Shifting Sand

Do you remember the last time you strolled along a beach?
Think about it. Was it recently or a while ago? Was the sand white and the water clear? Were there seashells along the beach? Did you stand and listen to the waves crashing against the shore? Did you see the footprints of those who had walked there before you, or had the waves washed them all away and you could imagine you were the first to walk that way? Did you walk alone or with someone special to you?
It’s hard for me to imagine these days that there might be someone who has not seen the ocean. Someone who has not stood barefooted with the wind on their face, and gazed at the open expanse filled with waves of water and creatures from the depths.
It’s been less than a year ago that my friend, Vickey, held her mother’s hand in the ICU as she breathed her last. A couple of years before that, she took her mother to the Carolina coast see the ocean for the first time. Vickey’s mom was well on in years and had never experienced that before. Vickey will always have the memory of doing that for and with her mom. It was a hard trip. Her mother was frail, but she would not trade those memories for any price.
There’s a feeling you get when you stand on the beach and look out to the ocean.
I’m right, aren’t I? It’s the feeling that there is something greater than you. Something more powerful. Suddenly, you can feel very small, insignificant even, as you stand there with the water washing over your feet, the sand eroding from under them.
I think standing on the shore, looking out to the ocean, can certainly help to put many things in right perspective. I had those same feelings the first time I stepped onto a beach, and each time since.
The beach changes just a little each time a wave rolls in. It’s never the same beach twice. Each wave reshapes the terrain just a bit, bringing with it small tokens from the deep.
I recently walked along a beautiful beach in Cancun, Mexico with my husband of twenty years. I had walked that stretch of beach with him eight years before. Since that time Mexico had suffered through a major hurricane that heavily affected the beaches. Tons upon tons of beautiful white sand had been washed away leaving the rocks beneath exposed.
It was an odd landscape, and as we kind of mourned the loss of what had been before, we began to appreciate what had been left behind.
We noticed that with each wave little waterfalls and gullies in and around the rocks would fill with water, and we enjoyed watching the paths the water took through them as it was pulled back out to sea. Over time, moss had grown on top of the rocks, and after I got over my initial grossed out feelings, I walked on it and was amazed at how wonderful the moss felt underfoot. It felt softer than any carpet I had ever walked on.
As we worked our way up the beach a bit, my husband noticed that shallow pools had been formed around the rocks and on closer inspection he saw that the pools had small fish living in them. They were beautiful tiny black and yellow striped fish. Forever separated from the open ocean, they depended on each wave to bring them both fresh water and nutrients from the sea. He spent a few moments trying to catch one, but they were quick!
One thing we can always count on, is that nothing stays the same.
Just like the beach, life is in a constant state of flux. That’s a hard thing for many of us. It’s hard for us to embrace change. I could plainly see from my balcony view that the beach was no longer “perfect” as it had been years before. Because of that, I chose not to venture down there until the end of our stay. I thought, because it was different, it couldn’t have been as good as before.
It was different. But it was better. I regret not embracing that change earlier in the week. As sure as the surf continues to roll into the shore, change will come to our lives. The challenge for us is to embrace those changes and discover what new and different, even unexpected, blessings will come crashing into our lives because of them. While the sands shift under our feet and we feel the instability of our lives, it’s then that we must remember, that it is grace on which we stand.

Parable of the Lost Cat

I can thank my mother-in-law for this title.
It came after we lost our cat this last Sunday evening. After a nice dinner outside on our covered porch, we gathered everything back inside and were ready to head to church when someone noticed our cat was missing. We have two cats. One is a longhaired Himalayan mix named Brownie, and the other is a rescued black and white shorthaired cat named Oreo. We also once had a solid white puffball of a cat named Donut. We like cats, and we like snacks.
This time it was Brownie who went missing. I say this time. Every time one of the cats goes missing it’s Brownie. In his heart of hearts he is an outdoor kitty forced to live a house cat life. This brown pile of fur has spent more than one night outside. Brownie is almost thirteen years old, and he’s made seven moves with our family during that time. How the cat always finds his way home to the right house is beyond me.
By the time we realized Brownie was missing, it was time for us to be walking out the door for church.
My husband had worked Sunday morning, so we had decided to all wait and attend church together that night. I’m not a fanatic about not missing church, it was just that the message this week was going to cover dinosaurs, and I just couldn’t wait to hear it.
My daughter was distraught. Since she was six weeks old, she has lived every day of her life with him. I assured her that the cat would mostly likely be sitting right at the back door when we returned from church. She was not convinced, and I could tell that panic was about to set in. I shuffled her into the van anyway. I knew he would come back. He always comes back. My husband drove up our street, and we all looked for the cat out the van windows. The next thing I knew, my husband is pulling back into our driveway, insisting that, with six of us, we could find Brownie.
We all trooped back into the house, and did a quick room to room search to make sure he had not just fallen asleep somewhere. Then we ventured outside to search the woods just behind our house and the yards of the neighboring homes. A creek runs at the back of our yard separating our neighborhood from the next one over. As I called out to Brownie, over and over again, (All the while, muttering a few explicatives in-between… See, I did need to go to church.) a man from the next neighborhood happened to be out in his backyard, and heard me.
The man called out to me and asked if I had lost a cat.
I told him I had, and he asked what color the cat was. Seriously? I said, “Brown.” He laughed and said, “Oh. Of course!” He said he had seen a dark colored cat coming out of the storm drain at the front of his yard a few moments earlier. My husband and daughter jumped in the car, and drove over to check out the sighting. My teenage son jumped in his car, too. He’s always willing to help if it involves his getting to drive.
After what seemed like forever, they were back without the cat, and my daughter was even sadder. So we searched the house… Again. Every closet, cabinet, and hidey-hole we could think of. We checked the garage, too. No brown cat. My daughter and I went back outside, but we looked out front this time. We walked up the street looking and calling. We turned and walked down the street. I began to remind my daughter of all the times Brownie had escaped and come back. We got to the end of the street and turned around again to head back home empty handed.
It was then that I saw him. He was walking home.
(I like it when I’m right.) I raised my arm and pointed. “There he is.” I’m sure we passed right by him. I’m sure he could hear us calling out his name, and chose to ignore us. Still, my daughter ran to him, and scooped him up loving on him and cooing to him as if he had done nothing wrong. Me? I wanted to make a scarf out of him. It was now too late to go to church, and I might never know what my pastor thinks about the dinosaurs.
Still that which was lost is now found. And as annoying as Brownie is sometimes, he’s family. And like the parable Jesus told of the lost sheep, I was reminded that a good shepherd will leave the ninety-nine behaving sheep to go look for the naughty one who happened to wander off. He’s not satisfied until all His sheep are safely in the fold. And like my daughter with Brownie, he scoops us up, loves on us and brings us safely home.

Ah-Ha!

I love “Ah-ha!” moments. It’s as if someone throws a switch in my brain.
I can almost hear it click. It happened recently in church- always a good place for an “Ah-ha!” moment, right? At forty-three, and married to a minister for twenty years, there are few times when I actually hear something in a message at church that I have not heard before.
It was just an aside to the message. It wasn’t even the speaker’s primary passage for the morning. Thinking about it now, I could have left early, because after my moment, I was done for the day. I had what I was brought there to receive.
The speaker referenced a passage of scripture known to many whether a long time believer, or a relative novice.
It’s Philippians 4:13. You know, it’s the “I can do all things through Christ” verse. The speaker challenged us to always consider a verse of scripture relative to its context. “Yes”, I thought. “I always do that”, I told myself. It’s the appropriate thing to do. “Preach on”, I thought.
We were told to consider the verses that lead up to the one that tells us we can leap tall buildings in a single bound through Christ who gives us the strength. Paul, the writer of the favored passage, mentions that he has endured hardships as well as easyships, and has learned to be content in both. He has been both well fed and hungry, has lived on easy street as well as skid row, and he has learned to be fulfilled in either circumstance. How? Well, here comes verse 13.
He can manage these feats because Christ has given him the strength to do it. Ouch. Context. Was I guilty of using this verse in my life separate from its context? Yep. Had it sometimes been my very own rabbit’s foot for success? Maybe.
I’m thinking that this brief aside to the message could possibly have been in there just for me.
Perhaps no one else sitting there gave it a second thought. I have spent a lot of time contemplating the whole contentment issue lately so it flipped my switch.
My minister husband resigned his church position several months ago, and we are learning to make do with less. We are far from hungry and skid row, but there have been some major changes in our house. A good bit of belt tightening, and part time work for me has turned into full time work. An air of uncertainty reigns, as my husband ventures into a different professional role. Will he continue in this new adventure outside of ministry, or is this a temporary sabbatical?
As I sat there and heard Philippians 4:13 in it’s context, I realized that while there are days when I don’t know how much longer I can endure our new situation, I find I can and I will. How? It’s because it is Christ who will give me the strength to do it. I may bend, but I will not break. The promise of Philippians 4:13 doesn’t mean that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, rather it is a promise that no matter my circumstance, I am promised the strength to endure it. Not my own strength which falters, but strength that comes from Christ and which never fails. “Ah-ha!”

Hide and Seek

Hide and seek used to be a favorite game at our house.

I remember when the youngest was just a toddler; he would always hide with me because we generally played the game at night. He wanted to play, but he was too afraid in the dark to hide alone. So I would have to find a spot big enough for the two of us. Sometimes I could convince him to hide with his sister.

Then my favorite way to play hide and seek was by frequently changing my hiding place. I don’t like to be found. I would sneak from room to room as the kids searched in earnest for me, and then laugh as their frustration grew the longer they’d go without finding me. When I was certain they were headed in the wrong direction, I would call out to them. They would come running, convinced they would find me, but I’d have already moved my hiding place. So sneaky!

I think many people believe that’s how God is.

Just when they think they’ve found Him, poof! He’s changed His hiding place, and they are forced to keep the search going. But that’s not the way He operates. When we play hide and seek with God we are the only ones in the game. Nowhere in the Bible have I found it to say that God was hard to find. Actually it says, “Seek me and you shall find me.” To me, that means God doesn’t like playing hide and seek with us.

When tough decisions come our way, we often turn and seek God for the answers. It certainly sounds great to say we are seeking God. But how many times do we secretly think when someone says they are seeking HIm, “Lots of luck with that!”? Many of us wish He would just physically point us in the right direction, and give a gentle push, or send us an email or text with His plan spelled out. Unfortunately, the burden for discovering God’s will for our lives is still on us. Sometimes the mistake we make is in the preparation. We fail to prepare properly.

We are like sheep, and He is our Shepherd.

This is not news to those who have read even part of the New Testament. Jesus used sheep metaphors all the time. A Shepherd has a relationship with his flock that builds over time. It involves shared experience and trust. In the sheep metaphor, the Shepherd speaks, and the sheep recognize His voice. This relationship is no game. Many times the very lives of the sheep depend on the strength of that relationship. If we want to hear what God is saying to us, we like sheep, have to prepare ourselves to hear Him, and we accomplish this by strengthening that relationship, spending time learning what the Bible teaches us about Him, and then following when He leads us.

While I love to play hide and seek, I am so happy we don’t have to play it to find God.

The Bible says that God does not change His position. He is a constant. He’s always right there when I look for Him. He doesn’t call out to me, and then hide from me somewhere else. He’s a lousy hide and seek player, and I mean that in the best possible way. Yet a relationship with God is like any other, in that it is a two way street. If we are going to call out to Him, we have to be willing to listen when the answer comes. And then, if we are very smart sheep, we will follow His voice where it leads us. Follow the Leader, now that’s a game I think God loves to play!

You’re Pre-Approved!

Not a week goes by that I am not told at least two or three times that I am “Pre-approved”!
I see that in the message line of an email, and it makes me smile. It makes me feel special. I mean Paypal doesn’t even know me, and yet I have already found favor with them. VISA, Mastercard, and Discover think I’m tops. I get their approval all the time, too. They are forever wanting to give me more and more credit. I’m approved before I even apply! Who ever heard of anything like that? I mean, I wasn’t even seeking their approval and I got it. That’s totally amazing, isn’t it? The last Paypal approval I got even offered me “90 days of Extended Grace”!
It seems I spend so much time seeking the approval of others.
In real life we don’t often get “pre-approved”. Nope. In real life we constantly have to work for the approval of others around us. I recently started a new job at a hospital here in the town where I live. I work in a very specialized area, and a new face stands out. Everywhere I go, I get long skeptical looks and I can tell they are standing back with crossed arms, waiting to give their nod of approval.
My fellow nurses and medical staff aren’t just going to hand it to me based on the initials I have had so nicely embroidered on my newly pressed white lab coat. I have to win them over. “And who are you?” They ask. “Where did you work before?” They want to know. “Have you done this before?” It’s hard work. Those initials just got me in the door. Now I have to strive hard for their approval.
Pre-approval does come with a price.
At some point you have to pay the piper. More credit given now means a bigger day of reckoning later. My “extended grace” from Paypal will come to an end promptly at the close of day ninety. The grace will have run out completely, and if I don’t pay up my approval rating will sink.
Still, pre-approval notices make me smile.
They come without any effort on my part. Oh, I could choose to “opt out” of receiving these notices, but why would I? Sure, it would clean up my inbox, but these notices have begun to serve a real purpose in my life. You see I’ve been pre-approved before. Long before Paypal, Mastercard, or VISA found me, I was pre-approved by the One who fashioned me into being. I have His stamp of approval all over me.
There never was a time that God didn’t know me and love me.
I’ve never once had to prove myself to Him. So when these superfluous emails show up in my inbox, they serve as a reminder of the pre-approval I have from the One who truly matters. He extends His grace to me, and the bill has already been paid. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, my credit is good, and my approval is insured. The same is true of you as well. If God had an actual approval stamp, He’d promptly stamp your forehead for all to see. We can all just stop seeking approval. After all, it’s silly for us to seek something we have had all along.

Breaking Free

Freedom. It’s what we all want. Freedom to do what we want, when we want.
Freedom from the things that entangle us. My kids want it too, the older they get. My son tells me he can’t wait until he’s on his own and can do what he wants. It’s hard not to laugh. For as an adult I realize the most freedom I ever had was when I was a child in my parent’s care.
I just finished reading a book called Orbiting The Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie.
The book belongs to Michael, a friend of my husband’s and mine. He loaned the book to my husband a while ago.He’s not getting it back. It chronicles MacKenzie’s thirty-year career at Hallmark Cards. One might easily fall under the assumption that Hallmark must be a hotbed of creativity. Gordon thought so too, but found out that the Hallmark Corporation itself was one big giant hairball that constantly tried to suck him inside the corporate way of doing things, which mostly focused on past successes rather than creative, innovative new ideas.
Matthew and I recently broke free from our everyday lives to spend a week together in Cancun, Mexico. I know, it sounds like a no brainer, but that breaking free was hard. Matthew has been without a job for the better part of a year now. So there was no extra money lying around to foot the bill. We have four kids to consider. Someone had to take over the responsibility for their welfare in our absence. I had just started a new job, and getting a week off straight off the bat was tricky. Still, we just had our twentieth wedding anniversary and, well, we thought we should celebrate.
Matthew went to work figuring out how to pull off paying for the trip, and to his credit he did a great job. My parents were kind enough to keep a watch over our kids for the week. My new boss is a hopeless romantic, and to my surprise, readily agreed to let me off work for the trip.
Even with all these things ironed out, I still felt the pull of obligation and responsibility.
Guilt over leaving my children consumed me. I just didn’t know if I could even enjoy myself. What if the plane crashed? What if one of the kids got sick, or what if my oldest child was injured while driving his car? What if, what if, what if…
The day of our departure came, and when we got up early that morning I looked outside to see an overcast sky. What a dreary day. I had packed my suitcase the night before, but I hadn’t enjoyed it. I had done as much laundry as I could, and had done my best to stock the kitchen with enough food for the week, but I still didn’t feel good about leaving.
Finally at the airport, we boarded the plane still under heavy gray skies. That was fine. It matched my mood. It seemed that dreary skies were what I deserved. I’m not a real fan of flying. I’ve flown quite a bit, but my preference is to keep my feet on the ground. Walking to Cancun just isn’t feasible, though.
As the plane taxied to the runway, and built up speed for the takeoff, I prayed my usual preflight prayer. “Lord, please keep this plane in the air until its supposed to not be in the air anymore, and then land it nicely”. Then I held on the armrest with all my might. This apparently assists in safe takeoffs. As the plane lifted off the ground and shot into the sky, I turned my head to look out the window. I wanted to make sure the wing wasn’t falling off. At that moment the plane shot through the cloud cover, and immediately all I could see was bright blue sky and a carpet of brilliant white clouds.
It took my breath away. The dreariness was gone. The light was so bright I had to squint my eyes just to see. And it stretched just as far as my eyes had vision.
Later the next day as I sat by a beautiful pool, next to my wonderful husband of twenty years, with a view of ocean water a color of turquoise no man could copy, and sipping a pina colada, I opened MacKenzie’s book and began to read. It dawned on me after only a few chapters, that in the moment that plane broke through those clouds, I had been able to break free from my own Hairball existence.
I was no longer sucked into the mire of guilt, worry, obsession, or fear.
I still felt the importance of all the things I have been entrusted with, but now I was in orbit. Tied to those things enough that I didn’t just go hog wild, (a term I learned long ago from my granny who was apparently somewhat of an expert on the nature of swine.) but free to enjoy the experience before me.
Do you know people like that? People who seem to orbit just above the muck and the mire, but never seem to get their feet stuck in it?
They have the freedom of creativity and exploration. They have perspective. They can fly high above the dreariness that most other people look up and see above them.
MacKenzie’s perspective in writing his book focused on how to achieve this attitude in the workplace. I’m going to do that, but I’m going to incorporate his principles in every area of life. I have a life to live that only I can live. I have a purpose that is mine alone. I don’t want to let the hairball of expectation, guilt, fear, and manipulation keep me from living the life God has planned for me. And you know what? I’m gonna pull as many people up here with me as I can. Want to come fly with me?

Stripes and Plaids Don’t Go

Recently I was driving my daughter home from a piano lesson when we passed by a church with a marquee sign out front. It’s message read, ”Things I Learned From My Mother.” I assumed with the following Sunday being Mother’s Day, this was the message title for the pastor’s sermon. Detective Clouseau has nothing on me.
As we passed by the sign I asked Laura, “What have you learned from me?” She didn’t miss a beat and responded, “That stripes and plaids don’t go together.” (The humor she gets from me.) We both laughed, because it was funny, but later that night, as I tucked her into bed, I brought it up again. I said, “Surely I’ve taught you more than how to put an outfit together, right?” (Not that it’s not valuable information to know.) In her best eye-rolling voice she said, “Yes, mom”, but I decided to do just a quick review to make sure. I reminded her that, among other things, I have taught her to be a good friend, to love animals, and to care about those less fortunate. I have taught her that God walks with her each day, and that He loves her even when she screws up. “I know, I know”, she said.
Why did I need to do that? Was it to make sure that I had not screwed up? My kids are still becoming the people they will be as adults so I have years left to screw that up. Not that I am trying to, but you worry about those things as a mom. My mom still worries about it. She’s forever telling me she wished she had been more this or less that. Now, my brother and I are in our forties with families of our own. If she did mess up with anything, I am pretty sure the statute of limitations has already expired on it. Yet in my humble opinion, I think she did a wonderful job.
Motherhood is a wonderfully exhausting, beautifully stressful, gloriously challenging walk of faith. No one knows perseverance like a mother. As my own mom tells me, it’s a job you never retire from. And to steal a line from the Army, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever loved.