I arrived home late at night from a week out of town. My husband picked me up from the airport and drove me home. It was dark when we pulled into the garage. I could only see what the headlights illuminated, and that was nothing more than the road directly in front of me.
Morning arrived all too early. I could smell the coffee as my husband had gone into the kitchen before I awakened and hit the brew button. I shuffled out of the bedroom. He had coffee mugs in hand and was ready to head to the back deck and our favorite swing to greet the first rays of sunshine. Although everything within me wanted to return to bed, I succumbed to his charm and our morning ritual. Outside we headed.
I settled into the swing with my eyes barely open. Travel fatigue was causing me to scarcely see anything except that which was right in front of my face. My husband talked about his activities while I was away. I listened and sipped my hot coffee. Before long, his enthusiasm and the caffeine began to work their magic. I opened my eyes and looked up. I looked up and looked around. I looked around and gazed in wonder. Something marvelous had occurred. Fall had come to the Midwest.
Just one week out of town, and the maple tree in the neighbor’s back yard had become bejeweled with red foliage. Across the lake, I could see tones of bright yellows and vibrant oranges. The water acted like a mirror, reflecting the images along with their pallet of colors. The darkness of the previous night had concealed the pictography. The dullness of my morning fatigue had veiled the portrait. But there, waiting for me to wake up and look around, was the beauty of the season.
All throughout the day, I purposefully observed the many sights of Fall. As I drove out of my neighborhood, I noticed the large tractors and combines in the fields garnering the corn. The air was saturated with tiny particles of stalk residue generated from the harvesting, which triggered many memories of growing up in Illinois and October. I passed the Farmer’s Market and saw pumpkins lining the front of the store. Images of Jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin pies danced through my head.
I stopped at the grocery store where my attention was arrested by a kiosk loaded with caramel covered apples. I decided to ignore the calories and indulge myself with the once-a-year, fall-time treat. I could not go to the checkout line with just the items on my list. I had to purchase a small jug of apple juice and some cinnamon sticks because the season demanded that I fill my home with the aroma and my taste buds with the flavor of hot spicy cider so characteristic of Fall.
I spent the whole day with my eyes and my heart open. I thought about the number of times that I allow the darkness of a difficult situation, the gloom of a problematic circumstance, or the night of a challenging trial to make me look down and only see the road in front of me. How often had life made me weary causing me to become so myopic that I missed the beauty that surrounded me? Well, not that day.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 states, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (NIV) Thankfully, the morning after my dark night and my fatigue, I awakened and found that all around me was the beauty of the God-appointed season, the beauty of Fall.
My husband and I have taken up bike riding. I guess I should add the adverb ‘again.’ We have taken up bike riding, again. Several years ago we purchased those guaranteed-to-make-your-cycling-easier-kind of bicycles. They have hand brakes, 21 possible gears, extra padded seats, handy-dandy water bottle holders and gadgets to tell you trip information. They did not come with motors. We would supply the energy to propel them.
The first few months after our purchase, we discovered the bike trails of Madison County. We worked our way up to several hours of pedaling before the legs gave out. We were on our way to becoming decent middle-aged, low-to-average speed, short-to-medium distance, semi-casual to casual bike enthusiasts. Then, winter came and the bikes were put in storage.
Cold days passed and the spring thaw arrived, but our enthusiasm stayed in the deep freeze. Last summer, the only things that got exercise on our equipment were the spiders who had spun webs on the pedals. Resolve, determination, ambition, tenacity: those words that mark the extraordinary achievers were not to be found in the Amsden world of cycling. Nope – we had moved on to motorized vehicles with air conditioning and automatic transmissions.
One more candle on the birthday cake, five extra pounds, and a little warning from my husband’s heart doctor have renewed our vision. Yes, we again see the light. Ah, we again have heeded the challenge. Definitely, we have taken up bike riding – again. Challenges for summer riding include sweat dripping into your eyes, the hot sun baking your exposed skin and saturating your back, and warm air caking the perspiration into layers on your brow. Lest I be a glass half full kind of rider, there is also the beauty of the landscape, the freshness of summer fragrances, and many wonders available in the great outdoors. (Disingenuous? Maybe!)
However, now that fall has arrived, a few new challenges have presented themselves. Pollen, pollen, and more pollen! Then there is the sun coming up later and going down earlier. We are squeezing in our cycling before hurrying off to work or after close of business hours. One night the sun dropped before we could finish. That night I needed a special soap to remove the bugs that had hit my human windshield.
Last week, there was the memorable evening that we thought we could beat the impending weather system that the local meteorologist had forecast! We chose the bike trail nearest our home. We were a little over three miles down the path when we felt a few droplets. Dew from heaven – one of those many wonders available in the great outdoors – began to fall. It rained; it poured; it drenched us. We turned our bikes back toward the car and began to pedal for all we were worth. The musical accompaniment for the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz played over and over in my thoughts. Soaked and exhausted we ended another wonderful day in the world of cycling.
I suppose I should end this rant with some inspirational thought. If truth be told, I am still looking for that inspiration. Until then, I will just smile through the irony and laugh through the absurdities. Bike riding is only for the strong of heart. (Allusion intended!)
Our home sits on a lot that slopes gently toward the lake in our back yard. As we considered the style of home we would construct on our ground, we realized that the natural incline provided us an ideal terrain for a porch deck to overlook the lake from a main level and also for a patio that could give us a great view of the water from a walk out basement. We built the house so that we could view the lake from any door or window on any level along the back side of our home.
Our neighbors to our right and to our left also have lots that slant toward the water. Where the lots converge, small indentations or valleys were created. To the natural eye, these small hills and dales create a naturally-flowing landscape. However, water from a good rain utilized the ground’s angles for another function. The small basins served as a natural conduit for excess water to collect from each lot and flow into the lake. Over the years and despite a thick coverage of grass, the basins have eroded to form two washed-out gullies.
Last week, my husband Dennis decided that the time had come to reinforce the water channels with new dirt. The depth of the ruts had begun to create difficulties as he cut the grass. The children had to jump the gaps while playing in the yard or risk a twisted ankle. Naturally occurring or not, the day arrived when he needed to fill up the washed-out places in our yard.
Borrowing a friend’s pick-up truck, Dennis brought in tons of topsoil. Dirt, although lying cost-free all around our yard, was not free when he went to a landscaper to acquire it. Dirt, although seemingly of inconsequential weight as it rests upon our lot, weighed a ton when scooped into and off the bed of the truck. Dirt, although effortlessly nestled into place throughout our yard, had to be moved from the truck to the ground through great effort.
After a half a day’s labor, my husband had successfully filled the eroded channels. He knew that the fresh beds of dirt would run off quickly unless he could get grass to grow and serve as ground cover to inhibit the erosion. He chose to purchase carpets of sod. So, again he borrowed the truck. Again, he paid for grass that freely grew in our yard; transported heavy rolls of grass that were seemingly weightless while growing on our lawn, and exerted great levels of energy to position the sod next to the grassy areas that grew effortlessly around the yard. After a full day of filling in the furrows and cramming full the crevasses, the ruts that had been formed throughout time were repaired and the back yard was restored to its original merit.
Dennis and I closed out the day by sitting on our porch deck swing and surveying both the lush lawn and the neighborhood pond. He talked about the labor of the day. I commented upon the benefit of his labors. We both agreed that untended ruts are a danger to all who traverse the landscape. In that vein, our conversations moved into a life lesson that we have both experienced and frequently observed in the lives of our congregants.
A Rut – now there’s a hole into which we all fall! Whether our holes are relational ruts, habitual ditches or emotional ravines, they need attention. When we allow the natural run off from the rainy seasons in our lives to produce channels and gorges in our thoughts, our souls or our hearts, we find ourselves too frequently stumbling in the unintended ruts. The good news is that the right soil and the right seed applied through a little extra effort can fill up the gaps. Jesus told his disciples to examine the soil of their hearts and to sow the good seed of the Word of God into their heart’s soil. He cautioned them to put in the effort of insuring that the seed took root and grew. Into this kind of heart, Jesus promised, good kingdom fruit of righteousness, peace and joy could grow. Today may just be the right day for you to begin repairing the ravines from the gully-washing experiences in your life.
My husband has just completed a long recovery process from a foot injury that required reconstructive surgery. The whole season lasted almost 10 months, and most of the time he was confined to a wheelchair. During that bound-to-the-chair stage, he was constantly discovering. He had to discover how to accomplish personal hygiene. (Don’t try to imagine that.) He had to determine how to get in and out of the car, the house, the bed. (I’m sure you can image that.) He had to learn how to call for help from me 20 times each hour without over-playing his sympathy card and over-stepping my patience. (Let your imagination sore on that one!)
As so many normal activities were curtailed, Dennis was somewhat forced to learn a few, new skills. One of those newly acquired aptitudes was the use of a social networking app on his cell phone. He added just about the maximum number of friends on his social platform as the application allows. He learned to post his own messages and reply to all posts from his friends. He also figured out another feature on this platform, which is a place where items can be bought and sold. This marketplace is the tech version of a yard sale.
Perhaps I need to pause her to inform you that Dennis is a salesman. He has always been one. We jokingly say that I married him because I bought what he was selling. My mother said he could sell ice to Eskimos. His business success can be rightfully attributed to his salesmanship. And even in ministry, his ability to present a vision and ask for the congregation to buy in was part of his ability to keep our church in unity of purpose.
Now that you know that characteristic of my husband, engage your imagination again. He found deals on the marketplace. He found treasures through his phone app. He determined that he could buy at a bargain rate and sell at a profit. Just about every skill set that he had ever used could be utilized. He could sell from his seat!
How joyful he was on his first buying and selling deal. He sensed a rush of endorphins and the desire to reproduce the experience. This perfectly-suited endeavor for a retired salesman quickly became Dennis’ new hobby. The dictionary says that a hobby is an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Yep – this marketplace fixation fit the definition: done regularly – check; done in one’s leisure time (imagine how that fits with wheelchair bound) – check; done for pleasure – check. Yep – this marketplace fixation definitely fit the definition – Dennis found a new hobby.
Within the first week, he had purchased a set of Lenox china. The pattern was named Eternal. Can you believe it? I had soup bowls in that same pattern that I had purchased years ago to compliment a different Lenox pattern. I laid his deal on my table and described how this purchase should probably remain with me rather than finding another buyer. (Somebody’s endorphins were flowing!) He graciously agreed. After all, he had bought the set at a great deal.
His next purchase was crystal made by Fostoria. Fostoria! Oh my gosh. My mom had bequeathed me matching Coin Glass Fostoria pieces. You guessed it! My collection expanded because of his hobby. Wait! What? A Haviland Limoges Tea Set? I never had but always wanted – yep – that’s now mine. I must admit that I’m okay with Dennis’ new hobby because I now have a hobby of my own – collecting his deals. Check!
Calendar pages have a way of turning over very quickly. Seasons roll from one to the next in what seems to be rapid succession. I, like many others, hear myself saying, “Where did the time go?” The tick-tock of father time has a momentum that no one has ever altered. Such is life – a forward-moving aggregation of the coming future and the receding past, which often becomes one big blur unless we stop to acknowledge the miracle that can only be produced in the context of time.
I walked onto my front porch yesterday to water the potted plants that have been growing all summer. Back in the spring when all the stores were beginning to display their array of garden florae, I bought a variety of seedlings to create my own outdoor flowering arboretum. I carefully planted each burgeoning bud in a decorative pot and displayed them on my flower cart and patio table. From new rose bushes placed in the perfect spots around my yard to petunias and geraniums bringing complimentary hues of color to augment my home, I was ready for my showcase of summer landscaping.
Throughout the summer, I have cared for my plants; and throughout the summer, my plants have grown. Now, at the end of summer, each seedling has matured into a big, beautiful, multi-bloom flowering plant. My pots overflow! What began as the promise of garden-like display has turned into a picturesque scene! How did that occur? They each had time to grow.
The summer sky is quickly departing as the season of fall rushes our way. Days are shorter; temperatures are cooler. All the elements that caused my garden to grow will soon disappear. Eventually, all that will remain will be the photos I have taken to remind me of that which was. With that reality settling in on my thinking, I decided to “stop and smell the roses.” I decided to take another moment to appreciate the results and the process that caused my garden to become what it was promised to be.
The process – now there is a comment that I might not always appreciate. Seldom does anything arrive in full bloom. The potential of a thing must be allowed the process of growth if the desired outcome is to be attained; and the challenge to continue maintaining the daily routine while time works its miracle is sometimes neglected. We will only patiently endure when we understand that things must be allowed time to grow.
Jesus told His disciples that His kingdom would be like a seed that was sown into the soil. It would need to grow. He also told them that His kingdom would be like leaven or yeast that would cause bread to expand over time. Both of His parables were, in part, His way of telling His followers not to expect instantaneous results but rather to understand that time would be necessary for the full transformation.
Both heavenly life and earthly life unfold little by little. Natural gardens and spiritual gardens grow. Promises become reality as time goes by and garden-tenders steadfastly tend their seedlings. And what will time produce? A miracle! Maybe the miracle will not be instantaneous, but it will be a miracle none-the-less. Miraculous transformation occurs when promises (and people) are given time to grow.
Their commonly held roots traced as far back as they could remember. They were both born into the lineage of Father Abraham. As the two kings stood side by side and engaged in dialogue, they knew their joint history. Abraham’s grandson Jacob became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. King Ahab’s tribe was Ephraim, which was the lineage of Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph and Joseph’s firstborn son Ephraim. King Jehoshaphat was born into the tribe of Judah, who was Jacob’s fourth son. These two kings were distant cousins who not only shared a past but were currently participating in a common future.
Years had passed since Jacob’s sons dwelt together in bedouin tents in Canaan. The sons became men, married, fathered, and produced tribes of families who carried the son’s names. Twelve tribes made one nation – the nation of Israel. Ahab and Jehoshaphat were keenly aware of their joint heritage. However, about 250 years before the two kings stood together considering engaging Syria in battle, the one nation of Israel divided into two nations: Israel and Judah. The broad gulf of diversity and opposition had continued to increase between the two nations, and the two kings were also keenly aware of their dichotomy.
Ahab was in favor of the war; Jehoshaphat was much more cautious. However, the cause – to protect and defend the city of Ramoth Gilead – was a just cause and a territory important to both nations. Ahab, undeterred from his declaration of conflict, sought to enlist the support and armies of the king of Judah. Jehoshaphat, reticent to engage, sought to enlist the support and confirmation of the Lord. Both men acknowledge the need of a wise counselor, but their common goal was approached from two divergent pathways.
Ahab harkened to his own advice and the words of the prophets that were on his paid staff. They spoke tidings to appease the king and confirm the veracity of his choice. Victory would be secured; Ahab would win; Israel would be triumphant. Emboldened by the council of his will and the confirming reports of his prophets, Ahab was prepared to go to war.
Jehoshaphat wanted validation of his intentions. He wanted to know what the Lord would say. The king of Judah, familiar with the broad chasm that existed between the worship practices of the two nations, expressed reluctance. Was the word of the prophets of Baal the same advice that he would hear from a prophet of Jehovah? Micaiah, the prophet of the Lord, was summoned.
Four hundred prophets for Ahab and one prophet for Jehoshaphat spoke. Ahab’s counselors promoted the war and guaranteed the victory. Jehoshaphat’s prophet forecast the opposite: Ahab would be killed in battle and the armies would return home without regaining the city. Ahab was enraged at the council. Jehoshaphat acknowledged the validity of the word but did not harken to the council. In union, the two nations went to war.
The common goal of war yielded two divergent outcomes. Indeed, Ahab died; and the war effort was thwarted. Jehoshaphat returned home and governed his nation Judah in accordance with wise council from the Scriptures and words from the Lord’s prophets. Then or now, to commoners or to kings, the axiom endures: heeded words from wise council are a sure foundation for unity and for victory.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon as I found my way to the lounge on the back deck of my house. A book publisher’s deadline was breathing down hard upon me; and I was determined to take advantage of the quiet, early-morning hours before the busyness of my day drowned out my own thoughts. The air was damp with dew and just a little brisk. “Just what I need,” I said to myself, “a nippy breeze to stimulate my senses and make me fully alert.”
I placed my computer upon my lap and my cup of coffee at my side. Then, I focused. My brain began sorting through ideas and words. My deep concentration was broken by the sound of a bird chirping off in the distance. I smiled at the sweetness of the song. Barely had I refocused my thoughts until another melodic sound wafted from the opposite direction. “Listen to that beauty,” I advised myself. So I did.
My ears became aware of a symphony of sound. Several species of birds joined in song each with its own composition and tune. Off in the distance, the crickets added the timber of their clicks to the concert. At the edge of the pond sat the bullfrog, who lifted his base voice in harmony. I closed my eyes and drank in the masterpiece. So many layers of sound! So many gentle, non-intrusive melodies! So beautiful the often-missed, delicate tones!
I was enraptured. Tears brimmed and spilled upon my cheek. I was soaking in a moment upon which my attention seldom focused. “Who hears the soft sounds?” I asked myself. “Who listens to the gentle voices?” “Who notices the inconspicuous?” Engulfed in the sonata and lost in reflection, the moment was interrupted by a sanitation truck stopping at the driveway for an early-morning pick-up. Barely had it rolled on down the street than a car door slammed as the neighbor headed off to work.
Nature’s music faded to the background. Busy sounds and every-day noises took center stage. My mind returned to the chapter that I was writing. I tuned out all ambient sound. “Perhaps there are some faint ideas seldom heard inside my mind,” I said to myself. And, I began to listen to layers in my heart that are infrequently explored except in an atmosphere where daily life is quiet.
Jesus had a way of causing folks to listen to the sound of their own soul. One day He asked His disciples just who they thought He was. They recounted to Him all the sounds that they were accustomed to hearing. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” one follower replied.
“Others think you are Elijah,” another disciple reported.
“Jeremiah,” shouted a third voice.
“Everyone is sure you are a prophet,” proudly answered a voice from the crowd.
“Quiet! Listen inside,” Jesus encouraged. “Listen to the faint voice of your heart.”
Then Peter heard it – that subtle yet knowable, that quiet yet unmistakable, that inconspicuous but ever so obvious sound – Peter heard it. “You are the Christ. You are the Son of the Living God.”
“Good for you, Peter.” Jesus responded. “God put the truth inside and, when you listened, you heard it.”
While traveling from North Carolina to St. Louis, I was seated on an airplane next to a nice young man who was on his way to Colorado Springs. Polite conversation led from, “Hello, my name is ---” to “would you like to see a photo of my son?” He reached into his back pocket, brought forth his wallet, opened it to the first picture, and proudly displayed the photo of his three-year-old son. Divorced from his son’s mother, his opportunities to spend time with the boy were restricted; but his love and affection for the child seemed to be without limitation.
We talked about the task of parenting, benefits of loving and being loved, and changes that occur once one becomes a parent. He commented upon the depth of love that he had discovered upon the birth of his son. And, even though he was only in his early twenties, he realized that the responsibility of another human being, his son, rested upon him.
After we deplaned and parted, I couldn’t erase the conversation from my thoughts, his dancing eyes from my mental images, or his sincere words from my ears. If this kind of genuine love could flow from one not far from being a boy himself, how much purer is the love which flows from the heart of our heavenly Father unto his children on earth. The Bible tells us that God is love (I John 4:8); but that reality seldom arrests our attention, at least not to the degree to which my attention had been arrested that day.
God has fashioned and created mankind with the capacity to give and receive love. As a matter of fact, all people actually need love. If this were not true, so many of our activities and actions would not be directed toward social acceptance, romance, and family ties. Psychologists, therapists, social workers, (not to mention grandparents) herald the virtues of raising a child in an environment soaked with love and acceptance.
Being the object of unconditional, unbounded love produces within the love’s recipient a sense of self worth and well being that cannot be found elsewhere. Once we acknowledge our basic need for love, it is not a distant or far step to also acknowledge our need for the love of God, who reveals himself as our Father.
If fallible and frail human love is so powerful, imagine the impact of God’s unfailing love upon the soul of a man. No, don’t just imagine it. Experience it!
Nestled in a narrow, shallow valley just 100 yards from my back door is a lovely little pond. Folks, who have lived around this area longer than I, tell me that this pond was here when this land was a farmer’s field. Fed by at least one natural spring, the waters are usually clear and bright. The subdivision developer took advantage of nature’s setting and laid out the parcel of lots so that homes could be built around the pond. Houses were constructed on just the correct angle to get a view of the water; backyards were landscaped to augment and enhance the shoreline; small docks were built at the water’s edge. It was almost as if those of us who built around this pond were imposing upon it our expectations of the amenities and the ambiance of a large lake.
I’ve often said that this body of water was a pond that said, “I wish I were a lake.” However, as I have contemplated that comment, I think the landowners are saying that we wish it were a lake. The pond appears to be content to be just what it was created to be. Undaunted by our expectations of it, the pond seems pleased to support a variety of fish and wildlife. Almost anytime my husband wishes, he can stand on the bank, cast in his line, and pull out a medium size bass. The catfish are large and sport themselves rulers of the water, refusing to bite any hook or take any bait. Some evenings, the symphony of bullfrogs croaking creates a better musical score than the best Disney theme song. The spring and fall bring in the ducks and the geese. Many mornings during those seasons, the honking of a flock of geese, as they are flying overhead and preparing to land upon the pond, will awaken me.
This ‘not quite a lake’ body of water also invites the activity of human life. On summer days, the pond welcomes the neighbors to come for a paddleboat ride, a fishing trip, or even (for the brave) a swim. On winter days, if the temperatures remain low enough for long enough, the waters freeze and provide the platform for local kids to engage in a game of ice hockey. At every season, the rippling waters invite me to linger a little longer at my kitchen table to behold the peaceful and picturesque setting painted upon the landscape by the neighborhood pond.
I suppose one ought to go to nature and be instructed, as the Bible tells us to do. How often do we find ourselves wishing that we were more than what we are? How many times have the expectations, which others have placed upon us, caused us to feel inadequate or inferior? Some wish they were taller, while others are sure that shorter would be better. Most wish they were smarter. All want to be richer. Regrettably, few can attest to having the wisdom of the neighborhood pond, which appears content to be what it is. It invites all to come and enjoy what it truly has to offer – no pretense, no affectation, and no imitation.
The pond is simply a pond and it feigns nothing beyond that. Satisfied to be the genuine article, no matter what that article may be, might just be an important aspect of life. Perhaps God knew just what He was doing when He chose not to make every body of water the same or every person the same. Perhaps He knew we could learn a life lesson from the little, neighborhood pond.
Each day I open my email to find an inspirational gem sent to me by a friend. Julian and I met at seminary where we had each enrolled to complete the doctoral program. Both of us had been in full time ministry for years when we decided to finish our graduate studies. Before our first class had ended, I realized that Julian, himself, was a gem and a source of inspiration. In the administration of his pastoral duties, he had elected to send out daily reflections to his congregants. He offered to include me in the emails; I gladly accepted. I have now been a recipient of his efforts for many years.
Pastor Julian is faithful day after day to communicate comforting, edifying, instructing, or entertaining tidbits to those of us on his list. I am sure that he must have to search for stories. He undoubtedly has to research, read, and explore. He is obviously proactive to gather his resources. He must continually ferret out the inspirational and dispense with the insipid, because he always selects items that serve to kindle positive motivation.
The English word inspire is based upon a Latin root that means to breath in. In the process of breathing, we inhale the air that surrounds us. That which we inhale has an immediate effect upon our physical condition by way of our lungs and blood stream. Our body instinctively warns us if the air is smoke-filled or pungent with a malodorous aroma and informs us to limit our inspiration.
The words, actions, and attitudes of those near us can also create an atmosphere in which we live. People can be critical, complaining, or condemning. They can fill the environment with talk that is injurious, insalubrious, and ineffectual. If we breathe in that type of atmosphere, our souls may become noxious; although we may not always immediately detect that we have inhaled contaminated soul air.
Naturally, we seek oxygen-rich, contaminate-free air. Spiritually, we should desire inspirationally-loaded, emotionally pollutant-free influences. Julian has made a practice of delivering just that kind of environment. The mind and soul thrives upon the inspirational words he conveys.
What about you? What about me? I cannot say that I am a Julian; however, I do believe his example is worth following. I wonder what my days would be like if the first thing I did each morning was to ferret out a bit of inspiration that I could distribute to others throughout the day. Maybe friends would seek me out just to get a breath of fresh air.