Collecting Serendipities

It was a beautiful morning for a walk as JoAnne and I took our morning exercise at Green Lakes Park today.   We usually walk in the hills for an hour or so to get the blood moving.   I always enjoy the translucent teal water of Round Lake, the soft mulch-padded path, fresh moist air, bird sounds, shaded lanes, and the mammoth old-growth trees.  But one of the great joys of being outside is to watch for a serendipity,  something beautiful and/or unusual that arrests my attention.   I react with unspoken wonder, or maybe with a audible, “Wow!” or a trademark, “Cool.”  

This morning there were at least three.  First, on the curve just below the camper dumping station, I saw a smallish raptor, sitting very upright.  I had left my binoculars in the car since I was supposed to be focusing on exercise.  But I still stopped to get a closer look.  (When I got home I looked him up- a Merlin- one of the few times I have seen one.) Then as I headed up the hill at the far side of Round Lake, I heard the familiar clunk clunk that could only be made by a Pileated woodpecker at work close at hand.   I looked but could not see him.    Soon he flew and as I continued to watch he returned and let me know where the pair were working.   They were under some loose brush pecking away at an old decaying fall.   The food must have been abundant because they were still at work when I returned 20 minutes later.   To top the morning off, I met a very friendly giant schnauzer, glossy haired, taller than Plato was and jet black.   She was a gem and she enjoyed a dog-lover’s attention too.     

I guess being alert for small moments of joy like those is just another moment by moment way of counting my blessings.   It provides joy along the path of life, lifts one’s spirits and sparks gratitude to God for the day.

Treasuring the quiet spots

I’ve been noticing lately how much I treasure the quiet places in my life.   Recently when I visited my daughter and son-in-law, I found a quiet spot on their front porch to enjoy a cup of tea, watch the mockingbirds chase away a crow; to pray, reflect in silence and just enjoy the moment.    At home, I like to awaken earlier than my wife and sit in my recliner near the front window– my reading corner– and have my morning devotions.    I’m writing this in a cabin at Chambers Camp at the annual Family Camp, a get-away, I have enjoyed for many years.  Sometimes a quiet spot is simply an activity that takes significantly less concentration and allows the mind to wander, to catch its breath, to bring to consciousness its subterranean work.   For me, that could be working in the garden, or walking for exercise.   Even just stopping for a few moments to enjoy an exquisite garden blossom can provide a mini-respite from the hubbub of the day.  But some rest times need to be more extended; a prayer retreat overnight at an inexpensive hotel, a half-day of reflection and prayer at a local park, a time at a Christian family camp like Chambers.  These Sabbath moments filled with quiet renew our mind somehow.

There’s a verse of Scripture that says, “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15 ESV).  God knew we would need to stop the hubris in our lives and allow ourselves process time.   I’ve found that such times are also some of my most creative times as well.  When I try to keep working without them, I find myself advancing only by shear persistence and wearing down in the process.  In addition, I notice that I come up with few new ideas and creative solutions during such times.    But in those quiet moments, God can speak to me.    Maybe that’s when I am listening better.   

Jesus found the need for quiet times in his life too.  After the feeding of the crowd, he went up on the mountainside alone to pray (Mark 6:46).   Before choosing his disciples, he prayed alone in the night on the mountainside (Luke 6:12).  Of course, we think of his time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In the Old Testament, national feast times may have provided a structure for such breaks.  One, the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) was a week in length (Lev. 23:34). 

I remember reading about this concept in Ron Hutchcraft’s Peaceful Living in Stressful Times, “Regular rest and recovery is not an option in God’s plan.  There is a price to pay for neglecting it (p. 55).

Some quiet times need to be pretty much institutions in our lives; Sabbath, daily devotions, annual vacation to suggest some.    But many of the most effective reflective interludes will be found along the path as we deliberately look for and take advantage of moments of quiet.   Perhaps it is a stop along the highway at a beautiful overlook, a short rest in a garden nook amid late June blossoms;  a cup of tea or coffee in front of a quiet window, a long shower or soak in the tub,  a walk—well, you fill in your own list. 

I am convinced that these quiet moments of life are essential.  During these times we:

•   Have a mini-rest from the drivenness, constant activity, and incessant data input of our culture.  This resets our chemistry from abnormal adrenaline-pumping to a more normal pace.

•   Integrate and process our reality, an essential part of healthy coping.  We really can’t process well on the go.

•   Generate most of our creative ideas and problem solutions.   A great inventive genius like Edison was reported to have kept a couch in his office for the purpose of taking a break.

•    Reflect on our own actions, allowing us to step back and admit when we are wrong or change our relationship strategy to better relate to a friend.

•    Pray most effectively.  We have a time to talk ourselves out and then listen to God.  And during such times we are more willing to listen.    We might even practice being open to hear God’s still small voice.   I’ve found it takes time to get me to be quiet before God.

•   Renew our zest for life and work.   Quiet times are truly re-creative. They restore energy and zeal.

Overflowing heart

My heart is filled with joy at the events of today.  First service this morning, I had the privilege of speaking about something that was really on my heart, the unity of the church.   Fortunately, I do not have to speak about it because of divisions in our church.  That is a cause for praise in itself, for many are not so fortunate.  Rather, I speak about it simply because it is a key petition in Jesus’ prayer of John 17 and because I see so many among conservative Christian churches who take the comfortable route of relating only to those like themselves without asking how they are going to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer.   I remember an elderly member of my first congregation, Elmer Young, said to me that much of what went on in church on Sunday was “preventive maintenance.”   He is so right.  That is another reason for listening to the words of Jesus’ prayer. 

Then in our second service, we had a chance to put that preaching into practice as we welcomed to our church our friends from the the Karen Wesleyan church in Utica.   Our ESL team led by JoAnne Jones and Beth Winans travels there most Saturdays during the school year to help in teaching English.  On this Sunday, the Utica church’s youth and adult choirs visit our service and share the story of Karen refugees and sing for us in Karen and English.  We finish the day with a big meal together.  It is a joy to hear from brothers and sisters in Christ and to welcome new friends, some of whom do not yet speak English. 

Tonight I took part in a purity celebration as many of our teens committed themselves to live pure lives, taking a different path from so much of the rest of society.  Pastor Eric spoke from the story of Esau despising his birthright (Ge. 25:29-34) and reminded us all that it is too easy to trade our most highly valued long term treasures, especially less tangible ones,  for immediate short term pleasure, just as Easu did.   At the end, the teens signed cards.  Some received purity rings and all signed a personal “stone of remembrance.”  then Pastor Eric and I and the parents and friends prayed a prayer of blessing for them.   

It was a day full of joy.

Complementary Colors

Memorial garden crocus

As I thought about the beauty of these crocus this spring, the thought struck me that much of the sense of beauty is created by the contrasting and complementary colors.  I guess from an artist’s color wheel point of view they are only close to purely complementary, but close enough for the eye to be very pleased.  

I was reminded of a truth that I often teach to couples.   God has made us as couples to unconsciously desire in our mate characteristics that complement our own in the same pleasingly contrasting way that the colors in this flower bed both contrast and complement.    However, while we immediately recognize in the case of the flowers, the desirability of the contrast, in the case of our marriages, we often bemoan it and unwisely wish for similarity.   As Tim Timmons wrote, “God’s idea for marriage has always involved completing one another rather than competing.”  Every time we see a pleasing complementary bed of flowers this summer may it remind me and you that the ways that our spouse is different from us make the whole of your marriage much more beautiful, much more powerful and much more enjoyable too.   Complementary colors are the Creator’s joyful plan.

Easter Joy

Easter Joy

My heart is very joyful this Easter season.   I suppose the beautiful warm spring weather we’ve been having helps.  It has brought out the crocus and daffodils en masse.   April is my favorite month anyway, I think.   

But I am very aware this year that it is not just annual spring time euphoria that I feel.   It is a response in me first to the story of Jesus’ resurrection itself.  As I studied for the second of the Easter morning messages and looked at the response of the disciples to the Good News that Jesus was alive, I noted their amazement, their joy and their adoring worship (see Apr. 4 10 a.m. sermon)  and I began to respond in those ways myself.   The homiletics teachers always said that God has to work on the preacher first if there is going to be any chance that the message will be received by the congregation.   I sensed that happening. 

JoAnne's watercolor for our family Easter card

 

I asked the congregation Easter morning, “What blessings have come to you from Jesus that bring you joy?   I want to answer that for myself.   I owe so much to Jesus.   Here’s a few ideas that came to me.  I hope it prods your thinking too. 

  • Because of his grace I do not have to be burdened with guilt for sins.   He has forgiven me. 
  • Because of his love I know I am adopted into God’s family.  
  • His Word teaches me humility, kindness, faithfulness and other attitudes and responses that help me in relationships.   I continue to learn to love and understand others as I learn of God’s love for me. 
  • Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I have the hope of seeing deceased loved ones again who are also “in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:17, 18).  
  • Because the power of the resurrection is at work in our daily lives, I am sure that God is at work (Rom. 8:28; John 5:17) even when I cannot sense it.  
  • Because in his resurrection, Jesus has shown himself to be the ultimate victor, I know that by trusting in him I can be victorious over temptations (1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Cor. 2:14).   When I slip, it’s because I did not avail myself of God’s strength, or stubbornly did it my way anyway.    I could have been victorious.  
  • Because of God’s power at work in me, I am expectant, hopeful and optimistic.  
  • And in my case, because this resurrection hope has been defining our family for at least three generations on both sides, it has the added strength of family heritage, Christian traditions, and multi-generations of marital health.   This kind of heritage gives me strength too.  

So when I think of why I should be joyful at Easter, I am overwhelmed with emotion as I begin to contemplate it. To celebrate such gifts is to be humbled by them.  Joy, Joy, Joy!

Early crocus bring joy

Here’s my new desktop wall-paper for springtime.  Love that Bible promise, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease”(Ge 8:22 NIV).

So we are encouraged, “Let us fear the Lord our  God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season,  who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest (Jer 5:24).” 

But just as important to me at this time of year as the outward signs of spring is the reminder that the springtime is symbol of God’s renewing presence in our lives.    “Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth  (Hos 6:3).”   That is always my prayer for myself and our congregation at Easter time.  May God water our hearts with his Spirit and his love and cause flowers of grace to spring up  amid the brown of winter’s debris as we press on to praise him!

Use the health you have

JoAnne recently showed me an incredible Guidepost story.   A young mother had been stricken with very serious life threatening MS.   She was blinded and could no longer eat or move.   Her courageous young husband took her home where he arranged nursing care.  She could hear her young girls around her but could  not see them.    As she prayed, God seemed to say to her, “Use the health you have.”  At first it seemed like a mockery in her condition.   But then she thought more about the one finger that she could move.   She took God’s direction to heart and began to be very intentional about using that one finger to communicate with her family.    Slowly function returned to a second finger so she focused on how to use that too.    Eventually, little by little, much of her health miracluously returned.  Each step along the way, she courageously sought to use what new ability she had gained to relate to her family and serve them as much as possible.   At each level of recovery she used the health she had and God blessed her with more.

I know from personal experience that when we have a chronic health issue of some kind, it is easy to dwell on the negative.  I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for that young Mom to change her attitude from pity and grief to focus on the God-given new thought, “Use the health you have.”   But what a difference that redirection in her thinking made.  

This story has been an inspiration to me in the last week so I thought I would pass it on.  A Bible promise that goes with it is this:  “Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart”  (Ps. 27:14 NKJV).

More Good News about God’s Good Work in Me and You

JoAnne mentioned to me after services on Sunday that as I led the congregation in repeating a memory verse at the close of my message, I left out the introductory words of the verse.   When she reminded me what they were, I was sorry she had not spoken out to jog my memory on the spot, for their message adds even more certainty to the point that I was underlining.  We were talking about the changes in our character that Paul describes in Col 3:5-14 as a putting off of old clothes and a putting on of new spiritual character.  I concluded by reminding us all that God has promised to continue this process.   E. Stanley Jones described it, “You cannot get rid of desire…You can only redeem desires… The only way to get rid of one desire is to replace it by a higher desire.”   Our desires themselves are being changed to be more in line with Christ’s likeness because of our love for Jesus.  The “higher desire is the love of Christ” (Conversion p. 77). As we continue in his love, “He who began a good work in you (us) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NIV).  JoAnne reminded me that Paul starts that verse with the words, “Being confident of this…”  This phrase proclaims loudly how positive we can be in our expectations for God’s transforming work in our lives.  I find that immensely encouraging!

Beautiful morning

I love winter mornings like this–sunshine, crisp,frozen,still, but not too cold–great day for ice fishing or bird watching or taking a long winter walk at Green Lakes.   I guess it is just one of those little things to savor in life that brings us  joy. 

I read a good thought this morning in the devotional book for men that I am using in daily devotions.  The book is Walking with Christ Every Day.   It was a quote from E. Stanley Jones, who was a missionary in India.  “God is a never-ending source of support and courage for those of us who call on him.  When we are weary, He gives strength.  When we see no hope, God reminds us of his promises.  When we grieve, God wipes away our tears.   God will hold your hand and walk with you every day of your life if you let Him.  So even if your circumstances are difficult, trust the Father.  His love is eternal and His goodness endures forever.” 

“Faith is not merely you holding on to God–it is God holding on to you.”

What an encouraging word!