Rhythm Changes

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In the 1920’s George Gershwin was always hard at work creating new music for the world to enjoy and when he had settled on a composition, he sent it to his brother, Ira, to write the lyrics. Over and over the brothers created music that many still enjoy today, but sometimes it would be a challenge for Ira to create lyrics to match the tempo or rhythm of what George had written.

One song created a problem for Ira because he couldn’t come up with lyrics that rhymed. That problem led to him writing lyrics in prose and that song became the well-known “I’ve Got Rhythm” that was first used in a slower tempo in the musical Treasure Girl. Then in 1930, it became a toe-tapping hit in a bouncy rhythm in the musical Girl Crazy. This song with its recognizable chord progression and almost all the black keys in an octave (pentatonic scale) in the first half of the tune produced a template for jazz musicians to riff on. Those rhythm changes became the standard 32-bar progression in jazz.

Music impacts us on so many levels. It sets our feet in motion, gets us up and out of our routine, affects our mood and can set our emotional thermostat. It inspires and echoes in our memory long after the music stops. Many of our favorite memories will have music associated with them and seem sharper and clearer because of them. Music has so much power that it has been used therapeutically in a variety of settings and whether you are someone with ‘two left feet’ or someone who floats on the dance floor, it can be hard to resist.

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Beyond formal music and its various genres, tempos, and progressions, nearly every aspect of our lives is governed by rhythms. It would seem God set the world in motion in rhythm to help guide us along through our lifetime. There are the rhythms of day and night that point to work and sleep rhythms that help us maintain the bodily interior rhythms we need for activity and rest. There are also the rhythms of the solar system and the alignment of plants that impact the seasons of each hemisphere on our planet. Most of us are about to transition to a new rhythm and season in the next few weeks. For some it will be moving into spring and others it is a shift to autumn and a return to the pattern that sets up around weather and school calendars as we march toward the end of the calendar for the year.

You may not be musical or even love music even though that is hard to believe given all the types and options out there. Even so, you also have a personal rhythm that is uniquely yours. That tempo can be affected by the circadian rhythm that matches with you. Some of us are early risers with our minds and imaginations actively working as the sun edges over the horizon while others of us prefer a slower, later start to the day and come alive as the night sounds start with the setting of the sun.

There are other rhythms that each of us have that gives us the flow of our day. Some of us cannot even think about food in the morning and skip breakfast much of the time while still eager to grab a cup of coffee or some other favorite beverage. Others of us love breakfast any which way you serve it and how we view meals and times we have them can be affected by the culture and the season in which we find ourselves.

You may be someone who is eager to engage at some point in the day. It may be morning, afternoon, or evening and it will be good if you pay attention to that so your partner or friend isn’t at a disadvantage because that timing doesn’t match for them.

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Our personal rhythm often influences how we schedule our calendars, but schedule and rhythm are not synonymous. It’s our rhythms that seem to set the habits we end up practicing over time more than the schedules we can have a love/hate relationship with. When anything or anyone interferes with our preferred rhythm to our days, we tend to feel “off” and not quite as amenable as we might ordinarily be. Add a doctor’s appointment to our day, throw in an unexpected weather event, add a crisis we didn’t see coming, and we are trying to find our balance.

You may think the rhythm of your day is not that big a deal, but you wouldn’t be accurate on that. The rhythm of our days, weeks, months, and years may vary but together those become habits for us and what becomes habitual shapes our lives and our character even if you hadn’t noticed.

A major rhythm change is when we enter school and when school ends for us, not just year by year, but when we have finished this many years cycle that guides us through childhood and into our teen years and affects every adult with school age children. Another major rhythm change is when we leave our families and live a single life or marry someone and need to adjust to a rhythm we have lived with for a long time. Retirement is another major rhythm change we notice, one that some embrace and enjoy and one that others find throws them out of sync for a bit of time.

Our spiritual rhythm is one that we tend to have as well and along with how our rest and sleep manage our health, this rhythm of worship, prayer, and reflection is one God has pointed to as significant in how our lives are shaped over time. Our rhythm either makes God and our faith the centerpiece we relate with daily or puts it as just a part where we can fit it in. Our choice will have a long-term effect on every aspect of our life.

Whether your spiritual rhythm rhymes or is guided by prose, it will little by little shape who you are with God, others, and the place in the world you find yourself. It will be one you move to and propels you to the final lines of the music your life creates.

What is your rhythm?

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Blessing or Curse?

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From the beginning of man’s discovery of how to create fire, we have experienced a fascination and a fear of it. Fire can provide light, and warmth and we need both to live and survive on the earth, but fire can also destroy things we need, things we love, and ourselves. It can give us a sense of our ability to control it and have that disappear in a nanosecond.

When my mother was in school during her freshman year of high school, a fire swept through her home destroying everything. Her family lost not only the things they needed and used day-to-day, but also those irreplaceable things like photos, special dishes passed down from generation to generation, and the memories of her childhood years there. The only things she had were the clothes on her back and her saxophone that had been at school.

The total destruction resulted in she, her two older sisters, and her parents all living apart from one another for many months until a new farmhouse could be built. They also lived with the uncertainty of what had caused the fire to begin. This scenario has been relived by so many around the world over centuries.

More than 30 years ago when I was writing for a small-town newspaper, I was called to cover the story of a barn on fire, and I watched as the farmer and neighbors sought to get all the animals housed in the barn out as well as much of the expensive farming equipment. Sadly, much was lost because the contents of the barn served as fuel for the fire.

Clearly, fire destroys.

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Repeatedly we have watched as thousands of acres of rich wooded forest lands are destroyed by fire. Sometimes the fire begins by a lightning strike. Other times a careless spark or untended campfire may be the catalyst. Then there are times when someone deliberately starts a fire. The cause of a forest fire may come from poor forestry management that doesn’t use prescribed burns and becomes more susceptible to major destructive wildfires that not only destroy the forest, but also the habitats for many animals and the animals themselves.

Fire is a natural phenomenon and ecosystems benefit from periodic fires because they clear out dead organic material as well as some plant and animal populations that require the benefits of fire to survive and reproduce. Prescribed burns result in nutrients being released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals. These then return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility—a benefit that has been gained by farmers for centuries according to many forestry experts. The risk of destructive uncontrollable wildfires increases when prescribed burns are not employed.

Often, we don’t think about such benefits when fires are used this way. Some pinecones require fire to release the seeds within for new trees to grow and wild lupine requires fire for it to flourish, and beyond our enjoyment of its beauty, it is the only food source for an endangered blue butterfly caterpillar.

None of us are eager to see the destruction of a fire despite our delight of a campfire or a fire in our fireplace. We also cannot forget that fire is used to refine that substance so highly valued in the world – gold. Fire purifies gold. During refining of gold, it is re-liquified in a furnace and then heaped with generous amounts of soda ash and borax. This effectively separates the gold from impurities and other metal traces to make it pure.  But the process doesn’t end there since gold is so soft. Certain alloys are then added to the pure gold so it can be fashioned into the rings and other jewelry we enjoy and also be able to withstand wear. What a process that entails from mining the ore to what we admire on a finger.

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But there is something else beyond gold that is refined by the fire of testing – our faith. This too is not a fire we welcome as it comes from suffering and challenges we would prefer to avoid. But look at what Peter writes on this:

“Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer.  Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

1 Peter 1:6-7 (GNT)

The writer of Proverbs also speaks of how our hearts are refined and uses the metaphor of refining of gold and silver:

“In the same way that gold and silver are refined by fire, the Lord purifies your heart by the tests and trials of life.”

Proverbs 17:3 (TPT)

The Bible has more than a few passages about the use of fire to destroy or refine. In looking at this more closely, I was aware I needed to learn more about the difference between the refining fire of God and destructive fire. The words of John Piper helped me gain greater understanding on this subject as he looked at a passage in Malachi 2:17-3:6.

“He (God) is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire.

It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be a dreadful thing. There will always be a proper “fear and trembling” in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it’s a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don’t fool around with it.

But it does say, he is like a REFINER’S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.”

John Piper

So perhaps the answer to the question of whether fire is a blessing or curse might be BOTH depending on how it is used and by whom. Daniel and his friends were tossed into a fiery furnace for obeying God and in that test they were not only purified and spared, but served as a witness to an unbelieving king and nation.

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Which Is It?

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We get tangled up in things before we know it sometimes and when we do, we are faced with how we get unstuck. As we start to review what might have gotten us to where we are, we start through some of the experiences we have had to see if that can help. It’s then that we bump into a conundrum. Should we let go or hold on? Both options have been advice we have received and since they are opposites, which one do we choose?

Perhaps the problem stems from the dichotomy going on inside us. We may not want to deal with what we are facing any more so letting go of it appeals to us, but we know that is easier said than done because a decision to do that doesn’t quickly eliminate it from swirling in our thoughts. The thoughts come unbidden at such odd times like when we are just sitting at a stop light or right before we fall asleep. Could it be we are trying too hard to not think about the very thing we want to let go of?

Perhaps it’s a white bear problem. White bears? It has nothing to do with white bears! True, but maybe white bears can teach us what makes it hard to stop thinking about the problem we’re facing.

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In 1987 a Harvard psychologist by the name of Dr. Daniel Wegner was intrigued by an essay by Dostoevsky written in 1863 about white polar bears. As a result, he set up a study about blocking out thinking about white bears when you are told to do so or want to do so. He had two groups of subjects, and one was told to not think about white bears and the other was asked to tell what their stream of consciousness was while thinking about white bears over a period of five minutes.

The results of the study were revealing and gave us a glimpse into why telling ourselves not to think about something makes it harder not to think about it. Wegner discovered that trying not to think of a white polar bear ironically made it only more likely that you couldn’t get one out of your mind.

In recent months I can attest to the truth of the study results. I have been grappling with something that should seem simple enough to do, but it sets up massive amounts of anxiety for me and creates a huge problem before I even attempt it because I can’t stop thinking about it. When I attempt to do it, that anxiety skews the results and the more I try to do it the greater the reinforcement of thinking about it occurs.

Maybe we hold on too tightly sometimes as we try to manage or control something and that is what gets us stuck thinking about “white bears.”

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Sometimes we are unaware that we can be prone to hang on more easily than we can let go. When we hang on, it gives us the sense that we have some measure of control of whatever it is and reveals our challenge to trust letting go if that is the best choice. Clearly one is not always the right answer over the other. If we are being rescued from a fire or a near fatal fall over a cliff and someone reaches out and grabs our arm and tells us to hang on and not let go, that is exactly what we should do. Why? Because we can’t control what will happen to us when and if we do let go and certain death is likely. But is there another example of when we need to let go of the sense of needing to be in control and when holding on to the conscious idea of safety is not the right choice?

There’s a story in the New Testament of the Bible in Matthew 14 that gives us just such an example. The disciples of Jesus are out in a boat on a lake, and He is not in the boat with them. The lake is rough and the wind raging, and they fear death may come to them. They look up and are amazed to see Jesus walking on the water toward them. Peter calls out to Him and wants to know if it’s really Him, thinking it might be his imagination. Peter tells Jesus to ask him to come out and walk on the water to Him if it is truly Jesus and Jesus does just that. Peter looks at Jesus and steps out of the boat on the water and begins to walk toward Jesus as he was told, but then he recognizes what he is doing and looks down and cannot see beyond the waves threatening to overtake him. What was Peter holding onto and what was he letting go of in this scene?

Peter was sinking fast in the Sea of Galilee after he stopped trusting Jesus and focusing on Him and began to believe he needed to control the situation. We may not have been on the Sea of Galilee, but I am guessing we can all identify with something in our own lives that may have been similar. But we can’t leave the story before we remember the response Jesus gave to Peter: He reached out and offered his hand to rescue Him. It reminds me of a quote by American missionary, Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jim Elliot
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It reminds me of what John Eldredge calls “benevolent detachment.” It means giving that thing, that person, that situation that is entangling us and troubling us to Christ. It’s not just letting go of it, it is giving it to the One who can handle it as we never can. And guess what? No matter how long we may have trusted Jesus in our lives, it’s not so easy to do because we are prone to think about “white bears” and we have not discerned well what surrendering all to Him really means and what we can gain from doing so. Even with discernment, it’s something we need to practice to recognize and release our tendency to grasp rather than release.

“The secret of life is this: If we surrender everything to Christ – including everything we are, the totality of our being – He is then able to give us his everything.”

John Eldredge

What do we learn from that choice and practice?

“Nothing can be taken from us anymore because we’ve already surrendered everything.”

John Eldredge
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The Challenge of Change

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If I were to ask you if you like change, I wonder how you would answer that question. We can tend to have some strong feelings about change − either pro or con.

Some of us are adventurous and change in nearly any area offers us the excitement of discovering something new. We like stretching ourselves to expand what we know and testing what we know already. But sometimes that may be in a few areas, but not across all aspects of our lives.

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One person in our family when our children were young was adventurous with food. No matter what restaurant was mentioned, he was eager to try it. He loved trying something on the menu that he had never tasted before. We now have a grandson from another branch of the family tree who is much like that and recently enjoyed sampling snails while he was vacationing in Paris.

Others of us like challenging ourselves physically with new or extreme sports to test the limits of our abilities and experience the thrill that goes with it.

This summer many of us will go on a vacation. Some will go back to the same cabin or same condo where we have gone for a long time and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Others of us explore maps, tour books, and the Internet to find new destinations each year.

Some of us have personalities and preferences that are wired to like and need structure in our routines so anything that brings a change to those things can leave us feeling at sea.

Many of these things represent a category of change − things we choose to experience that are different. Harder changes are ones that are not of our own choosing. Those come in various types and sizes and may push us to the limits of our adaptability.

Change is a constant in life. We have far less control than we might think or wish.

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Growing up and getting older will be a change we happily anticipate as we think about things we will be able to do that we cannot when we are a child or teen. There is no question we will grow up and get older even if we don’t wish to do that, but as we do we will learn that some things we could do and be previously are lost to us. New responsibilities and tasks come our way. Time to play is limited to fewer hours or even minutes in any given day or week.

We also get in touch with how that process of growing older doesn’t go as slowly as we wish. We change schools, homes, jobs, relationships, churches, routines, and more. Our bodies change − sometimes without warning − adding to what we can do or taking away something we thought would never change.

We look forward to the change of leaving home and living on our own (sometimes in a new city or state or even country) and we plan the kind of life we want to have (sometimes similar to our parents and other times quite different). Then about the time we feel settled in this new life with a family of our own, change comes to us again − our own children grow up and go on their own way.

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Whether we love these changes or dislike them, we take with us things that can help us in this new place or season − experience, abilities, skill sets, and more − that can serve as a foundation for where we find ourselves.

“When things around you change − where you are, where you’re going − the one fact that remains constant, the one anchor that holds fast, is where you have been.” 

Lisa Wingate in The Language of the Sycamores

The significance of the word “anchor” in the quote is how it fits in our spiritual lives.

An anchor is a very early Christian symbol that has been found in ancient catacombs. It brings together the cross and nautical Christian symbolism. That anchor is more significant than where we have been.

In ancient times, an anchor was a symbol of safety and symbolizes Christ’s unfailing hope in the midst of life’s upheavals and uncertainties.

Change is a constant in this life whatever our proclivities may be. There is little doubt that sometimes change will not be a choice we make, will not be easy or without cost to us. Our source of help is clear in Hebrews 6:13-10 (TPT):

13 Now when God made a promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater than himself, he swore an oath on his own integrityto keep the promise as sure as God exists! 14 So he said,

“Have no doubt, I promise to bless you over and over,     and give you a son and multiply you without measure!”

15 So Abraham waited patiently in faith and succeeded in seeing the promise fulfilled.16 It is very common for people to swear an oath by something greater than themselves, for the oath will confirm their statements and end all dispute. 17 So in the same way, God wanted to end all doubt and confirm it even more forcefully to those who would inherit his promises. His purpose was unchangeable, so God added his vow to the promise. 18 So it is impossible for God to lie for we know that his promise and his vow will never change!

And now we have run into his heart to hide ourselves in his faithfulness. This is where we find his strength and comfort, for he empowers us to seize what has already been established ahead of time—an unshakeable hope! 19 We have this certain hope like a strong, unbreakable anchor holding our souls to God himself. Our anchor of hope is fastened to the mercy seat which sits in the heavenly realm beyond the sacred threshold, 20 and where Jesus, our forerunner,has gone in before us. He is now and forever our royal Priest like Melchizedek.”

In the midst of change, He is our unshakeable hope.

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His Time…Not Ours

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Have you noticed how often we get upset about time?

It seems like we often complain about it. We can be running out of it or feel like it is making us wait too long. We (even those who are not rigid) tend to have some sort of schedule for our day more days than not. Sometimes there are set appointments and then there are the things we just hope to do (or not do) in a day.

Maybe it is predictability we desire or perhaps it is control that we wish for. Whatever our situation we are not very amenable to interruptions much of the time despite living with an assurance they will occur. Sometimes we can manage them fairly well, but if we are on a deadline or focused on a project it’s not something we will rejoice about.

It can be easy to forget that God is the author of time and always has been.

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That doesn’t mean we take no responsibility for stewarding it, but that we develop a more realistic appraisal for how much of it we can manage. It is far too easy to make a commitment with a realistic expectation we can fulfill it and yet fail to include the possibilities that might impact that plan. It can be as routine as a car problem or a cold, a homework crisis we need to walk a child through or a senior relative who has a need we cannot ignore in the moment.

I am aware I have much to learn in this area. I see that over and over again as I read about the life of Christ. Page after page in the gospels show us one example after another where He is interrupted, and that interruption never seems to ruffle his mood or attitude. Invariably the interruption adds to our knowledge of Him and results in a miracle or two.

Jesus is teaching a group of teachers and religious leaders around Him who had traveled a great distance to hear Him. There are several men trying to help a man who was paralyzed laying on a bed get in to hear Him and maybe receive a miracle as He had done other places, but there is no way into the crowded room. They come up with a plan to open up the roof and carefully lower the man into the room where Jesus is teaching. Talk about an interruption! (Luke 5:17-39)

The teachers of the law and religious leaders are none too happy and Jesus knows exactly what they are thinking. He uses them as an example and in the midst of this interruption heals the man.

We see Jesus seeking solitude and going off to be alone and yet crowds follow Him over and over again. His disciples even interrupted Him while he was sleeping when a storm arose, and they were in fear on the sea.

Often Jesus is interrupted while He is traveling from one point to another. In one case Bartimaeus is healed of his blindness on the road to Jericho. At another point while He is on his way, He notices Zacchaeus up in a tree and that interruption results in salvation coming to Zacchaeus.

God uses interruptions to alert us to see something we did not notice.

If we pause, we might recognize why He wanted us to make note of what we were missing and how He might want to use it.

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At another time Jesus was asked to come to the home of Jairus, a man of position, so that He can heal his daughter who is very ill. On his way there, a woman who is of low estate touches the edge of his robe. (She doesn’t even warrant a name in the scripture that tells the story.) Her desire is healing from an “issue of blood” she had for 12 years that would have meant she was labeled “unclean”.

Clearly Jesus is urgently needed in the household of Jairus to attend his ill daughter and Jairus is a man of importance, but when the woman touches the robe of Jesus He stops and asks her what she needs. Her answer brings his response back of a healing. And in the midst of this great thing, Jairus finds out his daughter has died. He might well wonder at the delay to care for this woman, this interruption could have made the difference. But Jesus tells him not to be concerned because his daughter will be okay.

How much I/we can all learn from these examples and others like them?

We can be on our way to something important, but an interruption may point to something the Lord sees we should attend to. If that is the case, He will surely help us with that very important thing that is delayed.

Read the wise words of C.S. Lewis:

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely real life – the life God is sending one day by day.”

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