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What Would You Choose?

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One of my favorite activities growing up was coloring in a coloring book. I was always a lousy artist, but this was my substitute back in the days before iPods, iPads, and an assortment of electronics that captivate children today. There are several adults in our family who still enjoy coloring in those wonderful new intricately designed books that are popular now. Sometimes I join them.

The one disappointment for me in childhood was never having the big box that gave me every shade I might want to consider as I colored in my pages. In most areas of my life, I enjoy a lot of variety. It shows up with that desire for more different crayons and in the wide variety of music that I enjoy as well.

It doesn’t stop there.

I love getting to know different people, learning about their stories, hearing about the paths where the Lord has led them, finding out what excites them and fuels their passions, and how the harder times in their lives were used by the Lord. Yes, I am an extrovert, but I most prefer sitting with one person while we share a great latte or cup of tea for an unrushed time of relating.

Taking time to listen, share stories, and getting to know someone beyond the quick greeting on a shopping trip or even at church is an investment well worth the time. That kind of relating not only allows us to know someone else better, but we also see glimpses of the Lord and often learn something about ourselves in the process if we are listening well.

Most of us would say we are “busy”, but busy and urgent should never take the place of better and important.

I love and so much agree with this quote by Barbara Bush:

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”

Sometimes we get in the way of opportunities relationally because of our own perspective about others or ourselves. We may believe we have nothing to offer the other person. We may believe that we have nothing in common.

And we may be wrong.

When I finished reading Unified by Tim Scott and Trey Gowdy, I was reminded of the blessings that can come from unlikely friendships where we set aside our misperceptions. Listen to one of the things Trey writes in the book:

“I don’t care how great things appear to be going in someone else’s life; we all need somebody we can trust, that we can be fully candid with, and who will give us the best advice for us and not just for them.”

A few paragraphs later he adds:

“Relationships where people put the other person first and remain committed to giving their best counsel for the benefit of the other person are few and far between……Once you know someone will keep a confidence, give you sound counsel, and genuinely have your best interest at heart, there is no limit to what you can share, and there is no limit to what can be gained.”

One of the things that stands out to me is how often Jesus took time to relate to people. Yes, He spoke and taught huge crowds at various points, but the gospels give us many glimpses of how He noticed someone that others bypassed. He took time for conversations with some that his earthly heritage and religious teaching would have told Him to avoid.

Jesus never compromised who He was in the process of valuing someone else enough to take time to listen and engage with him or her.

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Polarization and divisiveness are so commonplace today that we can be tempted to think our differences are too great to have any common ground. But what would happen if we had a real desire to get to know someone beyond the differences? What if we utilized that knowledge and those different perspectives to make each other better?  What if we were to look for common ground at a heart level first?

I think we learn far less if we stick with only those who look like us, think like us, come from our side of town, or have the same educational background.

Consider the unlikely friendship between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel of the Old Testament. David was a shepherd boy who knew how to sing and initially brought peace to the troubled heart of Jonathan’s father, King Saul. Jonathan was of royal blood and privilege. These two would not have typically developed a friendship much less one of a covenantal depth. They would have been from opposite sides of town in those days, but spending time together allowed them to know each other’s hearts until they were knit in an exceptional bond of friendship that caused Jonathan to risk his father’s rejection rather than betray David.

When we look for a solution to our divided culture, our search seems to be in the wrong place. It won’t come from a program or any number of other forums. I think Tim Scott describes a better way in Unified:

“Politics is not going to change the nation. We will change the nation only by changing the condition of the human heart. And that can only happen through love. True friendship is born out of acceptance and unconditional love – a love that is consistent and intentional.”

The Lord’s challenge to us is always about love. Our challenge is to remember He is the source of love within us, and we need to model love as He did.

The love of Jesus was and is always consistent and intentional.

That is where we start.

Blackberry Farm
Photo by Pam Ecrement from Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN

No Other Way

Forest
Photo by Pam Ecrement – Walland, TN

I remember the day we came to this spot on the trail we had chosen. The first part of the trek had given us no clue this would be farther along on the trail after we were more weary and ready to return to our lodging. It was getting in the way of a leisurely hike and setting us up for using up our stamina and putting us at risk for the difficulty of the path ahead. We would have wished for the path to continue that we had experienced before, but that was not the path and there was no other way except to press on.

How like us that is! We move out in a direction that looks right or uncomplicated or less risky and more doable, and then we discover there were things ahead that challenged us and made us doubt and want to turn back.

It can be true in every area of our lives, and it can be true in our spiritual lives as well. Perhaps that is more a temptation now than in times past as our faith and courage to hold fast to our values and beliefs are tested on every level and arena we find ourselves. The path ahead is not as clearly marked and rockier than we think we have skill to manage and yet it is the path the Lord has charted out.

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“One who has made up his mind to go to the uttermost with God will come to a place as unexpected and perhaps looking as impossible to travel as that riverbed looks. He may glance around for an alternative route, but if he wants what God promises His faithful ones, he must go straight into the danger. There is no other way.”

Elisabeth Elliott

We hear that echoed in Christ’s words in the Garden of Gethsemane when He knew the path before Him and had chosen and yet asked his Father, God, if it would be possible to take that cup from Him. But there was no other way if Christ were to accomplish what He had been sent to earth to do that would open a door to eternity with Him to any who would believe. It was the choice before Christ that He knew God required Him to obey and surrender.

Surrender is not a word or a choice we want to make. It seems innate in us. We fight to be free. We fight to have our own way. We fight to gain something. We fight to live. To surrender seems unthinkable and a way of defeat that we cannot see as right. But it does not mean we are to give up, but rather to know when and what we are to surrender.

“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”

1 Peter 4:12-13 (MSG)

God wants us to discern where we are in the story – his story and our story.

The truth is that we don’t always see that clearly or recognize that we don’t.

In J.R.R.Tolkien’s epic trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, we first meet Frodo as a carefree hobbit living in the Shire anticipating the celebration of his uncle’s birthday. The Shire had been a peaceful place and it was to be a grand party, but that was only a small segment of the story Frodo was a part of. He didn’t know about the secret of the ring his uncle possessed or the powers it contained and represented. Even when Gandalf fills in some of the details, Frodo cannot fathom the evil connected to the power of the ring.

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Men, elves, dwarves, wise sages, and even hobbits believed they could use the power of the ring for good despite its evil. They had been captivated by it and longed for it for ages past. Battles had been fought and lost in its quest. To think that it could only be managed by destroying it was hard to grasp, but when the ultimate decision was reached to take the ring to Mt. Doom to destroy it using a fellowship of those committed to it none realized the path ahead would destroy more than one of them. Even Frodo did not initially realize there was no other way.

The Lord of the Rings allows us to see stories within a story unfolding at the same time testing individuals, cultures, and nations. Frodo battles to overcome incredible odds on his trek to Mt. Doom with Sam while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli marshal forces of light to meet the enemy head on time and time again until the battle at the black gate where they must risk it all.

Tolkien’s metaphor shows us there are times to stand and times to surrender and how difficult surrender can be when we see Frodo stand at the edge on Mt. Doom and refuses to surrender the ring to the molten flames. He had taken a hard path and yet he could not see and was not shown that the celebration for his uncle was nothing compared to the celebration that would occur at the end of the story when the king returned.

In this hour when the economies of the world begin to crumble, threats of war and famine fill the headlines and all manner of opposition to life as we have revered it and known it are being threatened, we need to remember there is no other way. The story we read in the Bible has told us that before we would come to the grand celebration it would be this way. It is ours to remember what our part in the story is to be and that sometimes the most powerful thing we are called to do is to discern when we stand and when we surrender to the path God would have us take.

“Surrender…is the key that unlocks the vault of God’s best and deepest treasures.”

Chuck Swindoll
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Which Is It?

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Have you ever noticed how ambivalent we can be even if we are passionate and have strong opinions or beliefs about so many things? There seems to be an inner restlessness within us that has been growing in recent months and years. Maybe it’s because we thought we had life figured out on some level and were moving along a path we felt pretty certain about and then discovered life was far more unpredictable than we expected it to be.

We knew people who lost a job or had an unexpected diagnosis. We knew there were wars and famines in various places around the world as well as all manner of natural disasters that tore lives, homes, and the earth apart with a destructive force that could not be tamed. We knew there had been economic upheavals and catastrophes in the world in the past and heard grandparents or great grandparents talk about such times. Mentally we knew any of these were possible, but we largely went about our routines feeling safe and staying busy.

We said we liked to get away from our crazy schedules and all the demands on our time and then if we did, we filled it up with the noise of the computers, smartphones, and other devices we brought along with us. Sounds upside down, doesn’t it?

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Is it possible we were so busy doing “our” thing that we didn’t stop long enough to see where we are in the story of our lives or recognize it is connected to an even larger story? Perhaps all this time while we were busy doing the next thing and filling up our calendars we forgot to pause and consider more than next month’s calendar.

We had the locked down malaise of the pandemic, but how did we use those days, weeks, and months alone? Often the hours were spent in anxiety and fear as the news kept us living with continuous uncertainty and our usual support systems weren’t available.

“An inner restlessness grows within us when we refuse to get alone and examine our own hearts, including our motives.”

Chuck Swindoll

Swindoll’s words get at the challenge we don’t talk about out loud. There is something about being alone and examining our hearts that can terrify us and perhaps that is why solitary confinement in a prison setting is so difficult.

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

Anne Lamott

One value of giving up busyness and getting alone to examine our hearts is the discovery of where we are in the larger story and what is influencing us moment by moment and especially what is influencing our spiritual lives. Are we living based on truth or has the world crept in when we weren’t paying attention? Have we forgotten that the Bible has told us time and again that life on the earth would become more and more like we see it now?

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Storm clouds are getting darker on the horizon, but if we focus on them without the truth of where this story is taking us, we can get lost and lose hope instead of anticipating what we have been told.

“As our lives begin to pick up debris that accompanies a lot of activities and involvements, we can train ourselves to go right on, to stay active, to be busy in the Lord’s work. Unless we discipline ourselves to pull back, to get alone for the hard work of self-examination in times of solitude, serenity will remain only a distant dream. How busy we can become…and, as a result, how empty! We mouth words, but they mean nothing. We find ourselves trafficking in unlived truths. We fake spirituality.”

Chuck Swindoll

Yes, there have been difficult times before, but if we are awake difficulties of all kinds are coming faster and lasting longer than at any time in history. When the disciples of Christ were walking with Him, we saw that over and over again He called them aside to rest and take in the truth and hope of what God could give. I think He would have us not forget to take such time now in ways that we may not have done when we were isolated during the height of the pandemic when it first began. If we would do that, I think we would find an oasis amid the restlessness that would restore our soul.

It’s time to be sober-minded while overflowing with hope and grounded in assurance Christ wants to give us if we will only pull aside and listen.

“How easy to fall prey to meaningless talk, cliche’ ridden responses, and mindless activities! It was never meant to be that way, but, more often than not, that’s the way it is. To break the habit solitude is required. The hard work of self-examination on a recurring basis is absolutely essential.”

Chuck Swindoll

It’s time to be awake, aware, and alert. This is not the time for ambivalence. Solitude can push back the lies the enemy of our souls would have us believe and help strike a dagger into the devices he uses too effectively to create fear. You see the signs of the times and so does the enemy. He’s desperate, but if we are in Christ we need not be.

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The Last Bookshop in London

When Grace boarded the train for London from Drayton with her childhood friend, Viv, her heart was weighed down with the ache of loss. When her mother died that had been hard enough, but nothing prepared her for the discovery that the home she and her mother were living in belonged to her uncle. But he had announced that fact and his decision to move into the house with his wife and their five children and told Grace there was no room for her there. She and her mother had weathered the loss of her father whom Grace had lost before she was old enough to know him and now, she had nothing.

Her mother’s best friend, Mrs. Weatherford, had offered her a room in her home in London at no cost for a few months until she found employment right after her mother’s death, but Grace had turned her down. When her uncle’s announcement and decision left her homeless, she knew this was the only option open to her. After all, she and Viv had dreamed of moving to London and all the excitement they hoped to find from earliest childhood so maybe this would finally be their chance, and Viv was sure of it when she insisted on joining Grace in the move.

But this was 1939 and when they arrived at the train station near Mrs. Weatherford’s home, they found a very different London than they had imagined. The city was preparing for the possibility of war. Sandbags and signs advertised all manner of things they would need if Germany managed to defeat France. Grace felt a twinge of uncertainty as they lugged their suitcases down the street to what would be their new home, but Viv was buoyant as ever and sure they would find great jobs at some of the best department stores London had to offer.

But life doesn’t always turn out the way you hope.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin will pull you into the story of Grace, Viv, Mrs. Weatherford, and others whose names you will discover along the way. Viv will get her dream job at Harrods in London because of writing her own letter of recommendation, but when Grace refuses to allow Viv to write one for her she is left with few options. Mrs. Weatherford suggests she go to the Primrose Hill Books as she is aware the owner, Mr. Evans, wants to offer her a position in his shop. Grace has never been much of a reader and feels unsure of whether she can do what Mr. Evans might ask when she enters the small shop. What she doesn’t expect is an older man who gruffly tells her that he doesn’t need her help despite a shop dusty and in disarray.

Mrs. Weatherford is quite confident that Mr. Evans does want to hire her for six months and goes off to meet with him. It is just one glimpse into the character and heart of this woman, her mother’s best friend.

Sure enough Grace returns to the bookshop to find a grumpy Mr. Evans telling her she can be on trial for six months and then he will write her a letter of recommendation to move on to something else. With that unwelcome beginning, Grace begins to determine how to manage working for a man who tells her nothing about what he wants or needs to be done and clearly does not seem happy to have her in his employ.

As this WW II historical novel unfolds, the relationships will be tested and deepened as war inches closer, and bombs begin falling all around them on the streets of London. This fascinating story will take you from Grace and Viv’s arrival on the streets of London in 1939 through the end of the war in 1945. As each person’s story unfolds, you will see how they become a community of support to one another through loss, rationing, bombing and more. You will also discover what gives them courage to keep on hoping and a glimpse of what can give us hope as well.

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife. And a reminder that we will always have hope.”

Madeline Martin

Spring Cleaning

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As temperatures have finally started to feel like spring versus late winter covers are being pulled off deck furniture and lawn cleanup is happening in our neighborhood. And this season reminds me of what was a tradition in my home growing up – spring cleaning. I confess that I continued that tradition for a long time and our two children could attest to that.

I rarely hear this tradition spoken of these days and yet it seemed to have merit when I was learning to do it. No matter how tidy and fastidious we may be, none of us do some of the cleaning that needs to be done on a weekly basis of our usual cleaning. Few of us are adding washing off woodwork these days and that would be only one item on a list my mother did and taught me.

Perhaps that has changed because our HVAC systems result in less dirt and dust accumulating in our home or we would like to believe that is the case, but an accidental brush of a curtain, drape, or blind points to the evidence that is not the case. My mother’s list (and much of mine) up through the early 1980’s included washing walls, using something called wallpaper cleaner, washing woodwork and curtains, cleaning out every closet and cupboard thoroughly, and cleaning the oven and range because who knew about self-cleaning ovens back then! It also meant waxing hardwood floors after a thorough cleaning, and all this took weeks of time and left my mother and me tired but satisfied as the house smelled like spring and everything was spotless.

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When our children were very young and I wasn’t working outside the home, I followed in my mother’s footsteps with spring cleaning (fall sometimes, too). Then when I started teaching and our children were old enough to be helping, I developed a plan that in early June when school was finished I would “hire” them to help do spring cleaning with me so we could do all those fun things like going to the pool that they wanted to do. I made up a list of what needed to be done and what each job would pay, and they could choose from the list. I got help and they got spending money since neither were starting part-time jobs then. That likely sounds harsh to many of you, but the result was that both of our children entered adulthood with skill sets to be able to do almost any cleaning job needed to maintain a home and their spouses appreciated every one of those things as well.

One of the things this annual project always revealed to me was that places in my home were dirtier than I realized AND that decluttering always happened as I finally took time to get rid of things I should have discarded much sooner.

But is there something about our internal lives and heart we can learn from this task as well?

In the busyness of our lives have we missed things that need cleaning within us? We have added more and more devices and appliances meant to simplify our lives that can take more time to keep working as they should so that we might wonder how much time we have saved. For many of us, the hard work of housekeeping or farming meant a leisurely swing on a front porch at the end of the day as we listened to birdsong and watched the setting sun. Those simple pleasures at the end of a hard day of work of any kind are not so common now.

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In our desire to come up with time-saving ways of doing things, have we made life more complicated? If so (and I think this could be true), has this also made our internal world noisier and more cluttered? Do we need to discipline ourselves to a life of more simplicity internally as well as in our daily schedules? What makes it so hard to do even if we decided to attempt it?

“Everything around us works against reordering and simplifying our lives. Everything! Ours is a cluttered, complicated world. God did not create it that way. Depraved, restless humanity made it that way!

Chuck Swindoll

Our culture holds success as a major value (no matter what field or endeavor) and that means lots of time and effort to acquire that goal. It costs us not only time but also energy, resources, and sometimes our good health to chase after that ideal every advertiser and entity encourages. No, not everyone buys into that because the requirements to get there cost some more than they want to do. These folks hope for all those goals and yet cannot or will not do what is needed to achieve them.

“To reorder one’s own world, the need to simplify is imperative. Otherwise, we will be unable to be at rest within, unable to enter the deep, silent recesses of our hearts, where God’s best messages are communicated. And if we live very long in that condition, our hearts grow cold toward Christ, and we become objects of seduction in a wayward world. What perils await us in that condition!”

Chuck Swindoll

Maybe when we are getting ready to power wash the patio or deck, weed the beds to plant flowers, and start all those other spring projects, we need to put our internal lives in better order so that we can hear those “best messages” and reflect Him in an ever-darkening world.

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