A Library Box of Blessings

“God works all things together for good.”

Yes he does.

Here is the latest example in my life. Over the past year I have heard a little bit about Debbie Macomber. I learned that she is a writer. And a Christian. And a friend of World Vision.

But that was about the end of it. Usually I feel a bit inferior when learning someone is a published author, since a writer is what I claim to be, though I have only been published once, a short meditation, through The Upper Room, and all my other work has been self-published. Real authors, I assume, will be kind, but inwardly will look down upon these meager accomplishments.

Then at World Vision’s annual conference, I met Adele, Debbie Macomber’s daughter. We were placed randomly (really?) in a small group together and I learned more about Debbie’s widely read novels. Adele mentioned that Debbie’s novels are especially loved by women in the Middle East. Both Debbie and her daughter are huge supporters of World Vision, and so are my husband and I. Adele expressed wonder and delight at the way God was using her mother’s work in the world. I became curious.

I had never picked up, or even looked up, the work of Debbie Macomber.

So it was startling to find one of her books staring back at me in a roadside library box less than two weeks later. It was actually my first time depositing books I had read in this take-one-if-you-want-one box. Realizing it was surely no accident, I brought home this perfect condition paperback by Debbie Macomber.

Then I read it. Though romance novels are not my usual reading fare, I was drawn into the story. Debbie has written over a hundred books, many in series, and the book I picked up is Silver Linings, part of the Cedar Cove series, which has become a Hallmark Channel television series. I found myself wondering why Middle Eastern women would enjoy these books.

I was about halfway through the book when a package arrived in the mail for me. Our World Vision representative, Robin Folkerts, had send me a birthday gift. It was a “Blessings Box,” a lovely collection of items put together by none other than Debbie Macomber.

fullsizeoutput_5753The Blessings Box contains a lovely contemplative journal, written by Debbie, along with some incidental items like a candle, jam, tea bags, recipes, a pen, stickers and a tote bag. A precious box of things to make you joyful, which is no coincidence, since Debbie’s word of the year is JOY.   I would be buying these same boxes for many of my friends if they were still available, but sadly the last one has been sold.

I finished the book and learned how Macomber makes her books so popular. She portrays characters who have honest feelings, who get angry, who forgive, who love deeply, who find loyalty and honor and humor and happiness. The book I read has a thread involving military deployment in Iraq, and relationships with Muslims there. I can see now why the women of the Middle East find Macomber’s books captivating.

Anyway, I love the way God weaves our experiences together for maximum impact. It turns out that Debbie Macomber donates $5 from each Blessings Box to World Vision Education efforts. And she is a spokesperson for World Vision’s Knit for Kids program.

I am awestruck by how God uses her talents to bless the world.

I wonder what he will show me next.

Was That Really Necessary?

jericho-tell-es-sultan-neolithic-tower-from-east-tb091504848jordan-river-aerial-from-west-tb010703748Reading Joshua 4  and 5 today, I wonder, like many Christians, at the utter destruction commanded by God when Joshua entered Jericho. Was this really necessary?

First, is it right for us to question the morality of ancient cultures in light of our own ethos? After all, our wars and genocides and abortion statistics might seem a bit inconsistent with our condemnation of the past. And though we condemn these current evils, are we taking the stand that will change them? It’s harder than we like to admit.

Second, is there a greater lesson here? Should we look beyond our own reaction to the “victory through destruction” actions? God has a way of speaking truth through historical parables. There is a lesson here about mercy, God’s mercy toward Rahab and her entire family. There is a lesson here about obedience on the part of the leader, Joshua. There is a lesson here about obedience of the people toward their godly leader. There is a lesson here about peace.

Let’s take those lessons one by one.

Mercy: If God had not believed Jericho needed to be destroyed, I think he would not have ordered it.

And notice how he skillfully spared both the advance spies and Rahab the harlot. God doesn’t really have to justify to us why the rest of the people had to be destroyed. Shouldn’t we trust him the way Abraham did when asked to sacrifice his own son? The way Peter did when asked to walk on water? The way the disciples did when he took one lunch to feed 5000? The way the priests did when stepping into the Jordan River at flood stage? So it may not make sense to us, but we aren’t God, so that’s not too surprising. And God more often than not was known to spare people deserving of death.

Obedience: These chapters are emphasizing obedience.

I went through and highlighted all the places where “The Lord said…” and then I highlighted “So Joshua did….” Then I noticed the next thing was “The people did…” Joshua had watched Moses as he listened and obeyed God for over 40 years. Joshua had seen how Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. Was that fair? God had his ways, and Joshua learned it was best to trust and obey. He didn’t waver or parse God’s commands. He just did it the best way he knew.

Trusting your godly leaders: Whatever Joshua says, goes.

The people, at this point in the story, are paying attention to Joshua.  Later, when they decide to second-guess him, trouble ensues. It is all right to question your leaders if they are not listening to God. If they are, you will know it, not by what they tell you to do, but by how they are seeking God’s direction.

Peace: God wants us to see that when there is evil in our own heart, it is best to completely destroy it if we want peace.

If we think, “Oh the poor things, let’s let them live, but just keep them under control,” we think more highly of our ability than we ought. We figure we can just keep an eye on them and they won’t give us any trouble. I don’t know about you, but sin keeps rearing its tempting head when I let it.

The bottom line is we get into trouble when we think we know better than God.

Alternatively, when people follow the Lord’s commands, amazing things happen. I agree it is very hard and we tend to weigh these actions against our own version of godliness, but in the end, it may be to our own detriment and the slowing of God’s abundant blessings. Many things are difficult to overcome, but if God commands us, he will be with us.

Write it Now.

“Maybe I should write a book about my experiences in Mexico,” Kaye said with a twinkle in her eye.

We sat together at lunch on a sparkling summer day at Salty’s in Federal Way, Washington with the deep blue Puget Sound behind us. Kaye Kvam and I were reconnecting after more than thirty years, catching up on our children, families, interests, and livelihoods. Kaye had graduated from Stanford’s PA program in 1978 and then worked for thirty-five years as a Physician’s Assistant.

Her first job was in a rural Spanish-speaking clinic in Healdsburg, California, where her clients were vineyard migrant workers. She did a post-grad ER residency at the LA County USC Medical Center and stayed on to become the clinical director there. She worked over twenty years, until her recent retirement, in family practice in Washington State.

We laughed remembering hilarious moments from our college days, when we shared a small apartment in Davis, California. Her smile and laughter were two of the most delightful things about this old friend.

We had lost touch in the 1980s when, busy with children, husbands, and careers, we misplaced addresses and years went by.

Late in 2013, I found her while searching Facebook. It was only then I learned of her medical diagnosis: Kaye has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

At lunch last summer, after telling her about my writing – self-published Bible Studies, devotionals, and the non-fiction book I was researching at the time – she casually mentioned she had always wanted to write her own book. I smiled and encouraged her, but really gave the idea very little thought at the time.

We finished a delicious meal and her husband Tom snapped a photo of the two of us. Kaye leaned on the railing and I put my arm around her. As we said goodbye in the parking lot, I tried to tell her how much I admired her attitude in her illness. She answered, “My life has been so full of blessings; this is just the biggest, juiciest blessing of them all.”

I could barely back my car out, my vision blurred by tears.

The next day I flew home to Pittsburgh. A long uninterrupted transcontinental flight is a wonderful place to think. For some reason, life seems clearer and plans come together for me at 30,000 feet. During that flight it occurred to me that I might assist Kaye in writing her book. I even discussed it with the stranger sitting beside me on the plane. The idea took on an unexpected moral imperative and before landing in Pittsburgh I resolved to ask her if we could do this together.

At home, I penned a long letter, thanking her for lunch and our satisfying visit. I offered to write her story or help her write it. I stressed this was a serious offer. I have other writing projects in progress, but I wanted to assure her that this would be of high priority with me. I begged her to consider it and then I waited.

Several weeks went by and finally she agreed. She had given it much thought, consulted her family, and decided that if it could help or inspire someone, it would be worth it.

Kaye was already using a walker and wore a neck brace to hold her head up. I knew almost nothing about ALS beyond the fact that it can move fast to snatch life from the most vivacious among us. I had poured ice water on my head the year before in the social media phenomenon known as the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”   Lots of money was raised during that campaign, but there is still no cure.

It took the doctors quite a while to accurately diagnose the cause of her trunk weakness in August, 2013. Since that time, her ALS has progressed slowly, but as a medical professional she knows what is in store.

Kaye offered to dig out her dusty journals from her time in Mexico as a volunteer at a small clinic in the mountains. I had only known her after her return to UC Davis, when if anyone asked about her studies, she always answered with a smile: “I’m writing my own major.”

We set a time for a phone chat. I figured she could just tell me her stories and I could type them out on my laptop while listening. I would ask questions as we went along. We could edit and add literary flourishes later. So we began.

The program, “Project Piaxtla,” utilized interested college students and others to offer rudimentary medical treatments to poor communities in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. David Werner, a Stanford professor, had started the project in the 1960s. Kaye’s months in Mexico in 1974 had crystallized her desire to work in medicine as a way to help people in need. It had been a big step for a young woman not yet out of college to take the leap of faith and travel to the mountains of Mexico like she did.

At first, only the bare bones of her story came out. I asked lots of questions Kaye couldn’t answer. She couldn’t remember exactly what steps she had taken to prepare for this adventure. She struggled to remember names and places. She recounted only the stories documented in her humorous journal entries and letters home. But as days and weeks went by, Kaye was able to recall with great detail the days of preparation, her amazing travel stories, and her feelings along the way.

“I sometimes have to pinch myself awake from what seems like a vivid dream as I relive those exciting days,” she told me.

Soon Kaye was spending time each day writing out rich stories with her signature sense of humor. Her dear lifelong friend Nancy Crawford typed them out. We now exchange drafts by email and discuss changes by phone.

Kaye maintains a transcendent attitude toward her illness. I cannot imagine facing the inevitable prognosis with the unflinching grace she demonstrates daily. She will soon need a feeding tube, since her throat is constricting making it impossible to eat. Her vocal chords are atrophying so our phone conversations may soon be cut short. While her ability to get out and do other things has waned, her focus on this book has intensified in the few months we have been writing.

Working on these memoirs has given Kaye a sense of purpose despite her increasing physical limitations. She can lose herself in memories and share them with me and her friends and family as she recalls her experiences. If her goal in writing had been fame and fortune, she probably would have turned me down. But as a person whose whole life has been focused on helping others, Kaye finds real satisfaction in writing something that may sustain or inspire others. “Even if it is only for my son, I am glad to be writing this down,” she says.

As for me, it is a true honor and a pleasure to simply assist Kaye in this process. We are renewing and deepening our friendship. I am inspired by the faith and grace this wonderful woman displays. And together we are adding purpose to her days and giving hope to some yet unknown readers, perhaps inspiring them to live more fully in the present, to share what they can with the poor, or to prepare for a career in medicine. Knowing how to help a person with a terminal illness may be as simple as helping put memories on paper. Kaye’s story will outlive her struggle. Write it while you can.

 

Conversation With A 3-Year-Old

I had a delightful conversation with a three year old boy the other day.  We were interested in one another’s T-shirts.  My shirt says “puptown funk” and has a cute picture of a dog dressed up like Bruno Mars.  His mom told me the boy kinda wanted to sing Uptown Funk for me.  Then he got shy, at least about singing and dancing, but we started talking about his T-shirt.  It said, in big block letters, “Education is important, but skiing is importanter.”  I took that to mean he loved to ski, so I inquired.  Turns out he loves to ski, especially at Squaw Valley, where his mom has a condo.  We talked about the “magic carpet” that he uses at ski school to get up the hill.  I told him my kids learned to ski before magic carpets were available, instead needing to use the chairlift.  This little boy, Hap, knew all about chairlifts, too.

Then he asked me about my kids.  “Your kids are grown up?”  “Why?”

I said, “I don’t know!!! I tried to keep them little, I really did. But they grew up anyway.”

Why do they grow up?  That’s like asking why do trees grow tall?  Why does the sun rise in the east and set in the west?  Everything, even the natural order of things, is up for question when you are only three.

Mother’s Day was just a few days away, it made me think about the passage of time and the growing up of children.

Did I receive adorable Mother’s Day cards from my three children when they were small?  I certainly did.  Did I appreciate them? Enough?

Children love their mothers.  Then they grow up. Their lives become important and their post-college activities rarely require the involvement of mom.  I wouldn’t want them to jump in my lap now and give me a hand-colored card detailing why they love me… or would I?

The love between mothers and children is often assymetrical.  Either we love them too much or we love them too little.  Likewise, they might love us unconditionally or they might find us old-fashioned and out of touch.

Why did they have to grow up?  Because I needed to grow up as well.  My sense of family has grown since they left home.  I am thankful that each one has meaningful work and supportive friends.  I am more able now to see them for the unique persons they are.

I am grateful that I am a mother to three amazing young adults.  Their lives are their own, but they carry the imprint of our parenting, good or bad.  I loved those golden years when they were small, and I love these golden years as well.  But… why DID they have to grow up?IMG_8202

Leave Politics Behind: Find Some Good News in the World

In America, we are all football fans when the Super Bowl is days away. All are baseball fans during the World Series and everyone loves college basketball during the NCAAs.   Likewise, every four years, everyone gets political.

Cable news coverage of the 2016 Presidential campaign has already reached nauseating proportions. I am struck by the exclusive focus on our political follies, with endless repetition of the ‘sound-bite of the day’ along with excessive commentary from “experts.” Only in America can we be so self-absorbed as to neglect news from any other country or any subject that does not impact, in someone’s opinion, the Race to the Election.

So to avoid the ever-increasing volume on the so-called news channels, I often switch back to the local news coverage, which, in New Orleans, is largely about local crime. Yet this hyper-focus on crime wears thin all too soon as well. Bad news is everywhere.

Social media is not free from political excess. In fact many people who rarely post narrative opinions are suddenly going on record to share their thoughts on who should or should not be elected, supported, rejected, or what is going to happen to our country if so-and-so is elected.   If not specific about political support, people begin to rail against the expression of political opinion, threatening to un-friend or block those whose views are disagreeable.   It is amazing how tolerant we seem to be for pet videos and funny memes, but when things turn political, we get very sensitive.

So my husband and I are on en route to San Diego for the annual World Vision Conference. This high-powered program will occupy our time and thoughts for the next two days, leaving little or no time for TV news, good or bad.

Instead, we will learn of amazing things World Vision is doing around the world to help people. This highly effective organization operates in nearly one hundred countries, serving people of many different religions and political persuasions. They receive love, water, food, clothing, financial and vocational training, education, and health care. Children are freed from trafficking. Quality of life is improved in their communities. Nearly half a million refugees have received water and sanitation facilities through World Vision.

The people we will meet and dine with are extended family. We traveled to Africa with some of them. We will celebrate the conclusion of a five-year campaign in which 500 million dollars were raised and spent on the global poor.

Selfless generosity is the hallmark of each one who attends. There is joy and gratitude at this conference. There is no worry, no competition, no division, no rudeness or name-calling, no fear. The reports will be about meeting goals early, about renewing efforts to provide clean water access to every World Vision area by 2030. There will be someone from a far-off country, telling a story of hope and wholeness and the love they received from World Vision staff.

Rich Stearns will speak about the need to do as Jesus did, walking where others fear to tread, in efforts to share the love of God. We will cry, but not out of pain or frustration, rather in joy for the way God has blessed us to be a blessing to others. Our horizons will broaden as we gain God’s perspective and leave our national news behind.

Every Last One Conference: Here we come!

Finding Good News in the World

Where is God?

I believe he is with us, all around us.  With us in spirit every hour of every day.  He is teaching, inspiring, guiding whether we are seated in a quiet sanctuary or walking along a crowded sidewalk or watching secular movies or reading novels.  His beauty, love and grace abound in our natural surroundings and he dwells in the warmth of human hearts.

Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Grounded, speaks of a spiritual revolution in which we recognize God in the nitty gritty of daily life and elevate common experience to sacred revelation.  Some are uncomfortable with this idea, yet didn’t Jesus go by ‘Emmanuel: God with us?’  Are we to settle for the idea that God is only ‘with us’ in church?

Movies tell stories.  Some movies tell clear stories of redemption even when they probably didn’t intend to. I watched one such movie the other night.

Burnt is a cliche-laden, R-rated, not-foodie-enough story about a talented chef.  That said, Bradley Cooper is a pleasure to watch on screen.  His character has serious problems.  He is rude, extremely arrogant, and passionate about the kitchen. He admits past failures, like drug addiction, squandering resources, and treating his friends badly.  He is trying to pull himself back up.  But he owes a large debt — a really large amount to some unsavory characters who keep showing up to collect.  He knows he has great talent, and is determined to regain his dignity by trying harder for culinary perfection, using and abusing many people in his pursuit of self-redemption. Fortunately for Cooper’s character, his friends want to help.  As it turns out, he only realizes this circle of friends when one of them pays his debt for him.

Isn’t this the gospel story?  We get ourselves into deep trouble. We hit bottom and all looks dismal.  We cannot see the love of God or the love of our family and friends.  And then we notice someone has paid our debt.  When that debt is lifted, we experience acceptance instead of guilt.  Cooper’s character could release his quest for perfection and know he could thrive within the circle of friends he was privileged to be part of.

By his death we are saved.  By his wounds we are healed.  Christ died to pay our debt to sin.

Another recent movie, The Intern, demonstrates how servant leadership works.  The story here involves a retired man taking a volunteer internship at a young woman’s startup company.  His example of humble compassion and service was noticeably different from the other employees.  He never sought credit for himself, always shared his thoughts when asked for, and was never defensive about his old-school ways.  He did not worry about fitting in, rather looked for ways to help those around him all the time. Somehow that reminds me of Jesus.When service to others is our motivation, we can make a real difference in their lives.

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  Mark 9:35

The photo above shows my daughter helping remove dried maize from corncobs with the women of a Swaziland village. She was there in 2009 on a short mission trip.  She helped in whatever way she could. She made a difference in their daily chores by simply sharing the work.  The experience made a big difference in her life, too.  She continues to serve young people in her community.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this post is we can find God’s truth in the movies and elsewhere in the world if we just look for it. Maybe pointing out that kind of truth in the world will draw more people to consider God than just inviting them to church.  Let’s try it, shall we?

 

Christmas Carol Resolutions

Sometimes song lyrics take on new import when my mind is on something else.  This year, while singing Joy to the World  the Sunday after Christmas, I was also thinking about the new year coming.

In fact, I was thinking about resolutions and what, if any, resolve I had for the coming year.  Just at that moment the screen flashed the words of a familiar verse:

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.  He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.  

This seems like a good start for a New Year’s Resolution list.  And it is a personal list.  And it gets to things that matter. So I put it to use.

First, no more growing of sins.  I need to take a serious look at my sins, my weaknesses, my tendencies, and stop watering them as if they were treasured orchids.  No more growth.  I need to stop feeding my impatience, my anger, my thoughtless words.  If we stop allowing our weaknesses to grow, maybe they will shrivel up and die, making room for our better qualities to move in.  The garden of our hearts, my heart, will be healthier.

Second, no more growing of sorrows.  This includes regrets and shame. Because the past is over, revisiting hurts and difficult times only serves to re-infect us.  It is like the common winter cold that moves from one family member to another and then back again.  Not healthy.  I need to strengthen memories of joyful times, of things for which I am grateful.  I can stop the growth of sorrow if I put those hurtful and painful things out in the freezing cold.  Warm up, O heart, to the joy that Christ brings, and the joy he has already brought to my life.  Blessings outnumber sorrows every day.

Thorns infesting the ground.  We live in a thorny world.  Our home is in a very thistly landscape and these thistles pop up every spring, invading the flower beds, the garden, and generally every part of every view.  They often reach gargantuan proportions, outpacing even our nicest shrubs.  We learned a couple of years ago that placing PREEN on the beds in early spring, then mulching, keeps the thistles to a minimum.  No more let thorns infest the ground. It turned out that pulling them always seemed to bring more because the tap root was seldom removed and new shoots would simply form even if I pulled weeds all summer long.

Our world and its geopolitical issues are thorny.  Just like the thistles in my yard, they proliferate even when pulled one by one.  Jesus once talked about the tares and the wheat, saying it was better to leave them growing side by side, so as not to pull the good stuff out with the bad.  A point worth pondering this new year, both in our personal lives and in our global community.

Thorns can be sticky.  Once under the skin, they can be very hard to extract.  Paul talked about a thorn in the flesh, which was never removed even with much prayer.  Relative to New Year’s Resolutions, I resolve to not let the thorns in my life control my reactions.  I hope to let go of some of them, and let some of them be, focusing on the good fully-formed flowery blessings that grow alongside.

He comes to make his blessings flow.  For some reason, I wrote this on my crumpled paper:  He comes to make his mercies known.  Either way, I don’t want to stand in his way.  If God wants blessings to flow, I resolve to be a conduit.  I want his blessings to flow through me.  To hoard God’s generous blessings would make me an obstacle to his purpose. In the coming year, I hope to help blessings flow.  Make me more generous with my time, my resources, my smiles and mercy.

And this flow of God’s blessings goes far and wide, far as the curse is found.  That’s everywhere.  My resolution is to look for ways to share blessings beyond my own comfort zone, my family, my community, my nation.  Let me spread God’s love to the least, the most desperate, the most forgotten.  Even to share my blessings with those despised by the world.  God loves them, indeed all of us, so much that he stepped down into our thorny world and lived among us.

Resolutions that matter.  More than consistent recycling, losing weight, getting in shape, and cleaning the clutter, these Christmas Carol Resolutions could make a real difference in my life.

Dear Lord, I pray that your spirit will enable me to put these ideals into practice.  Let us together make your blessings flow.  Amen.