An Oasis

With everything going on in this world, life can seem a bit chaotic and out of control. In addition to the events surrounding us, the summer heat is beginning to set in. All of this has led me to desire an escape, a place of quiet and peace. I am in need of an oasis.

If you look up the definition of the word oasis, you will find that it refers to a fertile spot in the desert where water can be found. Life can right now feel a bit barren and more energy draining each day. The pandemic has kept us isolated from others for quite some time. We cannot go about our normal activities or those things which recharge us. We are not even able to worship with others and share in fellowship. The unrest due to the racial injustices have only added to these feelings. It is easy to see life as barren and unrelieving, much like a desert.

I have an oasis for my physical and mental well-being. My backyard provides a wonderful place of retreat for me. I can sit on my patio which is covered so I do not have to experience the heat of a summer sun. The wonderful landscaping which was left to us and to which we have added provides beautiful flowers, flowering bushes, and lush green grass to remind me of the life and beauty by which I am surrounded. The pool provides a refreshing and energizing place for me to swim and cool down from the heat of life and summer.

I also have a spiritual oasis. While I cannot physically attend a worship service currently, I am able to attend a virtual worship service. I am able to continue to study Scripture and enjoy an ongoing daily devotional with my husband. My music collection contains plenty of refreshing songs and hymns to remind me of God’s love and care. Daily I am reminded of the presence of the Spirit which encourages and recharges me.

As I thought about my spiritual oasis, my mind was drawn to the words found in an older hymn, “In The Garden.” These lyrics encapsulate all my thoughts about the oasis which I, and likely you, need today.

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

I'd stay in the garden with Him
'Tho the night around me be falling
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

Songwriter: C. Austin Miles
In the Garden lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Reaching

In our home we have a few houseplants. We are fortunate in this house to have windows to the south and windows to the east which provide excellent locations for some of our plants. Every few weeks, I have to turn the plants at least forty-five degrees. The reason for needing to turn the plants is that they tend to grow towards the window so by turning them I am able to keep them pretty evened out. Of course, the reason they grow toward the window is due to the fact that they are growing toward the source of the sunlight. If you remember from your basic biology class, plants need sunshine in order to trigger photosynthesis which allows the plant to grow.

You may be wondering why I have attempted to give a brief lesson regarding plants and photosynthesis. My reason is that while adjusting the plants the other day, I thought about how they reach for the sunlight. How they must have the sunlight for their survival. These thoughts caused me to ponder how I have a similar need. I am the type of person who does not do well on consecutive days of cloudy skies. After a few days, I notice shifts in my attitude and a reduction of my energy level. I am a person who needs regular days of sunlight.

I also began to consider how this applies to my faith. I have a need to feel a connection to God. When I sense this connection, my attitude is more of a positive attitude. Feeling surrounded by the Spirit of God, I experience a movement forward in my life. When going through a dark time in my life, my natural instinct is to reach out toward the Lord. Like the plant reaches toward the sunlight, I reach toward God so that I may receive what I need to survive and grow.

Between the impact of COVID-19 and the call for racial justice, there seems to me a greater need for us to reach out. A need for us to reach out to one another. A need for us to reach out to God. There we will find that life-giving source which will sustain us and help us to grow.

Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Uncertain Times

I clearly recall every detail of September 11, 2001. I can tell you everything I saw, heard, said, and experienced throughout that day. Where I was, what I was doing, who I was with is all etched deeply into my mind. On that day, and many times since that day, I have commented that 9/11/2001 is for me like Pearl Harbor was for the generation before me.

In my lifetime, there have been a handful of significant events that have created a lasting impact upon me. In addition to the attacks on New York City, Washington D.C., and the downing of the plane in Pennsylvania, there is the day when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after take off on January 28, 1986. Added to my list of significant dates would be November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The beginning of the Gulf War on January 16, 1991 is a final date that I will add to my list. There have been other significant dates of events in my lifetime which I recall but each of these on my list had some type of impact directly upon my life. Each created some sense of uncertainty for me.

We have now entered another period of uncertainty in my life. Our nation and our world are dealing with a health emergency at a level that I have never experienced before. Everyone of us is being impacted in some way by the international virus which we have come to know as COVID-19. Today, the mayor of my community issued an order for all people to stay at their homes except for essential trips to the grocery stores, places of work, pharmacies, gas stations, or medical facilities. When I go to the grocery store, meat and milk are in very short supply and what is available is highly limited. Other items are gone from almost all store shelves throughout the metropolitan area. These changes make life a whole new experience for me and millions of others.

So what do we do with all this uncertainty?

First, I suggest we keep everything in perspective. This is not the first time our nation, or our world, has faced a life-altering crisis. Throughout the history of humanity, events such as this one have occurred many times, and yet we have seen the crisis end with our species surviving. This does not mean that significant losses have not happened. Nor does it mean that at the end of crisis, the way in which we live does not look the same as before the crisis began. So rather than panic, we need to take each day at a time, navigate through the crisis to the best of our ability, and heed the advice of those who have the greatest knowledge available.

Second, I suggest we strive to deal with one another in compassionate and loving ways. Where possible, assist those who are combating the crisis, aid those who are most vulnerable, and give rather than hoard. When people work together, the outcome is more positive than when we isolate and only look out for ourselves. Providing comfort to those who experience a negative impact due to this situation expresses love that comes from above.

Third, rely upon your faith to be the strength you need. As a Christian, I turn to my Lord to give me reassurance and hope. I have seen some of my Muslim friends expressing their trust in Allah which is their understanding of our God. No matter what your faith tradition is, I encourage you to connect with that faith as you deal with the uncertainty of this crisis. It is through faith that we have hope necessary to realize we will emerge on the other side of this particular crisis.

We once again live in uncertain times. Like those before us, and those who will come after us, these times are just a period in our lives. Our nation and our world will survive and be changed by this even but it will not be destroyed.

New Life

While winter in Texas is not as cold or stagnant as winter in Iowa, over half of the trees are without leaves, the grass turns brown, and the color of flowers is limited. With the approach of spring, all this changes. Over the last few weeks, we have seen significant change in the landscape. Trees are flowering and budding. The garden centers are stocked with flowers ready to be planted. The sun has increased in its warmth. Rains are helping green to reenter the grass and other plants. New life is arriving daily.

Currently in the Christian Church calendar, we are in the season of Lent. Lent is a time for personal reflection, recommitment to spiritual disciplines, and a time to await new life. The new life which becomes a reality is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which is a reminder of our mortality and forty days later (Sundays are not counted) we are reminded of the truth of new life we share with Christ.

I am sure that the correlation of the transition from winter to spring and Lent to Easter is not coincidence. Just as spring provides new life for God’s creation, Easter provides new life for God’s children. As a child of God, I anticipate the fulfillment of the resurrection in me as much as I anticipate the witnessing of new life during spring. I yearn for both of them. Every Easter I celebrate the truth of my new life while I watch the promise of new life in creation.

What does spring mean for you? How does Lent and Easter create anticipation for you? Where do you see God’s promises fulfilled around you?

May the promise of new life in Jesus Christ fill you with anticipation and great joy. May the witnessing of new life in creation be a present reminder of this promise for you.

Tie That Shoe

Throughout life, I think each person can identify times they have been tripped up. Some of these occurrences may be pretty dramatic and life changing, others are smaller in nature. A conversation taking a wrong turn may cause a person to stumble on their journey. It might be a financial decision which derails plans and goals. There are all types of ways to be tripped up in life.

Just as our plans and journey in life can include ways we trip up, our spiritual journey in life can also include times when we have been tripped up. As you read the stories and accounts in Scripture, you hear of individuals experiencing these encounters. David, who was to be the greatest king of Israel, was tripped up when he saw a beautiful woman bathing one day (see 2 Samuel 11). Jonah thought he knew what was right and what God should do about Nineveh (see the Book of Jonah). Looking out for one’s personal welfare while trying to give to others became the life plan for Ananias and Sapphira but was not right for the community of faith (see Acts 5). Even Jesus was tempted to trip up (see Matthew 4:1-11). There are many other examples throughout Scripture.

With all these ways to be tripped up, how do we protect ourselves from them? Whether it is financially, physically, relational, or spiritual, the untied shoes in life can cause us to stumble in small and large ways. Referring back to Jesus’ temptation mentioned above, I think we are given examples of ways to avoid those stumbling dangers. In addition to that, I think it is vital for us to have someone in our lives who can serve as guide and sounding board. Someone who we can discuss our triumphs, temptations, struggles, and falls.

What trips you up in life? How have you attempted to mediate those situations? Do you have someone who can help you avoid those trips?

Carrying the Load

Living in the community which I now live in, I have become much more aware of the number of semi-trucks and trains which carry freight around our nation. The semi-trucks were not all that new to me since I lived near an interstate highway which transverses from east to west coast and another which transverses down the middle of our nation. However, I thought transporting by train was from an earlier era in our country’s history. I can definitely say it is not since I now cross at least four train tracks to do a lot of my shopping. The number of times I am stopped at a train crossing is amazing. These observations led me to think about how the loads of life are carried.

Who carries your burden or load in life?

One of the items which I picked up when I did a lot of counseling of individuals is the importance of support systems. Life is clearly unpredictable. No life escapes challenges, hardships, and brokenness. During those periods in a person’s life, having friends and family who can offer support, a listening ear, or solicited counsel can make a tremendous difference. If someone is able to walk the path with you, then there is less of a feeling of isolation. Another person can assist you in putting your burden in perspective. While you still will need to walk the path and carry the majority of the load, having a support system can ease that load for you.

The gift of family and friends is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to provide rest for all who are weary and burdened. (See Matthew 11:28). The Lord understands the loads which we carry. We were never intended to live life alone. God saw the importance of having others to assist us at the very beginning of creation. The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” We are to have a helper or set of helpers to join in carrying our load.

I know that there are some people who try to carry their burdens by themselves. This type of person does not share with others those times when challenges come their way. The person may even place a lot of effort into presenting an image that they are fine. They may choose not to share out of shame, guilt, or because being self-reliant was modeled in an extreme way to them. For anyone who chooses this approach, I want to say this is definitely not what God intends. God has given others to carry the load with us. Do not let this gift go to waste.

So who assists you in carrying the load? Who are the individuals which have been placed in your life right now who can provide comfort, counsel, encouragement? If you have not, identify those people now. Utilize them to help carry your burden. You do not have to go through anything alone.

The Struggle

I saw a person wearing a t-shirt which read, “The struggle is real.” After reading the words on the shirt, I began to ponder some questions. What is the struggle? Is it life? Is it a specific situation? Is it a project or task upon which effort is being made? Is it something spiritual? Is this in reference to an addiction? What exactly are we talking about here? Then I came to realize that the specifics are not what matters, what matters is the acknowledgment that for this person the struggle is real.

The truth is that all of us have struggles whether we declare it by wearing a t-shirt or if we keep them to ourselves. For some of us the struggles change over time. Others have a constant struggle like those dealing with addictions. There are times the struggle seems overwhelming. At different times we may even be able to manage the struggle and even overcome it. While facing whatever struggle is in our life, that struggle is completely real to us.

During his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who faced struggles. In the Bible, these struggles at times are verbalized in a spiritual sense using words which conjure up images of demons. An example of this is the man who is found naked in the graveyards outside of Gerasenes. Different stories of struggle are shared using words which create the idea of physical abnormalities. The man who was blind is an example of this imagery. In every one of the stories about Jesus encountering people with struggles, Jesus demonstrates a loving response. Jesus does not minimize their struggles but instead shows compassion, a willingness to listen, and provides for their needs. This example is one which can be very important as we strive to understand how to respond to the struggles of those around us.

Jesus also encountered struggles of his own. Stories of Jesus struggling to continuously minister to those around him are numerous throughout the Gospels. Jesus also struggles with the frustration of his message not being heard and understood by those with whom he speaks. The most poignant display of Jesus’ struggle is when he is in the olive trees on the Mount of Olives, the night of his arrest. The struggle is so intense that the author of Luke shares, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Again, Jesus gives us an example of what to do when our struggle seems so real, every time he would go to the Father in prayer.

Yes, the struggle is real, but Jesus provides examples of how to handle the struggle. Whether the struggle is someone else’s or our own, Jesus shows us the way.

The Chains

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Christmas Carol. I prefer the version with George C Scott playing Scrooge. For me to feel like it is Christmas time, I have to watch this movie. I think the reason is this adaptation of Charles Dickens story speaks to the heart of Christmas, the attitude of giving and being set free from those chains which bind us from appreciating life.

As a Christian, this movie also reminds me of the breaking of chains which accompanied the work of the Lord. Jesus shared the love which God has for every person and gave us the opportunity to be free from the chains which prevents us from appreciating life. In his teachings and actions during his ministry, he worked at destroying the chains which society placed on people. He held leadership accountable for putting burdens of rules and expectations on the people. Jesus taught that love, not oppression, was the intention of God. He redefined social norms. He confronted boundaries established by the world. Jesus taught and demonstrated that God’s love provides freedom.

Every year when I see Marley come to warn Ebeneezer about the chains which he is forging in his life, I wonder about my chains. What is it that is forging the chain which I wear? How am I contributing to the forging of someone else’s chain? This can be a very humbling self-reflection. I always think of the lessons Scrooge learned from the three visitors as I am reflecting on how I live my life and the comparisons.

Then after some self-reflection and recommitting myself to work at providing a better reflection of God’s love, then I am reminded of the promise which I have received. The Lord has promised to remove those chains which bind me. I am set free in the Lord’s love and grace. All I have to do is reach out and accept it. Then my reflection of God’s love is a response and not a requirement. In order for Scrooge to reduce his chains, he had to change his life, his view of Christmas, and the way he treated others. The Lord takes away my chains even before I change my life.

What chains are you forging in your life? Have you allowed the Lord to remove those chains or are you still clinging to them? Are you responding to what the Lord has already done for you or do you think you still have to earn the removal of your chains?

Let the Lord remove your chains forever and enjoy the happiness of life and love!