Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fragile Beauty in Rough Places

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.
(Psalm 145:8-9)

The pond near our house is a mess. For at least 2 years, the city has been working on an improvement project, building stone retaining walls (complete with ramps for the ducks) and improving bridges. Morning walks are accompanied by the sounds of jackhammers, and cranes, bulldozers, and other heavy machinery mar the view. A few years ago, this would have been my youngest nephews' favorite place on earth, and they would have known the names of all the equipment.

The workers are friendly and have taken pains not to harm the birds. Ebony has won his share of admirers among the crew, although the loud noises tend to make him relapse into his old anxious habits.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:11 ESV)

As messy, loud, and unsightly as the work has been, it is now near enough to completion that we can clearly see the effort will be worth the wait.

Construction had paused here until some of the rainwater could be drained.

The stands of black-eyed Susans, firewheels, sunflowers, and primroses which usually blanket one swath beside the trail have not survived the big wheels and treads. Not much green between the path and the water has survived.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when last weekend we spotted our state flower, the bluebonnet, peeking up in a small cluster of violet-blue right up next to the new stone.

Bluebonnets have never appeared there before. What a wondrous gift that some should spring up in that very spot, and that they should not have been crushed before they came into bloom. Mother's Day weekend is late for bluebonnets here in the best of circumstances, and these were not the best of circumstances.

Turn to me and be gracious to me;

give your strength to your servant,

and save the son of your maidservant.
Show me a sign of your favor, 
that those who hate me may see and be put to shame
because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me. 
(Psalm 86:16-17 ESV)

As I marveled, I saw in these wee flowers a parable. Crumbles, you know some of the rough weather the Lord has taken my family through the last 5 years. In just the last 7 months, there have been illnesses, hospitalization, bereavement, surgery, significant life transitions, and almost 2 months of housebound disability for a family member usually bustling with activity and service.

Yet in this time, Terza's youngest boy has put his faith in Christ. The Lord has blessed us with good times together as a family, some the direct result of our "rough weather." The ailing family member has been supported by her husband's unflagging care and the encouragement and meals of church friends. Two old friends have reached out to reestablished contact after a few disconnected years. Some of the challenging life transitions proffer hope ahead after a long circumstantial drought.

North Texas's literal drought has been much relieved by days and days of rain; for the first time in several years, our lakes are well above conservation level.

 A recent fall of mine resulted in relatively minor injuries and no fractures. The doctor said I was lucky; he's seen people with much more damage from much less severe trauma. I say it's grace. And it still would have been if the injuries had been much worse.

The beauty is there, friends, even in the rough places. God does give tokens for good when we most need them, to help us hold fast to hope. Often it's a passage of Scripture, a message, or a hymn that speaks just the truth we needed to remember. Other times it's encouragement from a friend or time with loved ones. Or perhaps the Lord may add some special touch to a day, some token that might not mean anything to anyone else but conveys His loving care to you, to me.

If you find yourself in a rough place today, Crumble, may the Lord send you fragile beauty right there in the middle of the mess, even before He clears the mess away.  May He open your eyes to recognize it. May He fortify your soul with His Word and multi-colored other gifts to help you hold fast to hope. He is good; He does good. Let us trust Him in the midst of the messy work of transformation.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,

as is your way with those who love your name.

(Psalm 119:132 ESV)

Beloved Brews Linkup

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pardon Our Mess

New life is awww-inspiring.
from Allen's phone

A nutria family feasting on gifts of bread scraps
Do you see the baby opossum?

How about now?

New life blooms bright and beautiful.

New life can make the mouth water.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Hebrews 11:8-10, NIV1984

And sometimes, new life can be messy.

We love our big live oak in front of the house. It shades the southern side of the house from the harsh Texas sun, and we think it's beautiful.

In the spring, however, when the daffodils raise their trumpets in the park and the wisteria perfumes the end of the block, the live oak litters street, driveway, sidewalk, lawn, and garden beds with leaves. Live oaks don't shed their foliage in the autumn but remain green all winter long. When the days again begin to lengthen, the fresh new leaves with their boisterous brighter green push the old spent ones unceremoniously off the branches.

For weeks, we wade through leaves coming and going from the mailbox. They act like sponges along the curb, soaking up rainfall and sometimes clogging the storm drains. My grandmother sweeps her driveway daily, vigilantly, during this season, but Allen considers it an exercise in futility until all the displaced leaves have fallen.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16, NIV1984

About the time that we breathe a sigh of relief that we can walk to the mailbox without leaves crunching underfoot, the next assault starts: the pollen.

Live oaks drop pollen in clusters attached to little threads. We used to call them pollen caterpillars. My grandmother calls them threads. When they are fresh, the pollen clusters bathe everything (jackets, dogs, cars, mailboxes, joggers) in sticky yellow-green dust. Then the clusters turn brown as in the photo above. This lasts another month before it's all completely cleared from roof, lawn, and garden bed.

The pollen storm is not my favorite thing. I have tried to combat it by frequent shaking off of the doormats. I have even resorted to spreading oversized swim towels just inside the doors to capture some of the mess off paws and shoes before it gets ground into the carpet. One day as I was muttering to myself about the extra work, the Lord tapped me on the shoulder with the memory of more than one blog read this spring about trees that had died in the severe drought and heat last year. Big, mature trees older than the houses on the property had perished. Acres burned in the wildfires. Our neighbors lost a tall tree from their backyard, and the chainsaws droned like bagpipes at a funeral all that day.

I realized in that moment that the leaf and pollen mess was one more sacrifice of thanksgiving. The mess meant our tree had survived the fiercest drought of its life to shield us for another summer. The blanket of debris I was fighting was a blanket of growth and new life.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:39-40, NIV1984

We live in an atmosphere of change at Wits' End these days.  Some of the transitions are pleasant; some are harder; most are messy in some form or fashion. My natural response is to grumble and complain about the changes and the disorder they bring. I like stability and routine and often  dig in my heels and throw a tantrum take an adversarial stance toward anything that disrupts that. (To keep things interesting, God gave me a missionary-kid husband whose very comfort zone is change. That's not intended as sarcasm but as an acknowledgement that I need balance which God has providentially given.)

Annual thinning of the branches, part one

As with the live oak, so it is with our life in this world. New life means change. Growth means change. Transformation requires change. Anyone with a new baby or puppy in the house or anyone in the process of a move, knows all too well that change often means mess and disorder for a while. Other times the mess is intangible but no less real: disrupted relationships, ingrained habits of thought or action which no longer suit. If I want to be conformed to the image of Christ, I must let His Spirit push off the habits of the old self and produce new fruit in me. If I want to live in Him, I must let go of all that is not of Him. If I want to bear abundant, lasting fruit in Him, He will prune away apparently good, healthy things which detract from His core purpose. If I want to follow Christ, I must change. And change is messy.

Change is also a gift. It corrects my tendency to seek security, a stable refuge, and permanence in the world I see. Such a desire is not bad in itself, just misdirected. A quote from Sheldon Vanauken inside my kitchen cabinets reminds me of this continuous need of redirection: "God gives many gifts, but never permanence. That we must seek in His arms."

The mess of change pulls out the crutches I'm tempted to lean on instead of the Everlasting God. Transition reminds me that "The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deut. 33:27). From everlasting to everlasting, He is God, and there is no other (Ps. 90:2). One of His names from the Hebrew Scriptures is El Olam, Everlasting God. Such a God is my sure safe place, my stability in an unstable world.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, 
let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
Hebrews 12:28, NIV1984

This God does intend for His people a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a better country, a heavenly one. Without the changes and transitions that persist in spite of my best efforts, I might think this is all there is. I might grow to like this lesser country so well I would forget the glory to come. Glory is coming, friends. The glory of that unshakable kingdom is just around the corner. Let's together tether our hopes to that certainty when the mess of new life threatens to get the better of us. Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.

{From the archives}

Friday, May 8, 2015

Moonflower Prayers

Our first moonflowers are blooming again. They remind me every year not to give up on prayers which seem to go unanswered. Grace be with you to keep knocking, keep asking, keep seeking the Lord and His will.

Moonflower prayers
Trumpet fragrance into darkness,
Blooming unseen, past expectation,
From day-sown seed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Legalism and Dental Hygiene

Sprinkled over the next few weeks of the calendar are assorted regularly scheduled maintenance appointments on this jalopy-body I have.  First up comes the dentist and my semiannual cleaning.  This should be only a minor inconvenience and discomfort, and I have an excellent dentist and gentle, thorough hygienist who do an outstanding job in every respect.  Even so, these cleanings have become an object of dread and dismal forebodings.

Despite scrupulous (obsessive-compulsive) compliance with every prescription the dentist has given me for care of my adult teeth, the last five years have brought a spate of issues requiring drilling and novocaine.  Consequently, I have begun approaching these routine visits with high anxiety and low expectations.

When the verdict comes, on the outside I smile politely, nod, and ask the usual questions about what needs to be done, how soon, and how much.  In the secret places of the heart, however, my inner 2 year old is pounding her fist, stomping her foot, and wailing, "But it's not fa-a-a-air!!!!  I did everything you told me to, and the only reason I did was to avoid this very thing.  This should be happening to someone who drinks sugary soda, eats candy all the time, and never flosses!  I demand a recount!"

Clearly, a few bastions of legalism* still need to fall before the gospel.  In many areas of life, my thought-habits reflect my stated beliefs that all comes of God's grace and love.  The pleasant things are much more than I deserve, and the unpleasant things are much less (and moreover intended for good and blessing).  For whatever reason, my attitudes about dental hygiene, the Department of Public Safety, and the IRS retain the old self's expectation that I will sow what I reap and can generally sow well enough to prevent reaping unpleasantness.

At home again, I look in the mirror and see how ugly this reflection is.

In the mirror hanging at the foot of our couch I see my image to the right of the scene, in the scowling, arms-crossed elder brother.  The lost son who stayed home and didn't even know how lost he was.  The son whose pride blinded him to his father's love.

In another mirror I recognize myself in Job's miserable comforters, whose legalism leads them to accuse him of bringing his horrible sufferings on himself through sin.  By the end of the book, God indicts them on charges of folly and failure to speak truth about Him, and only burnt offerings and Job's intercession spare them from reaping the dire consequences their words have unwittingly sown.

Pastor Alistair Begg said in a recent message, "The presence of anxiety is directly related to the absence of humility."  I see my reflection in that, too.

Thanks be to God that there is a remedy for all this in Christ Jesus!  The distance between the elder brother and the grace-embraced ragamuffin or between Job and his friends can be bridged simply by building an altar and climbing up.  Surrender--again, daily, continuously--is the best vantage point to see Jesus and discover my own reflection transforming into his.

Even if dental work is the prescribed beauty treatment.

*On this blog, you may find me using "legalism" in two ways:  first, in the sense of elevating human traditions to the status of universal divine commandments; secondly, to denote the quid pro quo attitude that if I do _________, God will be honor-bound to reward me with __________.  Today I'm using legalism in the latter sense.

A repost from the earliest days of this blog, one I remembered while in the dentist's chair this morning