Friday, June 24, 2022

Two Castles

 “You people have exchanged your glorious God for empty idols." ~ Jeremiah 2:11

He knelt upon the primrose sand; infinite fun packaged into a tiny human.  Soft curls fell in cinnamon swirls to a face that was as sweet as white chocolate.  His eyes danced with joy and imagination as he scooped and packed sand into a small bucket.

To his sheer delight, a castle tower appeared.  He continued working all afternoon spooning out a moat, forming walls, building sentries and bridges, and decorating the sandcastle with seaweed and seashells.  After hours of determination, his architectural masterwork came alive.

Away from the beach, an executive worked well into the night; office lights shimmering as heaven's stars from within the skyscraper.  He shuffled papers, delegated assignments, juggled numbers, and pounded his keyboard.  Over time and sweat, a profitable empire emerged.

He too worked tirelessly formulating plans and forecasting the future.  He built a stately mansion with acres of lush landscaping, sweeping staircases, and a grand ballroom; a luxurious house lavished with amenities like a koi pond, wine cellar, and eight-car garage. 

The two castle-builders shared much in common.  They both shaped granules into grandeurs, labored diligently at work that made them happy and accepted each day as a blank canvas.  For both, the tide will rise … and the end will come.  Similarities end there.

The little boy embraced his castle’s demise; the man ignored it.  

As the tide rolled in, giggles and laughter filled the air as waves washed away his day’s creation.  No sorrow.  No fear.  No regret.  He knew it would happen.  Collecting his tools, he walked home with his Mom satisfied with all he’d achieved.

As a wave of misfortune collapsed his empire, terror consumed the executive.  Bewildered and crestfallen, he agonized over the loss of his shrine, trying desperately to save it.  He snarled at the incoming challenges.  “I built my fortune from nothing, I don’t deserve this,” he resisted.

The ocean remained silent in response.  Both knew to whom the sand belonged.

Too often, what we once celebrated as a gift from God, becomes an idol that rules and directs our hearts.  It happens too easily and so subtly. 

Our genuine obedience, once the fruit of grace, morphs into self-righteous pride strutted for all to see.  The house once regarded as an unearned gift from God becomes an obsession devouring our thoughts, desires, and energy.  The wisdom once derived from the Holy Spirit’s illuminating ministry becomes the weapon against those who don’t understand what we believe.  We replace God as the epicenter of our spiritual hope and seek salvation in empty things that don’t deliver.

So, build your sandcastle, but build with a child’s heart.  When the sun sets and the tides steal, salute the journey and build new dreams.  But never forget the One who gave you that chance.

Lord, help me build my life with a child’s heart.  Help me see them through Your eyes and love them with the unfailing, unconditional love of Christ.  Cleanse my heart of impatience and selfishness, bitterness and anger.  Amen

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Total Eclipse of the Son

 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands." ~ Psalm 19:1

Pastor Karen had been working with Paula for about 9 months as a certified pastoral counselor.  While providing services similar to clinical counselors or therapists, Karen’s approach integrated spirituality, faith, and theology with psychotherapy to help people seeking assistance with family, personal, marital, and faith issues. 

She’d performed Paula’s and Josh’s wedding ceremony 2 years earlier; a marriage that thrived for six months until Josh walked innocently into a robbery and was fatally wounded.  Paula sank deeply into despair, coming out occasionally for bouts of rage and aggression that cost her job.  Family and friends shared her suffering but not in a way that lightened the burden.  

Her faith went into total eclipse.  A gloomy, dull feeling washed in like an unwelcome wave; as if the whole world knew His light was blocked.  Paula frequently talked of giving up - she no longer saw any purpose in her life.

If only she could be trumpeted like a solar eclipse.  

The sight of the moon blotting out the sun and then turning it into a celestial ring creates a moment of unparalleled wonder.  People don’t judge the sun for not shining during those times.  And no matter how long the light is blocked, it always returns, more brilliantly than before.

Today Paula’s demeanor seemed different.  She stood tall, alert, and engaging.  “I got face to face with my depression,” she began.

“Tell me about it,” Karen replied.

“Last night, the familiar darkness began to wash over me as it’d done for so long.  Only this time, I didn’t drink more wine, eat more chocolate, or curl up on the couch.  I stood up and demanded to know what Ms. Fogbottom (the name she’d given it because of the way it turned everything grey) wanted from me.  I screamed and rebuked her for over an hour.”

“Then something changed!  It wasn’t like happiness immediately broke through; more Ike I’d cracked out from an eggshell and a weight lifted off my heart.  For the first time in forever it felt like maybe God was listening.  What do you think that was?”

Pastor Karen smiled and said, “I think the end of your eclipse might be near.  Jesus has been praying for that all along!”

During the following few sessions, Pastor Karen helped Paula recognize the misery now fading.  “In an eclipse,” she began, “the Light never leaves.  The shadow obscuring it is only temporary.  We’re never alone.  Even when our faith is shattered by loss, addiction, health crises, or other challenges, God is always there praying for your salvation,” she said.

The shadow will pass.  Know He will stand with you until it does.

Almighty Father, let the lunar eclipse serve as a great example.  When the moon covers the sun’s face, let it remind us of Your Son’s humiliation on our behalf and His death on the cross; a death that couldn’t hold him for long!  Amen

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The "Wall" of Our Lives

 “Restore the joy of Your salvation to me and a spirit of willing obedience." ~ Psalm 51:12

At a Scottish seaside inn, some fishermen were relaxing after a long day at sea; drinking tea and swapping fish ‘fables.’  One made an expansive hand gesture to describe the size of the fish he claimed to have caught.  As a waitress walked past with a pot of tea, he accidentally knocked it from her hands, leaving an irregular, ugly stain against the wall. 

Surveying the damage, the furious innkeeper said, “That whole wall will have to be repainted.”

“Perhaps not,” came a stranger’s voice from a table nearby.  All eyes turned to the odd man who’d just spoken. “Let me work with the stain.  If my work meets with your approval, you won’t need to repaint it.”

He lifted the satchel from under his chair and approached the wall inquisitively.  Opening the bag, he withdrew pencils, brushes, and some jars of linseed oil and pigment.  He began to sketch and fill it in with smidgens of color and swashes of shading.  

Soon the picture of a huge deer began to emerge.  Part of the splashed tea became a magnificent rack of antlers.  The main part of the blemish became the stag’s powerful body and legs.  

The stranger then added trees and the grass of a meadow. When he’d finished, the random tea stains had been transformed into a centerpiece; something artistic, beautiful, and majestic.

 He signed the picture, paid for his meal, and left.

It took a few minutes for the enormity of what had just happened to sink in.  In less than 10 minutes, art that spoke of mountains and freedom emerged upon a whitewashed wall that previously knew neither.

The innkeeper’s eye’s brightened and his lips stretched wide into a gaping grin as he examined the wall.  “Does anyone know who that man was?” he inquired admiringly.  “The signature read ‘E.H. Landseer!’”

Turned out, they’d just been visited by the legendary wildlife painter Sir Edwin Landseer.  Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850, Landseer was known for being able to paint with both hands at the same time.  He could paint a horse's head with his right hand, for example, while painting its tail with the left, simultaneously and quickly.

Just as Landseer had a penchant for converting stains into masterpieces, so too does God!

When He looks at the “wall” of our life, God sees every last stain and blemish; every ding, dent, and scratch.  But rather than tearing it down for its repulsiveness, God breaks out the ink and charcoal pencils. 

His grace can transform our mistakes and disappointment into a whole new masterpiece - less and less limited by our past foolishness and traumas, more and more defined by the love for which we were created.

Heavenly Father, we are but clay in Your hands and You are the potter.  Mold us and shape us into what pleases You.  Change us, transform us, perfect us with Your grace to reflect the Your image in all our thoughts and actions.  Amen

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Small Miracles

“Sensible people prepare for danger.” ~ Proverbs 27:12

The view of her lake in its aquamarine hues calmed Shana’s soul like nothing else.  Thick pines lined its banks never more than a few feet apart.  Today, the only sound echoing across the cool water was of two women splashing and giggling a good distance from the shore.

Something seemed off.  Their two kayaks had overturned yet they weren’t making any attempt to flip them back over. 

Shana’s maternal instincts kicked in.  She quickly donned a life jacket and popped out in her own kayak to check on the women.  She paddled swiftly; saying a prayer for composure and mental clarity.  As she approached, Shana feared they might be in trouble. 

One was hysterical, the other nonresponsive.  Neither wore life jackets.  “Call 911,” Shana yelled.

Drowning is loud and splashy in the movies.  Victims yell and wave their arms in dramatic fashion before slipping below the surface.  Actual drowning is quiet, movements are subtle.  Victims rarely make any noise at all.  

Shana grabbed the drowning one by her bathing suit as she bobbed in and out of the water and continued screaming for help.  Her husband, Tim, and brother, Jake, rushed to their boat and sped off; the cover still half on. 

“Hurry! I’m losing her,” Shana shouted.

At the scene, Jake jumped in and stabilized the girl while Tim maneuvered the boat closer.  They struggled getting the unconscious woman out of the water and into the boat. 

Jake raced back to shore while Tim started chest compressions.  The panicked friend tried swimming away before a passing boat convinced her to climb aboard.  She was clearly inebriated which explained why they flipped and resisted efforts to help save them.

EMS met both boats at the shore where they stabilized the drowning victim before whisking her away to a hospital and helicoptered her to a trauma center for a higher level of care.  She was expected to survive.  The other woman was ticketed for BWI.  Neither would probably ever know how close they came to death, but all of those who aided in the rescue would never forget.

Thank God, several small miracles saved the women’s lives.  Shana was the real hero that day.  By God’s grace, she didn’t hesitate to help people she’d never met.  What if she hadn’t decided to paddle out to check on them?  What if the girl's bathing suit strap had snapped?  What if Tim and Jake had not been around or the boat wouldn’t start?

We cannot possibly know why God chooses to save or heal some people and not others.  But we do know that in His grace, God takes the broken pieces of our lives and transforms them to make us think and act more like Him.  We can only pray those women don’t waste their remaining days.

Father God, we’ve all anticipated this year’s boating season with great expectations.  Thank You for allowing us to use a portion of Your great creation.  We pray that our joy on the water this season is just that – fun and safe.  Amen 

Monday, June 6, 2022

Listen to the Quiet

 “Your flesh and heart may fail, yet God remains steadfast." ~ Psalm 73:26

Thoughts of being in the room with a dying person made him nervous.  But Tony promised his Grampa Phil that he wouldn't leave him; that he’d never die alone. 

Driving in this morning, he’d worried about what to say.  Those who spend a lot of time with the dying tend to say you don't need to say much.  So, he let Phil talk and at times, shared the silence.

Simply being in the room seemed to be enough.  Just a touch of his hand, being there to pass some ice chips, or softly stroking Grampa’s hair was all that was needed.  For Tony, it was his final gift to a man that’d been more like a father than his own dad.

Phil’s breathing became quietly shallow for a few minutes before he took his final breath.  For those like his Grampa who lived life with compassion as his paramount principle, dying was but a transition into another way of living.

The first thing Tony did was nothing.  He didn’t run out and call the nurse or pick up the phone.  He took a deep breath and absorbed the enormity of the moment.

He felt honored and privileged to be in Grampa’s presence in the moments after his life on earth ended.  Phil knew he was dying, so his being dead was no surprise.  It wasn’t a problem to be solved.  It was very sad, of course, but Tony felt no cause to panic.  Strangely, it didn’t feel weird.

Incredible holiness entered the space.  The curtain opened between two worlds; beauty and magic enveloped him.

Sitting by his bedside, Tony wondered what might be happening for Grampa right now?  Was it possible that these were the most profound moments in the murky hinterland between life and death?  What other spirits were here that might be supporting him on his way?   Perhaps he’d seized a cryptic opportunity to stay with Tony briefly and comfort him before transitioning on his way.

Tony sat alone for five minutes, or maybe ten; pausing to give his soul a chance to adjust.  He knew he’d never get this time back again; time to accept and adjust to its finality.

Time moved sluggishly.  Eventually, he called a few people who needed to be told and initiated systems that needed to be connected.  But Tony would forever remember this gift he’d been given.

Ultimately, we know very little about what happens when someone is dying.  After 5,000 years of medicine, we can tell how you die but not what happens next.  It’s enough for me to believe that a loving God has an eternal plan, revealed only after we enter His magnificent Kingdom.

“Holy Father, let me live for You every day bestowed upon me, yet when my time comes, when dying sits before me, when my breathing becomes a sporadic rasp, look beyond the physical and see that I am in the arms of Angels.  Amen” ~ Angela Abraham

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Grief Brought Them Together

 “The Lord is near to the heartbroken and saves those crushed in spirit.” ~ Psalm 34:18

The little puppy had been Jason’s companion in quiet moments and those flashes of hilarity that dogs bring.  With big looping curls and a tail in perpetual motion, Gracie had been by his side when he and Maria exchanged marriage vows.  She watched them become parents.  For ten years, Gracie silently observed their daily lives.

Jason loved her - perhaps more than he realized.  During her last days, he often found himself holding his breath, hoping that by doing so, he might stop time as well, keeping her death at bay.

After Gracie crossed the Rainbow Bridge, Jason took her to be cremated.  Grief nearly stopped his heart when they handed over her collar.  Gracie’s death left an emptiness not just in the house, but also in his heart; a void nothing seemed to fill.

Friends encouraged him to get another dog, a young pup whose antics would make him smile, but he couldn’t bear the thought.  Loving and losing a dog hurt too much.

Eventually, he found himself looking through dog bios online.  One photo caught his attention.  Maddie was the kind of dog you shied away from at a shelter.  She was nearly blind, could barely walk, and had patches of fur missing.  She was “10-ish” when her owner passed away leaving no provision for her care.  Heartbroken, Maddie could die alone. 

So, Jason adopted her; hoping to give her a loving home for her remaining months.  They started her on quality dog food and medication for her arthritis.  Maddie quickly became a different dog.  

She still struggled with mobility, but soon adapted to her new surroundings.  She miraculously came to life; charming every person she met along the way.

Maddie’s joy filled their home for more than a year before her body finally gave out; her infectious smile beaming until the very end.  Jason knew bringing Maddie home would change her life … he never realized how much she would change his.

Jason found comfort knowing the entire family loved Maddie.  Yet holding Maddie’s collar brought a punch that landed like a Mack truck.  But it felt different.  It hurt to lose that sweet gal so soon, yet the grief couldn’t overshadow the joy she’d carried into their lives.

On the drive home, he thought about how God had brought them all together; at the perfect time and for the perfect reason.  Because they needed each other.  Maddie had filled the emptiness in their home and in his heart.  But they helped her too by giving her a home during her final days - a home where she was happy, well cared for, and loved.  If given the chance, he’d do it all again.

Lord of Living Things, God, we look forward to being reunited with our pets who have crossed or will cross the Rainbow Bridge to the place where we, our loved ones and Your creatures great and small will live together forever.  Amen

Friday, May 27, 2022

Thoughts From the Cemetary

Carl blew writer’s block from his path by literally walking around it; his brain worked best when it simply wandered.  That’s one thing he enjoyed so much about walking – that’s where inspiration poured out easily.  Freedom was as critical to his creative thinking as empathy, logic, and discipline. He just had to forge those thoughts into text.

This is why he decided to walk through a local graveyard for a fresh perspective.  As he strolled past acres of the deceased with whom he knew little about, some things occurred to him: simple yet complex thoughts, humble but powerful, life lessons.

His first thought drifted over some headstones – some large and ornate, others humbler, all costly.   The more said, the more expense, yet only the most significant information got engraved on them.  Words like mother, father, sister, brother.  He noted military service, relevant quotes, and short tributes.  Carl imagined the relationships those people built and the impact they made on others.

He saw nothing about the wealth they’d accumulated, bad choices they’d made, or political affiliations.  He saw only that which mattered and quickly grasped an idea that should’ve been obvious: the dates on each monument stated the beginning to the end.  What mattered most was the DASH between those years (i.e., 1928 - 2020).

Cemeteries are mostly of stone, dirt, and silence; not a lot of color or animation.  Occasionally, mourners left flowers, photos, or other mementos at the grave.  He spotted a colorful pinwheel planted in the dirt.

All were means of expressing love and care for the departed.  You either enter a gravesite to bring love … or nothing.  People don’t visit to spew hate, judgment, or negativity.  “Why can’t we enjoy a life that way,” he wondered, “only with love, compassion, and joy.”

A sober thought occurred to Carl as he continued walking.  Some of the headstone “born” and “departed” dates were sadly close together.  Running his fingers over the marker of a 2-year-old whose life was cut way too short, Carl said a brief prayer.

“Lord every day in this life is a gift, and each moment I spend spreading negativity is a moment irrevocably wasted.  Help me live my life for You, in fullness, with grace. There’s no time to wait!” 

Anxious to return to his writing tablet to recapture his reflections, one final thought surfaced.  No other species has a graveyard for their dead.

Perhaps there’s wisdom in that, in the art of letting go with a sense of love and peace, of accepting that body and soul pass on.  Graveyards need not be grave, yet can be a place to bring the joy of rebirth and renewal of the spirit as we wish our loved ones well on their onward voyage.

Almighty Father, may all those deceased, known to You alone, rejoice in Your kingdom, where all our tears are wiped away.  Unite us together again in one family to sing Your praise forever and ever.  Amen

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Trust Over Worry

 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; He’ll keep you on track." ~ Proverbs 3:5-6

Anxious to explore his new surroundings, Lucas decided to push his capabilities and hike the unforgiving Arizona desert.  So hot the sands glittered like gold, he quickly became disoriented. 

Soon his muscles started cramping.  Confused, nauseous, and thirsty – classic early signs of heatstroke.  He drank the last of his water a week ago ... or was it just 5 minutes?  He needed water and shelter soon or the illness would damage vital organs, and even cause death.

As he struggled physically and mentally, he spied a crude, rustic shack in the distance ... or merely a hallucination?  Lucas walked towards it for lack of a better option, thanking God for his good fortune.  He found it unoccupied; probably abandoned long ago. 

Yet it offered luxury from the oppressive heat.

Near the far wall, he spotted a rusty, hand water pump.  Its pipe reached below timeworn floorboards; perhaps a deep source of water, he hoped.  After pumping a few strokes with no sign of water, he felt frustrated and exhausted.

He searched the hut for any other source of water.  Incredibly, he found a full bottle of water hidden in the corner.  Just before gulping its contents, he noticed a message hand-written over its label.  “Use this water to prime the pump.  Don’t forget to refill it when you’re done,” it read.

A frightening dilemma: “Could he trust the note?  Will the antique pump work, or will he be wasting his only chance at survival down a dry hole?  Should he just drink the water and save himself,” he wondered.  

Lucas closed his eyes and prayed, asking God to lift his burden. 

With trembling hands, he poured the bottle’s entire contents into the pump and started working it.  Soon, he heard a bubbling sound and more water than he could drink poured out.

Once revitalized, he refilled the empty bottle and returned it to the original spot.  Fate struck a second time when he discovered a hand-written map of the region.  Pulling a marker from his daysack, Lucas scribbled his own note below the previous instructions: “Have faith. God works and so does the pump!” And headed toward a village less than a kilometer away.

I still need reminders to choose trust over worry.  It’s easy to trust God when everything is falling in line with our own vision and plans.  But trusting Him even when things don’t make sense is hard.  Very hard!

Faith’s essence is confidence in the Lord’s promises regardless of the circumstances.   He’s never surprised, confused, worried, or oblivious.  His wise and loving control brings peace and comfort in those moments when we’re called to trust Him … even when it doesn’t make sense.

All-knowing God, wrap me in your empowering love when I face uncertainty.  How can I be anything but bold when You have my back?  Even though I don’t yet know exactly where this will end, I trust You.  Amen

Thursday, May 19, 2022

More Precious Than Silver

 “My God will provide everything you need because of His great riches." ~ Philippians 4:19

On her daily walk to work, Margaret passes several homeless people, or those living on the minimal edge of subsistence.  These are the mentally ill, unemployed, addicted, and those simply down on their luck.  And yes, the chronically lazy.

While her personal finances are tight enough that she often can't afford to give, she often does so anyway, trying not to wonder if they’ll use it on booze or drugs.  She looks them in the eye and greets them with at least a gentle smile when she can't.  That smile may be the only thing that breaks the invisibility they suffer.

Today, a heavyset man carrying a cardboard sign limped toward her.  From behind oversized sunglasses, Margaret studied his clothes, his facial features, and his footwear.  (Her dad always said you can tell fake beggars by their shoes).  This man with dead eyes and ethnic features shuffled closer in timeworn moccasins.  His sign read simply: "Anything Helps."

Margaret opened her oversized shoulder bag and offered to share her lunch with him.  The hungry beggar spied her bulging leather billfold and asked for some cash instead.

She gazed into his eye’s, gauging the depth of his humanity, and did so without hesitation, pulling out two twenties and a ten.

He thanked her with a warm smile.  Raymond, a homeless vet who’d only collected $4.35 since early his morning, shuffled away quietly rejoicing in his good fortune.

Margaret continued on her way reminding herself of the Apostle Paul who taught that God would always meet her needs.

A few days later, Raymond approached her once again on the sidewalk.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I sincerely appreciate the gift you blessed me with a few days ago, but I’d like to return it to you in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.”  Raymond pulled the same three bills from his pocket and handed them to the astonished woman.

Margaret stood speechless as she took the cash back.

Raymond continued, “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something more precious.  Give me what that love within you that encouraged me to believe in myself again!”  He flipped his sign around with a new message: ‘I’m on a new path.’  Thank you!”

Rumors on the street suggested he entered a rehab program and got a security job at a local hospital.  Margaret never saw Raymond again.

We’re often misled into believing that most homelessness results from poor character, specifically drug addiction or laziness.  In reality, the top three causes of homelessness in the U.S. continue to be: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and mental illness, in that order.

God of mercy, grace, and provision.  Thank You for the strength You give us each day. Bless those homeless with protection from the elements, with the sufficiency of food and clothing, with joy and peace of mind, and with the security of Your love.  Amen

Friday, May 13, 2022

Hope Renews Itself

 “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." ~ Matthew 5:48

On the night of Feb. 12, 2000, Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who drew the masterful comic strip “Peanuts” passed away, ending a work spanning 50 years and 17,897 strips.  In its prime, Peanuts was published in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and is thought to be the longest story ever told by one person.

For nearly the entire half-century-long run, one recurring joke was the football prank.  The gag was simple: Lucy kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place for Charlie to kick.  He gets a running start, but at the last minute, she pulls it away (for the first time in November 1952). 

The final panel shows a miserable Charlie Brown laying flat on his back while Lucy gazes down at him, holding the ball, telling Carlie Brown in one way or another that he should never have trusted her. 

Lucy would continue some variant of the football snatch every year (except 1985) until the strip’s final full year.  The same happened nine times in animation.  Schulz kept bringing it back because fans kept expecting it.

Lucy kept pulling the same trick every year.  You might think Charlie Brown would’ve learned his lesson.  He wasn’t na├»ve or foolish.  He did realize it! 

As the years wore on, the football gag strips usually opened with a jaded Charlie Brown talking about how he wasn’t going to fall for it this time; that he finally knew better no matter what Lucy promised.  He always wound up trying … and failing. 

Two elements kept the gag working.  One was Lucy’s persuasive abilities.  She had a knack for convincing others to do anything.

The second was Charlie Brown’s trust and optimism – a theme central to his character.  Charlie Brown failed often but he never gave up.  Even though he’d never kick that football, even though his team would always lose … he kept trying, believing that things would finally break his way.

They never did!

Depending on your perspective, either he refused to learn from the past or he won’t ever give up on the future.  For Christians, it’s the latter that makes Charlie Brown something of a Christ-like figure.  He doesn’t retreat or give up on others.  His optimism continuously renewed itself.

Hope and goodness are always diffusive; never to be confined.  We don’t know people’s hearts. We don’t know their potential.  And we don’t know what they might do.

We’re told to be like God, which is to love like God.  We become most authentic when we strive to imitate God, when we love to give and when we give love freely.

Lord, help me to find my joy in You - the source of all good things.  A life that draws its strength from You is a life of true happiness.  Help me seek You, as the well that never runs dry so that my optimism flows into the lives of everyone I meet.  Amen