Patterns

The first snowflakes of winter are always a welcome sight. We rush to the window and smile as we watch them coat the ground with their soft blanket of white!

And then March happens. And you’ve had three Nor’Easters this month alone. And it just keeps snowing. And rather than seeing beauty in those flakes, you see the disruption in plans, the inconvenience of extra chores, and another school ‘snow day’? Really?

We are SO over it!

A few storms ago, I looked out the window and saw this:

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One of the fascinating things about snow is that its bright white color and fluffy texture have the ability to evenly coat a surface and then reveal patterns on that surface we may not have otherwise noticed. I thought our car doors were flat, but apparently they have more shape than I realized!

One of the fascinating things about Jesus is that He also has a way of revealing patterns in our lives we don’t know exist until He coats them with His presence. The deep-seated tendencies, intentions, and aches of our hearts and minds become more pronounced when He invades our space.

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As Jesus made His way into Jerusalem, He was welcomed as a king: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matthew 21:8-9)

But popular opinion is a powerful thing and a few days later, these crowds had changed their tone and joined with the religious leaders to demand that Jesus be crucified as a criminal. They were awaiting a rescuing Messiah, but this temple-tantruming (21:12-16), sinner-loving (21:28-32), religious-authority-condemning (23:1-36) man didn’t even seem to be on their side. And not only that, the victory He would supposedly bring was nowhere in sight as He allowed Himself to be arrested (26:47-56) and responded with silence to charges issued against Him (26:63).

This Sunday, our pastor George asked us to write down on a ‘palm leaf’ a false expectation we’ve had of God or a way we’ve felt let down by Him. Like most people, I have lots of “Why?” questions about things like illness, loss, injustice, and unfair circumstances. But if I had to come up with something specific to my life right now, it would be my frustration with the process of change.

Why does life seem to be an endless early spring? After colliding with a crisis point, we are motivated to change and even fueled to change by the power of God’s Spirit at work in us. Good things seem to be happening, but time passes and you look back and realize it’s all faded to ‘blah’ again. You feel like you’ve finally overcome a struggle, but it just slowly works its way back in another form. You thought you forgave, but bitterness and fear are still hanging around. We have moments of glory and seasons of improvement, but then, “Oh look, it’s snowing! Again.

I really believe that if Jesus wanted to, He could transform our hearts immediately – the way He turned water to wine. If it was in His plan, the Spirit could make transformation happen within our expected time frame. But instead He allows another snowfall (and another, and another…) to reveal our patterns to us. Maybe the dramatic breakthroughs and results-oriented change we have our sights set on doesn’t happen because becoming aware of our patterns is more important.

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This winter is certainly revealing patterns of impatience and grumbling in me. It’s a Sunday afternoon near the end of March and I should be outside hiking with my kids or taking them to a playground, but not today – because it’s snowing again! These better be the last flakes of the season!

The repeated ‘snowfalls’ and ‘endless early springs’ God has allowed in my life have revealed a maze of walls I didn’t know existed in my heart. I’m so glad He chooses to be thorough rather than efficient and I’m so glad He hasn’t lived up to my expectations!

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Streams

The Utah desert was exactly what I expected. When my friend Sue and I toured the National Parks of Utah a year and a half ago, we spent several days seeing nothing but rocks, dirt, an occasional cactus, and a few shrubs. Of course many of those rocks were spectacular natural formations, but having lived my whole life in the Northeast, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the barrenness of this area – it seemed to go on forever!

After spending a day in Canyonlands National Park, we set our GPS for the town of Fruita in Capitol Reef National Park. You may wonder, as I did, why in the world there’s a town in the middle of the desert called “Fruita”. Fruit, of course, grows on trees and we had not seen a tree for days!

As we entered the town, though, we were surprised to not only find trees, but entire orchards of trees! Now owned by the National Park Service, Fruita was once the home of settlers looking to take advantage of this remote area’s plentiful source of water – the Fremont River. Thousands of trees were planted along the river’s banks, resulting in harvests of multiple varieties of apples, apricots, peaches, pears, and plums (hence the name!)*

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Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Psalm 1:1-3

It’s no surprise that the opening chapter of the Psalms, a book that speaks volumes to the importance of God’s words in our relationship with Him, begins with this metaphor. Attempting to do life without delighting in and meditating on the words God has spoken will surely lead to withering and lack of fruit!

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of the statements in verse one, describing what a “fruitful” person does not do, all speak to the company we surround ourselves with. Who we’re “walking” with and where we’re getting our “counsel” from matters.

The water flowing through Fruita in the Fremont River doesn’t just appear – it has a source. Its stream begins about 50 miles away at a reservoir and builds in volume as it collects snowmelt from the nearby mountains along its course.**

Though as a follower of Jesus I have a responsibility to read and absorb God’s words from the Bible, I also have the opportunity to plant myself near other believers who’ve climbed a little further up the mountain than I have. A mentor’s words are “deep waters” flowing from a lifetime (or at least a life longer than mine) of applying God’s word and a friend who holds you accountable is like a “bubbling brook” irrigating your life (Proverbs 18:4)

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A few weeks ago, during my Bible study time, I sensed the Holy Spirit’s conviction about an area of my life. The conviction was clear, but how to put it into words and real-life action was not. As I explained it to my mentor, she was able to speak from her experience and help me figure that out. A few days later, a wise friend pointed me to the voice of an expert who brought even further clarity. And then another wise friend confirmed my next steps.

The “deep waters” of wisdom in Proverbs 18 are meant to be sought after and intentionally surrounding myself with wise women is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. God’s word is a river of wisdom, and by giving us each other He’s given us access to many fruit-nourishing streams!

*https://utah.com/culture/fruita
**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fremont_River_(Utah)

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Set

As a wannabe photographer, I like to think I know something about taking good pictures. Really, I know very little, but my ‘fancy’ camera and I have a lot of fun.

My favorite thing to take photos of (besides my children’s smiling faces) is flowers. Whenever we go for a walk or hike, you can guarantee I’ll be holding my family up because I’m kneeling in the bushes taking approximately 74 pictures of each different kind of flower we pass.

The coolest thing about having a DSLR camera is the ability to create a “depth effect” by focusing the lens on a particular flower. This causes the flower to “pop” out at the viewer and everything that’s not the flower to blur into the distance. As the photographer, I have the ability to set the focal point – I press the “take a picture” button down halfway and wherever the center point of the rectangle in my viewfinder is, the lens makes that object the “focus” or the sharpest and clearest part of the photograph.

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In Romans 8, after getting real in the previous chapter about the struggle of living with a sinful nature inside of him – having “the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out,” (7:18) Paul presents his case for an alternative way of living. Rather than making “the flesh” the focal point, he exhorts his readers to instead set their minds on “the Spirit”:

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” (v. 5-7)

Whether he knew it or not, Paul was hitting on a basic principle of human psychology: Whatever we set our minds on, we give power to. Setting our focus on something makes that thing the sharpest and clearest, allowing it to capture our attention and leaving everything else to blur into the background.

When we set our mind on “the flesh” – even if it’s because we’re trying to stop sinning – we only increase sin’s power. Focusing on our own failed or successful attempts to follow the law leads only to pride on one end or increased feelings of guilt and shame on the other. Focusing on the letter of the law makes obedience to it a “have to,” which our flesh is instinctively hostile toward (if you’ve spent any time with a two-year-old, you know how true this is!). The more we give attention to our natural desires, even if it’s in an attempt to deny those desires, the more we end up enslaved by them.

But by setting our minds on the Spirit, we allow His power to be the focus and the force of real change in our lives.

The power of sin is in the shame and defeat of failure, but the Spirit reminds us that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (v. 1) The Spirit “brings to remembrance” (John 14:26) the “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” character of our God (Psalm 103:8).

The power of sin is in the past and in the tunnel vision of self-pity, but the Spirit puts in view what’s next. When we set our minds on the Spirit, He shows us we have a purpose greater than ourselves. And when our bodies and minds are busy being used as His “witnesses” (Acts 1:8), we don’t need to be consumed with trying to gratify, control, or punish them.

The power of sin is in discouragement at the lack of change in our lives and in the world around us. But the Spirit opens our eyes to all the ways He is working, giving us power to “abound in hope” (Romans 15:13) regardless of what our flesh feels and sees.

As a parent with kids in elementary school, I’ve been introduced over the past few years to an education strategy called “Growth Mindset”.* When a child experiences failure after doing poorly on an assignment, not being able to grasp a concept or perform a skill, their minds tend to default to a “Fixed Mindset,” which says, “I can’t, so I should give up”. But a “Growth Mindset” approach teaches them to say: “I can’t right now, but I will learn”. A “Fixed Mindset” sets the mind on one’s current abilities and inherent strengths or weaknesses, but a “Growth Mindset” sets the mind on the possibility of change.

A “Flesh Mindset” puts the focus on our current ability to change ourselves based on our own inherent strengths or weaknesses – and as a result, says, “I can’t change myself, so I might as well give up”. But a “Spirit Mindset” puts the focus on God’s ability to transform us based on His strength. A “Spirit Mindset” says, “I can’t change myself, but God can, is, and will continue to work change in me.”

My default mode is set to “autofocus” and the center point of my viewfinder tends to stay on “flesh” because it’s in my face all day. I regularly set unrealistic “I can do this!” change goals for myself, honestly believing I’m going to be able to sustain the effort. I hear the Holy Spirit’s whispers of “I have a better way,” but I ignore them – and my life ends up looking like this:

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In verse 13 of Romans 8, Paul says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Setting our minds on the Spirit doesn’t mean denying our sin or expending no effort, it means we diminish the power of sin – we let it blur into the background – by directing our effort in the right direction. Manually adjusting our focus by spending time in God’s Word, making space in our lives to pray, and putting aside distractions to listen for and then follow His leading is the surest way to “life and peace” (v. 6).

*https://www.mindsetworks.com/Science/Impact

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Control

All couples need alone time and all parents need a break every once in a while. So when Tim proposed a mid-winter getaway for us this February, I was in! My only requirements were: 1) somewhere warmer than Pennsylvania and 2) close access to adventure (because even though I could sit on the beach all day, my husband can’t 😜).

After looking at the options, we landed on California – and landed in California on a Tuesday morning. We picked up our ‘campervan’ rental and set out for Joshua Tree National Park. New places, new adventures, and camping the whole time? What could be better than that?

Well, a lot it turns out. For all of our ‘adventure’-loving, we don’t ‘travel’ well, especially when we have to make lots of decisions – and especially when things outside of our control cause us to have to make even more decisions. On top of that, Tim was still feeling under the weather from his bout with the flu the week before. And speaking of weather, our experience was anything but “warm” as we just happened to hit the west coast during a cold spell. After experiencing snow in the desert (while our kids were at home in shorts and t-shirts eating popsicles), we headed back to the LA area for the “beach” part of our trip – during their coldest temperatures of the year so far.

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To cap it all off, just as we were pulling into our beach campsite, we got a phone call saying our boat to Channel Islands National Park the next day (our last day) was cancelled due to high winds. We just couldn’t win! Discouraged and cranky, our tank of energy to “stay positive” and “make the best of it” was running close to empty.

Thankfully, since campervan rentals were at a low that weekend (Hmmm… I wonder why?) a very nice customer service rep gave us a free “late drop off” and we were able to squeeze in a trip Channel Islands the following day before catching our flight home.

The next morning, we got our tickets and found our seats on the boat. Though I’m prone to motion sickness, I figured that after the stress of the last few days, I could ‘suck it up’ for a few minutes. But when I asked Tim how long the ride was and found out it was over an hour, I wasn’t so sure!

As we set off, the words of a wise friend (and experienced sailor) came to mind: “Eyes on the horizon!” I chose a white building on the coastline to fix my eyes on and kept them there as the building became a square and the square became a tiny white dot. Every time I looked away, even for a second, queasiness ensued, but as long as my gaze was attached to that control point, it didn’t matter how much the boat rocked and rolled – my stomach stayed well!

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Marriage is anything but smooth sailing. As kids with stars in our eyes, we think we’re signing up for a grand adventure, but it ends up being more like a detour- and roadblock-filled car ride through unfamiliar places. We pack for warm and comfortable, but end up needing our hats and wondering why we didn’t think to bring gloves! We thought surely we would have overcome our ‘illnesses’ by now, but the cough of our sinful nature lingers at the exact point of annoying.

If you grew up in the church or even if you’ve been around for a while, you’ve probably heard or sung the hymn, “It Is Well” by Horatio G. Spafford. The simple lyrics of this timeless song are a reminder that no matter how the “sea billows” of our circumstances and experiences “roll,” we are eternally stable because of Christ. We repeat in declaration: “It is well, It is well with my soul”.

You may not be as familiar with the original second verse, though:

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

When I first read this verse, I assumed that the word “buffet” meant something similar to the word “buffer” and that it was speaking of Satan attempting to block us from reaching a destination (or maybe that he picks and chooses from the various dishes of our lives to fill his own plate? 😂). But the meaning of this word is: “(especially of wind or waves) strike repeatedly and violently” or “(of difficulties) afflict (someone) over a long period.”*

In almost 17 years of marriage, our ship has certainly experienced “buffeting”. We expected some ups and downs, but the repeated violent strikes of our own sinful natures have caught us by surprise. Our only hope in this “helpless estate” is to keep our eyes on the horizon – to let the “blest assurance” of the gospel be the control point of our gaze.

No matter how much we want to fix (or at least not be affected by) each other’s sin, that’s not something that has ever been or will ever be under our control. Our sin may be different, but our “helpless” is the same. Every time I’ve put myself on a pedestal in comparison to my husband’s sin – the gospel reminds me of the “Wretched man that I am!” and that the only way to be delivered from this “body [and mind and heart] of death” is “through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). I can’t even control my own sin – why do I think I can control someone else’s?

After a beautiful sunny day (finally!) on Santa Cruz Island, we boarded the “Island Adventure” for our return trip to Ventura Harbor. I promptly plopped down in my seat, faced the back of the boat and got ready for an hour and fifteen minutes of staring. But this time it wasn’t so easy. On the Channel Islands, there are no buildings to become squares to become dots for me to focus on and not having that single point to fix my gaze on meant constantly trying to find something that stood out to latch onto!

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Saying we’re focusing our marriages “on God” is noble, but in the end it’s not going to be as effective as focusing on the single point of the gospel. Constantly looking at what Christ has done for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8) keeps in the forefront of our minds that we have no pedestals to stand on. When your relationship hinges on the “blest assurance” of that control, no amount of “buffeting” can take you down!

If you have ten minutes, check out the marriage testimony of Chris and Stephanie Teague from the band “Out of the Dust” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvVAN2LE-ws – it’s definitely worth your time!

*https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/buffet

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