I’ve been gardening for decades, but this summer was a first. We harvested next to nothing. We picked one fully-formed and ripe tomato, yesterday and one cantaloupe, just today. Well, we DID get peppers. Evidently rats don’t like peppers. And, yes, I confess I titled this “catch the foxes” because I just didn’t think you’d get this far if I had started off with rats.
I went out to pick the first of the cantaloups back in June. It looked lovely, and I had been anticipating it for weeks. But when I grabbed it to pick it up? It was light, too light. I twisted it off the stem and turned it over, quickly recoiling - it was completely hollowed-out. Only a thin, 1/8” rind was left as a shell, with a chewed hole in the underside about the size of a …well, of one of the tomatoes I also never got to harvest.
That was the next thing. While we were battling the critters over the melons, I thought, well, at least there will be tomatoes and zucchini. There are ALWAYS tomatoes and zucchini, right? Not this year. As the green tomatoes turned yellow, they disappeared. It took me a while to realize what was happening. Wait, weren’t there green tomatoes on this branch last week? I thought for sure there would be some squash ready by now. What about the cucumbers? Didn’t this plant have a bunch of baby cukes? They were all devoured whole, including any remnant of stem, leaving only a barely discernable scar on the plant branch.
Thus the battle raged into August. It involved nightly trappings and every-morning emptying of traps. Suffice to say that in Southern California we have citrus and avocado trees in backyards, and those trees attract tree rats, and those tree rats evidently had quite a year this year. It’s not that “we” had rats; it’s that our town did, and I was feeding all of them. We were the rodent restaurant of choice this summer. And yes, I have a cat. She was out-numbered and frankly not of size to battle this horde.
After over 90 days of battling vermin, very little is left of either my garden or my desire to garden. I pulled out much of what was attracting them, tried to save two tomato plants, replanted a zucchini in hopes that maybe it wasn’t too late - because is it ever too late for zucchini?
But the sweet pleasure is gone. I don’t even want to touch the plants, much less run my fingers through the soil. The joy of watching tiny green marbles puff up into my luscious lunch fare became a tragi-comedy, a farce. I’m repulsed by the memories of rats longer than their traps, and the thoughts of them scampering around my garden leaves it with little appeal. The strong temptation is to turn the whole thing over and never touch it again, because I am not exaggerating when I tell you that is exactly how disturbing this has been. I stood and considered ripping out not just the garden, but my carefully constructed garden beds. I wanted to burn the whole thing down.
Have you ever felt like that? That something you have poured so much time and effort into has been a total waste? That you just want to rip it out, burn it down, have nothing to do with it ever again? I think we all have, and I suspect many of us have given in to that temptation at least once in our lives.
Perspective-wise, this little garden in my backyard isn’t that important, but it reveals something about my heart - my humanness, that is.
When things get hard, frustrating, repugnant, and there is no end in sight…when there is no harvest and the seeds sown seem to be a waste…when the devouring horde has taken it all and there seems to be nothing left …What then? What happens if I sow and do not reap? When I didn’t take the cue from Song 2:15, and I didn’t catch the little foxes before they devoured the tender grapes? Where is the promise of harvest then?
The answer has to be seen with the eyes of faith. The harvest always has really belonged to the Lord. It is mine to be faithful, but it is His to bring the harvest. Farmers know this; their faithfulness can be wiped out by a change in the weather, yet they don’t have the luxury of giving up. Often all is not quite as lost as it first appears, if they wait and don’t give up. And then, the working of the soil, the tending of the field, the tilling, and manure, and all that seems lost for one season still builds into the next.
And so with me. When I have worked, and prayed, and reasoned, and poured my love into a spiritual work that is suddenly, starkly, fruitless? There will be mourning and grief, and understandably so. But my vision is so short – on this season, this field – while God’s vision encompasses all time. I know I need, at that moment, to remember that the harvest is the Lord’s. I must focus on my own faithfulness, trusting that the seeds that have been sown, the tilling and working of a heart’s soil, are not in vain.
Do the promises of the harvest hold, even when I don’t see the harvest? I think we all know they do. God has promised that His Word will not return void, “…Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is 55:11) We are told, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,” (Gal. 6:9) yet we forget that the season we are in may not be the “due season,” the appointed time.
We do grow weary of the battle with the devouring horde, sometimes, don’t we? We pace in front of the microwave of life, thinking surely it should be due time now! Yet clearly in Scripture, God lifts our eyes to a time beyond our own calendar to rest on His plan.
So my friend, join me in taking a deep breath, releasing the frustration and the sadness and the regret and the done-ness to Him. Let’s keep being faithful sowers, waterers, and tenders of that which He has given into our hands. Our lives are part of the soil of the Lord's vineyard. It all belongs to Him. And as for me and my garden? Well, I’ll try to take my own advice! – but I’ll be keeping a weather-eye out for those, um, “little foxes”!
Every once in a while, a book is published that feels like an opening - a possibility. Lore Ferguson Wilbert's "Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry" feels like an open door to my soul. I was pleased to be able to write a book review for my "hometown church" blog - for The Evangelical Free Church - and you can read my take on the book, as well as that of a few others, right here
I encourage you to consider the case "Handle with Care" makes about the importance of connection. Lore refuses to allow us to take the easy way out, to simply throw the baby out with the bath water. She patiently takes us to the Scriptures to show us time and time again the clear example of Christ. Check it out! I would love to hear your thoughts after you read it!
The everyday blessings are both the most precious things we have and the easiest parts of our lives to overlook or take for granted. As I was planting seeds in my garden the other day, it struck me what a marvel a seed really is. Each seed bears the dna - the history - of its seed and plant ancestors back to the beginning of time. Equally true, each seed reaches out with potential into the future.
Grace - the powerful means by which God, through no merit of our own, reaches out of eternity to save a human soul. The interruption of decay by salvation. The rescue of life from the very near peril of death.
Yet somehow, this mysterious grace is so often thought of as - perhaps confused with? - a fragile, ethereal thing. I wonder, is that because "grace" also carries alternate, very human, definitions? Grace is also defined as elegant movement (as in, "She is so graceful) and yet again can be thought of as courtesy or charm (as in, "He needed to find the grace to admit defeat").
If we, in error, conflate the meanings, mixing the divine with the human, we run the risk of diluting God's favor with the elegent arc of a dancer's arm; we run the risk of thinking of God's favor as charming rather than potent and efficacious.
Sit with the concept of grace for a moment. Consider its inherent weightiness. This is the favor of the Almighty Creator God we are considering. Rather than a veil covering us from eternal death, it is a pierce-proof armor protecting the souls of His beloved ones.
Grace. What a wonderful word.
She was born in 1927, the 6th of 7 children. Raised during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression, in some ways she epitomized that generation. She grew up stern and loyal, the hardest-working and the fiercest-loving woman I’ve ever known. Recently, I went through a small wooden box filled with her “treasures,” things she had saved from her childhood, items that represented what was formative, precious, and real about her girlhood days. It’s always a revelation to see what was held closest to a person’s heart, particularly since I had not known her until she was five decades past the contents of this box.
So, I lifted the lid on the old wooden box, oblong and homemade, with tiny nailed-in hinges. I think she made the box herself; as she made most things in her life, by hand from what she found at hand. The first thing I noticed was that the fairly small box was fairly empty. Considering her years as a young girl in a big family during spare days, I thought I understood. That she had a box to hold private thoughts and personal belongings was probably a luxury in that place, at that time.
Laying on top of everything else were a collection of seashells, some white, some in shades of pinks and corals, each fanning out from a flat base to an arched top. All of the same general shape but of many size and color variations, they were no doubt gathered while her family lived near the lighthouse on a beach that no longer exists. They made their lives in the sand, surrounded by the sand and the fog and the seagulls, until the government came and made them leave, confiscating their precious community for a priceless port. I suppose these few shells comprised all the small world she could gather of that life, then.
Underneath were a few scraps of tickets, a Bible Memory pin, a broken necklace chain, a birthday card her grandmother sent for her fifth birthday, a brooch shaped like a bicycle, and a brown paper packet labeled “My Sunday School Cards” scrawled in childish letters, in crayon. As I picked up the packet, I realized it held a thick stack of various sized small cards. What in the world could this be, that would so capture the heart of this long-ago-child? I tried to open the end of the packet, but the paper was so old the flap disintegrated and fell off. There they were.
Hundreds of cards, no doubt collected over years. There were “Beginner” and “Primary” cards, the old-fashioned name for the divisions of many church’s Christian Education departments. Yet these cards hardly looked like something we would give a small child today! Slightly bigger than a playing card, each has an elaborate full-color painting reproduced on the front, a realistic illustration of an event or person from the Bible. And on the reverse, in tiny print but child-friendly prose, is the retelling of a lesson from the Bible, or the discussion of a person from the Bible, along with questions and answers, and a key Scripture verse.
I know she got these cards in the 1930’s. To think – they are nearly a hundred years old, yet look at how striking the pictures are even today. Can you imagine, in a little girl’s close, meagre world, how many times these pictures were studied? In her quiet world, without television or YouTube or streaming cell phone videos – how many times might these Bible lessons have been read and re-read, carefully tucked back in their brown paper envelope, and placed within the wooden box under her bed?
That much of her precious solitude had been spent handling and reading the little lesson reminders was evident by the wear on the sides of the cards. The reverse of many of the cards showed they had once been pasted in a scrapbook, but then later pried off and returned to the stack.
As I admired the quality of the paintings and the simple lessons they carried, I thought what a precious thing to give a child: truth. Yet, most of us as parents desire to do just that. Is there anything from these cards that I could learn about how to present truth in a way that is winsome to the heart of a child? I think there is.
Consider the paintings – beautifully done, especially for that time, but completely realistic. It is obvious these are real people, in a real far-away setting, and their lives of service to God are real in both the telling and the illustration. No comic book portrayals or cartoon speech bubbles blur the line here between fantasy and reality.
Then, think of the way the lesson is presented, in easily accessible but still profoundly serious language. Truth is not diluted. The mere fact that a very young child protected these cards carefully and treasured them for a lifetime is evidence that children are capable of understanding the weight of truth. That we keep growing in our understanding for a lifetime reminds us that it is not necessary to completely grasp an idea in order to comprehend its consequence.
And, of course, obviously the gift was intrinsically valuable. These cards were an investment by a church into the lives of children’s hearts. At the bottom, we can see that the cards cost 4 cents per quarter, but that would be per child, and that was in a day when a jumbo loaf of sliced bread could be purchased for 5 cents. This was a commitment, continued over years. Adults gave sacrificially, during a time of great deprivation, so that the children in their church might receive this gift of truth to treasure.
I must admit, however, that there is something else to consider. This gift was given into a vacuum, a place of scarcity, which no doubt increased its worth in the eyes of the recipient. This young girl, and probably most of her agemates, would not have had a lot that was either more interesting or more attractive to catch their eyes. In that void she concentrated on what she had, and thankfully she held truth in her hand. Who would have thought that rather than want, plenty might be the fiercer enemy to those who aim to make a lifelong impact on the hearts and lives of children?
Holding these cards in my hand, I can feel the weight of their worth. More than simply treasured objects from time gone by, they are a challenge to me today. The long-ago-little girl who once played with and cared for these lesson-cards grew up to be a pastor’s wife, a mother, a Sunday School teacher, and a grand and great-grandmother who lived to see the faith embraced by many in those generations. It seems worth considering how God’s truth became so precious to her, and how I can impress it on the children within my reach today.
Am I willing to invest not only my money but my time sacrificially, in order to be effective and potent and bearing fruit still, a hundred years from now? What is the best way for me to impress upon young hearts and minds that these were real people, encountering our real God, living out real-life adventures in their service of Him? And is there a need to clear space in my life, as well as my children’s, that we might all be freer to listen, to hear ourselves think, and to respond to the call of God on our hearts?
I’ll put these cards back in their envelope, but I’ll keep them in my own special box now, as reminders. I might not know the answers to the questions they pose, but the challenges they present are worth my time. I will keep coming back to consider and pray over, because I want to rise to the challenge they present. The answers are worth searching for because the truth is worth passing on.
Here we are in the last few days of 2020. It has been a strange year, and yet the rhythm holds. The entire world seems to slow down in this week between Christmas and New Year's. Businesses find a lower gear, with shorter hours and more grace for family. We cocoon with the treasures of our hearts -- family and friends.
The world takes a breath.
Between the celebration of incarnation and the headlong rush into the future, we collectively pause to assess. In a society that paces before the microwave of life, we suspend the race for a brief, almost inperceptible, moment.
The year before us holds no footprints. It is an unmarred path, a blank page, 365 boxes filled with opportunities. It seems to hold the promise of beginning again - of Jubilee for our lives and hearts and souls.
Then comes the Rose Parade (okay, it's staged in 2021!), all those Bowl games, the rifle goes off and the race is on...again...for another year.
So in the few dwindling days of this year, I pause to consider. What has my life meant in the last 363 days? Have I furthered the Kingdom? Have I been attractive for the gospel - or has my flesh pushed people away? Has the noisy, demanding tyranny of the world pushed out the still quiet voice of God in my own heart?
Christmas as a celebration of the incarnation is not a one day celebration of a rescue mission. It is a daily challenge to our way of life. Praise God that when Jesus came to earth, he passed by any bounds of race, nationality or origin. Christmas is a challenge for us to live out every day.
As I reflect on the many years now past, I realize that I do not want to live just to be old. I want to really live - live graciously and broadly in whatever years I am given. Like a traveler, I do not wish to rush around in a circle - to be taught the same lessons year after year for my failure - or refusal - to learn them. Rather, I want to push out into new thoughts, new responsibilities, ever more closely walking with God.
The old year peels off the days like an onion nearing its center: richer, fuller flavored than the dry husky days of last summer. Savoring them requires time. For in just two days, an unmarred path leads away from the fireplace and the solace of warm, snuggly places to the 365 boxes laid out ahead. 365 boxes stuffed full of opportunities to show love, compassion, and grace to those I meet and those I know. I'm not ready, but the New Year beckons.
My family rescues animals. Not out of save-the-world softness of heart, just because we seem to stumble across needy pets that others have thrown away. Twice in two years someone abandoned their pregnant cat in the back parking lot of the church where I work and worship. Twice in two years these two different cats decided to have their kittens under the church buildings. Twice in two years we wound up with kittens. Really, we're not even cat people.
But in this latest batch, there is a special cat. She is beautiful, and although her momma was a plain black and white kitty, she looks for all the world like a pure-bred seal point. Her deep, startlingly blue eyes are wide and lovely in her little face. Her fur puffs around her like an angora wrap, smooth and unbelievably soft. She is sweet, and quiet, and acts like a dainty little lady at all times. Noting the large brown spot right on her nose, our family immediately christened her "Button."
Unfortunately, Button has a problem. Every morning, when we come downstairs and Button wakes up, she stares at us with panic-stricken eyes - runs from us, hides under the couches, seeks the far corners of the living room. Seemingly, she can't remember us. We terrify her. It is truly sad.
If she manages to escape out into the garage, it might be days before we can coax her back into the house by leaving a can of food and an open door. The longer she is away, the harder it is for her to return. We are afraid that if she ever gets left outside, she may never return; and she would surely not be able to fend for herself.
Yet after being in the house all day, by nighttime she will climb onto the sofa with me. She will purr, cuddle, and beg to be petted. She loves to be held, and stroked under the chin. The more she is around us, the more she loves us. Separation breeds further separation.
Today as I tried to coax her in from the garage, where she was hiding in abject terror after waking up with apparently no idea where she was, I thought how much our relationship with God resembles poor Button and her problem.
When we abide with Him, really live our lives in the realization and fulfillment of His presence, we grow closer and closer to Him. We love Him, and want more of His presence in our every day. Life lived in the certainty of Jesus-with-us carries boundless possibilities, eternal promises, and joyful praise.
But, when busyness, or sin, or whatever-crowds-our-lives pushes God out of one day; it is easier to leave Him out of the next one. Absence sometimes makes the heart grow hard. The enemy is happy to use our forgetfulness against us, turning absentminded neglect of our relationship with Jesus into conscious disregard, and then into indifference. At some point, we lose touch with Him. We lose the sense of His presence. We forget the warm peace of walking with Him, abiding throughout our day in constant silent conversation. Then, at some point not-so-far down that road, turning back seems frightening - or at least intimidating. We are daunted by the thought of beginning again, of bridging our absence. So, we hide.
But you know what really speaks to me? Button's inability to rid herself of fear. When she is hiding, she never gets over the fear. In every movement, in every meow, in every panted breath - she is afraid. It's only when she comes in and settles down with us that she calms down, can relax and purr herself to sleep.
I think it's that way with us, too. If through forgetfulness or busyness we allow other callings to crowd out God in our lives, it always leads to fear. The only place we can find total peace, is right in the center of God's presence.
So, if you are hiding from God - or maybe if someone you know and love is hiding from Him - remember His words, "Fear not, for I am with you..." Is. 41:10. If you realize that you have been neglecting His presence in your everyday busyness, remember too: It is only in His presence that we will ever find absence from fear, complete peace, and true rest.
The ‘lasts’ can be hard, can’t they? Sometimes a ‘last’ passes by and we aren’t aware it is a last – until it is long gone. The opportunity to savor and purposefully remember is gone, and the wind of time blows it down the street of our days into the past. Today wasn’t like that, though. I knew ahead of time this ‘last’ was coming. I have been thinking about it, preparing for it, for a while now.
Today our ‘last’ child drove away for the ‘last’ time for a first day of school. It wasn’t that long ago that he had the cat in his lap, made himself a cozy nest in a laundry basket, and proclaimed himself ready for kindergarten. Different cat today, and the curriculum has certainly progressed (hey! Phonics worked!), but again he took some things to make himself a cozy nest while he settles in to do the hard work of preparing for a career.
I had anticipated feeling overwhelmed and maybe a little weepy after he left. With his older siblings on their own, including a newly married brother & sister-in-law, his leaving left us -alone. And then my husband left for work. I braced for a hard tug on my mama-heart. Homeschooling had been decades of loud laughter in a houseful of activity and energy. In my empty house this morning, all was still. Even our usually frenetic husky-dog lay asleep in the sun by the sliding door. For the first time in 33 years (at least for this practice run semester!), we are empty-nesters. This is how it will be. I waited.
But you know what? Instead of feeling an overwhelming wave of sorrow or emptiness, what I felt instead was an irresistible, tremendous surge of gratitude. This child for whom I prayed and with whom I worked so long; this child is going to be just fine. He struggled for five years to overcome dyslexia, sounding out words bit by bit well into fifth grade. Yet like a tiny single prop airplane, when he finally lifted off – oh, away he soared – higher, higher, higher – with seemingly no bounds to where he could go. Trust me, his reading comprehension has come a long, long way, baby. I am so grateful.
Not only that. He was the one left behind by circumstances. My elderly mother lived with us, and it seemed that every spring, just as we finished the long fall review and turned a corner into new material, she would have a serious medical crisis: a stroke, a knee replacement after a fall, open-heart surgery, necrotizing fasciitis, another series of strokes. After twelve hours a day at the hospital, I would return to that little face – that sweet little face. And he would show me what he was trying to learn to do, on his own. Just by reading the instructions, with some not-always-detailed help from an older sibling, he taught himself to borrow for subtraction, to multiple in columns, to do long division. During his elementary years, all the tricky things? all the steps that kids stumble over in math? I was absent for many of them – trying, desperately, at night to show him the next day’s work. When I mourned over all he was having to do on his own, a wise mentor gave me this verse, Psalm 127:2 "... The Lord gives to His beloved, even in his sleep,” and reminded me that this child was learning an awful lot about faithfulness, about giving and living and love. I clung to that. I was trying; he was trying. We were not enough; God had to make up for an awful lot. But He did, and I am so grateful.
So, today, that sweet-faced boy is a mechanical engineering student well past all that calculus and linear algebra and – well, past me! I laugh to think how I worried that he would never learn to borrow for subtraction! I laugh to think how worried I was that he was having to learn how to learn. Even at 7, 8, or 9, under the watchful guidance of his older siblings when I was away, he developed the understanding that learning was important and working at it made a sweeter victory when something was understood and conquered. How can I now be sad to see the seeds thus planted and prayed over coming to a bountiful and blessed harvest as he drives away to his own life and career? I can’t!
I have become so aware of the patterns of lasts and firsts in life these past few years; I am learning to appreciate and embrace their coming. As my children have grown into young adults, the lasts have been coming at us fast! Yet…we noticed that if we were willing to release the fear of the “last” – we were really watching the birth of a “first.” Last days at home become first days in their new place. Last days here become our first new days as “the old folks.” Last nights in a childhood bedroom lead to a first night in their own home. Lasts are easy to mourn, perhaps harder to see as incipient firsts, but – oh the beauty when you glimpse it in that new perspective!
Just as God was faithful to lead and guide and provide for our family during those long, full, ride-them-like-a-rollercoaster years of homeschooling, God is faithful today. After 33 years with kids in the home as my primary focus and priority, I turn my eyes to tomorrow -- what is next? If God so ordains, and Jesus tarries, I may yet have 30 or 33 more years on this earth. I’m excited to see the “first” that this “last” ushers in!
But I’m still going to be really happy to see that kid, come Thanksgiving break! <3
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