Late winter is the season to prune fruit trees, before the sap rises and buds swell green and blossoms unfurl. A warm, sunny day makes the work pleasant. A calm day makes the work safe. My husband was pruning in the top of standard-size apple trees with a tall ladder and a sharp saw, so I was happy for the unusual lack of wind.
I took advantage of the spring-like weather, too, and walked to the windbreak with my camera strapped around my neck and my down coat unzipped. What I heard that day was more remarkable than what I saw–a train.
Because of the nearly constant noise of traffic on the road and the ever-present wind, I have only heard a train a handful of times in the twenty-some years we have lived on this farm. The closest railroad line is ten miles away, but the faint rumbling on the metal tracks and occasional sounding of the horn came from a train rattling through a small town nearly fifteen miles to the north.
What whispers from God will we hear in the calm places and quiet times? Will we be like Elijah who heard the “still, small voice” after the wind, earthquake, and fire passed by?
“Be still, and know that I am God;” Psalm 46:10 NIV
As I reread this week the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, I noticed that the day before the Sabbath was called the Day of Preparation. In the Old Testament there was a great deal of planning and preparation that had to be made ahead of time in order to properly observe the Sabbath. That Saturday while Jesus lay in the tomb must have been a sombre time for the disciples, a time of reflection. Perhaps it helped them prepare to hear the Good News of the resurrection on Sunday morning.
Do we prepare ourselves for the Easter shouts of “He is risen!” by listening and waiting the days prior to Resurrection Sunday?
Do we need to prune away some of the busyness and noise in our lives to reap a better harvest later?
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; Psalm 37:7 NIV
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Flowers, crown of thorns, cross/window photos by Barb Briggs
The Gate of the Year
Splish. Splosh. Splash. I should have pulled on my rubber chore boots instead of my suede snow boots to walk down the drive and deliver my envelopes to the mailbox, but I hadn’t expected puddles and mud in January. Snow had melted and puddles had grown until rivulets ran down the hill. The snow had inhaled the the glorious sunshine one day and exhaled it the next in a dense fog.
I peered left, then right into the mist before crossing the road, but the cars and trucks were nearly to my driveway before I could see them–and then only as headlights and ghostly shapes.
Then I paused to listen. I could hear the cars long before I could see them. So I trusted a different sense to help me safely ford the asphalt road and the January thaw running alongside its shoulders.
Waiting to recross the road, I wondered would I be brave enough to travel these fog-obscured roads at 60 mph? Perhaps, since I knew the road so well and remembered where it dipped, where it curved to the east, and where it met the highway at the bottom of the hill. I could depend on memory, but what did the men and women who had never driven this stretch of road depend on? Faith.
Faith that the road did not halt suddenly at the edge of a precipice,
faith that the painted yellow and white markers led somewhere,
faith that the driver in the car in front knew where he was going,
faith in the few glimpses of familiar roadside objects: mailboxes, ghostly trees, and cross-like telephone poles,
faith that the sun would shine again and that the wind would rise sharp and scrape away the fog.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
1 Cor. 13:12 MSG
* * * * * *
I watched a 1940 James Stewart movie recently, The Mortal Storm, an anti-Nazi film released the year before the United States entered WWII. The movie ends with a quote from the poem commonly known as The Gate of the Year. The poem had become popular after Great Britain’s King George VI quoted from it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast.
“The Gate of the Year” or “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.
Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.
We may not be facing the unknowns of World War II, as Britain was, but we all face uncertainties in life.
We travel a road together that ultimately leads into the “undiscover’d country,” a place Hamlet spoke of as the land after death. If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare, maybe you remember the phrase “undiscovered country” reinterpreted in the movie Star Trek VI to mean the future.
None of us knows the future. Every January we face the unknown of a new year. Will this year be a time of peace or war? Weddings or funerals? Health or sickness? It is all uncharted land.
We can listen to the advice given by the keeper at the “gate of the year” and step into the dark fog with faith, placing our hand into the hand of God.
For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
Isaiah 41:13 NIV
Light and the Live Nativity
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
Matthew 4:16 NIV
I clasped my grandson’s gloved hand, and together we navigated the dark entryway of our church building and pushed open the heavy main door. Normally the main entrance is well lit inside and out, and a greeter opens the heavy door as people enter, but on this night the door was untended.
The sun had set two hours ago, and heavy rain deepened the darkness outside. We left the brightly lit, warm, and safe fellowship hall to walk around the church parking lot and view the stations of our annual live nativity. Cardboard covered the fellowship hall windows, and the lights of the main entrance were switched off so that visitors weren’t distracted by the activity inside or stray lights when doors open and shut.
We stood on the wet sidewalk, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the darkness and watched the “traffic shepherd” instruct the visitors to dim or douse their car lights and steer their vehicles through the parking lot on a path laid out by rope lights and candles in emptied grape juice bottles.
The first scene was of sheep and their shepherds, who were gathered around a fire, pointing toward the stable.
When no cars were coming, we crossed the tiny stream of lights and splashed through the rivulets of rain to stand near the shepherds. One sheep bleated an alto baaa and a sheep from the as-yet unseen manger scene responded with a bass baaa.
We hurried across the parking lot, back toward the main station of the live nativity, but we had to wait near pine trees while cars parked, paused, and pondered the manger scene. Parking lights from the cars reflected in the rain-splashed blacktop of the parking lot.
We waited for a lull in traffic near an evergreen and were showered by coat-soaking raindrops falling from the tree, until we could safely walk in front of the manger.
We paused briefly at the nativity scene–the rain was still falling–but long enough to smell wet wool, hear the donkey pull on his tether, and see the baby resting in a feed trough.
A baby who was born one inky night to be the light of us all.
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. John 8:12 NIV
I led my grandson back into the chatter and bright lights and steaming soup of the fellowship hall. I wonder what will he remember years from now? What part of the Nativity story will resonate with his five-year-old heart?
I went outside again later with my camera tucked under my coat because the live nativity, for me this year, was about light:
Light that comes into darkness, the darkness of our hearts, souls, and minds,
Light that creates beautiful reflections when shining on the seemingly insignificant events in history (and their modern-day recreations), events such as a baby being born, gifts being offered, and the baaing of shepherds’ flocks. The sheep calling to sheep was really deep calling to deep, another kind of reflection.
The live nativity reminded me that even tiny lights produce significant reflections.
We always invite the viewers of the live nativity to park their cars and come inside, to have a bowl of soup, or to wear a costume and be a part of the nativity recreation.
We invite them to come in from the dark and cold, to come in to the light and fellowship, but few do. (Eyes accustomed to darkness should find it easy to enter the church building.) I hope you have seen the light shining through cracks in opened doors this Christmas season. I hope you have seen God’s light reflecting into a dark world. I hope you have left the “dark and stormy night” to bask in the light.
He is calling you . . . and me. Let’s come in from the inky, dripping night, leave our sodden shoes at the door, and celebrate the light this Christmas. Let’s go inside where it’s bright and warm and savor a bowl of hot soup.
that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9
My prayer for us all this Christmas day:
May we recognize Jesus as the Light of the World.
May we let His light illuminate our everyday lives.
May we reflect that light in a dark world.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2 NIV
* * * * *
all the good photos are by Barb Briggs
Xs and Os
Will they like it? Will it be enough? I wished I had more to give, and I held my breath, as I watched my family open gifts. Unforseen circumstances had eaten into the Christmas budget that year. We had a Charlie Brown type tree and had given a very few, hand-made presents that year. Would my family know how much I loved them?
Have you felt that way, too, that your gifts to your family, much less to God, were inadequate? Do you think you have next to nothing to give to God? No skills in singing or playing an instrument, no ability to speak in front of a crowd, no advanced education or intellectual talent, no fortune. We exchange gifts at Christmas, remembering the gifts given to the Christ child, but do you share the sentiments of the fictional drummer boy in the Christmas carol, “Little Drummer Boy?”
I have no gift to bring . . .
That’s fit to give the King . . .
But perhaps we all have something to give, after all, something that’s more important that we realize. Let me tell you about a gift that doesn’t have to be wrapped, won’t put a dent in your budget, and will certainly be remembered.
My church was blessed with a lovely woman named Wilma, who extended hugs and kisses to all during a time of greeting before worship service began. No one questioned the motivation of her “holy kisses,” one of the benefits of being a great-grandmother. When walking around the church foyer became difficult, she “held court” on a bench near the door to the fellowship hall, and we bent down to receive our hugs and kisses.
I miss Wilma. As her obituary noted, “she went home to be with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” at the age of ninety-five three years ago. Her son told me that she hugged and kissed everyone and always told them she loved them.
We all felt loved by Wilma and through her affection gained an inkling of how God must feel about us.
I’ve been thinking again of the park bench that fellow blogger Christine Laennec (from Scotland) wrote about recently.
Some time ago, I took a photo of a plaque on a park bench in Glasgow. It said simply, “Express Love Clearly”. . . I was struck by how un-Scottish the sentiment seemed to be – the Scots are a reserved people, generally speaking. And I felt strongly that this is the most important thing: to express love clearly.
Wilma expressed her love clearly.
Another woman, eighty-three-year-old Elizabeth, is known as the “Hug Lady” of Ft. Hood (an Army base in Texas). She hugged every soldier as they left the base.
She is the last person they see before they are deployed to the battlefield, and hers are the first arms that embrace them when they return. Laird is there to hug each one of them, unfailingly, every single time.
Elizabeth is now on the receiving end of many hugs. She is battling breast cancer, and many of the soldiers she embraced have visited her in the hospital.
There is another example of someone generous with hugs and kisses: our Heavenly Father. In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus described how the father was filled with compassion and how he demonstrated it.
And he [the son] arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. Luke 15:20 NIV
I understand expressions of physical affection may make some people uncomfortable (giving or receiving) and may not be suitable for all people. Shaking hands or a giving a pat on the shoulder might be more appropriate. Our pastor, acknowledging this reality, ends his messages on Sunday morning with “If you’re a hugger, hug. If you’re a shaker, shake.”
I grew up with the kind of reserve that Christine described as being typical of the Scottish. (Yes, there are many Scots in my family tree.)
But I’m sensing God working on my heart to be a little more like the Heavenly Father in the parable, and I’m thinking about the gift of affection that Wilma and Elizabeth so freely gave. With these wonderful examples, my reserved Scottish heart is learning to express love more clearly. So maybe I’ll “wrap” up some Xs and Os as Christmas presents this year. That’s a gift I think God will be pleased with, too.
* * * * *
photo of park bench and tulips by Barb Briggs
photo of park bench in snow by Rachel Nieuwsma
We had an near-embarrassing amount of food for twenty-three people at our Thanksgiving meal :
- 1 1/2 turkey
- mashed potatoes and gravy
- 3 dozen rolls and homemade jams
- squash soup
- corn casserole
- sweet potatoes
- green bean casserole
- baked beans
- cottage cheese
- cranberry sauce
- fruit salad
- freezer coleslaw
- 4 pumpkin pies
- chocolate cake
- sandwich cookies cheesecake
- apple crisp
My husband’s family traditionally encourages the youngest to offer the prayer before the meal at our large gatherings, and so our five-year-old grandson prompted us to hold hands, and then he led us in a version of the prayer that many learned as children:
God is great. God is good, and we thank Him for our food.
Putting the leftovers away in the refrigerator was like solving a 3-D puzzle. I balanced the pumpkin pie on the leftover turkey container. Our spatial relationship thinking was challenged as we sought the right size containers for potatoes and gravy. Cars became make-shift refrigerators for casseroles that wouldn’t fit in the kitchen refrigerator.
We feasted at our Thanksgiving meal, and such abundance is a metaphor for the spiritual feast God has set before us. Our cup isn’t just full; it overflows (Psalm 23). Whether we go through seasons of ease and physical abundance or times of grief and trial, God’s character has not changed. He is still a good, kind, and loving Father.
For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we really are God’s children. Romans 8:16 TLB
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1 NIV
God speaks to us in the language of love, for He is love (1 John 4:8). Christine Laennec, a fellow blogger, writes of a plaque on a park bench in Glasgow that reads “Express Love Clearly.” Our heavenly Father speaks love to us clearly, in ways that we will understand.
For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Luke 6:45 NIV
As a writer I especially appreciate the imagery of a written banner over the guest of honor at a banquet.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his banner over me was love. SoS 2:4 RSV
* * * * *
How then do we respond to the feast of food, a feast of love?
We thank God for our physical blessings, yes, but health comes and goes. Our loved ones may not be with us next November. No job is guaranteed. No house is indestructible. No car is unbreakable. No peace in this world is permanent.
We thank God for the imperishable, incorruptible, and immutable. God’s character doesn’t change.
God is great. God is good, and we thank Him . . .
The special variety of God’s language that we speak (which is derived from His original Love Language) is giving thanks. We recognize who God is, and we are grateful.
Thanksgiving is our dialect. Ephesians 5:4 MSG
* * * * *
God is great and God is good.
And we thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed.
Thank you, Lord, for our daily bread.
God is great and God is good,
And we thank him for our food.
Amen, which means “so be it.”
Totaled or Lessons from a 91 Buick
How do you determine the value of a car? I checked websites and was prompted to answer questions like these:
- How old is the vehicle?
- Who is the manufacturer?
- What model?
- What engine?
- How many miles?
- What condition is it in? and even
- What color?
I wanted to calculate the monetary value of our old Buick, the car my dad saved up to buy many years ago and later gifted to us, the car my son drove to school and work, the car that was in an accident a few weeks ago.
The insurance company has calculated the car’s value and estimated the cost to repair. Just by looking, without careful computation of the old Buick’s worth, we all reached the same conclusion: it’s totaled. The cost to repair exceeds the value of the vehicle. The old Buick will be towed to a salvage yard, where its only worth is now is in the sale of salvageable parts or as scrap metal.
What is the value of an old car? Compared to the safety of my son and his passenger–not much. When I first got the call about the accident, I didn’t care about the condition of the vehicle. I wanted to know that the people in the car were all right.
Look at the birds of the air; . . . Are you not much more valuable than they? Matthew 6:26 NIV
* * * * *
How do you determine the value of a person? If we examine ourselves, do we see missing headlights, rusted fenders, and cracked windshields? Are there too many miles on the odometer?
Whether we are damaged from accidents or the effects of aging in the elements, we may feel we’re only fit for the junkyard. We may think we’re totaled.
But when Jesus looks at us, He sees us at our showroom best. He sees what we could be–what we were meant to be from the beginning. We are a priceless car, one so valuable that it is worth any amount to restore. Our cost to repair never exceeds our value.
Restore us, O God;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved. Psalm 80:3 NIV
We are worth the hours and years and even a lifetime of work required to restore us. We are worth all the effort and pain poured out to save us from the junkyard.
Jesus’ love is what makes us valuable.
Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost. Luke 19:9,10 MSG
And someday, when the final repair is done and the last bit of chrome is polished, we’ll be ready for the wedding feast!
Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb! Revelation 19:9 NIV
This Crazy Life
Let’s pretend for a moment that the mailman pulled into my drive a few weeks ago, knocked on my door, and handed me a “Special Delivery” box. Imagine that this was no ordinary parcel–it contained snapshots of the events of my near future. I might have opened it and seen pictures of the hard and painful events in my life and in the lives of my extended family, and I would have been tempted to reject it.
Mr. Mailman? Would you come back, please, and take this box away? It’s too hard. It doesn’t make sense.
I might have said, “No, thank you.”
“No” to the traffic accident,
“No” to the pile of time-consuming paperwork,
“No” to two scheduled ear surgeries,
“No” to the stomach “bug” that set up camp in my house,
and “No” to the respiratory virus on its coattails,
“No” to the sudden trip to the hospital with appendicitis,
“No” to the annoying loss of internet service,
“No” to the vexing mechanical issues,
“No” to the shared heartaches and the sudden tears.
I would have said “no” to the painful, the scary, and the just-plain irritating parts of life.
But I’m glad God is God, and I am not,
because if I hadn’t continued to unpack the special delivery box, I wouldn’t have discovered the box seemed to be bottomless, like the widow’s jar of olive oil. Every snapshot of God’s grace would have another one beneath it. The more I looked, the more I found.
I would have missed out on the satisfying “Yes, thank you” to the unending examples of God’s loving kindness.
“Yes” to the sunshine and shadow of my life,
“Yes” to the answered prayers for my family,
“Yes” to the completed harvest,
“Yes” to the marvelous skills of medical professionals,
“Yes” to the opportunities to reflect,
“Yes” to glories underfoot and overhead,
“Yes” to my surprising, unbelievable, crazy life.
I will say “Yes” to God and to the whole bittersweet box of my future. I’m glad I don’t know what my future holds.
Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. Matthew 6:34 MSG
You who serve God, praise God!
Just to speak his name is praise!
Just to remember God is a blessing—
now and tomorrow and always.
From east to west, from dawn to dusk,
keep lifting all your praises to God!
Psalm 113:1-3 MSG
Thanks to Kris for inspiring the theme and title.
The Styx, the Iowa, and the Jordan
A gentle reminder:
In Greek mythology the River Styx formed the boundary between the world of the living and the dead. The ferryman, Charon, would transport the deceased across the river, but only if they had a coin for the fare.
* * * * *
When we planned the schedule for our church’s women’s retreat, we set apart the hour before lunch on Sunday as time to spend alone. Some found a quiet place outside to pray, read, or reflect on the morning’s message.
Some women left the green lawn surrounding the lodge, chapel, and cabins to hike the walking trails. I slung my camera around my neck and followed a path that cut down the western face of a ravine, leading to the Iowa River.
The trail is too narrow for a vehicle, but wide enough for two to walk side by side. Fallen leaves carpeted the path, hiding stones. I stumbled on rocks occasionally, but if I had left the trail, I would surely have tripped on gnarled tree roots.
The path snaked farther downhill, in and out of shadow, in and out of light.
The breeze that had rattled dried foliage at the beginning of the trail was gone. I heard only the crunch of fallen leaves under my boots.
Large red “X”s plainly marked trees that were a danger and would need to be removed.
I stopped for a moment on the trail and remembered to look above me at the clear, azure sky and the brilliant, leafy canopy overhead.
I realized this path is like my life:
- wide enough to walk with the Lord, if I choose
Now you’ve got my feet on the life path, all radiant from the shining of your face. Ever since you took my hand, I’m on the right way. Psalm 16:11 MSG
- there are obstacles I need to watch for
Train me, God, to walk straight; then I’ll follow your true path. Psalm 86:11 MSG
- some days, some seasons will be dark, some filled with light
- there are dangers to be identified and removed
So—join the company of good men and women, keep your feet on the tried-and-true paths. Proverbs 2:20 MSG
- the deeper into the valley I go, the less I hear and see of outside distractions
- others have walked this way before me
- when I take time to stop and look up, I am refreshed by the beauty overhead and moved to worship
* * * * *
As I continued down the trail, I began to glimpse streaks of blue river between gray tree trunks. Golden leaves on lower canopy trees pointed the way. I felt compelled to hurry downhill to the river at the trail’s end, felt drawn to explore the “undiscovered country” on the other side.
I ached for that land for which I was made, for the final Home. I sympathize with Paul’s dilemma.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me . . . I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Philippians 1:21-24
I heard the distant peal of bells, perhaps from a nearby church. It was noon, time to return to the lodge for our final meal of the retreat, time to turn from the “desire to depart and be with Christ,” time to return to the “fruitful labor” of our ordinary, everyday, beautiful lives.
I turned around and trudged up the hill to be welcomed by the warmth of the lodge and into the chatter in the dining room.
Someday I will return to the end of the trail, to the river Jordan that borders the eternal Promised Land. The bells will ring again, and the ferryman will come to port me to the other side.
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. John 5:24 NIV
I won’t need to take a coin to pay Charon to ferry me to the other side of the Styx. My way is already paid.
I will cross the river–from life, through death, and to life everlasting.
Paying in blood, you bought men and women,
Bought them back from all over the earth,
Bought them back for God. Rev. 5:9 MSG
. . . An open casket was centered against the wall. We had come to see him one last time, to “pay our respects,” to say good-bye.
As the time for the small, family-only burial service neared, everyone left the viewing room and gathered in the main entry area, discussing directions to the cemetery. I stepped back in and looked at my nephew’s still face a final time.
Oh, Nathan, Nathan, what have you done? . . . read more
* * * * * *
Today solideogloriasisterhood.com is sharing my post about our extended family’s experience with suicide.
We hope and pray that God redeems our pain, and that those who need help and comfort will find it.
* * * * * *
bleeding heart photo credit: Heather Johnson of truelifewithgod.com
Heather has also written many tender and insightful posts on mental illness like this one.
The Stuff of Miracles
I am grateful for small things today:
- diminutive crab apples, food for hungry birds
- fine curlicues on a yucca plant
- delicate veins of a husk cherry
- seed head of a stunted purple coneflower
- gossamer “wings” of milkweed seed.
The sun sets so early now that I didn’t think I’d have time for a walk outside before the light failed, but I decided a short stroll was better than none.
If I hadn’t gone, I might not have discovered the silky filaments of the milkweed.
If I’d believed the lie that a small amount of time was worthless, I would have missed a comical robin hopping branches, gobbling crab apples.
I wouldn’t have seen the setting sun ignite a translucent oak leaf.
The wooly bear caterpillar would have inched away unobserved, miniature pumpkins would have remained hidden under frost-withered leaves, and the year’s last violet might have been mowed instead of celebrated.
If I hadn’t I hadn’t taken advantage of the few minutes available, I might have missed these small gifts of grace and lost the opportunity to give thanks.
And I would have missed the miracle of joy that came with a grateful heart.
Small things, the stuff of miracles . . . do you remember this story?
a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish John 6:9
Jesus . . . took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. John 6:11
Gratitude peels away the veil of the mundane, whether it’s fishes or flowers,
and reveals the miraculous. Gratitude opens a way to experience a joy that satisfies. The people in the crowd were seated (they stopped); they heard or watched Jesus give thanks (gratitude); and they ate as much as they wanted (joy and contentment).
For small things, the stuff of miracles, I’m grateful.
Revisiting a post from 2013