Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nature redeemed

Schubert in his natural habitat.  
Schubert is my kind of "wildlife." 
Thank you very much.

Raccoons have been excreting on my deck regularly.  This is so gross.  It makes me crazy.  They also dug in my potted roses, and trampled some of my nasturtiums.  Ugh.  I am no lover of raccoons.

The other day, though, there was a dead raccoon in our neighbor's front yard.  It was youngish, smallish, and the first time we saw it, it looked like it was taking a nap, right there in the sun next to the mailbox.  Realizing it was dead, I felt pangs of guilt for my hatred of the species, and I had to remind myself a number of times that though I may have thought I wished our raccoons were dead, I did not do anything to kill any of them.

Over time, the neighbor did not remove the carcass.  In our extreme heat, it looked worse and worse.  Yesterday I thought it was gone, and ventured back that way as I walked Schubert.  In the nick of time, I saw that its dismembered appendages still lay mouldering in the grass, but something had dragged its body to the sidewalk where it lay smeared and foamy, pummelled by the morning's gully-washer.  Nature certainly has an unsavory side.

Shawn and I have been watching a Netflix series of documentaries on extreme photography, "Tales by Light."

Many of the scenes are breathtakingly beautiful.

Recently, the episodes have centered on wildlife.  The show documents how wildlife adventure photographers journey into the wilderness to capture unique shots of animals in their natural habitats, living out their natural lives.  Sometimes it is frightening to see how close the photographers get to bears, lions, leopards and gorillas.

Often, the photographers seem thrilled to capture shots of huge feline predators stalking, chasing and slaying their prey: deer, wildebeests, and gazelles.  I have to avert my eyes from the screen when it shows a mother leopard strutting around with a limp but still graceful gazelle dangling from her mouth, and when the camera zooms in on a litter of cubs devouring their mother's bloody catch under the shade of a bush.  "What a wonderful mother she is," the photographers crow.  I gulp.

This is not the way God created the world to be.  This is fallenness, meted out on the beasts who have been cursed to make their way in a world where death rules.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse, but with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay.  For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.   ~Romans 8:20-22 (NLT)

The "circle of life" -- the dog-eat-dog -- the predator-prey system of survival will be changed and redeemed for all eternity, along with all of us who put our faith in the Lord who formed us and saved us.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe from the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord.
~Isaiah 11:6-9 (NLT)

This is our glorious hope.  God is going to change everything, make everything new.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.  All these things are gone forever.
~Revelation 21:4 (NLT)

No longer will there be a curse upon anything.  For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and His servants will worship him.
Revelation 22:3 (NLT)

And even the raccoons will not soil anybody's deck.  Everything made right.  Thank you, Lord.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Revisiting my words for the year, halfway through

My words for the year are:

or, alternately,

I use them interchangeably.  Admittedly, faith and trust may have more nuances of difference than gratitude and thanksgiving, but I'm not hung up about it.

You trust the object of your faith.  Perhaps faith is the inner condition that results in trust.  Faith is a noun, but trust can be either a noun or a verb.  When trust is used as a noun, I think it is essentially the same as faith.  However, when it is used as a verb, it becomes more in-the-moment and specific, as opposed to all-encompassing.

Maybe I can explain it this way:

When I have faith in God, I believe that there is a God, and that He has made many beautiful promises, which He will absolutely keep.  I believe that He has sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for sin, so I can be forgiven and have fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit now, and so I can have eternal life in the unveiled presence of God in all His glory in the age to come.

When I trust God, I trust Him to keep His promises.  Often when I use this word, the word trust, I mean that I am trusting in a specific promise at a specific time.  I trust Him to meet my needs, take care of me, be near me always, listen to my prayers, watch over the world, and bring His good will to pass.  I trust Him with my fears, my disappointments, my pain.  I trust Him to forgive me and clean me up after I've found myself sinning again.

Lately, I have been trusting in the goodness of God.  Goodness is not so much one of His promises as it is one of His attributes, but I believe that we can trust in God's attributes as well as His promises.

God is good.  Sometimes it is hard to remember this, when we see all that is wrong in the world.  But God is good.  Because He is good, He has a plan to fix everything, all the brokenness that sin has precipitated around us.  His goodness results in forgiveness, healing and restoration.  Romans 5:8 tells us that God demonstrated His love by dying for us while we were still captive to the blinding forces of sin, while we were blind and unappreciative.  He died so we could be forgiven, but now He takes His time before unveiling His full glory, so the many can be gathered in.  Pain runs rampant during the waiting, but we can bear it because He is with us.  He strengthens us.  He has good plans for us, and He gives us sure hope for a glorious inheritance in eternity.

Trusting in the goodness of God enables me to to be thankful for what He is going to do, before He does it.  This is something I've learned this year, and it's a big deal to me:  Faith is being thankful to God for what He will do, trusting that He will do the right thing, and the best thing, every time, because He is good, righteous, loving, wise and omniscient.

Let me try to boil it down:

Faith is being thankful in advance for what God will do, 
based on what we know of the character of God.

Additionally, thankfulness is the key to joyfulness.  Philippians 4:6 shows us this connection when it encourages us to rejoice in the Lord, praying and presenting our requests to Him with hearts full of thanksgiving.  In other words, thank Him as you ask Him, knowing that He hears, cares and knows exactly how to respond.  When we learn to bring things to the Lord this way, He fills us with confidence and joy. 

Here is something that I've been praying this year:

Thank you, Lord God, that I can trust You, 
because You are faithful and good.

What better to be thankful for, than a God who is faithful and good?  What better source of joy, than knowing that the Almighty Designer and Creator of the Universe is my own good Lord, who gave His life to save me from the consequences of sin, who faithfully promises to forgive me, to purify me, to be present with me always, to strengthen and uphold me, to anticipate my needs even before I ask, to bring me safely home to glory in heaven?

What a relief, that God is in control, and He knows exactly what to do.  I don't have to come up with a plan for Him to follow!  He's had all the plans figured out from eternity past!  What a relief, that all I have to do is surrender to Him and trust that He will do the right thing, and He always does the right thing, so it will be okay.  Everything is going to be okay, because God is God. Hallelujah!

I can pray, from the Lord's Prayer, "Your will be done," and I can rest in confidence and joy that He will do His will.  He says, "My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please," (Isaiah 46:10).

Thank you, Lord God, that I can trust You, 
because You are faithful and good.
Your will be done.

That's enough.  That's all I need to pray.  I don't need an agenda.  I need to surrender, in faith and gratitude.  Trusting.  Giving thanks.

And that, I've been surprised to learn, is where I find the joy.

Generally, partway through a year, my word(s) for the year morph into other words.

In 2015, I started out with the word Peace, and halfway through it changed to Hope.

In 2016, I started out with Restoration, and halfway through it changed to Goodness, Mercy and Unfailing Love.

This year, 2017, I started out with Faith and Gratitude.  I wouldn't say they've changed, but they've grown to envelope the word Joy, which is a gift I never anticipated--more evidence of the stunning goodness of the Lord.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving me joy.

Joy goes hand in hand with gratitude, with thanksgiving.  But another word has been surfacing regularly, and this one goes with faith.  The word is Power.  I've been so thankful for the almighty power of God.  He is not only good, He is able to make good on all His goodness, because He is almighty, omnipotent, perfect in power.  He is trustworthy in every sense and from every direction, every perspective.  He is not only willing to do good, He is able to do good.  He can do it.  He can do anything.  He has the power.

Thank you, Lord God, that I can trust You, 
because You are faithful and good.
I look forward to seeing Your glory displayed as You handle my concerns.
Your will be done.
For Yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

(I also pray the Lord's Prayer a lot.  I pray it slow, from my heart.  I've been astounded to realize how complete it is, how it covers everything I need to bring to God.  I learn more about it all the time.  Someday I might share what I've discovered about, "Give us this day our daily bread.")

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Some diary-like musings

Well, just like that June is over and here is July 1, a hot Saturday leading into the Fourth of July, and even though I knew it was coming, it caught me off guard, and I haven't any plans.  Frankly, I'm a bit spent, even though it was Shawn who went to Hawaii and Europe in June, not me.  It was a big month:  Hawaii, Europe, a visit from Shannon, Laura and Matthew, some bonfires, a photo-shoot, a milestone anniversary.  

When Shawn is in distant time zones, it seems to mess with my biorhythms.  I suppose that's part of loving somebody.

The kids arrived two days before Shawn returned from Europe, and left the day before our anniversary.  The morning after they left, the morning of the Big Day, Shawn remarked, "I think we should buy a rose and plant it."  So we did; we bought two rose bushes, in fact, and they came laden with gorgeous blooms, which I harvested at once.

Thursday was hot, 90.  It was another bright, sunny day.  I'm trying to train my upper hydrangeas to send their roots deep for water, so I avoid watering them every day.  Thursday was a day I'd decided not to water.

Jon called at about 9:30 (a.m.), from the bus, on his way to English class, saying that he didn't have his wallet.  He said he'd forgotten it at home.  Of course, being me, I feared that he'd dropped it, or that it had been stolen. He told me he’d been able to cobble up $1 in loose change from his pockets to afford the bus ride to school, but then he would be stuck there, lacking both his monthly bus pass and his money, without his wallet.  He needed a ride back home at noon, after class.  This complicated my walking schedule with my friend, but in the end, Shawn (whose office is in the area) said he would get Jon, and everything worked out beautifully.  Shawn retrieved Jon, and they went to his apartment.  Jon’s wallet was there just as he had said, and then they had a nice lunch together.  All these things, cumulatively, made me very thankful.  Meanwhile, I walked, and went to Menard's, and stopped at Aldi for staples (food staples, not the kind you fasten papers with).

Eventually, I headed home, pretty late in the afternoon.  It was still hot, and still sunny, and the grass everywhere is turning white-yellow.  Driving, I prayed for rain, for gentle, soaking rain, for nourishment for our thirsty grass.  At home, I unloaded my purchases.  I'd bought top soil and a watermelon, among other things (those were the heaviest items).  I was tired!  I put away the cold food items, and tidied the kitchen a bit, and then I reclined with a book, One Thousand Gifts, to take a rest before Shawn arrived home for supper.  

Shawn came home, and we ate.  Then we headed outside to look over the yard.  Strolling out to the back garden, I noticed for the first time that my new hydrangeas, the ones in the lower terrace, the ones with the poofy blue blossoms, were dry, withered, and brown, the blossoms crisped, utterly spent.  My heart sank.  Those plants had never withered like the fragile upper hydrangeas.  It never even crossed my mind to check on them in the heat.  But there they were, shriveled.  Immediately, I positioned the sprinkler between them, and turned it on low, a small, private shower.  Then Shawn and I walked Shubert up to the end of the road to take a look at the sky beyond the cornfield, checking for any hope of rain.  Some dramatic clouds shone spectacularly in the bright sunset, but Shawn said none of them looked like they had potential to rain on us.

However, as we headed home, we heard low rumbles of thunder, and as we entered our yard, a few drops of moisture fell on us.  We sat down on our front porch, and a gentle downpour began, working its way up to a drenching rain that lasted about ten minutes.  We watched neighbors--who had been out walking--scramble to get home, some with dogs on leashes, a family with little girls in their jammies before bed, and a boy on a bike who rode figure eights in the deluge.  It rained, silver lines piercing the lawns and bouncing up, misty, from black roads and gray driveways.  Then it slowed, and stopped.  I felt the smile of God on me, telling me that yes, He hears and answers prayers, because He loves me.  The earth smells so good right after a rain, the fresh scent of life, wet dirt, wet plants, even wet asphalt and cement, and (of course) wet sky.  We lingered on the porch as long as that aroma hung in the air.  When we decided to go in, I remembered to run around to the back and turn the sprinkler off.  The hydrangeas were still limp and bedraggled.

I went to bed thinking about my hydrangeas.  I wondered if it would help if I cut off the wilted blossoms in the morning; maybe the plants would survive if I took the strain of those lush flowers away.

In the morning, the sun woke me at 6:50, and I stretched and was joyful for how beautiful it is simply to realize that you are awake, and not be awoken by an alarm.  I felt the sun on my face, and the cotton sheet, crumpled around my shoulders, and I patted Shawn's big, warm body slumbering next to me, and I remembered the hydrangeas.  I got out of bed and headed downstairs, even before Schubert was afoot.  From the sun porch, I looked out, and there were my two new, blue hydrangeas, fully re-hydrated, blooming in their terrace.  Not only the leaves, but also the blossoms had come back!  Again, I felt God's love, so strong, so full of grace.  Jon has his wallet, Shawn got to buy him lunch, a soft rain fell, and my hydrangeas are beautiful.  God would be good even if He did not do these things, but I am so thankful for when He gives us these tangible, easy to read messages of His grace and presence in our lives.

Friday I just went ahead and watered, after the sad (albeit redeemed) situation on Thursday.  I watered in the afternoon, sprinkling and puttering, trimming and weeding, just generally bombing around among my plants.  After the water had sufficiently soaked the garden, I turned off the spigot and went inside to write an email.

Sitting at my computer, facing into two corner windows that look out over the northwest view of our treed backyard, I heard a loud crack.  Looking up from my work, out the window I saw a large mound of foliage dip, sink and fall to the ground with another shattering crash.

Right on top of my garden.

Yes, a 37-foot tree limb with an 8 or 9-inch diameter spontaneously broke off its tree and landed in my back garden.   No storm.  No wind.  Just a loud crack and the descent of hundreds of pounds of lush green foliage. I was kind of bummed, until I realized how blessed I was to have finished working in the garden and gone inside shortly before it happened. God is good, and it looks like He might have saved my life on Friday afternoon, around 3 p.m. 

In the end, Shawn left work early and bought a chainsaw on his way home.  In approximately 2.5 hours, he had the whole thing cleaned up.

Today as I look out at my crushed Jacob's Ladder plants, I can only think how grateful I am that the blow that crushed them was not dealt to my body.  I did like those plants, but I am thankful to be alive and free from injuries.

God is good.

Last night, after we got the garden cleared, the branches dragged to the roadside, and the wood chopped and stacked, we stood on the sun porch and looked out, up the street that forms the artery of our neighborhood, running west to the main road.  It was about 8 p.m., which is when the sun, dipping low, casts a magical glow that literally turns the black road into a radiant golden surface.  The evening sunbeams cascaded in shafts between our tree trunks, and a squirrel cavorted in the gleaming light, his feathery gray tail turned as mysteriously golden as the road while he paused, illuminated, and his little chest stood outlined against the dark trees by a bright line of deep yellow.  Between the shafts of sunset, fireflies began to pulse, brightening the dark spots of deepening evening with their spiraling slow ons and offs.

We just stood there--watching, breathing, absorbing--thankful for life and light and beauty.  Thankful for God.

I lived to see July!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Well look at that. 30 years.

Shawn and I have now been married 30 years.

Shannon, Laura and Matthew came out over the weekend to commemorate the milestone.

Schubert was beside himself with joy.

We did bonfires, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, making s'mores.

This is a sadly lacking photo, but I wanted to document Jon's presence with us.

One golden afternoon, Lu took us over to the park and photographed us.  Now we will be able to remember what we looked like, after 30 years of marriage.
(Disclaimer: Lu took the photos, but I edited these, and she may or may not approve of the edits, so don't judge her on them.  The edits are just my way of inserting my personal memories of the emotional feel of the day.)

Wow.  Can you believe 30 years?

( I didn't edit this one)

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Communication issues

Communicating is a very tricky business.

We understand that cell phones have bad reception sometimes, and computers go down.  These make for breakdowns in communication.  We do not always understand that two people can be standing face-to-face, speaking to each other, and still have a breakdown in communication.

Here's the deal:  communications are multilayered.  I'm sure I'm actually oversimplifying here, but I think there are three important layers to understand in communications.

First, there is what you are trying to communicate, the thoughts and feelings in your own mind.

Second, there is what you actually do communicate, the specific words you speak.

Third, there is what the person hears and understands you to say, the other person's interpretation.

If you are able to find good words that appropriately express what is in your head and heart, and the person with whom you are trying to communicate hears your words and interprets them to mean what you meant them to mean, then communication is going pretty well (although you could still disagree).  However, this is not always (or perhaps even often) the way it works out.

Remember that in any event, what you take away and what the other person (or people) take away from any given interaction could be quite different.  This is not because one person is right and one is wrong, or because one person is crazy and one is sane.  It's just that every individual is most in tune with his or her own perspective, and (therefore) every individual is convinced that he or she is the one who is right.

Don't be stuck in your own head, insisting on your own perspective.  It doesn't matter, and it doesn't help.  The important thing is to arrive at a place where you and the other person have a mutually understood experience.

*Ask clarifying questions!  "This is what I hear you saying. . .(restate what you think you heard).   Is this accurate?"  Please, do not assume that your "hearing" is accurate; don't ask this question sarcastically or in order to trap someone.  Ask honestly.  Give the benefit of the doubt.  Also, remember that it doesn't only depend on your personal hearing/interpretation.  The other person may have been clumsy in articulating what was in his/her heart to say.  Don't insist on clinging to the exact words the other person said, taking offense, and refusing to dig deeper to discover what he/she really meant.  Especially when people are upset, their words often do not come out right.  Graciously assume the best, and ask clarifying questions.

*Make a conscious effort to try to imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling.  Stop and think through his/her perspective of the situation.  Really.  Take the time to do this.  This is an example of how not to be selfish.  If this is going to take you some time, say, "I need to think through this by myself for a few minutes. I need to try to think through things from your perspective.  Can we take a break by ourselves for fifteen minutes, and then come back together to continue this discussion?"  This can diffuse a lot of trouble.  First, a break is good.  However, just storming off on your own for a break is not good.  So talking about the break, and setting a time to reconvene, is very respectful and helpful. Additionally, you can make the other person feel much more hopeful and much less defensive if you actually communicate that you are intentionally taking time to think through the issue from his/her point of view, instead of just assuming that he/she is wrong, and tearing him/her down.  Be sure you really do consider the opposing point of view, and don't just say you're going to, while actually focusing on crafting your own argument.  You should also pray during your break, that God will show you truth, and help you communicate with love.

*Remember that "winning" isn't winning.  Humiliating the other person in order to come out on top in an argument will not do good things for any relationship.  If you have "won" arguments in the past, you know this is true.  True winning is when you both finish with a better understanding of the other person's perspective, and you both feel respected, understood and cared about.  It is hard to say that you're sorry if you think it means that the other person will rub your nose in it afterwards.  However, even if you will get a nose-rub, it's still better to apologize.  If you do something wrong or unkind and get away with it, that's a "cheat," and it won't bear good fruit in your relationship.  Ask yourself: Am I being respectful?  Am I being kind?  Am I being honest?  Ask yourself these questions no matter which side of the argument you are on.  If you are the one who receives an apology, accept it with humility and grace, and assure the other person of your love and acceptance.  A true win is when both parties make progress in expressing and receiving love and respect from each other.  A true win comes from patience, honesty, unselfishness, humility, kindness and forgiveness. . . which amazingly culminate in joy.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My shade garden

Late yesterday afternoon, as I walked past my front door, I saw a baby bird through the sidelight.  It hopped up onto one of the chairs on my front porch, and then fluttered hither and yon, awkwardly, behind the yew and under the porch ceiling.  It had a funny, long, straight tailfeather, like a skinny popsicle stick, jutting out behind itself at an angle.

I didn't run for my camera.  I just stood still and watched the funny, fat little bird.  My impression is that he had white spots on his back, like a fawn, but this may be the poetic license of a hazy memory.  As he darted back and forth between the potted begonias, the hanging ferns, and the porch furniture, I realized that there were two of them.  Indeed, at one point the two tiny birds perched across from one another, right at the edge of my front step.  Then one, perhaps the first one, took off for a low branch in the nearby maple tree, whizzing his little wings heroically as he made his way back to shelter and safety.  The other soon followed, bumbling his directions, but set on gaining shady protection along with his brother.  My heart cheered for him silently as he disappeared among the leaves.

It's been so very dry for the past three weeks.  After our early May travel escapades, Shawn and I spent some time at home.  He bought a little rototiller, and we installed a collection of plants in the lower terrace behind our garage.

We worked on the upper terrace last year, and salvaged some of what had already been there.  The lower terrace was a total overhaul, absolutely nothing to save.  I guess at some point, we'll have to go back and remulch the upper tier to match.  But for now, it is so much better, so exponentially better than it has been ever since we moved here, that I cannot feel too worried about the two-toned mulch.  We've added stepping stones, because it is nearly impossible to tend a garden you can't access.  I loved my upper path--we laid it out according to where my feet fell as I walked through.  My lower path is even cuter, if not quite as ergonomically designed for my paces.

I did a project, and photographed the gardens from the same vantage point, every hour on the half hour through the day, to gauge how much sun exposure there is.  (I will not bore you with those pictures!)  Nothing gets more than 3 hours of sun back here, but the hydrangeas that we planted last year get three hours from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. which wilts them every day over lunch.  I am at my wits end concerning what to do about this.  Nothing but a hydrangea could withstand so much shade, but even three hours of sun is offensive to them.  They will simply have to toughen up.  Apparently, I am not helping them toughen up, as routinely, when I see them withering on the ground, I run back to turn a sprinkler on them until the hot sun passes.  Training spoiled plants; yes, that's me.

Earlier in the season, we saw some beauty in the upper terrace:

This is lungwort.  A neighbor gave it to me, dug some out of her garden.  It is interesting because its flowers come out in both purple and pink. Two-toned leaf, two-toned flower.

The same neighbor gave me this lavender columbine.  It delighted me; I had no idea it would be so pretty.

This is an earlier columbine.  We planted it last fall and waited until this spring to see what the flowers look like, thankful that it bloomed early.  The other columbine we planted last fall was smashed in our roofing job, just before the blossoms opened.

This is another plant we put into the top terrace last summer.  The pink flowers were a precious surprise this April.  It's called ajuga.

Those flowers are all past now, but my astilbe has burst forth--

I just adore pink flowers.  Last year, I was a stickler for planting nothing but pink (well, and blue hydrangeas).  This year I got undisciplined with the colors, I'm afraid.

I bought this for the lower terrace, before the lower terrace was prepared.  This is quite a magnification; it's actually a tiny flower at the top of a stalk.  This is a second bloom I was able to garner by an early deadheading of the original bloom.

I bought this plant after doing a great deal of research on plants that thrive in shade.  It is called Jacob's Ladder, because it has a ladder-like leaf structure (the technical term is pinnate, I believe).  For some reason, I had this perennial mixed up in my head with one called Jupiter's Beard.  I kept reading about Jupiter's Beard, and everything suggested that it liked full sun.  Since I was looking for shade plants, I was confused as to why this was on my list.   At one point, I did a Google image search to try to figure out exactly which plant I was looking for, but in the search bar, I typed, "Jacob's Beard."  Imagine Shawn's chagrin when he stopped by to see what I was doing, and discovered me peering in horror at a computer screen filled with hairy men's faces.  Anyway.  It's Jacob's Ladder.  It's nice.  It's also in the upper terrace, because I stuck it in the ground to wait until the lower terrace was prepared, and there it has remained.

We've had such dry weather, I've been having to water.  I should deep water, but I've been using the sprinkler.

Here you can see the spray of water, which is so gorgeous to watch in real life, sparkling and flying every which way before falling in nourishing, life-giving drops to the ground.

Because it has been so dry, all the little creatures gather in my garden when the sprinkler runs.  Robins glory in the cool mist.  A family of cardinals lives in our lilac bush, happily enjoying both the water and the birdfeeders that project from the deck.  A striped chipmunk tears about amongst my plants, digging holes and chattering angrily at me when I come out to weed or water.  He is astonishingly cheeky.  The other day as I approached, he ducked into a loose space between the steps, then turned around from inside his stronghold, clucking at me in a fury.

One day I looked out my kitchen window and saw something dangling in a spider's web that had appeared, strung from a euonymous to my astilbe.  My first reaction was disgust at a spider's web on my astilbe, but then I saw that the caught insect was a shining black and silver dragonfly.  He was hanging from his tail, spinning madly as he fought to free himself.

Immediately I left whatever I was working on in my kitchen sink, running back to the terrace where I pulled the dragonfly free and knocked down the spider's web.  The dragonfly was bound up in webbing; it had bent the end of his tail, and one of his wings also bent askew when he tried to move it.  I did the best I could to loosen his bonds, but in the end, I just placed him amongst the leaves of the lilac bush.

I hope cardinals do not eat dragonflies.  We have plenty of nice birdseed out for them, songbird mix.

It is astonishing to me how water brings life, making the plants grow, attracting the little animals and birds.  Water is amazing, inexplicable, a substance that behaves unexpectedly according to the rules of science, yet exists as a totally necessary compound for life.  We drink it.  We wash in it.  We are made of it.

This is Lady's Mantle, covered with water droplets.  It's one of the new plants I'm trying in my lower garden.  It doesn't have pink flowers.  Its flowers are a soft, almost unnoticeable yellow-green, with tiny, furry blossoms.  They are subtle, tasteful, understated.  This is why the plant is called "Lady's Mantle."  The flowers are said to adorn the most gentle and modest of ladies, the kind of ladies who do not like to draw attention to themselves.  Old European folklore has it that the Virgin Mary herself wore Lady's Mantle.

This is another picture of Lady's Mantle, at a different time of day, with different light, and not right after I turned off the sprinkler.  The leaves have a way of cupping morning dew in gleaming globes, holding it there, as if to invite a woodland creature or a tiny fairy to come have a delicious drink.

This is the view down the path that runs through my lower terrace.  We got that tiny Rose of Sharon for $11.98, presumably because it was so little.  It's blooming up a storm.  The nursery people seem to have really outdone themselves with fertilizing.

Here's my most recent shot of it.

Further down the path, we have two new hydrangeas.  These are not to be confused with my three droopy hydrangeas from last year.  These only get about an hour of sun per day.  They are happy.

You can also see some pink geranium blossoms in this photo.  These are perennial geranium, not the annuals that you see all over.  Between the pink geranium and the Rose of Sharon, I did still manage to insert some pink this year.  I was surprised when the hydrangeas turned blue, because originally, they looked like this:

But.  I will never complain about a blue hydrangea!

Off on the far side, I've planted some foxglove and some lilies of the valley.  That's the poison section of my garden!

I deadheaded this foxglove, and got a small rebloom.  I don't know what it will do next year.  Since it's a biennial that supposedly self-sows, I'm hoping it will reseed itself, and meanwhile I can plant more blooming foxglove from the nursery next year.  I wish I had bought three instead of one this year, but we shall see what we shall see.

I killed two tiny rhododendrons which I planted up near the water spigot.  They were just too tiny, I think, and had been overfertilized to produce a striking bloom for the store shelf.  I made the mistake of adding some plant food for acid loving plants after I put them in, and they just couldn't handle it all.  This afternoon, I cut them back to the ground, as I think their only hope is if they could somehow come back from the root.

Anyway, that's my garden, my shade garden in the back.

It never fails to amaze me when I put things into the ground and they actually grow.

Miracles abound.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Weeds and such

It's stinking hot.

My flowers need water, but I threw my back out Sunday afternoon, carrying a pile of brush to the curb for Chipperman, who was supposed to come Monday.  He didn't show up Monday, but he came today, for about 45 minutes, until his chipper motor overheated and he left.

I'm not really complaining about the heat.  I like it hot.  It's one of those perfect days, where the air conditioner is set to 78, and it feels like a refrigerator when you step in from outside.  I live for these days.  They are my favorite.  I just wish we could have some gentle rain in the evenings.  That would be perfect, beautiful, grace upon grace.  Sunny, 90 degree days, with cool, rainy nights, my absolute ideal of a climate.  I suppose heaven will be something like that, except maybe not exactly, because I don't know a lot of people besides myself who have a preference for 90 degrees.

There, you see just a speck of a cloud.  That was my sky a few days ago.  
We have a couple more clouds now, 
but nothing that looks like it has any inclination to rain on us.

Also, I wouldn't be averse to some healing for this back.  Watering the garden is pretty fun, if your back doesn't hurt.  You can bomb around with a hose, and get yourself wet like a little kid out in the heat and sunshine.  But having back spasms sort of sucks the joy out of the process.  I'm not meaning to complain.  I'm just saying.

Before I did my back in, I worked on thinning my cleome.  The first year I had cleome, I planted a packet of seeds.  The packet said, "Easy to grow!" so I sprinkled it over the ground, worked the seeds into the soil and waited.  Nothing came up.  In the end, I went to the premium nursery in town, and bought a couple of cleome bedding plants.  They grew, blossomed, and went to seed, and they've been self-sowing ever since.  It's okay, because I like them a lot, except when the thorny stems nick my fingers and draw blood.

Anyway, I was thinning the cleome, and as I pulled out the smaller competitors to free up the bigger plants for more vigorous growth, I noticed something.  There was crabgrass under the thick layer of little cleome volunteers.  Lurking, the nasty weed, figuring that under the lush baby cleome foliage, it would not be noticed.

Weeds do that.  I'm not sure how they do it, but they seem instinctively to know how to grow hidden, under things that are not weeds, camouflaged.  Some weeds grow next to seedlings that have similar leaf structures to theirs.  Some weeds are really good at pretending to be authentic plants, until they get big enough to do real damage, popping their blossoms and spreading invasive seeds everywhere.

The weeds in our lives are like that, too.  Sin camouflages itself next to virtues.

Criticism hides under discernment.  Indulgence hides under grace.  Fear hides under prudence.  Bitterness hides under perseverance.  Laziness hides under peace.  Disengagement hides under trust.  Pride hides under confidence.  Perfectionism hides under excellence.  Manipulation hides under love.  Self-loathing hides under humility.  Self-righteousness hides under righteousness.  They grow up together, a bad quality with a good one, and it is very hard for us to figure out how to root out the right one, and preserve the other one.

Life is hard.  This is why we need the gospel.  Only through the atoning death of Christ can we have access to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit helps us understand the truth of God, and thus make our way.  Lord, please rain your grace down on us and help us every day.

For the word of God is living and active, 
sharper than any two-edged sword, 
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, 
of joints and of marrow, 
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
~Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God.

Recently, I was asked a couple of questions.

(1) What is the point of praying if God doesn't ever change His mind?
(2) Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them?

To answer these questions, we first need to try to wrap our minds around the person of God Himself.  In modern Christendom, our sad tendency is to focus on mankind, on ourselves, on "relevance" and pragmatism and expediency:  "What do I get out of a relationship with God?"  Although there are many glorious benefits to knowing and loving God, if your motivation is driven by selfish pragmatism, you are likely to miss out on all of them.

We need to spend time, like Mary the sister of Martha, sitting at the Lord's feet and gazing at His face, growing in wonder and love as we bask in His presence.  This doesn't fall neatly into our modern ideology of "application," where a person studies a passage of the Bible, then assembles a list of five principles to apply to life by going forth and doing specific "action items" in response to the fabled and revered "call to action."  The Lord does call us to action, but the first action He desires from us is that we know and love Him intimately.  Cultivating this relationship is never a waste of time.  I like to draw near to God by reading scripture and also by contemplating His attributes.

Where prayer is concerned, for me the most pertinent attributes of God are His goodness, His faithfulness and His sovereignty.  God is absolutely good and His plans are perfect and loving, always designed to magnify His glory and bless us in the process.  Because He is perfectly good, we can have complete confidence as we trust Him.  We can trust His every decision and judgment.  He will never make a mistake.  He will never get anything wrong.  He is completely faithful to all of His promises, steadfast, always keeping His word.  (We do need to make sure that we know what His promises are; we cannot expect Him to fulfill promises He never made.)

God is also sovereign, which means He has the power and ability to answer our prayers.  However, His sovereignty is a sticking point for many people.  The sovereignty of God is His ultimate authority and control over all things.  The book of Daniel calls it His eternal dominion.  God makes the plans.  God calls the shots.  God carries out His purposes.  Passages that explain the sovereignty of God include Psalm 115:3, Isaiah 46:9-11 and Daniel 4:34-35 (this is not an exhaustive list).

The sovereignty of God encompasses His omniscience and His eternal nature.  God knows everything, and He exists outside of time, which is something we cannot grasp, but ultimately, if we can understand anything, we must realize that God knows all things simultaneously, whether (from our perspective) they happened long ago, are happening now, or have not happened yet.  This means that He is never surprised, never takes a guess, and never has to wait to gather the facts before He makes a decision.  When we sometimes call Him the Author of life, we indicate an understanding that He has designed and is orchestrating all the events of history: past, present and future.  Someday in heaven, it will take us all of eternity to study and appreciate all the ways He has intricately interwoven all the events of the lives of all the people who have ever lived to create a masterpiece that displays His unfathomable creative genius.

Many people do not like the idea of the sovereignty of God, because it leads us to some difficult questions: Why should we pray, if God already has a plan that He is going to carry out?  How is it fair that God has chosen to grant salvation to some people, and not to others (Romans 9:14-18), and if He's already decided whom to save, why should we bother sharing the gospel with anyone?  If God is sovereign, why is there persecution and suffering, and why do little children undergo sexual abuse?

These are difficult questions, and it can be troubling to ponder them.  The "short answer" -- which will not be particularly comforting in its short form -- is that we are called to humility and faith, trusting, even when we do not understand (Psalm 131), that our good God, who demonstrated His love for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners, will work out all things for our good to the praise of His glory.

We struggle to be humble in the face of the sovereignty of God because we default to assumptions about God based on how we understand ourselves.  We apply human standards to Him, and we think that He is much more similar to us than He is. We even find ourselves falling into the hubris of critiquing and evaluating His actions based on our human perspectives of what is good or fair.  However, when we consider scriptures such as Psalm 50:21, Isaiah 29:15-16, Isaiah 55:8-9 and Jeremiah 23:23-24, we see that we are acting inappropriately when we do this, forgetting our position before our Maker.  This is a particular pitfall in our current times, because the teaching in the churches so often focuses on what God has done for us, as "precious individuals."  We really start to believe that it is all about us, and forget that it is all about God.  We barely look at God, except in terms of how we figure He can benefit us.  Of course, He does benefit us, but this is a corollary blessing, and when we make the corollary blessing our goal, we actually fall into a trap of idolatry, in worshipping the gift rather than the Giver.

It is important to understand that God is very different from us, even if we are incapable of actually understanding all the implications of that fact.  Here is a very important point that my son David and I discuss sometimes:  The sovereignty of God and the omniscience of God look completely different from His perspective than they do from ours.  Even though God has already designed and planned every event throughout all of history, we still have to get up every day and decide which socks to wear and what to spread on our toast.  God already knows it all, but we still have to go through the process of living and doing and making decisions.  Yes, we are still responsible to make decisions, regardless of the fact that God knows (and even designed) what those decisions would be, in advance.  (Incidentally, I find this amazingly comforting when I must make a difficult decision--to remind myself that God already knows what I am going to decide and how it will all work out.  I find it really helpful, and I have been grateful for this truth a number of times in my life.)

I have seen people who learned of the sovereignty of God and interpreted it to mean that they had no active responsibility to do anything--that God would do it all.  They assumed that God's sovereignty meant that they could just sit back and indulge the flesh, because God was responsible to make them want to do otherwise, if He so chose.  This is a tragedy, and it tempts me to beat myself up for times I have taught passionately about the sovereignty of God.  Yet, the Bible shows me that the sovereignty of God is a true thing, and thus I must trust Him--even when people misinterpret the meaning of this truth--to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  He even knows and has planned for all of these seeming tragedies, and He specializes in creating beauty from ashes, restoring, healing and redeeming.

In terms of salvation, the sovereignty of God gives us exactly zero excuses for neglecting to go out and declare the good news of the gospel of Christ.  We are commanded to share the gospel!  His sovereignty means that He has already designed the circumstances where we will share, and He has already been at work plowing up the hearts He has chosen to be affected by our testimonies (Ephesians 2:10, Acts 8:26-40).  Remember, we are walking blind to the future, while God sees and knows and is in control of all things.  This is actually the essence of faith: we cannot see what is going to happen, but God already has it all worked out.

The same is true for the connection between the sovereignty of God and prayer.  He has a plan all laid out.  Therefore, as we journey through our lives, not knowing the future, we pray because we do not know what is going to happen, but He does.  Faithfully believing, we come to Him in supplication for help.

What is the point of praying if God doesn't change His mind?  The point is that prayer is God's way of leading us into a faith walk with Him, teaching us to trust Him.  He draws us into prayer so we can experience Him.  When we pray for something, God focuses our spiritual eyes so that we can see His activity in the world around us.  He shows us His work.

On the day of 9/11, I was homeschooling my daughter Laura.  She had a doctor's appointment for a physical that morning.   In the strangeness of all that was happening, we numbly got ready for the appointment and went.  As we drove down highway 481, I think we may have been the only car on the road.  I remember the odd silence, and the eeriness of the empty sky above, all air traffic having been halted.  I turned on the car radio.  The two towers had been hit, but authorities were still trying to track the third rogue flight.   The Spirit of God moved mightily in my heart, and I found myself fervently praying for the people on that last flight, Flight 93.  I prayed for God to be with them, to help them, and to put His people on that plane to work His salvation.  The prayer just welled up out of me, and I felt the Spirit.  In spite of the panic and fear, I felt an inexplicable comfort and surety that God was hearing my prayers; He was there.  Later, when I learned the story of Todd Beamer, right down to the detail of the open Bible, unburned, on the ground at the crash site in Pennsylvania, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had heard and answered my prayer.  It moved me to tears.  I believe that many God-followers were praying hard that day, and I certainly do not attribute the outcome specifically to my prayer.  Yet, it gives me a tremendous sense of having had the privilege of being a part of the working out of God's plan, because He moved me to pray on that drive down 481 to a pediatrician's office.

Conversely, if we neglect to pray, we usually fail to see the hand of God working.  We just don't notice.  He's constantly at work, whether we pray or not, and actually, this is a great comfort to me.  God can and will complete His will, with or without my prayers.  I am called to be faithful to pray, but what a great comfort to know that if I forget to pray for a particular item one day, or if I pray in the wrong way, or if I am at the end of myself, God is still sovereign and perfectly capable of working out His will.  He will not fail.  He is totally trustworthy.  In fact, when I have come to the point where I just can't find the words to pray on a particular day, Jesus himself is at the right hand of God interceding for me, and the Holy Spirit is groaning for me.  It isn't about my prayers.  It's about God!  He's the one who is always watching over us, never slumbering or sleeping.  He's the one with the power and authority to bring His perfect will to pass.

Why would scripture encourage the prayers of the righteous on behalf of others if it doesn't affect them?  First, we are not only encouraged to pray, we are absolutely commanded to pray (you can start with 1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Second, we haven't said that prayer "doesn't affect" anything.  Do you think that my prayer in the car on 9/11/2001 had no effect, if God had already decided--predestined, if you will--to do a work through the courageous acts of men aboard Flight 93?  Do you think it was simply superfluous?  I don't.

This question (the one I underlined above) is based on James 5:16-18, which says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Elijah was a righteous man just like us.  He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.  Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops."

Interestingly, the story of Elijah, referenced here, exactly supports what I am trying to communicate.  If you read that story out of 1 Kings 17-18, you will realize that there is, in fact, very little reference to Elijah actually praying about any drought.  Elijah was a prophet, and these chapters are mostly about Elijah bringing the word of the Lord to King Ahab, who didn't want to hear it.  In fact, Elijah himself suffered significantly from the famine that God brought on the land.  In fact, King Ahab hated Elijah, blamed God's actions on Elijah, tried to kill Elijah, and called Elijah, "You troubler of Israel!"  All Elijah did was faithfully proclaim the word of the Lord, whereby the Lord was fulfilling His promises of long ago, recorded in Deuteronomy 28:15-24 (God always keeps his promises).  None of this was Elijah's idea.  It was all God's idea, God's plan to fulfill His purposes.

Elijah prayed in 1 Kings 17:21-23 and in 1 Kings 18:36-38, but these instances are not directly related to the famine and ensuing rain that the James passage references.  Were it not for the book of James, we may not have ever realized that there was any connection between the famine and Elijah's prayers.  We recognize Elijah's posture in 1 Kings 18:42 as prayer because James explains to us that it is. You see, God's will preceded and directed Elijah's prayers concerning the discipline of Israel through the beginning and ending of the drought.  The main point, the big take-away, is that Elijah prayed for God's will to be done, and the nation of Israel saw God's will come to pass.  God told Elijah to do this, and Elijah obeyed.  God got His will done, and showed that He was the one doing it.  Whether or not Elijah's prayers caused God's will to be done is something we may never understand this side of Heaven, especially since God instigated Elijah's prayer in the first place.  How do we, with our mortal minds, deconstruct what happened here?  But we know for certain that God used Elijah to pray, and thus focused the nation's attention on His own hand as He directed these circumstances.  The fact that James references this particular answer to prayer, rather than the two nearby examples where Elijah simply asked for and received something he needed, is significant: Prayer helps us see God work out His will.  It is not a means for influencing God to work out our will.

I've recently been fascinated by all the seemingly outrageous promises in the Bible, where Jesus tells us that God will give us what we ask for.  Check out Matthew 7:7-11, Luke 11:11-13, John 14:13, John 14:14, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23, John 16:24, and 1 John 5:14-15.  Interestingly, many of these references are intertwined with the promise of the coming Holy Spirit and say things like, "If you ask in my name," or, "If you ask according to my will."  I've written more about these things here and (especiallyhere.  The simple truth of it is this: God wants us to abide in Him, tabernacling His very essence, His Holy Spirit. . . and when we do, when we walk with the Spirit and are led by Him, we will ask for what God wants to give us--indeed, what He already plans, in His great benevolence, to give us--and we will receive it!  (This is my prayer: that the Holy Spirit Himself will lead me to pray for what He wants me to pray for--then what victory!)

James 4:3 warns us that we will not receive what we ask for if we ask with wrong motives, only to "spend what you get on your pleasures."  This points back to an earlier point I made, that we must seek the Giver and not the gift if we are to see our prayers answered.  Contrast this with Ephesians 6:18, which exhorts us to pray at all times in the Spirit, making supplication for all the saints.  We are to live, think, and pray in accordance with the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Prayer is a practical discipline that we can practice to help us draw near to God and be aware of what He is at work doing all around us.  Even if God has already foreordained the answers to our prayers (just as He knew I would choose to wear a pink shirt today), from my perspective and in my experience, He is responding to me, actively participating in my life, sometimes teaching me faith and patience by making me wait for an answer, and sometimes surprising me with quick and delightful answers to my prayers.