Lessons From the Dry Times

 

I was tired of looking at them……….the dried up remnants of my once bright and beautiful flowers in my two little flower beds off the back patio.  The extreme summer drought and heat had taken its toll on my flowers and had turned their former glory into black ugliness.  Long gone were the cheery yellows of the Black-Eyed Susans; the pretty pink of the Coneflowers; the stunning orange of the Tiger Lilies; and the soft purple of the Garden Phlox.  It was time to do some trimming………trimming that is usually left until autumn but was necessary now, in August.
 
 
Taking my pruning shears and my garden gloves, I headed outside and was soon filling up my pop-up container with the dry, dusty remains of my flowers.  As I clipped, I wondered if any of these perennials would return next spring, even as I noticed places that were already bare – where death had already sunk deep into the roots and destroyed the visible plants as well.  Two summers of severe dryness and burning sun had indeed claimed many flowers and trees and vegetables.  Even with what watering we did, nothing could replace refreshing rain and kinder, cooler temperatures. 
 
My garden shoes crunched over the brittle mulch as I bent over to cut away the deadness.  And as I clipped the useless remnants of my flowers, I noticed that even in the seemingly lifeless garden, some creatures and plants continued to live.  Here and there were weeds……..a chickweed growing against the brick border……….a clump of crab grass nestled in the dry mulch.  How do weeds manage to live even in the midst of such drought?  Around me I saw grasshoppers lunging up as I disturbed their hiding places.  As if my struggling flowers needed any other detriments to their growth, I thought.  Those ugly grasshoppers would eat any remaining life out of these poor flowers for sure.    The life that I was seeing in my flower garden was not the kind that I wanted to see at all!
 
 
Yet as my shears stripped away the dull remains of my flowers, I saw some color.  There, nestled amidst the blackness, was the welcome sight of a yellow Black-Eyed Susan; a bright pink little Coneflower; a softer pink Garden Phlox.  They were both a reminder of what had once been and the hope of what could very possibly come again next spring.   Dryness and death doesn’t have to be the norm, I thought.  There is always hope that the rains will come again; that the sun will be kinder; that replanting or reseeding can occur.  In the meantime, here and there a flower still grew, and the purpose of these seemingly dead plants was evident in the midst of awful circumstances. 
 
I’ve experienced dry times in my life.  We all have those seasons…………or will have if we live long enough.  Prolonged stresses and disappointments just suck the life and the beauty out of our very souls.  Days are long and nights are longer.  The heat of our worries and trials beats us down, blacken our outlook, and steal our joy.  There seems to be no evident end in sight………no welcome rain cloud to provide moisture or to shield us from the sun’s burning rays.  And in our weakest moments, we see weeds sprouting up around us………..weeds of worry, of bitterness, of anger, of blame, of defeat.  Or the hopping grasshoppers of our thought life, hopping to this conclusion or to that decision that is not in God’s plan for us at all. 
 
David experienced these desert seasons as he ran from King Saul.  Here was the future king of Israel, appointed by God, yet hiding in caves and running for his life.  He was falsely accused, thrust out, tormented, and unwanted – with no end in sight to his suffering.  In Psalm 63, David poured out his heart:  “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for you; my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.”  What did David do in that dry and weary land in which he found himself?  Did he worry, complain, become bitter, or throw a royal fit?  No!  He sought God earnestly – and not for what God could do for him, but because of WHO God is.  He thirsted and yearned for God, “……to see Your power and Your glory.”

 

How did David seek God?  “Because Your loving kindness (grace) is better than life, My lips will praise You. So I will bless You as long as I live;  I will lift up my hands in Your Name.”  (Psalm 63:3-4)   David took action!  He didn’t sit there and allow ugly weeds or grasshoppers to clutter his soul.  He used his lips to praise God and he lifted his hands in worship of God.   He opened the way for God’s beauty to fill his being even in the midst of a dry desert and a dark cave.  Just as my little blooming flowers shone in my ugly flower bed, so David’s praise and worship was a shining light in his own heart and to those around him…………a light to reveal the great God Who loves us and delights in our praise even in the dry seasons of our lives…………..ESPECIALLY in those dry seasons!
 
It’s up to us…………..will it be ugly weeds and destructive grasshoppers?  Or will we lift our hands in worship and open our mouths in praise in the middle of the heat and dryness of our prolonged trials?     (Psalm 63:5)

Lessons From the Spring Snow

Although the calendar doesn’t say that spring is here yet, officially, you sure couldn’t prove that by the gorgeous weather that we have been enjoying. Days have been warm and sunny, birds are singing, robins have been spotted, and even that particular smell of spring has been in the air. My Salvia, Black-Eyed Susans, Garden Phlox, Peonies, and Shasta Daisies are all peeking out of the soil, showing off their fresh green growth. Many trees and bushes are budding, and I’ve seen Bradford Pears in full bloom as I drive around town. It’s a refreshing and peaceful time of year – a time of stretching and breathing deeply of the warm air, full of the smell of damp earth and the promise of warmer days ahead.

Two days ago the winds began howling, not at all unusual here in Kansas. These winds, however, began to change direction as night fell. Instead of blowing strong but warm out of the south, they started blowing out of the north. The temperatures dropped dramatically and then sometime during the night the rain began to fall. In the wee hours of the morning there was a different sound. No longer did we hear just the strong winds and the pattering of rain on the roof and windows. Now we heard the sharp pinging of sleet as it was blown against our window panes. The early alarm from my clock only made me want to hunker down further under my warm covers. I didn’t want to face the unwelcome cold that had intruded upon our beautiful spring-like weather, or look outside to see what sight might await me.

Sure enough, one look outside confirmed what I knew in my heart to be true. A light snow was falling, mixed in with stinging sleet – covering the emerging new growth of my flowers and the fragile little buds on the trees and bushes. The wind mixed with the snow and sleet made me cringe, not only for those who had to venture out in such a mess but also for the tender new growth all around me that was being hammered by such ugly weather. Later it was my turn to walk outside and face the cold, to clean off the crusty accumulation on the van, and to hope that I didn’t slip and fall on the icy cement. The sky was heavy and gray as I scraped off the van, and though the snow and sleet had stopped falling, the clouds looked like they would soon open up again and shower us with more of the frozen mess.

 

Yet in the midst of this wintry scene around me, I heard a sweet sound. Loudly and clearly from a nearby tree came the welcome song of a bird. It seemed that this bird was singing as confidently as he could, unaffected by the cold and the ice and the snow. He continued as I worked to free the van windows of the ice and snow, singing his sweet melody over and over. And with that beautiful bird song, I began to experience hope. I knew that this storm was only an interlude in the cycle of winter becoming spring, and that spring would soon triumph. I knew that we would be hearing many more birds, and that they would build their nests and fill them with eggs that would hopefully hatch to produce more beautiful singers. The pretty flowers and bushes would continue to grow, and before long we would be delighted by the gorgeous colors all around us. The stony grey and white of this cold day would be gone!

 

All of us have enjoyed many days of blessings and peaceful periods when life is relatively smooth. The minor annoyances that occur are not enough to upset the flow of daily life. But then one day the winds begin to blow and things become a little uncertain. Finally, the direction of the winds changes and life really is turned upside down. The rain that was falling but was tolerable suddenly changes to brutal, stinging sleet and snow. Our beautiful growth, our pretty new flowers, our fragile buds, are threatened by the harsh circumstances around us. We want to hide from the trials, to pull the covers up and not venture out to face what we know will await us outside. But face it we must………the sting of death, the hurt of betrayal, the fear of a doctor’s diagnosis, the grief of a wayward child, the certainty of aging, the loss of finances. Whatever has clouded our lives and covered us with icy reality cannot be ignored.

But oh, we have hope! Just as clearly as the bird’s song filled me with the certain knowledge, the hope, of a coming spring – so we have a certain knowledge that God will never fail and that He has so much in store for us………..so much beauty, so much joy, so much sunshine and peace. The prophet Jeremiah knew about suffering and hope. He said, “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers, and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have HOPE. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore I have HOPE in Him.” (Lamentations 3:19-24)

 

How powerful is that reminder from God through Jeremiah! As the bird reminded me of the coming spring, may we also be reminded of God’s faithfulness to us in every stinging storm that we face. And may we be faithful to sing out His praises and look forward with great hope to all that He has in store for us!

Psalm 46

Today on the radio I heard David Jeremiah talking about those times that we come to God with such heavy hearts that we don’t really even know what to say, and so we just ask Him to speak to us in a special way.  I guess hearing him say that has caused me to think today about one of the most meaningful times that I did just that.

In May of 2000, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He went through months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation, and was doing very well.  After four years we were all resting easier about his condition, praising God for His healing hand on Dad.

I’ll never forget the day in early November of 2004 when our phone rang.  It was my mom and dad calling me from West Virginia.  Some routine blood work that had been done a few weeks earlier had shown that some of his levels weren’t quite right.  On the phone that day, he and mom broke the news to me that a liver scan had shown that Dad had liver cancer.  It was inoperable, but chemo was once again an option.  However, we knew that this was very serious and possibly terminal.

None of our family was expecting this news.  We were all devastated, of course, and so sad on many levels.  The next morning after receiving this awful news, I sat at the table with my coffee and my Bible.  I was trying to find the motivation to work on a Bible study I was doing, but my heart wasn’t in that.  Finally, I just called out to God and said, “Oh God, You know that I am so sad and so hurt over Dad.  Please, Lord, I need to hear from You right now.  Please speak to me.”

I opened my Bible randomly.  I had nothing marked, nothing stuck in the pages of my Bible that would have caused it to open where it did.  I looked down to where I had opened it and saw Psalm 46.  This was a special Psalm to my extended family.  Verse one says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  Beside that verse I had written, “‘Dad, cancer: 2000.”  Then verse 10 is my mother’s verse: “Be still and know that I am God.”  I had her name written beside that verse.

It was a very special time of worship for me that morning.  I said, “Oh, thank you Lord, for reminding me of Who You were to all of us during Dad’s cancer in 2000 and of Who You still are today!”  And so I added the date of 2004 to that verse as a reminder of this wonderful word once again from God.

It was a Friday morning and I knew that back in West Virginia, Dad was at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast that he always attended.  That meant that Mom would be alone, and so she and I could really talk.  I called her and for a few minutes we talked and cried together.  Then I said, “Mom, God did the most amazing thing this morning.  I asked Him to speak to me and so I opened my Bible……………”   But Mom interrupted me before I could say anything else.

She said, “Wait!  Don’t tell me!  Was it Psalm 46?”

And I replied, “Well, yes, but how did you know that?”

And she said, “Yesterday when we got home from the doctor, your dad went back into the bedroom and stayed there a long time.  When he came out I asked what he was doing, and he told me that he was reading Psalm 46.”

Oh wow!  God was reaching down to us, so many miles apart, and showing us that He was there…….that He was aware of our need and of our hurt……..that He hadn’t forgotten us…………..that He truly was a PRESENT help in our trouble.

God gave us four more wonderful years with Dad.  We would often say to each other, “Remember Psalm 46!”

What a faithful and awesome God we serve!

Lessons From the Destroyed Pine

The autumn day was beautiful.  Sunshine abounded, warm temperatures cheered our spirits, birds were singing, and our home was full of activity as we prepared for Thanksgiving.  Andrew was home from college and was busy helping Gary haul off our old dining room set and then do some work on the trucks.  We were carrying in groceries that would be used in a couple days to prepare our Thanksgiving dinner, all the while dodging our big Great Dane who was happily moving from one to the other of us as he enjoyed all the excitement and bustle.  It was the kind of day I love – a day of togetherness, of accomplishing tasks, of anticipation of having the family together for Thanksgiving.

Yet in the background were other noises – sounds that we couldn’t drown out, even in the midst of our joy and activity.  There was the grinding sound of the chain saw, the shout of the tree cutter, and the unmistakable thud of a dead branch hitting the ground.  When my eyes left the scene of happiness in our front yard and wandered to our side yard, I couldn’t ignore the scene that was being played out there.  It was a scene of death; of destruction; of ending.  This was the second visit that our tree cutters had made to our home to take away not one, but now two of our beautiful pine trees that had succumbed to the deadly nematodes of Pine Wilt disease. The first dead tree further down on our property had been cut down and carted off several days earlier.   This second tree that was being cut on this gorgeous day was right outside our back door, just off the patio area.  Our large, perfectly shaped pine tree had been destroyed by the unseen, hidden little nematodes that had eaten away at the very heart and life of the tree.

 

The two young men worked diligently at their task.  Starting at the top of the tree, Jordan used his chain saw to cut each section and branch down.  His co-worker on the ground would then carefully stack these portions onto the truck to be carried away.  Then they would return to repeat the process until finally the entire tree was disposed of and hauled away.  I walked outside at one point while they were gone and just observed the sad display of this once magnificent tree.  There it was, stark against the pretty blue sky – a dark, bare, useless trunk.  What a picture of loss!  This once productive tree was now only a memory of its former glory and usefulness.  Those horrible little nematodes had, unknowingly to us, been eating away at our beautiful tree and had finally accomplished their purpose.  Our tree was fit for only one thing – to be cut down and taken away, never to be of any use again.

How interesting that this once sturdy tree had stood strong against the outward, visible attacks that had come against it during the many years of its life.  Fierce winds had whipped its branches; tornadoes had come way too close; snow had piled on its limbs; thick ice had caused some of its branches to snap; drought had tried to deplete it – yet still it stood, proud and strong.  What felled our tree was the tiny, unseen nematodes that were working inside its massive trunk and extending into its many branches.  These intruders methodically destroyed the inner life of our stately tree until finally we could see the outward evidence of inward death, and had no recourse but to demolish our tree and have it carried away.

We all face many storms in our lives that bombard us with stress and grief.  At times it’s overwhelming, but I know that for me these fierce storms have driven me to my knees and the Word for guidance and comfort.  I have grown even in the pain of these trials.  However, what causes me the most damage, it seems, are the hidden sins or hurts that lodge in my heart.  No one can even see them or be aware of the damage that they are causing in my spirit.  It’s easy for me to hide my attitudes or my pain from those around me, at least for a period of time.  Eventually, though, the destruction that my inner destoyers have caused will begin to show outwardly.  It becomes more evident, not only to me but to those around me, that I am not the person I used to be.  My effectiveness for Christ suffers as I allow my inner attitudes to take away my joy, my peace, my testimony, my service.

Perhaps you have allowed some of the sinful nematodes of life to take residence in your heart.  You have not been like the Psalmist who declared: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.”  (Psalm 1:3)   You have allowed inner hurts to take root and prosper instead;  or perhaps pride;  maybe bitterness over situations that you cannot control;  lost ministries that you miss;  children who embarrass or disappoint…………..the nematode possibilities are endless, but all are devastating.  They burrow inside and take away your very life until you are a former shell of what you used to be.  Oh, may we instead be like Paul, who said, “…….but one thing I do:  forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14).   Oh God, purge our hearts from the sin that so easily takes control, and strengthen us to reach forward and press on toward the goal that You have for us!

 

Lessons From the Stray Flower

It’s the time of year to call it quits – as far as my flower gardens, that is. My beds of beauty at this point on the calendar are mostly dead or dying beds of brownness. I had noticed for days that I really needed to buckle down and get it over with. All the areas that had once provided color and beauty were now dull and ugly. My flowers had done as well as they could during our history-making summer of stifling heat and drought. Now most of them looked spent. Not only tired and exhausted, but many of them positively dead. The garden would be lovelier without the dead growth, and our eyes would be pleased to look upon beds that were bare rather than beds that were full but wasted.

I gathered the tools that I needed for the job. Small pruning shears, large pruning shears, garden gloves, rake, broom, and my trash container. I walked out back to the two flower beds at our patio and got to work. I bent over and began clipping with the small pruners, being careful not to pull the perennials up by their roots. Hopefully next spring these once beautiful flowers will grow again if I leave their roots intact. I worked among the Black Eyed Susans, the Shasta Daisies, and the Garden Phlox first, snipping and cutting. The trash container was filling up fast, so I emptied it into the large trash can and came back to continue the cleaning. When I came to the Tiger Lilies, I grabbed the large shears and began whacking away at the tall, tough stalks. They fell over the area where once they had stood tall and regal in their bright orange blooms. I’d scoop them up, toss them in the container, and begin again with the pruning. Death was all around me. Everything that was once full of beauty was now only brown and crisp. Dust was puffing up around me, getting on my clothes and in my hair. It was a place of dryness, of has-beens and what used-to-be.

And then I saw it. The little pink blooms laying on the ground caught my eye in an instant as I cut some dead stalks away. They seemed so out of place amidst the drab decay all around them. I paused and looked at them laying there so sweet and still. They were small but their beauty was enormous next to the ugliness all around them. They made me pause and catch my breath as I drank in their beauty and enjoyed the message that they gave to me. I smiled, refreshed in a special way, and then continued with my task at hand as I kept them in my sight. I tried not to disturb their blooms that reminded me of the beauty of the past and promised me of more beauty yet to come in the spring.

 

I have had times of great joy and beauty in my life. I thank the Lord for the memories of those times, and for the daily blessings and moments of happiness that still occur in my life every single day. But as is true with every one of us, I have had times of bleakness. Times when all around me things appear to be full of sadness, heaviness, and pain. The chopping and the tearing away take such a toll on me. I get so tired. The dust swirls around me and I long for clean air and a refreshing touch. That’s when God bends down and speaks to me the clearest. There in the midst of the uncertainty and the heartache I hear His voice. His still, small voice speaks to me in sharp contrast to the darkness all around me. Through His Word, as I read and meditate on what He says, I am refreshed and encouraged. I remember His promises and His blessings of the past, and I know that He will be faithful yet in my future. God is like that little stray, blooming flower – catching my attention with His beauty and soothing me with His presence. Oh Lord, may I, like David, say: “Why are you in despair, oh my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”

Lessons From the Loaded Truck

Gary and I appreciate how our neighborhood association has a designated clean-up weekend twice a year. The association rents a huge dumpster and puts it in a field that’s just around our circle from us. It’s the perfect time for us to unload any large unwanted items that are allowed in the dumpster. Our big goal, though, is to cut and trim many of our branches, bushes, and trees that have gotten out-of-hand or have died. This last clean-up time a couple weekends ago was no exception. The weather was perfect in every way for Gary and I to head outside and begin our chopping and sawing. It wasn’t long before the piles were growing all over our couple acres. It was time for the dying cherry tree to go, as well as an old long-dead spruce. Our huge Crepe Myrtles needed to be cut down low, and the violet bush badly needed some work. Off came the bottom branches of our evergreen that we lovingly call our Gumdrop Tree as we try to save it for one more year of Christmas lights. And there were many, many other branches and limbs and parts of trees that needed to be sawed down and disposed of.

We used to use Andrew’s old truck for these days but now that he’s off to college we pile the mounds into Gary’s truck. What a blessing to have this means of hauling all that mess down to the dumpster! We drag and lift and load over and over again. It’s amazing how many loads we haul away! The truck is filled as full as it can be with each trip, that’s for sure. Gary has it down to a fine art of how to load the truck and it works very well. We pile it high, and then Gary uses a rope to tie it down before he drives off around the circle to unload. I either ride down with him to help unload, or I stay back at the house to do other things until he returns. One thing I’ve never done is to run along behind him, yelling for him to stop so that I can take some of the load off and carry it myself; or telling him that I need to rearrange the load; or offering to ride on top of the load to help hold it down. No, that would be silly! The truck is able to carry the load perfectly and the rope holds it secure. I have every confidence in the ability of Gary’s truck to do the job and do it well.

As we loaded Gary’s truck, I was reminded of what I had read in Isaiah 46 recently. God began that chapter by talking about how the Babylonians would load their false gods onto donkeys when they were being attacked. However, soon both the donkeys and the false gods were taken into captivity. Neither was able to help the other. Then in verses 3 and 4 God reminded Israel: “…….you have been borne by me from birth and have been carried from the womb; Even to your old age I shall be the same, and even to your graying years I shall bear you! I have done it, and I shall carry you! And I shall bear you and I shall deliver you!” What an amazing promise that is true for believers today as well! It’s true for me and for you! God will be the same for our entire lives, from birth til death. He desires to bear me and to deliver me! He wants to carry my loads and bear my burdens! Just as I could trust Gary’s truck to carry the weight and the amount of our limbs and branches, so I can trust God to carry all the weight and the amount of my troubles and my burdens.

Peter said in I Peter 5:7: “Casting all your cares upon Him, because He cares for you.” This carries the idea of throwing my cares upon God. Just as I threw those branches and limbs on the truck, so I can throw my cares upon God. And just as silly as it would be for me to chase Gary around the circle and try to carry the limbs myself, so it’s silly for me to throw my cares upon God but then try to take them back. Yet that’s exactly what I’m doing every time I pray but still worry and stew over my problems. Why is it so hard to just leave my burdens on the God Who WANTS to bear them for me? Why do I think that by losing sleep, or talking and talking about my issues, or continuing to try to solve my problems myself, or reading the next self-help book – that I can in any way accomplish any more than the donkeys and the false gods did in Isaiah’s time? Oh God, may I throw my worries and hurts and fears and pain upon You, fully upon You, and allow You to bear them and to carry me and deliver me!

Just like Gary’s good old truck!

Lessons From the Battered Plants

On Thursday evening we stood helplessly at our windows and watched as the hail fell and the wind blew ferociously. The hail wasn’t huge but was relentless and seemed to go on forever. When the storm was over I stepped outside and felt very disheartened at what I saw – leaves that had blown off of trees and plants were plastered everywhere; branches were snapped and smaller twigs were scattered all around; flowers were shredded; newly purchased hanging baskets were twisted and broken; our vegetable garden partly flattened and mangled. I didn’t even want to deal with it after weeks of planting, nurturing, and then beginning to see the fruits of our labor that we noticed even as we walked around the yard and garden minutes before the storm started.

Today I stepped out on the back patio, gathered the hanging baskets together, and started trimming the dying and drooping limbs. I then turned to the two flower beds in the back to do the same there. And I noticed something amazing. In the midst of the damage there was new growth. There among the pock-marked leaves and shredded blooms were new blooms waiting to open, new leaves unfurling, and bees buzzing about. Life!! And you know why? Because these plants were not uprooted. Their root systems were intact, receiving nourishment from underneath the ground as well as stability to remain standing. Sure, they bear the marks of the storm, and some look very tattered and worn. But there is growth; there is an anchor in the soil; there is hope.

How many times I’ve been battered by the storms of life! All of us have endured the sting of trials in so many areas of our lives. Many trials are prolonged and seem to never end. I’ve felt beaten, defeated, discouraged, scared, tired. But through it all I know in Whom I have believed. My roots are firm in the God Whom I trust. Jeremiah said it very well in Jeremiah 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is in the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.” I may bear the marks of the sufferings of this life but as I remain rooted in God my life can continue to grow, to prosper spiritually, to yield the peacable fruit of righeousness, to have peace and usefulness. I have hope as I anchor my roots in Christ – “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and stedfast…..” Hebrews 6:19.

And so I pray that I will bear the marks of my trials and hardships to the glory of God. I pray that I will continue to grow, to bloom, and to bear fruit despite the scars that may mar my leaves. I pray that through the heat and fierceness of the storms to come I will remain rooted in the Lord with no fear or worry, being fed by Him, and looking forward to the sure and stedfast hope that He provides!