A Picture of the Kingdom

About a month ago, I lost a dear friend.  Her death was not tragic, as she was 91, heaven-bound and living at home until nearly the end.  And yet, when I heard the news, I cried for a long time and struggled with a deep sense of loss.  I miss her.  She was like a grandmother to me, and a source of wisdom, guidance, love and strength.  God brought her into my life at a crucial time, and she played a leading role for over a decade.  I still have a hard time accepting that the “Grandma Marianne Era” is over, and find myself remembering the special moments we had together.

Marianne Nelson walked into my life one night in the early nineties at an evangelistic tent meeting my former church was holding.  I had lead worship and after the event, she approached me, introduced herself and told me that I reminded her of one of her granddaughters.  This particular granddaughter was also biracial, but lived too far away for Marianne to see often.  As we talked, we soon found out that we had Brooklyn in common.  She had emigrated there in 1926 from Husum Sweden when she was eight years old; and I was born there forty years later.  Like so many immigrants of that time, she didn’t know a word of English, but learned it quickly to escape the taunts of her peers.

Anyway, what I remember most about that evening was her piercing blue eyes.  She was in her late 70’s but still so attractive, sophisticated and classy.  And those blue eyes bore into me with kindness and warmth.  To my delight, she invited me to come visit her anytime and I took her up on it about a month later.  From that time, for many years, I visited her just about every-other month.  I packed my overnight bag, drove the 50 miles to her home and spent hours listening to her stories and testimonies of God’s faithfulness in her life.  I learned about Swedish Almond Cookies, and enjoyed tea from old European cups.   I heard the love story between her and her husband (they met when she was 10!) and searched through yellowed pictures.  It wasn’t all happy and light.  She had lost her husband and both of her sons way too early.  And over the years that I knew her, she also lost most of her eyesight.  Nevertheless, she laughed often, and remained faith-filled and encouraging.  I visited her after boy-friend breakups, or when I was discouraged or just needed the wisdom, listening ear and unconditional love of a grandmother.  As a matter of fact, I remember a friend of mine suggesting on several occasions, “You should go visit grandma Marianne.”  And sure enough, I’d come back happier and stronger.

She was such a gift to me.  Only God could have brought two such different people together: a gracious, quick, elderly Swede and a young biracial woman, full of questions, longings and dreams.  God knit our hearts together; we cried, laughed and prayed together dozens of times and we witnessed God’s faithfulness in both of our lives.  That is what happens in the Kingdom.  God brings people together to enrich and encourage each other, crossing generational, cultural and racial boundaries.  If we cooperate, the blessing is vast and deep.

I am not yet ready to go to Heaven.  I have two boys to raise and a husband to love.  But I do long look forward to seeing her again.  For now, I gaze up, envision her in that great cloud of witnesses and salute a woman of noble character.

There’s Something Good in Every Season

I don’t really like winter.  I like wearing shorts, taking walks on balmy evenings, eating al fresco and drinking up the summer’s sun.  If I had a choice between sipping hot chocolate in a ski lodge or nursing a frosty drink on a Caribbean beach, the beach drink would win hands down.  No competition.  Nevertheless, not only do we live in the north, but now we have a three year old who LOVES the snow.  He rolls in it, slides in it, drives his Tonka trucks in it and eats it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 degrees or 0 degrees, Isaac begs to go outside, and I usually concede, sighing as I gather the 59 pieces of clothing that we must put on before venturing out (well, maybe not 59, but it sure seems that way).

And you know what?  Sometimes I actually enjoy myself.  Seeing Isaac have so much fun makes me smile.  I can’t wait for a good packing snow so we can build our first snowman together, and I love pulling him up the hill only to whisk him down again on his red sled.  The shrieks of delight make the ordeal of getting dressed and out the door all worth it.  He is showing me that there are good things about this season, and I find myself wishing it away less and thinking of fun things we can do together during these cold months more.

Truly, there is something good in every season.  When I was single, my married friends tried to convey this to me.  I remember one friend practically drooling over all the free time I enjoyed.  I could go on shopping sprees, sleep in until noon, go on beachy vacations, and hang out with friends for hours on end.  She hand several small children and couldn’t remember the last time she felt rested, read a good book or bought something for herself.  “Enjoy this time, Nicole, because the day will come when children claim most of your time and money.”  I didn’t get it.  I thought she was just trying to cheer me up, throw me a bone, pat me on the head.  But you know what?  She was right.  Sometimes I find myself wistfully remembering a missions trip, a vacation with my good friend or a Sunday afternoon hike.  I love my husband and sons more than words can say, and my married life is blessed, but my single years were blessed too.  They were full and rich and good.

The problem is, I didn’t appreciate those years until they were gone.  I think we do that a lot: we don’t see the good in the season we’re in until it’s past.  We’re too busy wishing it away because of the painful parts, and we don’t see the good parts at all.

Paul said, “…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” (Phil 4:11).  Part of the secret to being content in any situation is learning to live in the NOW, rather than dreaming about the past or the future.  This is very relevant to me again as I often focus too much on the hard parts of raising small children.  I can easily concentrate only on the lack of sleep or negligible time to myself, my frustration over behavior, or the ten million things that might go wrong.  Indeed, I can become so consumed with the negative that I fail to drink in the coos and smiles of my baby or the curiosity and milestones of my preschooler.   I don’t want to look back one day and realize with regret that I didn’t enjoy my kids because of the parts that were hard on my flesh.  I know the day will come when cuddles and snuggles are few and far between, so I want to relish them now.

There is sunshine in every season.  You may be single, wishing you were married, or married wishing you had children or a mom wishing you had some time to yourself or young wishing you were older or older wishing you were young again.  And you spend so much time wishing that you forget to look around and see the blessings that you do have right now.  You know what?  When you get your heart’s desire, you may not have these blessings anymore.  You will enjoy other ones, but don’t shut your eyes to the wealth that surrounds you even now.   Learn to find the good in today, rather than assuming that there is good only in tomorrow.  I bet you can find some sunshine, even on a snowy day.

It’s Time for Breakthrough

When I was giving birth to our second son, something scary happened: Benjamin’s heart rate dropped disturbingly low every time I had a contraction and pushed.  He didn’t like coming down that birth canal very much.  When his heart rate dipped even lower, the doctor did something that terrified me.  She pulled on a surgical gown, called the pediatrician and said, “If this baby doesn’t come out in a few more pushes, we’re going to have to use the vacuum.” I instantly imagined the pediatrician examining my newborn son for damage.  Now, I know suction isn’t supposed to cause permanent physical or mental damage, and I know plenty of beautiful children had to be suctioned out, but I still didn’t like the idea.  I hated it, and the possibility transformed me.  In a moment, I decided that the vacuum wouldn’t be necessary.  I could do this.   She told me to push harder, and I found a strength inside that I didn’t know existed.  I almost passed out, but within a few minutes, Benjamin entered the world, perfectly fine, without suction aid.

There are moments in our lives when we hate something enough to push harder than we ever have before.  We may go through years praying about an issue that’s not quite right: we’re making it financially, but just barely.  We’re making it in our marriage, but just barely.  We’re making it at our job, but just barely.  We generally have good relationships, but there is that one lost friendship that begs reconciliation.  And so every year we pray about the matter, sincerely, but without power or focus.  This thing bothers us, but not enough to really bear down and push through until we see change.  It’s not because we don’t care, but we’re just so distracted by the myriad of life’s issues that we fail to focus on any one thing long enough or hard enough to see change.

As we cross the threshold into a new year, I believe that God wants to highlight something in our lives that He wants us press into more than we ever have before.  He may say to you, “This is the year of financial breakthrough.”  And with that, He wants you to focus your prayers, muster your energy, read about it, pray about it and fast about money.  You don’t forget the other concerns in your life, but this one takes a front row seat and you have hope and faith in your heart that by December of 2011, you will see significant, positive breakthrough in the realm of your finances.  It may be your marriage, on the brink of mediocrity or even ruin.  God wants you to gird your loins, roll up your sleeves and bear down, hating the very thought of divorce, determined that your marriage will make it.  More than make it.  It may be reconciliation with that estranged family member.  THIS is the year that you will call, seek out, and try to mend fences.  You will believe God to be the repairer of this breech (Isaiah 58).  And by year’s end, you will see progress.

God wants to be Jehovah Perazim (God of the Breakthrough) for something in your life this year.  What is that thing?  Ask Him.

We Know His Voice

Recently the Holy Spirit prompted me to read the Christmas story, and He highlighted the number of times He sent angels to key people at key times to instruct or encourage them. To accomplish the Messiah’s entrance into human history, He pulled out the “big guns”; He sent Gabriel and other Heavenly Hosts to communicate his plan. There was no confusion. God spoke in ways that human beings could hear and understand. Let’s look at these angelic visitations.

First an angel spoke to Zechariah about Jesus’ forerunner, John.

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar… But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. (Luke 1:11,13)

The angel then spoke to Zechariah about three things: how he and his wife should raise him; John’s character and calling, and his purpose.

Then God sent angels SIX more times to give instructions regarding Jesus.

First, he sent an angel to Mary. The angel spoke of Jesus’ calling, character and purpose – and he told the young virgin how this would all happen:

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:5)

Second, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, reassuring him that Mary was not an adulterous woman, but rather had become pregnant supernaturally. It would be fine for Joseph to go ahead and marry her, for she was carrying the Promised One, the Savior of the world.

As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:20-21)

Third, an angel appeared to some shepherds in the field, telling them about Jesus’ birth. God wanted these humble men to be among the first to know of this glorious event. He also gave them a sign to confirm it.

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)

Fourth, God warned the wise men in a dream not to tell Herod where the boy Jesus was born. Therefore, they secretly left the country and returned to their homes another way.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. (Matt 2:12)

Fifth, an angel appeared to Joseph to flee to Bethlehem for Herod was trying to find the child and kill Jesus.

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
(Matt 2:13)

And finally, an angel appeared again to Joseph telling him that it was safe to go back to Israel; Herod was dead and Jesus was supposed to grow and begin his ministry in Israel, not Egypt.

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” (Matt 2:19-20)

As I read these occurrences, I began to think about how God communicates with us today. I’m sure He still sends angels; why wouldn’t He? But I think far more often, the Holy Spirit just speaks to our hearts. And I also felt faith arise that God wanted to speak to me more often: that He wanted to dialogue with me. After all, Psalm 139 says that His thoughts towards us outnumber the sand of the sea (vs 18), surely that means that He has a lot to tell us!

So I began to talk to God more about day-to-day issues. I asked Him about “small,” non-earth shattering things that burdened me nevertheless. How can we help our oldest son to sleep better? How can I order my time so that I can exercise, have a daily quiet time, keep this house clean, be a good wife and mother and get the rest I need? What friendships should I invest in? How can I make this money stretch? And one by one answers to these questions popped into my mind, so spontaneously that I knew they were from God. He also He convicted me about some things, like ways that I’m inconsistent with our three year old, and how often I wake up grumpy with a “poor me” complex when the children didn’t sleep well.

I also felt faith arise, that just as the angel warned the wise men and Joseph, God would warn me of potential danger. He’ll show us where to send our boys to school as they get older, whom to allow into their lives as friends; He’ll warn us of any looming danger and instruct us how to avoid it. He’ll give practical wisdom of how to raise our family and how to navigate through this hazardous world. I worry about these things, and the Holy Spirit whispered, “I don’t want you to worry. I want you to ask.”

I think so much of hearing God’s voice is believing that He has something to say about matters small and large and that we CAN hear Him. I don’t think it’s supposed to be rocket science – or something reserved for the spiritually elite. After all, Jesus said,

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:2-4)

We are God’s sheep; we know His voice. God spoke to Zechariah and Mary and Joseph in ways that they would hear and understand. Why wouldn’t He do the same for us?

The Harvest

“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:5-6

God used an agricultural picture to communicate to this agrarian culture. He was saying to His people, Joy will come in the morning! There is a time of tears, but don’t lose heart; there will also be a time for rejoicing. A farmer sows and then he waits, and waits and waits. But the time of harvest DOES come. You sow seed and it disappears into the ground. You see nothing, hear nothing, smell nothing, feel nothing – for a while. But under the earth, the seed is producing fruit and in due time, you get to see this fruit with your own eyes. You get to bring in the harvest, the sheaves, the provision. The seeds seem so small and insignificant, but the sheaves of grain are large and lush, more than enough for you and your family.

For all of us, there will be times of sowing – often with tears in our eyes. You sow prayer. You sow service. You sow time, energy or money. You sow love. And you see no fruit. You feel like you’re sowing into fallow ground. You feel like a fool. And then suddenly God. Suddenly the earth begins to tremble and you get a glimmer of breakthrough. You smell harvest in the air and all that sowing and all those tears are forgotten.

This is the scripture that blew through my mind like an East wind two weeks ago. I lay in my hospital bed starring at my new son. My three year old boy was at home with my husband and I savored those hours of rest and wonder. I remembered the years of sowing, sowing tears and agonized cries to the Lord. My greatest desire was for a husband and children and that seemed as far away as Kilimanjaro. I felt taunted by my desires and the reality of my situation. And I kept sowing. I claimed scriptures, latched onto promises, clutched vague hope. I sowed dim faith, trying to believe God, trust God, hope in God — though He was silent, so often, in this matter.

Here’s another scripture about harvest that strengthened me in those years:

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is 55:9-11)

Just as the rain causes seed to grow, the promises God whispers to us come to pass. We can count on the rain to do its work and we can count on God’s word to work as well.

Maybe you’ve been sowing for years, decades. Maybe harvest seems as far away as a mountain peak in a distant land: unattainable, almost impossible. Keep sowing despite tears clouding your vision. God is faithful. My husband and sons are my sheaves. You will also bring in your sheaves – with great rejoicing.