Over the River and Through the Woods

I fell face down in my father’s furrowed soybean field again.  It was Thanksgiving Eve 1990 something.  Navigating the trenches of dirt on this moonless night, proved to be about as tricky as body surfing blindfolded.  Covered in mud and harvest remnants I cried out in despair, “God, help us find her!”

Our seven month old Shiba Inu puppy, Kobi, slipped her collar outside my parent’s backdoor minutes earlier.  Seeing a rabbit, the little hunter leaped into the field behind their home, disappearing into the darkness.  Appalled, Ken and I darted after her.

The daunting task of finding a lost pup in vast acres of farmland and woods on a cloudy night, chilled my soul.  Our daughter Jennifer prayed and saved her money for a year and a half to buy her very own dog.  Shiba’s are a high energy, adventuresome breed.  They should never be off leash our out of a fenced yard.  Her answer to prayer was now running loose somewhere in acres of woods and farmlands that stretched for miles.

On a different piece of the property from me, Ken cried out to God also.  Covered in brambles from a fence row he fell over, he looked up just as the moon momentarily peeked through the clouds. Kobi sat peacefully, in a clearing in the woods, centered in a shaft of moonlight.  Completely out of character, she remained motionless as if held by unseen hands.

After securing her on her leash, Ken scooped her up in his arms joyously running towards home, right into another fence row, this one made of barbed wired.  Shocked and tangled into the biting knots of the fence, he almost dropped the pup who surely would have run away in fright from all the thrashing and commotion.  Once again, unseen hands intervened, propelled him out of the fence, dog intact, and back onto his feet.

We know that God moved supernaturally for us that night.  Our Thanksgiving could have been a wreck of trying to find Kobi and possibly returning to our own home without her.  He cared for that little critter and assigned an angel to hold her still. He lifted Ken out of the barbed wire; it’s that simple in our minds.

On another holiday, Christmas day to be precise, God did not intervene for a family pet.  We were enjoying a wonderful day with Ken’s parents and siblings when tragedy struck.  While Dad was out walking Hooter, he and mom’s beloved little Bichon Frise, the small, white dog ran into the snowy street into the path of an oncoming car.

I will never forget Dad Stults coming through the doorway of the living room, face twisted with grief, holding Hooter’s lifeless body.  We all cried.  The rest of the day became swallowed up by sorrow.  The ugliness and cruelty of this world witnessed on Hooter’s bloody form stays with me, although this happened over 35 years ago.  Why didn’t God move Hooter or slow the car down or something?

As dearly as we love animals, it’s far more difficult to wrestle with questions about God’s sovereign care when it involved humans we love.  Why did my mother survive horrific heart surgery only to die suddenly of pneumonia?  Why is one friend miraculously healed of cancer while another succumbs?

When these things happen we just can’t make sense of them, because we can’t see as God sees.  We can’t know all that He knows.  In the words of a song from a David Clydesdale musical I directed many years ago, “When you don’t understand, when you don’t see a plan, when you can’t see His hand, trust His heart.”

God’s grace is for you today.  His love and favor surround you like a shield especially when grief and sorrow threaten to shipwreck your soul.  God knows the pain you feel while all around others are celebrating the joy of the season.  His hand is still good towards you.  He will carry you through dark times.   He is with you.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”  Matthew 1: 23 (NLT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turkey Troubles

One year our Thanksgiving turkey was so dry, everyone ate dark meat only and used a LOT of gravy. When we tried to feed leftovers to our two dogs, Martin Luther and George Whitfield, (we used to name our dogs after great theologians) they gagged and hacked it up on my kitchen floor.  Lovely.

The holidays are here and usually a few things go sideways for all of us.  Many are excited about celebrations and special times together with family and friends. Probably just as many are wondering how they will make it through until January 2.   This is their first Thanksgiving without a spouse.  Or maybe, like my daughter’s sister-in-law, and her family, turkey dinners will be eaten in an oncology ward.  Some folks experienced tremendous financial setbacks or job loss this year.  How will they even buy Christmas presents, they wonder.

Whatever is happening in our lives, good or bad, it all seems more intensified between the end of November and the beginning of January.  With that in mind, I want to share some of our family’s humorous and tragic holiday stories over the next couple posts.  May our mishaps and sorrows bring you some laughter and encouragement.

My in-laws, Bette and Warren Stults are celebrating Thanksgiving together again in heaven this year.  Separated by Dad’s death three years ago, Mom joined him last fall shortly before the holidays.  These two knew how to lay out a Thanksgiving feast.  Turkey, candied sweet potatoes, sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and more were a large “We love you” from them to all of us.  They worked together for days to prepare the entire meal.

In the early years of my marriage, Stults Thanksgiving turkey was magnificent and juicy.  Then, pop-up timers became the rage.  Mom and Dad bought their first turkey with a little red button buried in it.  They bought it but they didn’t trust it.  When the timer popped up, all their children assured them that this indicated fully cooked meat. We in-laws hid out in the living room as voices grew louder.

After heated arguments, Dad put his foot down.  “It can’t be done that soon!” he declared and forcefully shoved the roasting pan back in the oven.  An hour and a half later, the turkey came out with mom and dad’s approval.  We used quarts of gravy that year just to swallow it.  Nobody said a word about the bird for the entire meal.  The final insult came with Luther and Whitfield barfing the leathery white meat up in the kitchen.

Several years later, our family experienced a rather dismal Thanksgiving.  Both of our mothers spent the holiday in the hospital. Pneumonia and heart troubles limited visitors and kept them and our two fathers sharing hospital turkey dinners without any of the rest of us.  The loneliness we all felt threatened to encompass the day entirely.  God’s grace still brought laughter and joy to the meal the rest of us shared together that year but it became a warning of things to come.

Within the next six years we said good-bye to my mother and both of Ken’s parents.  Empty places at holiday tables became the norm.   Assuming new roles and comforting brokenhearted parents amidst our own grief, made Thanksgiving and Christmas just hard. For the sake of children and grandchildren we honored our traditions and stayed upbeat outwardly.  Inside I wanted to bury my head in a pillow and weep, thinking of holidays in the past.

If you are experiencing one of those holiday seasons this year, God sees and cares deeply.  The joy of Christmas is specifically for those who mourn.  “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV) No one understands your sorrow like Jesus.

Indeed, the LORD will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; Joy and gladness will be found in her, Thanksgiving and sound of a melody.  (Isaiah 51:3 NIV)  Only God can bring life to your desert places and provision in the wilderness.

Next time I’ll share stories of screaming babies, lost dogs and the worst gravy ever.  Til then, start thanking God for as many things as you can think of, it will change your whole environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom Had it Right

I glared at my mother’s back, willing her to stop talking.  She cocked her head to one side, laughing at something her friend said.  Our church service ended at 12:30 and it was now almost 1:15. She chattered away with her friends oblivious to the passage of time. The rumbling growls in my stomach grew louder while I slouched down further into the pew behind her.

At age 15, every single one of my friends thought my mother to be the coolest.  I didn’t agree.  Our personalities sprung from opposite ends of the spectrum.  People and conversation energized her while they drained me.  She loved to bake and sew.  I endured home economics class.  She dressed like Jackie Kennedy, all sweater sets and pearls.  I preferred bell bottoms and ribbed turtlenecks.

Our temperament clash often reached a crescendo on Sundays.  I enjoyed Sunday School, worship and hanging with my friends but by 12:30 I was ready to hit the road.  A book waited for me at home. I treasured the uninterrupted hours of a Sunday afternoon to read, free of chores and homework.  My mother, on the other hand, was reluctant to end her social intercourse.  Sunday was one of the highlights of her week.

Ten years later, as a young pastor’s wife, I lacked the social skills my mother flowed in effortlessly.  I didn’t struggle around friends or family but, in church leadership, you’re thrust into situations which require interaction with people you barely know or don’t know at all.  Weddings, funerals, open houses, all church meetings and such, left me depleted.

How sad that I didn’t appreciate my mother’s gifting’s in my formative years.  God knew full well He designed me with an introverted personality and chose my mother, deliberately, for me.  If only, I’d listened and learned instead of sulking and slouching.

Some of you are designed the same way.   You love people, but prefer limited doses.  Time by yourself energizes and releases creative energies.  Sally Socials, please understand that your natural ease around people is a learned behavior for a Solitary Sue.  You might know someone in leadership like me.  Often we are misinterpreted as uninterested or aloof.   Try to think of us as unskilled.

The holidays are upon us, with many special occasions.  What can be done to improve social skills? First remember we were designed for relationship.  There is nothing more important than people. They are the only thing in this world destined for eternity.  Jesus treasured humans and took his time with them.  To follow His footsteps means we can’t use our personality as an excuse to retreat in social situations.  God created every temperament to play a vital role in the body. As we make meaningful connections with one another we are changed. We experience the mind and heart of Christ from the fresh perspective of another human.

Second, know that God is always more concerned with our character than our comfort.  The desire to stay in a safe zone often runs contrary to God’s destiny for us.  Jesus left all the glory and grandeur of His home for the sake of relationship.  Surely we can allow the Holy Spirit to empower us to engage in genuine conversations, right?

Here’s a few ideas to keep in mind, which may help you at your next social event:

  • Make other’s needs more important than yours. I’m not suggesting a personality re-invention. Simply focus your mind away from how uncomfortable you feel towards someone else’s needs.  In many situations, you will find people even more out of their element than you.  Converse with them, invite them to sit with you if they don’t seem to know anyone.  Time after time God places outsiders in my sightline. I must to choose to leave my island and swim through the party over to theirs.  Sometimes the conversation never launches and I just swim away.  Most times I wind up in interesting conversations and suddenly I don’t feel awkward anymore.
  • Be specific with compliments and questions. Are you in someone’s home?  Find something kind and positive to say.   This can range anywhere from the behavior of their children to the physical appearance of their home.  Ask them questions about interesting objects or evidence of hobbies.  Visitors to my home often ask about my photography scattered through the house.   Stuck at a wedding reception table with no one you know?  Ask specific questions about your tablemate’s lives outside their relationship to the bride or groom.
  • Seek common ground. Once you start asking questions, you’ll often find common ground.  It’s astonishing to me how frequently I find people who also grew up out East, or love gardening and reading, or who read certain books and movies, or struggle with health issues.  After you do the work of finding shared interests, conversation flows easily and sometimes friendships are formed.  As a young, overwhelmed mom of a newborn, I met one of my dearest friends on a retreat, simply making conversation and discovering mutual struggles.  32 years later we live in different states but remain friends of the heart.

I’m praying that we will not succumb to our culture’s lure of doing what’s best for us inside our bubble wrapped safe zones.  More than ever our nation and our world need us to be the ministers of reconciliation God calls us to be.  It starts with simple, grace-filled conversations.

When my mother went home to heaven a few years ago, I met numerous individuals at her funeral who repeated various versions of the same sentiment.  “She always made me feel special.”   Well, Mom, thank you for your example.  I still can’t wear high heels without falling but I’m trying to follow in your footsteps.

 

 

Shredded

Crop loss is heartbreaking for a farmer or grower.  In the early years of my father’s greenhouse business, he experienced some profound losses due to insects and plant diseases.  I remember times when thrips, a tiny insect, ruined entire greenhouses of product.  Seeing our dump pile heaped at various times with damaged, unsellable pink cyclamen, red poinsettias, purple petunias, or other flowering plants, made us sick to our stomachs.

The once beautiful crops represented thousands of dollars in labor hours, growth chemicals, heating bills and advertising. There would be no return on investment thanks to  savage creatures difficult to see with the naked eye.

Reading Joel 1 this morning recalls those days of loss for our family.  “A nation has invaded my land, a mighty army without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness.  It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees.” (verses 6-7 NIV) This description of a destructive locust invasion in Judah becomes more graphic in the rest of the chapter.  The land became so devastated; Joel describes domestic and wild animals staggering about looking for food and water.

These people lived through an event as nuclear to their lives and economy as any earthquake, flood or fire we might experience in modern times.  The utter barrenness of their formerly lush countryside completely dismantled the lives they once knew. There were no harvests to reap or sell, no ability to create goods like bread and wine.  They suddenly had no means to feed their livestock and produce meat, milk and clothing.  I’m guessing despair and depression stalked the land.

Life events can create the same effects for us.  Divorce, disease, death, job loss, financial loss, weather events can all turn everyday life completely upside down.  Relationships are torn apart and possessions destroyed.  Reputations are ruined and futures robbed.  Our minds stagger about wondering what will become of us.  How can we move forward?

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate. “ (Joel 2:13b NIV)  Judah’s sin problem needed to be dealt with.  The same is true for us if we are suffering under the consequences of sinful choices we’ve made.  But what if we aren’t living in unrepentant sin?  What if the locusts shred our lives through other people’s sinful choices or even natural disasters?

We still return to God.   He is the only one able to heal a heart broken by the departure of a spouse whether by death or unfaithfulness.  His provision and power alone can restore lost goods, lost health and lost finances.  The goodness and mercy which follow us each day, are constants when our world dissolves.  His wisdom, knowledge and insight give clear direction to cope with the current crisis and plan for the future.

Is your life currently under locust attack?  Perhaps you’re just coming out of  terrible grief and confusion.  Maybe you feel stuck in a grinding wheel of circumstances that shows no sign of stopping and you’re not sure you’re going to survive it.

Find comfort and strength in these words from Joel:

  • I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil.” (2:19b) God is in the business of restoration. Your losses can never exceed his provision.
  • “I will repay you for the ­years the locusts have eaten..” (2:25) God sees the length of your season of loss.  If you fear that your present has permanently destroyed your future, remember Job.  Trust God to fashion a new future even better than the one you had planned.
  • “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (3:28) If you will hold fast to God’s hand through your ordeal, He will empower and anoint you with His Spirit.  The Spirit will bring comfort and lead you into all the truth you need to go forward.

Finally, I leave you with Jesus’ own words, to assure you of His care. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Prayer

In May of 1940, during World War II, 335,00 British and French soldiers became trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the German army.  The exposed troops made easy prey for the German air force to pick off.  With no easy solution to rescue the army, it looked as if the short war would result in German victory and world domination.

In desperation, George VI declared May 26th a National Day of Prayer.  The King took to the air waves and asked his people to return to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for Divine intervention. The picture above shows lines of people waiting to enter Westminster Abbey in London.  Millions of British citizens filled churches, humbling themselves before God.

Immediately after, two things occurred.  First, the Luftwaffe (German air force), which had been killing thousands of the stranded soldiers, was forced to retreat from Dunkirk due to a violent storm which arose suddenly over the region.

Secondly, the English Channel suddenly became calm in a way not seen for over 25 years.  The quiet waters allowed hundreds of tiny vessels, previously unable to navigate the rough channel, to rescue over 330,00 soldiers.  If not for this level of calmness in the Channel, only 20-30,000 troops could be rescued by available battleships and aircraft carriers.

From that time on, people referred to these events as “the miracle of Dunkirk.”  King George declared Sunday, June 9 as a Day of National Thanksgiving.  Although it took several years, the allied forces prevailed and Hitler’s design for worldwide domination ended.  If not for united, fervent prayer, our world today would be a much different place.

I believe that currently our nation is surrounded by danger just like the soldiers at Dunkirk.  For our entire history Satan has employed his dark forces of the air to try and destroy us from within and without.  He rails against our unique constitutional republic, blessed with vast natural resources and generosity of spirit.  Our impact for goodness in this world is immeasurable.   Sacrificial acts of American courage and mercy towards nations and peoples in crisis change the course of world events.  Consider, for example, the millions of souls redeemed from hell’s grasp due to thousands of fearless American missionaries.

As Satan’s time draws to a close, any individual or entity opposed to his kingdom should expect war.  Currently, our nation’s ability to stand for righteousness and truth is diminished compared to even 50 years ago.  We in the church, in our zeal to relate to our culture are not as effective in shaping our culture as we once were.  If we are upset with the current social conditions the blame rests with us.  Lost people sin.  Unchecked, they sin more.

The meat of our culture is rotting because it is not adequately preserved with the salt of the body of Christ.  God expects every single believer to profoundly affect their personal “Jerusalem, Judea and the ends of the world.”  To the degree any child of God is not fulfilling their God-given purpose, that is how much influence the prince of this world retains.

Many believers currently direct anger towards individuals prominent in our current election cycle and one another.  That kind of anger misses the true target!   Stop it!  Seriously, stop it!   Can you not hear the cackling laughter of hell when you attack a fellow believer?  s

If ever this country needed a true revival in the body of Christ, that time is now.  Revival is for the church, not the culture.   As my pastor, Sam Rijfkogel, said recently, “You can only revive something that has been alive at one time.”  Sinners are dead in their sin.  It’s the Christ followers who have allowed themselves to become so entangled by sin and the world that we are in need of resuscitation, revival. When the church is revived, the country will experience an awakening, as it did in the past.  Until we are repentant for our sins and desperate for the One who is the air we breathe, we will not see the profound change we long for in our country and the world. 

The most famous and effective revivalist of his time, Charles Finney, in his sermon on praying for revival states these things:

  • Prayers must be specific. Random thoughts prayed aloud are ineffective.  Fix the mind on one thought, preferably based on Scripture.
  • Intercession must line up with God’s will. He reveals His will through His Word, His provision and His Spirit.
  • Prayer can only be offered by faith, given by the Holy Spirit.
  • Prayers must flow out of a submissive spirit, just as our Lord demonstrated in the garden.
  • Praying must come from pure motives.
  • Prayer must be persistent and prevailing.

If you are a pastor or leader who has the ability to call your people to prayer, do it.   Everyone else, gather with friends, family, prayer warriors.  Will our children look back and know that our prayers changed the course of history?

The man who is right is a majority.  We, who have God and conscience on our side, have a majority against the universe. “Frederick Douglass, abolitionist

 

 

 

 

Itchy Ears

Does it seem reasonable to pay $879.00 a month in mortgage, taxes and insurance for a $40,000 house?  Is it wise to borrow down payment money when you hold outstanding student loans?  How do you feel about spending thousands of dollars on remodeling projects in said home with a combined household income of about $30,000?

If your answers are in the, “No way,” “That’s completely looney,” range, I believe you are correct.  Unfortunately, Ken and I did this in 1981.  We possessed no down payment whatsoever and the interest rates, at the time,  were 16 ½ %.  Yes, 16 ½ %.  Even with a student loan in the mix we still plowed ahead with our first home purchase.  Why, why, why did we choose such a misguided path?

The answer is threefold, peer pressure, envy and lack of counsel.  Every other young couple in our new, first church lived in their own house. The fact that they entered the working world and saved down payments, while we were in grad school, we waved off.  How would it look for us, a pastor in a prestigious church, to remain in a rental?

We love dogs, landscaping, and interior design. Our campus apartment certainly didn’t allow any of that for three years, but it didn’t matter. All our friends lived in student housing also.  Entering the real world brought joy and disappointments. After each evening in another young couple’s home, we returned to our rental house slump-shouldered and dissatisfied.  Generating enthusiasm about everyone else’s home improvement projects just hurt.  We longed to do the same.

We set our minds to buying a house without seeking counsel from people I think we instinctively knew would advise against it, like our parents. The advice we followed came from people who did not know the true picture of our finances.  They were happy to cheerlead us along.  We did not seek truth but sought affirmation for what we desired. 

In this matter, we fit the profile of people who Paul described to Timothy.  “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Tim. 4:3 ESV) Anytime we turn our backs on sound wisdom, we find ourselves on side streets, delaying us from fulfilling our destiny.

When we moved from our first church to the second, we sold that house at a tremendous loss.  It took us two years to pay off the remaining debt.  I believe the Lord allowed the sale to land that way so we might never make such a poor stewardship mistake like that again.  Pain is a wonderful teacher.

Our current culture treats truth like a disease that needs to be eradicated.  It is eerily like the way ancient Israel treated many of their prophets.  Uncomfortable truths about repentance and coming destruction didn’t get warm receptions from the Jewish nation.  Most true prophets were ignored, rejected and threatened with death.  People liked the happy, happy, false prophets better.

The dishonest prophets, like the ones Micah describes in his third chapter, told the nation that God was speaking peace, peace, peace. Fabulous news for folks living in sin, making one stupid, destructive decision after another!  They thought they could carry on their immoral lifestyles and still live in peace. That’s why we loved the scant advice we received also.  We could break all reasonable rules of prudent personal finance and still own our own home.  Perfect, not.

If I choose to reject a truth, at some point I will face the consequences.  Truth is a Person who loves me.  He sent His Son, who is THE way and THE truth. (John 14:6) He gifted us with the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. (John 16:13) He loves us too greatly to allow us to choose destructive paths without experiencing consequential pain.  Did Ken and I pray about that house?  Of course! Did we pray with open hearts and hands, submissive to God’s will being done in our lives?  Well…………

Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) This guy lived alone in a sea of false prophets.  Every day he watched his people led astray by liars.  Exalting what we want over God’s will can happen in such a subtle way.  The clamor of our emotions, expectations and past experiences can dull our hearing for God’s still, small voice.  Far too often, Christians miss their destinies to satisfy their desires.

Have you ever taken a side trip away from Destiny Drive onto Stupid Street, like me?  How do we stop ourselves in the future?  The answer is simple to say, tough to do.  The secret is to want the same things God does. When I want God’s, purposes manifested in my life more than anything else, I avoid most idiotic stuff.

How do you know what He wants? Ask Him. I cannot over emphasize the fundamentals of prayer and Bible study.  God said, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4.6) Often we don’t know what in the world God wants because we don’t know Him.

My desire is to know Him more intimately today than I did yesterday.  How about you?