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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Lessons from Obedience School

 

Last week Jerry and I began something we should have undertaken a long time ago.  We started a series of obedience lessons with Max and Ruby, our two rescue dogs.  Now just look at those little faces for a minute?  Do they look like trouble?  While we love these dogs dearly, they have some bad habits.  Habits that have gotten worse during the quarantine.  As a psychologist, I was curious to see if causation is at work.  Are others noticing behavior changes during this time?  Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed that I am not alone.  Animal behavioral specialists are taking a good look at what is going on with our animal friends.  So we decided that we needed to enroll in obedience school.  Even if Max and Ruby don’t get trained, WE can learn some new things to do.

 

Let me give you a little background information on Max and Ruby to add context.  When the last of our Shih-Tzus died, we decided that we would not have any more dogs.  We knew it would be hard because we have always had dogs in our home, and most have been Shih-Tzus.  And actually, having no pets turned out to be a blessing in disguise because about six or eight months later Jerry became very ill with necrotizing pancreatitis and was in the hospital for months, mostly in intensive care.  I spent hours and hours with him and having a pet that needed care waiting at home would have been an additional burden.  Finally, Jerry was able to return home and gradually began to heal.  After he had been home for a while, he was well enough to take some doctor-prescribed walks.  It was then that we thought maybe a dog that also needed walks might be good motivation.  We decided that this time we would rescue rather than buy from a breeder.  That turned out to be a great decision because in spite of these behavior issues, Max and Ruby have been wonderful dogs.

 

We knew two things going in: we wanted an older dog and we did NOT want a male.  We ended up with not one but two puppies, a female and a male.  We knew that the mother dog was a Shih-Tzu and we are thinking dad must be some type of terrier.  We wondered if they might be a little intimidated coming from living in a crate at a vet’s office to our house, but no, they trotted in like they were finally home!  It was like, “What took you so long, Mom and Dad?”  It’s like they think they chose us.

 

In the beginning we thought Ruby was the alpha dog.  She was bigger, although Max soon passed her in weight and height.  She also seemed to be bossier.  But after a few months we decided Max was the alpha dog.  From the beginning they have been barkers and jumpers.  And we haven’t been able to curb those behaviors at all.   Barking at the windows, barking at the front door.  If a leaf blows by we have to bark at it.  Evidently yelling at them to shut up and quit barking only exacerbates the problem, because they think, “Oh good, now we are all barking!”

 

Over time Ruby became fearful of almost everything, especially men.  And especially men carrying equipment.  Our yard guys and any type of service men send her into a barking frenzy, with Max joining in.  She will NOT go out in the back yard without us, because she was once dive-bombed by a hawk.  So anything with wings (bird, housefly, butterfly) scares her.  Max loves the back yard but wants us to keep the door cracked so he can come in at will.  But Ruby won’t have it.  Don’t we know a giant condor might fly in and kill us all?  She also hates the vacuum cleaner, thunderstorms, and well any kind of loud noise.  Don’t even say the word “squirrel” out loud; in fact, don’t even spell it.  And she gets very anxious if we leave her for a trip.

 

These are the behaviors and traits we described to our trainer, Merit Day, on our first visit.  She had some interesting observations after listening to us and watching them.  First surprise: although Ruby is the most anxious, she is actually the leader.  And according to Merit, some of her anxiety is due to her need to protect us.  She feels like most of the burden is on her to alert Max, and then us, to danger.  So Merit gave us some new rules and I have to say, we are already getting results.

 

We worked on getting them to look at our eyes, even while we were holding a treat.  She wants them to respond to the command “Look.”  They are to keep their eyes on us and not be distracted by the treat.  The next command was “Settle.”  This was said in a gentle, but decisive voice while we pressed firmly on their shoulders.  We are to stand between them and whatever stimulus is bothering them.  This is best done with outstretched arms while telling them to settle.  We are to provide direction and demonstrate that we are in control, especially when they perceive danger.  They need to know that we understand the situation and that we’ve got it covered.  She also instructed us to provide daily times when they are to physically follow us.  It’s amazing how quickly Max and Ruby are responding to these new commands.

 

I was sharing all of this with my daughters when Kristie said, “That’s just how we are to be with God.”  Bam!  Why didn’t I see that right away, but of course she is correct.  God doesn’t want us to live in fear and anxiety.  I have heard it said that “fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible.  That’s one for every day of the year.  And He expects us to follow Him.  God will stand between me and danger.  Deuteronomy 31:8 instruct us this way:

 

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

                

 

There are many passages about keeping our eyes on the Lord.  But a famous example occurs in the gospels relating a time when the disciples were caught in a nighttime storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The see Jesus in the distance, walking on the water, and in a bold move Peter asks Jesus to tell him to come to Him.  As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, he was doing well.  But when he began looking at the waves he began to sink.  In Hebrews 12:2 we are told to fix our eyes on Jesus as we run our earthly race.  In the original Greek that word “fix” means to look away from something else and look distinctly at Jesus.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that God chose me, not the other way around.  By the power of the Holy Spirit I was able to respond to his call to me.  And He didn’t just choose me; he rescued me.  He saved me from spiritual death and gave me eternal life.  He placed me in a new family, gave me a new home.  All I had to do was accept His payment for my sin.    

 

As I think about these things I have decided that the Christian life is one long obedience lesson.  In these frightening times of coronavirus, riots, and uncertainty, I will do better if I settle, keep my eyes on Jesus, and let Him lead the way.  Stay tuned for next week!           

A COUNTRY IN NEED OF HEALING

What a year 2020 has been, and it is only half over.  It seems as if there is a new crisis every week.  Let’s just set the virus aside for a moment because I would like to look at our other issues.  If only the coronavirus were our only problem!   There is a revolution that is happening right under our noses.   Shootings, mass murders, vandalism, and riots are almost routine events now.  There are those among us who are destroying our monuments, desecrating our flag, and taking over our cities.  Our national anthem may be replaced.  And our police forces, the people who are there to protect us, now have targets on their backs.  What was formerly seen as evil is know declared good and acceptable; and what we many of us knew as good is now seen as bad.  The ends justify the means.  There is no longer polite discourse.  If I disagree with you that means I hate you.  Our presidential election is now upon us, and it is the most rancorous and divisive I can ever remember.  And there are some who don’t like either of our choices, but are just trying to decide which is the lesser evil.  We are a nation on fire.

 

With our world in chaos it is tempting to ask, “God, where are you?”  As I was wrestling with these thoughts this morning, I felt the Lord say, “Be still.  Come to Me.  Listen and be encouraged.”  He reminds me that He is still on His throne and is still sovereign over the universe.  We may go to our polling places and mark our ballots, but it will be God who decides this election.

 

He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings.  Dan. 2:21a NLT.

 

God may decide to use the next election to bring America (and maybe the world) into repentance and right relationship with Him.  And I’m not saying I have any inside knowledge about how He would do that.  He is sovereign; He could use either candidate to accomplish His will.  As mere mortals, and as citizens, we can only try to make an informed choice and pray for the best.

 

But God could also decide that we should get the government we deserve.  Perhaps America is on a fast track to destruction.  Other nations have risen and fallen.  We may also.  I am reminded of the history of ancient Israel.  God set them up as a nation and gave them a land.  He promised to bless them if they would be obedient to His instructions.  For many years Israel prospered, although she was never fully obedient.

 

God’s plan for Israel was a theocracy.  God would be their ruler and protector.  But the people of Israel looked around at the other nations who had kings and asked for a king for themselves.  I Samuel 8:6-9 tells the story:

 

Samuel was displeased with their request and went to the Lord for guidance. “Do everything they say to you,” the Lord replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.”

 

Although we have never been a theocracy, America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.  Our oldest institutes of higher learning once proclaimed Biblical truths, but now they indoctrinate students in secular humanism (and charge a pretty penny to do so).  Like Israel, we have rejected God.  We think we are so much wiser.  And like Israel, we think we can make the best decision about who governs us.  However, God continues to remind us that His ways are higher than ours.  Oh America, I hope it is not too late for us.  I pray that we will repent and return to God.  But in any case, God’s plan will not be thwarted.  He is doing something in the world and He will accomplish His will.  Our job is to pray and trust.

 

Thank you, Lord for allowing us to live in this great land.  We acknowledge that we do not deserve your favor.  You have blessed us abundantly and we have turned our back on you as a nation.  We ask that you bring us back into right relationship with you.  Forgive our sins and bring revival.  And let it begin with me.

OPPOSITE DAY

While I was having my quiet time this morning, a memory from years ago popped into my mind.  It was the memory of Opposite Day, a day my children would designate as a day when nothing was as it was expected.  A no-means-yes-and-yes-means-no day.  And that part of the day alone could trip up a conscientious mother into giving consent to something unintended.  Opposite Day might mean pajamas for day wear and pancakes for dinner.  It was a day to wear your shoes on the wrong feet.  On Opposite Day the only thing you could expect was the unexpected.  At this point you might be scratching your head and wondering why I would think about these things during my quiet time.  The simple explanation is that sometimes my mind is like a runaway train!  But I think I can offer a better explanation of how I got here.

A few days ago I was listening to evangelist Lance Wallnau speak about the trials we are enduring in 2020.  (Disclaimer: I really don’t know much about Wallnau or his theology but I thought this particular message was powerful.)  The year is not even half over, and already we have had a plague of biblical proportions, a global shutdown, economic free-fall, chaos on our streets, and the threat of flying creatures called murder hornets.  And now we have a tropical storm/hurricane bearing down on the gulf coast.  It makes me wonder how people could simultaneously quarantine and evacuate.  One particular point Wallnau made reached out and grabbed me, and has stayed with me.  He was speaking about the church coming out of quarantine when he said, “What if out of containment comes enlargement?” 

Those words eloquently expressed some thoughts I have been having on my own.  What if God has allowed us as believers to go through this time of isolation to prepare us for something big He is going to do?  That idea seems to me to be consistent with what I know about God.  He does the unexpected.  He acts in ways that are contrary to the ways we would expect because his ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9).  A primary example of this would be in the way Jesus came to earth.  People expected a conquering king, but instead God sent a helpless baby born into humble circumstances.  

So what if God is preparing His church for something new, something big?  What if out of this time of isolation we experience a unity and togetherness like the early church described in Acts.  What if out of these economic hardships we discover riches we have taken for granted?  What if out of confusion comes understanding, out of pain comes rebirth, out of lockdown comes opportunity, and out of a time of quiet comes a Great Awakening?  What if the church becomes THE CHURCH?!  What if we see a new fulfillment of this promise from Isaiah 43:19:

For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.

Wallnau went on to issue these exhortations for believers during this time: we must seek His face, hear His voice, understand His will, and be his witnesses.  I don’t think I could say it any better.  This is our time.  Prepare to see God do something new.