The Perfect Side of Boring

Yesterday was the reason people live in South Florida. The skies were a cloudless blue. Humidity was low and the temperature never got above a pleasant 80*. It was perfect. It’s January and this is our winter. 

My freshman English teacher assigned us to write how we envisioned the world. I don’t remember the words I wrote only her comments written in red on the top of my paper. I wrote my vision of a perfect world and she wrote “how boring” that would be.

She didn’t know my parents had divorced earlier that year and that my dad took my younger brother and moved to another state. She didn’t know mom and I also moved and were living far from family. She didn’t know my perfect world had been turned upside down.

How could there be a problem with perfect? If it were boring it wouldn’t be perfect. How did my teacher not get that?

In the years since I’ve learned a lot about perfection and perspective. I know that most of our days are average and ordinary. They are doing the mundane things that must be done. We’re buying groceries and preparing meals. We’re doing laundry and washing dishes, sitting in meetings and standing in lines. We’re fighting traffic in our daily commute while trying to remember everything on our to-do list for the day.

If we’re honest, on the days nothing breaks down they are perfect. And perhaps, some would say, boring. 

So what is perfect? Is it blue skies and 80* in winter? 

If I could, I’d live somewhere else July – September. The humidity is stifling and temperatures rarely get below 77. Heat + humidity = feels like in the 90’s. Every day, month after muggy month.

But we stay because we love palm trees and the close proximity to the ocean. We know the promise of winter. The same reasons some stay through snowy winters. They know the promise of summer.

Perfect is personal. That’s what my teacher didn’t understand.

When my parents divorced I still went to school, mom and I still went to church. We did all the same things but it wasn’t the same. What was ordinary before now looked perfect. Obviously it wasn’t for my parents but it was for my 13 year old self.

It would seem the route to perfection is through hard times. Through times that aren’t comfortable. The prettiest roses I’ve seen grow in climates with cold, snowy winters. 

The weather is simply an analogy for how it is in life. It helps me see that a day of doing all the things can be perfect, if not spectacular. 

Living in the Now

Our daughter got a new car recently. It’s a Nissan Rogue. I’ve never noticed that particular car but now I see them all over. That’s how it happens. They’ve been there all along but once it’s pointed out we notice.

That’s how it is with being present. Have you noticed the talk about living in the moment, being present? I hear it on the morning news shows, see the articles online and come face to face with the advise from a friend who works as a counselor. 

The problem is, I’m a literal person and over thinker. That can be a tough combination. It provokes questions like, how long do we live in the now? Now asks what do I want to make for dinner which leads to thinking about later and that isn’t the now. See what I mean?

Now has me telling you I’m watching college football and forgetting about the recent holidays. Yes, I exhaust myself with this over thinking!

I understand the value of this moment. I get the importance of not living in the past or the future. But one will always lead into the other. That’s what time does. 

Time has found us living in the narrow spaces of in between then and tomorrow. We are packing up our life, or so it seems. For the first time in over 20 years we know we’ll be moving and we know where and when. When I’m packing things in boxes I’m definitely living in the now. But my thoughts quickly turn to where we might put this in the new house.

Now finds me unsettled and anxious at times. Now doesn’t offer the answers I want. But now is where I name the 5 good things. It’s where I say the prayers and remind myself to pick up the dry cleaning.

Now is when I make supper for the two of us and when I lose myself in a book.

Now isn’t scary. It’s obvious and simple. It’s routine and predictable. Now is comfortable which makes me wonder why I squirm so much in trying to figure out the future. 

The present slips quickly into the next moment and that’s the temptation that lures me. It promises control that creates expectations and both come tumbling down like a house of cards. 

So I’m working on training my focus to what’s in front of me. It’s not easy. I have years of second guessing myself and believing I can control life. I’m not sure how this living in the now is suppose to work but I’m willing to try. It starts with breathing in, ‘Yah’, and out ‘weh’….breathing in and out the name of God.

Are You Ready? (& my one word)

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I feel I should give you fair warning. We’re going through a lot of lasts these days as we ready ourselves for retirement. It finds me with rich memories that dampen my eyes and new questions that can’t be answered – yet. At times, it feels like I’m trying to keep my balance while on a rocking boat. I love the water but those waves remind you to steady your balance and that sometimes you need to let the waves carry you.

I’m giving you warning because I feel as if I’m repeating myself and talking too much about this part of our life. I don’t want to be that person but it’s taking up a lot of mental space these days. I’m trying to get a jump on the packing well in advance so we can be ready. So far, that’s the easy part. I’m also trying to focus more on being emotionally ready and that’s where it gets tricky.

We had a wonderful time over the holidays with family being in and out and allowing us to pivot our attention on being together. There is always a lot of laughter, too much food and satisfied exhaustion from staying on the go. 

The decorations have been packed away and our house looks bare in comparison to its recent festive glow. The linens have been washed from our full house. The fridge still holds some leftovers daring me to do some creative cooking. 

Getting ready for the next thing always starts with some cleaning up, some putting away, and some letting go.

I need toclean up my habits which perennially include drink more water, move more, and (this year) eat less. 

I need to put away my attitude…the one that is full of sass and let go of my expectations of others. 

I also want to remember to embrace what is before me. So far, I have a clear view of what is behind and only vague uncertainties about what is ahead. I can let it come or I can choose to welcome new possibilities. Embrace is the word that called out to me as a gentle guide for this season. It’s the posture I want to guide me to a new readiness. Arms wide open.

Christmas at My Age

In recent years many of my doctors have started conversations with these words: “At your age….” At your age I want you to take a baby aspirin (even though I have no family history of heart issues)At your age your teeth start to shift. At your age your eyes, your skin, your sleep…..

There is one childhood Christmas that sticks in my mind. It’s the year I asked Santa for an Easy-bake Oven.  I was 8 or 9 and the anticipation filled me with such excitement that I woke up in the middle of the night to peek into our living room to see if Santa had come. 

There is another year where I remember hearing the reports of where Santa and his sleigh were at that moment. I was a year or two younger and don’t remember the desired present but it was the excitement and anticipation of the event.

At my age, I’ve seen a lot of Christmases. Not all were happy or filled with excitement. We shift from the fables and presents and getting and think more about preparing and giving. We try to figure out ways to balance all the things without losing the reason we celebrate.

At my age I want the kind of Christmases where I still experience the wonder of the season. I want to be filled with the glory the angels sang about and know the joy of giving. 

At my age I want to hold dearly in my heart the memories of those we’ve lost while I hold the joy of their eternal peace and wholeness. 

I want to deck the halls and smile at the twinkling lights, to line our shelves with the Santa’s collected over the years, to celebrate the remnants of our past and the hope of our future.

At my age, I want to remember that Christ is being born every day, over and over in our life when we cling to his hope and peace and share his joy and love. 

Merry Christmas

Where Is This Prince of Peace?

Our second Advent focuses on peace. Hope was an easier one to write about. Hope is what we cling to and give. It’s our message, our mission statement. But I’m wrestling with getting a grip on peace.

It sounds so simple and makes for a nice song. But what do we tell those in our care about peace? What do we tell people whose lives have been marred by drama and conflict? What do we tell our own children who practice active shooter drills in school? Peace isn’t the same as quiet or calm. It’s not merely the absence of war or conflict. Though that often seems to be our main objective.

How do we put in concrete terms and practice something that seems as hard to grasp as air?

If only it were as simple as saying Step 1 or accepting Jesus as Savior. It is and it isn’t. 

Saying, “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable” does bring a measure of peace as does accepting Jesus as our higher power, our Savior, our redeemer. But then ….us. Our messy lives are still here. Old patterns lurk about and the habits of gossip, lying, and negativity are as destructive as any chemical. None of them harbor peace.

The children of Israel were hungry for peace. They’d spent years as captive slaves, then wandered in the desert and even in their homeland there was no assurance of peace. Where was the promise of the Messiah, the one Isaiah called the Prince of Peace?

When this promised king was born the heavens lit up with an angelic choir. A star brighter than any other guided the way for curious scholars. But even then fear, not peace, ruled. King Herod believed this prophecy of a new King and ordered all boys under age two to be killed. Violence not peace ruled the day.

Dissension between people groups continued. While Jesus calmed the waters by saying “peace be still” he riled the religious leaders by healing on the sabbath and eating with thieves. What kind of peace is this?

I was in high school during the Viet Nam war. I remember watching the beginnings of the Gulf War on television. We all can cite exactly where we were when the planes flew into the twin towers. 

Social media has only ramped up the cycle of friction as people go to war with words. Our own president can’t seem to find restraint. There is no calm, no quiet. There is no peace.

This has been the verse that restores my soul when the world is too loud. It can seem too abstract at times as I’d prefer peace to be something we can feel externally, not just within. 

But it turns out that, much like hope, peace is how we choose to live. 

Be aware that a time is coming when you will be scattered like seeds. You will return to your own way, and I will be left alone. But I will not be alone, because the Father will be with Me. I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order.” John 16:32-33 VOICE

Where is this Prince of Peace?  

And the Glory Shone Around Them

“…and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified,..”

Every Sunday one of the residents stands in front of the chapel and reads the scripture selected for this weeks worship gathering.

This may be the first time he’s read in a church setting. It may be the first time he has read from the bible. He might stumble over the words. He might be filled with fear even though he’s volunteered to do this.

With 100 men I don’t know many details of their life but I know he’s not living at the Salvation Army because life was good. It’s alcohol or drugs and these days in this part of the country odds are it’s opioids. I know there was something that took him out of life. If you heard some of their stories you’d probably give him a pass for choosing drugs or alcohol to numb the pain; to escape the nightmares that were real.

What I see when they stand in the front of our simple, small chapel isn’t what brought them here. I’ve come to see God’s glory surrounding them. God’s radiant love and mercy shining around someone who still isn’t sure if there is a God. 

It’s easier to recognize God’s glory in church. It’s easier to see it shining on the clean and well fed. But the truth is, God’s glory was shining on them holding that cardboard sign on the side of the road. His glory was wrapping them in a grace they hadn’t discovered. 

The familiar verse in Luke gives a beautiful image of God’s glory. The Voice says it this way:

“Suddenly a messenger of the Lord stood in front of them, and the darkness was replaced by a glorious light—the shining light of God’s glory. They were terrified!” Luke 2:9

God chose to shine his glory on a group of smelly men who spent most of their time living outdoors with their sheep. They were laborers. Unless they had an assistant they probably didn’t take time off to attend religious instruction. In other words, they weren’t church folks. Their ordinary life was interrupted by God’s radiant glory, their darkness replaced by His glory. This heavenly birth announcement was specifically given to them. By an ANGEL CHOIR! 

He stands in front of our chapel and reads. 

He plays his first piano solo in church one week. 

He kneels at the altar. 

He is sitting in our service unsure of who this Jesus is. 

He is angry with God. 

He stands to thank God for giving him breath. 

I have wrestled with God, turned my back on him, ignored his voice yet, it’s His glorious light that continues to break through the darkness in my life.

God’s grace surrounds us. Do you see it?
God’s glory always shines in the dark places. 

Hope of All Hope

“Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations…” Romans 4:18a NLT

Our Advent celebration begins with hope. Hope is that thing that doesn’t make sense. It’s the thing that keeps us alive when all else seems lost. Hope keeps us searching. We breathe it in slowly, praying even these small breaths will sustain us one more day.

When God’s people haven’t seen a hint of light or hope of day, God will do something new.
Preface to Isaiah 9 in The Voice

God’s story, as recorded in the Bible through lives of men and women, is a story of hope. The stories of Abraham and Esther take twists and turns but are examples of unfailing hope. When people feared the worst the prophet Isaiah assured them a Savior would come. 

Hope of all hopes, dream of our dreams, a child is born, sweet-breathed; a son is given to us: a living gift. And even now, with tiny features and dewy hair, He is great.  The power of leadership, and the weight of authority, will rest on His shoulders. His name? His name we’ll know in many ways—He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Dear Father everlasting, ever-present never-failing, Master of Wholeness, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 the Voice

When that Hope came in form of a baby many didn’t believe. They’re still searching. We are searching. We’re desperate for hope so we place it in money, status, family, politics. We grab at things we can hold.

When we hope in the tangible and temporal we discover more emptiness.I can’t explain this hope I have. For me hope looks like getting up when part of me wants to bury myself deeper under the covers of a comfortable bed. I might only make it to the couch but it’s a declaration that I haven’t given up.

Even with tears filling my eyes and fear stirring within there is a glimmer that relief will come. Somewhere, when things seem to be at their worst, I have hope. 

There was no hoping that mama’s dementia would improve or be cured. As dementia took more and more of her I was reminded that while we lost the essence of our mother, we held to the hope that pointed to her restoration in eternity. 

When I stare at an uncertain future and feel lacking in every area it is the One who is my Hope that assures me of his unending care. Hope isn’t answers. I don’t have them. Hope is the expectation that God will fulfill his promise of unfailing love.

This isn’t wishful thinking. This is God’s promise. His Son. Our Wonderful Counselor, MightyGod, Master of Wholeness and Prince of Peace.

This is the Hope of all Hopes. 

Advent Ignores the Urgency of Now and Says Wait

We can’t wait for the oven to preheat to 350* and then more time to bake so we microwave.

Why spend time writing a note inside a card, finding a stamp and sending off in the mail knowing it will take days when we can email now?

We have 24-hour news services where we can get information from anywhere now.

My impatience grows sitting at red lights or with drivers who seem in no rush. Even when I don’t have a schedule I want people and things to move now.

This is why I need Advent to interrupt my hamster wheel life. My feet are peddling faster and faster only to be back where I started. My brain is thinking about the to-do list for tomorrow and next week and the parties and presents and everything I want done now.

But Advent announces an arrival we must prepare for. An arrival of hope and peace and love and joy. An arrival of promise that we anticipate and wait with the expectancy of a child before Christmas morning.

The Advent candles flicker slowly providing a visual calm for me because in the face of this slowing I am torn. Torn by duties and responsibilities to prepare and make pretty and spread cheer for those in our care.

Yet, I will pause when the candles are lit. I will listen as the words of the Christmas story are spoken and sing from my heart the rejoicing that Christ is coming. He comes now.

“Glory!” sang the angel chorus
“Glory!” echoed back the night
Love has come to walk among us
Christ the Lord is born this night

God’s Economy of Hope

Our audience is a group of 1st through 6th graders. They’ve asked us here to tell them about what we do. They’ve asked us how they can help. 

It’s been a while since my audience has been children though at times some of the adult groups I’ve spoken to have me wondering if there’s much difference. I’m not the main attraction. I was asked to come to share a little of the history of the Salvation Army. I think that mostly, I was asked to come for support. This is Lee’s first time speaking as one of our representatives. Usually he’s speaking in recovery meetings. Talking to kids about this is a first for him and I notice a hint of nerves. 

I go first. Talking in any setting has rarely been a problem for me. When the subject is the mission of The Salvation Army I’m at my best. I start by asking them if they know what we do. Hands go up and one little girl says, “You help people”. We’re off to a great start.  It’s apparent these children are sensitive to the plight of the homeless and hurting. 

When one little girl notices my uniform her mouth drops wide as she says, “a real soldier!”. Another asked, “do you fight for us?” This gave me the opportunity to tell them that we’re called the Salvation Army because our founder said we are fighting the war against sin. Yes, I told the girl, we’re fighting for you. But our weapon is love. This program that helps men battling substance abuse is an all out war as we fight with them and for them to live a life in recovery and attain the gifts that God has to offer – gifts of restored relationships and integrity. 

I introduce Lee and he starts by saying, “You know the people she was talking about? The homeless and addicts? That was me.” There is an audible gasp and the mouths of little ones literally drop open. 

He has their full attention as hands shoot up with questions. 

What kind of drugs did you take?All kinds

What was it like being homeless?It was lonely. Very lonely. 

What did they give you?They gave me hope

The children brought donations to help us help others. They brought clothes and shoes and items we can sell in our stores that fund our residential program. Things others no longer want are just what we need. Funny how that works, especially in God’s economy. 

In a week’s time we can visibly see the difference in a mans life. We’ve given him fresh clothes, good food, a safe place to sleep and a hot shower. These are outward signs. Lee reminds me that the most important thing we give anyone is hope. 

Here’s the thing, you can’t give hope if you don’t have it yourself. It’s another way God’s economy works. He is our hope and when we have Him we can give hope to others. It seems that’s just what our world needs most.

The Changing Family Table

Every year it seems Thanksgiving is getting closer to being squeezed out by all the fanfare of Black Friday. In between the adds for “Best Deals” are the grocery specials on sweet potatoes and turkeys.

Then there are voices proclaiming appreciation for Thanksgiving more than Christmas. They like the slower pace dictated by the day that seems to be focused on family.

Family has always been the focus of our Thanksgiving gathering. Some years have included friends who would have been home alone. We discover which customs we share and where we differ…usually as it relates to food. My mother-in-law always brought the northern foods to our more southern group that would never consider having a Thanksgiving meal without pecan pie.

Menu aside our real reason for gathering was each other. This year will be the first in our 41 year marriage where we won’t be with family on Thanksgiving day. In today’s mobile society that’s quite an achievement. It also speaks to the fact that we like each other.

I know my heart will be missing our coming together. It already does. I’m saddened that my cousin won’t be able to host this year because of damage to their home caused by Hurricane Michael. Five weeks later and only one supermarket chain has been able to reopen.

While we won’t be with kin we will be with our community that gives us every reason to be thankful. Some of our residents in our ARC will celebrate with their sponsors or friends. Very few will share the day with family. For all of them we will be that for them, as best we can while also wearing the hats of pastor, teacher, director. Seeing change in their lives gives us more than we can ever give to them.

One of our counselors focuses on gratitude in one of her groups. Many of us have learned the value of incorporating thoughts of gratitude daily. It’s an intentional practice. It’s especially important for those who find themselves living in a place that was their last hope.

We’ve used different ways to share our thanks over the years. Reading their words humbles me and draws me in a little more to their journey.

We’ve done this at our family Thanksgivings too. Our words of thanks are evidence of privilege: family, music, food, laughter. They are simple and general even though said with true gratitude.

It’s a mingling of both that brings hearts together in a real family table. One that extends beyond the literal table and chairs. We need the experience of each other to build a stronger community. But we need it most to come closer to God’s immense grace and mercy.

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.