"If the job wasn't so time consuming, I probably would enjoy it." My thoughts wandered around in my head in the middle of the night. "How many closets do I actually have in this house?" Now that we are moving and the time line is in place, the enormity of the job was beginning to sink in. I realized that I had closets and storage spaces in my house that I hadn't "visited" in years. I had no idea what I would find as I explored.
As each door was opened on a long Saturday with the help of some trusted friends, all the contents were unearthed from each closet. Determined to "travel light" on this next stage of my journey, I sorted quickly through my belongings with a huge trash bag. There were some long ago memories of sweet moments with family and children. There were things that no longer mattered in our everyday lives and had sat silent in the dark for years. And there was trash--games with missing pieces, dusty old clothes, misshapen wire hangers--things taking up space but having no purpose. There were also some surprises in the closets. We uncovered things that I never remembered seeing before. I wasn't even sure they were mine. Not many things, but it was an unusual thought that I had things in my closets that I didn't know anything about and had no idea how I acquired them.
As I was working my way through the day, deep down I began to muse about the dark storage places of my heart. How long has it been since I've opened them up for review? How much trash is in them that has no purpose? How many memories are silently waiting for me to give them space in my head? How many surprises would I find? How many emotions are there that I didn't even know I owned or how they got there?
My trusted friends and I made quick work of each space we looked into. At the end of the day there were more than a dozen large trash bags, my closets were clean, dusted and organized, and my friends knew all my secrets. There was no shame. Only a clean space ready for new adventures. There was the satisfaction of companionship and the completion of a "not-your-favorite" job. There was the sharing of life, past and present with a glance toward the future.
As I went to bed I felt lighter, quieter, ready to move into the next season of my life. Somehow cleaning out closets became a metaphor for my heart. I'm sure there's trash and memories and even secrets I don't know about. I think I'll take my trusted companion, Jesus, along for a day and do some house cleaning. The results will render the quietness of his peace and the sweetness of memories with him. The confusion and dust will give way to clear vision and clean hope for a future unburdened by things that have no purpose. Sounds like great traveling. The preparation is good for the soul.
"Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me." Psalm 51:10
“Expect Great Things!” The phrase stared me in the face. Ironically, it was on a jewelry box from a local department store. “Expect great things!” I’ll admit, the response I had to the phrase was a little jaded. My mind ran back to the few times I’ve gone to that store to look for something I needed, or just the right gift for someone special. I couldn’t help remembering the time I paid a pretty hefty price for a piece of clothing only to have it unravel in its first washing. Frankly, I don’t “expect great things” from a department store. In truth, a department store doesn’t have anything that comes close to my idea of “great.”
All afternoon I pondered the phrase, “expect great things!” Do I expect great things of anyone or anything? Am I too jaded to think that anything could ever meet my expectations? Where do my heart and mind intersect when I consider the word “great?” Have I learned to be indifferent to high expectations believing that I will only be disappointed?
Musing in my mind about the reality that a small jewelry box with three words on it had me doing so much thinking, I decided to search out some answers. Immediately, I realized that I do indeed have expectations—especially of myself. Some would say that my expectations of myself are high, really high. I’m not sure that’s what I would call “great.” Perhaps it’s what I would call excellence. I do have expectations of others. I look for things in people. Things like integrity and honesty, good work ethic, the promise of their word. I also look for qualities like assertiveness, teamwork, humor, creativity.
I realized too, that I have expectations of things. I expect my computer to work, the chair I sit in to hold me, my cup to hold my coffee. Those expectations are based on what those things are made to do. However, those expectations are not “great.” They are simply the use for which the product was designed. Perhaps that’s why the phrase, “expect great things” on a jewelry box from a local department store threw me. I don’t think I will put my expectation in a store or a product to produce great things.
But there is one scenario that comes to mind when I am confronted with the phrase, “expect great things.” There is one entity where greatness is the norm. When I spend just a moment in the presence of this entity, my eyes look up, my heart is immediately enlarged and my hope is renewed. God, the Almighty, the maker of Heaven and Earth is “GREAT” and greatly to be praised! All of my hope, my expectation and my trust is in Him. His name bears the tagline, “Expect Great Things!”
Yet, wait! I do expect great things from God. But something is different. I look to the source of greatness, not the product He produces. He doesn’t work on my definition of greatness. He works on His own. His thoughts are high above mine. He alone knows the true meaning of great and how His greatness will be displayed. Here’s the beauty! I never have to be in charge of His greatness. I never have to be disappointed when my “great” is not the outcome. I expect great things from a God who not only guarantees great things in his character, but he asks me to live in expectancy that he will, in his ultimate goodness, do great things on behalf of all his children.
Expect Great Things from the source who always provides them. When our eyes are on Him, knowing that He is great and He is good, that His promises toward His children are full of His everlasting love, we will never be disappointed. Yes, live in expectancy of the greatness of our God, His abundance of grace, love mercy and joy. From Him alone, I expect great things!
A sign hangs in my office that says “Change is inevitable except from a vending machine.” Sometimes change happens gradually, sometimes suddenly, but it always happens. Friday afternoon as I drove home I spied the first signs of yellow in the king of Ash trees that line our street. I usually mark the beginning of Autumn as this tree begins to take on its golden coat for a season. Tipped at the ends of the leaves, it was signifying what the calendar was marking—the first day of Fall. Saturday morning as I stepped out of the house and headed down the road, I was amazed at the change in just 14 hours. The crisp evening air and the early morning sun had painted the tree with golden strokes. There was no mistake that Summer was fading. By late that afternoon as I drove home, the tree was nearly engulfed in its mantle of gold. Sunday morning my husband and I walked to church. As we approached the tree, I relayed my surveillance of the tree over the past 48 hours. The tree was fully laden with gold leaves. It happened so quickly, so subtly and from my perspective, so effortlessly.
It would be nice if changed happened quickly, subtly and effortlessly in my life. Rarely does change happen effortlessly, and to be fair, I’m not sure what a tree goes through when its leaves change. But it is beautiful to me that the tree moves through the seasons on cue with the right resources in place. When I watch those beautiful leaves fall as Winter moves in, the deadness seems to engulf the tree, but it waits patiently for Spring and the beginning of something new. That same tree has the most beautiful bright green leaves in the Spring and is usually the first to bloom. The picture of the tree is the picture I’d like to live out in my own life. Whether change comes quickly or over an extended period of time, I want to see it as potential for something good, something vibrant with life, something to benefit the future.
Change may require the death of something. Like the leaves falling in winter, the deadness seems bleak and dreary. I long for the hint of green to halo the trees as they begin to produce the buds of Spring. But in the Winter, there is preparation and waiting and resting and finishing. All of those things are necessary for the new season to begin. I’m not sure I like waiting and resting and finishing. None of those words sound exciting or encouraging to me. Yet they are the very foundation for a good beginning. The grief of loss is very difficult! It sometimes feels like it can’t be overcome. But just as difficult is a new beginning with no preparation, no waiting, no resting and no finishing what was before.
The seasons of change are beautiful. They each have something unique to offer. Watch closely this Fall. Learn from the trees. The presence of change is inevitable. The power of change brings impact! The potential of change brings fresh new dreams begun. The purpose of change is to help us learn to trust not in ourselves, but in the God who is the author of new creations, new seasons, new dreams.
Here’s to Autumn leaves, hot apple cider and crisp fresh air!
A shot of panic ran through me. Will we have enough? Will we make budget? Will we have the resources to meet payroll? This wasn't the first time I had faced financial crisis. For years and years of my life there has always been more budget than bank balance. The reality of that position has taught me some things about worry, about leadership and most of all about my faith. For many months now my response to the need for resources has been a solid contentment. Leaning into the stability of a God who makes all things possible has allowed me to breathe in his goodness and breathe out an "it is well with my soul." Needless to say, my reaction this day caught me by surprise. I was even more disturbed that I found myself waking up at night thinking about the bottom line of the budget.
God, my Father took me to the story in the Old Testament of the woman who had an encounter with Elisha. Elisha the prophet was hungry and asked her to fix him some food. Unfortunately this woman had some similar resource problems to the ones I've experienced. She told the prophet that she had almost nothing left and was ready to fix her last meal for her and her sons and prepare to die. Elisha put her to work. His instructions seemed odd. He told her to go to her friends and find as many pots as she could, bring them home and shut the door. It seems odd to me that the prophet didn't ask her to go and borrow oil. He asked her to go and borrow pots. She did as she was instructed and gathered the pots. When she was safely in her house with the door closed he instructed her to take her remaining few drops of oil and begin filling the pots. She obeyed and the last few drops of oil in her bottle filled every other pot available. When all the pots were full the oil stopped. The woman now had oil to sell to pay her bills and oil for the sustenance of her family.
I smiled at a good Father who gently sends me reminders of who he is. Just as the woman was instructed to participate in the process of what God was doing, he reminded me that I also have a part to play. My obedience is what brings provision. The woman had no idea what she would do with all of those pots. She wasn't in need of pots. She was in need of oil.
God fills up empty vessels. The filling comes from him. All I need to do is bring the pot. When the oil stopped I wonder if the woman had wished she'd gotten more pots. Why did she stop with the number of pots she gathered? Again, a reminder to me that God cannot run out of resources. No matter how many needs I have, he is continually able to fill them. He's never put out by my asking too much. He never runs out...and he loves to bless with abundance.
The lesson I learned this time around is one of the that I won't soon forget. I can't ask for too much, and as long and as often as I bring him empty pots, he will fill them. Two things! Make sure you bring pots that are empty. And don't overlook any possible pots!
It's a beautiful thing to be included in the grand plan that God has to meet our needs. It's such a sweet truth that provision is not my responsibility. Participation is what is asked of me. His outpouring of goodness fills every waiting empty vessel. His resources never run dry.
Are you worried today about having enough. Participate in what God is doing around you. Empty yourself of what you think you need and let God pour his resources into you in a non-ending stream of his goodness. You'll find the contentment of his never failing abundance. You'll find it is well with your soul.
My soul was shrinking. It wasn’t that life was personally terrible. It was the continual gnawing in my spirit, the chunks taken out of me emotionally as each need called. The picture lurks in my mind of my aging parents and their needs. At every turn, another act of hatred screams from the soul of our broken country. The carping of political calamity rages from every screen we look at. I rushed to the ER to witness my husband’s bleeding leg be stitched. There’s more…but that’s enough.
All of those little “things” that happen on a daily basis take a little something from me. Responsibilities at work and at home clamor for attention. Even a good dose of nourishment from time with God everyday didn’t keep my soul from losing ground. I needed something more.
It took some blood to slow me down. My husband’s leg needed stitches. He wasn’t able to walk for a few days so I was working from home and caring for him. Just being at home for three days in a row, only leaving to run to the drug store for scripts and bandages and a quick stop at the grocery for milk, began the process of resetting the rhythm of my soul.
By Sunday, I had been home long enough to feel like staying there. Sunday is usually full with church responsibilities and hospitality. But this day, my soul cried for quiet. I sensed that in the moments when the house was still, early in the morning, I would hear from God. So I pushed against my mind telling me that missing church wasn’t very Christian, and deliberately stayed in my pajamas. If I was in my pajamas my mind couldn’t win at the last minute and get me to go to church. Yes, sometimes I play mind games with myself.
I began with a cup of coffee—that led to cleaning up the kitchen. Soon I was in a calm and steady mode of putting things in order. By 1:00, the laundry room, the kitchen and my bedroom had all received the touch of love. Clothes were washed and put away. As I touched every area of my house, I was mindful of the presence of God moving in my spirit. Places that were cluttered with heartache, angst, fear and sadness were lovingly being subdued. Places where too many burdens of others were piled up were gently lifted. As I moved from room to room in my house, the rooms breathed contentment and serenity. As God moved inside of me my soul was breathing in fresh wind from the Spirit of God, soothing and encouraging me to soak in His goodness.
A Sabbath. There seems to be little time for Sabbath—the quieting of oneself before God so that he can speak and move the heart toward him. I, for one, get caught up in the whir of the day’s activity, the demands of life, the pain of the world and forget to come away, to be with the One who loves me most and gives me my very life.
Let it not take blood and crippling to bring me back to the place where I recognize my shrinking soul. Let it be that I long for His presence to fill me beyond my own need. Let it be His abundance from which I move to embrace the world, near or far with grace and peace. Let it be said of me, “She has been with Jesus.”
“Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God.”
His weathered face turned toward the mountain. He remembered as if it were yesterday, the smell of the good earth and the stiff wind that washed the air clean. He remembered the lush vines of grapes and the rivers that gurgled brightly in the sunshine. It was indeed the Promised Land. God had promised that every place they set their feet would belong to them. Caleb stood that day, looking out over the land for hundreds of miles from his vantage point with hope and adventure in his spirit. What could stop them now? After all this time of wandering, what could stop them now?
Ten men came back from scouting out the Promised Land full of fear and despair and soon the entire nation was floundering. Only able to see the obstacles, the giants, the things that brought them struggle, the ten leaders lost sight of the promise--the promise of God. Caleb winced at the memory. The people grumbled and murmured in fear and frustration. How quickly fear and despair could stop them! God had led them, instructed them, provided for them for so long. Caleb knew that mountain belonged to him. But fear stood in the way--not his fear, but the fear of others.
The Book of Numbers in the Bible records a picture of the kind of man Caleb was. Numbers 14:24 says this, "But my servant Caleb--this is a different story. He has a different spirit; he follows me passionately. I'll bring him into the land that he scouted and his children will inherit it." God remembered Caleb. He remembered Caleb's passionate heart. He remembered that Caleb believed God's promise. He remembered that Caleb was willing to trust Him even if the obstacles were ominous and the task seemed impossible. Caleb believed what God said. And Caleb waited for God to do it! Now, at the age of 85, Caleb stood looking at His mountain, the place where his children and his grandchildren would live for generations to come.
Caleb inspires me. How easy it is for what I believe God promises to get lost in what I see in front of me. I would love to think that I would be like Caleb upon returning with a report of the Promised Land. But my history tells me that I am easily overwhelmed with what looks impossible. Caleb kept his eyes on the Promise. He looked for something to remind him of the promise and he refused to let fear distract him. God said, "Caleb has a different spirit." I want that spirit--a Caleb spirit. I want to be a different story in God's book--known by God as someone who follows him passionately. I want God's smile. I want to be willing to wait, even if it takes a lifetime. Fear and despair cannot move my face from the Promise and the Promise--Giver. I want to be a different spirit--a Caleb spirit.
Lord, help me be a different spirit, a heart that follows passionately after you. Let me set my face toward your mountain, and wait patiently, remembering your goodness and your everlasting love.
The sun was enthroned in the royal blue sky. The trees sang in the gentle breeze. They sang the enchanting song of rebirth. The birds tweeted the refrain and the first butterfly of the season rested on the bobbing head of a daffodil, face lifted to the sun. I walked in the woods on the property of a friend this week. As winter's vestiges disappeared the early flowers and the budding trees proclaimed the arrival of Spring.
My heart felt alive as I walked the trails amidst the tree branches that had fallen in the winter's harshness. Soggy leaves had become the birthplace of new growth for the iris and the hyacinth. The pond coated with scum gurgled softly as water lilies turned their faces to the sun.
My friend led the way, giving me a full description of the carefully choreographed flower beds and trails. Years of careful planting and maintenance allowed the greater portion of the woods to return every spring to its full glory as perennials burst forth stronger than the year before.
"The woods almost takes care of itself," she commented.
She was right. The well worn path was easily defined and trimmed with foliage placed there by a master gardener. The plants knew what to do. The path clearly led the way. We went further into the woods and found that a large tree had dropped in the winter's cold. It covered the path and we could go no further. As we turned to take another trail, the trees rustled. In awe we watched five deft and lovely dear bound into the clearing. Stopped in our tracks, we shared together the breathtaking moment of God's artistic craftsmanship. It almost seemed as if heaven was resting in this place.
Back at the house my heart began to speak. How often we find ourselves in the aftermath of a winter of the heart. As healing begins life seems to lift its face back to the sky. The branches that have fallen in the winter's harshness give way to the well worn path of hope. Soggy leaves of tear-filled days become birthplaces for new opportunities, new relationships and sweet memories. The scum blanketing the freshness of the heart begins to retreat as the glory of forgiveness and grace break through.
The Master Gardener's careful planting and attention to the landscape leaves a clear remnant of the way to go, even if the path has been covered with the residue of a former season or blocked by some force beyond reckoning. If the heart must take a different path, it is probable that the beauty of God's hand will be seen. As we catch a glimpse of his handiwork, we are humbled to experience moments designed by Him specifically for us--moments to remind us that He is always near, and his path is full of life and beauty and wonder. Heaven is never far--it rests on earth for those who are willing to embrace it. The enchanting song of rebirth sings--a new season begins.
"for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come." Song of Solomon 2
When did it become so cold? So distant? So protected? I noticed it and ignored it. I pushed it away with my well-trained thought processes. I was responding properly to situations, even situations that required an emotional response. But I knew that my heart was silent. It wasn't empty, or exhausted. It wasn't angry or hurt. It was just silent. When did it happen? How did it get that way?
We learn skills over time to protect ourselves from things that have hurt us or that we fear will hurt us. One of those skills is "fortressing". A fortress is a protective edifice that one can run to and be secure inside. It is nearly impossible to get into a fortress when the doors are closed. There is a limited view to the outside as well. Usually a fortress provides small window at the very top of the structure to view the world outside. I wasn't even really aware I was building a fortress. But my heart was telling me that it was securely hidden away with little interest in coming out and being exposed to the outside world.
Fortressing is not necessarily a bad thing. It certainly serves a purpose. In wartime, a fortress has on more than one occasion been the hallowed ground of the battle victory. But it can also be a place where the victory is lost and there is no escape. It was time for me to decide if my heart was safely guarded or slowly dying inside the fortress. The answer wasn't hard to acknowledge. My heart was silent, peering out the small windows in the top of the fortress, waiting for...something. Uncertain of what that might be, I began to take an inventory. What put my heart in the fortress in the first place?
Unkind comments, biting criticism, friends who walked away, those who judged my motives unfairly, the need to think more than feel in a world where unspoken agendas are life's strategy. Life transitions, the grim reality that not every individual or social system wanted everyone to win. Maybe the easiest way to say it--the realization that a war was happening and I was an unknowing soldier. That's what put my heart in a fortress.
There is no getting away from the war. It's all around us. But there is a retreat for the heart. Certainly, there are times when my heart needs to be in the fortress, but there are more times when the banner of love and the hope of God's goodness are my strong tower. When I carry the white flag of surrender into a battlefield of wounded people, a different kind of interaction begins. The weapon of God's love overcomes fear (1 John 4:18). The weapon of God's Hope overcomes disappointment (Romans 5:5). The weapon of God's Peace overcomes turmoil (Isaiah 26:3). The weapon of God's Joy renews my strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
As I redefine the battle and take stock of my weapons, I realize that hiding in the fortress only silences my heart and steals my opportunities for effectively winning a victory. The reassessment allows me to find the beauty from ashes that is promised to those who trust in the Lord even in the midst of the darkest hour. With weapons in hand, I'm ready to step out into the enemy territory once again, renewed, refreshed, ready to surrender to the God who wins every battle. My heart is no longer silent but sings to the One who leads me steadily forward with love.
Thank you Father, that you are the strong tower we can run to. Thank you that you lead the way. Thank you for providing the weapons of our surrender to be used effectively for your Kingdom. You lead us to victory. Amen.
I traveled to the hills of Virginia last week. I traveled alone. I had never been there before. I knew I would be arriving at my destination after dark. I also knew that I would lose cell service in the mountains and would not be able to use my phone--for anything. I printed out directions from Map Quest before I left so I would be able to continue to find my way even after my cell service was interrupted. I was prepared. But as it got darker and darker and the roads got more and more curvy, I began to picture myself farther from home, less prepared and less able to ascertain my whereabouts. I was about 15 miles from my destination when my cell phone beeped and the screen read "no service." With a little apprehension and a lot of self-talk, I picked up the paper with the directions on it. I had to turn on the overhead light to read the directions because it was so dark. All I could do was follow the road and pray that the paper was right. If it wasn't, there was no way to call anyone.
I traveled on for about 13 miles and saw a sign that said I had arrived in the right town. That, at least, was comforting. However, there were very few cars, very few road markers, and no street lights. I was beginning to feel like the smallest speck of the Universe at that moment. The darkness seemed to smother me as I inched along the road wondering how I would find my next turn. Far off in the distance I saw what I thought was a traffic light. "Maybe that is where I'm supposed to turn", I thought. As I approached the intersection, still not able to find or read a street sign, my phone lit up on the car seat like a beacon. The familiar voice of "Gabby", my GPS was both surprising and amazing. "Turn left of Edgewater Drive," she spoke, and promptly the cell phone turned dark with no further service of any kind for three days.
It was almost eerie--yet really powerful! I looked heavenward for a moment and just said under my breath, "Really?" "Thank you God!" "I'm not a speck to you!"
I love to retell the story of Gabby coming to the rescue! It is one of those surreal moments in life when it works just right for no apparent reason. But what makes it even sweeter to me is that I am reminded of the love and care of a Good, Good Father who continually knows all about me and is there to help no matter how dark the night, no matter how much I have lost my way, or no matter how frightened I may be. He is always there, sometimes in ways that are subtle, sometimes in ways that are bold. His kindness over me is humbling and beautiful. ....He is for me!
Father, thank you for guiding me no matter where I am. Thank you for never losing track of me. Thank you that your thoughts are always with me and that you will make a way for me. Thank you that you bring your love for me so close and so real. When all else fades away, You still remain! I am never lost to You!
The world is struggling. Hate seems the strongest emotion. Lives are in danger. The future is uncertain. Fear grips the soul. I've watched with concern and intrigue as our brothers and sisters in Paris have faced terrorism. I've listened to arguments from all sides around the responses to Syrian Refugees needing a place to belong. I've wondered as I hear gun shots in my neighborhood, who might be the next victim of senseless violence. Will it be someone I know, or the family member of someone in my circle of friends. Even closer to death's door, one of my long time friends is lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. It's from his hospital room that I write this article.
It's the last week in November, the week in which we celebrate Thanksgiving. For some, the week is a welcome respite from work--a long weekend. For some, it means a big meal and family. For some, it is a reminder of the pain of life, the loneliness of the world and the heartache of disappointment. For some, it is a day of thanksgiving simply because one ought to be grateful once a year for the bounty they experience. It never occurs to them that their lives could suddenly become encumbered with pain or loss.
We all have heart wounds. Whether they come from the uncertainty of the world around us, or whether they are personally experienced on a daily basis, or whether they come from an expectation that life should always be to our liking--we all have wounds.
The secret to healing our hearts is the elixir of thanksgiving. The remedy for our woundedness is the recognition that all that we have materially, right down to the air we breathe, is a gift from God. When we give thanks for those things that we take for granted, we acknowledge that while we have these things--freedom, air to breathe, many luxuries that are not available to the rest of the world--we did not get them by ourselves, nor do we have the power to keep them. We acknowledge the Giver of all good gifts--God, our maker.
Over 2000 years ago the world was struggling. Hate seemed to be the strongest emotion. Lives were in danger. The future was uncertain. Fear gripped the soul. The Giver of all good gifts gave the best gift, the gift of Love for a world that was wounded. That gift was Jesus, love personified. Love continues to topple hate, to heal hurts, to calm fears. As we give thanks, we lift Love high about all that destroys. It is fully available and always plentiful. It can never be taken away. For the gift of Love, Jesus, I give thanks.
Father, thank you for sending the gift of Love. Thank you that, even in the darkest times Love never fails. Thank you that your son, Jesus, gave all so that we could live in the fullness of your love even when life brings pain. Thank you that our hearts are healed as we embrace your love and give you thanks. You are a good, good Father.
Shelley Lopez, Executive Director
Shelley has been a member of the Springfield community for 29 years. As she lives and works and worships in the city, she uses the metaphor of an old Victorian house restoration to keep her focused on the work she is called to do. Inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah, she pours herself into "restoring old ruins, rebuilding and renovating, making the community livable again" (Is. 58:12 MSG)