Monday, August 31, 2015

Walnuts and orange juice

“Why should I feel discouraged…
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me” 

“His Eye is on the Sparrow”— Civilla D. Martin

Over the course of my life, God has spoken to me in many varied ways. But the other day He sent me a message in a bag of walnuts given to me by my neighbor/ second mom. Usually neither she nor I even keep walnuts on hand and she had no idea that a couple of hours before, I had written them on my grocery list after reading that the omega three in them might help heal the damaged ankle ligaments that have plagued me nearly all summer. As I held the bag, I felt like Hagar who called the Lord “the God who sees me.” (Gen. 16:13)

It was an intimate moment with the Lord. He seemed to whisper that not only did He read my grocery list but He could bring to my door any item on it at any time He chose. And a God who is that interested in me surely sees and cares about the pain and frustration this ankle is causing me.

My friend’s gift reminded me of another friend who allowed God to use her seven years ago. While Mom was slipping away one agonizing day at a time, many friends and family members ministered to us through the gift of food. One morning, a longtime friend brought a feast of breakfast foods that included biscuits, pastries and orange juice. After she left I pulled the OJ carton from the fridge and tears filled my eyes. I went to Dad and whispered, “Daddy, who is the only person in our family who likes pulp in their orange juice?” A puzzled expression on his face, he looked up and answered, “Me.” With tears streaming down my face, I held out the carton and said, “Daddy, God just sent this orange juice as a message to you to remind you that He sees you. You are not alone in this.”

How grateful I am to friends who choose to act like God: who not only see our circumstances and needs, but who care and then involve themselves in our lives as the hands and feet of Jesus.  And how grateful I am that no matter how overwhelming life can become, God ultimately works all things for our good. (Romans 8:28)

Monday, August 17, 2015

It Is Well

Like me, Mom often sought comfort in music and one of her favorite sustaining hymns was “It Is Well” written by Horatio G. Spafford who penned the hymn in the aftermath of great personal loss. Maybe that’s why his words evoke such peace when I am in the midst of a trial. As the hymn has brought me great comfort through the years, I turned to it again tonight, two days after the seventh anniversary of Mom’s passing.

This year, her homegoing date, Aug. 15 brought more loss as dear friends moved three states away to Texas. These are friends who have become family to me as I cared for their son the last three years. We have shared many meals, many laughs, a few tears and more cups of tea than I can count. They have enriched my life in many ways and after seeing them nearly every day each week, their absence will leave a hole in my heart and in my life.

Just as God prepared me in advance for Mom’s passing, in His infinite grace, He began preparing me for this change long before it became reality. Still, as is the case with any great loss, every other loss compounds that grief and I do not know why the dates coincided this year, but God gave me the strength and the grace to handle both their leaving and the remembrance of Mom’s passing. He even led me to read a book author Cindy Woodsmall had given me when I met her at a writer’s conference in June. Her novel A Love Undone recounts the story of Jolene Keim who is grieving the loss of her parents and struggles to define herself without them. I identified with Jolene’s close relationship with her parents and how their loss upended her life. Still, the novel and Jolene’s life are imbued with great hope and peace given to her by the Lord; the same gifts He has given me.

Thanks to the constant reassuring presence of the Comforter, I know my friends and I will endure this change and will continue our friendship across the miles. And while each summer I will always think of Mom’s passing, I will remember the beauty of her life and rejoice in the new life she has now. So, even as new sorrow comes again this August, because of God’s goodness and grace, I can still sing with Mom and Horatio Spafford, “It is well with my soul.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Give Up the Fight

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” –Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu

A couple of months ago I told God, “I’m tired of fighting.” For 15 years I fought for Mom’s health. Then I fought for Dad’s deliverance. And I battled for my healing. At times, grief has wrestled me to the ground and the enemy has tried to steal my faith. There have been many other battles and now I have found I am weary of fighting. So, when my exhausted spirit poured out its complaint to the Lord one night, He replied with Deuteronomy 3:22:  “. . . the LORD your God himself will fight for you.” The triple emphasis in the verse caught my attention: the Lord your God Himself. I need not rely on anyone else’s faith or relationship with the Lord, for He is my God. I can call on Him and He will be faithful. Using the reflexive pronoun “himself” underscores the importance that God has assured me He will intervene. He is not a distant deity who simply watches from heaven. He will insert Himself into my circumstances and will not only fight for me, on my behalf, but will engage the enemy and fight him in my place, instead of me.

The passage’s two nouns and one pronoun referring to God indicate His triune person so the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, His only Son, my atoning sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit, my comforter and counselor plan to do battle for me just as they did for the children of Israel. New challenges have arisen this summer and over the last two weeks, three times more the Lord has brought this verse to me: in a sermon, on a blog, and in a novel. So for now, I will rest and allow the Lord of hosts to wage war on my behalf until He decides I need to rejoin the battle. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Blue Hydrangeas

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” James 1:17

A couple of years after Mom died, I went to the Mobile Botanical Gardens to celebrate her June 10 birthday. I spent the morning roaming along meandering paths admiring nature’s beauty and missing Mom. In the structured, manicured herb garden I curled onto the wooden bench of a latticed arbor and called Dad from my cell phone. I described to him the snowy cascade of roses that tumbled over my head and down the sides of the arbor. I could hear the smile in his voice as we chatted, savoring memories of Mom and I felt the shift to sorrow as we shared the heartache of losing her.

Reluctantly I ended the call and continued my stroll through the gardens. A worn, wooded path along the perimeter beckoned to me and I drifted into a brown world of dirt and dead leaves far from the vibrant roses and fragrant rosemary and sage. I walked about ten minutes as the path wound uphill and the mottled sunlight floated toward me through the canopy. As I rounded a curve and gazed upward, I felt like Dorothy entering the technicolor dream world of Oz. Before me the hilltop garden opened up to reveal a rainbow of hydrangeas in purples, pinks and blues. My breath caught as my eyes feasted on the botanical bounty in front of me. I wove along the path, examining the flowers, but stopped to gaze at the blue ones, the most prevalent color among the plethora of showy blooms.

I sat down on a periwinkle bench, laughing and crying, and called Dad back. I described the scene to him. “Your Momma always did love blue hydrangeas.”  His voice was soft, full of love and longing. The beauty before me reminded me that Mom was now in a place of unimaginable splendor, unfathomable peace and unending love. All her sorrow and sickness were erased. And even though Dad and I were separated from each other by hundreds of miles and were temporarily separated from Mom, it felt like God gave us a birthday gift meant just for her and just for us: a garden of blue hydrangeas.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Close Encounters

Two weeks ago a close encounter with a snake led to a weepy, worshipful Wednesday. Early in the morning I was walking in my friend’s yard when my sandaled foot slipped on what I assumed was a wet stick. Startled, I cried out and my friend asked what happened. I told her I had thought maybe it was a snake, but it probably wasn’t. We had already walked several steps past the area but she rushed back and investigated the “stick” which proved to be a well-camouflaged snake. Thankfully, she sprang into action before he did and whacked him to death with a hoe.

I was stunned by how close I had come to danger, stepping on a snake with almost bare feet. I had even felt it move under my foot, but thought that was the effect of an overactive imagination. By some miracle, it did not strike me though I gave it motive, opportunity, and an open target. The incident stayed with me all day long and each time I thought of it, my heart raced. That little encounter had the potential for disaster, especially if the snake was really a copperhead which is how my friend identified it.

I felt God miraculously protected me. And the remainder of the day, my frequent thoughts of His protection and amazing grace brought me to tears. The episode led me from a terrifying encounter with danger to a close encounter with the Creator.  As a result, I spent quite a bit of time praising Him for His goodness and thanking Him for His love. The incident was a visceral reminder of another friend’s warning months ago to remain alert for the enemy’s tactics in my life. But it also presented an opportunity to draw close to God and to reflect on the truth of Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Momma Jean

When Mom was in nursing school, the students were addressed by their last name so she was simply called "Armstrong." Then when she married dad, she became Mrs. C. Michael Lovvorn. One of Dad’s favorite nicknames for Mom, Jeanie Bug, came from her dad. But one of Mom’s favorite names for herself was Momma Jean.

Mom always wanted lots of children, but was only able to have my sister and me. God’s plan included many more kids for Mom, though, starting with all the babies, toddlers and teens she cared for during her nursing career. Then there were all the children and teens she taught in Sunday School and discipleship training not to mention all mine and my sister’s friends. When Mom returned to college in her 40s, even a lot of her younger classmates called her “Momma Jean.”

With a generous spirit, a great sense of humor and a compassionate heart, Mom made the perfect surrogate mother for lots of folks in need of love, wisdom and guidance. She always “told it straight” but added kindness when she did so. And no matter her age or accomplishment, Mom never thought herself too dignified to sing pop songs as she sashayed down the grocery aisle, to chair dance in public, or to give you a playful wink at a secret the two of you shared.
She would play board games and charades with the church youth group, dance the hula with a bunch of giggly girls at a Christmas party and vogue for goofy family photos. At my sixteenth birthday party, she taught everybody the stroll and other dances from her youth. For mom, any day, not just holidays and birthdays, was an occasion for a party. She was the hip mom who knew teen slang, popular fashion and beauty trends, and all the high school gossip. Mom wasn’t in the know because she wanted to try to be cool; rather, she wanted to be engaged with us, to share every aspect of our lives. She made us laugh and cry and laugh until we cried. Often when I think of Mom, I am reminded of her exuberant spirit and unquenchable zest for life. I feel pretty confident the rest of her kids remember those things too.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Daddy's Love

Daddy loved sweet iced tea, lemonade and root beer. He loved Mom’s from-scratch cornbread and her semi-homemade cherry pie. He loved to travel and to tell us of all his adventures when he came home. He loved serving the Lord and His church. And he loved me.

Daddy never hung up the phone without telling me he loved me and even after I was a “grown woman,” he still answered my calls with either “Hi, Princess” or  “How’s my Baby Girl?” But he didn’t love me with words only. He showed his love time and time again through his thoughtful and kind actions. I remember the Christmas I was eight and Santa brought me a huge, swanky Barbie Dreamhouse filled with furniture; the only thing missing was a dining room hutch.

A couple of months later, Daddy came home from a business trip to Pennsylvania and nonchalantly presented me with the missing blue plastic cabinet. Even then I knew I had a special dad; he was a man who, while more than 700 miles from home, would search toy stores in a strange city until he found just what his daughter wanted, for the sole purpose of seeing the joy on her face when he gave it to her.

That wasn’t the first or last time Daddy did something like that. There was the Christmas he and mom surprised me with a second-hand French racing bike they had refurbished themselves. At my 16th birthday party, Daddy played photographer, making sure he snapped photos of the boy I had a crush on. For physics class, he helped me create a replica of one of his company’s machines and thanks to his guidance and hands-on help, I earned a perfect grade on the project. Besides all these things, when my sister and I were teenagers, Dad spent countless hours with Mom shopping for our clothes and never lost his patience. He repainted my bedroom furniture when I wanted a new look, took me to softball try-outs, and moved me back and forth to college several times each year.

Daddy was kind and patient and showed me his love in countless ways. I never had to doubt the depth of his love for me. Even after two years, I still miss Daddy tremendously. But I will never forget the lessons of love and faith he imparted to me through his actions, his words, and his example.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Christ is risen indeed!

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you . . .” (1 Peter 1:3-4)

Two days ago, before the Easter worship service began, I texted my friends this message: “He is risen.” After church I could hardly wait to see how many had replied, “He is risen, indeed!” The message ritual has been going on long before texting was invented, but technology allowed me to share a moment of worship and fellowship with friends in other parts of the city, other cities, and other states. The addition of the adverb “indeed” which means “without any doubt, truly, undeniably,” underscores each person’s individual affirmation of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. And the Resurrection embodies the hope of the Christian life. In his song “Because He Lives,” Matt Maher sums up the idea in these two sentences: “I’m alive! I’m alive because He lives.”

Because Christ paid the penalty for our sins and defeated sin and death through His death and resurrection, we have the hope of everlasting life. But we also have hope for this life: hope for healing. Hope for reconciliation. Hope for mercy and forgiveness. Despite that hope, the bleakness of our circumstances or of those we love often tempts us to despair. In one of my favorite scenes from the miniseries Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley tells Marilla Cuthbert she is in the “depths of despair” and then asks Marilla if she has ever been there. In her clipped Canadian accent, Marilla offers a one-word reply, “No.” Anne presses her, asking, “Can’t you imagine you were in the depths of despair?” With a grim expression and tart tone, Marilla answers, “No, I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.” I pray when we become discouraged, and maybe even despondent, that we remember to return to the everlasting joy of Easter where we find all our hope in a cross, an empty tomb, and a resurrected Savior.

Monday, March 30, 2015

En garde

Recently, while getting ready for work, I noticed a big, hairy intruder strutting across my bathroom floor. I did not pause to shout, “En garde!” before I engaged him in a battle to the death. The steroid-fed spider resembled a brown recluse; evidence is inconclusive as I did not stop to inspect him before I ushered him into the afterlife. My first two blows dazed and angered him, but he still had a cocky swagger as he charged me. I whispered a prayer and pounced again. Thanks to a trusty tennis shoe and some good aim, I was victorious.

My healthy fear of spiders resulted from two previous bites, each of which landed me in the ER. But this sinister arachnid’s unwelcome presence in my home reminded me of something else: a friend’s recent warning to be alert and on guard, watching for the enemy. Her response was generated by a convo in which I shared that lately God had brought to my mind the Old Testament saint Nehemiah.

Through God’s miraculous favor, Nehemiah was allowed to leave his prestigious and pivotal role as King Cyrus of Persia’s cupbearer in order to return to Jerusalem and attempt to rebuild the city, particularly the city’s wall. Once there, he faced logistic problems, economic woes and taunts from his enemies. In response, Nehemiah prayed then stationed a guard, a watchman on the wall, whose job was to warn everyone of impending danger just as Peter warns us: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT)

As work progressed, the Jews’ enemies continued to mock and ridicule them while the Enemy of their souls assailed them with doubt, confusion, and fear. The adversaries’ terror campaign escalated into a full-blown plot to kill the man of God. Nehemiah responded by posting guards in all of the wall’s gaps and encouraging the people with words of God’s strength and faithfulness. When caught in the enemy’s crosshairs, we would be wise to follow Nehemiah’s example: to pray first and then take practical measures to guard ourselves against the enemy’s devices by filling our hearts with God’s promises. Only then, through God's power, can we ruthlessly crush the enemy as I did that stealthy spider.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Simple Life

“Tis a gift to be simple
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.” 

--Shaker hymn

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto a mash-up of two of my old-time favorite songs when I found “Over the Rainbow/ Simple Gifts” by The Piano Guys. The first song, of course, comes from the movie The Wizard of Oz. The second is a Shaker hymn which my mom and I used to sing together. The words of the hymn remind us to lead a simple life. For me, that means eliminating clutter, minimizing spending, and leaving time in a warp-speed life for rest and contemplation.

A simple life also holds the invitation for me to retain the childlike wonder God gives us to enjoy Him and His creation. To sing back to the birds who serenade me in the morning. To watch the clouds changing shapes against the backdrop of an infinite blue sky. To pause and admire the trees’ new spring wardrobe. And to spend time with a Creator who treasures me.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “There are two ways to live life: as if everything is a miracle or as if nothing is.” I choose the first. And in doing so, I think I am fulfilling Jesus’ proclamation that to enter His kingdom, you must come as a little child. A child empty of preconceived notions and agendas. A child filled with simple faith and awe at the beauty and majesty of God.

Link for The Piano Guys video:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Love Life

In my favorite musical rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Albert Finney plays Ebenezer Scrooge. One of the best moments in the film comes when Scrooge drinks the milk of human kindness proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge becomes drunk and giddily begins to sing, “I like life. Life likes me. I like feeling the way I’m feeling.” Before Scrooge’s “conversion,” his life is filled with selfishness, greed, and self-pity. Post-ghost encounters, his life is filled with a love for others and selfless acts of kindness.

The changes wrought in Dickens’ most well-known character reveal a great spiritual truth: in order to love life, you have to have a life of love. Jesus taught it’s not enough to love your friends and family. He insisted we love everyone, regardless of their social status, ability, influence, or even their enmity toward us. Speaking of love was not sufficient for Jesus; His actions demonstrated His love. He fed the hungry, He healed the sick, He comforted the broken-hearted, He encouraged the widow. Ultimately, He carried the cross to Calvary.

Unlike the cup from which Scrooge drank, Jesus drank from the bitter cup of persecution, torture and death. But even as the shadow of the cross loomed across His life, He still took time to celebrate the Passover and to care for His disciples. Jesus’ life of love testified to His love of life. During His earthly ministry, He attended weddings, played with children, and enjoyed feasts with His friends. After His resurrection, He even cooked breakfast on the beach for His disciples. Jesus taught through both His words and His deeds how to enjoy life and celebrate even ordinary moments. And He did all this so that we might enjoy your lives. L’chaim!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's Love Got to do with It?

I can almost hear Judas Iscariot ask that question when Jesus told His disciples: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) Judas seems to be the least loving disciple not merely because he was the one who betrayed Jesus, but also because of his harsh responses to acts of grace. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus with expensive spikenard, Judas rebuked her. His question exposes his heart condition: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”

It might seem Judas, who was in control of the group’s money pouch, had a tender heart toward those in need. But the next verses refute that idea by calling him a thief, painting him as a sort of embezzling biblical CFO. The incident also reveals Judas’ attitude toward his Master by implying Jesus was just another man, no one special. Why should He be the recipient of such extravagant love? It sounds like grumblesome, disgruntled Judas was filled with jealousy as well as greed.

For three years, Judas walked with Jesus. He saw the compassion in His eyes when He healed the sick and fed the multitudes. He witnessed the Son of God cry when His friend Lazarus died. And He saw Him weep over Jerusalem’s lack of repentance and absence of mercy. And Judas got angry. Many scholars believe Judas was one of the zealots, a sect of Jews who were trying to overthrow Roman rule. If so, his disillusionment with Jesus becomes clear. Judas was not looking for a kingdom filled with love where its Ruler taught forgiveness of cruel oppressors. He wanted the kingdom ushered in through violence. But violence never produces joy and hatred never brings about peace. Jesus said to love your enemies. He said that the greatest love is not destroying others for the sake of your country or your beliefs, but laying down your life in sacrifice for the sake of your friends.

Recently, my friend shared a story she heard on the radio; it was the testimony of a Muslim man who declared he had grown up in a culture of hate. When he left Islam, he became an atheist. Eventually, though, Christians won him over through their demonstrations of unconditional love. He said they did not try to badger him, debate him or condemn him. Instead they simply loved him. God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe and when we allow Him to fill us with His love, we can change the world.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

True Love

Today Mom and Dad would’ve celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary, one week before Valentine’s Day. Mom used to share with me the story of Dad’s proposal and how she wanted to marry on that quintessential “romantic” holiday. But Daddy insisted he wanted to be married six months to the day from the time he proposed. That meant the wedding date would be for one week earlier on Feb. 7. Thus began years of compromise, sacrifice and teamwork. Mom and Dad weren’t the perfect couple in the sense that they got mad and yelled at one another. Often. But at the end of the day, each one knew how much they were loved by the other.

Through the years I told my friends that Daddy lived to make Mom happy and he did. While he seldom brought her bouquets of flowers, he did give her cards with heartfelt messages and he brought her souvenirs from all of his travels. But far more than that, Daddy faithfully cared for Mom through fifteen years of serious illnesses and hospitalizations. Not only did he care for her physical needs, he showered her with affection and encouragement. Through both good times and bad, he never failed to pray for her. Mom cared for Daddy in all those same ways. And it was a running contest between them to see who could make the other one laugh the most and the loudest. Momma used to say Daddy’s voice was the first one she wanted to hear in the morning and the last one she heard at night. After Momma died, I said to Daddy that he always acted as if Momma hung the moon in the sky. His simple reply? “Well, didn’t she?” I am grateful to my parents for showing me love can last a lifetime. It can overcome any obstacle. And it can sustain you when everything else fails.

“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 1 Cor. 13:7-8

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Take Two

“The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Prov. 16:9

I had a plan. This was gonna be the January my house was so organized that Martha Stewart would personally visit to take notes. Instead, I had to stay in bed for days just trying to breathe as I fought off some flu imposter. For the new semester, I was going to be so prepared that I would dazzle my students with my knowledge of literature and my rapier wit. Instead, I showed up to the first day of class with a bad case of laryngitis and a hacking cough. And that exercise plan? It went out the window and was replaced by a regimen of vitamin C, zinc and antibiotics. Sigh. I had a plan.

God has a plan too. He promises in Jeremiah 29:11 that He has a good plan for each of us. Ever-faithful, ever-prepared, ever-gracious, my sickness did not derail His plan. He protected me all fall semester from numerous illnesses to which I was exposed and allowed me to enjoy the holidays before I got sick. He used friends to minister to me and remind me how much I am loved and how to bless others when they are in need. Still, I missed my new year’s rituals of contemplation and simplification. But with God, every day can be a new beginning. So now that I am nearly well, I am re-starting my new year and I am excited to see what God has in store for it. Instead of hoping my plan comes to pass, I will be praying that God’s does.

“Father, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year, Lord

“For all the blessings of the year, we thank You, Lord.”

As 2014 was slipping into 2015, I kept singing the line above which comes from a Thanksgiving call to worship. The words remind me to thank God for all the blessings of the past year. For friends and family who support and encourage me. For new friendships that have blossomed and old ones that have deepened. For work I enjoy and through which I can see God’s hand at work. For miracles in my life and the lives of those I love.

God’s blessings have taken many forms this last year. After four years of not seeing them, I had two opportunities to spend time with friends who are more like sisters and are separated from me only by the physical distance of hundreds of miles. I had the joy of planting flowers in my yard and then watching them bloom and attract butterflies and hummingbirds which brought me the gifts of wonder and delight. The children and teenagers in my life have often renewed my spirit by sharing their innocence and their exuberance. As I started an additional job adventure, colleagues and co-workers offered much-needed advice, help and encouragement.

And there have been tremendous gifts from God Himself this year, both seemingly big and seemingly small. He has given me wisdom and guidance when I needed it most. He has afforded me strength and comfort as I continue to grieve and heal. And He has given me an inexhaustible supply of joy. So, as 2015 begins, I thank God not only for all He has done in the past year, but I thank Him in advance for all the blessings of this new year.