Oh No! More Waiting!

Every year at about this time, I begin to ask the Lord to give me a verse or a word for the next year. Last year I got a very clear word: “Wait. On. God.” It was very emphatic, like three distinct sentences. It was puzzling to get that word at the beginning of 2020.  “Wait on what, Lord,” I wondered.  I had no idea what was coming.  But it wasn’t too long until we were all waiting.  Waiting for the lockdown to be over, waiting for the virus to go away, waiting to go back to work, for the children to go back to school.  Waiting for life to return to normal.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I have to confess that I am not very good at waiting.  I hate waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for almost anything.  I don’t even enjoy getting my nails done because it takes too long.  So 2020 has been a real opportunity for me to learn lessons in waiting.  But I still don’t like it.

So as I have begun to pray for my 2021 word, I was hoping for something like, “The wait is over!” Instead the Lord has taken me to Lamentations.  Lamentations???  Really, Lord?  It’s such a dreary book and haven’t we lamented enough?  But the Lord wanted to give me a hopeful reminder In Lamentations 3:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; 
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.  ESV

This is a familiar, often quoted passage of Scripture.  In fact we even sing hymns with those words.  Think about it.  He pours out fresh blessings on us every morning and those blessings never come to an end.  Those mercies are specific to the day that lies ahead, and then tomorrow we get new ones.  I am reminded of the children of Israel wandering in the desert.  God provided fresh manna every morning, enough for the day.  

But then in the next verse, there is that word again.  Wait.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” NIV

I believe God is telling me that the time of waiting is not over, but I can have hope because His love never comes to an end, and His mercies are new every morning.  When we seem stuck in this sameness, God is declaring that because of His great compassion and love for us, He is doing something new every morning!  The word mercies in Hebrew is derived from the word that is used for womb, the place of the strongest love connection, that between mother and child.  Neuroscience studies have demonstrated that there are changes that occur in the brain of a pregnant woman that get her ready to respond to the cries of her baby.  Within just a few hours of becoming a mother, she can not only distinguish the cry of her baby from the cry of other babies, she can recognize what the different cries mean and respond accordingly.  She knows what her baby needs when it cries.  In the same way, our Father recognizes the cries of His children.  When we cry out to Him, He hears us.  He knows what we need and He responds.  God loves us, wants good for us, and even when it seems as if nothing ever changes, He declares that he gives us goodness every morning.

I have watched my friends this year, friends who have much to lament.  But they keep on going in the face of tragedy and adversity.  (You dear ones know who you are.)  Friends who have lost beloved family members, friends who are facing great hardships and uncertain futures, friends who have received devastating diagnoses from their physicians, and those who are waiting for an adult child to return from the far country.  They keep pressing on in their assignments from God.  I have friends who have been waiting for answers to prayers for years and they remain faithful.  The only way they can do this is because of God’s fresh mercies every morning.  We wait for God to move, but we wait with hope, with expectancy.  That is called faith.

In spite of all the hardships of 2020, I know that there were mercies as well, mercies we might not have received any other way but in our waiting.  As we come to the final weeks of this year, we are still waiting.  Waiting for a vaccine, a cure.  We wait for our country to heal, we wait for God to hear our prayers and send a Great Awakening to America.  We wait for a time when we can be with family and friends with no concern about a virus, when we can go about our lives without masks.  A time when we can return to school and work.  

We lament the losses of 2020 and recognize that the time of loss is not over.  But we can have hope because the God who loves us with great mercy and compassion is still in control.  We can face whatever comes in 2021 because of His great faithfulness.       

WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS

If there has ever been a year when we need a little Christmas, 2020 is it!  We have dealt with COVID and all the fear, sickness, and death that come with it.  The unleashing of this virus then set off a cascade of events that have left us reeling: the lockdown, jobs furloughed and lost, schools in and out of the classroom, racial tension, riots and looting, fires and hurricanes, a chaotic election season, and oh!  Murder hornets!  Did I leave anything out?  So as soon as the calendar turned from October to November I began thinking about Christmas decorations.  We are always early, but this year is the earliest we have ever had ours up.  Last night we even turned on the outdoor lights.  Because we need a little Christmas.

I suppose it is the lights that I love the most.  In addition to our tree we have lots of lighted garlands and wreaths.  Oh how we enjoy drinking our morning coffee in the glow of the Christmas lights.  

I’ve been thinking about light quite a bit lately.  Our Community Bible Study groups are studying the Book of John this year.  I have read and studied John many times, but the verses have leapt off the pages as if they are brand new to me.  And in the first few verses John describes Jesus as the light.  Of course I have long been familiar with the concept of Jesus as the Light of the World, but it has grabbed me anew and I keep coming back to it.  Why is that title so important?  

Light itself is essential.  Without it we cannot have life.  The very first thing God did in the beginning was to create light (Gen. 1:3) because the rest of creation was going to need it.  I know next to nothing about physics, but I started thinking about the properties of light.  Light travels.  It has the ability to pierce the darkness; but darkness cannot dim light.  Light attracts; it has a gravitational pull.  It causes growth and produces energy. Light changes the materials it shines on.  Light heals and purifies.  And Jesus does all those things.  He attracts us, and when we search for Him, we find Him.  He moves into willing lives and shines light on our sins.  He changes and purifies us.  He doesn’t leave us the same.  He heals us and causes us to grow in righteousness.

We so need the Light of the World to penetrate our dark world right now.  There is so much hatred and anger, so much polarization.  And so much corruption.  Light exposes those things that are concealed in darkness.  Mark 4:22 tells us that things that are hidden in the darkness will be brought into the light.

Next month we will celebrate Christmas.  When Jesus was born into the world as a baby, He came in an explosion of light that lit up the night sky.  The shepherds saw it, and after their initial fear, they were filled with such joy and hope.  The Magi were drawn to it and worshipped the new King.  That is why I need my Christmas lights.  They remind me that God is still on His throne and He still has a plan, that the Light of the World still changes hearts, and that the darkness will never overcome that Light.      

WE HAVE BUTTERFLIES!

 

Do you feel like 2020 has been a season of waiting?  Waiting for this pandemic to be over.  Waiting for a vaccine.  Waiting to go back to work or school.  Waiting to take a trip.  And waiting for this contentious election to be over.  Waiting.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like waiting in line, waiting in traffic, or even waiting for the clothes dryer to buzz. And I sure don’t want to wait for a Covid test or election results.  I know I can’t be alone in this.  We live in such an instant, fast-paced, everything-at-our-fingertips world that we have become conditioned to expect things to happen on demand.  So even waiting for the microwave to ding sometimes seems interminable.   We multi-task, we check off our to-do lists, and we become human doings instead of human beings. 

This year God has decided to teach me about waiting, about being still and quiet, and how to wait well.  Every year right around the beginning of the New Year I ask God to give me a Bible verse, a scripture that I can hang my hat on.  It is usually something that He wants to work into me, and it usually takes a year to do it.  But this year I got a word: “Wait.  On.  God.”  Emphatic, like three distinct sentences.  Wait on God.  And when God gave it to me, I knew it was from Him.  No, I didn’t hear an audible voice, but I heard it deep in my spirit.  When you have walked with God for a while things like that happen.  

But what did those words mean, wait on God?  I had no idea in January.  But as we all know, 2020 has been a year of waiting.  There have been many lessons for me about waiting.  The first one being it is okay to be still.  When you are a Type A, “Git-R-Done” girl, being still doesn’t come naturally.  But I learned the value in it.  And while the rest of you were cleaning out closets and baking banana bread (and those are good things) I was being still with God.  I spent time in the Bible, time reading, and learned a new way to journal His word.  And I have prayed.  A lot!  I learned that some of the things I thought were important really don’t matter very much.  I think I have grown stronger in my walk with Jesus.  Maybe He is preparing me for a new assignment, or maybe He is getting me ready to meet Him face to face.  He will reveal it in His own time.  The quarantine has taught me that we can spend a good deal of time waiting for the next big thing and miss the precious things that are right in front of us.

So what does any of this have to do with butterflies?  I was on my patio earlier today on a Zoom call (and haven’t we had a lot of those?)  It was a national prayer call, and the devotional theme today was about waiting.  Seriously?  It’s October and we are still working on waiting?  When God wants to teach me something He comes at me from all angles.  While I was on this call I happened to look around and see that we had butterflies.  Lots of them, fluttering around.  You might not think that having butterflies in your yard is very remarkable, but I was excited!  We have worked for those butterflies.  

Our butterfly journey began this spring when I was visiting my friend Sally.  She lives in a rural area, across the road from The Euchee Butterfly Farm and a garden area known as The Tribal Alliance for Pollinators.  Their mission is to restore plants native to the Oklahoma prairie and to establish habitats for Monarch butterflies.  We had already planted one little anemic milkweed plant (which is now flourishing), but after visiting with Sally we planted some Black-eyed Susans and Coneflowers that just happened to be on sale at Lowe’s.  

As I was praying and looking at those butterflies (yes, my eyes were open while I prayed), it occurred to me how much of a butterfly’s life is spent waiting before it finally gets to soar.  It starts out as an egg that eventually hatches into a caterpillar.  The caterpillar eats and eats until it finally quits growing and then forms itself into a pupa or chrysalis.  And there it waits, but not passively.  God is at work transforming it in a process called metamorphosis.  Lots of growing and changing is taking place until finally, the butterfly breaks free and soon flies.  Then the whole process starts all over again when the butterfly lays eggs.  By the way, if you are ever tempted to help a butterfly out of its chrysalis, don’t do it.  The butterfly needs the struggle to develop wings strong enough to fly.  

Sometimes all we can do is wait.  Earlier this year when we were on full lockdown, I certainly felt cocooned.  But if we make good use of that waiting time, God will transform and develop us into the person we need to become for the next chapter of our lives.  Maybe He is developing our trust muscles.  It hit me today, that the God who planned so intricately for something as small and insignificant as a butterfly, has a plan for me.  He has a purpose in this waiting season.  The same God who cares about a butterfly cares for me.  And it is more than okay to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).  In fact, sometimes being still might be the most important thing we can do.           

THE POWER OF WORDS

When our girls were little we talked a good bit about the power of words and using our words to build up each other instead of tearing down or hurting each other.  I can remember teaching them the word, edify.  We would frequently tell one sister to say something edifying to another after she had used hurtful words.  This often produced unexpected results, like the time there was a long silence before the offending sister, struggling to find something nice to say about her sister, finally came out with, “I like your shoelaces.”  We take what we can get as parents.

 

I was reminded of this story Sunday after a chat with our new Youth Pastor.  Our church, First Baptist Jenks, is just now getting back to some semblance of normal.  While we were quarantining, Brandon Trentham came aboard to minister to the youth in our congregation.  I was eager to meet him because of his name.  I wanted to know if he was related the first teacher I had when I went to college as an adult, Bart Trentham.  It turns out that Bart is Brandon’s father, so it gave me an opportunity to share a story about his dad.

 

I had one year of college after high school back in the dark ages.  I won’t reveal the year, but it was so long ago that girls were not permitted to wear pants anywhere on campus, and we registered for class in the gym by going around from table to table trying to find an empty spot in a class to add to our handwritten registration card.  When I was 48-years old, I decided to go back and get the degree I never got.  Our three daughters had either gotten their own degrees or were still in college and thought I was crazy for actually wanting to go to school.  I had a good deal of trepidation about it myself.  My two biggest fears were (1) they would make me use a computer (we were still in the DOS era and I didn’t even know where the “on” switch was) and (2) they would make me do math.  Actually I ended up learning to do math on a computer, but that is a different story.  My heart was pounding as I walked into the registrar’s office at what was then Tulsa Junior College and registered for two classes.  I didn’t have to register on a computer!  Whew!

 

My very first class was Intro to Psychology and I loved it from the start.  My teacher was a young Bart Trentham who was an adjunct teacher at the time.  I don’t think he was Dr. Trentham at this time; maybe still finishing up.  (Sidebar; I had the BEST teachers at TJC!  Most of them very over-qualified.)  Bart was funny and engaging and made psychology come alive for me.  I was the annoying “non-traditional’ student in a class full of sleepy 18-year olds. You know, that adult who sat on the front row and kept asking questions.  One day, after I had asked a question, Bart paused for a minute and looked straight at me and said, Fran, you ask really good questions.  You ask Ph.D. questions.)

 

I can still remember the physical feeling that accompanied his words.  Ph.D.?  Me?  Could I?  It was like an arrow to my heart and a seed was planted.  Long story short, I did get that Ph.D.  As I was sharing this story with Brandon, he asked if his dad knew it.  I replied that I think he knows I became Dr. Carona, but I don’t think he knows his part in it.  As I thought about our conversation later in the day I realized that Dr. Trentham probably doesn’t even remember me.  Many years have gone by, and I was not an important part of his story, but he was an important part of mine.

 

This brings me back to the power of our words.  We can choose to use this power constructively, to build up and encourage, or we can use our words to destroy, to wound and shatter another person.  And words have a very long life.  I cannot even count the people who came to my office still wounded by words that were spoken to them as children.  We can use our words as Dr. Trentham did, to plant a dream, or we can use them to destroy dreams, to imply that one’s hopes and ambitions are impossible.  Are our words life-giving or life-draining?  Do our words inspire or extinguish?   Gary Chapman in his book Love As a Way of Life says our words can be either bullets or seeds.

 

And then there are the words we speak to ourselves.  Oh the lies we believe!  I spent many hours teaching my clients to challenge their negative thoughts that came to them so automatically, and replace them with words that are true.  If you have spent a lifetime listening to your own lies it is difficult to even know what the truth is.  The world is hard enough; we don’t need our own self-inflicted wounds.

 

The Bible has much to say about our words, telling us that the tongue has the power of life and death (Prov.18:21), and that the words that come out of our mouths should be for building up others (Eph. 4:29). When we must deliver a hard truth, we must do it in love and not harshly.  Do I always get this right?  Hah!  But I have a mental image I use.  I call it a criticism sandwich.  The bread slices are the soft words that go down easily, and the meat in the middle is the difficult part.  Begin and end these conversations with the soft “bread.”

 

And when you get the chance, use your words to inspire, to create a vision.  You just never know when your words can change the trajectory of someone’s life.  Use them carefully.

 

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.  1 Thess. 5:11 NLT

DON’T STAY STUCK IN THE SHOULDS

 

Today is September 1, and for me it represents the beginning of autumn.  The first of the BER months.  When everything seems new again.  Autumn is my favorite time of year.  I like everything about fall: the vivid colors on the trees, the crisp, cool air, the excitement of children going back to school, football games, and pumpkin patches.  I love it all.  I even enjoy the nights getting a little longer.  Autumn is such a rich season, a season of harvest and plenty.

 

But this is 2020 and everything is different and definitely not what I planned.  I should be over-the-top excited about Sooner football starting, but it’s more like, “Meh.”  We won’t be going to the games in Norman this year (if they actually have games).  Instead, we took the option of rolling our tickets over into 2021.  It isn’t because we are afraid of getting COVID, but rather because sitting in a stadium that is three-quarters empty and cheering through a mask just doesn’t sound like fun.  No tailgating, no Boomer Bash…the game day experience, like everything else in 2020, will be dramatically different.  Not like it should be.

 

This is the year the Sooners were scheduled to play Army as an away game.  Jerry and I should be going to West Point like we planned.  But not this year.  Cancelled!  How many events have been cancelled in 2020?

 

I guess the first cancellations that hit us, like everyone else, were the large-group gatherings.  We couldn’t go to church for many weeks, and we are only just now allowed to go back.  We couldn’t go out to a restaurant for weeks; in fact our only outing for quite a while was a trip to the grocery store.  Jerry and I cancelled our annual family trip to Rosemary Beach in the early summer.  We didn’t get to see our granddaughter graduate from high school.  We couldn’t be in the hospital waiting room while a daughter had surgery or a granddaughter gave birth.  You have your own stories of cancelations this year: weddings, funerals, school events, and family reunions.  Milestone events that were missed.  Things that should have happened didn’t.  Life should not be like this!

 

As I have been pondering these things on this September morning I am amazed at my own contentment.  I learned a long time ago that expectations are premeditated resentments.  I’ve learned not to be caught up in the “shoulds,” even when the “shoulds” are true.  It’s true: life shouldn’t be like this, there shouldn’t be rioting and looting in our streets, people shouldn’t hate each other, my grandchildren should be able to go to school in person and shouldn’thave to wear masks, and by golly, there should be football as usual!  But what should be isn’t, and staying stuck in the “shoulds” is a guaranteed recipe for unhappiness.  Instead I need to accept what is and learn to deal with it.  This has definitely been the year to roll with the punches.  And amidst all these cancellations, this uncertainty, I have peace.

 

That peace comes from knowing God.  The God I know created this world, and saw this year coming before time existed.  Nothing has taken Him by surprise.  He is our refuge, our safe place when all our familiar props have been knocked out from under us.  He is there when the world faces a pandemic, when we lose our jobs, when our stock accounts shrink overnight, when all our plans have been disrupted and even plan B doesn’t work.  He is there when the “shoulds” turn to “should nots.”  I can trust Him because I have walked with Him for many years and know Him to be faithful and true to his word.  Every morning I ask for new marching orders because I know my own agenda is not what matters and may be cancelled anyway.  So I don’t stay stuck in the “shoulds.”  I go to Him with what is, and ask Him what to do because He has a perfect plan for me.  Proverbs 3: 5-6 tells me what to do:

 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
 In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GENERATIONS

For weeks the song, “The Blessing,”  has captivated me.  I keep listening to it over and over, and when I am not listening, the song goes on in my head.  If you haven’t heard it (and you might be living under a rock if you haven’t), you can listen here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9VL7AhXBKY

 

For the last few days I have been especially riveted to the lyrics about generations:

 

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
Your family and your children
And their children, and their children

 

God has richly blessed Jerry and me with a large and active family.  We have three daughters, nine grandchildren, and we are about to welcome our second great grand, a little baby boy, in a few days.  Jerry’s 98-year old mother has been visiting so we had a family dinner the other night.  Five generations together!  My mother-in-law was a little overwhelmed by all the activity.  “There are so many of them!  And they all came at once!”  Yes, Mimi, that is how our family dinners go.  Loud and active.  Jerry and I pray the Lord’s blessing for all of them every morning, as well as future generations.

 

So I was thinking about a thousand generations.  I looked up several definitions of the length of a generation and found most sources accept 20-30 years as a generation.  If I accept 25 as a benchmark, a thousand generations would be 25,000 years!  Somebody check my math, but I think that is accurate.  Many Biblical scholars believe a generation is longer, say 30-35 years.  Genealogists have used the number 30 to estimate how many ancestors we would have if we go back 1000 generations.  In theory (and it can only be theoretical) I would have over a billion people in my family tree.  It is an interesting concept to research, but warning, you can fall down the rabbit hole!  And so much math!  And then there is the whole young earth/old earth debate.  Either way, I don’t think it would be possible to actually have over a billion people in my family tree.

 

Over the years my siblings and I have had the conversation, “Who prayed?”  You see, we were not raised in church, or even in a Bible-teaching household.  There was a period of about two years or so when we went to church, but that collapsed along with my parents’ marriage.  And yet, all of us are Bible-believing, born again, evangelical Christians.  Someone, in a previous generation, received the blessing and passed it on through prayer.

 

That doesn’t mean coming to Christ happens automatically, like a bequest in a will.  One has to have a personal encounter with the Lord and make a decision to receive Him as Lord and Savior.  Scripture teaches us that we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and because of that sin we deserve death (Romans 6:23).  However, God loves us so much that He sent His Son to take on our sins and die in our place (John 3:16).  If we truly believe this in our hearts and confess it with our mouths, we are saved (Romans 10:9-10).  This is what I did when I was 18-years old, and Christ came to live in me and has never left me.

 

Now fast forward to my old age (And the years did go by so fast!).  I now have the privilege of praying for my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  I also pray for the generations to come, those I will never meet.  I pray for their health and prosperity, for their future mates, and for a life of purpose.  But the most important thing I pray for is their salvation.

 

Now as I write these words I pray for baby Brodie Alexander who surprised us all by deciding to be born yesterday.  Lord, I ask your blessing upon this child.  I pray for him, as I pray for all my children, these words from Ephesians 3:14-19

 

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

 

Lord, please extend the blessing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sit, Stay, and Leave It!

 

Some of my friends have asked how obedience training is going for Max and Ruby.  I have to tell you, it has exceeded all our expectations.  We went in with a pretty low bar; Jerry thought it was going to be a complete waste of money and I just hoped we could curtail barking and jumping.  We are still working on jumping.  They get so excited to see us!  We could be gone for fifteen minutes and they act like we have been deployed to Afghanistan!  And company??  Forget it.  But barking is getting much better.

 

So currently we are continuing to perfect the “sit” command, and learning “stay” and “leave it.”  Ruby learned “sit” right off the bat, but Max has stubbornly refused to sit on command.  For several weeks I have had to gently press on his hindquarter to get him to sit, but finally he has learned it.  What was so hard about that Max?  And when they sit, they are to look at our eyes before they get a treat.

 

As I write these words I am remembering how long the Lord had to work with me to get me to sit in His presence.  I was far too busy, I had an important to-do list, or I was too tired.  But God wanted me to be still and spend some quiet time with Him.  Even when I learned to physically sit still, my mind would still race.  It took a good deal of discipline, but finally I got it.  Sitting first thing in the morning is probably the most important thing I do all day.  It is when I turn my eyes on Jesus.  No one in the history of the world had a bigger agenda than Jesus, but He still found it necessary to get alone with God early in the morning (Mk. 1:35).  How much more important it is for me.

 

We haven’t practiced “stay” nearly enough, and it is something I want them to learn.  The event that prompted obedience training in the first place happened a few weeks ago when they suddenly darted out of the front yard and across a neighborhood through street.  I was so afraid a car would hit them.  I want them to learn “stay” for their own safety.

 

You can probably see where I am going with this.  God wants me to stay in communion with Him and WAIT for direction.  Oh how often I jump ahead of God with my own plans and ideas.  Waiting is so hard!  And again, it involves not just physically waiting but mentally waiting as well.  In fact, training my mind to wait is probably the most important part.  When we feel as if we must be taking some action, and that waiting is a waste of time, Isaiah 40:31 reminds us that in waiting we actually renew our strength:

 

but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

 

There are many other verses that instruct us to wait:

 

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.  Is. 26:3

 

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; Ps. 37:7a 

 

Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. Ps. 33:20

 

“Leave it!” is the most recent command we have worked on.  Our trainer, Merit, dumped a pile of objects onto the floor…items that would be novel to a dog and therefore interesting.  She had items from her purse, small household items, thinks that jangled such as keys, and things that slid across the floor.  We were to keep walking Max and Ruby with the clear command, “Leave it!”  She told us to use a sharp tone with a sense of urgency.  After just a couple of trips around the floor, the dogs got it.  I have to say they caught on much quicker than I have.  God is still commanding me to “leave it!”

 

Scripture is full of the things we are to leave behind after we receive Christ as Lord.  We are to leave behind the things in the past; those past sins that would cause us to be covered in shame, a past lifestyle, and sometimes even good things as we move forward with the Lord.  Jesus told His disciples to leave behind everything and follow Him.

 

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9: 62

 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Cor. 5:17

 

I actually found a list of 78 things we are to leave.  78!  (You can find the list here: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/putoffon.cfm)  We are to leave things such as bitterness, pride, jealousy, impatience, gossip, and the list goes on.  But good news!  The Bible tells us what we are to pick up instead: forgiveness, humility, patience, and edifying speech.  When I tell Max and Ruby to leave it, I am looking out for their own good.  They don’t always recognize the danger.  Sometimes things look intriguing, but they are to walk straight ahead.  These things that God tells me to leave are things that ultimately hurt me, and I can imagine He is speaking to me with an urgent tone.  “Don’t even stop and look, Fran!  This is not good for you!”  He is not a punitive God; He wants what is best for us.  The problem is, we don’t often discern harmful from good.

 

So as our dogs continue with obedience training, so do I.  As I said before, for me, obedience is a lifetime pursuit.  I press on.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

 

We all have seen or experienced the ripple effect.  In the simplest example, think of a stone dropped into a pond, how it spreads concentric circles of waves of decreasing intensity as they move out from the center.  It works inversely also, as sometimes a small action (or inaction) can create a big ripple.  I’m thinking about Rosa Parks here.  But this morning I am thinking about a big event that has created many ripples in all of our lives.

 

The coronavirus is the enormous boulder that dropped in our pond earlier this year.  The virus alone has been catastrophic, but consider the ripples that have followed: the lockdown, businesses closed, jobs lost, bills that go unpaid, and we could go on and on about the ripples.  It is a very small micro-ripple that has tugged at my heart since yesterday.  My 10-year old granddaughter, Olivia asked her mother when they would get to shop for back to school clothes.  My daughter told her they were waiting until they knew for certain that school would actually have in person classes.  The district has a plan to reopen, but things are very fluid in every district right now.  Then Olivia asked if they could at least go shop for a new backpack.  My daughter had to explain that there would be no backpacks allowed at school this year.  That made me so sad for little Olivia.  One of the biggest days in the Kid Year is the first day of school with a new outfit, new backpack, and new school supplies.  And the obligatory snapshot on the front porch.

 

This has been one ripple too many for me, and yet I know more will come.  There are the things we don’t think about.  This same daughter needs a new washing machine because her old one broke down.  Did you know that you can’t go into a store and buy a washer right now?  There are none.  It’s a supply chain issue.  When factories shut down, supply stops.  My teen grands will not have lockers this year, or be allowed to carry a purse.  Our college grands have been instructed to come with emergency COVID bags packed.  If a fever is detected they will be immediately whisked away to some undetermined location (infirmary? gulag?), and will need to have a bag packed and ready to go.  Our college freshman will be allowed only one parent to help her move into the dorm.  And sorority rush will be mostly virtual.  Our pregnant granddaughter can only have her husband at the hospital with her.  We will have to wait until she comes home to meet the new baby.

 

These are minor inconveniences, but they are cumulative.  When they are piled atop the larger ripples mentioned above, life becomes even more stressful, wearing.  Many of us are walking around with sub-clinical depression (or maybe full blown) because of all the ripples.

 

Psychologists have studied the ripple affect as it pertains to emotions.  That is, how the emotions of one person in a group can trigger the emotions of the entire group, like a row of falling dominos.  It even has a name: emotional contagion.  You have probably noticed it, maybe how one person’s anxiety in an office can set off everyone else, or one family member in a bad mood can set the tone for the entire household.

 

But it can work the opposite way also, with a kind word, an act of consideration, or an expression of love.  I would like to be a carrier of hope during these trying days.  I would like to be, but some days are hard for me too.  That is when I need to go to the source of hope, God’s Word.  Honestly, I can barely make it through the day without my morning dose of hope.  Hebrews 6 tells us that when we turn to God and take hold of the hope he offers, that hope acts as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”  That same passage tells us that God cannot lie, that His words are truth.  I can spread hope with confidence because I am sharing the truth, and truth is a hard commodity to find in 2020.  I can be an encourager, one who inspires hope and courage.  I need to be mindful of my words because I want to create positive ripples, contagions of hope.

 

Lord, help me to be a carrier of your hope today.

THE HALLMARK FIX

I have a confession to make: 2020 is beginning to wear on me, and I suspect I am not alone.  I’ve really noticed it for about the last two weeks or so, and it is so vague it I can hardly describe it.  Ennui comes to mind…weariness with the world in its current state.  I feel irritable and out of sorts.  As a psychologist I have tried to check my thinking because I know how much our thoughts influence the way we feel.  But why do I feel so down about things?  Because for the most part we are now living our lives as normally as we can.

 

We were pretty strict about being locked down when the quarantine first began.  After all, we are supposedly in the high-risk group.  But I got really tired of not being able to see my family, so on Mother’s Day I declared that our house was “open” and the whole clan came over.  Being with my family helped immensely.  Then slowly we began to find our new normal, although there is nothing that feels “normal” about wearing a mask.  We are coming and going, doing things like grocery shopping, eating out, trips to Lowe’s and the nursery, but we haven’t been in any large crowds.  I’m not sure there have been any large crowds to be in.  Our church has still not completely opened, but we are moving in that direction.  We have only been physically to church twice and maybe that is part of what feels so off, even though we have stayed connected electronically.  My friend groups and other organizations are meeting via Zoom, and I have met friends for occasional lunches, coffees, and dinners.  So why do I feel so off kilter?

 

I don’t have to tell you what is going on in our country.  Just turn on the news (something this former news junkie can hardly do any more).  The level of hate is something I have never seen among fellow Americans before.  It just makes me sad, and I don’t see any end in sight.  So one thing that has lifted my spirits is Hallmark’s Christmas in July.  Yes, I have been watching Christmas movies, in fact, I just finished one.

 

What is it about those Christmas movies that make me feel better?  The same 20 or so actors regularly appear in plots that are so predictable (and unrealistic) even I could write one.  Boy meets girl, they usually don’t hit it off at first but later begin to fall in love (with an almost-kiss) until there is some sort of misunderstanding that sends one of them packing.  However during the last fifteen minutes they get things straightened out, have a real kiss, and it snows.

What I love the best are those charming, picture-perfect Christmas towns.  There are quaint main streets filled with mom-and-pop shops (or shoppes), carolers, cider, and always snow.  Not dirty, slushy, day-old snow, but pure and pristine snow that doesn’t even make the cars dirty.  The part that always gets me are the Christmas Eve pageants, choir performances, or school plays.  Don’t these people have to be at Grandma’s on Christmas Eve?  Doesn’t anyone leave town?  This is where Jerry reminds me, “It’s only a movie!”

 

There is a psychology to why these movies make us feel better; in fact there is a psychologist who has studied it.  Dr. Pamela Rutledge is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University.    Dr. Rutledge says one of Hallmark’s cinematic shortcomings is the thing our brains love: predictability.  And oh, how we crave predictability in these chaotic times we are enduring.  And we forgive the unrealistic story lines because they allow us to suspend our own reality for two hours.  These movies allow us to experience a variety of positive emotions such as connection, empathy, love, warmth, and compassion that serve as a buffer to the stress of real life.

 

However, the feel-good doesn’t last very long.  As much as I love me a good Hallmark Christmas movie, there is something much better.  I know what to do when these negative emotions start to get to me.  I go to the One who has the answers.  I turn to the Bible, prayer, and my spiritual books.  I have been reading through a beautiful little devotional book, The Red Sea Rules: 10 God-Given Strategies for Difficult Times (thank you, Paula Carter).   There are study questions at the end of each section, and one reached out and grabbed me the other day.  “If you knew Jesus was literally standing beside you right now, how would you feel differently about your current Red Sea problem?”

 

That question has made a big difference, because of course, Jesus is here right now, in the person of the Holy Spirit who lives in every Believer.  Nothing about the world situation has caught Him off guard.  He’s got this.  When I feel worried or depressed it is usually because I have forgotten that He is present, right here with me.  Yes, the world is stressful right now, and may become even more difficult in days to come.  But Jesus is walking with me.

 

I did a little Word study on the presence of the Lord.  Here are some of the verses that spoke to me:

 

The Lord is near to all who call on Him… Ps. 145:18

 

The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything.  Phil. 4:5-6

 

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.  Gen. 28:15

 

These verses and many more allow me to reset, to gain equilibrium.  The world may seem to be spinning out of control, but I can rest.  I feel much better.  God is right here.

 

 

Lessons from Obedience School, Part 2

 

We had our second obedience class with Max and Ruby last week, and Jerry and I are learning as much as the doggies are.  As we have been discussing our lessons, we have realized a large part of getting our dogs to obey lies in giving clear commands.  They are really quick to respond when we use the commands and techniques our trainer Merit has instructed us to use.

 

When we pulled up to Top Dog Ranch last week, Max and Ruby jumped out of the car and ran eagerly to the door.  “Oh good,” I thought.  “They like it here.”  Well the fun stopped right at the front door.  I have to preface the explanation by describing the facility.  It’s really big, nice, and new, and it is built something like a gym, with high ceilings, a large open space, and hard flat walls and floor surfaces.  Perfect conditions for loud, reverberating noise.  Our dogs are having private lessons so we didn’t notice the sound much on our first visit.  But this time Merit was finishing a lesson with a large dog with a BIG bark that ricocheted off the walls and had the effect of stopping our dogs (especially Max) in their tracks.  They put on the brakes and did an about face towards the car.  So that fear set the stage for the rest of the session, but it was very instructive for us to observe.  Max immediately wanted to jump in my lap, but following Merit’s instructions from our previous lesson I told him, “off!”

 

Sidebar here: In full disclosure if we had been on our own, I would have let Max stay in my lap and would have cuddled him to sooth him.  I misunderstood something Merit told us in our first lesson, so I addressed it with her.  I thought she was telling us we loved on our dogs too much.  After all, I told her, they were “hired” to be lap dogs, and that is one thing they do really well.  She clarified that we can love on them as much as we want, but while we are doing training (at home or at Top Dog) they need to be obedient and we need to be the leaders.  So Max and Ruby have to keep four paws on the floor at Top Dog.

 

We worked on two things during our lesson: walking without pulling and sitting on command.  We have always used retractable leashes because we thought it would be a good chance to let our dogs run.  We have a very small yard so there is not a lot of opportunity for exercise except for treeing squirrels.  Car rides do not count as exercise.  Max is the worst at pulling and lunging on the leash, and when he does, he invariably gags and hacks.  I am afraid he will someday hurt himself, and he has never made the connection, “When I lunge at the leash it chokes me.”  Or sometimes they lag behind and we have to tug at them.  So at Merit’s instruction we bought six foot mesh leads, and oh my gosh, do the four of us get tangled doing it that way!  Hence, the need for lessons.  The idea is for the dogs to walk with a loose leash at our sides.  In order to facilitate this Merit had us buy anti-pull harnesses that squeeze their chests when they try to pull ahead of us.  When that happens, we are to stop, creating an anchor.  When they realize we are not going forward they will turn and look at us.  At that point we praise them for looking at us (‘Good look!), and walk a few steps forward before giving a treat.  We are introducing the command, “Easy,” and the goal is, as they improve, we will only need to say “easy” to remind them to stay by our sides.  (Well, at least that is the theory.)  If they lag behind, we stop and use the “Let’s go” command.

 

This lesson is packed with spiritual implications.  How much easier life is when I walk with Jesus, at His side.  Not lagging behind, being stubborn, or wanting to go off in my own direction.  And not getting ahead of Him.  That command, “easy,” really spoke to me.  I was reminded of the verse in Matthew 11:30 where Jesus tells His yoke is easy and that His burden is light.  I’m thinking a yoke must be a little like that no-pull harness.  It won’t squeeze as long as I am staying by His side.  The previous verse speaks to me as well:

 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soulsMatthew 11:29

 

We are to accept His yoke and to learn from Him.  He is not harnessing us to hurt us or to make life more difficult; quite the contrary.  He wants to make our walk with Him easy.  Not easy in the way the world would define easy.  But when we stay close to His side, and keep our eyes on Him, even the hard places become easier, and we can find rest.

 

I noticed that when Merit would take Ruby by herself, Max became anxious and kept looking for her.  That reinforced Merit’s conclusion that Ruby is the alpha dog.  I used the commands we learned last week, “settle” and “look,” to get him to relax.  And remember, the stage was already set for anxiety by the big barking dog.  “Just look at me, Max.  I’ve got this.  You are safe.”  Isn’t that what Jesus says to us?  “I’ve got this.  Just settle and keep your eyes on Me.”

 

After walking, we worked for a while on “sit.”  Again, part of the lesson is getting them to keep their eyes on us.  When they look at us and sit, they get a treat.  Ruby caught on really quickly, but Max not so much.  He kept standing.  Merit explained that when a dog is anxious he wants to stand, to be ready for action.  And she said when he is anxious and standing, it is difficult for him to hear our commands.

 

Wow.  When I am anxious it is harder to hear from Jesus.  Because my own anxious thoughts keep filling the airway.  And even though I may be sitting, I am standing on the inside.  I am plotting my next move to get me out of the situation that is causing the anxiety or discomfort.  And my ideas are not the best at these times, because I am in fight or flight mode.  But I have learned that if I settle, keep my eyes on Jesus, and wait for Him to speak, I then know what to do.  He will lead me to the place I need to be.  I love Psalm 23 in the New Living Translation.  Look at verse 2:

 

He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.

 

This is what He wants for me.  He doesn’t want to hammer me with a bunch of commands and rules.  He just wants me to walk easily beside Him and keep my eyes on Him.  Life would be so much simpler if I would just learn to obey.  I wonder what I will learn in our next class.