#wideopenspaces · Spirituality

New Skin

A crumpled snakeskin was lying on top of a hole by the driveway recently.  I imagined the snake curled up underground, giving a sigh of relief to have slipped out of the too-tight binding — sort of how I feel when I come home and take off my “going out” clothes and pull on my sweats and t-shirt.

I found myself feeling jealous of that snake. Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans could slide out of our skin and start fresh every few months?

Just like that snake with the too-tight skin, I have had times when my life felt confined, seasons when I wanted to break out of a job, relationship or responsibility. Those times have been marked by boredom, lack of fulfillment, low self-esteem. and ultimately depression. 

When my sister and I were little, my mother had two of our drawings made into plates. Mine is of a snaggletooth woman, but Anne drew a giant in a small box, pushing against the enclosure. Something about that picture has always pulled at my heartstrings, maybe because I have felt trapped like that giant, with the walls closing in around me.

Like my skin was too tight. 

The Giant in a Small Box

I did a little research and found out that when the snake has outgrown her skin, she rubs her head against a rock or tree in order to break a tiny slit in it. Then she starts slowly sliding out, leaving her old tired skin behind. This can take days or weeks.

Just like my snake friend, when something in my life has become uncomfortable, it may mean that I’m growing. I sometimes need something hard to prod me to the process of breaking free to the next stage in my development. This ‘in between’ time feels awkward and unproductive.

Another reason snakes shed their skin is because parasites can burrow under it and cause disease if the dead part doesn’t get stripped away. Anger and resentment burrow under my skin in the same way, and often come out in ways that are hurtful to me and those close to me.

When my skin feels too tight, I need to pray for discernment about the reason for my discomfort. God may lead me to let go of something in my life and move onto the next thing. He may have a wonderful opportunity on the horizon.

Or He may tell me stay in my situation and change my attitude.

I usually want to blame others when I feel stuck, but I’ve realized that it’s up to me to get unstuck. I need to bring my guilt, jealousy and discouragement to the Lord and pray for forgiveness and healing. Then the bonds that are holding me in begin to loosen.

God does not want to see me enclosed in a prison of self-deprecation. He wants to see me enjoying life in freedom and joy.

 I love this verse from the Psalms:

In tight circumstances, I cried out to the Lord.

    The Lord answered me with wide-open spaces.

 (Psalm 118:5, CEB)

What tight circumstance do you need to bring before the Lord today? My prayer is that we will all breathe a sigh of relief when we reach the wide-open space that is filled with His love and acceptance. 

Fear · Spirituality

Open Doors

One of the first projects Keith and I tackled after buying our old house thirty-four years ago was to tear out the 1960’s screened-in back porch. We replaced it with a large open porch but left the old aluminum storm door by the door which opened into our dining room.

Over the years, our dogs and cats had clawed the screen to pieces, and we simply patched it with a board and ignored it. The result was an embarrassing junky door that we seldom used.

A few months ago, we decided the time had come to fix the problem. We bought a beautiful all glass door with a screen built right into it (it’s amazing what has been invented in the last 50 years!) and our talented carpenter, Bo Norman, ripped out the horrible old storm door and installed the new one for us. Then I filled in the holes and scratches of the inside wooden door and gave it a coat of bright red paint so that it looks fresh and new.

The transformation to our living space created by the new storm door has been amazing! Now I can open the inside door and sunlight floods in through the glass. Unlike the old beat-up door, this new door easily opens and closes, so I use it all the time. I’ve rediscovered the back porch.

Our backyard is surrounded by pasture and soybean fields and has a whole different feel than the other side of the house, which is shaded by the magnolia tree. On the back porch I feel like I have moved into the birds’ space, and I take my lunch out there some days and watch them at work.

Our pretty new storm door!

I wish we had replaced the door years ago. For some reason we thought it would be too much trouble. We had made it too complicated.

How often have I made the figurative doors in my life too complicated?

Jesus said,

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

I admit that I have never understood these verses, especially when the doors that I want opened seem padlocked. But I recently listened to a podcast by Kelly Minter on prayer and realized that I’ve made it too complicated. I need to simply take Jesus at His word. He is promising that if I come to Him with an open heart, He will answer me and, like a loving father, He wants to give me good things.

How often have I missed out on God’s blessings by not going through a door He has for me, just like I missed out on enjoying the back porch all these years? Too many times I’ve held back because I thought a door was going to be too much trouble, or that I didn’t have what I needed to walk through it. I let fear and doubt and, yes, laziness cripple me.

These verses tell me that if my understanding is blocked, Jesus will eventually clear up my confusion. The key is persistence. The verb tense here implies continuous action— we need to keep asking, keep seeking and keep knocking. The doors may not swing open in one big swoosh, but gradually, as we keep reading Scripture, going to God in prayer, and asking for clarity and understanding, our doors will open.

And we may find out that those doors do not open out to what we expected, but to something far better.

To listen to Kelly Minter’s Cultivate podcast on prayer, click here.

brokenness · Spirituality

Broken

Brokenness seems to be all around.

I have friends who have recently dealt with the gut-wrenching losses of children, spouses, and parents. Others are struggling with addiction and alienation in their families. Some have found themselves floundering in their professions and questioning the foundations on which their lives were built.

Here at our house, we have been dealing with Keith’s broken arm for the last few months. He fell at the beginning of July and broke his right arm near his shoulder. The first few weeks were rough for him as he dealt with severe pain and the inability to do much with his right side.  His arm was in a sling, and he often had a hard time getting comfortable. But with time and physical therapy, he has slowly improved. Just a few weeks after the fall, the broken bones had already healed by 80%. He will be graduating from physical therapy next week!

We have been amazed at the body’s ability to regenerate bone tissue and knit itself back together. But even with the progress Keith has made, he still has pain and his arm may not be the same as it was before.

Keith working hard at his physical therapy.

When our hearts are broken, they don’t always knit back together in the same way either. Those tender spots may still keep us up at night.

Some brokenness comes from a sudden blow, like when Keith fell. The sudden death of a loved one, a spouse asking for a divorce, our supervisor telling us we no longer have a job —these shocks hit us so hard that we are sent reeling and feel that we will never recover.

Other types of breaks come about gradually. Several years ago, I was training for a marathon and putting in long hours of running each week. One day I was be-bopping down the school hallway in my flat shoes when I felt a twinge in the top of my foot. By the time I got back to the media center, I could barely walk. I had a stress fracture in my foot, caused from too much pounding on the pavement.

Stress fractures happen when we increase the amount or intensity of an activity too quickly. If we slowly add miles or weights, our bodies can adapt. But when we push too hard or keep going when our bodies tell us we are overdoing it, the bones snap, forcing us to slow down.

The same happens in our emotional and spiritual life. We go ninety miles an hour at work, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, family members get sick, the toilet starts leaking, and the dog throws up. Hanging over all of this is the cloud of Covid fear and before we know it, we reach our limit and snap, like the little bone in my foot. Our souls can only take so much pounding.

Healing broken souls requires the same process as healing broken bones. We need time, rest, and loving care. We may need to see a doctor or talk to someone about what hurts. We need to eat healthy food, get fresh air, and let someone else be in charge for a while.

We also need to reflect on how we got to our broken place. What is God trying to teach us? I learned to listen to my body when it is telling me to walk and not run. Keith made changes so that he is less likely to stumble and fall again.

Times of brokenness are when we learn about God. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, says that for us to grow, we must struggle through times of failure and loss in the first part of our lives: “Normally, a job, fortune or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.” When we come out on the other side of these struggles, we are ready to truly live.

In order to hear God more clearly, we have to be broken so that He can put us back together. It sounds painful, but the good news is that He promises to be with us through the struggle.

What changes do you need to make to take the pressure off and hear God’s voice?

racism · Spirituality

Confessions of a Southern White Woman

I have struggled with this blog post all week. Talking about race is hard, especially in the South and especially for those my age and older. I consider myself open-minded, Christian, loving, and educated, yet I find that over and over and over I must dig deep to root out the prejudices that are deeply ingrained in me .

I grew up with a framed picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall of our den. My father considered him the epitome of a Southern Gentleman and the general was one of his heroes. We had a Black maid who came at least once a week to clean our house, more often when I was little. I wonder now what she thought of that picture.

My parents were not racist, and I saw them make the conscious decision to change their views throughout their lives. They taught me to be respectful of everyone. Considering their childhoods in the Jim Crow South, they came a long way. In 1963, my father was part of a committee to help peacefully integrate Wilson, North Carolina, and it was an eye-opening experience for him. My mother commented before she died that she and Queenie, the last maid who worked for them for thirty years, sat down together for a sandwich and a glass of tea at lunch. She would not have imagined doing such a thing in earlier years.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was taught that the Civil War was not fought for slavery, but for states’ rights, for freedom to do what each state wanted (which included slavery). The Yankees were the evil soldiers who destroyed the peaceful South out of meanness and because they could.

Gone With the Wind was one of my favorite movies until just a few years ago, when I began to recognize the lies inherent in it —that perhaps all slaves were not so devoted to their masters as Mammy and Prissy. It’s interesting that there was more scandal around Rhett Butler telling Scarlett at the end of the book/movie “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” than Scarlett slapping young Prissy across the face for  telling a lie about knowing about birthing babies.

I wanted to find a true picture of the history of this land that I love. I started reading works by Black authors and true diaries and accounts of what it was really like to be owned by another person. I learned that an enslaved person’s life was not one of happy spirituals sung under the shade tree, but an existence of fear, misery, and helplessness. Even under the best circumstances, a slave did not have the ability to decide where she would live, what would become of her children or what job she would do. There was little incentive to work hard other than hopes for some small reward. The South of Gone With the Wind was harsh and violent.

Last fall I visited my cousin Scott and his wife Debra at their home outside Washington, DC. While there I went to the new African American Museum of History and Culture and to Mount Vernon, among other stops. Both were eye-opening, but Mount Vernon stuck with me the most.

As a child, I loved learning about Colonial history and had visited George and Martha Washington’s estate with my family. In the last fifty years it has been expanded to include the adjacent farms and to tell the stories of the hundreds of slaves that worked the crops, fields, and stables. They kept the house going and food on the table for the family and their many guests.

In Mount Vernon’s gift shop, I picked up Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. The small book recounted the true story of Ona Judge, who despite having what many might consider a ‘plumb’ slave job —who wouldn’t want to work for the President and live in a beautiful home? — made the decision to slip away to the North while living in the first Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia.

Martha and George were shocked and angry. They assumed that someone, probably a free Black man living in Philadelphia, had hoodwinked her, possibly gotten her pregnant, and lured her away from their loving home. But the reality was that Ona had heard rumors that she was going to be ‘given’ to Martha’s newly married niece and knew that this young woman was a hard mistress. Leaving behind her family and all she had ever known, she took advantage of being north of the Mason-Dixon Line and ran.

Something about Ona’s story struck a nerve in me. I’ve always defended our Founding Fathers for their slave holding, and Washington did free the slaves he owned after his death (the ones owned by Martha had to wait a while longer). But reading about this real woman and her determination to live life under her own terms, no matter how difficult, gave me the barest taste of what she may have felt.

I am listening now and doing my best to hear the pain that still lives in so many men and women today. The terrible sin of slavery grew from greed and fear and a sense that one group of people is better than another. Its effects are with us today, a hundred and fifty years after it was supposedly abolished.

I’m not where I should be yet, but I hope I’m on the road. As with other weaknesses in my life, I have to pray each day for God to open my heart and help me to continue to grow in grace.

And I am sure that God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns. (Phil. 1:6, TLB)

#shelterathome · #shelteringinplace · Spirituality · World Health Organization · World War II

Social distance shaming

I’m in the angry stage.

I’ve gone through different feelings these past weeks, much like the stages of grief. I’m over the initial denial and panic phase. I’ve had times of sadness and depression but also peaceful times of acceptance enjoying the solitude. Like going through a time of trauma, the stages circle around and repeat themselves.

But now I’m getting mad and my anger is directed at the people I see going about life as usual. I don’t want to mention specifics here because I’m afraid someone I care about will read it and be offended. But you know who I’m talking about – those who are getting together with their extended families, having cook-outs and seeing friends while the rest of us are trying to follow the rules and stay home.

I may not be physically pointing a finger, but I’m pointing it in my mind. Why do they think they are more special than the rest of us who are not seeing those we love? Don’t they get it?

I’m reminded of a story my father told about being in France immediately after World War II. He was wounded as an infantryman pushing into Germany with Patton’s army and was convalescing in a French hospital. One day he was taking a walk and saw a group holding a woman down and shaving her head. She was accused of being friendly with the German soldiers who had occupied France for four long years. Having a shaved head was a mark that she had been a traitor and had given in to whatever comforts the Germans offered instead of suffering the deprivations like her neighbors. The anger of the mob was palpable.

Woman having head shaved, from Rare Historical Photos

While our situation is not as dire as what the French experienced, there are some parallels. We are fighting an enemy that is sneaky and illusive. Many people are risking their lives every day to fight this enemy, just as the Allied soldiers and the brave men and women in the Underground fought the Nazi’s. Most of us are quietly going about our days just trying to make it through, giving up freedoms we had taken for granted. Meanwhile others are either intentionally or unintentionally helping the enemy to stay strong through their actions.

Hopefully we will not come to a place of publicly shaming for those who have broken the rules of staying at home, but emotions are running high. Our Georgia governor’s call to open up some businesses has elicited strong responses both for and against. One person posted that if her family wanted to go out to a restaurant it was their right. Others feel that we will be putting our neighbors at risk if we start back to normalcy too soon.

I don’t like this judgmental side of myself. I don’t know the circumstances of those who are together. Maybe that grandmother is helping look after her granddaughter. Maybe those ten family members in the FaceBook picture at Easter are all holed up together in one house. Maybe that crowd I saw smoking cigarettes outside of Dollar General all live together in one big group home.

Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn but to forgive (Luke 6:37). The anger I feel at those I am judging for breaking the social distancing rules is no different than any other judgement I might make for someone’s behavior. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not up to me to say how others live. As long as they are not breathing on me, I have no right to judge. By some people’s standards, I may be just as guilty by meeting friends to walk.

Perhaps the woman who had her head shaved that day did what she needed to do to keep her children alive. She had her reasons.

Each of us has to live with our own conscience. I wonder how many of the French people wished they had acted differently during the time of occupation. Some may have wished they had done more to fight the Germans while others certainly carried guilt for their actions.

In the same way, those that are potentially spreading the virus have to live with their decisions.

I am learning that I can’t control the actions of others. I can make the decision to stay home myself, wear a mask when I go to the store and wash my hands. I can pray for others, but they are free to make their own choices.

I like this image from the World Health Organization and need to take it to heart. This is not a time to be angry at others, but to realize we are all coping the best we can.

So today I will try to be kind. I want my conscience to be clear about how I treated others when this crisis is over.

#Hope · Farmers Market · Gardening · grace · Spirituality

Abundance

My kitchen window is lined with bright red tomatoes, a bowl of peaches sits on the dining room table and purple bell peppers fill a shelf in my refrigerator. The freezer holds bags of squash, green beans, crowder peas and okra.  Each evening Keith and I sit down to salads topped with cucumbers, peppers, and home-grown tomatoes. We feast on tomato-bacon sandwiches, slathered with good mayonnaise. I like mine with cheese toast.

 Earlier in the summer we were overrun with cucumbers and squash from my little garden. They have played out, but I’m still getting handfuls of little round salad tomatoes from my bushes, which I pop into my mouth like candy. My peppers are finally growing, and I’m waiting until they reach a rich red color before they are picked and packed away in the freezer for this fall’s chili.

We have been in a time of abundance.

As much as I love this summer eating time, I’m thankful that I don’t have to depend on what I grow to last me all winter. I can’t imagine what it was like when farmers knew that if the frost came late or the rains didn’t fall, they faced the prospect of going hungry.

I think that’s why the theme of abundance is so prevalent in the Bible. People in Biblical days lived close to the earth without a grocery store around the corner. They survived through lean years and fat years and appreciated having a bountiful supply of food. They recognized that they could not control the rains, so they put their trust in God to supply their needs.

I’ve been studying about grace lately, and I am struck by how often God’s abundance is mentioned in the New Testament, especially in relation to His provision for us:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (I Peter 1:2)

            I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)

            Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. (Ephesians 3:20)

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

When I read these verses, I’m reminded of how lavishly God wants to give me love, peace and grace. My cup runneth over with all the mercies He pours out. All I have to do is open my heart and accept His good gifts.

I’m learning to enjoy and embrace the blessings of today and not worry about tomorrow.

Abundance doesn’t last in the garden. The hot summer days are getting shorter, and the crops are starting to die back. I found out this weekend that my favorite vegetable stand, Ricney Farms, is closing for the summer. Our days of fresh tomatoes are coming to an end.

But we will still have abundance, just in other forms. We look forward to cooler weather, apples from Ellijay and pumpkin pie. God’s grace will still be there, in all its forms. The face of abundance changes depending on our season of life.

Living close to God is like eating summer tomatoes all year long!

What is abundant in your life right now?

Spirituality

Can you read the signs?

I was hanging out a few t-shirts on the clothesline Saturday afternoon when two motorcycles came roaring down our quiet country lane. Wait for it, I told myself, and sure enough, as I picked up my basket a few minutes later and headed for the house, here they came, barreling back. Obviously, the riders hadn’t read the sign that said, Road Closed Ahead.

Back in March we had a real gully-washer that sent water cascading off the mountain into the creeks around us. The bridge that is a little less than a mile from us was completely washed out, leaving the asphalt sunk into the creek. It looked like a scene from an earthquake movie.

May be an image of tree and body of water

Our county crew did a good job of putting up barricades and dump trucks of dirt to keep anyone from driving headlong off the edge. They also put up signs saying Road Closed. The problem is, people either don’t see the sign, don’t believe it, or choose to ignore it. The locals know not to come our way, but those that are just out for a nice ride in the country are surprised when they find a giant gap in the road. So our new pastime is watching vehicles head toward the bridge and turn around and come back.

I can’t be too judgmental, since I have sometimes not followed signs saying merge or detour or stop ahead. When I am focused on my destination, I don’t want to be slowed down by signs. Unfortunately, not following the signs can cause me more aggravation in the long run.

I thought about how this is true in my spiritual life as well as on the road. I often miss the signs that God is trying to give me, or I don’t like what they are saying, so I just ignore them. On the other hand, sometimes I am trying so hard to see the signs that I miss my turn!

We were discussing how to know God’s will in our Sunday School class last week — how do we catch the signs He puts out for us? I feel like I’ve been asking this question since I was a teen.

Our teacher, Charlie Bethel, used the analogy of a horse and rider to explain how we can better hear God’s direction in our lives. An inexperienced rider like myself will pull on the horse’s reins and try to kick and manhandle the huge animal. But when the horse and rider have worked together for a long time and know each other well, the rider only has to give the horse a slight nudge of the knee for him to know what to do. The horse trusts the person on his back and therefore lets him or her lead.

Jesus was around sheep more than horses, so he used this principle when he said, I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:14a) The sheep don’t have trouble knowing what their shepherd wants them to do because they are focused on following him.

Every now and then a lamb got distracted by a tuft of grass that looked enticing and wandered off, and the shepherd had to go get him. I get distracted a lot also, and Jesus has to keep going after me and pulling me back into the right frame of mind.

I find when I spend time just listening and keeping my heart open, God’s directions are not too hard to hear. I don’t always like what I hear — I don’t like signs saying I can’t go the way I want to go— but I’m learning that life goes easier when I accept what is in my path. When I choose to believe in the signs God gives me, I avoid being like the motorcyclists who had to change their course when they found out that the road ahead really was impassable.

What helps you follow God’s signs?

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