Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Love Like Winter

“He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes." ~ Psalms 147:16
Andrea had always considered herself a one-season gal.  She only enjoyed summer with its hot sun, warm breezes, and cold popsicles.  Summer is for swimming and vacationing, it’s for listening to the cicadas, sipping wine coolers, and smelling lilac blossoms.
But then came the other seasons; fall and spring with their winds and rain and, winter, where everything is frozen and ostensibly dead.  Sure, winter in the Rockies is magnificent, but winter in the Midwest, where Andrea lived, was a brutal battle against the forces of nature: shoveling snow, treacherous roads, and cancelled flights.
Today however, she gazed out the window and gave thanks to God for this day; grateful that while it was winter outside … it was no longer winter inside her heart.  For too long she’d felt like winter languished there.  For too many years the world had seemed cold and harsh.  For – ever, she’d foolishly avoided the warmth of God's love.
After breakfast Andrea pulled on a favorite sweater and slowly sipped a mug of coffee.  She heard the gentle thumping noise as the furnace kicked on and warm air flowed from the heat vents.  She chuckled as her youngest stood on one of the vents to warm his feet.  In spite of the bitter cold on this frozen winter’s day, she felt the fire of His love heating her heart and soul from within.
Outside the grass lay frosted; the ground crunched beneath her feet as she walked the dogs.  The sun was rising but did little to ease the cold.  The snow had a purity that raised her spirit, the world made pristine as a new book full of adventures.  Even the chill on her face felt refreshing.
Andrea saw her breath noting how we don't see it in other seasons.  She caught a snowflake – so whimsical yet geometrically perfect … and watched it disappear.
“God’s a genius,” she thought to herself.  He carefully ordained every ray of sunshine, drop of rain, bolt of lightning, and falling snowflake.  There’s a warmth that tumbles out in the winter time; when all else is so cold.  It radiates from those who love and nurture as easily as they breathe.  In truth, the sparks of kindness are always present no matter the season.
Andrea returned to the house and prepared for the day.  She wondered how much complaining would be eliminated from our lives if we could truly be thankful for the weather we experience each day - the rainy days as much as the sunny ones, and the cold days as much as the warm ones.
Friends - let those perfect plans go.  Slide over that patch of ice, relish the cool breeze, fashion a snow angel.  Soon enough the weather will change.  Maybe you will too.
Almighty Father, don’t let my heart stall in Winter.  Shine Your love and light into my heart and soul, then let me share my Spring with the world.  Amen

Friday, December 14, 2018

Bebop's Final Gift

“Be kind and compassionate to one another." ~ Ephesians 4:32
Today marks five years since the Hanson family lost their infant daughter, Bianca.
Bianca, or Bebop, was born with a serious heart condition and had basically become a citizen of the pediatric intensive care unit of the hospital.  She’d already had a half dozen open heart surgeries in her short 11 month life.
Jenna and Marcus snuggled their precious baby as her health began to fail.  Marcus pressed the call button and paced the room, then pressed it again.  The nurse took one look at little Bianca and paged the doctor.  They were not prepared for what came next.
While waiting for the doctor, several musicians appeared at the doorway and asked if they could play a few tunes.  The performers were part of a group called Pickleberry Pie that provides free concerts for seriously ill kids in various hospitals and special facilities nationwide.
The Hanson’s agreed and soon they were all singing “Jesus Loves You.”  As they sang, something magical happened.  The hospital sights and sound faded into the background, along with all their fears and anxieties.  Joyful notes filled the air and the lively tempo transported them into an entirely different mental state; a transcendent quality that calmed and soothed aching spirits.
The tiniest hint of a smile slowly spread across Bianca’s face and reached into her doe-eyed innocence.  Chubby little hands went straight into her mouth as she giggled with pleasure at the sight of her parent’s glowing faces.
Bebop’s happiness was infectious as it slowly crept into the hearts of everyone present.  She was the epitome of God’s creation and had captured the hearts of everyone around her, just by a single smile!  Her expression spoke volumes as if to say “I love you and I loved being loved by you!”
They sang the last of several more songs when it occurred to Jenna that she’d not heard Bebop breathe for a few minutes.  She leaned back to look at her and saw that their beautiful child was gone.  She’d left this world hearing joyful music while sensing her mother’s heartbeat.
It took but a moment, but the memory of Bebop’s smile would comfort them forever.  She didn’t suffer, she wasn’t in pain, and she most certainly wasn’t alone.  Painful at first, the Hanson’s were eventually able to appreciate loving her through this life and the next as God's gift.
Every small thing in life is a moment able to nourish the soul if we let joy in.  Live with awe, humbleness, present in each moment and the gifts of life will fill you to the brim, so much that your joy will overflow and make better the lives of all around you.
Sweet Jesus, help me to smile with the radiance of a child and love with a pure heart devoid of selfishness or jealousy.  Teach me to be happy and appreciate even the littlest things in life, and especially from these angels of God!  Amen

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Yes You Can

“When I prayed to God, He freed me from all my fears." ~ Psalm 34:4
Deja shared a common fear: the fear of heights.  She’d even been terrified of looking down from tall buildings.  Hoping to overcome that crippling fear, she decided to join the parachute school.
Vigorous training helped her prepare for the big moment.  But at the signal to jump, Deja froze; terrified in fear.  Jake, the instructor, led her back safely into the plane.
She was the only one that day who’d left the runway and landed without jumping.  When her companions met her back at the base they smirked.  Even Deja’s close friends were uncomfortable in her presence.  She failed.
Jake took her aside, explaining that it wasn’t unusual to be afraid.  “Real courage comes from facing and overcoming fear,” he said.  “You can do this!”
They returned to the sky that same afternoon.
Placing his thick forearm on her shoulder, Jake reassured Deja that she could do this.  She nodded, then swallowed hard.
When it was her turn, she positioned herself on the wing strut. Without hesitation this time, she plunged from 13,500 feet.  Her freefall lasted about 30 seconds before pulling the ripcord.
It became instantly clear that something was wrong … terribly wrong.  The parachute had become inoperably tangled.  Her training required that she cut the parachute free.  (Imagine falling at terminal velocity wondering if your reserve chute might also fail).
“Lord,” she thundered.  “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can,” her sweet Savior whispered.  “I’m going to help you.”
Deja cut the twisted chute loose.  She went back into free fall and seconds later pulled her reserve parachute.  Luckily, it opened without any problems.  She floated effortlessly; gazing at the stunning landscape below.  There was nothing more to do than trust the wind and the silk above.  Tears of pure joy filled her eyes.
It was a perfect landing.  She’d conquered the greatest of human enemies: fear … with God’s grace.
I can’t imagine how many times God’s had to do that with me.  I’ve memorized the conversation: “Lord, what You’ve asked me to do is too big.  I can’t do this.”
Then He speaks directly to my soul, “Yes, you can!”
Time and time again He’s patiently cheered me on my journey.  I might still feel afraid, but I believe God is with me.  I may not be in control, but I trust the One who is.  I may not know the future, but I know the God who does.
He’s with us in whatever we face, in the turmoil and struggles, amidst the anxious thoughts and the worries of life.  He gives us the power to live courageously when many things that surround us would tell us to be afraid.  He’s got your back!
Father, I’m so grateful for a God who travels with me every day of my life.  Oh, and I’ve discovered one more thing that makes a big difference: Life goes much smoother when I give up my control and let You pack my parachute.  Amen

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Unrivaled Kindness

“Obey our Lord’s command by sharing each other’s troubles and problems." ~ Galatians 6:2
Raymond’s job was never easy; working in a funeral home was akin to being a wedding planner with only a few days to plan the entire event.  Almost every day a new family, a new story, a new tragedy unfolded.  Raymond understood that – but it was his calling.
An economical coffin was placed at the front of the room, chairs were aligned in perfect rows, soft music played in the background.  He’d prepared the parlor not for the deceased older woman but to soothe the living.
He escorted Betsy, the deceased’s sister, into the quiet room to pay her respects where she lovingly stroked her hair and marveled at how peaceful she looked.  Raymond’s work was done; he remained available yet inconspicuous.
Normally the room would begin filling with grieving friends and relatives.  But today – no one came.  Not a single visitor reached out to mourn the passing of her sister’s life.
Raymond’s heart sank.  “No one should ever grieve alone,” he thought as he approached Betsy.  She looked so small; alone in such a cavernous room.
“Tell me about your sister Emily,” he asked in a genuinely kind voice before sitting beside her.  That one question led to an hours-long outpouring of emotions as varied as the seasons.
He learned that Emily had always been a bit of a loner, but that her isolation deepened as she aged.  Betsy believed it came down to embarrassment.
Emily was increasingly embarrassed that at a party, she wouldn't remember the names of friends that, just a few years ago, she would have remembered.  She'd frequently forget that she told that same story the last time they talked.
By the time Emily was 70, she had, without having made a conscious decision to become a recluse, ostensibly become one.  Her friends stopped inviting her to get together.  A sad tale, but one he’d heard all too often.
But he listened attentively … compassionately … tolerantly.
Finally he said, “Betsy, I’m so terribly sorry for your loss.  Emily died alone with no family to comfort her.  But today, we are her family.  It’s been my honor to sit with you, to memorialize her life, and to remember Emily in death as we commend her soul to eternity.”
Betsy would live the rest of her days never experiencing a greater act of kindness than she experienced in Raymond’s company that day.  If we all lived that kind of life, people like him would never have to sit with a lonely, grieving loved one again.
It’s not good for us to be alone.  God desires that we live in community with friends, family, and other believers.  Whether one or 1,000 people come to your funeral really isn’t the point.  The point is God made us to live our happiest most fulfilled lives with others people.
Almighty Father, thank You for opening our hearts and minds to this corporal work of mercy.  May the perpetual light shine upon Emily, and bring her peace.  Amen

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Caustic Compassion

“Supporting laziness or destructive behavior is irresponsible; not a loving act." ~ Rev. Ron Sider
For the 12th year in a row, Pastor Fowler celebrated Christmas Eve by participating in his church’s Adopt-a-Family gift giving program.
They arrived on time at the chosen inner-city home.  Bare floors had been swept clean, and clutter organized.  A small artificial tree on a corner table blinked with a single strand of colored lights.  Excited children on tiptoes, eyes wide with anticipation, stared over the window’s edge for their first glimpses of Santa’s helpers.
Upon their arrival, Mom greeted the Pastor Fowler and his volunteers, inviting them to come inside.  Her stomach shifted uneasily as she politely accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts.  No one noticed that Dad had quietly slipped out the back door … no one but Mom.
Not until the children had slashed through the wrappings to the treats inside did any of them ask where their Dad was. Mom explained that he’d gone to the store.
The clergyman suspected something he’d never noticed before.  Dad had been emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his own family.  His wife was forced to shield her babies from their father’s shame.  And the children got the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people.  And it’s free!
Even something as innocent as giving Christmas toys to needy children, can extract an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity.  The Pastor realized that what was supposed to be a joyous process, had an unintended darker side.  The emotional price tag clung to him for weeks.
Everywhere he looked, he began to notice the same charitable patterns - from overseas mission trips to inner-city service projects.  Wherever there was sustained one-way giving, unwholesome dynamics and caustic pathologies festered under the cover of compassion.
There had to be a better way.
The following Christmas, Pastor Fowler terminated the church’s Adopt-a-Family gift giving.  Instead, congregants were asked to give an ‘extra’ gift that year – the gift of dignity to low income parents.
Instead of delivering toys directly to the homes of poor families, donors were encouraged to bring unwrapped gifts to an abandoned warehouse in the city.  There volunteers had decorated a section as “Santa’s (special) Toy Shop.”  Bargain prices were attached to each gift.
Parents from the neighborhood were invited to come shopping for gifts sure to excite their kids.  Those who had no money were able to work in the store, earning what they needed for their purchases.  In that way, parents experienced the same joy as parents across the world – seeing their kids open gifts on Christmas that they’d purchased through the efforts of their own hands.
Parents stated that they’d much rather work to purchase gifts for their children than stand in free-toy lines with their “Proof of Poverty” documents.
Jesus, You embody truth and love.  Help us to transform this world.  Help us to direct our generosity towards effective, uplifting and longer term solutions that liberate, energize, and empower for generations.  Amen

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Missing Grandma

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." ~ Matthew 5:4
Holidays are tough when there’s an empty chair … and even emptier hearts.  This will be my first Thanksgiving without my Grandma; she died just weeks before my high school graduation.
It's never about the turkey for me, or the stuffing, or even the fresh-baked pies.  Don't get me wrong, I love all that stuff; Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without it.  But a day that's all about thanking God for what we have (each other, our health and the food we eat), that’s magic!
Grandma's entire family grew up on a small farm in Iowa.  None of her 13 siblings (including her) were able to attend college, yet she lived a blessed life because “as long as you never stop learning, you’ll never stop growing."
When I walked in the house after our 10-hour trip from Michigan, she would enthusiastically greet me at the door with a hug that smelled of cinnamon and confirmed years of humility and sacrifice.  Memories flooded in faster than I could process.
I’ll not forget the gentle way she used to carry me when I wasn’t yet able to walk; the whiff of warm sugar cookies perfectly timed for my arrival; endless games of Old Maid played with time-worn cards; the sweet taste of her homemade strawberry preserves on buttered toast.
She always sat closest to the kitchen for Thanksgiving dinner, but only after every dish was carefully placed on the table.  This year, Mom rearranged where everyone sat hoping to make her absence less noticeable.  The prayer wasn’t even sad, but we all cried anyway.
If only I had one more day with Grandma, I’d start by thanking her for being born.  She started this crazy family and her legacy lives on.
I’d thank her for her ‘mastery’ in the kitchen.  We spent some memorable times together there.  Her cooking was the best.
I’d thank her for the examples she set.  The love she and Grandpa shared provided the perfect model of how a marriage should work.  The love she had for her three boys set a prime example of how to be a great Mom.  And finally, the love that she had for her grandkids showed us all why loving someone is so important.
If you're fortunate enough to have your grandmother in your life, you’re one of the lucky ones.  I've never in my life met a woman as special as mine.  I'm not sure if it's the way she gracefully handled any situation, or if it was her ability to love every family member regardless of their failings.  But there's something about that woman that makes me strive to be just like her.
Father, fill the empty space in our hearts and at our table.  Teach us to savor the moments we have with one another, to rightly remember what we’ve lost, but also to look forward in hope to what You’ve promised for the future.  Amen

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Blind Faith

“Faith is the conviction of things not seen." ~ Hebrews 11:1
It’s a familiar story; a child who simply skipped adolescence.  She’d been dealt a crappy hand in a country of slaves - not to humans but to a life of poverty and hunger to which escape was nearly impossible.  Barely a teenager, she married a man more than 30 years older who forced her into prostitution to support their six children.
Adding to an already-desperate situation, her third child, a ‘preemie’ whose eyes had not yet fully matured, was born sightless.   She believed his blindness was God's payback for the things she’d done wrong in her life.
The child, who eventually changed his name to Eivets, grew up undeterred by the “3 strikes against him (black, blind and poor).”
He was a normal kid who occasionally got into trouble.  Normal except that he mastered every instrument he tried (from kitchen spoons, to the harmonica and later the piano).
His mother eventually fled to Detroit, divorced and found work.  They joined the Whitestone Baptist Church where young Eivets developed a personal relationship with God while expanding his musical talents.
God spoke to me, ‘I will make you rich in the spirit of inspiration, to inspire others as well as create music to encourage the world to a place of oneness, hope and positivity.’  “I believed Him and not them!” Eivets recounted.
There he blossomed into a genuine prodigy, learning piano, drums, and harmonica all by the age of nine.  Two years later, while performing for some of his friends, Eivets was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles who helped arrange an audition with Motown’s Berry Gordy.  Gordy signed the kid immediately under the new name Little Stevie Wonder.  (E-i-v-e-t-s backward).
The rest is history!
A near fatal accident in his early twenties strengthened Wonder’s Christian faith at a crucial time.  A log rolled off a truck and through the window of his tour bus, leaving him in a four-day coma and a permanent loss of smell.  “I was really just a walking pair of ears,” he joked.  “God kept me alive to use His musical gifts to help and encourage more people.”
For over 5 decades, Stevie Wonder remains at the top, with more than 30 Top 10 singles, over 150 million albums sold, 26 Grammys, one Academy Award, and sold-out shows around the world.  Sometimes though, the numbers don't tell the whole story.  He still works tirelessly to promote peace, love and understanding for all.  And gives all the credit where it’s due.
“We have a great relationship.  If He didn’t want me to sing, He wouldn’t have given me the talent to do it.  He’s always been like a Father to me.  For everything I’ve received [in life] I give all praise to God.”
Father God, I’ve achieved nothing compared to what You’ve done for me. I truly believe that You do miracles through people of faith expressing practical love for others rather than people of faith living lives which cause division and pain.” ~ Stevie Wonder

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Guarding the Unknowns

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."
They can’t be returned home to friends or loved ones.  No one knows for certain how, when or even ‘if’ they actually died.  Their remains are memorialized by a cube-shaped sarcophagus on a grassy hillside overlooking Arlington Cemetery; a solemn tribute to the soldiers who died in combat but whose remains aren’t identifiable.  They remain, perpetually, soldiers who not only gave up their lives for this country, but theie identities as well.
There’s perhaps no greater honor than to be selected as a Tomb Guard.  They’re the best of the army’s most elite 3rd Infantry Regiment – superbly conditioned with unblemished military records.
If recommended, applicants complete an intense training period covering weapons, ceremonial procedures, cemetery entombments, uniform preparation, and military orders.
Tomb sentinels uphold a lofty standard.  They must commit two years of life guarding the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives.  They cannot swear in public and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way.
The ‘Honor Guard’ is the Army’s least-awarded badge.  It’s the only one that can be revoked (even after they’ve retired) for any act that “disrespects” the Badge.   Only 400 are presently worn (4 by females).
For the first 6 months of duty, Guards can’t talk to anyone or watch TV.  They spend 5 hours daily preparing their uniforms (polishing brass buttons and hand-shining shoes; wrinkles, folds or lint are absolutely unacceptable.).  That’s followed by 3 hours of “mirror time” during which they spin their rifles, check their posture and stumble in private so they’re ‘perfect’ in public.
Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb regardless of weather, sporadic taunts from the crowd, or occasional insect attacks.  They’re only allowed to break ceremonial position to tell unruly visitors to “remain silent while at the national shrine.”  The tomb’s been continually guarded since July 2, 1937.
Sentinels walk exactly 21 steps, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds.  They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder (always between the Tomb and the audience), then step off for another 21 steps down the mat.  Twenty-one represents a 21-gun salute, the nation’s highest military honor.
Their shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt.  “I walk my tour in humble reverence … with dignity and perseverance!”
At no other place in America does the sound of click-clacking steps mean so much to so many!
“It’s he who commands the respect I protect, her bravery that made us proud.  Surrounded by well-meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.” ~ Sentinel’s Creed

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Personal Day

“The seasons display God’s true craftsmanship." ~ Psalm 19:1
Rachel woke early as usual, ready for another grueling ride on the corporate carousel.  She was nearing her wit’s end at work; the strain really beginning to surface.  Lately she hadn’t been able to concentrate, think clearly, or manage her emotions effectively.
“This may be the perfect time for a Personal Day!”  She wasn’t in the midst of a critical project; her absence wouldn’t be a problem for the team today.
She arose from the warmth of a down comforter, lit a vanilla candle, and started a new book.  The air was just warm enough to leave the window open; its gentle breeze fanned the pages forward.
After several alluring chapters, Rachel donned warm socks and a thick sweater.  She considered spending the day vegging out and catching up on her favorite TV shows.  But she treated herself to something far healthier: sunshine, fresh air, and a peaceful walk among falling leaves.
Autumn was her favorite season.  It had its own unique way of bringing beauty by stimulating the senses, by making what could be dreary into the most enchanting natural art.  It brought a fresh start, feeding the soils as is the natural way of life; the grand finale of a successful season.
When Rachel entered the forest her spirits soared beyond the colorful boughs above.  Brilliant shafts of sunlight stroked the carpet of reds and golds before her like a path for Royals.
Rachel bunched her scarf up like a pillow and laid on it on the grass.  She spent the next hour watching the sky as leaves tumbled toward her, dancing from branch to ground, each a colorful flag roaming freely.  The trees beckoned her shout out loud, just to hear a voice echo amidst their mahogany flesh.
Before heading home, Rachel browsed an open-air market shopping for the perfect products for dinner with a friend tonight.  She picked up a loaf of fresh bread, a few vegetables for soup and salad, and a jug of fresh apple cider.
Walking home on what had been a perfect autumn day, Rachel found herself thinking about life’s impermanence.  Time passes … from season to season.  We experience the budding of life in spring and the flowerings and profusions of summer.  Now the leaves fall and bare branches remind us of the fleeting nature of all things and the challenge to live every day to the fullest.
Autumn is the perfect time to hear God’s voice amidst the sound of leaves crunching and the scent of pumpkin-flavored coffees.  She closed eyes in prayer, comforted when He whispered Truth to her: No matter the changes that come her way, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He is eternally unchanging and faithful - no matter the season, no matter the circumstances.
Father God, thank You for Your unfailing love for me, Your blessings, and goodness.  Thank You for Scriptures that guide me and see me through times of uncertainty and remind me of Your promises, plan, and provision.  Amen

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The End of the Leash

“Some angels choose fur instead of wings." ~ Unknown
Kevin came into their lives thirteen years ago.  A human name for the mixed-breed pup seemed fitting because for all practical purposes, he was treated like one of the family.  And in return, the dog adored children (they had but one), travel (he lived for exploration), and his family.
One morning, Natalie (9), first noticed that he wasn’t quite right.  He’d slowed way down, wouldn’t stop panting even in cool weather and had difficulty walking.  Kevin was finding it hard to get comfortable sleeping and would stare at her, intensely - never wanting to leave her side.
After the Vet’s diagnosis, they all clung to the hope that that he’d go peacefully in his sleep.  But Dad reasoned that dying ‘naturally’ wouldn’t necessarily mean Kevin’s death would be peaceful, quick or calm.  Potentially, it could be terribly distressing.
The time had come … he’d reached the end of his leash.
The day of Kevin’s procedure, the whole family gathered to spend the day with him.  They watched movies together, cuddled him, talked to him, sat in the sun with him, took pictures, and of course made him a delicious steak.  If you’ve ever had a dog, you know that table food is all they think about.
On his final car ride together, they drove up the Coast with his head out the window soaking up the sun and the smell of the sea, which would be Kevin’s final resting place when they scattered his ashes.
Upon arrival at the Vet’s, Natalie picked Kevin up and carried him inside.  He placed his soft, wet nose against her neck and looked up through beautiful brown eyes for the last time.  “I’m sorry,” she muttered softly before kissing him lightly on the head.  “Thank you!”
Wrapped in his favorite blanket, Kevin looked up, trusting them implicitly as he’d done all his life.  He looked exhausted.  He knew.
Within a few minutes, he slipped away peacefully.
Dad and Mom took it the hardest.  After all, they’d know Kevin from an 8-week-old pup.  Mom sobbed openly; even Dad wiped away a few tears blaming his allergies for the watering eyes.
“It’s an unfortunate truth,” Dad said, “that dogs are relatively short-lived.  Their deaths always seem premature and unfair, even if they’ve lived to an advanced age.”
Natalie, however, seemed to accept Kevin’s transition without remorse or confusion.  “I know why!” she piped in.  What came out of her mouth next stunned everyone.
“People are born,” she continued, “so that they can learn how to love and be nice to each other.  Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”
I’ve never heard a more comforting explanation.
Faithful friend, loyal companion, we say goodbye for now, until we meet again.  You have kept us warm at night, protected our home and offered us unconditional love.  For this, Kevin, we thank you and will remember you forever.  Love, Natalie

Monday, October 29, 2018

Prison Without Guards

"By His blood your sins are forgiven." ~ Ephesians 1:7
Prisons by nature are unpleasant places.  You’d think that after over 30 years in prison ministry, Charles Colson (ex-Watergate felon and founder of Prison Fellowship - a global ministry for prisoners, ex-cons and their families) had seen it all.
So when he visited Brazil’s Humaita Prison he expected the worst.  Prisons in developing countries are notoriously filthy, dangerous and neglected.  Inmates maintain order in the form of rigid, gang-controlled hierarchies where brutality rules.
But when Colson visited Humaita, he was struck by its cleanliness and openness.  The cells were orderly; beds neatly made.  Security was completely compromised - no armed guards or high walls.  Instead, it’s run on Christian principles of love of God and respect for each other.
Once a federal penitentiary, it’s now operated as an alternative prison with but 2 full-time staff.  The rest of the work is done by the 700+ inmates serving time for everything from murder and assault to robbery and drug-related crimes.
Every man is assigned another inmate to whom he’s accountable.   Additionally, each prisoner is assigned a volunteer mentor from the outside who works with him during his term and after his release.  Prisoners take classes on character development and are encouraged to participate in educational and vocational training.
But the heart of Humaita’s success is its faith-faith based approach.  The prison is not limited to Christian inmates.  But you couldn’t stay there very long without coming to know Christ.
During his visit, Colson attended a chapel service where several inmates told how they’d been ‘saved.’  Many had already made restitution for their crimes.  When an inmate enters Humaita, his shackles are removed and he’s told, “Here, your heart is handcuffed by love, and you’re watched over by God.”
After the church service, Colson’s guide asked if he’d like to see the ‘punishment’ room - a dark, narrow cell once used to subdue disruptive prisoners.  He further explained that the cell now holds only one prisoner.
When the heavy steel door swung opened, Colson wasn’t overcome by the stench of sweating bodies … but the whiff of fresh flowers.  An altar graced one end of the room.  Above it hung a carving of Jesus on the cross; a sign read, 'We’re together.'  The guide pointed to the crucifix and said, “Jesus is the prisoner who’s taking penance for us all.”
The secret to Humaita’s success is that criminals come to learn of a Savior who, like them, was branded a criminal, and bore the penalty for our sins.  He served their sentence; they are forgiven!
And if you are wondering whether this alternative prison approach works, Brazil’s government reports a 74% percent reoffending rate.  By comparison, Humaita’s recidivism rate is 4%.
Thank You Lord, for doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.  You made it possible for self-centered, prideful, and disobedient people to be forgiven and brought into a loving and personal relationship with You by the blood of Your son Jesus.  Amen

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Love Grows

“Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a real blessing." ~ Psalm 127:3
Malik was a selfish teenager; for him the world that mattered stopped at the tip of his nose.
Later in life, he’d freely admit to spending most of his adolescent years thinking only about himself and taking care of his own needs.
He wasn’t particularly unkind.  He never spoke harshly to children or adults; other people were simply irrelevant to him.  As the youngest of 5 siblings, Malik busied himself with video games, Netflix and his own enjoyment.
He never really meant to be selfish.  More like emotionally blind, he just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) empathize with what other people thought or felt.  He let older siblings do most of the chores around the house.  It was his parent’s responsibility to worry about bills and problems.
That didn’t change in college either.  He studied hard but only to make his own life better.  Even when he began exploring his spirituality, it was only to increase his own pleasure.
Malik married before graduation and decided to start a family.  But reality soon became a nightmare.  Newly unemployed, deeply in debt, and with a new baby on the way, modern life had little sympathy for spoiled, pampered people.
In time he’d realize that all those struggles were slowly beating the selfishness out of him one problem at a time.  The answer crystallized one night shortly after his baby boy was born.
He woke in the middle of the night to the adorable sounds of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ coming from the cradle.  When he reached for his child, Rafael’s tiny fingers curled around his pinky.
Malik gazed down into innocent, trusting eyes and a smile as sweet as fresh strawberries.  He picked Rafael up and nestled the infant close (newborns are as nearsighted as Mr. Magoo), talking softly and soothingly.
Malik felt his heart soar, expanding with love and pure joy.  In that moment, the truth became clear: it’s by sharing our love with others that we create joy, serve God, and make this world a better place.
We ourselves are sometimes the love that saves a life, gives another hope, shows someone the way through, or comforts somebody who is hurting.  We’ll never know how much is benefitted but we can be assured that if we only try, love will prevail and it will grow.
The more people you let into your heart, the bigger your heart gets.  The more love you give, the more love you have to give.  It just keeps growing.
So keep loving then.  Keep living.  Keep laughing.  Keep caring.  Keep sharing.  Keep helping our Heavenly Father to heal this world.  Keep growing your heart today, tomorrow, and always.
Almighty Father, when we look into the eyes of Your children, we know You are looking back at us.  It reminds us of the miracle of birth and all that has to happen for a child to be born.  We feel Your love; without You we would be numb.  Thank You, Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Caring, not Curing

“Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses." ~ Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2
Elan Choi grew up poor.  He parlayed several of the scholarships available to disadvantaged youth into a medical school education.  His final rotation through various medical specialties before choosing a residency program was hospice care, a specific type of palliative care, which focuses on caring, not curing.
The sweet smell of success and recognition intoxicated Elan.  He felt absolutely no guilt over those fixations, as our present culture made them near-impossible to resist.  So he’d chosen a profession where pride and selfish ambition often took priority over humility and compassion.
One dark Friday evening, Elan had just finished bathing, changing, and otherwise comforting most of the residents.  He turned to visit one last room.  As he opened the door of a pitch-black room, light from the hallway trickled in, illuminating an old man staring at a picture on his nightstand: a handsome, young man, arm slung round a beautiful woman with a contagious smile.
“May I join you,” Elan asked.
Turns out, the attractive, well-built man in the picture was indeed him; the woman was his late wife of almost seventy years who’d passed away a few months back.
“She was my whole life,” he began.  “I loved her so much.  She took such great care of our kids.  She cared about everyone more than herself.  I try to sleep a lot because when I’m awake I miss her even more.”  He shared all this, and much more, through recurrent bouts of tears.
Elan didn’t know what the man was dying of, or much about his career, hobbies, or interests.  All he saw at that moment – with every one of life’s essentials stripped away – was the man himself, and what he loved.  The most cherished films, books, and images of romance or devotion were merely counterfeits of this unceasing love.
The man was dying, yet had neither uncertainty nor regret on his mind.  He didn’t yearn for years forgotten, nor was he focused on an eternity ahead.  He was simply human, unapologetically consumed by a lifetime of love.  Elan, an insecure and status-obsessed twenty-eight-year-old, did not even attempt to form the right words.  He put his arm on the old man’s shoulder, gazed with him at his beautiful wife, and wept right alongside.
At that very moment, he made a life-changing residency choice.
He’d spend his career sitting and listening with those who embody both suffering and strength, vulnerability and courage; privileged to abide with people approaching their final days as alert and pain-free as possible.  He’d never regret it.
Thank God for hospice caregivers.  Their work is powerful because it doesn’t allow for easy, dressed-up answers.  When one enters the room of a dying stranger, there’s no room for pretense.  One is forced to courageously confront life’s awkward presentations.
Dear Lord, help those who provide hospice to be strong by reminding them that they never walk alone.  Guide, support, and comfort them, their patients and their families like only You can.  Amen

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Look Up Child

“Oh Lord, (when all I feel is doubt) I hear you say “Look up child!” ~ Laura Daigle
Isabella woke to the gentle patter of rain on the hotel balcony and thunder rumbling from a distance.  She pushed the blankets off, immediately feeling the warmth of sleep drift away.  Swinging her feet over the side of the bed, she stood up and walked towards the window.
The sky was awash in shades of grey; their dingy color suggested an even drearier day.  Misery seeped into her pores like fog about to rain on her soul with even more sadness.  Before even getting dressed, Isabella decided to take extra tissues and an umbrella to the airport today.
She was on her way home minus that someone who’d been with her for more than a year.  That same person who’d promised to love her forever … only to leave when things got hard.  Where there was once love, light, and laughter left an aching void now.  Her heart was crushed; life seemed no longer worth living.
Once on-board, she settled into a window seat and watched as the plane taxied for take-off.  Outside, all she saw were cheerless, ashen clouds.  But as the plane gained altitude through the mist, they emerged into a sun-drenched world far above the disappointments left behind.
The same clouds that were hanging low just minutes before, so dark and gloomy from the underside, appeared totally different from God’s vantage point.  Radiant in their current splendor, they rose as soft mountain peaks, impossible for any would-be climber, yet simple for a dreamer.
That reality brought an important thought to bear; one Isabella tried to remember for the rest of her life.  She realized that, no matter how bleak or dismal a day might be, the sun always shines above the clouds.  That inspired courage, hope, and confidence that everything will be just fine.
It’s not always easy to trace God’s designs in our ill-planned hopes and visions.  But rest assured that if we’re called according to His purpose, and if we love God, all things do work out for good.  Who are we to question which way the winds of Providence shall blow, or how the Great Captain shall maneuver our ship through life’s storms?
Yes clouds will come.  They’re part of the fabric of everyday life.  But by God’s grace we need not be depressed by their presence.  Like the misty billows that float above us: 1) they protect us from the sun’s blinding glare; 2) they reveal God’s majestic glory; and 3) He speaks to us continually from their lofty height whether we sense His presence or not.
But never forget that God promises to guide you when you take your concerns to Him in prayer.  The sunshine of His love shines even into the darkest part of your life.
Look up child, towards the heavens and beyond the clouds!  Everything’s under control.  You’ll see that the suffering you experience now is nothing compared to the glory that I’ve planned for you here!” ~ God

Monday, October 1, 2018

Tell Laura

“Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." ~ 1 Peter 4:8
The night her sister turned 53, their Dad called to inform Sheila that her sister’s cancer had spread to multiple organs.  Her end was near.  She’d not wished her sister a happy birthday; they’d barely spoken in 3 years.
Racked with indecision, Sheila asked “Does Laura want me there?”
Through beeping monitors and the ventilator’s hiss, she heard her Dad repeating the question several times.  Her sister replied in a barely audible voice, “Yes.”
Sheila hung up and steadied herself, recalling their last conversation.  It’d started off OK, but within minutes they were back to bickering like teenagers.  There’d never been a real reason.  Some of it was normal sister stuff: juvenile name-calling, petty jealousies, and unauthorized clothes pilfering.  Almost anything could spark an argument.
After their mother died, Laura assumed the role of Mother Superior - a position as eldest sibling she’d rightly earned.  She claimed Sheila was selfish … Sheila called Laura a ‘control freak.’
Soon they replaced the fragile bond of sisterhood with wounds that never healed.  Instead of leaning on each other for strength and answers, they grew into two miserably, resentful women.  Their last exchange ended on hateful, destructive terms.
For the twenty long minutes Sheila drove to the hospital, anger and resentment morphed into fear and anxiety.  It wasn’t her sister’s dying that frightened Sheila, but rather the possibility of Laura telling her one last time how she’d ruined her life with bad decisions.  “Could she possibly listen to Laura rattle off a litany of her failures one last time?” she wondered.
She stood at her sister’s doorway, frozen like a statue, not saying a word.  Her Dad hugged Sheila before exiting.  “Go talk to her,” he whispered.  “She doesn’t have long.”
Laura’s voice crackled like tissue paper as she tried to speak.  “Hold me Sheila, please hold me.”
And that’s what Sheila did; pressing through the sickness, trying to bury all those years they’d wasted.  There would be no hanging up this time, no slamming doors or telling each other to f#ck off.  “I love you Laura,” she managed as her only sister took her final breath.
Whether she agreed or even heard the words, Sheila would never know for sure.  If she’d had more time, she would’ve said everything she’d always wanted to say: that she was sorry they had to grow up so fast, that she appreciated Laura’s filling the ‘Mom’ role, and apologizing for being such a selfish pain.
Now as she thinks about the evening her sister died, she pretends that’s exactly what Laura heard.
Love rarely ever knows its own depth until it’s taken away.  So don’t wait around.  If you love someone today, tell them.
Almighty God, You sent Your own Son into this world to die for us that we might be saved and reunited back to You.  Help us to excel at promoting, maintaining, and protecting positive relationships within our lives!  Amen

Friday, September 28, 2018

Not His Plan

“We make lots of plans but God’s purpose prevails." ~ Proverbs 19:21
We all have a story.  The one God wrote for Alejandro took several unexpected turns.
Despite an education from a major university, he graduated in the midst of one of the country’s worst recession.  No one was hiring.
A friend got him a job at a group home for cognitively disabled adults.  That was certainly NOT part of his career plan.  It was hard work and emotionally draining.
Alejandro was responsible for helping the residents develop life skills until they were ready to live independently.  The most challenging part of the job was helping them learn to control their behaviors when they acted out – a liability he dreaded and seemed ill-prepared to assume.
Jacob, one of the residents in particular, would become violent at times when frustrated.  He did enjoy hiking outside, so Alejandro often walked with him to calm him down.
One day when they were out walking Alejandro suddenly felt something touch his fingers.  Jacob was trying to hold his hand.  Instead of pushing it away Alejandro grabbed his hand and they strolled together in the sunshine.
As they headed home Alejandro felt the warmth in Jacob’s eyes.  They beamed with love, with joy, with goodness.
He closed his own eyes and savored the moment.  He let the happiness soak into his bones, never releasing Jacob’s grip.
It caught him off guard.  In that instant, Alejandro saw past Jacob’s troubling behaviors and his impairment.  He saw who Jacob really was.
For the first time in forever his body and mind relaxed - no expectations on him, no deadlines and no schedules to meet.  This wasn’t his plan … but he liked where it was headed.
Little did Alejandro know that God would use that experience to help prepare him for his own two son’s Autism.  Although his boys often found it difficult to fit in, it helped their Dad see the light that shone within them as well.  Learning to accept, nurture and celebrate their differences was a critical step to encourage them as the men God created them to be.
It helped him realize that caring for them was not a duty but an honor; that every child of God is precious and holy.  They became his best tutors about how to live and how to love.  And when it came to plans, God may have steered his somewhere else, but He always had something bigger and better in mind.
No matter where you are on your faith journey, there’s a plan and a purpose to what you experience.  If you’re struggling, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.  Be encouraged by reading about others’ experiences who have seen the transforming work of Jesus in their lives.
Heavenly Father, You know me better than I know myself.  I know you have a plan for me, so please don't let my desires blind me to Your will.  Give me peace about whatever is to come, trusting completely in Your hand.  Amen

Monday, September 24, 2018

Souls Connected

“Love God with all your heart, soul, and all your strength.” ~ Deuteronomy 6:5
They’d been in the ER for hours.  Every so often Sandra would lean over and kiss his searing brow as if to cool it, or maybe, to comfort herself.   Her husband, Geoffrey, was clinging to life with a severe infection.
Sandra waited hopefully, feeling strangely euphoric as she reflected on how lucky she was to have so much to lose.  He was her rock, her mystery, the love of her life.
Just yesterday, while sitting before a romantic fire, Geoffrey picked up the stubby end of an indigo crayon and a ragged piece of paper.  He drew a hangman’s noose and the dotted lines of a secret message.  Sandra grinned.
Geoffrey rolled the crayon toward her so that she could use it to guess letters.  Sandra got the first few wrong.  One by one he drew a head, a body, both legs and two arms.
"Give up?" he mouthed, before filling in the puzzle: “You complete me!” it read.
Sandra swept away the mess and snuggled in close.  They’d been married for over 18 years.  That meant she woke up beside him over 6,500 times.  And whether one or both of them rushed out the door with the kids or they savored the intimacy of their last few horizontal minutes together, their mornings always kicked off the same way: with a kiss and synchronized “I love you’s!”
They discussed everything – especially the hard stuff.  They trusted each other completely; assured that neither would abandon the other in the face of anger, conflict or even sickness.
Sandra placed her lips again to Geoffrey’s sleeping forehead and felt a welcome coolness.  She sank deeply into the armchair.  Tension that’d robbed her of rest melted away; her prayers answered.
Successful couples don’t have a magic formula or aren’t simply better matched.  They keep their eye on the prize – a loving relationship, by constantly working at nourishing their marriage.  They never take each other for granted, always blessed by the wonder of their union.  They’re slow to anger, quick to forgive, and leave no tracks of resentment.
God wants us to experience the same kind of relationship with Him.  Those who know Him have a sense of desperation for fellowship with Him.  He’s not simply a priority; he is the priority.  God wants us to trust, admire and love Him with every cell in our bodies just as we might feel with our closest human relationships.
Perhaps the most profound unity we can have with God is when we share His work. Whether that means praying for someone He loves, leading by His example, or bringing a message of hope to someone who’s been wounded, there is nothing like doing God’s will on earth.
Lord, take me deeper.  I don’t know how to worship You like Mary did, but I want to learn.  I want more of You in my life.  I want You to be the object of my affection and all my devotions.  Amen