grace · rest · Spirituality

Rhythms of Grace

I spent a few days last week in the woods near Blairsville, Georgia, helping put up a fence. I was there with a group from my church on a mission trip. Sometimes mission trips are for others and sometimes they are for us. This one was for me.

Carrie and Nathan Dean live with their four children, ages twelve to two, in a three-room cabin in the North Georgia mountains. They are building a church/house where they will live and also use as a place to minister to those who may not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. I wrote about the lessons I learned about being a follower when I helped to erect the building last summer. In the last year Carrie and Nathan have been working on the nine acres surrounding their home, with a vision to make it a place for folks to come and experience God in the beauty of His nature.  

 I started out this trip as an assistant — I held posts and handed tools to those doing the actual work. At first, I felt frustrated that I was not doing more. After all, I was there to work!

But slowly the calm and quiet of the setting began to infiltrate my being. I stood by the gently flowing creek waiting to hand metal clips to my friends Debby and Cheryl, who had become experts at attaching a wire fence to metal poles. I listened to the birds and a distant owl, and to the voices of our team as they called to each other. I breathed in the smells of pine trees, moss, and leaves composting on the ground.

Cheryl and I attaching fence posts.

I prayed in the quiet of the woods, lifting up several friends going through difficult times, for my family, for our team and for myself.  Like the fern fronds that were spread throughout the trees, my consciousness opened to receive peace and grace. I let go of the shoulds and should haves that run through my mind on a regular basis and felt my daily stresses fall away.

During my devotion time the next morning, I read the familiar passage in Matthew when Jesus is telling us to come to him when we are weary. This time I read it from the modern translation, The Message. The words jumped out at me:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

(Matt. 11:28-30)

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. God’s rhythm and our rhythms are often not in sync. Jobs, our families, paying the bills, cutting the grass, cooking dinner, going to meetings— all these demands of life cause us to be on the go, even for those of us in the retired stage of life.

God’s rhythm is a slower pace.  When I match his pace, I walk with Jesus, instead of running ahead of him with my own agenda. I listen, instead of telling him what I think he needs to know or do. I share my fears and anger with him and let him take them over so that I don’t have to carry them by myself. Instead of being tired from working so hard, I come away from my time with him feeling refreshed— walking more freely and lightly.

Notice that Jesus is asking us to learn these unforced rhythms and how to rest from him. Did you ever think you needed to learn to rest? Many of us do and learning takes time.

We all need a break occasionally from our daily rhythms so that we can sync back up with God. I found that time in the woods last week. You may find it by getting away to listen to the ocean waves, taking a walk in the park, or sitting in a chair in your backyard. God is waiting on you.

For more information on Blue Mountain Church, visit their website.

#Holy Week · #Plagues · Spirituality

Three Plagues

I laughed out loud when I read my friend Christy Bass Adams’ post about chasing a mouse around her house one quiet evening. You can read it here at her blog, Learning As I Go.

We once had a similar experience chasing a baby squirrel around the house. It faced the same consequences as the mouse in Christy’s story, which involved being on the wrong end of a BB gun.

Last week we found evidence in our kitchen that some mice had been playing around in the drawers and nibbling on my dark chocolate in the pantry. Fortunately, we did not have to chase any around the house but caught three in traps Keith set out. Yuck!  I threw out and cleaned everywhere I thought they had been. Our kitchen is now booby trapped for any other creatures that dare come in.

A few months ago we had our annual infestation of lady bugs, which love our white frame house. I was sweeping up dustpans full every day, so we finally set off some bug bombs in the attic. That resulted in hordes of ugly black flies which fell drunkenly all over the floor and on every surface in the front of the house. More sweeping and vacuuming. Ugh.

Lady bugs, flies, and mice — what next? I am feeling like we are in the middle of a Biblical plague.

God sent the plagues to the Egyptians to try to convince Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave. Working through Moses and Aaron, God wanted to show Pharaoh how powerful He was.

Yet, throughout the months of the ten plagues, God protected the Hebrews from the worst of them. They did not have to endure the swarms of flies or the deaths of their livestock. He warned them before the plague of hail so that they could bring in their animals and make sure they were not out in the fields. And when darkness settled over all of Egypt, the Hebrews had light in their homes.

Most famously, God told the Hebrews to kill a lamb and put its blood on their doorframes on the night of the Plague of the Firstborn, when the Angel of Death would come to take all the firstborn sons and animals. When Pharaoh’s own son died, his heart was finally moved and he conceded to allow the Hebrew slaves, their families, and their livestock to leave.

From that time forward, the Jewish people have celebrated Passover, commemorating the Death Angel passing over the homes of the Hebrews and sparing their sons, and the release of the people to freedom.

Jesus and his disciples were having their Passover meal when he broke the news to them that it would be their last one together. As we celebrate Holy Week at our churches, many of us will be having Communion to remember this important event in our story as Christians.

I love the symbolism found in the Passover meal and the Last Supper. Just as the Hebrews were set free from their slavery, we have been set free from sin. When Jesus took the bread and cup of wine and shared it with these men and women who had spent almost every day with him for the last three years, he explained that he now represented the lamb that was sacrificed for Passover. Just as the blood of the lamb protected the Hebrews from death, we are saved by the blood he shed.

As I take the cup and unleavened bread this year, I am reminded that God will not let the plagues overcome me. When those days come that bring circumstances more serious than flies and mice, I have the confidence that I do not have to go through it alone.

Gardening · Psalm 92 · Spirituality

Staying bendable

How bendable are you?

I’ve been thinking about this question as I walk around my yard on these balmy Spring days. The world is greening up, the sun is warm, and the days are getting longer. My flowers and plants are pushing their heads up out of their winter sleep to bask in the sunshine.

Each day is a treasure hunt as I poke around the flower beds and look for sprouts coming up from under the ground. I survey the saplings that I planted this time last year, twisting their little limbs in my fingers. If the branch bends, I rejoice that the tree is still alive. If it is hard and breaks off, I know that, sadly, it did not make it through the winter.

If being bendable is a sign of life for my plants, what does it mean in my life?  Am I growing and thriving, or getting stiff and rigid?

How bendable am I?

One of my baby trees budding out!

I have certainly learned that my body quickly becomes unbendable if I’m not making an effort to keep it moving. If I spend too much time sitting on the couch, I soon get ‘stove up.’ I’ve taken up swimming a few times a week at the local pool and love how it makes me feel. Walking, working in the yard, and stretching are all important for my ‘senior’ years.

My mind needs to stay bendable and growing too. Each evening for the past few weeks, I have put my brain to figuring out Wordle and Quordle. I look forward to the challenge each day. I feel so smart when I figure them out without giving in to hints!

Perhaps most importantly though, my spiritual muscles need to stay pliable. If you have grown up in the church like me, it is easy to get into a boring rut when it comes to our Christian lives. We can feel like we have heard it all before. Before I know it, I have become rigid and unbending in my attitudes and have stopped growing. Familiar passages just wash over me, not touching any part of my daily life.

These verses from Psalm 92 spoke to me this week as I thought about the need to stay bendable in my spiritual life:

“The righteous will spring up like a palm tree.
    They will grow strong like a cedar of Lebanon.
13 Those who have been replanted in the Lord’s house
    will spring up in the courtyards of our God.
14 They will bear fruit even when old and gray;
    they will remain lush and fresh 15 in order to proclaim:
      “The Lord is righteous. He’s my rock.
        There’s nothing unrighteous in him.” (Psalm 92:12-14, CEB)

I want to be strong like that cedar of Lebanon replanted in the Lord’s house. I want to keep bearing fruit now that I am old and gray so that I can proclaim what God has done for me. I don’t want to get stiff and stagnant in my relationship to God.

I also love these verses from Psalm 1:

“Blessed people are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
which bears fruit at just the right time
and whose leaves don’t fade.
Whatever they do succeeds.” (Psalm 1: 3)

According to these passages, the secret to staying fruit-bearing is to stay in the Lord’s courtyard and be fed by the streams of water. For me, that means studying, praying, and keeping myself open to new ideas.

Through my Audible subscription I have access to the Great Courses lectures. Right now I’m listening to The Making of the New Testament Canon and enjoying a review of classes I took years ago in seminary. Looking at a familiar Bible story from a scholarly viewpoint, learning about the time in which the Bible was written, exploring the worldview of the Jewish people in Jesus’ life — all of these keep my spiritual life fresh. I don’t have to agree with everything I read, but those “aha” moments when I get a new insight are life-giving.

What are you doing to stay alive and bendable? I would love to hear your comments!

Here are a few books that I have read recently that have given me a different perspective and challenged my beliefs:

  • The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi: My Journey into the Heart of Scriptural Faith and the Land Where It All Began, by Kathy Lee Gifford and Rabbi Jason Sobel
  • Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World, by Andy Stanley
  • Live in Grace, Walk in Love, by Bob Goff
  • Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr

death of a family member · Spirituality

Tribute to Mary Frances

 I received a text late one night a few weeks ago from my cousin Scott: “Call me if you are up.” I knew what had happened. My aunt Mary Frances, Scott’s mother, and my father’s last living sibling, had died, her heart stopping suddenly while she was getting ready for bed.

I was caught off guard by the news. Even though she was 96, she was such a fixture of my life that it seemed she would always be there.  I had just talked to her a few days before and she was her usual feisty self. She laughed at my story about our ladybug invasion that had turned into a fly invasion when we set off a bug bomb in the attic. Her comment was, “I never really minded ladybugs, I thought they were cute.”  She complained a little about the measures that her senior apartment building had put in place for Covid, but said, as always, “I know they are trying to keep us safe, so it’s not so bad.” After all, she had told me in earlier conversations, she had lived through the Depression and other hard times. Covid was just one more thing to endure.

“When are you coming to visit?” was her perennial question.

“I’ve had a lot going on, but I’m planning to come up in March,” I replied.

“I can’t wait to see you,” she would always say. “Love you.”

Now I wish I had made the time to visit in January.

In October, her granddaughter Shannon got married about an hour and a half from Mary Frances’ home at Arbor Acres in Winston-Salem. She fretted over how she could make the trip and I told her I would come take her. I picked her up and she talked the whole way, so excited to be on an adventure and to see all her family.

She had the time of her life, sitting regally in the beautiful blue evening gown that her daughter-in-law Debra had found for her. Her three sons and four grandchildren treated her like a queen, and she greeted all the guests with enthusiasm. She talked about it for weeks.

Shannon wrote a beautiful tribute to her grandmother and with her permission, I share it here:

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a memory is worth millions. And over the many memories I have of my grandmother, there’s one word that stands out to me: warmth.

Everything about her was warm. Her big smile, the Southern twang in her voice, her hugs hello and goodbye. Even that musty old-house smell burned into my memories of visits to Pfafftown, and the taste of her slightly overcooked green beans, feel warm to me now.

She radiated that warmth wherever she went, even (and especially) at Arbor Acres. She seemed to know everyone, staff and residents alike, by name – their full name, in fact. I used to think it was odd, the way she’d introduce people with first and last names. I thought it was just old lady gossip, the way she kept tabs on everyone, too. But I’ve come to realize that for her, it wasn’t enough to know someone on just a first-name basis, because she saw a light in everyone. And like a moth drawn to that light, she wanted to know everything that makes each person special.

The woman that was my grandmother, Mary Frances Austell Smith, may be gone, but her legacy will not be forgotten. I know she lives on in all of us, as she touched our hearts, and our lights. We must remember her warmth, and nurture that light, the way she would have wanted us to.” Shannon Smith Wilson

If you still have those senior parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, pick up the phone and give them a call. Send a note. Make time to visit. Because one day when you least expect it, they will be gone.

inner child · Spirituality

Guest blog on The Welcome Table!

I am so excited to be featured as a guest blogger on The Welcome Table!

May be an image of 1 person, child, tree, outdoors and text that says 'Embrace your inner child! WT THE WELCOME TABLE'

I love this site, which was started by the Bunce sisters, a group of four young women who have the goal of fostering the type of conversations they experienced around the table growing up. If you sign up for their weekly blog, you will receive an email that is perfect for family devotions, reading on your own, or sharing with your children. Questions for young and old are included.

From their website:

We, at The Welcome Table, believe that real conversations and community happen in the spaces where the belovedness and the voices of all are welcomed and valued. For us, this is rooted in the example of Jesus who often used food and table to bring people from all walks of life into community together. Our objective is to help facilitate meaningful conversations that lead us to re-examine our own beliefs through a deeper understanding of the experiences and stories of those around us. This can only happen when people like you bring yourself, your voice, and your heart to the table.

May be an image of person, child and text that says 'WI Embracing our inner child opens us to seeing the world in new and wonderful ways. -Millicent Flake'

Click here for The Welcome Table edition of Embracing Your Inner Child.

As always, thank you for reading and following Under the Magnolia Tree!

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