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Getting It Backwards

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Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get yourself turned around before you even realize it? That can happen to me easily when I am trying to follow a map on a trek somewhere. Yes, I am grateful for those apps that now tell me where to go and hope they know where I am going. But even with those apps there can be times they must be lost. A week ago, I was following them to a bakery I had never visited and when I arrived at the site there was nothing there but an intersection and fields on every corner.

Life seems to easily get us turned around and sometimes upside down as well. It should be obvious to us when that happens and yet it is noteworthy that it can sometimes happen so slowly that we aren’t even aware of becoming disoriented.

We need to be more aware like Topsy in the 2018 film, Mary Poppins Returns, wonderfully depicted by Meryl Streep. She knew that every second Wednesday things would be upside down in her world and it would be “turning turtle” and those days she needed to not try to do certain things that required her precise skills of fixing broken things. If we had her self-awareness, we would know which days we should not be following directions to a new location or making a recipe where it would be easy to make a mistake between salt and sugar or baking powder and baking soda.

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But recipes and directions are not the only places where things get turned around. Our thoughts and understanding are fertile fields for that to happen before we even become aware of it. We are influenced by input from untold numbers of directions and sources over time that begin to become so much a part of us that we believe them as truth instead of evaluating them to determine their source, value, and truth. And if we don’t do that evaluation, we start making decisions and choices based on incomplete or erroneous information that is value loaded with values and information that do not line up with what we believe about ourselves, others, the world, and God. I wonder if you have noticed that too.

Amid the best of times or the worst of times, times when we are on top of the world or times when we feel the world is on top of us, we forget that life is never static but rather ever-changing.

“Life, I have realized, ebbs and flows like the tide outside my old bedroom window. Some days the wind is too strong, and sometimes you are carried along on a gentle breeze. The hurricanes come; the landscapes change. Any expert seaman will tell you that, in the roughest seas, it’s best not to fight the tide.”

Kristy Woodson Harvey in Under the Southern Sky

The key in the quote is to remember it is an expert seaman who understands how to respond in the seas, whatever their condition. That seaman has learned to know the sea and all its moods and how to navigate each one. I think the disciples knew just such a seaman. Even though some were expert fishermen, Jesus was the one who understood where to find the best fish and how to tame a storm. Their life with Him was designed to teach them to discern more completely what they could not have known without Him. And that is true for us today as well if we are truly listening and tuning into the voice and heartbeat He offers us as his children.

Our challenge is to keep in mind He will not scream at us as so many other influences can be prone to do. That is the often-tricky part for us because it is the loudest voices that can turn us around and taint our understanding of Him. The enemy gets his enthusiasm in knowing this is an area he excels in. He likes to twist our thinking about ourselves, others, and God. If we are honest, we know that he sometimes succeeds.

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Other voices and influences want to remind us that in this world our hearts will still get broken (even as his followers) but fail to remind us that even so, light will ultimately overcome the darkness of this world and all the evil that can abound. These other voices and influences will want to haunt us by reminding us of every failure, mistake, and sin we ever committed to convince us that is still who we are and there is no escape. But Jesus wants us to hear his whisper that what we are now is what is important, not what we were (no matter how good or bad that may have been). He wants us to remember that none of us is more worthy than the other, better, or more valuable than the other, He needed to die for each one of us because none of us was or is perfect.

We can believe that God responds to what we do, but miss what Paul is pointing to in Romans 3 about who initiates the pace. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates a portion of two verses:

“What we have learned is this: God does not respond to what we do; we respond to what God does. We’ve finally figured it out. Our lives get in step with God and all others by letting him set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade.”

Romans 3:27-28 (MSG)

If we tune into his voice. we will be clearer on the truth that his purposes for each one of us are not random, not hit or miss or dependent on what we do or don’t do but rather dependent on his decision and purpose. Understanding that will help to remind us we are not supposed to adjust to the other voices and influences or to the culture that would seek to shape us. It is we who are to influence the culture. We must not get that backwards for his purposes to be fulfilled.

To allow that to permeate every aspect of our thinking means we will pursue listening to the stories of others more than insisting our own be heard. Listening to each other’s stories will be how we connect and learn that even though we may look different, be different, come from a different place, have a different income, or speak a different language, there are threads that we have in common.

And we can discover them if we listen instead of shout and demand we be heard.

“People always think being loved will change them. But that’s not true. It’s really, truly loving – with the kind of love you couldn’t take away even if you wanted to – that turns you inside out.”

Kristy Woodson Harvey in Under the Southern Sky
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What Have You Hidden in Your Heart?

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Our minds and hard drives can be cluttered with many things. Our hearts also can hold a myriad of emotions, beliefs, commitments, and convictions.

I think most of us have experienced the challenge of having our computers slow down as the memory gets overloaded. It happens with the cell phones we carry in our hands as well as every other electronic device. If we have done much work with electronics, we soon decide that when we need to purchase something new, we want to purchase something with more memory (the most we can afford).

We marvel at all that can be stored in these devices that seem to get smaller every year, but we forget the most incredible storage of data and memory created or designed is the human brain.

I know you are likely thinking about how much you cannot recall no matter what your age, but the human brain is so complex that the exact amount of what can be contained is not measurable even though it must certainly be limited. What does science say about this most complex brain that our Creator designed and that exceeds any device created by man?

Some research now suggests that the human mind can hold as much as the entire Internet! One study found that each synapse in the brain could store an average of 4.7 bits; spread throughout the brain, that would be about 1 petabyte, the equivalent of 1,000 terabytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Other scientists suggest we have as much as 2.5 petabytes of memory storage.

So why do we forget things? It’s because it is not really about capacity. The reality is our storage process is slower than our experience of the world. Here’s an example. If we pretend, we have an iPod with infinite storage, even if we could store every song ever written we would still need to buy and upload all that music and then pull up individual songs when we wanted to play them. But what if we wanted to have all that music and could load it? It would take us 2,000 years to play it all.

Think about this truth. It is impossible to quantify the amount of information in our brain because it consists of more information than we are consciously aware of.

We sometimes get a glimpse of that when someone we know has a stroke.

Our brains consist of more than facts and faces and measurable skills. They also contain functions like how to speak and move, how to feel and express emotions. We do all that with great efficiency. It only takes about the amount of energy needed to create a dim light from a light bulb. And we do all that while the average brain cell is inactive about 80 percent of the time.

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” 

Psalm 139:14 (ESV)

I have been mulling over this information because of reading Virginia Prodan’s book, Saving My Assassin, which I reviewed a few years ago.

What stood out repeatedly was how many verses of scripture were memorized by the persecuted Christians of Romania under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu that ended in 1989. Bibles were forbidden. The period preceded our easy access to a Bible in unlimited numbers of translations via apps on our electronic devices. The body of Christ was under persecution and the Word was essential to sustain them. So, they hid the Word of God in their hearts where no one could steal it from them.

“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”  

Psalm 119:11 (ESV)

David wrote those words. He “hid” the Word of God in his heart is how some translations read. David knew the value of scripture. He stored it, hid it, in his heart so that it would be available to him whenever he needed it. He valued it so highly that he was aware he might be robbed of it or lose it if it were something in a hard copy form, so he treasured it and placed it where no one could take it from him.

The Word doesn’t say David stored it in his memory. I think he knew what we know. Our memories can fail us.

Perhaps it said he placed it in his heart because he had so often read the Word that his heart had been molded by it, so the impression remained embedded on his soul.

I confess that I do not have vast amounts of scripture memorized, but I have many verses that have been woven into the fabric of my heart and soul much as words of love letters from my husband have been carried there.

Many of us are blessed with great freedom to own as many Bibles as we wish and read them wherever we desire, but if that was lost to us for some reason, what has been hidden in our hearts?

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A Hard Part of Fellowship

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One of the things most of us hope for when we are part of a church body is the sense of community, of belonging, or of being in fellowship one with another.

When I am speaking of fellowship, I am not really speaking of getting together over food and fun even though that may often happen. I am speaking more about a community bound together in mutual support, companionship, and friendship stemming from shared values and beliefs.

Because life on this earth is messy, experiencing this type of fellowship can often include some ruts or rocks along the way since we all continue to bear the taint of our sin natures even though redeemed. I think we all can struggle with that from time to time, or one degree to another.

What makes this fellowship and community so difficult?

I am sure we can all come up with lists or have some opinions about it, but as I have been reading in my time with the Lord today, I think He points us back to the “big rock” principle He lays down for us.

How do I love my brother or sister, my neighbor?

At the outset, I think none of us do this as well as we would like or might even pride ourselves on doing. I certainly don’t! Yet repeatedly from Old Testament to New Testament each of us is called to do so.

One place I bumped into it today was in Leviticus 19:17:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor lest you incur sin because of him.”

Leviticus 19:17 (ESV)

I can quickly say that I don’t hate someone, but as I delve more deeply into the principles under the verse, I discover it includes a responsibility to God to respect my brother or sister. That adds a dimension I may not first think about when reading a verse such as this.

Respecting someone means having a feeling of deep admiration for someone, holding that person in regard or esteem, acting with deference toward or in civility with the person. This sounds a lot like godly love to me.

That fits with the two commandments upon which everything else depends on first loving God and then loving our neighbor. We all “know” that. Loving God first is what bends our hearts toward loving our neighbor. Only when we do the first can we hope to attempt the second since it is a reflex to the reality of loving God.

I feel like it can be easy to get stuck because even when we seek to put self to death, it keeps sticking its head up out of the ground repeatedly. That keeps me from loving my brother or sister very well, but what I might fail to recognize is that I might not love God or be in rich fellowship with Him. If that has slipped, then I will mess up in loving anyone else because it will invariably be about me in some way or another.

I think these are some of the sticking points that are a hard part of fellowship, but there is something else. When things get messy for whatever reason and our hearts cause our actions and motives to be less than loving, too often someone does not come alongside us in respect and love to help us recognize what is hindering fellowship with God or others.

That requires a lot more from us. It is easier to be judgmental, to cut off the person, to confront without love, or to become bitter. Because that is the case and this community of believers may have more than just one or two of us during this sort of challenge, fellowship is hard.

We will hurt each other. That’s a given even though it is generally not intentional. Prayerfully, we will seek to forgive in the midst of our own hurt or pain.

We demonstrate how well we love when we bump into Ephesians 4:15:

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”

Ephesians 4:15 (ESV)

Most of us know that verse but living it out is another story. Think about it. It means I speak the truth versus my opinion or perspective. I share my honest feeling as a feeling, but not as a fact. It also means I share whatever I am sharing in love while not diminishing the issue.

It is also how I help myself and others grow up in Him and in maturity by being open to them when they (out of love) seek to help me not fail or do poorly. It also means I face my fear and gain courage to speak to them in that way, not from a one up position but from an equally level position.

We need more lessons and practice in loving no matter what our age or season of life, no matter what our position or gender.

If we submit to Him and allow His love to permeate our own hearts, I think fellowship will become less difficult and the community will look more like Him.

I love what C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity:

 “God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body. Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God, is the whole Christian community, waiting on Him together.”

C.S. Lewis
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Tortoise or Hare?

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Most of us are familiar with the Aesop’s Fable 226 known to us as The Tortoise and the Hare. The hare in the fable makes fun of the tortoise for being so slow. In response to the taunts the tortoise challenges the hare to a race. The hare thinks this is the funniest thing ever since there is no way that a slow-moving tortoise can ever win a race against a hare. So, the hare accepts with no question he will win.

The hare takes off like a shot and soon disappears ahead of the slow-moving tortoise but decides he has plenty of time to grab a nap along the route. While he snoozes, the tortoise reaches and passes the hare. When the hare awakens and sees the tortoise is ahead of him, he leaps up and dashes for the finish line. It is too late, and the tortoise wins that race.

We all know the moral of this story – you can be more successful by doing things slowly and steadily than by acting quickly and carelessly. Of course, we can all recall times when we have been racing to finish a project or do something else only to discover in our horror that we missed a key component, and our efforts fail.

The problem for us can sometimes be that we live life all the time at the pace of the hare. Our days quickly go from one thing on our agenda to another with very little (if any) gap time left in between. We may have once used planners to help us track it all. Now most of us use our phones, tablets, and Siri to keep us on that schedule. We may tell ourselves that tomorrow or next week will be different but often the pace continues much the same and research points to this as a cause of erosion to our health on every level.

Much of what we do are good things but doing them all is not good for us.

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We can even be judgmental about others who are seeming to laze through life as we look at when we can escape to the beach for a vacation to recoup from our own hectic pace. We start to go through life on automatic and may not even recognize the things we are missing along the way – the crocuses that pop up in our lawn that we planted years ago, the color of the sky just before the sun dips below the horizon, the expression on the face of a family member or friend, the nudge from the Holy Spirit to call that person that comes to mind, and so many other things as well. And even the pandemic did not slow everyone down and those who were required to slow their pace were often at a loss about what to do now or how to live life.

Such a pace erodes our quietness before the Lord and mutes the Holy Spirit’s voice and the guidance He offers.

By now you may have determined that is not what you are like or you may feel defensive because it is stuff for your kids, your church, or any number of other good and important causes. I know both of those reactions because I have had them as well at different times. I thought the years I was teaching full-time while a housewife and mom while going to graduate school was bad and when that pace finished things would finally slow down, but I changed careers and life never did slow down and yet it wasn’t life that was setting the pace, I was.

Little by little I began to take back my life and bring my busy life (I hated to have someone tell me that I was so busy.) into subjection so that it was rich with good things but not a pace that was robbing me of the joy of living or noticing life around me. As I did there was evidence in my physical life of the benefits of the change – I started sleeping better, weight was not as much of an issue because I was eating better and cortisol levels were not as high due to less stress, and I had serendipitous moments that made my heart smile.

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I had one of those serendipitous moments a few days ago that still makes my heart smile even more than usual. It was as if the Lord saw a perfect opportunity to have a teaching moment and I was the pupil. And it all happened on a morning when I decided to drive to my favorite walking path to get in some good exercise before digging into the tasks for the day. As I pulled my car into the parking area and turned off the key I caught a glimpse of an older woman walking slowly with a walker toward where two portions of the trail come together. It was only a glimpse and I didn’t think much about it as I got out of the car, retied my shoes, and took a sip of water from my water bottle. My mind was elsewhere.

I started out slowly but quickly got up to peak speed to get the best cardio from the walk. In doing so I became aware of that the woman with the walker and she was now a bit ahead of me on the path. I noticed and realized I would soon pass her and hoped to move ahead of another small group of walkers as well, but the Lord had a different plan. As I approached the woman with the walker, I had the distinct impression I was to tell her that she was doing a great job. It was clear the movement was painful for her and that might be encouraging so as I reached the point at her side I said, “Great job!” She looked at me and smiled and said she needed that encouragement and right then the Holy Spirit made clear that I was not to rush along at the good pace because this woman was part of his plan for my day, and I was part of hers.

As I stopped and listened, the women shared that she was only allowed to walk 20 minutes on orders from her physical therapist, so she set a timer for 10 minutes one way and knew it was a pace of the same length back. A complete hip replacement was ahead of her in about a month, but she was also recovering from the most recent of a series of back surgeries that also kept her in pain. She lived in another county and was now staying with relatives so she could be on one floor and near the hospital and therapy sessions. No question now that I knew I was just to listen. As she continued to talk, she mentioned how much she talked with God about all this, and I shared my husband had pain with back issues as well. At that point she asked my first name and his and said she would be praying for us and shared her own first name.

We spent about 10 minutes talking – enough so that she was bending her leg with the bad hip and the timer on her phone was going off. I told her that I didn’t want her pain to get worse by standing there and she brushed it aside and said she would head back in a moment. She thanked me for listening and confirmed my first name again. I told her I would be praying for her and she said she would be praying for me.

If I had been operating as a hare, I can assure you that I would not have heard the gentle whisper to stop or I would have justified why I needed to keep on my own schedule. The lesson was clear and the rest of the walk my heart was smiling and my spirit was soaring as I prayed for Barb – a stranger the Lord wanted me to notice on that day.

What I wonder is how many times I have been the hare and missed what the Lord wanted me to notice or be. After all, we never see Him rushing as we read about his ministry on earth. He noticed people and things along the way – the fig tree, a man up in a tree, and more. I want to be more like that!

“Sometimes the nothing moments are everything.”

Kristy Woodson Harvey in Under the Southern Sky
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Come and Eat

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Most of us love to get an invitation like that – “Come and eat!”

We get together with others (family, friends, and strangers) around eating a great deal of the time. It doesn’t need to be fancy for us to be drawn to interaction over coffee, a burger, picnic, or a full meal. And few homemakers would deny the enjoyment we have when someone else makes the invitation and we are not doing the cooking, or at least not most of it.

Now it is more common to meet at a restaurant when we do that than once was the case, and it is still fun to do but there is little argument that sitting around a table in someone’s home opens conversation to levels that are somehow unlike a public setting. Our busy lives don’t always make that as easy and yet I have fond memories around a table in the home I grew up in as well as our own. So many stories get shared.

It was not unusual for us to invite a couple or family to dinner at our home when we wanted to get to know them better. Coming to our home conveys a desire for fellowship and getting better acquainted. You get to know someone better by seeing their home and the things they have that show a bit of their lives whether those are pictures on the tables or walls or some other thing that makes that home unique. And invariably when we have done that we end up sitting at the table talking long after we have finished dinner despite having more comfortable chairs elsewhere in the house. About then my husband will remind us all that we do have chairs that are more comfier in our family room.

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One of the bonuses of time around the table is how it can transcend generations, so you gain that experience of what life was like in different seasons or places. Our family still recalls asking my dad questions and the stories we heard at times around the table were ones we never seemed to hear any other place we gathered. It also makes a great place for children to learn how to interact, ask and answer good questions and feel included in the whole of the group. It’s one thing to teach them about that but quite another to have the live experience of what it is like.

When our children were young, and we had friends of similar ages most of our interactions as families took place gathering at each other’s homes around a meal. We couldn’t afford restaurants back then and sometimes babysitters weren’t in the budget either.

“Meals, in all cultures, seem to have this capability of stretching from the ordinary to the extraordinary and interpenetrating them. The three meals of our ordinary days are routine. But when we want to celebrate a great occasion, wedding or birthday or anniversary, we do not find it unnatural to use the meal as the means of expressing intensity, ecstasy, and consummation.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

But there is more…

Consider how often we see Jesus interacting around food, a meal, or a celebration such as those mentioned in the quote. His first recorded miracle was at a wedding and He invited himself to dinner at the house of Zaccheus, to share the message of salvation. The last meeting on earth with his disciples happened on a beach on the Sea of Galilee.

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“Jesus was fond of using common settings of meals, dinners, and wedding suppers both for telling stories and engaging in conversation.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

Little wonder that so often gatherings of believers so often do that as well and have done so from the very beginning. It was hospitality but far more than that when a meal was shared together.

And then there was that last night before the crucifixion in the upper room where He shared a meal and washed the feet of his disciples. As He broke the bread and poured the cup, He told them to continue this in remembrance of Him. Here we are many centuries later following that command of sharing the cup and the bread in communion over a eucharistic meal.

“Considering the overall faithlessness and forgetfulness characterizing Christians through the centuries – the general squalor of our conduct, our propensity for heresy – one of the truly incredible exceptions is the persistence with which this meal has been eaten. There is no single element of continuing obedience that is more impressive than this. Through the centuries, cultural accommodations to the radicalness of the gospel are made here in one direction, there in another. The worship of Christians has found architectural expression in all sizes and shapes of buildings. All through these differences and changes and conflicts the meal has been eaten: the same words always spoken, the same elements of bread and wine always consumed. There have been, it is true, arguments about what the words meant, what the elements are – but the arguments have never interrupted the obedience.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
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How like Jesus to use the common things of daily life to illustrate the uncommon gift of salvation so that everyone could understand his broken body and poured out blood for all who would believe. This practice says so much more than we sometimes take into consideration as we participate in it. We hear the priest, or the pastor and we enter the tradition of our faith community and yet miss so much about this. It was not until reading Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder that I even considered or recognized this was the one lasting command that has survived all our foibles and sloppy response to the greatest gift and sacrifice we could ever receive since Jesus spoke the command in the upper room.

“The meal makes it impossible to keep salvation as a private preserve between God and us in the interior depths of one’s soul. The snobbish cultivation of devout feelings of salvation that withdraws from mingling with unsavory people and trafficking with everyday things comes to grief at the eucharistic table. It is impossible to preserve a devoutly pure subjectivity when you have to deal with spilled wine and bread crumbs. Nor does the meal make it easy to experience salvation primarily as the cozy manipulation of spiritual feelings in carefully arranged settings with people we like a lot, insulated from the grosser aspects of the world. The eucharistic meal will not accommodate these reductions: the people at the table are those the Lord invites, not the ones we like; the elements on the table are material bread and wine, not spiritual thoughts and devout feelings. At the meal we listen to the unvarnished words of Jesus; at the meal we eat and drink under the straightforward command of Jesus.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

And so it should not surprise us that when we come to the end of the book, the Bible, we as believers are invited to another meal – the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is one invitation I have already sent an RSVP to and I can hardly wait to see what Jesus has planned.

I hope you’ll be there too.

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