Who in Your Life Needs Some Applause?

Some years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a friend’s ordination service in a small Wisconsin church. The sanctuary quickly filled with friends, relatives and seminary classmates, along with those who would be participating in the service itself. It was a “high day” in the church. A day of putting in your best efforts. And, yes, given the nature of things, a day to impress all who came. I noticed a boy about seven years old sitting at a piano in the chancel area. I assumed he was helping one of the adults nearby or had been told to stay there while a parent was out doing the important work.

But, Chris was not there to help. He began to play a piano prelude. His skills were average seven year old, basic piano. Sometimes he stumbled over the keys. There were sour notes. At other times his pieces came off like a polished professional. There were pauses when Chris looked through his book for another piece he knew how to play. Once, during his twenty minutes of playing, Chris’s brother was sent to him with a message to start over at the front of his book (where Chris was a little more skilled).

Eventually, the choir came in and the organist was able to take her place at the organ. Chris had started towards his pew when someone at the back of the church began to clap. Soon sounds of applause filled the sanctuary and an enormous smile filled Chris’s face.   We are people of many different experiences. Our maturity and faith level vary. Some of us stumble in life in areas other are proficient. At times we get confused and need to go searching for direction. We attempt a project only to see if fail miserably. We become discouraged, afraid and unwilling to try again. We may find ourselves being sent back to the beginning. There are even moments when we have to admit to ourselves, that the notes we are striking come out sounding just a bit sour to our own ears.

As I thought about Chris, it seemed to me that this small incident reflects the family of faith  at its best . . . people applauding and encouraging the best efforts of others . . . Recognizing that all of us will stumble along the way. There will be sour notes and lost places. In our support and encouragement of one another, we become Christ to a world that needs a reason to smile. Who in your life needs some applause?

Strength Under Pressure

 My parent’s house burned down on Easter Sunday the year I graduated from high school. In the process of rebuilding our house, my parents decided to put in a real basement replacing a small dirt cellar. We’d has a lot rainy days just before  the cement was to be poured and the ground was muck. It wasn’t long before the cement truck was throughly stuck some distance from the basement.

We had asked our neighbor Jim to come over and help us out. Jim lived down the road about a quarter mile and had a top of the line tractor . . . It was the biggest and most powerful tractor you could get your hands on at the time. We had seen his tractor in action when he pulled a bus load of kids out of similar mud. Which is why we never doubted that he would be able to free the cement truck. Although Jim put up a valiant effort, his tractor simply would not budge the cement truck more than a couple of feet – which got it even more stuck,  until it was firmly embedded in the mud. All of this created a dilemma. If Jim’s tractor couldn’t pull out the cement truck, what could?

Now, my uncle DD dabbled in a variety of trades. He owned the only restaurant in town as well as being its mayor. DD had recently bought an old pickup truck and converted it into a tow truck by installing a winch on it. He claimed that there wasn’t anything that winch couldn’t pull.  Still,  most of us were skeptics about the winch. In spite of our skepticism we called my uncle  DD after the tractor failed.

When my uncle arrived in his old beat up pickup truck with its winch, Jim looked at his powerful tractor and then at DD’s pitiful truck announcing to all of us, “If he can pull that cement truck out of this muck when my tractor couldn’t, I will personally shovel every last bit of this cement into that hole by myself.” By then it was quite obvious if the cement truck ever got unstuck, it was not going any closer to the basement than it already was. A considerable amount of manual labor was going to be involved in getting the cement where it belonged.

We watched as my uncle attached the cable, started the winch and attempted to pull out the cement truck. Just as we expected, the wheels of his little pickup spun and spun kicking up mud, but not moving the cement truck at all. Then someone thought that we ought to try chaining his pickup to the nearest tree. This tree was not a large tree with a thick trunk, but a slender tree about 10-12 inches in diameter. The hope was that the strength of the tree would stabilize the pickup.

I remember how my dad and DD looped the chain around the tree,  attaching it to  either side of the frame of the truck. I have this vivid memory of the day, watching the winch begin to work. At first it was only a few inches, but the cement truck had actually moved – the weight of the cement truck and the force of the mud pulled against the strength of that slender tree. Then the tree bent . . . while the pickup’s wheels started to rise off the ground, as the chain worked its way up the tree trunk. Meanwhile the winch kept pulling and my uncle’s pickup kept rising, until its front wheels where three feet off the ground and its back wheels a foot. All the while, the cable continued to pull at the cement truck. We watched as that slender tree bent and looked as if it could snap. We held our breath while  my uncle’s truck hung in midair. The tree looking increasingly like it could snap. But that winch kept right on pulling away and the tree stood firm until the weighted down truck filled with its tons of cement was pulled  free of the muck and the mud. Once free, the driver wisely parked a safe distance from our basement.

Right about then Jim, wished he had never uttered those fateful words, “If he can pull that cement truck out of the muck with that little pickup when my tractor didn’t even get it to budge, I will personally shovel every last bit of that cement into that hole.” Which he did with a lot of help.

When I look back on that day, I think of many things.The gifts of grace which come in our need.  Friends who reach out to help out. I think of the gift of neighbors to call on. And I think of the strength in that slender tree and how it surprised me. I still marvel, these many years later, at its flexibility and the pounds of pressure weighted against it. I think of how God gives us strength at times when we are under pressure and we wonder how we’ll be able to endure the forces aligned against us.

And once again the assuring words of Isaiah come to me.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
For God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those 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.” Isaiah 40:28-31

When the Storms Grow Wild and the Thunder Roars

In our early teen years, my brother and I had taken boat and motor and headed out to do some fishing. With no fish biting, we decided to land the boat and explore along the edge of the lake. Our search uncovered an old cemetery overgrown with weeds. We were fascinated as we looked through the tombstones, all but forgotten in this out-of-the-way place. We were so engrossed in our exploring that we didn’t notice clouds rolling in. A sharp clap of thunder told us we needed to hurry back.

By then, the storm was coming quickly. We had two miles of lake to cover and nowhere to stop. After attempting to out race the storm, we realized about two-thirds of the way home we needed to find some shelter quickly. Wind and rain picked up, lightning flashed, thunder boomed. We knew enough to get out of the middle of the lake, but there wasn’t much protection along the shoreline. We sat out the storm, anxious and fearful close to the shore. Ear splitting thunder crashed overhead while lightening sent daggers into the sky.

I’ve found myself in many other storms since then. There have been times I’ve waited them out anxious and fearful . . . Hopeful, that the limited protection I’d found was sufficient. In our faith we have been given the promise that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Most often I remember that. But from time to time, when the storms grow wild and the thunder roars, I need to be reminded of this truth. I need to be reminded that there is nothing on earth or in heaven that can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

At those moments, I need a friend to speak the words of hope. I need a person to remind me of what I already know. God has given us each other. We are blessed to have friends who encourage us through our stormy moments. We are blessed even more, when we can give encouragement to our friends.

Noticing God

I spent part of Lent leading a class called, “Too Busy Not to Pray.” The course was challenging for some of our people, while others found it opened new ways of praying. I began to realize that one of the problems in our relationship with God, is that we don’t notice what God is doing in our lives. Feeling distant from God, seemingly ignored in prayer, we miss the obvious. The backward glances in life are those which help us see that thread holding everything together. Sometimes, we were hurting so much, we couldn’t begin to notice that God was standing with us. Our eyes, brimming with tears, couldn’t take in our full surroundings.

Later, we noticed that certain people came into our lives about that time. Encouragers, supporters, people who helped us hold our life together, in our most discouraging times. To notice God is to see God in the framework of our everyday life. What was there about that conversation, which shifted our thoughts into a more positive direction? I remember the early intervention program my youngest daughter was in. Leftover issues from her prematurity, set us up for the program. While the purpose was to work on her muscle and speech problems, it was me that was changing the most. These in-home visitors brought not only knowledge in infant physical therapy and occupational therapy to the home, they also came as encouragers.

Sally, Soni, Kay and Jeannie reminded me of my value and worth. They inspired me to look beyond the problems I was facing to the possibilities which were real. Years have come and gone. Along the way, there have been other people who came into my life at crucial times. Later, I came to realize it was God who drew us together. In difficult moments, they were encouragers, sounding boards, people I knew I could trust. In other moments, it was I who was drawn to give encouragement, to reach out in love and support. Noticing God at work in the world and in our lives takes a mind-set that is willing to accept that God is larger than our prayers, and so much wiser in the answering of them.

When Jesus appeared to his first followers after the resurrection, Thomas was missing. The Bible doesn’t tell us where he had gone off to, only that he wasn’t with the rest that resurrection evening, when Jesus appeared. He didn’t see the risen Lord. He was skeptical of the stories he’d heard. He doubted they were true. Even when his closest friends told him of Jesus, he made no secret of his doubts. Like most of us, confronted with a truth that doesn’t fit our worldview, he refused to believe. A week would pass before Thomas encountered Jesus. He no longer needed the proof he had earlier demanded, to see the marks from nails and sword. Being in the presence of the risen Christ, his doubts faded away. He could only say, “My Lord, and My God.” But Jesus had a word, where he blessed those who would believe and not see. We may not be able to see the risen Christ with our eyes, but we can see, by the tracks in our lives, where Christ has been present. It all begins by noticing.

Unanswered Prayer and God’s Answers

My first vivid experience of answered prayer was the Thanksgiving Eve when I looked up at a star filled night sky and prayed for snow. My five-year-old self didn’t know that from then on I would ask myself how much I wanted a prayer answered before I asked. Thanksgiving morning arrived with  a foot of fresh snow. So very much snow, there was talk about not making the trip to my grandparents home thirty miles away. I vowed from that time on, I would be more cautious in my prayers.

Most of my prayers have not had that vivid answer. More often, prayer has been a source of strength, hope and encouragement when life has taken a painful or punishing turn. Prayers have been answered through people God has put into my life, who have offered wise counsel. Meanwhile, difficult people have continued to be difficult. Problems have not vanished. Rather they have demanded that I walk through them. And yet, there have also been the vivid answers. Unexpected financial resources to help me through the early years of a divorce, a job and a scholarship that came at just the right moment when I started seminary . . . all answers to prayer.

The church I volunteer at has been doing a church wide study on prayer this Lent where I’ve been leading one of the groups. In the weeks we’ve been together, we’ve pondered the mystery of unanswered prayer. We’ve thought about the tragedies in our collective experience. We’ve named heartaches in our lives. We’ve puzzled over those moments while we’ve also recognized moments when we have known God was using us to help another person. We’ve recognized God’s nudges to reach out to a person who was hurting, lonely or afraid with a note, a call, a hug.

Is it that we simply don’t recognize when God is doing the same in our lives? Was that note which came, the unexpected phone call,  a person who reaches out to us (that we might even think is annoying),  all a response to one of God’s nudges? God’s answers clearly, do not always come in the way that we hope and pray for, but they do come. When we wonder why God isn’t answering our prayers, it might be a good time to take a backward look in life . . . To look at the other hard moments when we wondered how we could go on. How did we get through that time? Who was there in our life to give us encouragement or support? Did we ever think of those encouragers as God’s answer in our lives? In the backward look of accrued wisdom we see their light shining in our lives, reflections of God’s love and care for us.

In another era, the Apostle Paul wrote the people of Ephesus with his prayer for them, which is a prayer for each of us: “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 6:16-21 NRSV)    May it be that as you puzzle over God’s answers that you do see the breadth and length, height and depth of Christ’s love in your own life.

The God From Whom We Cannot Hide

Psalm 139 has been a favorite of mine since I was a young mom with a brood of children. I’ve always preferred the older versions of scripture where the Psalmist asks in verse seven, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (RSV) Whither seems more encompassing than newer versions which interpret the word as “Where.” Where is a place, a location on a map, “Whither” digs deeper into our psychic. More than a location, it is also a state of being. It is how we are living in the world at this moment in time.

I like the older interpretation because it tells me that whatever situation I find myself in, God is there. I’m reminded that when I find myself in a dark place, wallowing in a mess, searching for a way to make sense of my world, God is with me. The psalmist tells me that even in the moments I am tempted to believe, God has deserted me, I am wrong, for there is no place where God is not. I have often read this psalm at the beside of one who is dying as reassurance, that even in death, they are in God’s hands.

The psalm begins with the recognition, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”(NRSV) God is aware of the facts in our lives, knows where our hearts bleed and what makes our spirits soar. God is also aware when we are less than our best selves. At least less than we would like our circle of friends and family to know of us. Our all-seeing God would be frightening, or even threatening, were it not that God is also “all loving.” God knows the secrets of our hearts, God understands what motivates us to speak and act the way we do. God loves us as we are, but loves us far too much to leave us in our messes, our bad choices and our foolish decisions.

This psalm has carried me through sick children, a messy divorce, single parenting and its resultant poverty. The words encouraged me when I made a mid-life course direction. I have found comfort in its words as I have comforted others. The simple message that God is with us gives me hope. I find strength in the knowledge that God will never let go of us. The God from whom we cannot hide, wants most of all that we realize we are loved, that we are God’s beloved and precious children. Whatever we might face in life today, we have this assurance, we will not face it alone.