Getting the Big Rocks into the Right Place

One day I was running an errand when, to my surprise and delight, I saw an eagle flying low, circling overhead. It was an awesome sight to see that eagle’s spread out wings. I would have missed it, if it hadn’t been for a couple out walking, who paused to look overhead. I stopped to see what they were so engrossed in. To my amazement, there was a majestic bald eagle hovering over the neighborhood. I started to think of what else I’d been missing of beauty, in the busy days I live. What gifts of joy and laughter, beauty, friendship, love and peace would have been mine, if I had simply paused to look and see around me?

I used to have on my desk a jar of stones which were there in part because of the following story, by an anonymous author.

  “A man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers, announcing that it was time for a quiz. He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.  When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this Jar full?

Everyone in the class said, “Yes”. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel, pouring the gravel in and shaking the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.  Once more, he asked the group if the jar was full. By then they had figured out that more could be packed into the jar, and sure enough it wasn’t long before the man added sand, then water to the jar.

After demonstrating how much could fit in the jar, he asked his seminar attenders what the point of his illustration was. One of the group answered immediately, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it.”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

I find that I need to keep relearning the same lessons. I need to  remember to set my priorities and put first what really needs to be first in my life. I need to be reminded to make room for what is  important.     Fortunately, God is patiently waiting, when we forget . . . waiting for us to get the big rocks into their proper place.

Hitting the Home Button

IMG_2147A few years ago, my family gave me a Garmin GPS for my car. I wish I could say that my GPS was without flaw. Once in Nashville TN, instead of taking me to the Botanical Garden, it took me far into the countryside miles away from my destination. I think my Garmin was downright dizzy, when it told me to turn left into a lake in Canada, all the while rebelling when I refused. Still, I’ve been grateful for it on many occasions. Thousands of miles have been guided by its expertise. In spite of its occasional misses, I’ve come to rely on that GPS more and more when I travel.

What I have discovered is that whenever I get lost, whenever I don’t know how to get out of a situation – all I have to do is hit that button which says “Home” and I will be all right. My GPS knows the way home. It may take me in a roundabout manner. It may send me on the long way instead of the short one. There may be roads to travel that I would not have chosen. But it will always, but always find the way home.

I have learned in life that hitting the “Home” button, turning to God, works when I am out of sync with myself. God knows the course change I need to make and is aware of what in my heart and mind needs to change direction. God knows way before me what attitude needs some serious adjusting. God sends out an alarm, before I even figure out that I’ve gotten lost. When I turn back from where my heart and mind have wandered to, I get out of my rut. I discover new truths. I recognize my prejudices and can name them for what they are.

A recent poll indicated that seventy percent of us believe our country is going the wrong direction. I always wish that the poll takers would sort out why people feel the country is going the wrong way, but I suspect it has something to do with our national discourse. In this bizarre political season, when politicians have played to our fears, our skepticism, and our prejudices, we know there is something wrong.

The prophet Micah, in ancient Israel, was no stranger to a political system in trouble. In the midst of economic uncertainty, raiding bands of neighboring nations, political upheaval and a people who had lost their way, he spoke God truth. To a nation searching for direction, he reminded the people of Israel that God had already shown them the way to God’s favor. It was not to sacrifice their children for the good of the country, or to offer vast amounts of wealth. Instead God was waiting for a return to the deeper truths. “God,” he said, “has already shown you the way back” and “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 NIVUK God draws us away from bitterness of spirit to compassion and faithful living. God still calls us back to these central truths away from our fears, to be people of justice, to live with compassionate hearts . . . to be people who show mercy . . . who recognize God’s great love for all of God’s people . . . to be people who truly walk humbly with God.

God’s Grace in the Hard Lessons of Life

IMG_1515 A chance encounter at a local service and convenience store, got me thinking about the hard lessons we learn in life. A young man had dropped his straw at the soda fountain. When I leaned down to help him, I noticed he had a cast on his arm. Though he insisted he didn’t need help, we fell into conversation. He described in detail the break in his arm and hand. Thinking he was in his late teens, I asked him what he had done to his arm that caused the break. I was anticipating a story about a football injury or some other sporting related cause.

Instead, he ruthfully explained that he had broken up with his fiancee. In the midst of the break up he got into a fight and broke another man’s jaw. Then in frustration he had hit his hand on a brick wall. I asked him what he had learned from all of that. He thought for a minute and then he answered, “I learned not to break up with my fiancee and not to go drinking if I do. I learned not to get into a fight and not to break someone’s jaw.”

I hope when my young friend looks back in life, he will see how he chose to take responsibility for his mistakes and his resolve not to make the same ones again. I pray that it is a turning point in the way that he lives his life. As I pulled out of the gas station, I thought of the life lessons this young man was figuring out. We learn from our mistakes. We learn the most from the ones which cause us pain and haunt our sleep. Wisdom is recognizing the path we are heading on will only lead to destruction, heartache and more sorrow. Making a decision to change direction is a gift God gives us, one God leads us to and then journey’s with us in. The marvel of God’s compassion is that even our mistakes can add beauty to our lives.

I’ve been out taking pictures of this fall’s abundant color. The odd thing about a tree is the difference an up close look at the reds and oranges can make. Some of the deepest reds look old and marred until sunlight breaks through. Almost magically, beauty hidden from one’s eyes is revealed in translucent glory. Like our own lives . . . Yesterday’s mistakes become part of the tapestry of our lives. Given over to God, God weaves them into our lives. Weaves them in such a way, that we not only learn from our mistakes, but become a giver of grace when another is going through their own painful learning moments. In God’s hands, scars of past mistakes are transformed into compassion, forgiveness and an understanding heart. There really are no perfect people in this world . . . just fallible human beings, all in the need of grace.

“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.”  Psalm 32:1

Childhood Lessons On The Environment

My parents taught their children with parables – not the Biblical variety, but those homespun truths which grab wisdom by the tail. If something needed fixing, we’d hear “A stitch in time saves nine. ” My sister was often the recipient of “Don’t’ cut off your nose to spite your face, ” every time she and her friend got into an argument and stopped talking to each other. When we were about to short change a project we were working on, my mother would tell us, “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” Both parents were especially fond of letting us know not to “count our chickens before they’re hatched.”

My parents were the first naturalists I knew. They cared about the environment and taught each of us to care also. I learned from them about our interconnected world. In the rural area I grew up in, nature’s lessons were all around us. During the dry years our neighbor’s crops died in the field, and the lake that supported our fishing resort dropped to unhealthy levels. From an early age I learned how I used or misused the earth mattered. They taught us of the interconnected nature of earth and all of earth’s creatures.

Later I would hear more of the Biblical worldview of earth and God’s concern for the planet we live on. The Bible tells us that the earth belongs to God and everything in it. The Genesis account of creation calls upon us to be stewards of the creation. The gospel of John has this poignant word, “For God so loved the World.”

I’m puzzled by the political divide over care of our environment which we encounter today. Until recent years Christians were united in a concern for the earth and its creatures. We worked together for laws that limited pollution and cleaned up our lakes and rivers. I’m not sure when our collective wisdom changed, or how the environment got mixed into creation theologies as if one believed God created the heavens and the earth, one couldn’t believe that the earth was in danger.

I don’t know how this happened, but I yearn for that time of yesterday, when words like Global Warming and Climate Change were not political fireballs, but words that pushed us, regardless of political affiliation, into action. I yearn for the time when we so love God with our mind, heart, soul and strength, that we invest ourselves in all the ways we can to make a difference for the generations who follow us.

How Wide the Heart, How High the Soul

One of my favorite poems is by Edna St.Vincent Millay. Whenever I read it, I’m reminded that we each hold in our hearts and minds the extent to which our lives are stretched into meaning and significance.

She writes: “The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky”
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, Renascence and Other Poems

We make choices every day in how close we’ll let another person get to us. We decide ourselves if we will share the deep thoughts of our hearts. We make decisions about generosity of spirit. Will we express care for a person going through a tough time, or ignore the impulse to reach out? Will we volunteer for a cause we believe in, or be an observer? Will we risk a new direction or cling to our security? Will we pull into ourselves, when life is tough, or will we let others into our hearts? Will we let go of our fears and skepticism long enough to do some good in this world.

Walter Brueggeman in his book, “The Threat of Life” says: “When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God . . . Life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined.”

How wide is your heart today? How high the soul? What is God nudging you to do? Are you willing to allow your spirit and soul to stretch to the sky – enough to let the face of God shine through?

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,   and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:16-19

The Long Journey to a Promised Land

I’m always reminded that the route to the Promised Land led through wilderness territory. The journey begins with Moses who in meeting God in a burning bush is told, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:7-8

The idea of a Promised Land after years of slavery, must have appealed to the oppressed Israelites living in Egypt. What they hadn’t counted on was the path to the Promised land, would take them into a place where water was scarce and food more scarce. I’m sure the Israelites would have liked to bypass that time . . . and yet it was in the wilderness that they were shaped and formed as God’s people. Wandering through the wilderness they discovered God would care for their needs on a daily basis. In the wilderness the people learned to trust God with their future. And it was there that the Israelites learned obedience to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. No one would accuse the Israelites of being quick learners though. Their wanderings take them far afield of where God wants their hearts to be. Years spent in the wilderness are far longer than God intended.

Which in some ways gives me hope. When I read the newspapers, I can get pretty discouraged about this world. Whether it’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s “long arc of the moral universe” bending “towards justice,” or Isaiah’s words of hope that one day “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, “(Isaiah 11:9) we’ve been given words of promise that one day God will set right what is wrong in our world. Today the headlines scream of beheadings, and corruption in high places. They speak of little boys who find guns in purses and shoot their parents, measles outbreaks touching a new generation, violence in the middle east, catastrophic effects of global warming and a host of problems in our neighborhoods.

The Israelites found their way through the wilderness, when they started to listen to God and act on what they heard. We also are being led. Day by day God’s tugs at our hearts to take a turn toward mercy, kindness, goodness, sacrifice and compassion. Other voices would have us lean into resentment, prejudice, selfishness or vengeance. Still others would tell us not to care that it doesn’t matter.

Lovers of God soon learn that all of this matters. God cares what we do with our lives and how we live in our relationships, not only as individuals, but as a nation. God has this dream that one day there will be peace on earth and God’s will shall be done here, even as God’s will is done in heaven. God always uses individuals to accomplish what God intends. From Moses who led slaves in Egypt to freedom, to Mother Theresa feeding the hungry in the slums of Calcutta, there have been those who said “yes.” God still pulls at our hearts and asks us to follow to the unique places where we can best be a part of bringing healing to this world. The way out of the wilderness is in saying “yes” to where and how God leads.

Making A Life of Difference

George served on the mission team in the church I belonged to before I became a pastor. Deeply concerned about world hunger, George wanted to do something that would help people get out of that entrenched poverty which leads to malnutrition. An engineer in the food industry by trade, he started asking, how he could use his knowledge and expertise to export technology to third world countries. I’m pretty sure George was the one who started the conversation with his friends, though he would never take credit for it.

There were some false starts, but eventually he and his friends discovered that grinders would bring about significant change in rural areas of Africa and Central America. Grinders for grains and grinders for peanuts. Women were empowered and became small business owners while, students in engineering classes back home were mentored into caring. When George died a few weeks ago it was noted that in one project alone he had helped save the lives of 120,000 children. He never took a break from volunteering, either with the organization he helped found, or in simple neighborly tasks. He was a person who lived his faith.

Not all of us are gifted quite so much, but each of us can make a difference. Our lives are richer when we use the gifts and talents God has given us in service to others. Oh, there will be times we may feel a bit used. We will meet people who could do for themselves without our help. But then one day we will be surprised by the power of a simple gift. What we thought was nothing, meant everything. A few years ago, a young man I’d never seen before stopped by my office. He said he needed gas so he could get to a job interview. Fresh out of cash, all I had to give him was an almost used gas card and a prayer. A few days later he stopped by to thank me. He’d gotten the job. He came again to thank me. Then once more. Each time he told me how the gift I had given him had changed his life. I thought of the eight dollars left on that gas card and I knew that it wasn’t I who had given him a gift. It was he who had gifted me. He had reminded me what a blessing it is to make a difference in another person’s life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6