A Long Obedience

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Evangelist Billy Graham died today. (Feb. 21, 2018) Not only did he live a long life of 99 years, more significantly, he walked out a long obedience to his God. As a young man attending a Florida Bible school, he was still not convinced he should be a preacher, until one sleepless night as he rambled the greens of a nearby golf course.
“I finally gave in while pacing at midnight on the eighteenth hole,” he remembered.
“All right, Lord. If You want me, You’ve got me.”

From that point of obedience to God’s call on his life, Billy Graham went on to become the most well-known evangelist of this century, preaching the gospel live to over 210 million people worldwide. Only God knows how many souls have been saved because Billy obeyed His call.

From the above quote, it is obvious Billy obeyed God only after a personal struggle. He was no different than the rest of us, valuing our individualism to the point of becoming put off by following someone else, even God. Rules given to establish someone’s control naturally invite rebellion. But we often forget that God does not need to prove His control. He is sovereign God, after all. Out of love, He has given us a choice to obey His commandments or not, and when we realize He means them for our own good, we will want to obey because we trust Him.

Billy Graham obeyed God’s individual call on his life to be an evangelist, but before he did so, he was learning how to walk in obedience to what Jesus Christ desires to see in all His followers.

“I am asking you to live by the command that we love one another. I am not writing to you some new commandment; it’s one we received in the beginning from our Lord. Love is defined by our obedience to His commands. This is the same command you have known about from the beginning; you must live by it.” (2 John 5-6 The Voice)

The evangelist’s lifetime of obedience was deeply rooted in his love for God and thus a desire to live out his Savior’s commandment to love one another. He best did this by fulfilling God’s calling on his life to proclaim the gospel to as many people as he could.

God has called each of us to a long obedience, not only in walking out His commandments in our daily lives but in obediently responding with purposeful action to the individual calling He has placed in our hearts. We are each part of the body of Christ, uniquely gifted and called to be His representatives on earth. Our love for Christ and each other is defined by our obedience to His commands. Whether we obey the call to be an evangelist proclaiming the gospel worldwide, or the call to be a home-schooling mother, or the call to serve the needy in a third world country, God will honor a long obedience.

“The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

 

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The Shape of a Heart

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There is a woman who walks beaches and forest trails in search of heart-shaped rocks. Not large rocks, just ones the right size to tuck in her plant pots or heap in a clay bowl on her table. Some are smoothed by the sea and sand, some chipped off a craggy cliff, but they all have the familiar shape of two rounded wings and a downward-pointing tip.

The woman who collects them has a passionate heart, a fiercely loyal and loving heart. It is also a fragile heart, wounded early in childhood then mended by the love of Jesus, yet still bearing scars that go deep. These scars resonate with the scars of other hearts, giving her the ability to connect to the hurting on a level most cannot. Because she lives and speaks from her heart, it is vulnerable and sometimes wounded. If not for the love of Jesus holding her heart in His nail-pierced hands, it could easily be broken beyond repair.

Perhaps she collects heart-shaped rocks because she has encountered so many human ones in various shapes, sizes and conditions. They may be a reminder of her own heart which has gone through multiple transitions, yet remains undivided. Like the psalmist, she often prays to the keeper of her heart, “Teach me Your way, O Lord, that I may walk in Your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere Your name.” (Ps. 86:11 NRSV)

That is the secret — maintaining an undivided heart, not allowing it to be diverted from loving and obeying God. There are so many distractions and temptations that can splinter a heart, weakening its devotion to the One who made it.

The apostle Paul, whose heart underwent rigorous refining at the hand of God, spoke from his own experience in writing to the Thessalonian believers about keeping their hearts undivided.
– He wrote of not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.   (1 Thess. 2:4 NIV)
– His desire was for God to strengthen their hearts so that they would be blameless and holy in the presence of their God and Father. (1 Thess. 3:13)
– His prayer was that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who gave eternal encouragement and good hope, would encourage their hearts. (2 Thess. 2:16)
– He prayed confidently that the Lord would direct their hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. (2 Thess. 3:17)

The woman who collects heart rocks has learned Paul’s secret of how to keep her heart undivided. She puts it in the keeping of God. He is the One who tests, strengthens, encourages and directs her heart. Each time she picks up a heart-shaped rock, brushes off the dirt and warms it in her palm, she remembers Who keeps her heart whole and she commits it again to God.

 

Submerged

 

Beneath the sea there is a rock, created when darkness was over the surface of the deep. Myriads of sea plants and creatures have touched the surface of the rock over the eons but never changed it. Currents have swirled, earthquakes trembled, yet the rock endures, immovable.

When calm weather smooths the sea far above, sometimes shafts of sunlight reach down to illumine its craggy face. Darting fish shadows dance across it, sea grasses stroke green fingers along its stony skin, and it remains constant. Just as it does when storms lash the sea with wild winds and rain. Thunder claps, subdued beneath the surface, are more felt than heard within the chaotic churn of the sea. Surging currents sweep loosened debris and marine life helplessly along, reducing visibility to green murkiness. The rock is a shadowy, immutable presence in the middle of the turmoil.

The love of God is a rock submerged beneath the ever-changing currents of our lives. No matter what may be occurring on the surface, God’s unfailing love remains a steadfast foundation beneath all that tosses us about. Does this bring you deep comfort, as it does me?

Years ago when my life was a storm of hardships, this image of a rock beneath the surface of the sea came to me as a gift, I believe, from God. Knowing my love of the sea, He placed this picture in my mind of His unchanging love for me. I remember as a child ducking under the sparkling waves at the ocean’s edge. It was a different world beneath the surface, where gravity was suspended and sounds muted. Grasping the rocks on the bottom to keep myself from popping to the surface, I opened my eyes in the green, opaque beauty of the undersea world. I couldn’t see the rocks before diving but I knew they were there, just as later I knew without a doubt that God’s absolute love was the rock beneath my unsettled world, even when my troubled spirit could not sense Him.

“Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord Himself, is the Rock eternal.” ( Isaiah 26:4 NIV)

The world tends to portray love as a soft, often fickle emotion, capable of inspiring great passion that can soon fade. It cannot compare to God’s enduring love demonstrated ultimately in the giving of His Son. Jesus Christ willingly took the plunge from His home in heaven, submerging Himself in our sinful world yet never sinning so He could offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for us. He is the bedrock of our living faith and the perfect expression of God’s love.

“As you come to Him, the living Stone — rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to Him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.”
(1 Peter 2:4-5)

Beyond the Garden

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A garden offers up its secrets generously, whispering renewal in scent, color, fruit and loam. A quiet garden, when listened to carefully, teems with stems stretching, buds unfurling, roots reaching deep; a symphony of life discerned below the surface of hearing. When I walk in a garden, some primal echo of perfection and innocence resonates within me.

“The Eternal God planted a garden in the east in Eden—a place of utter delight—and placed the man whom He had sculpted there.”(Genesis 2:8 The Voice)

In the song of soughing breezes in tall aspens, Eden beckons.
Cool grass beneath bare feet marks a path to Paradise.
The very breath of Heaven sighs from sweet roses.

In a garden I begin to remember a place of utter delight. And just when that ancient memory stirs within, death overshadows. I see the weeds, smell the decay, know the serpent of sin hides beneath the leaves, waiting to deceive. In the cool of the day God walks in the garden of my soul, calling, “where are you?” Naked and ashamed, I have permitted perfection to be marred. But not beyond hope. Because there was another garden.

“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” (John 19:41 NIV)

In the shadow of the hill on which Christ was crucified grew a garden belonging to a rich man in whose own tomb the body of Jesus was laid. From the stark, sun-baked heights of Golgotha, Jesus was brought down to the cool, clean air of a garden grove. By law He should have been given a grave with criminals outside the city. Instead He was returned to a garden, much like the place where the ancestors of those who crucified Him were created.

The kernel of his dead body was pressed into the tomb, like a single seed into dark soil. For days it laid buried. Then a supernatural germination occurred; a transformation of earthly body to glorified. Life shed the husk of death, bursting forth like a fresh green shoot. And because of the death and resurrection of this sacred Seed, many will live to know perfection in eternity.

“Because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19)

In a garden, the cycle of life/death/life speaks to me of deeper truths. When the earth appears lifeless in frozen midwinter I remember the garden in summer, alive with flowers, trees and birds, and know I have been given the sure promise of new life with Christ. Someday the dead shell of my body will be laid in the ground, but my spirit will thrive forever in a place of perpetual bloom. Paradise found because of a singular Person given in perfect sacrifice.

Between His Shoulders

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Atop my bookshelf stands a small wood carving of Jesus as a shepherd, with a staff in his hand and a lamb across his shoulders. It is primitive and roughly carved, yet I contemplate it often because I sometimes see myself as that lamb in need of care.

It is a reminder of the countless times Jesus has carried me when I’ve been too weak and wayward to take my next step, when He lifted me up and draped me across His shoulders, rescuing me from outer circumstances or inner failures I could not escape myself. More than that, it is a vivid picture of His love being a place of protection and rest.

“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders.” (Deut. 33:12 NIV)
Before the patriarch Moses died, he pronounced this blessing over the tribe of Benjamin, along with blessings for the other tribes of Israel. The temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, would be located in Benjamin’s territory, surrounded by the protection of shouldering hills. Benjamin is spoken of as a beloved tribe, enjoying intimate communion with the Lord.

This verse also reminds me of the shepherd, Jesus, portrayed often in the New Testament. In Luke 15 Jesus uses a parable about a lost sheep to convey the lengths He will go to seek a lost sinner. In the parable, when the shepherd finds his lost sheep, “he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” A lamb carried on the shoulders of a strong shepherd or God’s temple secure in the folds of shouldering hills; quite different perspectives, yet vividly depicting the protective, caring heart of the Good Shepherd of my soul.

Not only do I see myself, a child of God, secure and shielded on His shoulders, I also draw comfort from being “the beloved of the Lord” and “the one the Lord loves.” Like a warm blanket, these words wrap around my heart with the everlasting, perfect love only God can provide. What more selfless act of love is there than that of Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf?  “I came to give life with joy and abundance. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep in His care.” (John 10:10-11 The Voice)

There is a rest like no other found in the care of the Good Shepherd. The image of resting between His shoulders gives me such a sense of peace and safety. I can rest calmly there, even in the midst of trials and chaos, because I know what it is to experience that peace which passes all understanding, coming from His indwelling Holy Spirit. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller writes, “Our Shepherd knows best when He leads us through the dark valleys with Himself. He knows where we can find strength, and sustenance and gentle grazing despite every threat of disaster about us.”

My rough little carving represents the safest, most loving place I can be, resting between the shoulders of the Shepherd of my soul.

The Christmas Garden

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This third original Christmas story is close to my heart because I have entertained a few “angels unawares”, especially this time of year. I hope you enjoy it, dear readers, and will be ready for your own angels when they turn up. 

 

Nella reached the end of the street before she remembered the shopping list still stuck on her refrigerator. She sighed wearily, turning back to face the chill wind and driving snow. Another fifteen minutes of precious time and energy wasted because of her forgetfulness. She contemplated calling a cab but knew she couldn’t afford it and buy groceries too. Her pension check just didn’t stretch like it used to. She pulled her hat down over her ears and trudged back the way she had come.

Snow on the overgrown hedge next to Nella’s back door fell down the neck of the lean youth as he stepped through into her yard. He shivered, glancing nervously over his shoulder before cautiously approaching the door. He figured this would be the easiest house to break into on the street because the old place obviously hadn’t been touched in years and the lock would likely pop without difficulty from its rotted wood frame. John had never broken in anywhere before but he had seen enough TV shows to figure out a few things first. He sure hoped the long, chilly wait behind the hedge would be worth his while. He pulled a flattened piece of pipe from under his jacket and began to pry at the door.

The tears freezing on Nella’s cheeks weren’t just from the cold. She tried to stay cheerful but sometimes she just missed Arthur so much. Especially in small ways, like how he used to be ready with the door open as she came up the walk with the grocery cart. Now as she fumbled with her keys and the cart, she felt like throwing it over the railing and forgetting about shopping. But the cat needed food, and she couldn’t do without her evening tea, particularly on Christmas Eve. She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.

A silver picture frame slipped from John’s fingers at the sound of Nella‘s key in the lock, its glass shattering on the hardwood floor. He froze beside the dresser, his heart pounding fiercely.

“Sammy, are you up on the dresser again, you naughty cat?”
The old lady’s shuffling footsteps came closer, but John had no place to hide. He should have bolted when he had a chance, when the old lady let out a startled cry at the shock of seeing him in her bedroom, but he didn’t. He stood there shaking, not knowing what to do, just knowing he’d blown it again. They stared at each other for a long moment;  John seeing a small round woman bundled in an old-fashioned winter coat and hat, her hand to her mouth, and her eyes wide behind thick glasses. Nella thought later that she should have run for it too, but something made her stand her ground. His long lank hair, his thin awkward shoulders; he really was just a boy, and suddenly she wasn’t afraid anymore.

“Can I help you, young man?”
“No….no…I mean, I needed some money, see, and…”
“Well, as you can see,” Nella said, gesturing around the sparsely furnished room, “I don’t have a lot to spare.”
She scrutinized him closely.
“What do you need money so badly for, that you would rob an old lady on Christmas Eve?” In spite of his fear, John took a defensive stance and replied in as manly a voice as he could muster, “I just need it, is all. You gonna call the cops?”
“I probably ought to, but maybe we should have a little talk first.”

Nella unbuttoned her coat and took off her hat, forgetting all about her shopping trip. A stillness in her spirit made her act contrary to what was logical, but she had learned to listen to that quiet inner prompting she knew to be from God. She turned her back on him and walked down the hall to take off her boots. She could get a blow to the back of her head at any second, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t do that.

John found himself stepping over broken glass to follow the old lady down the hall. He could still make a break for it if he needed to, but it seemed to make sense to hear what she had to say. Besides, it was warmer in here than outside where he had spent the last few days. Then he stopped in wonder where the hall opened into a small living room. It was a bower, an abundant garden of flowered furnishings, draperies and ornaments, a surprising contrast to the austere bedroom. Slightly shabby, yet clean and carefully arranged, the room spoke of past seasons, tea served on wicker tables, bird song through an open window. It even held a faint scent of crushed rose petals. The walls were lined with framed pictures of blossoms and botanical prints.

“Take off your shoes, young man,” Nella ordered before he walked on the faded oriental carpet. He obeyed, wondering how the little old lady had achieved an upper hand in this situation.

“Now, before we go any further, have you had anything to eat in the last while? I have a nice little meat pie I can heat up in just a minute.”
John stared at her. “Why are you doing this? I broke into your house to steal from you….you don’t know me….I could be dangerous. Aren’t you afraid?”
Nella tilted her head as if listening for a moment, then smiled gently.
“A book I like to read says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so you may be entertaining angels unawares.”
“Ha! You need to clean your glasses, lady! I am no angel. In fact, I’m heading in the other direction.” He flinched when she patted his arm.
“Come now, young man. As long as you’re still breathing, God hasn’t given up on you. Now how about that meat pie?”, and she bustled off to the kitchen, leaving him to stare after her. He stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, trying to recover some of the bravado it took to break into this place. Instead, he felt himself succumbing to the peace of this modest home

His artist’s eye took in the carefully arranged groupings of photos and prints on the walls. Close-ups of perfect, velvety rosebuds wet with dew, stately irises, blowsy peonies. The botanical prints looked to be originals. He studied the water color details of root systems and rhizomes, each signed in the corner by “A. Stuart”.

“Those were done by my late husband, Arthur,” Nella said, setting a full plate down on the dining table. “You see, Arthur was an invalid and couldn’t get out much, so the back yard and this house became his world. So I made him a garden, and he made me….these.” She smiled fondly at the photos and prints.
“They’re good,” John said frankly.

Nella studied him for a moment, noticing a sensitive mouth beneath his scruffy days-old beard and an intelligent brow above shadowed eyes. She guessed this Christmas stranger was more than just a common thief. He sat obediently at her table, consuming the meat pie and warm rolls with absorption born of two days without food. She occupied herself in the kitchen, opening a can of tuna for hungry Sammy and fixing herself a cup of hot water and lemon. She moved aside the little nativity scene on the table and joined him.

“That’s right, it’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it?” he said, watching her tenderly handle the tiny figurines.
“Why aren’t you home with your family on such a night?” Nella asked. He shrugged.
“They wouldn’t want me there. I don’t fit in to their uppity neighborhood anymore. I’m an embarrassment to them since I decided to follow my Muse.” His smirk held more pain than amusement.
“And what would that be?”
“I want to be an installation artist.”
“Is that where someone drapes a bridge in orange fabric and calls it art?”, she asked. He was impressed she knew what he was talking about.
“Yeah, only it doesn’t pay very well, as you can see. My last job in a pizza joint fell through two weeks ago and I’ve been on the streets since then.”
“Does resorting to robbing elderly women and possibly ending up in jail fit in with your future dreams?”, she asked sternly.

“Not really.” He ducked his head for a moment, then looked her squarely in the eye. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ve been very kind, though I don’t know why.”

He got up from the table, turned to go, then heard her say softly, “Because I see you through the eyes of another artist. My husband was an artist. He would look past the weeds and brown leaves in my garden and see the beautiful lines of a simple daisy or daffodil, then capture them like this.” She looked thoughtfully at the flowers framed on her wall.
“But Jesus Christ is the original installation artist. He can take a common bag of bones like me or you, look past the flaws and brokenness, and clothe us in forgiveness and grace, and suddenly we’re not common anymore. Like a bridge draped in orange fabric, we’re changed into something beautiful, something new. That book I like to read says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
She smiled warmly up at him.
“You wait here a moment, young man, and I’ll be right back.” She returned a few minutes later with her arms full of clothing.

“These were my husband’s. I think they’ll fit you and I have no need of them anymore.” She held out a warm winter coat, a sweater, hat and gloves.
“When you wear these I want you to think about Jesus, who was actually God draped in flesh. He can help you become the best installation artist you can be, if you let Him transform you first.”
John put the clothes on, then Nella pressed a few folded bills into his hand.
“No, I can’t take this.” He tried to give the money back but she gently eased him to the door.
“Maybe there’s enough there to buy bus fare back to your family. You could be the best present they get this Christmas.”
At the end of the walk he looked back. The light behind flowered curtains blurred into a warm orange glow through his tears.

Nella gasped in wonder when she looked out her kitchen window Christmas morning. Her overgrown garden, long neglected since Arthur’s passing, was transformed into a sparkling paradise in the pure winter sunlight. Trees were draped in swaths of silvery paper and crowned with foil stars and moons. Prisms of coloured glass suspended from branches twisted gently, sending rainbow glints like diamonds across the snow. Tissue paper birds like open-winged doves fluttered on the shrubbery. She rubbed her eyes and looked again to see if what she saw was real, then she saw some writing in the snow, scrolled beautifully in silver painted script.
“Thank you, dear kind lady. From John, a new creation.”

Soaring into the Light

Canada Geese Flying at Sunrise

After days of glowering clouds and rain, the sun finally breaks through, beaming on the wet upturned face of a grateful world. I drive to work beside the crescent lake where hundreds of Canada geese find sanctuary before their winter journey south. I love this stretch of road with water, trees and sky offering a new vista each time I pass by, especially when the geese are in residence. Night shadows linger over their sleepy forms floating on the lake this almost winter morning. Then with a flurry of wings on water, an arrow of geese arises, angling sharply skyward. Reaching the treetops, they break through gloom, their dusky forms instantly aglow with golden morning sunlight. Gilded wings flashing rhythmically, graceful necks outstretched, they form a phalanx across the blue-washed sky, and I am smitten.

I remember how that felt for me, flying out of the shadows into light. Set free to soar, breaking loose from a mud-mired existence up into the stratosphere of God’s love. I relive that burst into freedom in the moment by the lake and my heart sings with joy all over. It lingers with me as I go about my work tasks, until I take time to read a passage in a translation of the bible which speaks to my heart.

“Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God. This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos. Immersed in the practice of creating, all things that exist were birthed in Him. His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light — a light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms. It cannot and will not be quenched.”
~ John 1:1-5 The Voice

“His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light.” I read this several times with the fresh image in my mind of birds in flight aflame in morning sunglow. God gives me these epiphanous moments as gifts drawing me back to Him. I have been walking in His love for a long time, so He well knows I need an occasional jolt with a glimpse of His glory. The living, breathing light He has imbued in all He has made speaks to me of His light gifted to me the moment I first knew Him as my savior. Not only a lessening of darkness in my spirit but a lightening of the burden of sin He lifted from me.

Is it any wonder Christ is so often described as light? He has made us to respond to light, to thrive on light, to require light as much as we need air. How much brighter His light shines when compared to the darkness of this sin-soaked world. He Himself said, “I am the light that shines through the cosmos; if you walk with Me, you will thrive in the nourishing light that gives light and will not know darkness.” ~ John 8:12

With His light I can find my way. He reveals all that I need to see to make it in this life. It could be that the geese took flight this morning because they were in search of food, but I like to think they were soaring into the light because it drew them upward. I too want to continually soar aloft where His living, breathing light cannot be quenched, where His love is the self-perpetuating glow warming all the world.