God of Sweet Surprises

God is surprising.
When he wanted to grow a family, a line that would be His people, he took his sweet time. He told Abraham about it, but didn’t do much for a long time. When the possibility of having children with Sarah seemed long gone, Sarah became pregnant. She laughed. No one was more surprised. When things seem especially dark and hopeless to us, God loves sweet surprises.
God has specialized in surprises for generations. Old Testament times were often full of violence and God’s people either turned away or grew hopeless. Yet, time after time he brought them through challenging situations. There were provisional surprises in the desert, like water from a rock and quail at dinnertime. Not to mention manna every morning. There were victorious surprises, like Joshua at Jericho. There was Naomi’s surprise when Ruth stumbled upon Boaz’s field and eventually married him. Naomi, surprised to find herself a grandmother, laughed when Ruth had a baby. When Hannah cried out to the Lord from the depths of her heart, God heard and surprised her with a baby,too. Her son became the great prophet, Samuel. I imagine she didn’t expect that.
When 400 years of silence caused generations of God’s people to wonder if he was still there, a star appeared. When the religious leaders were expecting a powerful prophet-king, God chose Mary and a baby was born King. Surprising? Unexpected?
Jesus surprised people all the time.  He shocked wedding guests at Cana with fine wine when they feared only water remained. Jesus surprised his disciples when a small sack lunch fed five thousand hungry listeners.  When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus had died, he tarried two extra days. But then the glorious surprise as Lazarus walked from the tomb.
It’s as if God is just out of sight, plotting a new way to turn the lights on and reveal the balloons and friends shouting, “Happy Birthday!” to the unsuspecting one.
Darkness overtakes us. All seems frightening and hopeless and we cannot see our hands in front of our faces.
My young friend, a girl in 7th grade, part of my small group of Bible study girls, had a tumor in her brain. The tumor was large and needed to be removed as soon as possible. Imagine her parents’ fear. Imagine her sister’s concern. Imagine her own confusion as to what God would do.
This family knows God. Abraham knew God. Joshua knew God. Mary knew God. And they all experienced God’s glorious surprise. When things seemed hopeless, God pulled out all the balloons. The tumor was benign and Josi is recovering.  God faithfully surprises.
If God were only predictable, readily explainable, He would not be God. Choosing to believe that God always has more surprises up his sleeve: that’s faith.
Thank you God for not doing things exactly the way we would do them. Thank you for saving your great power sometimes for a glorious surprise. Thank you that when our time on earth runs thin, you have yet another surprise waiting for us.

The MV Anna Jackman

This is a wonderful testimony to the ministry of the Anna Jackman in Alaska. Thank you Philip Beisswenger!

The Rooster Crows in Guatemala

After my first year of college, I worked for a summer in Southeast Alaska as a Presbyterian Volunteer in Mission with a group of other college-age students from across the U.S. It was 1979, and my first ever mission experience. We were sent to a variety of settings and remote villages throughout the Alaska panhandle, mostly to lead Vacation Bible Schools at Presbyterian churches. My assignment was to the towns of Wrangell and Skagway, plus the Rainbow Glacier Camp near Haines as a summer camp counselor.

I wasn’t a likely candidate for this VIM program. In my application I’d written that I wasn’t a church member, and furthermore that I was skeptical about Christianity. The truth was that I’d come away from mMV Anna Jackmany freshman year full of incoherent thoughts, a distorted sense of self-importance, and an impulse for questioning authority. By accepting me that summer, the Presbyterian Church extended…

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Pray Very Simply

Pray Very Simply

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant… This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” Matthew 6:7-9 (The Message)

If God is your friend, prayer is your conversation. You don’t repeat the same thing every time you call your best friend. You probably speak casually about news and things important to you and to your friend. You ask questions and listen for answers. You tell your friend about your hurt feelings, your concerns, even your needs or those of your family and friends.

Children learn simple bedtime and mealtime prayers by heart, but as we mature spiritually we learn to pray from the heart. As we gain confidence in the character of God and his genuine love for us we boldly bring everything to him in prayer.

How often do you recite the Lord’s Prayer while thinking of something else? Jesus did not teach his disciples this prayer so they would memorize it and repeat it thoughtlessly. Rather he included all the elements God wishes to see in our prayers: Praise, thanks, requests for needs, confession, recognition of our need for his guidance and deliverance. It is a simple example of a fresh prayer.

In the book Left to Tell, Immaculee Illibagiza, shares how she prayed boldly when in serious peril during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “Dear God, only You can save me. You promised to take care of me, God — well; I really need taking care of right now. There are devils and vultures at my back, Lord… please protect me.   Take the evil from the hearts of these men, and blind their hatred with your holy love.”   Now that is fresh, bold praying.

Can your prayer life use some freshening? What are some concerns you have not opened up to God? Can you find a place to be alone yet speak aloud to God – perhaps on a walk, or in the shower? You might also try writing your prayers in a journal, as if writing a letter to a friend. As your written prayers are answered, you can note that as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Lydia prayed regularly with others by the river, even before she heard the gospel. She may have prayed from the Psalms. How do you think her prayer life changed after she became a believer in the Lord?

O Lord, I call to you and you always hear. Let’s have a good conversation. Let me share all my joys and pains and fears with you. Show me your way, and help me live like that. Amen.

Psalm 5:1-2 “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God, for to you I pray.”   (NRSV)

Psalm 69:13 “But I pray to you, Lord,
in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
answer me with your sure salvation. “

Matthew 6:9-13  “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts,
 as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.””

(Immaculee Ilibagiza, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House Press) (1/16/06))


God’s Timing Beats Ours

I am working on a biography of a boat.  The boat, the Anna Jackman, was launched in Florida in March, 1958 and sailed to Juneau, Alaska where it served the Presbyterian churches of Southeast Alaska for 25 years.  I won’t go into those wonderful stories now.  You will have to wait til the book comes out.

But how is it that just in the past month I have made so many new connections?  I have been interested in this boat for several years.  I even took a 5 day trip on the 52 year old boat in 2012.  Research is fun. I have found people who rode the boat to camp. People who did mission trips as youths on the boat. People who were babies on this boat.

Here is the really cool thing.  I attended a writers conference last month.  BRMCWC is a really wonderful conference that I have attended before.  This year I invited a friend to join me.  She is working on her first book about difficult medical decisions and the positive outcomes that can be sought.  Because this friend bravely registered for a non-fiction practicum taught by Joseph Bentz, I signed up, too.  My book about the boat had been languishing for a couple of years.

Anyway, I was shocked to have a former Alaska resident in the class.  This guy knew that boats in Alaska are like family.   He encouraged me in my writing as did everyone else in the group.  What were the chances?

One day after our class, I had a meeting with an editor.  Though I did not know the editor’s specialty, since she had not been included in the program, I just told her that I was working on this boat biography. She took a brief look at the draft proposal and suggested I send it in when it’s finished.  Wow. Now I have to finish a proposal. That will get me moving.

On the way to lunch after the editor meeting, I met a woman also headed to lunch.  I was kind of excited about what had just happened, and I told her about it. She told me she was from Seattle and her mom had lived in Petersburg, Alaska for a time growing up.  She also said her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.  So this week I heard from Jeannette, who lived in Alaska and spent much time on the boat during her 8 years there.  Wow.  What are the chances?

I recently located a blog written by a guy who was an infant on this boat.  He responded to my email and said his father was the chaplain on board in 1959. He is going to contact me soon.  I also got in touch with a woman who did a mission trip on board in 1981.  She has more pictures and stories for me.

Suddenly my writing and research are coming together.  God must have known that I needed all these pieces to put together the book he had in mind.  God meant for me to meet Ron and Sondra and to get in touch with Dave, Jeannette, and Bill by email.

Excitement is building as to what God has in store for the next months as I work to finish and publish this book.

Thanks, God.

Music as a Doorway to Prayer

A beautiful addition to thoughts on music and the soul.

Living Contemplatively

Today’s post is by the late Ann Kulp

Music has called us to prayer through the ages: the shofar, psalm, pipes, harp, trumpet, the peal of bells, the carillon, and symphony. Some of us have been stilled and called through Tibetan bowls, whose sound lingers and leads us into the silence of waiting. There is the music of the gurgling brook, wind in the rustling trees, the chirping of cicadas and other natural sounds. There is the music of Native American flute, a jazz band, a Gregorian chant. It matters not what kind. Each is an echo of some sound heard eons ago, and perhaps remembered. At different times in our lives we may hear sounds that become moments of such recollection, drawing us more deeply into the attitude called prayer.

As I ponder the meaning of music for me, I have a sense of being touched deeply, as though…

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How Can Americans Understand the 748 Million People Without Clean Water?

The outhouse was a common feature on Midwestern farms when my father was a boy in the 1920s. His family farm had a hand pump down by the barn, about a hundred yards from the house. In the early 1930s they had well water piped into the house, but until 1952, they had no hot water or indoor toilets. Throughout my life, however, indoor plumbing and hot/cold running water are things I’ve taken for granted. I suspect there are very few Americans in 2015 who have no clean water for drinking or washing. As we have become accustomed to personal and private plumbing, we have lost an understanding of what life is like for the 748 million people worldwide without it.

The longest stretch of utility-related suffering I’ve had occurred in September of 2008 when Hurricane Ike traveled all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Pennsylvania, toppling a large tree in our yard, severing our power lines. Suddenly we lost all telephone, electricity AND internet. It took two weeks to regain all those utilities because we live on a hill with some challenging access issues and thousands of others had similar problems. It meant our kids had to get their homework done before dark. It meant driving to Starbucks to re-charge our cell phones and computers. It meant we could use the gas stove but not the microwave oven. Wow. How inconvenient.

I have never had to pump water except sometimes while camping. I have seldom been without access to clean safe water, and despite an occasional blocked toilet, our indoor plumbing has always been available. Americans sometimes wonder why other countries don’t just drill water wells for themselves. To us it seems like a simple thing to do. We might also ask why we are so advanced in education and health. We take it all for granted.

  • America is blessed with abundant water resources, large navigable rivers, lakes, temperate climate, and fertile land. We did nothing to inherit those blessings except to be born in America. Some areas of the world lack such natural resources.
  • America is blessed with a time-tested democracy in which our government strives for all people to thrive in freedom. Many other nations suffer corrupt dictatorships or tribal conflict or communist ideologies that hinder development.
  • And America is blessed with economic wealth. Across the globe, nearly half of all people live on less than $2 a day. Not only do they lack money to drill a well, but they lack knowledge as to where and how to drill, and in many cases they don’t even know it’s the dirty water that is killing them. How could they know?

So how can we relate? Some people judge the poor as intellectually inferior. “Too bad for them.” Some cynically believe that aid is futile because of the political challenges. “It all ends up in the hands of the bad guys.” Some are simply blind to the needs of others, inwardly focused, and self-absorbed.

My eyes were opened a bit on a recent Vision Trip with World Vision when we visited villages in Ethiopia where the only water source was a dirty stream an hour’s walk away. Children wore dirty clothes over dusty dry skin, in some cases with vision problems. Their brothers and sisters often died from diarrhea caused by water-borne bacteria. School was a luxury for those who were healthy and had someone else to fetch water for the family. School offered a glimpse of a better life, but short life expectancy and family obligations meant that few boys and fewer girls would ever rise out of the iron grip of poverty, poor health, and subsistence economics.

March 22 is World Water Day, a time to call everyone’s attention to the global water crisis. Dozens of water providers are accelerating their efforts to provide water to people who desperately need it.   World Vision alone has given clean water access to 2 million people in the last year. World Vision, a Christian NGO working holistically with 120 million children in 96 countries, is on pace to offer universal access to clean water in every area served by 2030 or even sooner!

When people have nearby access to clean water everything changes. Sanitation and hygiene become important skills. Health improves. Education is more available to girls. The ability to start a new business becomes a reality. Spiritual and emotional well being improves.

I wish everyone in America would look beyond our borders and see our brothers and sisters in the world with new eyes. We need not look far to find a cause we can support. Water is so basic. It has been called the first best investment. This year on World Water Day, let’s all wear blue and get everyone asking, “What can I do to give clean water to someone?”

Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in my name will receive a reward.”

Maybe this is what he was talking about.

Mardi Gras Joy

IMG_5657Today is Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.  Another king cake season is ending and beads and doubloons will be put away or recycled til next year.

I am learning to see more in Mardi Gras.  What other event draws out both the grieving widow with her grown sons and babies less than six months old sporting “my first Mardi Gras” shirts while ensconced in Baby Bjorn front packs?  How do native-born New Orleanians watch dozens of parades from the same location year after year and never tire of reaching hands up to catch beads?  Why is it still exciting to even the most elderly to make a sign and find a friend who is handing out glittered shoes off Muses float 20?  Gigantic marching bands with 3 or 4 groups of dancing, twirling or cheering girls behind rows and rows of IMG_5673tubas, trombones and drums, parade night after night during the week leading up to Mardi Gras.  Even kids as young as five will don a uniform and carry an instrument or flag or what have you.IMG_5667

Mardi Gras is truly a celebration of life itself. These parades are not for show, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade or the Rose Parade.  They are not done for TV.  The floats are sometimes beautiful, but mostly a little tacky.  They are functional carriers of masked, costumed people and beads to be redistributed to the masses lining the route, especially to the wildly waving children atop their ladders.

And traditionally, because of snarled traffic and crowded streets, people picnic for hoIMG_5655urs along the sidewalks and the medians (neutral grounds) eating king cake and fried chicken and drinking whatever suits them.  Neighbors and tourists and family open up and talk, eat, and laugh together.  It is a party like no other.  Inclusive, integrated, intoxicating.  It brings people together.  Colorful wigs, tu-tus, and hats give the impression of insanity, while making everyone feel comfortable.

If you have never experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you should add it to your bucket list.  And we should all celebrate life a little more intentionally, spending more time with people than with our electronic devices.

Happy Mardi Gras everyone!