Forbidden Fruit

Genesis 3:6

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

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I have a confession to make. I LOVE pear trees. I love everything about them—the way they look, the way they smell. They calm me. The problem is that I’ve recently become aware of the environmental curse that ornamental pear trees represent. They are weak in structure, they choke the life from native trees, and they cross pollinate with other trees so that they spread like kudzu, according to Durant Ashmore of the Greenville News. Ashmore further adds that they are very difficult to get rid of, as some varieties produce 4-inch thorns. This means that bulldozing them can be the only solution.

So, at this time of year, my sin constantly accosts me. It taunts me at every turn. It is SO hard to look at these trees and see them for the danger they represent. They don’t look dangerous. They’re aesthetically beautiful, pleasing to the eye. And it occurs to me that they are not unlike so many other temptations to sin. I think that we look back on the Garden of Eden, and often villainize Adam and Eve. They were given so much, and were denied only one thing. Why couldn’t they just say no, and walk away? We become very sure that, in their (lack of) shoes, we would have done just that.

But I wouldn’t have—not when I can’t even look away from these “beautiful” pear trees. And come to realize, we even have a couple in our yard (they came with the house). But I don’t know if I could bring myself to tear them down—at least, it isn’t at the top of my priority list. And when I do finally get around to it, it will not be cathartic or freeing or vindicating. Instead, I think it will be a bittersweet day, a sacrifice I’ve made at great personal cost.

We aren’t to hold this attitude toward sin. We aren’t supposed to let it maintain control over us. And we are supposed to be disgusted by it. Proverbs 8:13 says that “the fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” And Romans 12:9 tells us to abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” There’s no halfway when it comes to sin. We must put our sin to death…not keep it around like a pet. Matthew 18:9 commands, “if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”

Is my love of pear trees my mother of all sins? Of course not. But it seems to me to be the most poignant illustration during spring time in Texas. May it serve as a reminder and conviction to us all.

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Beautifully Well

Colossians 4:6

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

A week ago today, I had the opportunity to attend the memorial service for a friend’s mom. It was a very nice service. And while I didn’t actually know my friend’s mom personally, by the end of the morning, I wished that I had. The preacher spoke of her hospitality and generosity, and so many other endearing traits. One thing he kept saying that stuck with me was that she lived her life “beautifully well.” She seemed to radiate God’s love and His character. Not unlike Jesus, people gravitated toward her. They saw Jesus in the things she did, and the things she said, and the way she loved. So when people saw Jesus in her, they turned toward Him.

I thought to myself how that would be a wonderful thing to have someone say upon my passing. I mean, sure, my hope is that I will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Come and share your master’s happiness!” But He might say that even if I show up in Glory by the skin of my teeth, because He knows well the dust that I’m made of. But when our fellow sojourners say things like that, there’s a certain comfort that comes.

So the question becomes, Would they? Would they say that I lived my life in Christ “beautifully well”? Would they say that about you? What would that even look like? There are an endless number of ways, I suppose. But it might look like a smile, a kind word, an extra dash of patience in the grocery store checkout line; it might look like a load of laundry, a load of dishes, or a load of diapers—tended to without complaining. It might look like opening your home to welcome someone in need, taking a meal to an elderly neighbor, or serving in your community. Remember that each person you come across represents a divine opportunity to share God’s love, through your words, actions, and attitudes. It’s like they say, you may be the only Jesus they ever see. So show Him, beautifully well.

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Fathoming Hope

Romans 5:2-5

“…And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Today, I encountered a woman whose story painted for me a picture of hopelessness. She was desperate and alone, discontent with just about every aspect of her life, and seemingly helpless to do anything about it. Beyond that, she was haunted by her past experiences and memories. She had become so accustomed to loss and disappointment that she couldn’t imagine any other way.

I myself am no stranger to despair, having struggled with depression for many years. But there was something different about this woman. That something was God. No matter how hopeless I might have felt in any given moment, or even for entire seasons, I never lost sight of God. I knew He loved me. I knew He had a plan for me, and one that would give me hope and a future. I knew that He would work everything I felt and was going through together for good and for His glory. Granted, the hope I had was at times about as big as those mustard seeds of faith Jesus talked about in Matthew 17:20. But as it turns out, hope works kind of like faith—it grows.

But for hope to grow, it has to exist. And then it has to survive some harsh conditions. This woman may have had hope at one time, but hope that was crushed by one too many harsh realities and rude awakenings. Or she may have never had any to begin with. One thing was and is clear to me. She needs the hope of salvation, the hope of redemption, the hope of restoration—in short, she needs Jesus. From the outside looking in, she seems so far from Him. But look at what Luke 15:20 says about the story of the prodigal son:

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

God will run to this woman, too. She needs only to start out in His direction.

Sovereign Lord,

I don’t even know the name of the woman I’m praying for—but you know.
You know her name, her story, her sorrow, her past, and her future.
And you know the plans you have for her, plans to prosper and not to harm her,
plans to give her hope and a future.
The impossible is possible with you, so a mustard seed of hope is something you can do.
I believe you for this hope, and I pray it in the matchless name of Jesus. Amen!

Lenten Blossoms

Hands Free

I’ve spent the last several days disconnected from my smart phone and social media—though not by choice or by design. My phone accidentally fell out of the car at a gas station a couple hours away, and I couldn’t get it until today. Relieved that my phone seemed to be in good shape and in good hands, I decided to make this an experiment of sorts. What would I learn or discover from this hands free weekend?

My observations have probably been different than what you would have expected. Usually, when people unplug and disconnect from their smart devices and social media, they seem to find themselves more connected with the people and the world around them, more richly involved in and keenly aware of their surroundings. The experience seems to them to be a refreshing, recharging one. I, on the other hand, have been keenly aware of what is missing when these technologies are not at my disposal. And I have become even more convinced of the value that smart devices and social media can add, when properly wielded. Here are just some examples:

Making the most of the moments. Every night since misplacing my phone, I’ve checked in on the kids before bed. And every night, I’ve thought, “Oh, that would make such a sweet photo.” But alas, no smart phone. And of course, I have a ‘real’ camera, but it isn’t at my fingertips all day, every day. So, just as I end up missing these sleepy scenes, I will often miss a cute shot of the kids or the dog or the snowfall, or what have you. And, while I try to pause and appreciate the moment, I find it to be much more fleeting when I have no way of capturing it for safe keeping.

Documenting the details. Likewise, my friends can attest that I share a lot of the kids’ comments and conversations on social media—kids say the darndest things, after all. And some are so hilarious that you would think I would remember them months, and even years later. But often, when I go back to comments made six months or a year ago, I find that they’ve slipped my mind. And the older I get, and the older the kids get, and the more there is to remember, the foggier things will get in my memory. So having these keepsakes helps me to treasure these precious memories.

Keeping mommas in the memories. Selfies seem to sometimes get a bad rap. They can come across as vain and self-absorbed. But think about it this way. For many years, moms have been the ones behind the cameras, making sure that those family memories are recorded for posterity. Or, sometimes moms have tried everything to stay out of those photos, for fear that they will come across as too old, too fat, too tired. Our self-esteem and self-image problems have resulted in kids growing up and looking back on the family photo albums, only to wonder, “Where was Mom in all of these photos?” But there’s something about getting IN the photos WITH your kids that changes how you see yourself in the pictures…at least that’s how I feel. I see myself from a different perspective then, and one of greater appreciation.

Sharing in celebration. I love seeing friends’ and family members’ announcements, whether it’s an engagement, marriage, pregnancy, or birth announcement, I like to celebrate with you! And I like being reminded about birthdays, so I can send a greeting. And I like seeing how others celebrate holidays and vacations, and sharing our own celebrations with loved ones. Who knows what kinds of announcements and celebrations I’ve missed over the past few days?!

So, my little experiment gave me a greater appreciation for the connectedness afforded by modern technology. I know that what are blessings to me are curses for others, and I want to be sensitive to those struggles. But for me, fingertip technology falls squarely on the list of things to be grateful for—and you can bet that I won’t be resolving to get offline this year. And I’m glad to be back in touch with all of you once again. Happy New Year!

London

Once a week, I volunteer at London’s school, and Laredo goes along with me to play with the kids her age. I remember the first day we went, when Laredo first met the kids. London saw her, and immediately ran over to her, greeting her with a HUGE hug. It was so sweet, and thus very memorable. So each week, as I work in the school’s donation center—cleaning, folding clothes, straightening shelves—I listen as the two girls play, together and with their other friends.

Then one day, about a month ago, I greeted London with a simple, “Hi London, how are you?” Well, her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened, and she exclaimed, “She knows my name! She knows my name!” You’d have thought I was famous. Mind you, I volunteer in my mismatched, most comfortable, but least trendy clothes; I usually haven’t had a shower; besides which, I am a nearing-40-year old, slightly out-of-shape, mother of two. I’m not cool—not even close. But to London, the fact that I knew her name made her day. It was flattering, but also a bit convicting.

It was convicting because the God of the universe knows each of us by name. In John 10:2-4, Jesus states that “the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” And again, in John 10:14, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” Our names are graven on His hands, and written on His heart. But how often do we really stand in awe of that fact? Do we really even grasp it? I know I don’t…at least not the way London would. But I want to, don’t you?

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For Such a Time as This

Esther 4:14 (ESV)

“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

If you read the last entry on my blog, you will have read my mom’s adoption story, from her perspective and in her words. This week, I’d like to add a bit of my own commentary, having watched her adoption story, even more as an outsider than I realized. I say this because I remember always feeling like it wasn’t fair that my mom was adopted, only to be relegated to housekeeping chores and other responsibilities beyond the purview of a child.

Adoption, in my mind, was supposed to be magical, joyous, and all the rest. But so often, as I looked on, I saw it as a burden for her. Granted, in seeing what was, I was unaware at the time of what might have been—mafia ties and the like, which appears now to have been the alternative.

Over the years, I think my mom found solace in her parents’ need for her, reasoning that their physical and tangible needs were the reason God placed her in their home. But in my view, that’s only part of the story. Ultimately, we all have physical needs, and we find ways of having them met. But I think that watching my mom’s selflessness, day in and day out for 35 years, made a lasting impression. How do I know this?

Just this past summer, I learned of the day when my grandparents were ageing and in failing health, and my mom sent her pastor to visit with them, and to tell them about Jesus. After the visit, the pastor told my mom that both Grandma and Grandpa had accepted God’s forgiveness and were now secure in their eternal salvation. It seems odd that a virtual stranger could walk into their home and find such accepting and receptive hosts.

And yet, in a way, it’s not surprising at all. It’s not surprising because this stranger was sent by someone who had lived out the mission of Christ in their midst for all those years…she had served them sacrificially, loved them unconditionally, forgiven them repeatedly and undeservedly. Just. Like. Jesus. And I believe that with each act of selflessness, each load of laundry, each Sunday visit (and so much more), they were seeing Jesus. And if you ask me, it wasn’t each of those moments that were God’s purpose for placing her there. It was the moment when each of them said yes to God’s offer of salvation. And I believe that God was watching, thinking of my mom, and whispering to her soul, This. I placed you here for such a time as THIS.

And in truth, God continues to use her in times such as these…to serve a neighbor in need, to reach out to a disheartened coworker, to impact a school child in her care, and on and on. I know that the mundane of her day to day isn’t always glamorous, and that she often feels like she’s still waiting for her calling. But I believe she’s living it every day. So many times, God must be whispering to her soul, I placed you here for such a time as this…and this…and this. Oh, that we would all be willing to live our lives as a reflection of Jesus, and to recognize those times when He has divinely placed us here or there, and for such a time as this.

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Loved & Treasured

By Mary Beth Anderson

Hosea 14:3b
“in you the fatherless find compassion.”

Most people don’t remember the day they were born, but I do. It was a beautiful sunny day in June of 1957. I was 2 ½. My brother, who was 3 ½, and I were going to meet our new parents, Don and Norma Schulke. I recently talked to a woman who was a teenager at that time and she said she remembered how excited my parents were when they were preparing for our arrival. She said that it was like they had won the lottery.

I don’t remember any time before that but the adoption agency filled in a few gaps for me. My birth mother had left my brother and me with friends so that she could explore a risky business venture. They said she had planned on coming back for us but never did. When the county found out about this they put us in foster care, where we stayed until we were adopted.

Our parents had always told us that we were adopted. They said it was like going into a candy store and some people just have to take what the man behind the counter gives them. But my parents got to go in and pick the ones they wanted. I felt bad for all the kids who weren’t “chosen” by their parents.

Our life with our new parents was great, although not perfect. No families are. When I was 10, my mom was diagnosed with M.S. That meant that I had to be responsible for much of the housework. And then as my parents aged, I continued to take care of them. I always thought that God had given me to them because he knew that they would need me.

Recently though, I have been doing an ancestry search—trying to find out my story. In so doing I found out that my birth mom, Lois Blomberg Brown Gildea, was adopted as well. And I learned that my birth father, Zane Orwin Brown, and his family members had a history of having children and abandoning them. And though through my DNA search I have found some amazing cousins, a half-brother, and at least two step sisters, I was still looking for my mom and dad. I did find out that my mom had died in 2009. But I would still like to find out more information about her. And I’m still hoping to find my dad. I’ve learned that he wasn’t a very nice man, and that some of his family members were awful and crazy. But still, I want to meet him and hear the story. It’s not that the story is going to change who I am, I just want to know.

I might not ever find him. I don’t know if they know the Lord. I pray that they do and that someday I will meet them in heaven and know the story. But even if they don’t, I know the one who has known me since I was formed in my mother’s womb and He knows the story. And I can hear it from Him.

The most important thing that I’ve learned on this journey is that, though I believe that God put me where he wanted me to be to help my adoptive parents, I now also see His protective and loving hand picking me out of a very dysfunctional family and putting me in a home where I was loved and treasured.

I’m thankful for my birth mom making the decision to put us up for adoption. My birth parents gave me “life.” My adopted parents gave me “a life.” And Jesus gave me eternal life.

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Holding onto Manna

Exodos 16:18b-20a

“Everyone had gathered just as much [manna] as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.”

Proverbs 3:9-10

“Honor the LORD from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

So, at my most recent checkup, I learned that my blood work was all out of whack. Namely, my white blood cell count was up and my iron was low (and getting lower with every passing month, I guess). Follow-up labs showed elevated double-stranded DNA (dsDNA). The first thought—Lupus. I was devastated at the possibility. Not because it is debilitating and incurable, although it is. And not because the number one cause of death among sufferers is kidney failure, although it is. To be sure, those thoughts were disappointing and discouraging. But the thought that most often brought me to tears was that such a diagnosis would constitute a permanent medical deferral from donating a kidney, which as many of you know has long been on my heart as one of God’s calls on my life.

And in my layman’s understanding of the disease, I reasoned (rightly or wrongly, I still don’t know) that, had I only donated soon enough—before Lupus attacked or infected my kidneys—someone might be alive today as a result. Meanwhile, delaying my donation might well cost someone else their life, along with my own. Two kidneys wasted, when at least one might have been salvaged. My mind kept going back to the story of the Israelites in Exodus 16, where God supplied their daily needs through the provision of manna. You see, God gave each person and each family enough for one day, and if they tried to save any for the next, it would rot overnight—and in a very unpleasant way according to Scripture. This was done to teach the Israelites to trust and depend upon the Lord.

And I believe He wants the same from us. No, God doesn’t provide physical manna nowadays. But He provides, and He calls us to trust Him. This concept is found throughout the Bible, namely that we aren’t to honor God out of what is left, but out of our first fruits (Proverbs 3:9-10). But it seems like many of us are waiting until…or saving for…some point in the future.

  • We’re called to serve, but we’re waiting until we have more time.
  • We’re called to give, but we’re saving just in case.
  • We’re called to trust God, but we rely on ourselves.
  • We’re called to step out in faith, but we choose to remain where it’s safe.

We’re holding onto our stuff—our comfort, our convenience, our control. But God is more concerned about our character than any of these. And that’s why, when we refuse to let go of our stuff willingly, God may very well pry it out of our cold dead fingers (consider Lot’s wife, and Ananias and Sapphira, and several others). Whatever God is calling you to, don’t wait. Don’t waste the gifts and talents and resources that God has blessed you with. Honor Him with them TODAY, lest you wake up tomorrow to find them gone.

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Worse Things

Psalm 34:18

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Today I decided it was time to wash the delicate clothes that had been piling up in my closet for months. In particular, I decided it was time to wash Laredo’s tights and leotard, in which she dresses up like a ballerina almost daily. But as I went to transfer the laundry from the washer to the dryer, I noticed that something blue in the load had bled on the pale pink leotard. I said to myself, “Thank God I didn’t put her fancy white Easter dress in this load.”

But then I stopped myself. I realized the fault in my perspective. You see, as Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath continues to cause destruction not two hours from here, I understand that there are worse things that I could have to worry about. There are far worse things that many people are facing at this very moment—even some people I know. And I don’t want to be the kind of person who dwells on silly and inconsequential things, when there are people out there in need of compassion, and prayer, and tangible help.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are most certainly times in life when those worse things will happen TO YOU. I wouldn’t tell those who have lost everything and even loved ones to tell themselves that there are worse things. At some point, you need to recognize that you’ve just lived through the worst day of your life. When you’ve been evacuated from your home by boat in the middle of the night, and been shuttled around from one shelter to another in search of one that will allow your pets to stay with you… Or when you’ve faced some other tragedy, emergency, betrayal…some of you may know this feeling firsthand. You know what it’s like to feel helpless, hopeless, and lost. Be honest about it—let your family, friends, and community come alongside to help you.

But for those of us who aren’t suffering greatly right now, I would encourage us all to take a posture of gratitude, humility, and compassion. Let’s recognize that those little things that frustrate or disappoint us are exactly that—little things. Let’s remember that there are (unfortunately) worse things than what we are facing. And let’s pray that God will give us HIS heart for the brokenhearted. As is so often said, let’s ask Him to break our hearts for what breaks HIS. And I can just about guarantee that what breaks His heart is not a stained leotard, or even a ruined Easter dress.

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Where 2 or 3…Sleep

Matthew 18:20

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Not long ago, our pastor preached on Matthew 18:20, a passage he argued is often taken out of its intended context of reconciliation and misplaced into the context of prayer. It’s encouraging to be reminded of the truth that our prayers are not dependent on the faithfulness of flawed fellow humans. Because how often have we brought our burdens to our community of believers, requesting their prayers, only to have those requests fall on deaf ears, or get lost in the shuffle of daily life or the litany of other requests that occupy their time and attention? But God hears and responds to our prayer, no matter who joins us in them. This is evident throughout scripture, actually. For instance:

  • Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
  • Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Still, if you’re anything like me, you may be tempted to respond with an air of resentment…misplaced, though, because let’s be honest—unless you’re that lady from War Room, you’ve probably dropped the ball on a prayer request or two yourself. I know I have.

So how should we respond when we are disappointed and when our prayer warriors let us down? Fortunately, Jesus Himself offers us some guidance on that. In the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus shared His burden with Peter, James, and John, saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Then He asked them to keep watch and pray. And did they? No. Instead, they fell asleep. Even John—the beloved disciple and the one who may arguably have loved Jesus the most. And not just once or twice did this happen, but three times! But Jesus recognized that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Scripture also tells us that the disciples’ “eyes were heavy” and that Jesus left them sleeping and continued to pray. Finally, after they’d slept through the entire ordeal, Judas showed up to turn Jesus over to the authorities. And Jesus woke them up and said, “Rise! Let us go!”

I see Jesus doing four things in this passage:

  1. He asks his friends to pray—and more than once. He doesn’t give up on them, just because they’ve let him down.
  2. He understands their weakness and weariness. He recognizes that their failure is not a result of them not wanting to pray or not caring. He sees that their eyes are heavy.
  3. He continues to pray, even in isolation. He knows that the Father hears and answers prayers—whether we are joined in those prayers by our fellow believers or not.
  4. He doesn’t give up on the disciples. Even though He does eventually allow them to slumber, he wakes them up when it’s time to go, and summons them to join Him.

My hope is that you and I will take our cues from Jesus when faced with our own disappointments, and that we will remember, as God does, that we are all but dust (Psalm 103:14).

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