My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is You, Your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of Your Blood ~Keith Green
It was my last day of work before my Christmas break, and I was walking my dogs in the cool, crisp, Georgia air. The windows of the cars parked along the road, and the mailboxes standing at the end of each driveway, were covered in a thin layer of frost that sparkled in the moonlight. The air was so cold I could see my breath, and I was reminded of another “last workday” before my holiday week, a long time ago.
We lived in the Niagara Peninsula, in Canada, and I was driving home from Hamilton, Ontario, where I worked. I had had an especially long day and was extremely tired. I was anxious to get home to my husband and our four year old twins. I was also thinking of the turkey I had yet to defrost, turnips that needed squashing, and potatoes that needed mashing. My husband’s family was joining us for Christmas Eve, and it was my turn to cook. I remember wondering how I would accomplish everything I needed to.
It was dark, snow was drifting across the road, and I could barely make out the taillights of the car in front of me. Suddenly, I heard an angelic sound of jingle bells, and in my mind for a fraction of a second, I saw a dazzling , glittering light. It was just an instant of time, but it was enough to wake me before I veered my car out onto the ice of Lake Ontario. I don’t know how long I was out, but I had fallen asleep at the wheel, while driving in icy, wintery conditions. I have often wondered what that was, that brilliant light, that jingle bell sound, that little Christmas miracle, that woke me just at the right moment. It has been a long time since I have sensed that feeling of comfort and safety, as if Heaven’s angels were watching out for me.
As I was driving to work this year, I was listening to Christmas songs on the radio. It was the local Christian station I was listening to, because they always have the best Christmas music. In between songs, the DJ was taking calls from listeners. A lady called into the station, and told her Christmas story. She wanted to thank the people of this station for the work they do in the community. She explained that she had been an atheist, and had come to faith simply by listening to this radio station 2 years ago. She mentioned that now her husband and children were followers of Jesus as well.
I found myself considering this lady’s story for the rest of my day. The fact that God would care so much for this woman and her family, that he would reach out to them through none other than a radio station, blew my mind. I was unnerved, because I was so surprised by this story. When had I changed? In the past, this story would not have impressed me so; I would have easily believed it could happen.
Later that day, a coworker of mine left me a Christmas card, taped to the doorway of the room I work out of. I opened the card, and saw she had written, “Be Blessed.” The glitter on the picture of the beautiful card reminded me of the frost I saw on the ground that morning. Consequently, I was reminded of the night I fell asleep while driving so many years ago.
“Be Blessed,” is a common phrase amongst people here in the South, I have noticed. Be blessed, they say, or I am blessed. It warms my heart, and it reminds me of the church I attended in my youth. We spoke Finnish in that church, and fellow worshippers would greet each other with the word “rauha”, which means peace. Their version of the saying, “Be Blessed,” I suppose.
This year, as I have baked and cooked, and tried to make Christmas nice for my family, I have considered this salutation of blessing, and my cynicism towards life. I know that over time, “my heart has grown hard, and my faith has grown old. ”
This New Year’s Day morning, I was up early, once again, walking my puppies. The air was damp and chilly; it was not cold enough to see my breath in the air. The sky was grey, and it was raining steadily. A stark contrast to my pretty Christmas frost of a few days ago. The sadness of it all made me feel empty inside, and I asked God what it all means. I expected to hear His voice or admonition; instead I felt only silence.
Despite my impassivity today, I decided to post a favorite verse on Facebook: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” I thought this was a great verse to encourage my friends this New Year. It is a passage in the Bible that both my husband and I are very familiar with. He proved this when he pointed out the fact that I had neglected to post the reference to the verse. ” Why didn’t you let everyone know it’s from Isaiah?” he asked. I let him know I was too lazy to look up the reference. He is ever so helpful, so of course he looked it up for me. It is found in Isaiah 43:18, and the first part of verse 19.
He also pointed out that the rest of verse 19, and the following verses, were wonderful also. “Here,” he said, ” let me read them out loud to you:”
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen…”
This. My husband’s voice, reading this . I realized, my eyes are not dry, my prayers are not cold, and I am blessed.
“Now this is what the Lord Almighty says, “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough. You drink, but you never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it. This is what the Lord Almighty says, “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. “You expected much, but it turns out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin while each of you is busy with his own house.” ~Haggai 1:5-9
I read the above passage this morning, as I was drinking my coffee. I wish I could say this is a daily ritual of mine, reading Scripture while drinking coffee, alone and quiet in my kitchen. It used to be, but somehow Life has become very busy, and my morning visit with my Father has often been left by the wayside.
This passage was a part of the message that the prophet Haggai had for God’s people in Jerusalem. God had rescued them from exile in Babylon and brought them home. Eventually, as time went on, the Jewish people let themselves forget what God had done, and that He was their reason for living. They became apathetic and confused. The prophet Haggai was sent to remind them that they needed to re-examine their priorities.
I can relate to what happened to the Israelites in this period of history. My “busyness” and my attention to only myself, has led to the apathy I feel. It pains me to say this out loud, but it is the truth. I feel as if God’s house around me is in ruins. In my last post, I wrote about the vulnerability I felt regarding worship with my church community. It has been three months, and I have to admit, I have not been to services. I know that lack of support in my life contributes to the sense of hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm sometimes. I am not taking care of “God’s house” in my life, and it is reflecting on me in other ways. I am being robbed of my Joy. This is leading to other unwelcome feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness , and quite frankly, I have had enough. This morning’s time reading my Bible helped me realize that I have not been myself, and now I know why. Forgiveness and change are mine for the asking, and I can go forward, unafraid.
“So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”~Matthew 6:31-34
This is work; it is not easy. It can even be frightening. “Entering into the joy of the Lord” (Matthew 25:23), and rejoicing in His forgiveness, is a choice; a decision.
My son made the teapot in the picture on this page above, and the angel is a friend’s gift to me. She told me it was called “The Angel of Hope.” She had her reasons for choosing this particular gift for me, and I remember our friendship fondly whenever I look at it. My angel and my precious teapot take up valuable real estate on my kitchen counter. In my turmoil and angst this morning, as I looked at these lovely gifts, I was reminded of the love I have for my family and friends, and of the love they have for me. God wants us to take joy in Him, and in the community around us. This is how He whispers Hope and Joy into our souls.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength”~Nehemiah 8:10
“You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all–irrespective of how we got here–in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day–a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”~Ephesians 2:19-22; The Message
My husband and I have been on a much anticipated vacation this past week, and in many ways, it has exceeded expectations. We took a road trip from our home in Georgia, to Minnesota to visit our children, and then to Canada to visit friends and family. We then drove around Lake Superior, to Chicago, and then back down to our newly beloved South. It was a lot of driving, and I know some people shudder at that prospect, but we love it. It’s a great way to view the countryside and for me, I love it because I have my husband’s undivided attention for hours. No phone or computer to distract us, at least not really. We have a lovely relationship, we are very comfortable with each other. A trip like this gives us time to explore the country and its beauty, and we have ample opportunity to talk, or just enjoy each other’s company.
The photo depicted above is a snapshot of my husband’s feet, taken in Chicago during our vacation. He was standing on the glass floor of the The Sky Deck of the Willis Tower, 412 meters above street level. He loves that kind of stuff. He is fascinated by the engineering and technology required to build such a structure, and of course the view is breathtaking. I am also fascinated by all of that, but it was a little harder for me to just step out onto the glass floor of the deck, as I am afraid of heights. It is difficult for me to trust that if I step out onto that glass floor, it will not shatter and I will not plummet all the way down to Franklin Street in downtown Chicago. I mean, I did step out onto the glass floor and with my husband’s protective arm around me, I felt safe enough to pose for a picture. I realize of course, that he wasn’t really protecting me from anything, because it was an extremely safe situation. I wasn’t in harm’s way really, but having his arm around me helped, and I felt good that I had taken the plunge. We now have this cool memory of something we did together.
This week I also had time to think, and I found myself wondering about relationships, specifically those I’ve had with people in the various churches we’ve attended over the years. Taking that proverbial plunge onto The Sky Deck, made me think of other circumstances in life where it has taken some encouraging for me to take the plunge and join in on the life God is whispering to me about. I’ve written in my previous posts about our move, and starting a new chapter in our lives here in Georgia. I’ve also eluded to some discontent and discomfort in finding a church community.
It’s inevitable that at this age, I would have come across a negative experience or two regarding the church, and because of that , I find I am more protective and guarded about showing any vulnerability, especially to those in a church community. I realize that this is a very sad statement, but true none the less. I imagine I am not alone in feeling this way; I have experienced feelings of judgement and self-righteousness from others that I would not wish on anyone else. However, feelings such as these are inevitable when we develop relationships with others, because we are all flawed and our stuff and emotional baggage gets in the way. It has become increasingly difficult for me to try to enter into new relationships every time I’ve moved on to a different community. It is easy to believe, instead, that new relationships are unnecessary, and it’s nicer to stay at home, sleep in, or walk the dogs, rather than worshiping with others on Sundays.
My daughter once said she misses the feeling of community in church. She has not attended church for several years, for reasons of her own, but she shared this tidbit with me once when we were talking, and I agreed with her. Also, when my husband was discussing church attendance with our son last weekend, he (our son) mentioned that he wants to find a church that he can attend regularly, but he is shy to take the first step and just go. It is a difficult thing. I understand exactly how my kids feel. Sometimes I feel as if I am standing on the edge of a precipice looking out, and I feel paralyzed, not able to move off the edge. Just like I did on the edge of the glass floor of The Sky Deck in the Willis Tower. I don’t like that feeling, and I don’t like the fact that I’ve become such an emotional mess, that attending church can be so traumatic for me.
The thing is , I have found a wonderful, closely knit group of people in a small church close to our home. The pastor is wonderful and has gone out of his way to communicate with my husband, and with me, to let us know that someone cares about us. God is using him to draw us near to Him; I know that. When I have attended services over the past few weeks, I have sensed love and a genuine warmth radiating from the people in the congregation, yet I have left immediately after the service is over, unable to stay and make myself converse with those around me. I have left in tears, not understanding what is going on with me.
This week, while we were on vacation, I found myself missing church. To top that off, we received another warm text from our pastor, wishing us a good holiday, and a brief outline of what he was teaching about while we were away. He was initiating a conversation about “church” and all that it entails, as outlined in Ephesians 2:19-22.
Friends, community and relationships. I understand now. The pull of God whispers while I am hiding from church, and finally, I am going to listen. I know it’s time for me to step off the precipice, and let His arms comfort me while I enjoy the view.
“God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him. We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom..”~Psalms 46:1 The Message
“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. ” ~ Ezekiel 34:17-22
Last Sunday, I read a funny status on a friend’s Facebook wall. She mentioned that her pastor had related a story about one of the first international missions conferences, where missionaries from around the world had gathered: “Apparently, at this conference, the Dutch missionaries were so shocked and offended by the heavy make-up worn by the female American missionaries that their cigarettes fell right out of their mouths…” Of course, I liked that status, as did many others, because it was chuckle- worthy. I even went so far as to comment on it, quite radically, I thought, because my comment was something along the lines of ” I have often wondered who decided smoking was a sin.”
I meant my comment to be funny, but I admit I was trying to be a bit of rabble-rouser. I think in the “family of God” as we so often like to call ourselves, we are very quick to judge and point out the mistakes of others. I was not present for the sermon my friend listened to last Sunday, but I suspect it may have embraced the lack of grace we often exhibit towards those we meet daily.
Literally, seconds after posting my comment on my friend’s wall, I received a private message from someone who was very concerned about me. He wanted to make sure that I knew for sure that smoking was indeed a sin, along with other things that would “desecrate our bodies which are God’s temple.” I was exasperated by this private admonition because I felt misunderstood, but I care for this person, and because I did not wish to offend anyone else, I quickly deleted my comment from my friends wall. And so…the musing of these thoughts in my own head began…
I know smoking will lead to an early grave. So can gluttony and slothfulness, so, rest assured, my rather careless commentary did not mean that I am on my way out to the nearest gas station to buy a pack of smokes. I might add, that some “sins” like gluttony, slothfulness, and slander, are not given equal time in today’s church as some other “unpardonable” offenses.
When I read “The Cost of Discipleship,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and an upstanding Christian leader during the Nazi-era, I learned that he was a chain-smoker. I guess this was a time in history before smoking was considered sinful. The Bible doesn’t mention smoking either. So, as an aside, since reading this book, I have wondered who decided smoking was a sin, and when it “became” a sin, and why we as a church love to condemn people if they engage in what we think is sinful or inappropriate behavior. My intention is not to spend too much time on the debates of the particular sins or offenses; I only wish to remind all of us that we need less judgement and more love and grace.
Reading this passage from Ezekiel this morning made me weep, because it so perfectly put into words how I often feel when I think about the church today. I see many people who are hurting, and tired, and they may be pushed aside or ignored by the self-righteous. We as a church, are quick to drink all that Christ offers us, and then we muddy the waters with our own pious rules and regulations. When someone we might find disreputable is in our midst, we trample them with our words and over bearing ways, and before you know it, they will not ever cross the thresholds of our churches again. We forget that judgement is reserved for God; our only mandate is to love as He loves us; to offer to others the same grace that we received from Him. That’s all. It’s so simple that it escapes us.
“When I lose my way, And I forget my name, Remind me who I am. In the mirror all I see, Is who I don’t wanna be, Remind me who I am. In the loneliest places, When I can’t remember what grace is.”
~ “Remind Me Who I Am” Jason Gray