Wonderful Dirt

Every day we look at it. Walk on it. Spend hours removing it from floors, windows, cars, and clothing. Its inescapable and everywhere.

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Dirt.

Dirt is a gift. Truly. A wonderful life-giving mixture of minerals, moisture, and dead things. From dirt come shade trees and vegetables. Bricks and glass. Pigments and pottery. Dirt really is quite amazing. Our lives depend on it! But when it’s where we don’t want it, we might overlook dirt as a kind provision from God.

Long ago, God provided in a different way. It came through a person. Her name was Mary.

Mary and her “man-to-be” Joseph had big plans. Marriage plans. Perhaps a family — in time. He’d work as a skilled tradesman. She would foster relationships at home and in the community. Together they envisioned a simple and happy life in the community of Nazareth. A life dependent on God for their day-to-day needs.

And God did provide for Mary and Joseph. But it was shocking and scandalous.

In the midst of their premarital plans, God disrupted everything. (Luke 1:26-38) In His perfect goodness, God chose for Redemption to come alive in a small village through this hard-working man and obedient young woman. An innocent couple filled with great expectations unexpectedly became parents to the Messiah.

Mary and Joseph have a spectacular story. Through their humble submission, God provided for all of us. It began in an instant with the words of an angel and the power of the Spirit. An eternal act of mercy granted by Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider.

As it was then, so it is now. God’s provision enfolds our every moment. A steady stream of grace flows through our triumphs and tragedies. An outpouring of divine love. As we ponder the countless ways that God provides, Thomas Merton calls us to gratitude:

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us — and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p. 33)

Jesus has given us everything so that we can be part of His story, just like Mary and Joseph. And every day, as we live in that story, we have the opportunity to receive God’s provision and pass it along. The provision we offer may be a word of encouragement, shoveling snow for a neighbor, or taking a walk with grandma. Sometimes it’s simply holding a hand in silence. Many are the ways we can provide love and care to others.

As we wait and prepare for the celebration of Christmas, may we praise God for His seen and unseen provision, striving to be grateful for all things — even dirt.

~ Advent Prayer of Provision ~

Jehovah-Jireh,
Faithful Provider —

Your Kindness is the pulse of life;
we dwell within your generous love.

Unveil our eyes to Your abundance,
and plant in us contentment’s seed.

The Waiting Game

We all play this game from time-to-time. It blends strategy with chance and careful observation. The goal: choose the line with the shortest wait time.

waiting

Players consider the variables of cart load, line length, and cashier speediness. Self-scan lanes are wild cards. In the end, all must pay and pass through the gateway to parking lot freedom.

More than a game, the store checkout line is one of our waiting realities. Waiting is a part of every day for everyone. We wait for birthdays and summertime. For class to end and a table at restaurants. We wait for cakes to bake and mosquito bites to stop itching. With all of the ways we wait, have you ever waited 400 years?

Back in ancient Israel, God used prophets as His human spokespersons to instruct, challenge and remind the people of His truth and love. It was a way of making His presence known. But for a very long time – about 400 years – there were no prophets. God was silent. So the people waited.

In the Bible we read about a man and a woman living at the end of those 400 years: Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:1-25). Zechariah was a Jewish priest. A man dedicated to serving God. For many years, he and his wife Elizabeth prayed, asking God to bless them with children. They asked — and waited. They asked again. And waited. For decades they asked and waited. But no children.

How do you think Zechariah and Elizabeth responded in their waiting? It’s reasonable to think they experienced seasons of discouragement. Did God really care about their disappointment and pain? Maybe they wondered if God was hearing their prayers? Why wouldn’t He bless them with children?

Not getting what we want can influence what we think, say, and do. How did Zechariah and Elizabeth handle their waiting? The Bible says they served God. They loved their family, friends, and neighbors. God calls them “blameless” in their living. Zechariah and Elizabeth showed us how to wait well.

If you read the rest of their story, you’ll discover that God broke His silence and granted their request. All along He was preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for a very special child. A child who would signal the fulfillment of a promise made to Adam and Eve way back at the beginning. The promise of Jesus.

In our waiting — when we must dwell in the quiet of the unresolved — we aren’t stuck, hopeless, or unloved. God is with us in our waiting. So whether happy, frustrated, excited, or confused we should strive to live rightly. To honor God with our thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. To prepare ourselves to receive God’s good plan for us — with gratitude.

Advent is upon us. A season of preparation and waiting. We wait for the return of Jesus Christ when all will be set right and made new. We prepare for that time by seeking justice, acting with mercy, and relating with humility. A steady rhythm of faithful obedience as we submit to the care of our Father and the unfolding of His “right on time” story. Just like Zechariah and Elizabeth.

~ Advent Prayer of Preparation ~

God Almighty,
Keeper of Promise —

Touch our lips with Mercy’s salve;
knead our hearts with Spirited grace.

Inject our minds with Heavenly vision,
and settle our souls with assured expectation.

With or Without You?

Not A Team PlayerThe air carried a hint this morning. The trees can no longer hide it. It’s coming.

Fall. The season of football and cider is cresting the horizon. Soon, colored leaves will cover the beach sand ground into my floor mats. Windows will open as air conditioning units taper toward hibernation. And schedules will inflate with a fresh cycle of activity.

The summer months afford an opportunity to get out, get away, and refresh. To do many things, or nothing. As someone who craves solitude, I welcome times of uninterrupted quiet. No requests, no demands. Just the peaceful still of me — and only me.

In contrast to those “me only” dreams, last week I shared breakfast with a few good men. Despite a minor setback with finding carb-free options (we were at a bakery — go figure) we successfully procured some dining fare and caught-up on our summer happenings.

One man changed jobs, another sent a son to Uganda for 10-days to install clean water systems, a third made a commitment to be baptized, and the last successfully relocated a noisy rooster. Our conversation ran the spectrum from excitement to pain, from dreams to discouragement. Sipping my dark roast, I listened and wondered at the complex paths we travel. I marveled at the providential intersection of our stories. It is good to live in community.

But I still like to be alone.

We need silent spaces. Detours from the din. Yet retreats to a quiet oasis must be bounded. I’m easily lured to the out-of-the-way corner. A closed-door room. The library. Places that limit encounter. But too much “me” distorts my perspective. The world loses its color. My empathy atrophies and my grace becomes small.

I become lonely.

Henri Nouwen said, “Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.”* The stories of my neighborhood friends are, in part, my story. Sure, we all live near one another. But that’s not what makes their story mine. Rather, we are bound together in our humanness. We are joined in the outworking of maleness and marriage. We fell trees, share tools, read books, and watch March Madness — together. We are communal.

So as summertime fades and fall activities filter into the calendar, I must recognize my craving for quiet. At the first hint to escape, I need to do the careful, wise work of prayer, seeking Spirit-guided help with making room for people while making room for me. To prioritize a daily refreshment of gratitude through God’s Word. To find joy in the grand adventure of life — with others, and alone.

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.47

Mere Mumblings

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I’m not a verbose person. I’m prone to projecting a quiet, withdrawn, even aloof disposition. This is not for lack of interest, engagement, or care but simply a poverty of words flowing from mind to mouth.

This truth draws a curious tension. I enjoy the craft of arranging words on a page. Poems, prose, devotionals or blogs, writing words is life-giving. Yet speaking those same words requires determination.

And then there’s prayer.

For some time now, my conversations with God have been mere mumblings. The words come slow and incomplete, competing with the ticker tape flow of my self-talk. I offer word-threaded tangles through terse, broken-phrased blurts toward Heaven. My focus easily diverts to other supposed urgencies.

My struggle is not unique. Still, I grieve my paltry praying efforts. I’m saddened by missed opportunity. Shocked by my autonomy. Confused by my difficulty.

How grateful I am for my wife. A pray-er par excellence and spiritual helpmate.

Yesterday, sitting parked in our driveway, she reached across the console, grabbed my hand with gentle firmness, and led us both in a fresh engagement with our Father. No shame. No remorse. Just invitation.

Along with that driveway moment, I’m pondering some words from Thomas Merton. I’m stirred by his thoughts on prayer and solitude. Not a solitude of escape, but transformation. Merton says, “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively, no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.91)

I seek the release from distraction through the pleasure of silence. A quietness filled with just one conversation. A prayerful dialogue that ebbs and flows with the mundane and the extraordinary. A conversation enlivened by the Holy as I offer myself without the distraction of me.

A whole life of prayer. One word at a time.

Sappy and Green

I enjoy making new from old. dripping_tree_sap

Last summer in an unplanned flash of creativity, I crafted an outdoor iPod music station. I had a riot pairing my imagination with a stack of wood from weathered apple crates. Today, that music box stands erect, like a soldier at Buckingham Palace, ready to deliver play-listed tunes into the springtime green of our backyard.

Last week, as I unpacked my musical re-creation from it’s winter storage, my mind recalled a recent conversation with a friend. He and his wife are battling cancer — again. The situation is fragile. Emotions are volatile. The future uncertain. Questions ooze from every conversation. Predominant among them is: “Why is this happening, again?”

Life is seasonal. In my friend’s case, cyclical. The chapters of our living stack side-by-side and layer a story. Some of the chapters read with discouragement and despair in our pursuit of happiness. Others have plot lines wrapped around self-affirmation and high-minded morality. And some are penned while walking the slender path that’s illumined step-by-step with a sanctified glow.

We all wander and weave a journey that brings us to lung-burning climbs and leg-aching descents. None are immune from life’s frustrations and setbacks. Each of us cycle through joy and sorrow, breaking and building, closed doors and open.

Hindsight is the gift of reflection. A glimpse backward helps us piece together personal themes, the development of relationships, and circumstances that are more purpose driven than random. In our looking back, we see the progression of being torn down and built up. We see Someone at work.

For those who follow Jesus, our life is a steady plodding toward restoration. In every circumstance, our hope is immovably anchored in the surety of God’s plan of renewal. Deep within, we’re “ever full of sap and green.” * We’re alive and growing by the Spirit of grace.

As you page through your story today, be it joyous, painful, or commonplace, remember that every moment is an opportunity to worship. Believe that your life is not a fate-driven tragedy. A hopeless endeavor. A cycle of needless pain. We are all being broken down and built up. We are green, sappy, deeply loved people being transformed from the old and broken into fruit-bearing newness. In all things, may we be vibrant ambassadors who step with trust into the wonderful mystery of the story God is writing.

* “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12–15, ESV

The Good of Friday

lonely-man-appI felt trapped. Separated from home by a landmark bridge and 500 miles, my studies at college were the loneliest of my life.

Buried in snow and differential equations, I had tapered. My existence seemed shunted, bound by the limit to which the frigid atmosphere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could carry my warbled pleas. I was singular, distanced from the familiar, the enjoyable, the comfortable. I felt unprotected and undefended. Monsters of despair bullied my self-talk and clawed at the empty space of me.

Still, in the dim of self pity I desperately tended a flickering hope. My spirit stretched toward Spirit as neediness found readiness in another. In a Man who knows rejection and isolation, for there was a time that He was lonely, too.

Lonely because of me. I’ve said ‘no’ to Him. Deserted Him. Ignored Him — over and over. You have, too. Even His Father distanced himself in this Man’s most desperate moment. Together, we have turned our collective back and willingly cast this Man aside.

Today we remember our rejection of Him. In my remembering, I want those college days near me. To feel fresh the pain and longing. To sit again in the desperation and frustration of wanting to be wanted. To be connected, known, and loved.

We are not trapped on a celestial orb, abandoned and alone, traversing in elliptical nothingness. We have been rescued from isolation. We need no longer be lonely. That is the “good” of this Friday.

Because of the Man, Jesus.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Isaiah 53:3, ESV