Jesus is My Pool Boy

When people ask how we desert folks survive the intense summer heat, my response is always the same:  air conditioning and a swimming pool.  I’m not sure how anyone survived 100+ temperatures before these things were invented.  Not everyone is blessed enough to have their own backyard pool here in Phoenix.  But when we were looking for a rental home three years ago, my kids took one look at the pool and diving board and knew THIS was the place to live.  And they were right.

Now, before any of you non-pool owners get any ideas about how we just walk out the door when we feel like it and jump into the cool water, let me stop you right there.  Not only were we fortunate enough to have a pool in our backyard, but we also had a palm tree near the pool.  A really TALL king palm tree.  Sounds pretty scenic…unless you know that king palms send out these long green shoots at the end of May.  And those shoots open up and blossom with little white flowers.  And those little white flowers fall at the slightest of breezes. And it takes WEEKS for all those little white flowers to fall.

What does that have to do with swimming you ask?  Nothing, I suppose, as long as you don’t mind floating around in a pool full of little white petals, dead bees and itty bitty pieces of palm tree debris.  I find the whole scenario rather disgusting, which is why at the first sign of those nasty green shoots, I immediately call my landscaper to come trim my nearly 30-ft. palm tree.  Problem solved, right?  Well, yes….except that the neighbor’s king palm tree sits directly over the wall just to the southwest of my pool. And they could care less about all those shoots and flowers and debris that make their way into my pool.  So, therein lies the real problem: every time we want to swim, I have to spend more than a half-hour skimming all the debris from a tree that isn’t even mine.  (Pity party for one, please.)

It’s a back-breaking task that takes extreme patience, perseverance, and a great deal of strength, too. (And I did mention that it’s over 100 degrees most of the summer here, right?) I cannot go out to the pool and expect to be done cleaning in a matter of minutes.  I know it will be a long, arduous process.  I can skim over a certain area of the pool over and over and over again…just to return to the same spot and find it still a mess. Sometimes as I feel I’m nearing the end, a big gust of wind comes up to extend my cleaning time.  There are moments I have to set the long pole down and take a break. But I don’t quit.  I keep going.  Because I know in the end, I get to sink into that cool, refreshing water and relax.

In those quiet moments as I silently skim the mess from the pool, God has been speaking to my heart about this incredibly difficult journey I’ve been on in my life and how much it is like this process of skimming.  There is no doubt that my days are filled with so much debris and mess.  Broken relationships.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Financial worry.  Anxiety. Fear of the future.  The burdens of others I love.  And just when I think some area of my life is “fixed” and clean, I come back to it over and over and over again, to find out what a mess it continues to be.

Do you identify with this as well?  How many times do you find yourself asking God, “When will this be solved?”  or “How much longer do I have to keep dealing with this?”  Somedays I just want to quit, don’t you?  I just want to put down that heavy metal skimming pole and walk away from all of life’s battles.

As much as I detest cleaning that pool, I have come this conclusion:  I have gained considerable strength (and a decent tan) from those half-hour upper-body workouts. (Hmmmm….perhaps I should consider skimming my pool in the non-swimming months as well.)  If I only had a few measly leaves in my pool, my gain of strength would be quite minimal.  When I stand and survey the mess before I begin, I can’t help but think,  “Why couldn’t there just be a few leaves?  Why couldn’t the neighbor just trim his tree?  Why is today another windy day?”  But as I get to work, it hits me:  The fact that so much mess blows into my pool on a daily basis, which is seemingly frustrating, is the very reason I am stronger.

So many of my life’s messes I did not choose.  And I know you didn’t either, sweet friend. How many times do you survey the mess and ask God those hard questions:  “Why did my marriage have to end?  Why did my loved one have to die?  Why did I have to be the one to get cancer?   Why do I have to struggle with finances?  Why did this happen to ME???”

Most likely, we will never know the answers to these questions on this side of heaven. But I do know this:  it is those VERY messes that grow a deep faith in us, strengthen us beyond anything we think we could endure and empower us to live a life pointed to Christ.

It is the debris of our lives that God uses for His glory and His purposes. 

And the absolute beauty of this truth, is that no longer do we bear the burden of holding onto that skimming pole all by ourselves.  You see, we have the most amazing, strong, faithful, loving, sacrificing pool boy, who takes the pole from our hands and says, “Dear child….you are not alone. I’ve got this mess under control.  Let me help you.”

Make no mistake.  There are days I don’t think I have the strength to keep dragging that net around and around the pool.  But as I am weary, Jesus comes alongside me with His strength as He so faithfully promises to do.  And He reminds me of why I keep going, moving forward, continually skimming those itty bitty pieces of junk. Because there is hope and complete assurance that when all the mess of this life is over, I’m going to put my feet into the refreshing waters of eternity.  And it will be SO. INCREDIBLY. WORTH IT.

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Prayer Changes Things…Part I

For years, there has been a sign in my kitchen with these three words:  Prayer Changes Things.  I’m sure I bought it at some home goods store, with little thought given to the significance of the words itself.  Most likely, the sign matched my decor, fit the space I needed it to, and was affordable.

It may seem odd to say, but I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this sign for nearly five years.  “Really?” you ask.  It’s just a sign.  (A cheap one at that.)  But trust me….there have been times I’ve wanted to thrown this sign on the ground and stomp on it.  I’ve wept at the sight of this sign.  I’ve praised God for it.  Before you have me committed for bipolar behavior towards a piece of wall art, let me explain.

You see, the minute (yes…minute) I was told my 15+ year marriage was over, my dazed eyes happened to wander over to those three little words:  Prayer Changes Things.  I stared transfixed on those words as my eyes began to well up with tears.  “You’re kidding me about this prayer thing, right God?”  I thought.  Because trust me, there was no prayer in the world that would change what had been done.  I stayed angry at that sign for a long time….well, maybe not the sign so much, but more about what it implied. Sometimes I mocked those words in disgust.  Sometimes I avoided looking at them altogether.  But more often than not, I started talking to God whenever I’d see them.

It wasn’t anything formal that started with “Dear God” and ended with “Amen”.  I actually started talking TO God.  WITH God.  And it wasn’t always pretty.  At times, my prayers were shouting matches with God.  They were words of disbelief and shock.  Words of surrender to an unknown future.  Sometimes my prayers didn’t even have words.  Just tears.  I’m quite sure that’s when the Holy Spirit took over as Romans 8: 26 reminds us:

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (NIV)

Over the course of many months and years, I began to discover the crucial truth that was right before my eyes.

Prayer does, indeed, change things. 

It changed my heart to be more loving and forgiving.  It changed my thoughts to not be so filled with anger and hatred.  It changed my attitude about what was important and what was not.  But most of all, it changed my relationship with God to be a much more personal one.  I learned not only to talk to God in a deeper way, but to actually be quiet and listen to God as well.   (I’m still working on the listening part…and being patient in waiting for what God has to say.)

It’d be a nice way to end this blog by saying I never had another issue with my prayer sign again.  But that would be far from the truth.  Little did I know a day was coming when I would once again, look at that sign and begin to loathe those words even more than I did before when life seemingly fell apart all those years ago.

And that’s exactly what happened when I walked into my house just over nine short months ago….

 

 

In the Same Boat

One of my favorite things to do in college had really nothing to do with college itself, but rather with one of the over 10,000 lakes in the state of Minnesota. To me, there was nothing more peaceful than walking the perimeter of my beloved Como Lake.  It didn’t matter the season….I simply found the presence of the water to have a calming effect on my very hectic life.  It was also a chance to escape the big city life and commune with nature.

It’s ironic then, I suppose, that I currently live in a desert, where walking by water either means being near a canal or passing by the neighbors’ yard when the sprinklers happen to be on. But today, I had a chance to walk around a lake in Sugarland, Texas – an opportunity I was not about to pass up. I enjoyed observing things I don’t get to see in the desert:  snowy-white herons posing like statues near the water’s edge, large blue dragonflies buzzing about the trail, and a scattering of ducks sunning themselves on the grassy bank. As I crossed over the bridge to the opposite side of the lake, my eyes caught sight of a small, lone turtle. I stopped and watched him for a few moments.  Poor turtle.  All alone and attempting to paddle against the natural current. Not really getting anywhere. He could use a buddy, I thought. “I feel your pain little guy,” I said aloud as I continued to walk over the bridge.

Being single is OK.  Sometimes.  But it’s not exactly where I thought I would be in my life at this point.  And truthfully, it’s not where I want to be permanently. I didn’t plan on being divorced or choose it, like most toilet-on-the-sidewalk moments.  But life has definitely taught me that you don’t always get to chose what happens to you.

I continued on the trail, thinking about that little turtle and hoping to find another turtle, this time with a companion. You know, as a sign of hope from God for the future?  I never did see what I was looking for. Only because God had something even better for me to see.

Out of the corner of my eye, they came into view: a pair of rowers, gliding silently through the water. Every perfectly synchronized motion looked effortless, but I could see quite a bit of strength and teamwork went into that scene.  And they were going against the current. Together. In the same boat.

I’m not going to lie. Part of me felt jealous watching that scene. Because that’s what I want. Not literally, of course.  Lord knows me rowing an actual boat would be rather disastrous. But I do want someone to choose to come alongside of me, climb in the boat and be my rowing partner through life.

I stared at those rowers for a bit, as they easily made a turn and gracefully went under the arches of the next bridge.  “I want someone in my boat, God,” I whispered under my breath.

And as God often does, He speaks truth into my life through music. Through my Pandora station. Right into the earbuds in my ears. Because this is what I heard so clearly God speaking to my heart:

“From the need to be understood, from the need to be accepted, from the fear of being lonely, deliver me, O God.  And I shall not want. When I taste your goodness, I shall not want.”

 

Oh, how I forget the goodness of God all too easily! There is nothing to want, because God provides all I need for this day. And the next. And the next.

There is no doubt in my mind that not I’m alone in this boat called life.  God is in the boat with me, guiding me around every bend. I have dear friends who row their boats beside mine to encourage me. And while that is a huge blessing, God knows my heart aches for something more. SomeONE more. Someone who will be my best friend. Someone who looks at my broken heart and still chooses to love me. Someone who is honest and faithful. Someone who is passionate about his relationship with Christ.  And someone who knows that Christ needs to be the center of our lives.  I can make all the lists I want, but God knows my heart more intimately than even I do. He knows who is best. His plan is always better than the ones I have for myself.

And I trust Him to find my boat companion.

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” 

~ Psalm 37:4

Letting Go

Every time I hear the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen, I can’t help but smile a little.  Not because of the song itself, but because of the memories associated with it. Memories of my daughter playing it on repeat in her room at loud volumes just to annoy her brother.  Hearing it on the car radio and belting it at the top of my lungs, just to drive Joe nuts.  Frequently breaking into chorus with Ella at any point in the day to watch my son run out of the room screaming.  Yes.  Those were some good times.

Perhaps then, it was rather fitting that for what would have been Joe’s 15th birthday, many family and friends gathered together at the cemetery to “let it go” – releasing blue balloons with Bible verses of hope.  It was a lovely scene, really, to watch all those balloons drift up and be carried away by the breeze. (Well, except for the dozen that flew into a nearby tree…but people need hope even at a cemetery, right???)  As they floated away, I turned my eyes to my 5-year-old nephew, still clutching the balloon he brought to release.  It was a beautiful birthday balloon, shiny with lots of colors and stars.  I’m sure he had picked it out himself.  He knew he had to let it go, yet you could see it in his face that he would have loved to keep it.  But after some gentle coaxing from his dad,  he opened his hand and let that beautiful, shiny balloon fly away.

I smiled to myself, watching that scene.  How often have I been holding on to what I thought was something so beautiful and perfect for me, when God was gently nudging me to let it go?  To release it to His care and divine plan?  There have been many things I have had to let go over the years…homes, jobs, churches I’ve attended, a marriage, friendships – and yes, even my own son.  And as much as I would like to shake my fist at God and remind Him of all that’s been taken from me, I can’t.  Because I’ve learned the simple truth that all of those things were never mine to begin with.  Not a single one.

I’ve been an expert at giving things to God over the years….and then taking them back when I feel I can handle them again.  However, walking through the grief of a child has changed my entire view of control.  The whole concept of “letting go” is actually a lot less scary than it used to be.  Perhaps because in death, you realize that you have absolutely zero control and that God is sovereign.  His plan and purposes won’t be stopped regardless of our best intentions or interference.  And maybe, it’s not so much about letting go as much as it is about surrendering.

Because when you surrender, you don’t just give up control. You hand it over to someone else.  

I’ve had to learn to hand it over.  It hasn’t come easily.  But with God’s gentle nudging, I’ve begun to surrender my hurt.  My relationships.  My finances. My future.  But most importantly, my heart.
I’ll be honest.  I had NO idea how much freedom there was in surrender!  Freedom to not worry about what others think of me. Freedom to not feel like I need to manipulate circumstances to work in my favor.  Freedom to trust that God has it all under control.  Freedom to live out HIS purposes for my life, whatever that looks like.

And all because God surrendered His own Son, so we could not only live in total freedom for Him, but one day, live in His eternal presence.

“It is for freedom, that Christ has set us free.”  ~ Galatians 5:1

And as Elsa so eloquently stated in that annoyingly beloved song, “The fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.”

 

Lessons from a Cactus

I’m a girl who was raised in the Midwest – rural Nebraska to be exact.  I grew up with scenery that included corn fields and silos and flat land for as far as the eye could see.  So it’s no wonder that even after living in the desert for nearly 15 years, I’m still fascinated with its landscape.  Some people don’t think there’s much beauty to behold in a desert, but I absolutely love it.  Especially when it’s springtime….little flowers of purple and yellow dot the sides of hiking trails, things seem (remotely) green, and there’s a buzzing of insects all around. (OK, so that part I could live without.)

There’s no shortage of trails to hike around the Valley and now that spring break is here, I had some time to try out a new trail.  Normally I’m not one to take photographs when I hike, but finding myself particularly drawn to the enormity of the Saguaro cacti on the trail, I channeled my inner tourist.  Every 100 feet or so, I’d find myself whipping out my phone for another breathtaking shot.

Now, you may not have time to research the Saguaro like I did (this is how you know I’m on spring break), so let me enlighten you on some amazing facts.  The Saguaro is the largest kind of cactus there is and it only grows in the Sonoran Desert.  (If you’re not from Arizona, think tall spiky green cactus with arms.)  They can live up to 200 years old and grow to a height of between 40-60 ft.  They grow incredibly slowly, only gaining 1-1.5 inches in the first 8 years.  It’s not until they’re 35 years old that they’ll even produce the beautiful white flowers that open up in mid-April.  And it takes nearly 100 years for the Saguaro to grow its first arm.  So, the more arms, the older the cactus is.  Are you fascinated yet?

Looking up at one of these majestic plants seems like it would be awe-inspiring.  But if you’ve ever been close enough to a Saguaro, you’ll notice it often has several holes bored through the flesh from where various birds and desert creatures have made their homes.  The base of the cactus has been eaten away from wild javelina and jackrabbits.  Occasional wildfires char the base as well.  Not only that, but the skin of the cactus is subject to sunburn and frostbite.  So how is it, after all a cactus has gone through, that it is still able to keep standing?

Because of what’s inside.

Internally, the cactus is strong.  There are long shafts of wooden ribs that run through the length of the cactus that are banded together.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I discovered how strong that wood is, right?  Wrong.  Turns out the wood is described as “lightweight” and “soft”.  That was slightly disappointing to discover.  And here I thought this was going to be the perfect analogy of how God is strong just like the inside of a cactus!  I nearly scrapped the entire blog post when I learned that.  But God put a familiar verse on my heart just then :

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am GENTLE and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden LIGHT.” ~ Matthew 11:28 (NIV)

OK, so maybe God IS like the inside of a cactus…just not the way I thought. And if God is like the inside, I can’t help but think how much I’m like the outside.  Full of holes.  Burned.  Eaten up by the troubles of this world.

I think we all can relate to that, can’t we?  We’ve all gone through trials in life, whether big or small, and if we’re blessed, we have good friends and family who come to our side to see us through and share words of comfort with us to let us know we’re not alone. Words like, “God is with you.”  Or “He’s right beside you.”  And while those are perfectly accurate truths about God that do bring comfort, they stop short of the most wonderful, crucial truth I am discovering:

God isn’t just with me.  God is IN me. 

Many people marvel at how I’ve survived burying my 14-year-old son.  They say, “You’re so strong!” or “I could never be as strong as you!”  Oh, friends.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Yes, prayers have sustained me, music has spoken to my heart, hugs have brought me comfort.  But God IN me is the reason I’m still standing.  He is my day-to-day survival strategy.

It’s ironic how living in the desert is often about survival. You often hear of hikers who get have to get rescued because they didn’t bring enough water to last the trip.  Every desert dweller knows the key is always having enough water.  Even the Saguaro knows this.  It survives because it has a long taproot that goes down into the ground two to three feet. And it has extensive roots that branch outward to collect as much water as it can. I’m learning that I need that same root system for my life.  That long taproot delves into God’s Word and time spent in prayer.  The other roots reach out to our family and friends for love, support, and comfort. This is how we survive through any tragedy, great or small.

God faithfully promises to lead us beside quiet waters and refresh our souls.  But unlike the cactus adding to its weight when filled with water, our souls become lighter with God’s living water because He has promised that His burden is light.  Our burdens become lighter, too, when we spend time in His presence.  They will never fully go away – we aren’t promised that.  But they are easier to carry when we know the Lord dwells in us.

I’m not sure about you, but knowing that realization –  and TRULY believing it – makes me stand a whole lot taller.  It puts fear in its place. It gives me joy on my saddest days, hope in my despair, comfort for my sorrow, and purpose for my pain. It empowers me to know that I have a living God who makes me, a plain girl from rural Nebraska, HIS dwelling place.

“Or do you not realize about yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you?” – 2 Corinthians 13:5

I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” – Galatians 2:20

 

 

 

The Rocks in My Shoes

Last Saturday morning was an Arizonan hiker’s dream…not too hot, not too cold.  Clouds to block the sun and a slight breeze.  If there’s one thing you should know about hiking in Phoenix, it’s this: trails are ROCKY.  (And have an ample water supply…so, I suppose two things.)  Sometimes the rocks are small; sometimes they’re big; and sometimes they’re boulders.  But invariably, no matter how snug I put on my hiking boots, a tiny little rock or two will end up in my shoe.  It’s like the Murphy’s law of hiking.  And Saturday was no exception.

For the record, I didn’t start off with a rock in my shoe.    In fact, the first few minutes on the trail were really quite pleasant.  But once that rock (okay, so “rock” might be an exaggeration…a small piece of gravel, perhaps) found its way into my hiking boot, I began to step right on it.  And it HURT.  I tried to shift my foot around and move the rock. I really didn’t want to stop on the trail, untie the shoe, dump out the rock and retie.  Plus, there was no place to sit down – not until I reached the top of the mountain.  I had no choice but to keep going. Soon after, I felt a second tiny rock join the first one.  More shaking my foot.  More shifting my toes around to adjust the rocks.  More realization that those rocks weren’t going anywhere.  As I continued to walk, I began to get seriously annoyed.  How did these rocks get there?  Why my shoe?  Hadn’t I stayed on the trail? The journey to the top was hard enough without these rocks!

Grief is a lot like those rocks in my shoe.

Life started off just fine…it was pleasant in the beginning.  I had lots of energy and optimistic goals.  But then rocks began to creep in as the journey continued…small rocks like job changes and parenting frustrations and living on a tight budget. But there were big rocks, too. Miscarriages.  Divorce.  The death of my precious son. When they came, I didn’t have any warning.  Those rocks hit me all at once.  I don’t even know how I found myself where I was, when I had stayed on the path, had my shoes on tight, and even had Christian music playing through my earbuds.  It was painful. And many days, it still is.  A lot of days, I just want to sit down.  Stop moving.  Take the rocks out and give up.  Except I can’t.  I have to keep moving forward, constantly aware of the pain – sometimes easier, sometimes harder, but always there.  Sometimes it’s so hard, I have to stop.  And cry.  And take deep breaths.  And pray God will give the strength I need to keep going.  Miraculously, He always does.

Don’t think I haven’t pleaded with God to take away the rocks in my shoe.  More and more I identify with Paul when he begged God to take away the thorn from his side.  But I am learning to understand God’s and Paul’s responses even more with each passing day.

“‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Sometimes the rocks would shift enough so I could barely feel it.  Those moments of refreshment are a gift from God and I’m learning not to feel guilty for laughing and loving life some days. I’m thankful for those God has put on the path with me.  For those who share the pain they’ve also walked through, and for those who give me encouraging words and daily hope.  For those who willingly walk alongside me and listen to my stories of the rocks and how they just really hurt sometimes.  For those who cry with me and laugh with me and listen to me and love me through the pain as we journey together.  What a privilege it has become for me to walk alongside others with rocks in their shoes and encourage them as well.  It’s the buddy system at its finest…the way God intended it to be.

In case you’re wondering, I did eventually make it to the top.  Rocks and all. And the relief I felt when I took off those shoes?  Well, you can imagine it was glorious.  As I sat down to look back on the trail I had come along and the beauty all around me, I closed my eyes and imagined the day when Jesus will take off my dusty old hiking boots.  He’ll shake all those painful rocks out and smile at me and say the words I pray to hear:  “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  And then?  I’ll run barefoot on the rockless streets of gold.

 

 

Living Brokenhearted

Nearly four years ago, I walked into a room at a local church, signed my name to the roster, and sat down at an empty table.  I didn’t know anyone, which was the way I preferred it to be.  I didn’t even really want to be there, but deep down I knew I needed to be.  DivorceCare class.  It was one of those surreal moments you find yourself in and completely overwhelmed by.  This was a class for other people. Surely not me.

I was still in a great deal of shock over what had transpired just weeks prior.  As I sat at the table looking around at the weary, distraught faces around me, my eyes wandered to the whiteboard in the front of the room.  The instructor had written a Bible verse on the board.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18

I wasn’t sure how I had lived over 37 years of life not knowing that verse.  Tears immediately began to fill my eyes, because if there ever was a description of me, this was it.   Brokenhearted.  Crushed in spirit.

That verse became very personal to me over the years.  It not only brought me comfort, but it was a verse I often shared with others who were going through challenging times.  And now recently, that passage has come back into the light and is one I cling to in the wake of my son’s death.  But for a different reason now than before.

You see, while I had my Bible open to this very verse the other week, my eyes locked in on “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit”, as it had so many times.  I closed my eyes and whispered, “God.  I am so weary from being these things far too often.”  And in the stillness, God whispered back, “This verse isn’t about you.  Look what I am doing!”  Huh?  I opened my eyes and read with fresh eyes….

THE LORD IS NEAR.  HE SAVES.

It was like being hit with a spiritual 2 x 4.  This passage was not about my current emotional state, but about God and HIS action.  HIS movement towards me.  HIS love and desire to save me.

How many times times have we had the spotlight on ourselves and our suffering instead of what God is doing in the midst of it?   If you’re anything like me, it’s far too often.  Even when my heart is broken for those around me – and there are so many walking through the darkest of valleys- I tend to focus on their state of grief and sadness.

But, friends, let me encourage you today as much as I encourage myself with these words.  We have a God who sees our broken hearts,  our crushed spirits.  And He doesn’t sit by idly.  He moves closer.  Our hearts are broken.  There is no doubt of that.  But that’s not the end of our story.  God loves us so incredibly much that sent HIS Son to save us, so that by His grace, we will not have to live brokenhearted forever.  Our hearts will be made whole again in the presence of our Savior.  Eternally.

So do not read the words of the psalmist and weep.  Read them and rejoice!

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”