Friday, August 31, 2007

“S” is for Sparrow: “Grace Happening People” are Sparrows

“Even the sparrow has found a home…
a place near your altar, O Lord.” Psalm 84:3

When I moved to our current house, I couldn’t hang out my birdfeeders fast enough. With all the trees out back, I was eager to see who my winged neighbors were and my feathered friends did not disappoint me: Carolina chickadees, white breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, finches, woodpeckers—downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated—Carolina wrens, rose-breasted grosbeak, juncos, cardinals, indigo buntings (my favorite!), hummingbirds, and even those pesky carmel-breasted seed suckers (aka—squirrels!)—and, of course, sparrows. Sometimes sparrows are lined up on the deck rail, chatting and preening, just hanging out, but I’m so busy cooing over the “pretty birds” that I hardly even notice them.

If I could be a bird, I think I would want to be something exotic, like a toucan. Now there’s a bird for you! What a beauty—unique and almost comical, too. But can you imagine carrying around that beak? And what about attempting to kiss my sweetie? Could be tricky… If I were a Hoosier heron, I wouldn’t have to worry about thunder thighs. But can you imagine standing on those spindly legs all day? I could see myself as a pelican, loafing on the beach and pier and swimming whenever I wanted to. But, you’ve got to admit, a pelican isn’t the most attractive bird in the sky or on the sea. Actually, I think I’d fit in better with the sparrows, one among many, barely noticed, except if I were to make a pest of myself—which both sparrows and I are known to do.

When I was a child, at mealtime I was often compared to a bird: “Linda, you eat like a bird!” I was a picky eater and I often didn’t “eat enough to keep a sparrow alive.” Alas, I now could probably eat enough to keep a thousand sparrows alive! We make up all sorts of figures of speech involving birds when talking about the human race. I do not get up with the birds, nor go to bed with them, because I am a night owl. Pregnant women go through that nesting thing—and then eighteen or so years later wander aimlessly around their empty nests all teary-eyed.

Teenage girls chatter like magpies and Sandi Patty sings like a nightingale. Scary movies give me goose bumps. Sometimes I feel as free as a bird. If I mess up, I feel like a dodo. On days when I’m wandering the house looking for my keys—which I would swear on the Bible that I left on the kitchen counter, just like always—I feel loony. Some dear souls who rarely stray very far from the roost might say my daughter, Beth, is a bird of passage because she’s moved so many times. Speaking of kids, while I often had to talk turkey to my children, they are the feathers in my cap

“Why,” you ask, am I spending so much time comparing people to birds in a column on God’s grace? Because there are passages in the Bible in which Jesus compares us to birds, especially those “five for two pennies” sparrows: “not one of them” said Jesus, “will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” ( Matthew 10:29,) “not one of them is forgotten by God,” (Luke 12:6,) and “the birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).

The point Jesus is making here is that, if God cares this much about a mere sparrow, just think how very much he must care about you and me?

Now, THAT’S something to crow about! “Cock-a-doodle-dooooo!
This brings my summer series, “Grace Happening People,” (based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS”) to a close, but next week I’ll summarize the characteristics of “Grace Happening People” that we’ve pondered for the last twelve weeks. A special thank you is in order to the readers who wrote or e-mailed me, sharing their own thoughts. I love hearing from you!

“N” is for Nudge: “Grace Happening People” Know the Nudge of God

This is the eleventh installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

I’m the kind of person who needs nudges. When I need to be nudged, God often taps me on the shoulder through books. I used to be a cover-to-cover reader, believing I had to read a book in its entirety before moving on to another. Silly me! Experience has taught me that if I abandon a book midway and move on to another, it is often because God has a gift for me between a different set of covers. This was a wonderful discovery, but even better is the realization that God leads me back to unfinished books—and I open to a page where the words are exactly what I need at that very moment!

I remember my very first eye-opening, awe-inspiring experience of recognizing God’s directing hand in my reading. At the lowest point in my life—in the aftermath of the death of our first child shortly after he was born—God brought hope and healing to me through a book by Joyce Landorf entitled Mourning Song. I had purchased the book in a small Christian bookstore in Marquette, Michigan. I was a novice therapist at the time, in my very first counseling position at Northern Michigan University, and Joyce’s book was one of the first books in my ”professional” library. I bought Mourning Song thinking it would be good to have on hand if I ever work with a client who was in the throes of grief. Little did I know the plans God had for this book.

Mourning Song sat on my shelf collecting dust. I only had enough books to fill three small shelves back then and this one was relegated to the top shelf, awaiting its call to service. One day, following Jason David’s death, I was home alone, feeling overwhelmed with grief, when I suddenly remembered this book—the one I’d purchased in the event that someone else was grieving. I felt God’s nudge to climb up on a chair (probably not the best thing to do, given that I was healing from a C-section!) and retrieve the book, hoping that it would offer some consolation.

When I bought Mourning Song, I knew that it was about grief, but I had no idea Joyce had also experienced the death of her infant son, David. The aching heart she splayed out on the pages of her book was the twin sister of my aching heart. The initial gifts in Joyce’s words were that I was not alone and that my overwhelming feelings were normal. In the midst of my grief, my shattered heart felt enormous relief and a speck of hope that I could somehow survive.
Mourning Song is one of my most prized possessions, as is the personal note from Joyce that I have tucked in its pages—a response to a letter of gratitude I sent her and in which I poured out my grieving heart to an understanding, uplifting, newfound friend.

God continues to surprise and delight me by showing up in books where I least expect the visitation of grace. My hubby and kids tease me because I am never without my yellow highlighter when I read. “What are you highlighting, Mom? Isn’t that a novel?” Yep! God turns up in every genre!

I love the story of Samuel in the Bible. As a young boy, he lived with the priest, Eli, serving in God’s temple. One evening, he heard someone call his name. Thinking it was Eli, he went to him and said,

“Here I am. You called me.”

“I did not call you,” responded Eli. “Go back and lie down.”

Three times Samuel was certain that Eli had called him and he went to him. Then Eli recognized the nudge of God and told Samuel, that it was the Lord calling him and the next time God called, to respond, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3)

I encourage you to have your heart’s highlighter ready for when God’s nudges turn up in the pages of your life. Listen. Listen for the still, small voice of God.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

“E” is for Encouragement: “Grace Happening People” Know and Emulate the Encouraging Son of God

This is the tenth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

My long time friend, Ken Knipp, recently shared with me a priceless example of encouragement from his life. One winter, Ken’s mom accompanied his family to Colorado to serve as baby sitter for their youngest child, Janae, so Ken and Vickie and their sons, Tim and Gabe, could ski. Ken managed to talk his mom into taking a skiing lesson and she was quite surprised and pleased when she mastered the bunny hill. Ken took things one step further and said,

Mom, would you like to go up the ski lift with us?”

“Yes, I think I would like that,” his mom replied.

And so it was that Ken and his mother and sons were soon aloft in the ski lift.

“Oh! I’m not sure this was a very good idea,” exclaimed Mom, several times in a voice increasingly edged with apprehension. Approaching the landing, she despairingly declared, “Oh. I KNOW this wasn’t a good idea!”

Stepping out of the chair onto the snow, she fell several times and Ken patiently helped her up. He was determined to see that his mom experience and enjoy the thrill of skiing. Surmising that their dad’s mission could be time-intensive, Tim and Gabe skied off with a cheery, “See ya at the bottom!”

“Mom, I’m going to ski you down the hill,” Ken said in his calm, reassuring voice. “We’ll take the green trail—the slope is no different than what you have already experienced on the bunny hill.”

Although Mom wasn’t thrilled with the idea, she allowed her son to stand behind her, his skis planted on either side of her skis, his arms firmly but gently wrapped around her waist. Very s-l-o-w-l-y and deliberately, Ken zigzagged down the hill, his mom gasping and prayerfully punctuating the turns as they temporarily picked up speed.

“Oh God, protect us!”

“Oh, dear Lord!”

“Mom, you’ve taken care of me for years, now let me take care of you. Just relax and enjoy the magnificent scenery.”

Joyce Knipp was 65 at the time—and continued to enjoy additional skiing outings. You go, girl!

On the ski slopes of life, I sometimes feel like a bunny hill skier whose been lofted to the top of the Rocky Mountains and left there to fend for myself. At such times, I cry, “I can’t do this! It’s just too hard!” My heart pounding in my chest, I teeter on trembling legs of rubber, immobilized. The slippery slopes of life’s dilemmas often appear too high, too rugged and treacherous, too overwhelming and scary.

In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee found themselves teetering on one of life’s overwhelming slopes:

“I can't do this Sam,” Frodo lamented to his friend.

“I know,” said Sam wistfully. “It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo… Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
“What are we holding on to Sam?” Frodo queried his encouraging traveling companion.

Excellent question, Mr. Frodo! Rather that holding on to “something,” I think we need to lean into the guiding arms of God’s Son and accept his firm hold on us—just as Ken’s mom accepted her son’s encouraging embrace. We may not be the most graceful, skillful skiers on the slopes of life, but the embrace of God’s grace will see us safely through the twists and turns.

Our Lord Jesus Christ… loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope. 2 Thessalonians 2:16

Be eternally encouraged—and offer encouragement to those around you.

Monday, August 6, 2007

"P" is for Planting: Grace Happening People are Seed Sowers

This is the ninth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: ...a time to plant and a time to uproot…
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Many of my happiest childhood memories are about the yearly trips we took to Attica, New York to visit my grandparents. I germinated and sprouted in Buffalo, New York and then, at the age of eight, I was transplanted in Indiana. I especially enjoyed exploring and savoring my grandfather’s country garden, as well as the field of wildflowers and the woods beyond the garden. I LOVE to watch things grow from seeds, to bright green shoots, to leggy plants with tiny buds, to glorious blossoms. I love to watch people grow in similar fashion.
Years ago, I came across the following poem by Ann North:

Some of the seeds of hope
Planted tentatively in the fall
Have not come up
They lie stillborn and unrealized
Somewhere in the spring soil/Decaying

The strongest and best ones
Pushed up through leaves
And layers of cold hard resistance
Right into clear blue air
And stand there nakedly green

It’s always that way with growing things
Never knowing at the start
Which will make it and which will fail
But the thing to hold fast to
Never to lose faith in
Is simplySowing

We all know first hand what it is like when the seeds we plant “lie stillborn and unrealized.” You may or may not have a green thumb, but I’m actually referring to the many hopes and dreams that we envision “push[ing] up through leaves/and layers of cold hard resistance/right into clear blue air/and stand there nakedly green/Breathing.” In my early years of gardening, I learned the harsh reality that cauliflower and broccoli are particularly vulnerable veggies and I quickly gave them over to those gross little worms that love Brassica Oleracia with a passion. Bugs I can handle. But worms—YUCK! Thus, I gave up on my dream of dipping the raw fruits (or should I say veggies) of my labor into ranch dressing and smothering my delicious, homegrown, fresh fro the garden veggies in melted cheddar cheese. In similar fashion, I sometimes abandon my personal hopes and dreams when the going gets wormy.
“It’s always that way with growing things,” muses Ann North, “never knowing at the start which will make it and which will fail.” Thus, the sensible thing to do is to plant, water, weed, pray, and hope for the best. The only alternative is to NOT sow, and then, well…we get absolutely nothing! Holding on to our hopes and pursuing our dreams is a risky business that requires courage and commitment, patience and persistence—definitely not an easy row to hoe.
We have some choices on what kinds of seeds to sow. We can sow seeds of hope, encouragement, wisdom (as opposed to advice), humor, humility, appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness… Or we can sow seeds of criticism, discouragement, doubt, fear, insecurity, faintheartedness, cynicism… The latter seeds will never, ever nurture growth and are packaged in the misconception that life should go smoothly, without weeds, pests or pestilence. Life was idyllic in Eden, and eternal life will be “out of this world” in heaven. But not so in the interim, post Fall and pre Eternity.
Grace Happening people understand that the rain falls on both the good and the evil and don’t expect it to be otherwise. Grace Happening People keep on sowing, season after season, because we rely on the Master Gardener during both times of bountiful harvest and the devastation of crop failure. We strive to “hold fast to/never to lose faith in…simply/Sowing.”
Who in your life is in need of encouragement, wisdom, a healthy dose of attitude-altering humor, appreciation, forgiveness? When might you need to practice restraint lest you sow criticism, discouragement, doubt, fear, insecurity, faintheartedness, cynicism?

“People reap what they sow… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” Galatians 6:7-10

"P" is for Patience: Grace Happening People Practice Patience

This is the eighth installment of a twelve-week summer series based on the anagram “GRACE HAPPENS,” each letter representing a quality that equips us to be “Grace Happening People.”

Adopt the Pace of nature: her secret is patience."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am on vacation in Colorado. Surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, I am intrigued by Emerson’s idea that nature’s secret is patience. What might I learn from these ancient peaks and verdant valleys and the flora and fauna gracing their landscape?

Information on Rocky Mountain National Park points out that “most Trail Ridge Road travelers drive to treeline with a certain amount of urgency,” missing out on the beauty leading up to the alpine tundra. Just reading this statement helps me slow down and absorb nature at its best. Trail Ridge Road ascends slowly through the montane (below 9,000 feet elevation), subalpine (9,000-11,400 feet) and alpine (above 11,400 feet) ecosystems, via numerous switch backs. The highest point along this forty-eight mile road is 12,183 feet. At Milner Pass, where the highway crosses the Continental Divide, the elevation is 10,758 feet.

In those rare moments when there is no traffic nearby, and we climb out of the car to take a closer look, the silence, punctuated only by the twittering of birds, is amazing—a sound, or should I say a lack of sound, that is rare in my life. I love it! I am in the Garden of Eden with Adam (aka, my husband, Rex) and God, and a bull elk who is slowly munching on a mouthful of grass—this scene framed in glorious silence. I really, really like it!

Like the Rocky Mountain tourists, I tend to travel my daily “trail ridge road” with a sense of urgency. I hurry to get to work. On my lunch hour, I hurry to run an errand or two. After work, I hurry home to feed the dogs, put the load of clothes in the dryer that I put into the washer before leaving for work. Hurry, hurry, hurry, attempting to get the “must dos” of life over with so I can enjoy the vista at the end of my day, which may be a walk in the woods, a bike ride in the country, a book, or a TV show. Inevitably, my trip up the mountain is frustrated by numerous irritations, like forgetting to stop at the grocery to pick up milk and having to backtrack to do so, my anxiety mounting and my patience bottoming out. In the midst of my frustration, I’m sure I miss numerous vistas along the way. But typically, I just want to get the day over with so I can enjoy my “alpine tundra.”

Nature teaches me that life is a process. In the midst of the intoxicating fragrance of lodgepole pines, I marvel over these inspiring spires (which I’m sure were the inspiration for church spires). At their feet are adorable baby pines just beginning their life process. Many of the adult trees are slowly being eaten alive by wood-eating pine beetles, their brown spires taking over the once green landscape. Though a sad sight, this is a natural process, occurring due to recent warm winters and prolonged low rainfall. This process of destruction takes about ten years to run its course. Fortunately, the beetles only attack the mature trees, leaving the young trees to carry the future of the forest.

My life is a process, as well. I’ve grown from being a tiny pine tree to a maturing pine tree. I have weathered storms, dry spells, and infestations. In so doing, I am better able to stand steady and go with the flow of life’s changing seasons. And I am better able to stand beside others and lend my steadiness to them through the storms and dry spells and infestations that threaten their growth and healing.

After the storms and dry spells, the infestations and blighting of landscape, there is restoration. Among the baby pines come wildflowers, their vivid colors and vast variety, inspiring hope and joy. At the worst of times in my life, wildflowers bloom.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Galatians 5:22-23