Friday, September 11, 2009

REMEMBERING MY 9/11 ACROSS THE OCEAN


September 11, 2001, was a brilliant, breezy, fall day in Jurmala, Latvia, much as it was in New York City that day. I was working at my home in Jurmala that afternoon in my tiny, sun-drenched living room, and had thrown open all the windows to take full advantage of the beautiful weather. I was feeling lighthearted, and when my cell phone rang just before 4:30 p.m., I was happy to see the name of my good friend, Marika Bertule, on the phone’s tiny screen. My delighted quickly turned to shock and disbelief when, without any preliminary pleasantries she said in her near-flawless English, “Betsy, World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon have been attacked.”

Like so many in America and around the world that day, my brain was frozen by that momentary suspension of understanding that we all experience when we learn something that is too strange or too terrible to grasp. As I struggled to process the information, I remembering thinking, “World Trade Center—accident? Terrorism? But the Pentagon—impossible. It’s impregnable.” I was not accounting for large jetliners flown by suicide bombers motivated by hatred.

I had no TV, and, desperate for more information, instantly began searching for the only English language news available, the BBC. Their coverage was as confused as my thoughts, as the story was still breaking. I began calling my American friends in Jurmala, but all circuits were busy. My mind raced with nervous thoughts of friends who work in New York and at, or near, the Pentagon. I feared for the White House and Capitol.

That day I learned what a helpless and surreal feeling it is to be 8,000 miles from home at a time of national disaster. The hardest part of living abroad for me had always been the sense of being cut off from the national life of America, and never more than that day. It felt like a close relative had died and I could not be present to mourn with, comfort, or aid my surviving kinsmen. There’s nothing I could have done to help even if I had been stateside, but I felt a deep need to be there, to share this nightmare with my countrymen.

But even so far away, I did not feel alone in my grief. As soon as busy circuits would allow, and for days afterwards, I received calls from my Latvian and Russian friends offering heartfelt condolences and pledging prayers for my nation. Anna Jauce, my dear friend and boss from the Jurmala Language Centre where I taught English, knew that I did not have television and invited me to come to her house for the evening and watch CNN and Fox News coverage with her and her husband, Viesturs. She even invited me to spend the night if I wanted to watch the unfolding drama with them deep into the night, or if I just didn’t want to be alone. She wept with me.

At our mission church that Sunday, our Russian associate pastor insisted that we have a special prayer and memorial service within our regular weekly worship. He and others took the microphone to share impromptu what America had meant in their lives, the hope she gave them during the Soviet years, and their present gratitude for us and other American missionaries who, as they said, had left the comforts of the richest nation on earth to bring them Christ’s message of redemption that had changed their lives forever. By this time in our association with each other, many of them had visited the U.S. and knew whereof they spoke.

A few days later, I drove to the nearby capital, Riga, to visit the American Embassy. With the stepped-up security, it wasn’t possible to walk on the same side of the street as the embassy building, and there was a larger-than-usual contingent of Marine guards. But across the street, stretching for several blocks in either direction, was a beautiful display of solidarity with grief-stricken Americans around the world. Along those blocks in the space between the curb and the sidewalk, tied to parking meters and against close-standing trees were thousands of candles, teddy bears, handwritten prayers, letters and signs in Russian, Latvian, broken English, and many other languages, and other creative condolences. The air was fragrant with the scent of innumerable bouquets of flowers and single roses. They were left by businessmen, mothers pushing strollers, university students, tourists, and school children. As I stood at this sacred spot weeping with grief and gratitude, more than one passerby, assuming that I was American, stopped to simply say, “I’m sorry.”

As I attempted to photograph the embassy with flag at half mast and the wonderful memorial before it, one of the Marine guards came across the street and politely but firmly informed me that photographing the embassy was not allowed. Perhaps because he realized I was an American citizen, however, he did not ask me to delete the photos I had already taken. I remain grateful to him for that. Today, although they are temporarily in a storage crate in Atlanta, I have those wonderful photos to remind me that tragedy brings out people’s best as well as their worst, and that America truly does have friends around the world.

Monday, August 03, 2009

CARRIE - November 28, 1995 - August 1, 2009


On Saturday in Woodstock, Georgia, my devoted pet and companion of fourteen years, Carrie, exited this life. My dear friends, Vicki and Jason Tinnel, and I were with her until her last breath.

Carrie was the pick of a litter of nine Labrador retrievers born in Jurmala, Latvia, on a snowy night to Gracie, dog of my friends Bob and Sharon Perry. Gracie didn’t understand motherhood yet, and dropped her pups all over the house or outside in the snow, then totally ignored them. Sharon--not noted for her strong stomach in such matters, but an intrepid woman--rushed from pup to pup, ripping the sacks off them with her bare hands and rubbing each one dry with a towel, saving them from certain death. Thus my Carrie came into the world.

Bob and Sharon knew that I loved Labs more than anything and chose Carrie from the litter as a gift for me, raising her for me until I returned to Latvia from the States three months later. When I arrived at last, it was love at first sight, and she enthusiastically embraced me as her “mama.” It was sheer joy. I remember I would sit in Pastor Bob’s big recliner in their basement, and Carrie would bound across the room and leap into my lap with the force of a cannon ball—more fun for her than me once she reached 30 or 40 pounds.

Of course, it wasn’t all joy during Carrie’s puppyhood. We moved into a newly renovated apartment. The following November, a church group in Virginia had gone to great expense to ship me materials to make chocolate chip cookies for my holidays so far away from home. One night I baked the cookies for some friends who had come for a movie night, two 9 x 13 pans full. While we were engrossed in the movie, Carrie sneaked up on the counter and ate every last one. The next day, she destroyed a wooden chair belonging to the landlord by chewing it to death, then proceeded to rip a great expanse of freshly hung wallpaper off a hallway wall. (I quickly learned how to strip and hang wallpaper!) Later, she chewed up the custom millwork of our beautiful wooden balcony. That one cost me $500 to fix—a lot of money for a missionary on a tight budget. I often said that she was the most expensive “free” dog in the world. Surprisingly, the landlord and his family still loved her.

Less destructive were our great times walking together on the beach in our Baltic Sea resort town. She would make a beeline for the water, even in winter when ice chunks cluttered the surf. When it was frozen solid, she would trot out across the slick surface to explore with her nose to the ice. She loved chasing crows and seagulls, and bouncing through snow up to her belly. When the beach was deserted, I would risk the $100 fine and let her off the leash to run free. She would run way ahead of me, and then come back as if to check in before dashing off again.

Carrie was a favorite among my friends, both here and abroad, and I never had a shortage of dog sitting volunteers when I needed them. She welcomed everyone to our various homes enthusiastically, but politely, without jumping on people or licking them. Once guests were seated, she would go to each one in turn, leaning against their legs and placing her head on their knees in search of a head scratch. Even the most stolid natures were won over.

When I finally returned to the States for good, I brought her with me on my transatlantic flight with four connections to make before our destination of Greenville, South Carolina. I was a nervous wreck for her, but Carrie was completely calm. The vet’s tranquilizers went unused. She had to go 26 hours without food, water, or a potty break, but arrived quite unfazed, except for a little jetlag.

I could go on and on, but could never adequately describe her wonderful personality, loyalty, kindness, love and faithfulness. Everyone, of course, thinks their dog is the best ever, but there could not possibly have been a dog more perfect for me, or a truer friend. She saw me through the loneliness of missionary life, financial difficulties, heartbreak, the loss of my mother, uncertainty about the future, and several moves between continents and cities. She made endless road trips with me, always happy to be with me even when it meant being cooped up in a car for hours. She was the constant in my life when everything else was changing. There will never be another dog like her. Like me, she had friends all over the world. We will all miss her terribly.

Carrie, rest in peace, sweet pea.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

GET OUT!

I came across this interesting and arresting quote today:
"...The word ‘mass’ is said to be derived from the final sentence of the old Latin rite, ite missa est. In polite English it might be rendered, ‘Now you are dismissed.’ In more blunt language it could be just, ‘Get out!’ – out into the world which God made and God-like beings inhabit, the world into which Christ came and into which he now sends us. For that is where we belong. The world is the arena in which we are to live and love, witness and serve, suffer and die for Christ..."
John Stott, New Issues Facing Christians Today

Timely words from Stott. For me, his words form a not-so-gentle reminder of why I and millions like me are cluttering up this planet.

In times like these when evil appears to be swallowing good at an unprecedented rate, it can be bewildering for believers. Many of us may find ourselves depressed, with the temptation to withdraw into the safety of our church walls, and develop a siege mentality. But if good refuses to engage evil, out there where it lives, what hope can we ever have of overcoming it?

No, we were created for such a time as this. We can never forget for a moment Jesus' own words to Peter that on the rock of revelation that Jesus is the Christ He would build His church, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) But we must BE the church as God designed it--each of us in close relationship with Him, bound to each other in love and unity, and with open hearts and hands extended to the world beyond, as the salt (preservative) of the earth. We must attack evil as God designed--not lobbing volleys of disgust and condemnation at sin from our safe positions behind the church fortress walls, but charging into the culture to engage sin in hand-to-hand combat, while embracing the sinner with Christ's love, demonstrating a better way.

History has shown that the church flourishes under pressure. We've had it awfully easy in the United States up until now. Let's not be the first generation of the church that wilts in fear and retreats at the first sign of pressure. Let's re-order our priorities, make sure our hearts are right, find our identity, power and confidence in Christ, and in humility, GET OUT!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

MORE HAPPY THINGS

In reference to my last post, and at the risk of appearing Pollyanna-ish, I just wanted to share a few more of the little things in life that make me happy, in hopes that they'll bring a smile your way, too.


This is Mickey Doodle, one of Gene and Donna Harris's two Yorkies. He is the crazy one. The serious looking one with hair in his eyes is Moseby. And he is the serious one. They are my little buddies in the absence of my own dog, who is staying with friends in ATL.


Another joy: Clematis vines that grow against the garage in the shape of a heart and bloom profusely.


Metal flowers made by artisans somewhere around Eureka Springs, Arkansas:


Light filtering through leaves:



"Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence." --Psalm 21:6

HAPPY AS KINGS


Many years ago, when my niece was just a little girl, she cross-stitched a sweet, tiny picture for me that said this:
"The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."

That innocent yet confident declaration comes back to me whenever I find joy and wonder in the many feasts for spirit, soul, and senses that surround us all in life on this earth. It's something that happens often.

In these days of personal, national, and international turmoil and uncertainty, however, I confess that the cares of this world sometimes cloud my ability to see all the good stuff. This is sad, and wrong, because I am convinced that God has purposefully put all sorts of wonders in front of our eyes to give us happiness in the hard times, and more importantly, to remind us of his presence and love at all times.

Here is a case in point. Years ago on a mission trip I visited the nation of Estonia when it was still part of the USSR. To our team, first-time observers of the communist world, it seemed the darkest, most depressed place on earth. (That was until we went to Moscow.) I wrote in my journal then that everything there seemed colorless, in faded grayscale, like old World War II newsreels. Yet in the midst of the capital city of Tallinn, there was a flower market that had the most diverse, unusual, and colorful flowers that any of us had ever seen. Everywhere people were buying and giving flowers. One of the young women I was with marveled at this and asked God why they had such fabulous flowers in this cold, northern land with a very short growing season. Her impression from the Lord was that he had provided the Estonians with the flowers to give them color and joy in their drab lives and to let them know that he was with them. Sure sounds like a God-thing to me.

Today I had just such a reminder of God's presence and love in the gray times when I photographed the simple verbena blossoms from the backyard that you see posted here. In it's brightness, it seemed to be enjoying the perfect weather we had today just as much as I did.

Gazing at this little flower reminded me once again that the world really is full of gifts from God that bring a stronger, purer joy than the riches and power of kings. We just have to have eyes to see them. Stress and anxiety blind us. Gratitude to the Source of all we have brings the good stuff into sharp focus. God help us all to look around ourselves, see, and be glad.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

TWO PATHS DIVERGED: MAKING THE BIG LIFE DECISIONS - Part Trois

Here are the last of my insights on major decision making. I hope, readers, that you will offer some of your own.



3. GOD’S CHALLENGES (AND THE STAKES) ONLY GET BIGGER. Nothing challenges your faith, endurance, and insecurity like raising your own financial support, but nothing else grows and strengthens you so much. (Well, I’ve heard that marriage does that.) Once it seemed to me an insurmountable task to raise $1,000 for a two-week mission trip. As my confidence in God’s faithfulness grew, along with my needs as a full-time missionary, it took a lot more to scare me. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about my faith level one day after receiving an unexpected, large financial gift from someone I hadn’t been in contact with for years. Then I sensed the Lord’s internal voice saying, like a pin in my balloon, “Betsy, the faith challenges will only ever get bigger.” Oh well.

This is true of life as well as finances. God’s design is to grow your faith and character, and this only happens when you embrace increasing levels of challenge. This is why it’s never wise to dismiss an idea only because it seems bigger than you are. Often, that’s the very indicator of God’s will. He has something to prove to you, about you. He also has something to prove to you about himself.

4. FEAR AND LACK OF MONEY ARE NEVER REASONS NOT TO DO SOMETHING GOD WANTS YOU TO DO. Obstacles have a design. Some are placed in our paths to prevent us from doing something foolish or off God’s purpose; others are put there just to be overcome. Fear and lack of money are the latter. An old pastor of mine always used to say, “Where God guides, God provides.” It’s true. He has plenty of courage available to you to overcome fear, and plenty of monetary and material provisions to overcome lack. Let’s assume you’ve prayed, sought wise counsel, considered the ramifications of your possible choices, listened for the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and chosen a course that you truly believe is God’s will. If self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of man, fear of (fill in the blank) and/or wondering how you’ll ever pay for your choice is the only thing stopping you, trust God and go ahead. (See how that works in tandem with No. 3.?)

NOTE TO THE WISE: Know, however, that your decision will be tested over and over, but God will never fail you.

5. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY. Remember that FAITH is Factor No. 1 in the big decisions. Scripture says that in this life, we see in part, prophesy in part, and know in part (I Corinthians 13). This does not mean that we should entertain the doubts that will inevitably bombard us in our decisions, only that we will have them. But in faith we make our decisions on our best knowledge of ourselves, our Lord and his will that we have, and know that he will accomplish his purposes for our lives. Besides, don’t you think a tiny bit of uncertainty lends a little thrill to it all?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

TWO PATHS DIVERGED: MAKING THE BIG LIFE DECISIONS - Part Deux

“Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.” – Proverbs 19:21

In my last post, I had just decided to leave my enjoyable life and government job in DC to become a missionary in Latvia, largely because I knew that if I didn’t go, I’d always wonder what might have been. That was a question I was not prepared to live
with. For some people, other factors would have had priority over answering the “What if?” question, things like security, family, or career. These are vitally important, and we are all different. For me, it was important to go. I felt it was God’s will, first of all; then, I felt it was a great way to make the most of being single, since I had the freedom to do it. So off I went into my excellent adventure.

So many challenges to my faith, my pluck, and my abilities ensued that I couldn’t even count them. Through it all, though, I learned much more about making major life decisions. Here are a few of them:

1. FAITH IS THE KEY INGREDIENT IN ANY DECISION. Scripture says that “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), and I would add that without faith, it’s really impossible to move forward in life. We can pray, get advice, make our lists of pros and cons, sweat, worry, cry, ad infinitum. (Believe me, I’ve done PLENTY of that.) But it the end, it’s faith in God’s goodness, his guidance, and his equipping for the task ahead that enables us to make the big decision, take the calculated risk, and walk forward in it with confidence. Faith is just as essential to decide that the new path is not the right path, as sometimes staying the course is the way forward. Faith even comforts us that if we do make a wrong decision, God is well able to redeem it as only He can.

2. TAKING HOLD OF A NEW CHALLENGE MEANS LETTING GO OF SOMETHING ELSE. When I decided to raise my own support and go to Latvia my congressional coworkers, depending on point of view, marveled either at my insanity or bravery. One woman whose life was a stunning success by any worldly standard, ranked in The Washington Post as one of Washington’s fifty most powerful staffers, told me that she envied me for having the guts to follow my dreams. She confessed that she could never do it. Granted, I didn’t have nearly as much to lose as she would have. Still, I had to let go of everything and everyone dear to me to embrace this new life, and there was never a moment when that sacrifice didn’t hurt. Yet I would do it again in a New York minute, because I’ve learned that taking on something new almost always necessitates letting go of something old, even if it’s only old attitudes or fears. And this, too, takes faith.

Stand by for Part Trois. And don't forget to comment with your own discoveries about making major life decisions.

Monday, June 01, 2009

TWO PATHS DIVERGED: MAKING THE BIG LIFE DECISIONS - Part I

On Stages of Life (www.stagesoflife.com) this week I read a question from a twenty-something woman asking for advice on whether she should move to a distant state to take a good job opportunity or stay home, close to family and lifelong friends. I immediately felt myself tumbling through a mental time tunnel back some years when I faced a similar dilemma. All over again, I felt the swirl of conflicting emotions, the flood of pros and cons, and the competing voices of would-be counselors buzzing in my head. It gave me empathy and excitement for this young woman, and I started to fish through my head and heart for wisdom I could pass along to her. And I believe I found some.


In my own story, I was pushing forty, had a life I loved, and a secure congressional job in Washington, DC, the place I love more than anywhere else on earth. But there was a competing dream in my heart, to be a missionary and a nation re-builder in the former USSR. That’s when I got invited to do just that in the Republic of Latvia.

The dreamer and the practical in me suddenly clashed in sharp conflict. This was the kind of thing one does during one’s college summers, not in mid-career. I would have to raise my own financial support, which means I would actually have to ask people for money. Lots of people. I would be 8,000 miles from home in a land I’d only visited twice, briefly. My mother, a widow, was getting up in years. Would I go so far from her, not knowing how much time she might have left? It all rolled around in my head through many sleepless nights.

After a few weeks of this misery, I phoned my wise and dear friend, Dolly Gilbert. It was she and her minister and Renaissance-man husband, Jim, who had first taken me to Latvia with a mission team. Dolly solved the dilemma for me with one question: “Betsy, if you don’t go, you’ll always wonder, ‘What if . . . ?’ Can you live the rest of your life with that?”

No, I realized, I could not. For me, it would be better to make a mistake and come home, short a little time and money, than to wonder what might have been. My decision was made. The result was ten exciting, enriching, scary, stretching, delightful, hard, fun, and wonderful years in a land and with a people I grew to love like my own. (See photos of Latvia with this post.)

Of course, not every decision comes out so well. Every person has a different set of circumstances and priorities, as well as a different temperament and tolerance for risk. And, of course, for the Christian believers among us, discerning God’s will is Factor No. 1. But I’ve found that making the “what if” question part of my criteria for making big life decisions is a good and useful thing.

There’s more to come. Stay tuned for Part II. Also, share your own big-decision stories. Leave a comment!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

ENCHANTING?


Did anyone see the President's press conference last night? A lot of people felt that American journalism sank to new depths of absurdity with one reporter's question about what President Obama felt was the most "enchanting" thing in his first 100 days in the White House (as well as troubling and humbling). Although I agree with these folks that it was a silly, softball question, I confess that I was very interested to hear his answer. In fact, it was the most interesting thing in the whole press conference, which didn't have me singing "Some Enchanted Evening."

Regarding the "enchanting" part of the question, he said it was American troops, as he has now spent a little time with them, and their competence and fierce loyalty to our country (although he said "enchanting" wasn't exactly the word he would use).

All this got me wondering what has been the most enchanting thing in my life over the past 100 days, and in yours. Frankly, I can't think of anything I'd define that way for myself. But while I'm thinking about it, what about you, gentle readers? I'd love to know what has enchanted YOU these past 100 days. Send your comments.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

IN CELEBRATION OF OLD FRIENDS


How comforting and comfortable is an old friend! Last night I had dinner with one of my two roommates of seven-plus years from my first stint in the Washington, DC, area. That was longer ago than I care to note, but I’ll give you a hint: Ronald Reagan was President then. We’ve managed to stay in touch across continents and years, and now are delighted to be in the same locale once again.

Her name is Elaine, but we’ve always called her Lainey, or sometimes “Elainercise” for her avid commitment to exercise (something that I decidedly lacked). We couldn’t have been more different. I was raised in the Deep South; Lainey was a New England Yankee. Lainey was a tomboy; I was a girly girl, at least in comparison. We had more than enough differences to aggravate each other, but usually managed to get along famously.

She was a quirky one, that Lainey. Being a creature of unvarying habit and routine, her 9:00 p.m. bedtime was strictly observed, no matter what was going on. If dinner guests lingered, she shot out of her seat at 9:00 with the cheerful announcement, “OK, I’m going to bed now. Good-night everybody!” Our revenge was to leave the dishes for her to clean up in the morning. Dinner out always meant a burger or a chicken sandwich for Lainey, and she never ate green beans because she thought they looked like green worms. She went for a walk every single day, usually along the same route beside the Potomac River.

Lainey was either in high gear or off, no middle ground. She woke up wide awake without benefit of coffee. She was in perpetual motion, talked a mile a minute, and rarely self-censored anything, which caused her a few problems on occasion. But she never meant to offend, and was guileless. A serious bibliophile, she loved to wander through used book stores looking for deals on lovely old books.

Lainey adored children’s literature, as she had a delightful, childlike view of the world with a creative and vivid imagination to match. (Why else would she see green beans as worms?) I think she was very much like Beatrix Potter in that way. To me, this is her most endearing, and enduring, quality. She was also a very loyal friend, quick to forgive, and never held a grudge. And, she was fun.

All this discussion about Lainey I have stated in the past tense. The best part of her, however, is that she hasn’t changed. Our lives have been so divergent, and on some things we differ where we once agreed, but she is in essence the same person with the same endearing quirks and qualities whom I lived with all those years ago. It is rich and comforting to have such a friend, especially in times of personal and national upheaval, a constant when everything else is shaking. As I start life over in the DC area with new friends and situations, it’s great to connect with a friend whom I know so well, and who knows me so well. It is comfortable as well as comforting, like putting on your favorite slippers at the end of a long day on your feet, or savoring your favorite soothing music after enduring the cacophony of the city all day. So, three cheers for old friends!

I have to tell you, though, that although the chicken sandwich is still a favorite menu item for Lainey, she has branched out into Thai cuisine.

Friday, April 24, 2009

AH, SPRING!


Poets and essayists have extolled the virtues of spring from time immemorial, and there's really nothing new I can say about it. Still, I feel compelled to mark its arrival in some way and express my gratitude that spring always follows winter. It's one of the few things in life we can really depend on. No matter how deep, dark, and cold the winter, we can always count on the arrival of spring with its warmth, color, new life, and the revival it brings to our souls.

I happen to believe that this is more than a just natural phenomenon, but was
designed to be a sign of hope to every human being, like the rainbow. Although seasons of darkness, trouble and death come to all of us, as surely as spring follows winter new life, growth and times of joy will follow. Like trees, as we pass each cycle of the seasons (each of which has its own beauty and purpose), we grow stronger, taller, bear more fruit, and provide more shade for others with each round. Life is never static, in the natural or spiritual worlds. For this I am also thankful.


So, to commemorate spring this year, I've posted a few snapshots I took of the pure, simple glories of spring around Northern Virginia yesterday. Enjoy! And rejoice in spring!



Wednesday, April 22, 2009

GOD'S BEST REVENGE WHEN I DON'T LIKE SOMEONE

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
-- Philippians 2:3

It’s exceedingly rare that I come across a person that I simply don’t like. When I have, however, I’ve tended to REALLY dislike that person to the degree that it’s difficult for me to see his or her good qualities in the glare (in my mind) of the flaws that annoy me. Just being honest here. Don’t go harrumphing; you have your own shortcomings. God never lets me get away with it, though. In fact, He has a particularly devious, yet failsafe, method of correcting me in these cases.

When I have disliked someone, God has deliberately used that person to serve me in some way or otherwise be an instrument of special blessing in my life. You might think that He would use me to serve that person, and eventually He does, but initially it’s always the other way around. It’s far more humbling that way. You know what I mean if you’ve ever had someone you can’t stand go out of their way to do you a particularly kind, generous, thoughtful or unselfish favor. It’s like having someone wash your feet.

When God sets up such a situation, all the haughty disdain melts away into repentance for my attitude and I am freed to see that person objectively, in her entirety and not just her flaws, to embrace and not reject her. God uses this method to show me the darkness of my own heart and His forbearance toward me. Then I am inspired to serve and forbear with the one I once disdained with a new heart of God’s overarching love, even if I never quite learn to like him.

I’ve learned a few things through this correctional program, and simply from living and working with folks. None of this is rocket science, but it’s worth pointing out. One is that I’m just as annoying to some people as others are to me, so there’s no need to get self-righteous about someone else’s shortcomings. God not only puts up with me, but loves and encourages me, after all, and I should imitate Him in extending the favor. Another is that some of the people with the most extreme flaws also possess equally extreme qualities, and that I rob myself of enjoying and benefiting from the best in them if I refuse to accept the whole package. Finally, I’ve learned that grace begets grace, and the more I extend it to others, the more they extend it to me.

God knows, we could use more grace and forbearance toward each other in this polarized, accusing world in which we live. May our words and the attitude of our hearts toward one another be seasoned with that grace, even when we must confront our differences.

NOTE: So many wonderful people have been the vehicle of incredible good toward me the past few years that I’m in danger of making a lot of folks wonder if I’m talking about them in this post. You know who you are, and I’m not talking about you!

Monday, March 02, 2009

THOUGHTS FOR A SNOWY DAY

Nobody loves snow like I do. I pray for snow when everyone else is praying for spring. I guess I was deprived, growing up in South Carolina. Ten years in Latvia should have made up for that, but I just can't get enough of it.

Anyway, today we've got it in spades here in Virginia--plenty of white, blowing, drifting, magical, beautiful snow. It's the kind that sticks to the windward side of the trees, marking each with a long white stripe. There is a big drift on the rooftop landing outside my window that sparkles like diamonds each time the sun peeks through the clouds for a moment. I'm happy to stay inside, but I did go out long enough to take a few photos in the backyard that I hope you'll enjoy.

Maybe one of the reasons I love snow so much (besides that it provides a good excuse to stay indoors with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate) is that, to me, it symbolizes God's grace and blessing. In fact, I was thinking this morning as I looked out at the white world about the parallels between what happens in the life of a snowstorm and what happens in God's plan of redemption.

Maybe I'm reaching here, but this is what I see. Snow falls and covers everything--the good, the bad, and the ugly--with a beautiful blanket of purest white. It reminds me of Isaiah 1:18 which says, "'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD. 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.'" As glorious as a snow-covered landscape is, a heart and life covered with God's grace through the Blood of Jesus is infinitely more glorious. It blankets our sins, shortcomings, even our best human efforts, with the one thing that can change us from the inside out.

That process of change, however, is where it all gets messy, like melting snow. As the fluffy white stuff turns to a wretched brown slush, so that initial joy of salvation we each feel gives way to wondering what the heck happened as God's hard work of sanctification begins in our lives. He starts out playing nice, sure. But then He starts churning up all the junk in our lives, letting us see ourselves for who we really are. He begins with the blatant, "big" sins like drug addiction, adultery, or cheating on our income taxes, for example. If we make it through that, then He starts the fine tuning with less obvious, heart issues like selfishness, pride, and unforgiveness. Yikes! If you've been there, you know that it's messy, and definitely not pretty sometimes. It's like slogging through the mush after a snow and wondering what possessed to you to get out in all that. But sometimes it's the only way to get from point A to point B.

Thank God(quite literally), that's not the end of the snow story, nor our walk through God's uncomfortable sanctification process. That hazardous, soupy, brown eyesore is finally warmed by the sun and melts into the ground, softening it and bringing forth verdant new life and great beauty from that dead brown stuff that used to be our grass or flowers. God's love and grace, warm as the sun, softens our hearts and by His miracle power brings forth new life and growth in amazing beauty where death and yucky stuff lived before.

And with that, the cycle of sanctification is finished. . .until the next round. Like the seasons, it never ends. You know just what I mean, don't you?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

KEEPING SIN, THROWING OUT CONDEMNATION

Greta Van Susteren’s interview last week on FOX News with eighteen-year-old Bristol Palin about her very public pregnancy and unwed motherhood raised some conflicting thoughts in my mind. For example, while I questioned, on several levels, the wisdom of the Palins allowing their young daughter to be interviewed on national television, I also admired Bristol’s and the family’s courage in doing so. While I wish that Bristol had not gotten in this situation (or engaged in the behavior that caused it), I marveled and rejoiced to see such family support and solidarity in tough times. And when grandmother Sarah Palin brought baby Trip to Bristol on camera at the end of the interview, well, how could anyone but rejoice that such a precious new life has come into the world? Bristol is to be commended for taking responsibility and raising her child instead of aborting it.

Still, it was just a little disturbing to see how completely comfortable this Christian family seemed with their plight, one born out of what used to be known as sin. Of course, we cannot see into their hearts and private thoughts, and I’m not suggesting they should be self-flagellating over Bristol’s situation. They are living under God’s grace and moving on. Yet perhaps there might have been some expression of remorse.

Bristol stated that she was going public with her story because she wants to serve as a spokesperson against teenage pregnancy. Not teen sex, but teen pregnancy. She called abstinence “unrealistic.” Never in the interview did she ever suggest that what she did was wrong, only that it would have been easier to have waited until college and establishing a career were behind her.

I was discussing this with a friend who many years ago found herself in Bristol’s shoes. She told me that she never referred to her pregnancy as sin outside of her family, because she felt that somehow it made her child. . .less. Understandable. I had just seen Oliver Twist on television and was reminded, with a shudder, that we really aren’t that far away from the irrational and deplorable stigmatization and mistreatment of children who simply had the misfortune to be orphaned, much less born out of wedlock, that has marked society throughout all but fairly recent history.

The social statement made by the Palins, however, could not be starker in contrast to the old way. They are symbolic of a society that has moved beyond that, and thank God for it. I wonder, though, if in leaving behind the rejection and stigmatization of unwed mothers and their children, it was also necessary to leave behind the concept of sin.

Atheists and some liberals would say yes, and that secularization’s doing away with absolute standards of right and wrong is a sign of society’s great enlightenment. They would insist that designation of any act as sin or suggestion that one should feel a moment’s shame over any personal action is intolerant, judgmental, and hateful.

Perhaps we Christians are to blame for this. We know that God’s standards of sin as given to us in Scripture are good, not only because they are from God, but because they promote healthy families and lifestyles which in turn promote healthy and prosperous societies. We know that admitting when we have sinned and taking responsibility for our actions is good for both our souls and our communities. But maybe for too long we have divorced grace from sin and invested more energy in condemning the sinner along with the sin than we have in showing why God’s ways are good for us. We have unwittingly given fodder to the secularists and caused them to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.

Some of the church is still stuck in the habit of condemning people, rather than challenging their actions. Other parts of the church have joined the secularists in throwing out any notion of sin. The former leaves the church dead in legalism and irrelevance, offering no hope to a lost world. The latter leaves us no clear alternative to the world’s system, adds to the disintegration of society, and dishonors God. It’s time for all of us find the balance in the example of Jesus, who never left sin unchallenged and called it by it’s true name, but always showed a better way, offering grace for healing and deliverance from sin to all who would receive it.

Whether or not the message has been a bit muddled, I choose to believe that this desire to show a better way is exactly what motivates the Palins to handle their daughter’s situation as they are. More power to them.

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Renewing Gratitude, Renewing Hope


Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. –Colossians 3:15

My friend Amy Azar, a missionary in South Africa, sent me this photo of people’s “homes” in Khaylitsha Township there. Take a long look at it. I’m sure your first thoughts will match mine: “Oh my God—I can’t believe people really live in those things. How awful!” No doubt this exclamation was accompanied by compassion and a desire, yet with some sense of powerlessness, to do something about it. That, however, is a subject for another post.

Today, I wonder if you see the thing that immediately arrested my attention in this photo, that is, that big, healthy-looking mass of green plants with bright yellow flowers beside the shack on the left. I marveled that in this scene of total desolation there is still a symbol of beauty and hope. I wondered if the flowers grew wild, a gift from God, or if some impoverished resident of indomitable spirit planted them there. Either way, they are a cause for hope.

As I pondered these things, I heard that still, small voice of God say to my heart, “There is always something to be thankful for.” These words pricked my heart, because I knew He was talking about me, not about poor South Africans.

I’ve had some struggles lately, and sometimes (OK, frequently) have given in to self-pity and internal grumbling. I say “internal” grumbling because, as a “mature Christian”, I know better than to complain loudly to people. But God sees—and hears—what goes on in the heart, and there’s no hiding it from Him. I knew I might as well ‘fess up and repent of an ungrateful heart.

Such a heart is an insidious enemy, because nothing freezes out intimacy with God faster than ingratitude. I know, because I speak from experience. It can make your most intimate Friend seem like a distant cousin in no time, and grieves His heart. It makes you painfully aware of what you lack and forget all the rich blessings you possess, skewing your view of reality. It cuts off fellowship with God, joy, life, and eventually makes you mean, cold and hard.

Conversely, nothing opens up the wellspring of God’s love, blessing, and companionship like a thankful heart. Gratitude in everything is like a sweet fragrance to the Lord that warms His heart and brings Him joy and glory. (It makes you smell better to everyone else, too.) It makes you soft, warm, joyful and compassionate. And gratitude begets more gratitude, first to God and then to others. It allows praise to rise in our hearts and gives us eyes to see the hand of God and his miracles, big and small, in all our circumstances, renewing hope for the future.

Yes, it’s better to be thankful than to be a whiner. So I have determined to make a habit of thanking God for specific things every day, and ending each day with thanks. Today, for example, I am thankful that my fourteen-year-old Sable is running well and that I get to prepare and serve dinner at a homeless shelter tonight.

Why don’t you join me? What are you thankful for today? Send me your list as a comment.

Friday, February 06, 2009

DAVY CROCKETT VS. BIG GOVERNMENT

My, how times have changed in the U.S. Congress since the days of the inimitable Davy Crockett! Then, federal coffers were flush with cash and members thought twice about how they spent the people’s money. Considering the “stimulus package” passed by the House and now before the Senate, it might do us good to consider the following story from Crockett’s life as a congressman.

When Colonel Davy Crockett was in the U.S. Congress (sometime between 1827 and 1835), a bill came up to appropriate money for support of a widow whose husband had been a decorated naval officer. It seemed the bill, for such a worthy cause, would sail through unopposed. That was until Crockett rose to speak in opposition. He told his House colleagues of how he had once voted for a similar bill and felt very good about himself for doing so, until he later ran into a wise constituent named Horatio Bunce while roaming the hinterlands of his district campaigning for re-election.

Colonel Crockett continued to tell how he ran into Mr. Bunce in a field, introduced himself, and asked him for his vote. Bunce replied that he would never give it, precisely because of Crockett’s “yes” vote on that charity appropriation, a provision of $20,000 in federal aid to victims of a fire in Georgetown (DC). Mr. Bunce, you see, felt that such a vote was an abuse of the Constitution. An incredulous Crockett asked him to explain why his compassionate vote violated the U.S. Constitution. Below is Colonel Crockett’s account of their dialogue:

“My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true!"

"Certainly it is, and I thought that was the last vote for which anybody in the world would have found fault with."

"Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity!"

"Here was another sockdologer; for, when I began to think about it, I could not remember a thing in the Constitution that authorized it. I found I must take another tack, so I said:

"Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did."

"It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the Government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing to do with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means. What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the Government. So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right: to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive, what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this county as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week's pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men in and around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life. The Congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving by giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution."

"So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you."


For the very interesting details and happy ending to this story, please follow the link at the bottom of this post. Suffice it to say that Crockett declared he would put up a week’s worth of his own salary and challenged every colleague to do the same, and Congress voted down the charity bill before them. Whether they all anted up, I can’t say.

There’s little I can add to Mr. Bunce’s eloquence and logic on this subject. I simply encourage you to carefully consider the principles he presents. How much more loathe should Congress be to spend money not their own on “charity” for corporations and municipalities whose woes are largely self-inflicted, and at a time when we are trillions of dollars in debt. May God grant us not politicians, but statesmen of wisdom and character, like Davy Crockett, who value what is right more than re-election.
_______________________

This story appeared in The Life Of Colonel David Crockett, by Edward S. Ellis, published by Porter & Coates in 1884. Now in the public domain. Quoted from the website of Advocates for Self-Government at http://www.theadvocates.org/library/christian-crockett.html.

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