Water in the Desert

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Oasis by Awee_19 is licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He turned the desert into pools of water
and the parched ground into flowing springs;
36 there he brought the hungry to live,
and they founded a city where they could settle.   (Ps 107:35-36, NIV)

 

It’s amazing what a little water will do.

Years ago, a teacher told me a story about flying over Israel’s Negev desert. Below him, he saw a round plot of green in the midst of the dessert.  Apparently scientists decided to see what would happen if they watered that one circle and didn’t touch the surrounding landscape.

It bloomed.  Brilliantly, beautifully, it turned green and lush, an oasis of growth in the midst of dry, dusty, sandy desert.  And even more amazingly, scientists and farmers engineered crops to grow even in the Negev’s brackish water. That’s water which has a huge salt content, from aquifers deep below the Negev Desert. Desalinization costs too much, so scientists found ways to use what was unusable.

And it worked.

Apparently, in God’s economy, abundant, green, growing life does not depend on perfect circumstances.  It depends on water.  Fresh water, rain, leftover water, it matters not.  Water, in some form, breeds life. Incredibly, in the right circumstances, even brackish water will do.

For my parched spirit, that is good news.  I want to be like the Psalmist’s person, a tree planted by streams of [living] water, yielding fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither. However, while my soul yearns desperately for God like the deer panting for streams, I look around and see no oasis.

Wait. Brackish water, he said. They bred plants to resist the salt and grow in brackish water.

Have I overlooked the brackish water in my life, thinking it unsuitable for growth?  Was this my answer while I waited for the spring rains>

How many times did I look for an oasis and overlook a tiny pond?  Or wait for the ‘perfect spring rain’ when there was a fine flowing river just around the corner, as yet unseen?  Did I look in vain for a clean spring when brackish water was bubbling forth from the ground nearby?

Brackish water.  With the Cleanser of Our Souls, our hearts are trained to absorb life even in brackish water – He turns the brackish to clean and the bitter to sweet. Somehow, with Him, my soul can glean enough moisture to live even in the driest of days.

Those small gratefulnesses I voice may lead to big exaltations down the road; at the least, bit by bit they turn my heart back to God.  Those scathing reaction-words, not spoken and blurted at Jesus’ feet, may turn to blessings instead of curses.  The impossible disappointments force rhythms of hope in the midst of failure that may teach me to thrive despite my surroundings.

In the world, brackish water breeds death.  But… but… in His life, it’s amazing what a bit of water can do!

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Church: The Messy Place We LIve

luggage sculpture from freephotophoto from freefoto.com

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. ‘For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

One more conflict, one more misunderstanding, one more incident needing mediation. In my weaker moments, I want to scream, or perhaps move to some uninhabited island. Or both. I forget, of course, that “me” will come along and ruin the perfect solitude.

Messy, this church life is so messy. We Christians are often an offended, hurting lot; or on other days we are maddeningly “victorious,” meeting suffering with answers and ills with fixes. What is wrong with us? Have the Spirit’s fruit and gifts not taken hold?

I simmer and distract myself with reading, doing and accomplishing, hoping that the day’s frustrations will dwindle and dissolve before I reappear, but my mind is still busy seeking answers. I’m not praying, exactly, but apparently I haven’t stopped listening.

“It will always be messy,” I hear in my head. Oh, there’s that still small voice again. “It has to be messy. I came for the sick.”

I shake my head and realize, once again, how quickly I forget.

We are sinners. The world has it together, in comparison, or so they think. If they had a need, they would run to hear a gospel of hope. In contrast, the sickest among us figure it out – like the woman in Mark 5, they look for answers and push through the crowd to find solutions.

The church is the clubhouse for the messed up, broken and poor—both in spirit and in health. We who have sought have found. We ran to a Redeemer and discovered Someone who could make sense of our screwed up, shattered, lonely lives. We found Somebody who could restore and change us, see us for who we could be, and transform our ugliness into beauty. We discovered, to our amazement, that we are cherished.

However, as redeemed as we feel, our pasts are not as gone as we would like. There is healing, but we often haven’t found it. We are new creations carrying leftover luggage, pasts that persist and drag us down like a hem full of stones. It’s those pasts that fight, cling, trigger, shame, and hurt; my luggage wrestles your luggage and we’re left with a mess.

We are sinners becoming saints. We’re only barely learning to clean up those ugly consequences of our baggage battles. My need for control still skewers your insecurities; your arrogance wounds my timidity. We forgive, we learn, we grow, we heal, and we arise with the determination to let more of the Spirit take over the next time.

May I challenge you, and us? World: it’s a messy church, but God’s working on us, and we’re real. Church: keep growing, the world needs to see how we handle life. We’re the only ones who can come through these battles with Hope – hope in a Savior who changes, redeems, and calls us forward. No one else in the world – no one – has that answer.

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Relational Circuits and Pharisees

irises stock photo for refresh blogThe Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8

“OK, thank you,” I chirp tersely in my leave-me-alone-can’t-you-see-I’m-working voice. Five seconds later, I realize what I did…no, what I AM doing. I have no idea what my husband said, what he wanted, what he’s feeling, or even if he smiled or frowned.  Nor did I care.

That’s not the first time I preemptively stopped conversation, empathy and connection with someone I loved in the last 24 hours. Not that I’m cruel, or abusive, or even short-tempered. On the contrary, I’m cheerfully accomplishing more in one day than I usually do in a week. I’m also cold and distant, distinctly not synchronizing with anyone’s feelings ( not even my own!), and driven to accomplish my overwhelming to-do list. In short, my “relational circuits” are off.

Relational circuits? Yes: those emotional, social, and neurological pathways that keep us connected to God and others. “RCs” are the trails and corridors that let us value people, attune to them (and notice them attune with us), work with them well and function as a team. Relational circuits help us lead with sensitivity, respond with flexibility, and process pain when life triggers or traumatizes us. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that relational circuits are what enable us to perceive and cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing. I can’t really “do what the Father is doing” (John 5:19) if I can’t respond to the Holy Spirit, and if my RCs are off, I don’t really want to respond to anyone!

What about Jesus? Did He care about relational circuits? Certainly He never used those words, but it’s impossible to love someone well without empathy, attunement, sensitivity and care. When my relational circuits are off, I don’t care about people as people; I see them as problems to be solved or pieces to a puzzle, but certainly not as cherished sons and daughters of the Most High God.

The very people Jesus tussled with most were the Pharisees and my suspicion is that their relational circuits were definitely off almost all the time. The Pharisees were legalistic, judgmental, critical, evaluative, and consumed with external appearances. They valued rules over relationship and Jesus confronted them at every turn. That’s not a comforting thought as I bulldoze through my to-do list, shoving people, conversations and interactions off to the roadside.

How ironic. Here I sit, writing about relational circuits while my relational circuits are off. Huh. How to turn them back on?

Chuckling, I shake my head and notice the gorgeous irises my husband left on my desk before dinner. I did say thank you. At least that’s a start.

“Okay, Jesus, let’s begin again.” I breathe a quick prayer and think through the mental checklist of ways that work to reset my emotional temperature.

Appreciation. Appreciating God is probably the best route, but gratitude for anything is good, as long as I can really feel it.

Prayer.  It’s hard to be ornery if we’re really talking to God and being honest about what we feel. After all, he already knows how we feel. 

Empathy. Finding someone to be with you in your pain; someone who will understand, empathize and listen. 

Laughter. Real, genuine, kind and goodhearted humor (not the sarcastic kind) can help jump start our brains back to connection.

Singing. Singing worship or sacred music, especially in a group.  This may not work for everyone, but it certainly helps me focus on what’s good and true. Neurologically, singing together is a powerful relationship builder, both with God and others.

My RC light flickers on as I print the page. I’m smiling now, the real kind of smile, as I toss my inner Pharisee to the floor and walk upstairs to thank my husband for those lovely irises.

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Humor

I poked my head into my husband’s home office long enough to see him don headphones for his next Skype appointment. Backing away to avoid interrupting, I glanced up at his computer screen and saw his co-worker’s avatar – a black and white photo of a somber-faced, suit-wearing male, more like a mugshot than a pleasant introductory portrait. “Now, that’s scary!” I thought as I turned to go, until my husband startled me with his opening greeting.

“Hi, Kevin (not his real name),” he said brightly.” Y’know, when I look at your picture, why do I feel like you’re going to break my knees?”

I sputtered, giggled, covered my open mouth with my hand and ducked into the hallway, hoping I closed the door before “Kevin” could hear my laughter bubbling in the background.   “Like you’re going to break my knees?” Did he really just say that? How could he so quickly capture a moment and banter like that? I shook my head, chuckling, amazed at his ability to tease humor into any conversation.

And then I noticed what the lighthearted conversation accomplished: I wasn’t harried, frenzied and anxious any more. My morning had promised the worst of driven days as I planned to welcome 30 leaders to our home for a two-day seminar, and house six team members. If that wasn’t enough, my office looked like a cross between a bad episode of “Hoarders” and the aftermath of a black Friday sale at Walmart – and some poor soul needed to SLEEP in there. But now that I was laughing, the cleanup process seemed positively hopeful.

Somehow humor breaks through the worst of my introspection. It takes all my negative despair and restores joy and relationship. Laughter forces my spirit to brighten, and I regain hope in the midst of the world’s dark despair.

I wonder, is this just a clever coping mechanism or did God make us this way on purpose? A quick rundown of Bible stories doesn’t exactly produce fodder for a comedy routine – at least not a nice one – but humor must be in there somewhere, since we’re created in God’s image. After all, He created some rather bizarre animals (Armored armadillos? Long-legged giraffes? Waddling penguins? Rafter-hanging bats? Would a somber Creator have made those? Would YOU?). And he created (ahem) us, so HE must have laughed, right?

Come to think of it, almost every interaction with Jesus that I “see” or imagine involves Him smiling, laughing, walking through life with lighthearted security. When I’m anxiously praying that He’ll get me through my dreaded two-hour dental repair, He shows me a picture of Him holding my hand while He sits on the table, grinning, legs swinging, relaxed and unafraid. Even when He heals my greatest pains, holding me while I cry, He always ends with a smile, with joy and hope.

Yes, He weeps with those who weep and cries with us in our sorrow. He upends tables and throws money-changers out of the temple; but He also embodies joy. No one – no one – would follow a somber, intense exhorter who adds obligation and despair to already burdened shoulders. We follow a savior who endured the cross for the JOY set before Him, and his humor and lightness invade our despairing universe.

In these hard days of earthquakes, famines, violence and despair, we need this holy joy. Our personal desolations and corporate angsts drive us to places no one can endure. Humor, laughter, lightened hearts lift our darkened hearts and we see again Jesus’ hand and the hope of His breakthrough redemption.

Jesus assures that at the end of all time, we will have joy. We will laugh. We will rejoice. I, for one, cannot afford to wait until then. I will find a way to laugh now and practice joy for eternity. Together, can we risk this? Can we laugh and extend His joy to those mired in pain and darkness?

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Snowdrops of Hope

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image (c) Wendy Coy

Snowdrops of hope

 “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Rom 8:11, NIV

It’s April, people. April. The month of sunshine, soft rain and flowers. Apparently my snow piles ignored the calendar.

Eight inches of dirty-white despair remains by the front walkway, a leftover reminder from our three-foot drifts. So much for crocuses.

I glance at the other side of the walk, bracing myself for another pile, but I jump as I see the first harbinger of spring. A single, small snowdrop valiantly emerges from the one bare spot of ground which the plow mistook for driveway. Amazed, I kneel down, reassuring the tender flower that the sun will bring more warmth soon.

Two hours later I check again, too impatient to leave this treasure alone, and seven more snowdrops have emerged. SEVEN! What, are they growing at time lapse speed? That’s one every eighteen minutes, give or take a few seconds. At that rate, I could watch these blossoms sprout!

I bend over further and peer at the ground, willing it to produce another dozen or two blooms. It doesn’t, of course, but I realize something else has sprouted: hope. After three months of dreary, snowy, cloudy days, it takes only a few hours of sunshine and one white flower to remind my heart that resurrection happens.

I’m amazed that it takes only one small snowdrop, eagerly emerging in a warm two-hour sneak-peek of spring, to awaken my winter-drugged heart. One snowdrop becomes seven, and my heart is shedding its parka. A few more snowdrops and it will be ready to go swimming!

Isn’t the Holy Spirit like that? He takes a wee bit of hope and multiplies it, growing strength to soar and run. If evil can multiply deadness like yeast leavens dough (or an entire batch of dough), surely hope can multiply life. The surprise is that it happens so quickly. One minute I’m depressed and despairing; the next I’m bouncing across the driveway yelling “snowdrops, I have snowdrops” and planning outings in the garden

The Holy Spirit blows and warms my heart and hope multiplies. It doesn’t take much. Tell me, what will it take to sprout new life in your heart this spring?

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Extravagance

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image (c) Wendy Coy

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 (NIV)

 

“It’s too much,” my husband said, shaking his head in that predictable “no” way of his. My shoulders drooped and I looked down, part dejected, part defiant as I imagined my gift idea withering, evaporating into the atmosphere. My friend was no better. “It puts people off,” she scolded. “They feel like they can’t measure up.”

This refrain was not new. As far back as elementary school I would hatch big plans. Like a hungry animal eyeing a tempting large morsel of food, I latched onto “THE” new idea — the bigger and better birthday gift, the glossy front cover of the school report (complete with hand-drawn illustrated cover); the roadside stand to sell my cherry tomatoes; whatever it was, every new notion captured my imagination and I could not let it go.

Here I was again, shamed and disappointed to see yet another brilliant proposal shot down. Yes, it cost more than it should have. Yes, it was “more” than we had agreed upon. But still, something niggled at the back of my brain. The thought refused to be silent. I couldn’t hear its words yet, but something…. Something wasn’t right.

Tired and frustrated, I resorted to friend therapy, dumping my resentment and defensiveness in a verbal garbage heap at my girlfriend’s feet. “He just doesn’t GET it!” I moaned, but at least some of the pain left.

All day, I muttered. A bit less intensely, but I muttered nevertheless. “I know I have to learn to do less, but what about generosity? What about abundance? They don’t understand!”

“No, they don’t,” a voice whispered. Wait… what? I knew that voice.

“Extravagance.”

Ahh, there it was. The word I was looking for, and coming from the Holy Spirit’s nudging, it had a holy overtone.

Unutterable, unfathomable abundance, more than I could ask or imagine. Heh. GOD spoke my language of lavish giving and huge schemes.

He didn’t skimp on creation (He made how many kinds of trees and leaves??); nor on the salvation story (“you want to save the whole world???”); nor even on the birth of Jesus (He sent an angel to Mary to tell her what?).

In fact, perhaps the first Christmas gift was His biggest coup. It was hidden, that’s all.

This God-gift, the Christ child, was born to a foreigner in an animal barn, but there were voices of angels, hints of glory. The biggest scheme in the universe unfolded, not watered down, not compromised. We didn’t see its grandeur until the resurrection, but oh, it was there, and even the stars in the universe sang in wonder.

Extravagance. God gave everything, a very part of Himself, to communicate His love. He cloaked it in humility so we wouldn’t be intimidated; He gave anonymously so we wouldn’t compare. But He gave in such huge measure that no one in the universe could trump His gift.

Extravagance. He didn’t mind the excess, and He wasn’t pressured to conform.

He got it. His language of giving was always big, if quiet. He knew I had bits of His image in there (“in the image of God He created them…”). He knew why the ideas took hold. He understood. His generosity leaped all over creation from the beginning of time, and He was not ashamed.

Smiling, I quietly put the castigated gift idea aside, bidding it goodbye. There would be other ideas, more appropriate ones. The Creator left a hint of His glory inside me, and the extravagant giver would not be silenced.

What hint of His glory has He placed in you and called to life? How is He being born anew in you this Christmas?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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The Knife Edge

image courtesy photobucket

image courtesy photobucket

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Rom 12:15

 I shook my head, lips tight in frustration, and stared through the wood to the pond beyond. “Why?” I blurted to my husband. “Why are there always two camps who can’t see the other side?”

My heart split down the middle, aching, yearning for my friends to know the truth I’d long since grabbed: healing was a paradox, neither guaranteed nor evasive. Stuck between two factions, I watched my friends battle for their lives, neither side willing to cede territory. Neither camp, it seemed, had theological or emotional space for the other.

One group could not abide the thought of suffering, of Jesus not healing. The other shuddered at the presumption of expecting healing to occur. I stood in the metaphorical middle. Batted between two extremes, my heart was the little white ball in a ping-pong match, but the stakes were cruelly high and the game to be won or lost was life itself.

I was a sideline sitter but I was not objective. One friend died while her friends applied Scripture like a band-aid, commanding healing. Another lived a tormented life while her praying friends would only listen and comfort, afraid of the audacious presumption that healing was available on more than a miraculous once-in-a-lifetime basis.

No stranger to healing, I’d seen major illnesses cured, injuries mended and splints thrown away. I’d also grieved at too-early funerals and ranted at God when chronic illnesses didn’t relent. I could live with any outcome, but I couldn’t live with arrogant resistance. The extremes threatened sanity and dignity and I could not fall off into either camp, but I couldn’t straddle the knife edge in the middle, either.

The knife edge. My husband told me about his teenage climbing adventures on the Knife Edge at Mt. Katahdin. Aptly named and just three feet wide for about three tenths of a mile, the high rocky ridge fell off into cliffs on both sides. One could only traverse this summit trail with three out of four hands and feet touching the ground. I couldn’t imagine climbing, or even crawling, that great divide. Yet here I was, balanced on just as precarious a middle point.

The charismatics couldn’t fathom that Jesus sits and grieves with us in our pain; but the evangelicals wouldn’t understand that Jesus often heals, and we participate in the process. My conflicted heart burst out in words. “What do I DO, God?”

“Be the answer,” Jesus whispered, nudging my intuition

But “Be the answer” meant “be uncomfortable.” “Be the answer” meant going against the grain no matter what camp I was in. It meant praying for healing – or commanding it, if that’s what the Lord showed me to do – in a most unwelcoming environment. It also meant suffering and weeping with the unhealed ones while their friends walked away, shaking their heads at our lack of faith. And worse yet, it meant watching and grieving as needy hurting Christians, expecting miracles of healing, had to walk out a process of learning emotional maturity instead of claiming victory.

No, this was not an answer I liked.

It was, however, the answer I got. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the two groups move closer. And change might or might not happen. However, it was the way the Lord walked between the timid and the presumptuous, the passive and the arrogant, the uninterested and the taunting. He was always in the middle. Why did I expect to rest comfortably in one camp?

 

And so I climbed back up on the knife-edge, imagining my two feet and one hand holding me steady, the other arm reaching up to Jesus, and both ears and one heart listening for His opportunities. Who knows what small prayer or comforting hug might bring change to one or the other of the battling armies? It was worth the effort, if even one warrior climbed up on the knife edge to ask “is there another way?”

And you? Where are you on this mountain of change? Would you join a friend on the knife-edge, balancing in the middle?

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