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)

Abel’s Advent

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“Abel’s Advent” is the second in a series of original short stories I am posting with a Christmas theme. The biblical Christmas story has for me an air of mystery about it, more than any other, which I wanted to convey in this piece. Another gift for my treasured readers.

                                                                                      

The fields lay locked in the frozen stillness of a mid-winter day. Glorying in the tingle of frigid air on his cheeks, Abel stamped the frost-hardened trail alongside his grandfather toward the low hills cradling their farm. He had no name for the exquisite joy singing through his veins; all he knew was he could not wish to be anywhere else. No roof but endless sky, no lessons but what the wind whistled in his ears, his legs strong beneath him and his grandfather’s shadow keeping stride with his.

They were on their way to check on the sheep flock wintering in the shelter of the hills. It was the day before Christmas and if Abel and his family were going to enjoy tomorrow’s festivities, they needed to know all was well with their livestock. Abel whistled through his teeth to his dog Tip, exploring the trail ahead. She ran back to him, seeming to laugh up into his face with lolling pink tongue and eager eyes. She too felt the exhilaration of a perfect winter’s day sparkling through her limbs, and away she raced again.

Abel’s grandfather chuckled at Tip’s antics, swinging his arm around his grandson’s shoulders as they began their hill ascent. Perhaps he didn’t have the vigor of the boy and dog, but his seasoned gaze took in the winter beauty with quiet gratitude. Bare branches finely etched against an azure sky, the white winter sun glinting on frosted grass and trees. Creation called him closer to his home in heaven, his heart responding instinctively in praise to his Maker.

They glanced at each other at the first jangle of a sheep bell. It was reassuring to know the flock was nearby. Of all the farm creatures, Abel loved the sheep the most. Perhaps it was their gentle spirits or the peaceful way they had of grazing on a green summer hillside. He enjoyed caring for them and believed they gifted him with their trust. The next hours were taken with checking fences, water supply and the condition of the flock. When the two shepherds were satisfied with their tasks, they lit a warming fire in the shelter of a bluff and ate a simple lunch. Abel waited expectantly, for he knew what was coming next. At home with the family, his grandfather kept his own quiet counsel , but when they sat out under the open winter sky, the setting seemed to call out the tales and legends he remembered from of old, and Abel was a willing listener.

With his feet stretched out to the fire, the old man chewed contentedly on the stem of his pipe and squinted through the smoke at his grandson.
“There’s an old, old legend, my boy, about the animals on Christmas night. Have you ever heard what happens to them?”
Abel shook his head, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
“Some say that at the stroke of midnight, in stables and barns and fields around the world, God’s creatures kneel and pray in homage to the Christ Child. ‘Tis not to be proven, but many a generation has said it to be so.”
Smoke wreathed around the old shepherd’s head, lending an air of sacred mystery to the tale.
“When you think on it, the beasts in the stable were the first to see the Child, besides Mary and Joseph. Interesting that innocent creatures were there to welcome the Innocent One into the world. I wonder if they had a sense that He was the one who made them?”
He sucked on his pipe as he contemplated the sheep flock grazing peacefully nearby. Then shuffling stiffly to his feet, his grandfather exclaimed to Abel, “Ah, my boy, we are fortunate fellows to be out on a hillside with the flock on the eve of Christmas, just like those blessed shepherds long ago. Now keep your eyes open for the heavenly host!”
His grandfather laughed at Abel’s quick glance at the sky.

Tip’s sharp bark sounded in the distance. At first Abel thought the dog must have found a rabbit, but the barking grew higher and more frantic. Together he and his grandfather hurried up the hillside towards the commotion. The plaintive bleat of a sheep in distress joined Tip’s bark. Coming over a rocky outcrop, they found the dog circling round a ewe wedged between two boulders. Not only was she stuck, but she was about to give birth to an unexpected winter lamb. The experienced old shepherd quickly took stock of the dilemma, giving orders to Abel to bring the rope and burlap bag from their camp.

They worked intently to free the distressed ewe. Finally as she grew weak and tired, Abel and his grandfather maneuvered the rope around her forequarters and pulled her free. Minutes later she expelled a tiny tangle of legs and wet wool onto the cold earth. The old shepherd grabbed the burlap sack and briskly dried the tiny lamb until it bleated weakly and struggled to stand up. Wrapping the newborn in the sack, he gently lifted it into Abel’s arms.
“Keep her warm”, he instructed, then turned his attention to the prostrate ewe.

Abel was captivated by the tiny creature in his arms. She was scrawny and weak, yet fresh from her Maker’s hand, her new little life had the power to call forth all of Abel’s protective instincts. With the ewe on her feet now, they made ready to take her and her lamb back to the farm, where they would be safe and warm in the barn. Night was closing in and the temperature was dropping. Beneath them a blue twilight filled the valley bowl to its uneven rim and from there the night sky rose like swaths of silken fabric scattered with stars.

Carrying the tiny lamb in his arms, Abel tipped his face skyward with a sense of expectancy. In his spirit he knew this was no ordinary night. He wondered if the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth had a premonition of what was to come? That night must have begun as a thousand nights previous, yet before it was over their lives would be changed forever. The glory of the Lord shone from the sky around them in the glow of a great company of angels. The Savior of their souls showed himself in the helpless form of a newborn baby. How could the two be the same? Abel wondered. He knew the reality of God coming to earth as a baby. The truth of it was the foundation beneath his feet, yet the mystery of it expanded in his soul beyond knowing.

Night had descended completely by the time the shepherds and their flock of two reached the farmstead. They settled the ewe and her lamb on a bed of fresh hay in a corner of the barn, then went into the house to be warmed and fed themselves. Abel’s family was gathered around the table enjoying a Christmas Eve meal. He felt oddly reluctant to join in the noisy, warm circle, as if part of him wanted to linger under the cold night sky. There was a supernal air out there he wanted to breathe in a little longer, but he allowed his mother to draw him close to the fire and put a heaping plate of food in his hands. As he ate, he felt the knowing eye of his grandfather upon him. The old man nodded. The draw of this night was not new to him. He could see its power at work in his grandson.

Long after the household had settled around him in slumber, Abel lay awake. His uncovered window framed the cool, clear light of stars and moon, and it seemed the earth held its breath in anticipation. He would check on the ewe and her lamb again, although he had done so several times this evening. Tip rose from her mat by the back door to faithfully accompany her master across the yard to the barn. Its thick timbers held the warm aliveness of its occupants as a rock absorbs the heat of the sun. The farm beasts stirred only slightly in the soft glow of Abel’s lantern, for they knew him well, accepting his presence with gentle patience. He breathed in the wholesome scent of earth, hay and healthy animals and settled himself close to the ewe and lamb, with Tip by his feet. The little lamb blinked solemnly at Abel from near the protective flank of its mother. Though he could see all was well, he still lingered. His thoughts had the clarity of a midnight vigil and it seemed the walls between the ages had been removed in the magic hour, for he found himself imagining that long ago night of Jesus’ birth as if it were here and now. The cave-like enclosure of the stall became an ancient stable; the ewe’s feed trough, a manger of stone. Through a window high in the hay loft, he thought he saw a singular star gleaming brighter than all the others.

He dreamt on with open eyes until that strange false dawn when cocks crow and animals stir. A bell in the nearby town tolled midnight. On the first strike a quiet peace stilled the farm animals, yet they were all awake, their eyes uncommonly bright in the lantern light. The tale his grandfather had told him earlier became more than legend as he saw the draft horses and oxen lower their great heads. He could not watch. Struck with a holy awe, he threw his arm over his eyes and fell to his knees in the hay.

The twelve strokes of the bell seemed to keep time with the beating of his heart. This heart which was home to the Savior born on this night long ago…. this heart expanding in worship to the Holy Child…. this heart still young enough to experience the mystery of the Incarnation, yet wise enough to know it to be the purest truth ever told. He had no right to be here at the hour when God’s creatures gave Him honor. But he did not leave. He stayed kneeling by a stack of hay, then slept a deep peaceful sleep with his head on his arms.

His grandfather came to the barn at dawn. He was not surprised to find Abel there, asleep on his knees in the hay. He looked into the wise eyes of the farm animals and nodded knowingly. Then he took a pitch fork to the hay which lay flattened in front of where each animal stood, and he sang his grandson awake with an old Christmas hymn.

Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow
Jesus Christ was born.
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world His hands had made, born a stranger.
Jesus on His mother’s breast in the stable cold
Spotless lamb of God was He
Shepherd of the fold.
Let us kneel with Mary, Maid
With Joseph, bent and hoary
With saint and angel, ox and ass
To hail the Lord of Glory.  *
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* “Before the Paling of the Stars” by Christina Rosetti; Lyra Messianica pub. 1864

* “The Evening Glow” painting  by Joseph Farquharson; Scottish landscape artist 1846-1935

In the Wake of the Storm

img_2323At some point that evening I went from being exhilarated by the fierce summer storm raging outside, to fleeing in fear to the only windowless room in our home. I huddled with my husband in the dark while the wind roared and shook the house as if it were too close to a speeding freight train. Finally sensing a lessening in the storm’s clamor, we cautiously crept out to witness the utter chaos left in the wake of its violent tantrums. Broken tree limbs and debris littered the lawn, but worse was the uprooted cottonwood tree stretched like a slain giant across our crumpled fence into the yard behind, barely missing the neighbor’s house.

In the following days as we cleaned up the wreckage from the storm, I mourned the loss of the cottonwood tree. On hot summer days we used to rest in our lawn chairs under its cool shade, lulled by the lyric rustle of its leaves in the breeze. It had been a green sanctuary to myriads of birds which we enjoyed watching splash in our nearby birdbath. Our grandchildren once climbed the lower branches, safe in its woody embrace. Now an ugly stump was all that remained, and empty space where once a friendly giant stood.

My husband took a more pragmatic view of the loss of the tree. He saw how its absence allowed more sunlight to reach his vegetable garden, especially the rows closest to the fence which always did poorly for lack of light. We observed carrots and parsnips gradually flourish with more sunlight to strengthen them.

In her book, “Roots & Sky”, author Christie Purifoy writes, “God does not erase our losses, those empty places in our lives, but He does something almost more miraculous. He fills the loss with a sign of His presence.” Losing a tree cannot compare to losing a loved one, or a marriage or a part of who you are, but for me it was a picture of how loss opens up room for a new work of God.

There was a time in my life when I lost everything I had ever feared losing; my marriage, financial security, health and family unity. In the midst of these devastating losses, I could not imagine a future when all would be made new, even better than before. But God could. “His mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of.” (Eph. 3:20 TLB)

God takes loss and turns it into abundance. In the ashes of my pain, I discovered the abundance of God’s love, His perfect character and His always faithful promises. When life left me hollowed out, He filled the space with His own presence. As I discovered, this is God’s specialty, giving beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. (Isa. 61:3 NKJV)

In the equation of loss becoming abundance, He uniquely illustrates for each of us His supreme renewal project, the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24 NIV) He was speaking of Himself as the Seed, abused, crucified, buried in a dark tomb. Then the Seed came bursting forth alive, His resurrection beginning a great harvest of souls for God’s kingdom. Death gave way to life. Decay became deliverance.

A mighty tree once stood in my yard where now there is just a weathered stump. However new light floods a healthy garden where many seeds now flourish in abundance. In our memory’s landscape, the scar of a loss does not need to be a place of pain forever. It may be remembered, even mourned, but more significantly, it is a landmark telling where God met us and how He brought restoration and renewal out of the darkest places of our world.

Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Legacy of a Teacup

IMG_2404-001She cradles the delicate porcelain teacup in her hand before placing it on a saucer in the china cabinet. Someday my daughter will inherit this set of heirloom china, so I tell her the story of how it came to be in our family. The fine Austrian dinner set was purchased by her great-great grandparents in 1923 to make a favorable impression on a suitor who was courting their eldest daughter. Preston Sharpe married Mabel Stevenson, my great aunt. I remember the stately old house they lived in, with a formal garden lush with roses Preston cultivated himself. He named a soft pink hybrid after his Mabel, as it reminded him of the old-fashioned roses trailing across the china she treasured. This tale is recorded in my grandmother’s beautiful script on sepia-toned paper tucked inside the elegant teapot. Perhaps the true heirloom is this story, a branch of the tree which is our family, green with love, rooted in rich relationships, sending out shoots now blossoming in the lovely face of my daughter.

How do I craft an heirloom to pass on to my children and their children, a legacy fashioned from what I value the most? What comes to mind are not physical treasures but the treasures of my heart and spirit, pebbles of wisdom collected on my long walk with God. If I could package these treasures to give into their hands, I could breathe a sigh of relief when the transfer is made. But that is not how this particular legacy is handed down. No, it is lived out minute by minute, word by word, spun in multi-colored strands of dark and light, communicated with hands and tears and long talks into the night, recorded in letters and looks and words unspoken.

“I will teach you hidden lessons from our past — stories we have heard and known,
stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children;
we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about His power and His mighty wonders.” (Psalm 78:2-4 NLT)

Trails of brokenness and hardship thread across my past like the cracks in a shattered teacup glued back together. These are a crucial part of my legacy because they tell how I learned of brokenness being the way to wholeness, weakness required to find strength and an empty heart leaving room for the fullness of God. I cannot imagine the grind and sweat of my battles to be for nothing. The cracks are not so much evidence of breakage but pathways carved out, leading to the truth. Most of all, I want to pour out the precious contents of this glued-together teacup. Christ glued me back together, healed and redeemed me, so I could be filled with the water of His Spirit — sweet, thirst-quenching love, overflowing like a reviving drink.

With every sip of tea from my heirloom china teacup, I remember the legacy of my ancestors. Theirs was not a perfect history but it is a part of my history and I am thankful for the good they left me. Author Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

May my legacy, dear ones to follow, be that you feel God’s love through me, poured out in a thousand different ways from this broken teacup.

 © Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Valerie Ronald and scriptordeus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Standing Stones

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I have come across them on an ocean shore, on top of a mountain, beside a river; a stack of uncut native stones balanced upon each other, often forming a manlike figure. They are called inuksuk, meaning “in the likeness of a human” in the Inuit language. On a forbidding, often featureless northern landscape, these rough stone sculptures were a welcome sight for searching travelers. Originally used by the arctic dwelling Inuit for communication and survival, the inuksuk is a traditional monument, saying “someone was here” or “you are on the right path”.

An even earlier civilization used standing stones as monuments, not by their own decision but at the command of the Lord God. In Joshua 3, the Israelites came to the Jordan River where Joshua conveyed God’s instructions to the Levite priests carrying the ark of the covenant. They were to step into the water and lead the people to the other side. This was no meandering stream but a river at flood stage, swift and deep. Obediently they took their first step, then watched in wonder as the waters mounded high on either side of a dry path opening up across the riverbed. “The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” (Joshua 3:17 NIV)

For the second time in their exodus from Egypt God had parted the waters miraculously before the Israelites. He wanted them to remember, so through their leader, Joshua, He instructed a man from each of the twelve tribes to carry a stone from the middle of the Jordan and set them up together as a monument. “Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘The Lord your God did to the Jordan just what He had done to the Red Sea when He dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always worship the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4:21-24)

I have standing stones in my life. Not actual stones but figurative markers on my lifeline indicating where God has done mighty things. When I am asked, “What do these stones mean?“, I will speak about a barnacle-covered beach stone at the seaside bible camp where he made me His own. The place where tears wet a crumbling altar of broken vows and health is where everything was lost so I could come to know the Love I could not lose. I will gladly describe the obelisk pointing skyward where He knit my life back together in a new place, grounding me with love and purpose. Each beauty sketched in sky and landscape, creature and person, places a pebble in the monument of my worship of Christ who is worthy of all honor and adoration, the Living Stone.

“Come to Him — the living stone — who was rejected by people but accepted by God as chosen and precious. Like living stones, let yourselves be assembled into a spiritual house, a holy order of priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices that will be acceptable to God through Jesus the Anointed.” (1 Peter 2:4-5 The Voice)