Storms

*In light of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, I pray that all who are living through that tumultuous storm will take comfort in the strength and peace of God*

I went to a funeral yesterday.  The weather was surprisingly warm and sunny as I got in my car and left the neighborhood.  The funeral mass was at a church across town and as I got a few minutes away from home I noticed the sky up ahead was looking pretty dark.   I continued to drive along and the sky grew increasingly overcast as it seemed I was heading right into the storm. The sky got darker and darker until I was directly in the thick of it and was actually surrounded by near-blackness.  It felt appropriate considering my destination.  Very quickly a deluge of rain pelted my car and the wipers were swinging furiously.  Even though I was surrounded by utter darkness and deafening rain I could see the edge of the storm cloud up ahead and bright sun filtering through white fluffy clouds beyond.  I knew that it was only a matter of moments before I would be out of the storm and it would once again be a pleasantly warm fall day.  It was a bit daunting driving through it with very little visibility (though I live in the snow belt in Central New York so not the worst of what I’m used to!)  Sure enough a minute later I was out from under the oppressive clouds and the sky was so clear I thought it would be smooth sailing all the way to the church.  My route took me a round-about way and as I got closer to church wouldn’t you know that I was almost under that storm cloud again?  Luckily we parked and got inside the church before the rain started in earnest.

Christus in the storm on the lake; Rembrandt (...

Christus in the storm on the lake; Rembrandt (1633)(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Storms in our lives are inevitable just as death is inevitable.  Both are difficult and painful but are simply a part of this life.  The only guarantee we have, the only promise in terms of suffering, is the hope of Eternal rest and peace and Joy in our next life.  Not this life.

As Christians, that is, as Christ followers, we are called to follow Jesus the way Mary did. She set the example for us as the very first Christian, not merely following her son and savior to Calvary, but investing herself in His burden every step of the way.  Loving Him as only a mother could, blow-by-blow. She didn’t bow out when she was afraid or when the pain of what she was forced to silently witness must have been almost unbearable.  She steadfastly followed Jesus and took the blows in her mother’s heart as the whip sliced open the flesh she once carried and the nails crushed through the hands she once held.  With trust she stood at the foot of the cross until the bitter end.  With a suffering and sorrowful heart she watched her beloved son leave this life.

We are called to no less.  We are called to carry our crosses in the many different forms they take in our lives.  We are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary.  No promises and no guarantees for smooth sailing!

After our son died there was a temptation to feel entitled and deserving of a break from pain and suffering.  Surely after what we went through we wouldn’t have to endure more?  I caught myself in those early days living in fear of something horrible happening to another member of my family.  How could I survive it?  But I caught myself.  I knew then that no matter how much I didn’t want to face another storm that it could very well happen.  I also knew that I would weather it, the same way I weathered the loss of Michael, with faith and trust in God.  That relationship was the only way to carry on and move forward in Joy and not as a slave to fear.

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

We must flee to the refuge of God’s sovereignty even when it feels as though He didn’t handle our cross for us.  We do that by Surrendering and trusting that He had a good reason for allowing us to carry it.  That doesn’t mean we roll over as victims to pain and suffering, but it does mean we don’t let it win the rule of our lives.  We suffer our cross, yes, and it is often painful and difficult to bear, but we do it with the promise of Joy ahead and trust that we are learning and growing as God wishes.  We look just a little way toward the horizon and see the edge of the black storm cloud and the sun shining through fluffy white clouds beyond and let God carry us until we get there.  And when the clouds threaten again, we trust that again God will carry us through.  This much He did promise us.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deut. 31:8)

This was a lesson the apostles learned in the storm at sea.  They were terrified when the storm came up and the waves were washing into the boat. Jesus was sleeping and when they woke Him in a panic He rebuked them saying, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Mt. 8:26)  And yet they were afraid.  They feared even though Jesus was right in their boat!  Jesus is in our boat too.  No matter the storm we face, we are commanded to trust in God and seek His refuge.  Even if the waves are pouring in we must understand we will never sink.  We will never perish.  Even were we to perish from this Life, if we cling to the true life-giver we will LIVE.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Just as the church served as our refuge from the storm, God is always our spiritual refuge in times of trouble.  His arms are open wide, His word is living and true, and His love for us knows no bounds.

Related reading: Seasons and Mary

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Berries

Still More Reflections from the Garden

I’ve come to a startling awareness about myself; one that by the grace of God I will remedy immediately.   I am not proud to admit that I have been a very selfish gardener.

I have asked God on many occasions to bless my efforts in the garden; that the harvest might be bountiful. Indeed it has been that, and so much more, as He continuously teaches me valuable lessons.  Many I’ve written about already in Reflections from the Garden, Evangelical Earthworms, Weeds and Fruit.

In the spring, when the majority of my garden was still newly planted, the strawberry patch from last year was in full swing.  Hundreds, or maybe even thousands of little green berries adorned the plants.  The little girls and I went out each morning in anticipation and excitement of juicy red berries.  They grew larger and started to turn pink and a few were a bit ahead of the curve and were on the verge of red and ripe.  We ran out on the appropriate morning to pick our very first ripe berries.  I couldn’t wait for the kids to savor one and together we would give glory and thanks to the Lord for His gifts and His bounty; except when we got there, the first few ripe berries were half chewed away by the birds….  Imagine the disappointment and downright anger!  I had planted and watered and weeded and nurtured and finally the first fruits were going to the birds!  Excuse me while I sound like my kids for a minute but, “It just wasn’t fair!!”

I decided the birds were not going to get the best of my strawberry crop and I covered the patch with a fine netting to keep them out.  I certainly got tangled up in that mess but it didn’t seem to deter the birds at all.  I ran to the internet to research all my bird-thwarting options and was ready for battle . The berries continued to ripen and the birds continued to eat some of them.  One day, however, I realized that there were more ripe berries than either we, or the birds could eat!  It was one of those moments of awareness that comes directly from above and the Lord spoke the following verse to my heart,

Mt 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns and yet the heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not more valuable than they?”

Gardens everywhere are helping God keep His Promise! I hadn’t thought of my garden as truly doing God’s work until that moment.  My garden is fruitful and surely not by my own inexperienced hand.  God has provided plenty to go around, enough for our family for weeks on end and enough for the birds in the neighborhood.  I have an abundance to share and am so thankful!

The bigger point, of course is that our Sovereign God has every detail of our lives and our world in His hands.  And while He is not ‘up there pulling strings’, His spirit is living and moving in the hearts of His faithful.  His sheep hear His voice and follow His commands and His perfect and holy will is accomplished, through us and in us.

It is usually easy to turn over our situations when we seemingly have no control over them.  When there is nowhere left to turn we turn to the Almighty and often, happily, discover that’s the very best place to go.  But what about the situations that, seemingly, are in our control?  A garden for example? Or the simple moments of our days?  What’s to gain by turning it over to God when we don’t really have to?

When we willingly place our trust in God’s providence we gain FREEDOM.  Freedom from the ways of the world, freedom from self-reliance and freedom from worry!  While every situation may not go exactly as it would if we did it our own way, we are truly free when the ways of the world cannot touch us and we have the confidence to know that whatever the outcome, it will be the very best one for our eternal salvation.

Gal 5:1”It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.”

When we place our Trust in God we become free to Trust in God.  That is; by an act of our conscious will we allow God to transform our hearts.

I suppose it is entirely possible that all the birds in my yard have spread the word about my delicious strawberries and will show up next year with a few thousand of their closest friends for a feast.  I would be disappointed to have no strawberries!  It would be hard to stomach and I would probably question God’s wisdom, or at the very least, my own in trusting Him.  I also have complete faith there would be a valuable lesson to learn from it. Turning my garden over to Him does not guarantee perfect success, at least not the success that I’m praying for.  But turning it over to Him does mean that I am freed from the yoke of selfishness and the burden of trying to protect what is not truly mine in the first place.  The bounty of my garden is for the Lord to do with as He sees fit; to feed His birds and His animals or His faithful little family living here.  He will work all things for the good of His creatures.

Most importantly perhaps is the lesson that by Trusting in the Sovereignty of God I am freed from relying on the trinity of self; Me, Myself and I.  Compared to Him, what can I possibly know anyway??  Jesus Himself invites us to give everything to Him because He knows, in ways we can’t possibly know, that it will be for our good if we do!

Mt 11:29-30 “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Why would we want it any other way??

Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come, they will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. Amen

I Work Out

“I’m sexy and I know it. I work out!” These lyrics by the oh-so-appropriately named (even if a little inappropriate) LMFAO are rolling around in my head. I got myself back to the gym this week, after a little workout sabbatical (read: been waaaay too busy for that)  so I think that now qualifies me as “working out”.  The’ sexy and I know it’ part- well -I’m laughing something off!  So that little voice in my head and the screaming button on my jeans guilted me into finding time for the gym.  And for the record I would just like to say that I have not missed going to the gym at all.  Really.  Not at all.  I don’t enjoy exercising in a forced and contrived environment, though I’ve done it out of necessity for years.

I went back full steam and did a class and some cardio and some weight training.  It was difficult because the whole time my mind was whirling with the lists and responsibilities just waiting….lurking in my mind.   But as I said, necessity drove me and I moved from machine to machine working each muscle group thoroughly. Despite the weight of duty calling and a slight boredom, I persevered knowing that I would be thankful later that I accomplished a worthy and healthy thing for myself.

Two days later I realized some of the fruit of that worthy and healthy thing…. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) to be precise.  Apparently it does require muscle use to move fingers on a keyboard.  Still I was proud of myself and willing to endure a little pain for the sake of the greater good.  Until the third day when I moved from tight and sore into full-out robot maneuvers because it just plain hurt too much to bend. Anything.  I vaguely remember crying out to the universe, “I take it back! I un-workout!”  There just isn’t enough healthy and good, and definitely not enough sexy, that could or should justify that pain and suffering!

The crosses we bear in our lives often feel similar, whether of our own making or not.  They are sometimes painful and heavy, sometimes tedious and aggravating and often we can’t really see the point even if we have a vague sense that somehow they are for our good.   How often do we cry out in distress to make it stop or change or go away or improve?  How often do we seem to get no response and see no change?  Or how often do we come through hardship the better and stronger for it?  In every case, God asks us to persevere and trust in Him because He knows exactly what the point is.

Simon de Vos - The Israelites after Crossing t...

Simon de Vos – The Israelites after Crossing the Red Sea – WGA25334 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can look at the example of the Israelites coming out of slavery.  They were in the desert waiting on the Lord for 40 years! They cried out and prayed and begged, and in spite of manna raining down from heaven to feed them daily, they ultimately failed to trust.  Moses went up Mt Sinai for 40 days and by the time he came back down God’s chosen people were worshipping idols. (Ex. 32) These were a people that had walked through the Red Sea on dry ground! They experienced miracles directly from God but how easily they gave up when the waiting didn’t seem to make sense.

We can ask, about the Israelites, and about our own lives, what is the point of the suffering God allows?   I certainly can’t pretend to have the answer to that profound question; who can know the mind of God after all?   But it is not difficult to look back at the Israelites on their way to Canaan and see where they might have gone wrong.  They certainly lost patience, and failed to obey and trust in God’s promise to lead them to the promised land. They questioned and tested God when they were hungry and thirsty (Ex 16-17).  The minute the going got tough they decided they had a better way.

What they missed was the point that our sufferings are an opportunity for purification.   They provide an opportunity to rely totally on our sovereign God and believe wholeheartedly that there is a point and a plan and that He is providing all the grace we need to be victorious for eternal rewards.

When we look at our crosses from this perspective they become easier to bear.  When we open our hearts to God in total trust and abandonment, He fills them with Grace to bear up in our circumstances.   He teaches not only the bearer of the cross but sometimes those who come into contact with another’s cross, how to trust and rely on Him in all circumstances.  He fills our hearts with Himself, thereby assuring us of victory.

My muscles are no longer screaming at me in killing pain.  I’m not even sure what was accomplished by those few little workouts, but somehow I know it was good and I’m glad that I have the first and most difficult week under my belt. Even if it’s on a very small scale, I am stronger and better off and more prepared to take on bigger and better workout challenges that will lead to a healthier and happier physical me!  Most importantly I’ve opened up an opportunity for myself to grow and to change.

If those Israelites had known then what we know now, if they had the knowledge of hindsight, imagine how obedient and full of Love for self and neighbor and how faithful in trusting and worshiping the one true God they would have been.

Wouldn’t they?

After all the land of milk and honey awaits.

Excuse me for a moment while I grieve

So flag day is around the corner.  June 14th is a biggie on my calendar.  In 2004 it became far more than a day to honor our country and banner of freedom; it became another date to honor and celebrate the life of a member of our family.  We welcomed a treasure, a gift and beautiful little soul, our 5th child and firstborn son, Michael.   We cared for him and loved him and doted on him and made plans for him and took a million pictures and passed them around like the proud parents we were.

Birthday celebrations in our house are usually disorganized and a little chaotic but we do our thing – decorate and have cake and presents.  They are nothing special by most standards but in our family they hold a special place in the fabric of our traditions.  We gather together (an increasingly rare phenomenon now that we’ve entered the busy teenager years) and joyfully celebrate the gift of the person we recognize and honor.  For me it is always a time to thank God for Blessing us so richly and abundantly, for gifting us with these little souls that are constantly defining the meaning of Love.  It is a time to celebrate the people they’ve been and are becoming through their accomplishments and goals.

This year Andrew will graduate from Kindergarten on Mikey’s birthday and surely it will be a momentous occasion and cause for celebration!   I know we will enjoy it (we’ve been through a few already!) and be proud of our son’s performance but beneath the surface we will be aware of the birthday celebration that we should be having later that day but won’t…  This particular birthday has become a time to mourn.

Instead of putting up festive decorations we will likely make our way to the cemetery to plant some flowers around the stone we had made with Michael’s sweet face etched on it.  We put a lot of thought and time and effort into that memorial stone but truthfully it’s little comfort.  It’s still just a stone.  And it rests on the grave that contains earthly remains of a beautiful and precious life gone too soon from this mother’s arms.   I find little comfort at the cemetery because everything I know and believe tells me that he’s not really there.  In fact a man gave his very life to assure me of that truth and that same God-man gave his very spirit to continuously erase the doubts and convict my heart of it.

And therein lies the comfort, the hope, the grace to smile, the Joy in the everyday.  In the midst of the cold and silent burial grounds arises the Promise of new LIFE – life everlasting.  Jesus came – and died – so that we would have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10)

A dear friend recently related a story to me in which she was offering words of comfort to a friend who’s child was heading off to college.  This friend of hers was distraught at the idea that her little boy was all grown up and leaving the nest possibly never to return.  My friend’s words of comfort and wisdom went something like this. “Every moment of your life raising him has been geared to this moment of sending him off to be on his own”.

These are the same words of comfort my Lord and Savior offers to me.  Every moment of the 4 years, 2 months, 4 days and 14 hours of being Michael’s mom had eternity as its ultimate goal.    Furthermore our parting is only temporary, we will be together again.  In the meantime he has a future and a hope and he’s securely ensconced in the arms of His savior, exactly where he belongs.    And so I do this dance of healing and grieving all the while embracing Hope and Joy.  I straddle the gulf that exists between navigating this world and the promise of smooth sailing in the next.

I can’t say I want Michael back or wish he were still here with us – how could I possibly when I know where he is?  What kind of Love would wish a child of my womb out of paradise?  But I miss my little Mikey for this time that we are separated.  I miss what we had for 4 short years and grieve for what we never will in this life.  But I also trust wholeheartedly in the providence and sovereignty of the God of the universe.   He promised me, and all mankind, that He would be our God if we would be His people.  I rely on that promise, even when it means trusting that the death of my son will ultimately be for my good.  Even when it means that every day for the rest of my life I live without a treasured piece of my very own self.  The truth of the promise and the Joy that it holds is beyond compare.

I’ve become a new creation in every sense, in every area of my life, in every way that I can think of.  Tomorrow or next week or next month, by the grace of God, I will be made new yet again.  In fact, every time that familiar ache surfaces and I flee to that most sacred of hearts for solace and consolation I am being re-created, formed and shaped like the clay in the potter’s hand.  I have no choice but to surrender to the maker and creator and it’s a pretty great choice.

So my life will march on in the glorious splendor of birthdays and graduations and everything in between, but please excuse me for a moment while I grieve.

It will be but for a moment. The rewards will be everlasting.

Another Bag

I put out a family favorite dish of homemade salsa and tostitos chips for snack the other day. My younger kids were gathered around and devouring it with gusto.  As the chips started to dwindle the kids started getting nervous. You could tell because they went from taking one chip at a time, to a few, to all-out fighting for the bag before their own little stockpile was gone.  Screeching and complaining ensued and my pleas to share and not be greedy went largely unheeded.  It was clear that they heard nothing I was trying to teach them! They became so focused on hoarding chips they didn’t even realize that they probably couldn’t eat them all.  All that fuss obscured the goal; happy healthy snack time together.

It struck me as familiar. How often do we get so caught up in our own desires and wants that we fail to see the error of our ways in achieving them? Sometimes we lose sight of a path that God lays before us because we think we have a different and better path. Or just because we, in our limited human capacity,  don’t see the wisdom of God’s plan plainly, perhaps we dismiss it as less worthy than our own.  Perhaps we are simply so driven and so focused on our own course that we neglect the critical prayer for discernment. How often does God try to get our attention and teach us in our “teachable moments” of life but we can’t or won’t hear Him?

Isaiah 65:2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations

If my kids would have stopped to listen for a minute, they would have heard me trying to tell them something important, “Fear not, Mom is the savior of snack time.!” I have another bag!”  In teenager speak that would be “I got you”. How much nicer snack time would have been if they had taken the hand I held out to them.

And how much more is that true of God in the whole of our lives?   He is Sovereign and He’s got us covered!   When our own plans go awry and we feel like we’re swimming upstream, we need to understand and trust that God definitely has a better way or a better plan.

Isaiah 55:8 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.

Turmoil, confusion, dissatisfaction, and hurt are not God’s “ways” for us.  Achieving any end by means of sneaking, cheating, lying, being greedy and selfish is never in God’s plan.  Any course we embark on that neglects Love at its core is less than Excellent.

Lord help us to be attentive to your teaching in all the situations of our lives and always show us your “still more excellent way”(1 Cor 12:31) Amen!