Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Juneau: Whales {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}

For the backstory, please see the post, "Courage, Dear Heart!" This post has an overabundance of photos, so e-mail readers may prefer to view the Web version of Juneau Whales {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}. If you view the whole, I pray it refreshes and encourages your heart today.

Almost one year ago, my parents, Amore, and I spent an evening having dinner and selecting our cruise excursions for our special trip to Alaska. When we got to planning the second port of call, Juneau, my parents were like children writing their letter to Santa in their enthusiasm for the whale watching excursion. Amore and I, never having observed whales in the wild, had no basis for understanding their excitement but gladly agreed.

Not knowing quite what to expect but hoping the afternoon would be as pleasant as the lighthouses and eagles excursion in Ketchikan the day before, we boarded our excursion ship, the St. Phillip, complete with ship's dog (who awaited its masters on the dock). As we settled into benches in the glassed-in lower deck, the captain told us, "If you're here to see whales, the best seats on the boat are anywhere but here. I strongly encourage you to go upstairs and watch from outside."

Knowing how my ankles and back dislike stairs, we climbed up, knowing I at least would be staying there for most of the journey.

The mist-veiled scenery was lovely, and it was hard to grasp that people actually lived there, within view of the mountains and bay every day and all year.

Then the show started. Humpback whales by the dozen, perhaps totaling a hundred or more, appeared in the near, far, and middle distances. Having learned from the Ketchikan excursion the previous day, Amore watched for the spray which meant a whale was about to surface and called out the direction using the clock-face analogy. I kept my eye glued to my camera's view finder and took as many shots as I could find and focus.

Although our guides told us humpback whales are usually solitary animals unless bubble net feeding, we saw numerous mother-calf pairs swimming in parallel.

We witnessed a dozen slow arcs through the water, from spout to blowhole past the dorsal fin to the fluke.

We learned that the underside of the fluke is as unique as a human fingerprint and therefore used to catalog the whales in the Alaskan waters.

Lest we grow bored with the whales, we sailed past an island of sea lions and witnessed what appeared to be an argument.

The light flirted with us, peeking in and out of the clouds and changing the colors of the landscape.

How fitting, then, that my memory verse that week was this:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
(Isaiah 40:12 ESV)

As vast as the surrounding landscape seemed to me, it's nothing compared to the vastness of the God who created it and infinitely dwarfs the mountains and waves that made us feel so miniscule.

A hanging glacier

A few whales waved their side flippers at us as we passed.

A couple surfaced on their backs, showing us their baleen, which filter their food from the sea water, and the deep throat grooves where a chin would be, if whales had chins.

Our favorite, however, by far, were breaches like this one, when a creature as long as a Greyhound bus leapt out of the water, rotating slightly as it rose, and splashed back into the bay like a child doing a cannonball into a pool.

The awe we tourists felt at the display of those few hours was not exclusive to us. Even the crew of the St. Phillip told us that in over 20 years of running these excursions, they'd never seen a day of whale-watching like this.

The LORD of heaven and earth, the sea and all that lives in it, asked Job, "Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?" (Job 41:1 ESV). The implied answer is, "No, Job, you can't." But we tourists from Texas know this God, the same God who told a great fish to swallow up Jonah the wayward prophet and then later to spit him back out on the shore. It was no accident that all these whales converged and showed off for us in that space of time; it was God's gracious providence. Out of kindness, certainly, and for other reasons of His own, He sent them like a coach calling plays, charting X's and O's for players to execute, only with more authority.

Having witnessed it, what could we do but echo the Psalmist,
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great. 
There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
(Psalm 104:24-26 ESV)

Y'all, we got to see "Leviathan" at play! I still can't get over it. The sun was declining, and we still had one more stop in Juneau before returning to our ship, but none of us wanted to leave these wonders.

A bald eagle welcomed us back, and we said good-bye to this part of Juneau's waters.

All praise and blessing be to God's holy name!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Christian Lament

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion (Ps. 137:1, ESV).
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1, ESV)

In light of recent world events and the ongoing sorrows of everyday life in this fallen world, we do well to remember that rejoicing is not the only appropriate emotional response to the life circumstances God assigns us.

My Bible reading lately has been in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, and a bleak stretch it is. Israel has persisted in disobedience and idolatry for so long and to such an extent that God sends Assyrian and Babylonian forces to conquer them and carry most of the people away into 70 years of captivity. Jerusalem is besieged and sacked, the temple is destroyed, and the Glory has departed.

In the face of such catastrophe, faith does not demand that we put on a plastic smile when our hearts are breaking. God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.

Godly grief expresses itself in the laments of Scripture. Job's speeches and Lamentations fall in this category, and individual or corporate lament is the largest subcategory of the Psalms (which fall under the broader heading of lyric poetry). Scholars estimate that at least a third of the Psalms express lament; a few examples include Psalms 13, 22, 40, 59, 74, 88, and 109.

The Thomas Nelson Study Bible describes Biblical lament this way:
In the lament psalms, we hear the strong, emotional words of sufferers. These are words written by real people in very difficult situations. Sometimes the forcefulness of the psalmists' complaints against God is shocking. But these godly sufferers know that God will not be angry with their honesty, for even when they scream at God, it is a scream of faith (887).
These are the prayers for the sleepless nights and weary days, for the seasons when we feel like Bilbo Baggins, "too little butter spread over too much bread," for the days which seem more Romans 7 than Romans 8, for hospital rooms and funeral homes. The sheer multitude of laments in Scripture bears witness that hardship is a commonplace in life in a broken world, yet God desires to fellowship with us in the midst of suffering as we cry out to Him. What is more, they offer us a guide for how to do so and give us words when we have no words.

Although no strict pattern applies to every lament, common elements include
  • an initial cry to God,
  • the list of complaints,
  • a profession of reliance on God,
  • a presentation of reasons God should intervene (such as past covenants, promises, and actions that shape the psalmist's expectations of the future),
  • specific requests for deliverance and action, and
  • a resolution to praise (TNSB, 887, and Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 114-115).
These elements may occur in any order or repeat, and some may not appear at all. Psalm 88 never turns the corner from lament to praise, which gives me comfort and confidence that I don't even need to pretend to or force an emotional pivot point before God.

However, Israel incurs God's displeasure and discipline when they whine and complain. What's the difference between grumbling and lament?
In my understanding, there are at least four areas of difference:
  • Audience: Grumbling speaks about God to other people; lament addresses God directly in prayer. This resembles the difference between gossip and conflict resolution.
  • Content: Complaint disputes God's previously revealed character; lament seeks to reconcile God's character with circumstances that seem to contradict it.
  • Attitude: Grumbling stems from a heart of unbelief; lament worships in wounded faith.
  • Result: Whining produces rebellion; lament limps forward in obedience as best it can.
Amid all the disasters and crises in the daily news and the personal trials facing friends, family, and ourselves, it comforts me to know that I can pour out my heart like water before the Lord (Lamentations 2:19) and mourn with Him as well as dance for joy. Learning about lament set me free to do that, even writing my own laments from the patterns above, and I have found the Psalms to be helpful guides to prayer in times of trouble. May you also find blessing in these thoughts as you grow in relationship with God in the hard times as well as the glad.

(The new book A Heart Set Free, by Christina Fox, also addresses and guides the reader through the process of lament. It is very well-reviewed, but I myself have not yet read it to weigh in. If you had, feel free to share your two cents in the comments. A review may be forthcoming once I have a chance to read it, in which I will update this post at that time to include that link.)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Humility and Thorns

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV

For some time now a precious friend has been nudging me to reread Andrew Murray's little book Humility. I put her off for a while, remembering 16 or 17 years ago when I first read it. During that reading, a mission department colleague at our church asked a carload of students, "What book are you currently enjoying?" "'Enjoying' doesn't seem the right word," I said, "but I'm reading Humility." "What do you mean by that?" he asked. "Does a person really 'enjoy' a punch in the stomach?" I said. "I didn't realize how proud I was until I started reading this." It's a good book but not a pleasant one. (But maybe that's just me.) That disillusionment may be the point of the whole exercise. On this reading, the book proved similarly convicting, but now, in the midst of 6 years and counting of chronic pain, the section on "Humility and Happiness" also proved comforting, in the bracing sort of way that a spray of antiseptic comforts a cut finger, cleansing it so it can heal well, but stinging in the process. Commenting on Paul's thorn in the flesh, Murray wrote this:
Paul's first desire was to have it removed, and three times he asked the Lord that it might depart. The answer came that the trial was a blessing; that, in the weakness and humiliation it brought, the grace and strength of the Lord could be better manifested. Paul at once entered into a new stage in his relationship to the trial. Instead of simply enduring it, he most gladly gloried in it. Instead of asking for deliverance, he took pleasure in it. He had learned that the place of humiliation is the place of blessing, of power, and of joy (81-82).
Let us look at our lives in the light of this experience and see whether we gladly glory in weakness, whether we take pleasure, as Paul did, in trials, in necessities, and in distresses. Yes, let us ask whether we have learned to regard a reproof, just or unjust, a reproach from friend or enemy, trouble or difficulty into which others bring us, as, above all, an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to us. It is an opportunity to prove how our own pleasure or honor are nothing, and how humiliation is, in very truth, what we take pleasure in. It is indeed blessed--the deep happiness of heaven--to be so free from self that whatever is said about us or done to us is lost and swallowed up in the thought that Jesus is all (84).
Accept with gratitude everything that God allows from within or without, from friend or enemy, in nature or in grace, to remind you of your need of humbling, and to help you to it (90).
Crumbles, I'm not there yet. My family is still experiencing multi-layered, variegated trials, with the emotional roller coaster of things appearing, at last, to level out, only to plummet again. After a few months of relative respite, widespread joint pain has flared back up with a vengeance. Temporarily, God gave grace to help and serve other family and church members, but as we moved toward summer it became apparent that I would be on the receiving end of help instead.
We expected a wrist surgery which would render me dependent on others even to put on my ankle braces and tie my shoes, but the expectation has been delayed and transmogrified and may now shift to the lower body on the opposite side. As my grandmother would have said, I "can't win for losing" as far as health goes. The therapy for one body part makes another body part angry, and the "good" side complains forcefully about the extra workload.
In the midst of this nosedive, I have felt trapped. Stuck. Unable either to move forward or to stay put. Telling me to glory in weakness, to take these trials as an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to me, to accept these things with gratitude because God has allowed them? That feels like telling an armadillo to spread its wings and fly: impossible.
Then again, the late, beloved Prof Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary used to say, "The Christian life isn't hard; it's impossible." By this he meant that only the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer in Christ could enable the Christian life; it couldn't be achieved through the efforts of the flesh, the old self. The standard the Scriptures lay out is not "good enough" but "perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Jesus Christ the God-man is the only one ever to fulfill this, and only His Spirit can fulfill it in us, though we only experience that inconsistently and imperfectly on this side of death.
Suffering is cause for gratitude because, like this uncomfortable little book, it exposes the places where I've been trying to cope in my own pathetic strength, and that opens me up to a greater experience of Jesus as all.
The last 2 weeks have brought a lot of opportunities for that, from the unexpected shift of pain treatment focus to a couple of extra health tasks that seemed to come out of nowhere and can't be resolved easily. On top of trying to discern the way forward and just keep going with that, there are still hurting people around me. In addition to my own self-pity tears, plenty have also been shed for them and for my hometown, which is still reeling with shock and grief from the ambush of police by a sniper last week.
Having confessed my pride and ingratitude, I also request your prayers: for wisdom for my doctors and for us; for protection and healing of soul and body; for provision of every sort of need generated by these circumstances; for patience and strength for the family members helping me; and for grace to glorify God in my many weaknesses and accept the pain with the same gratitude I have for the more pleasant, comforting, and comfortable gifts He gives. And I suppose, if you're feeling daring, you could pray for the Lord to give this armadillo wings.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ebony's Arrival Day

June 2016
Eight years ago today, Ebony joined our family. After Somo died around Memorial Day 2008, Steinway and Amore were lonely. For at least a week, Steinway would sit on the mat staring at the front door as though waiting for his buddy to return from a walk. Amore missed his fuzz therapist and personal trainer. I missed him, too, but I was still somewhat shell-shocked from his final days and not as quick to look for his successor. Whenever the time came to adopt another, I was already asking God for a healthy dog who would be a good and loving companion for us both.

As soon as A. had returned from a mission trip to Guatemala,  the search commenced. We scavenged petfinder.com for candidates and kept detailed bookmark folders of our favorites. We considered Chiweenies (Chihuahua-dachshund mixes), dachshunds of all varieties, terrier and beagle mixes, and we drove around town meeting and greeting a few but without agreement.

Finally we saw a dachshund mix the shelter had named Rex. The description said he was super-sized; as it turned out, he was around 35 pounds, considerably bigger than Somo or Steinway or the other pint-sized candidates. After a little research into the shelter where he was living and other possibilities there, we planned an evening visit.

The volunteer couldn't find him at first. A black dog pressed against the back wall of his crate on the bottom of double-decker kennels proved well nigh invisible. Checking and double-checking the tags against the print-out we'd brought, she finally found him and was astonished she hadn't met him before in his four-month residence.

She led him out to the courtyard and handed him off to us. He was tentative at first but quickly warmed up to the Milk-Bones we had brought along. (My husband has a natural way with animals; I'm not too proud to bribe them.)

We interviewed a couple of other candidates. The other strong possibility was a brown, Benji-like terrier mix with a very outgoing personality.

After talking the decision over at home, praying together, and "sleeping on it," we decided on Rex the super-dachshund. Well, actually, my beloved recognized I was smitten and honored my preference.

The next day, July 11, 2008, I brought Rex home while Amore was at work.

No, he wasn't in trouble already. The shelter advised using the crate for housetraining him.

Also, we decided he would be safer there until Steinway decided he was a friendly.
We renamed him Ebony. Not only did he ably fill the roles of buddy for Steinway, fuzz therapist for Allen, and personal trainer extraordinaire for both of us, he has also become our court jester on many needful occasions. When Steinway breathed his last a few weeks before Ebony's first Arrival Day celebration, Ebony helped me through.

There is no "he loves me, he loves me not" fickleness to his affection. After five years, I have no doubt that this little guy loves me. And his treat ball. And his squirrel dude. And his blankie. . .

Ebony's first afternoon at Wits' End

Ebony also inspired one of the very first blog posts here, the poem "Sermon on the Sofa" and the post "I Wait for You," among others.