink bug." Somehow I had managed to live eighteen years without ever meeting a stink bug but that all changed in my college door room. Stink bugs, I soon came to learn, were not uncommon in dormitory life.
As a squeamish freshman killing stink bugs gave me the creepy- crawlies. I hated the sound and the sensation of the bug's crunchy exterior being squashed beneath my fist full of paper towels - my go-to method for execution. I felt unkempt just knowing the little pests were in my residential dwelling. I marveled at the upperclassmen, the stink bug killing veterans, who could squash the intruders without batting an eyelash.
The end of my college days marked the end of an era, and what I thought would be the end of stink bug encounters. I returned home to my bedroom that had always been blissfully stinkbug-less and gladly closed the chapter of my insect-killing days.
It has been years since I have been in college and I had practically forgotten the unsettling sound of the stink bug's wings. I had successfully put out of my mind the memories of crushing the unwanted, unappealing insect.
Until I heard it.
A flying, buzzing, unnerving bug.
A stink bug.
I knew it the moment I heard the buzz. My eyes darted around the room, trying to pinpoint the location of my intruder. And there he was. Affixed to the windowsill I saw an inch of insect that looked all-too comfortable and all-too alive for my liking.
Without so much as a moments hesitation I reached behind me, grabbed a roll of paper towels off the counter; unraveled; ripped and ran towards the windowsill. 
Squash. With one fowl swoop I took out that stink bug. He never saw it coming. He never stood a chance.
And neither did the next twenty or so stink bugs I killed in the coming month. Every day brought another stink bug. In the living room perched on the curtains. In my bedroom sitting on my desk. The stink bugs made their way through every room in the house.
The stink bug intruders didn't come in massive force, just one by one, but they did come with persistence. So I kept coming with paper towels. Every time I heard a faint buzz I reached for my weapon of choice and went on the prowl.
To be honest, I had a few squeamish moments at my first few run-ins with my old nemesis but with every new day and every new stink bug my courage grew stronger. Before I knew it I was taking out stink bugs without so much as the slightest twinge of a flinch. With so much practice, I quickly perfected my aim and squash.
As the seasons have changed the stink bugs have gone into retreat. It has been weeks since I've had an unwelcome guest buzzing around my bedroom but those pesky little bugs have left behind a lesson: the more I'm forced to swat and squash an unwanted foe the less I squirm in the process.
My stink bug saga isn't unique to insects. It is true of every struggle in life. The more often a trial is presented, the more adept we become at handling it. The more I am forced to confront the same obstacle, the same unnerving bug, the more skilled I am at confronting my foe without letting it send shivers up my spine. The more I stand up to my enemy, the less his disconcerting schemes faze me.
The enemy has a cunning way of sneaking into my house and heart. Maybe he learned his tactics from the stink bugs. But if I squash my struggles in the name of Jesus Christ I will become stronger in the process. God will use every stink bug of a situation to impart more of His overcoming power into my soul and into my squashing techniques.
As I continue to squash and stomp on the evil intruders in this life they become far less squirm-inducing. With God as my weapon I am empowered to look the Halyomorpha halys of life square in the eye and say, with confidence and conviction, "You, little bug, don't stand a chance."

Last night at the Grammys...

Last night I turned on the Grammy's. It would be hard for me to say I actually actively "watched" the Grammys. It was more of a blank stare into an alternate universe. It as as if I were watching a world I didn't understand and had never encountered before. As I watched the long string of celebrities walk the red carpet and take the mic of the Staples Center a familiar question came to mind, the same question I had during my high school graduation ceremony. "Who are all of these people?"
Out of a class of six hundred there were, quite naturally, students I had spent twelve years of school with who I had never met. I didn't know half of my peers. As the jumbo screens at the Grammys flashed pictures of recording artists, clips from the latest music videos and montages of the past year's hits I realized I had never seen half of the faces on the screen. The celebrity names and songs sounded as foreign as the French language.
Each live Grammy performance further separated me from the world being displayed on TV. The outfits (or lack-there-of), most of the lyrics and the multi-colored flashing lights assaulted my eyes and ears. As I watched barely-clothed women dance while men sang about the bare female body I felt sick to my stomach. The depravity and immorality parading on stage was worse than a high school full of rebellious teenagers.
As I clicked off my TV screen well before the ceremony came even close to ending my heart began to break for the emptiness of the world I had just witnessed. Every one of those celebrities was created in the image of God, no different than me. They were given gifts and talents and the opportunity to know Christ, just like me. And just like me every guest in attendance was and is a sinner. Just like me.
For many award show seasons I have chosen not to turn on the TV. I haven't wanted to take in the sight of this lost world or hear its depraved music but last night I needed to see it. I've scoffed at celebrity sinners and deemed them a lost cause. Where is the hope for the masses who believe their sin is glorious, fun and worthy of a golden statue?
But last night I was compelled to watch because I needed to see the sin on the screen to be called into prayer action. I needed to be reminded of how very dark sin's pit truly is and how tight its hold on this world. I needed to be reminded that the culture and the precious children of God who play by its rules are perishing with star-studded fanfare and brilliant lights. I had to look upon the demeaning and the demoralizing to remember that Hollywood and its fans are in desperate need of deliverance.
What I learned last night during the Grammys was that I have been complacent in my prayers for the celebrity culture of my generation. I've chosen to ignore the cries for help being belted out on TV screens and radio waves. These people are perishing. They are living for the sins of today and dishonoring the God of eternity. They have traded obedience and morality for corruption, sex and sin. They have given their bodies over to the ways of the flesh and lost their souls.
But it isn't too late. With God there are no hopeless cases. The culture is never too far gone for God to redeem, save and restore. The Grammy stage is not out of God's reach. He can break into the lives of the celebrities parading around to the sounds of sin. God can open the eyes of the lost that have glamorized the human body and mocked the risen body of Christ.
The lost in Hollywood are no more lost than I was before I was saved by Christ. The doomed culture that has a death-grip on this generation is the same culture that once held me in its clutches. But thanks be to God I am not the same as I once was. God broke the chains that bound me to the sin that was slowly and surely destroying me.
And God can do the same for the guests at the Grammys and all the fans watching the spectacle on TV. God can turn their black hearts into beacons of light.
I didn't learn any new song lyrics last night and I couldn't tell you a single winner for a single award but I can tell you this much. I am going to be praying for every guest at the Grammys. In the name of Christ and by the power of His Spirit I am compelled and charged with the duty and obligation to pray for this generation because although it is lost and crumbling in the wake of sins destruction, these people are God's beloved, created by Him and worthy of saving.
May my prayers be frequent and fervent for the perishing, that God would save them quickly and redeem them completely.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Cracker Barrel: more than chicken n' dumplings

Cracker Barrel is for their chicken n' dumplings. According to their data, Cracker Barrel serves a whopping 11 million plates of chicken n' dumplings every year. Talk about a lot of dough!
As a child I helped to contribute to those 11 million orders of the Cracker Barrel classic. Chicken n' dumplings were my go-to dinner on Cracker Barrel outings. I didn't even need to look at the menu. For sides I kept it traditional with corn (off the cob) and mashed potatoes (with a generous helping of gravy). I never passed up a flaky biscuit (or two) smothered with strawberry jelly. The indulgent (and heavy) meal was one of my favorites. Being a northerner, it was my closest taste bud encounter with southern comfort food and I savored every bite.
But I loved Cracker Barrel for more than the chicken and dumplings. In fact, the food played a secondary role in the chain restaurants appeal. What I loved most about Cracker Barrel was the wait.
If you've ever been to a Cracker Barrel you've probably experienced a wait to be seated. Aside from their chicken and dumplings, Cracker Barrel is famous for their easy access to the interstate. Pair location with a menu full of carb-heavy classics and you have the perfect restaurant stop for tour bus travelers. Nearly every Cracker Barrel I've ever visited has a massive coach bus in the parking lot and a waiting list at least ten rows deep. At most restaurants this would be a deterrent, or at least an annoyance, but not at Cracker Barrel. At good old CB patrons look forward to the wait because while they wait, they get to shop in the restaurants general store.
For waiting children there are classic wooden toys, candies in big glass jars and old fashioned wind up toys. Ladies in wait for a table love to peruse the candles, scarves and home decor accessories. Men busy themselves with books and grilling tools of the BBQing trade. Even the shopping adverse don't mind the wait as long as they can snag a rocking chair on the restaurant's front porch.
Cracker Barrel has perfected the art of the wait by transforming it from a nuisance into an experience. The delay in seating is a destination for shoppers, front-porch rockers and sugar-addicted children. The treasures and treats found in the Old Country Store are so enticing that diners don't bat an eyelash upon hearing, "The current wait time is thirty minutes." The soon-to-be-diners are too busy being current shoppers.
I'm sure Cracker Barrel would like to take credit for the genius of their restaurant's old country store design but the "enjoy the wait" principle dates back to an era long before the restaurant ever opened its doors. Before 1969 the principle of enjoying a wait showed up in print, in the very word's of scripture.
The Bible established the best way to wait: joyfully. Wait with thankfulness and expectation that what is to come is even better than a heaping plate of chicken n' dumplings. In scripture God has an abundance of stories displaying the treasures to be had while waiting. Blessings for Abraham. Strength for Moses, Joseph and Job as they waited.
Since the very beginning of time, God has used periods of waiting to bless, enrich and empower.
While we wait God has for us gifts and blessings better than anything that can purchased in an old country store. While we wait God offers us rest that is more comforting and refreshing than the best of rocking chairs complete with a cold glass of Sweet Tea. God uses the periods of waiting in our lives to shower us with endurance and spend intimate moments with us. He chats with us without the distraction of rolls and jelly to steal away our attention. He nourishes us with the health and vitality of His word that sticks with us longer than a plate rich in southern comfort food.
But there's a catch. To have this special time with God requires that we be told we'll have to wait. If we get seated right away we miss all all of the pleasures that are in God's old country store. We won't have the time to wander and explore the isles God has so perfectly put on display along our journey. We'll miss out on the beautiful treasures God has in store. Without the wait, we end up walk right past beauty and splendor because all we can imagine is the main course.We miss all of the goodies and treats that we could have had if only we were made to wait.
God longs for you and I to cast away our cares of the seating list and cherish the time spent in His presence while we wait for the main course. Our table will be called. Our plates will arrive int heir time because God has promised us full, bright, nourishing futures and He will not disappoint. But before we make it to that table God has designed a wait worth savoring. 
So next time you're looking for a dinner destination why not try out your local Cracker Barrel. Fill up on some biscuits and order one of those 11 million plates of chicken n' dumplings.
But first, browse the store and enjoy the wait. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Eternal Balloons, Endless Hope

Today on my morning dog walk I looked up and saw a bundle of balloons stuck in a big tree. The shiny blue and white rubber twisted and tangled around branches, their strings dangling in the wind.
As I looked up at those balloons, evidence of a night of celebration, I saw something infinitely more profound than a party. I saw my hopes and dreams.
Over the past six years I have been clutching with white knuckles my own bundle of balloons inflated with hopes for a different future and dreams of a full life. I've hung onto heart-shaped balloons, dreaming of someone to love. I've tried so desperately to keep hold of balloons blown up with the hope of health.
But recently I've started letting go of my balloons. My hands have been loosening their grip. My heart hasn't wanted to hang onto tangled strings any longer. So one-by-one I've been releasing my balloons, sending my hopes and dreams into the sky.
All the while, as I've been letting go, I've assumed that my hope and dream filled balloons have been disappearing into the sky. That's what balloons normally do. They sail up and away on the winds of change and soar off into the distance. They become specs in the sky, they fade into the clouds and become distant memories.
I figured that's where my hopes and dreams would end up, too.
Lost to the skies.
But I was wrong.
As I've been releasing my balloons, finding freedom in unclenched hands and serenity in living unfettered by tangled up strings, God has been trapping them. He's been catching my hopes and dreams on the branches of His mighty, outstretched arms. I never looked up long enough to see that He has been storing up my liberated longings. Little did I realize that the desires of my heart haven't been disappearing. They've been being kept safe.
God has been taking my hopes and dreams and weaving them into my story. Today I looked up into the trees and finally understood that by releasing my will to God He was able to grab hold of it. By giving Him the deepest desires of my heart I was actually making sure they would be safe and protected. When I gave up trying to hold onto strings that were leaving me twisted and tangled, destined to one day deflate or pop, God took hold of them and suspended them in eternity. By giving God control of my hopes I wasn't letting them float off into oblivion, never to be seen again. I was actually putting them in the ultimate place of protection, the providence of God's will and the power of His hands.
In the trees God revealed to me that He alone has the ability to hold onto the balloons of my hopes and dreams without getting tangled or letting a single desperate longing blow off into the wind. When I let Him take over the strings He is faithful to keep hold of my balloons and wrap them tightly into His plan for my life.
God has not, for a single moment, let my hopes and dreams out of His sight. They aren't just a spec on His radar, floating off into space. They are close to His heart. They are in His hands. And one day they will descend back down into my life when the time, His time, is right.