comfort zones · Prayer of Jabez · Spirituality

Stretching Out Our Roots

It’s the time of year when I go a little crazy at the garden centers. I drool over all the beautiful flowers and buy too many. I spent all last week planting and now I love the color that is popping up in my yard!

I have two Christmas Cacti that I bring outside when the weather turns warm and this year I finally got around to repotting them. They belonged to my Great-aunt Frances and I brought them home from a family reunion more than twelve years ago, not long after she died. They bloom every year around November, and I feel like a part of her is with me during the Christmas season. But in the last few years they have been looking scrawny. I decided they needed an upgrade.

A few Christmases ago.

I dumped them out of their old pots and was shocked at how little dirt they had been living on! These are some hardy plants! Their roots were pressed up against the sides of the pot as if they were fighting to get out.

I know that I’m a weird plant lady, but when I settled them into fresh potting soil and new larger pots, I swear I heard them say, “Aww, that feels so good!” They immediately looked better. I moved them to the back porch where they get lots of afternoon sun and they are thriving.

Aunt Frances’ cacti had become rootbound, which means that their roots had nowhere to go and were circling back on themselves. According to a gardening website, they were choking themselves to death. No wonder they were looking puny.

Those dried up roots remind me of the way I feel at times. I think and act in the same old ways for so long that I get rolled up in a tight little ball. If I don’t give myself a way to stretch and grow, I will start to wither just like the plants.

I was reminded of the little devotional book that was popular twenty years ago, The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson. The book is based on this short prayer inserted in the middle of a long, boring section of I Chronicles 4:

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel,

“Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory!

Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

And God granted his request.

(I Chronicles 4:10)

This book was impactful in its simplicity — we ask God to bless us, give us a wider group to influence and keep us from harm. But Wilkinson raises the question: Do we want God to bless us and enlarge our territory?

Most of the time we feel like we have enough to handle with what is currently on our plate, without God adding more. Yet Jabez asks God to literally enlarge his tent. He says, “Give me more opportunities to work for you, Lord.”

Isn’t this another way of asking God to get us out of our comfort zones? Maybe we need to ask him to give us a little more room to stretch out our roots, to let go of whatever is holding us in and explore new paths.

As I have been pushing myself to move past some harmful attitudes and actions, I feel like my roots are no longer hitting the side of the pot. Growth can be painful, but it can also be liberating. When I tentatively stretch out my roots I may find myself moving into more fertile soil.

Do you feel God pushing you to expand today? Start by asking for his blessing and you may be surprised at how good it feels to stretch.

Fear · retirement · Spirituality

A night in the wild

Do something every day that scares you.

When I retired two years ago, I found this saying on a magnet and put it on my refrigerator so that I would remember that it was time to push myself and try new things. I’ve decided that a scary thing every day may be too much, but a challenge most days keeps me from getting too bored with myself.

So when my friend Angela asked me if I was interested in joining her and two other friends on an overnight camping trip to Cumberland Island, followed by two nights in Savannah in an AirBnB, I got excited. I had always wanted to go to the secluded island on the southern tip of Georgia and see the famous wild horses. The trip was going to fall two weeks after my second vaccination and seemed like the perfect way to break out of isolation.

But spending the night in a tent was a little out of my comfort zone. I had not camped in over twenty-five years, and most of that was in the backyard when Adam was little. Fortunately, Angela had reserved a site that was near a bathhouse with toilets and cold showers, so we weren’t exactly going into the wilds. Angela, Rosanna and Marissa were all experienced campers and I figured they could keep me alive for one night. Still, it was not going to be the Hilton. It felt both scary and challenging.

I had to borrow a sleeping bag and tent from Adam. He patiently showed me how to put the tent up in his yard, all the while muttering about how he never heard of old retired ladies going camping. I let him know that I was not over the hill yet and that the other three were younger than me and not retired. Plus, these are some of the most active women I know. One of my fears was that I would not be able to keep up with them.

I spent a week planning and packing for my big night outside. On Saturday morning we met to cram all of our gear into Angela’s car. We looked like we were staying for a month with all of our coolers, folding chairs, and backpacks. But we managed to get it all in and took off to spend a night at Saint Mary’s, where we would catch the ferry the following day to the island.

We were up at 5:30 the next morning for a run on the empty streets of the town — did I mention this was an active group? — then loaded back up for the short drive to the ferry. We had to move all our stuff onto the ferry, then, after a beautiful cruise, move it off the ferry and make our way to the campsite. (This was hilarious, but I will save that story for another time.)

Cumberland Island was wonderful! The palmetto plants and trees covered in Spanish moss seemed like something from a movie set. I kept waiting for Tarzan to swing through the bushes. With no vehicles and few people, it was quiet and relaxing. I decided that even if I got eaten during the night, it would be worth it.

Working together, the four of us managed to get my tent up and hammocks strung in the trees for them. We ate lunch and took off to explore the southern end of the island on bikes. After a few hours we came back, got our beach gear and walked the short distance to a magnificent expanse of pure white sand and ocean. Although a little too cold for swimming, the sun was hot and the water was soothing on my tired legs.

By the time I crawled into my little tent that night, I figured I would be exhausted. It had been a pretty full day! But I had trouble settling down. The weather was muggy and I laid on top of the sleeping bag, worried that I would be too hot to sleep. I kept thinking I heard the armadillo we had seen earlier and was waiting for him to poke his pointy nose in at me. Then the wind started to blow and little leaves fell on my tent and sounded like rain. I got worried about Angela, Rosanna and Marissa sleeping in the hammocks out in the weather. Would they need to come pile in with me if a storm came up?

My little tent

But despite the wind and night noises, the day finally caught up with me. The air cooled and I slid into the sleeping bag. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep. I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. I had done it!

We made our way back to civilization and enjoyed our hot showers, but we all agreed that we wanted to go back and stay longer next time. I think a few days on Cumberland would definitely be good for my soul. 

I’ve been thinking about overcoming fears and challenges in my life and here are a few observations:

  1. Each of us has different fears to overcome. Sleeping outdoors in a hammock was too much of a challenge for me to take on, but Angela, Rosanna and Marissa loved being under the stars. Riding a bike around the island was out of the comfort zone of one of our group, but she soon adjusted and was riding like a pro by the time we stopped. And as we were leaving, I ran into my friend Janice Wycherly, who was on the island to backpack in the wilderness section by herself for several days! That takes some courage!

I know people that overcome challenges every day by just getting out of bed. I hope that as I push myself I will become more sensitive to the obstacles others face.

2. Taking on a challenge and getting through it makes me more confident to do the next thing. Now that I’ve spent the night in a tent, what’s next?

3. I need other people to help push me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the trip, the four of us worked together, encouraged each other and laughed at ourselves. I’m thankful for friends and family who help me be my best self.

    We all felt God’s presence in the stillness of the sky and ocean around us. I felt Him there with me in that tent, probably telling the armadillo to poke around somewhere else. I sometimes have to remind myself of His presence when I start to worry about what the future may hold. Knowing that God goes with me in the small challenges in my life gives me the peace to know He will be with me in the big challenges that will come. 

After our night on the island
death of dog · dogs · loss of a pet · Spirituality

A Good Dog

Two weeks ago, our sweet, loving, playful, and smart granddog Molly succumbed to cancer after a three-month illness. Adam and Jess, along with Molly’s extended family and many friends, have grieved deeply for her.

When so many are struggling with life and death during this terrible Covid time, the passing of a chocolate Lab may not seem important. Yet anyone who has loved a pet knows the pain and emptiness of missing that warm presence next to us on the couch. Especially after the last year, when so many of our social norms have been cut out, we have needed the unconditional love that we receive from our dogs, cats, and other pets more than ever.

I’ve wondered this week why we give ourselves over so completely to the animals in our lives when the pain is so intense when we lose them. Something must be in our DNA that causes our hearts to melt over a stumbling puppy or mewing kitten. Once we have let our guard down and allowed them in, both physically and figuratively, we are captive.

One of the reasons we love our pets so much is that they don’t filter their emotions like we humans. The pets I have loved have taught me about being present with my feelings and about letting those around me know how much I love them.

No one else in my life will greet me with the same excitement that Molly did when seeing me. If I came over to their house she would gallop around and grab a toy for me to throw. She often barked for pure happiness, like the first time I took her to the beach. I wish I had more in my life that makes me want to throw back my head and holler for joy.

Molly taught me about enjoying the moment. When she and I went for a walk, she would look back about halfway through with a look that said, “Aren’t we having fun?” She reminded me of the sheer pleasure of being outside in the sunshine, of smelling the trees and grass, and of delighting in the movement of my body.

Molly’s “aren’t we having fun?” face

Molly also taught me that it’s okay to feel sad. Although she was usually a happy dog, she did not filter her gloom when she had to be away from Adam and Jess for long. As she got older, especially in these last months when she had not felt well, she did not like any separation from them. The last time I was with her alone in their new house, she laid down on her bed, listless and depressed. Once Adam and Jess arrived, she was content.

How often do I make excuses for my times of unhappiness, feeling guilty instead of just accepting that sometimes life stinks? Life for Molly was black and white — with Adam and Jess she was happy, without them she was not.

This contentment that Molly felt when she was with Adam and Jess reminds me that I need to allow myself to relax more often in the presence of my Father and allow Him to take care of me. As long as she was with one of them, she felt safe and at home. She didn’t worry about what was going to happen next because she totally trusted that they would take care of her. I need more of that in my life.

For now, Adam and Jess must live in a life that goes on, in the words of poet Wendell Berry, “new-shaped by loss”. At the end of the well-known chapter on love, I Corinthians 13, are these words: “These three remain, faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  Molly was pure love, and that love remains as tangible as her soft fur against my cheek.

aging · Spirituality

Getting Old

On a recent sunny day, I went to the drive-through carwash to clean the dust off my Prius. I pulled up to the gate and rolled down my window to put in my preference and pay. Touch screen to begin, said the instructions. I touched the screen, and nothing happened. So I touched it a little harder. Still nothing. Now a line of cars was behind me and I could feel their impatience. I started banging the screen, getting more and more frustrated. Finally, a nice young man came out from inside the office and in his most patient “have-to-be-polite-to-old-ladies” voice, explained to me that it was a touch screen. With one deft finger, he skimmed the screen, made my selection, took my money, and moved me along the line.

I felt about ninety. I wanted to call after him and tell him I was very adept at touch screens, that I use an iPad and laptop all the time. I even have an Apple Pencil and several blue tooth speakers and headphones. And, last month, I fixed the sound problem on our big screen TV using the remote!

Unfortunately, despite the young man’s good manners, I can only imagine what was said about me in the carwash office as I held up the line with my inability to get the touchscreen to work.

This is my birthday week and I have to accept that I am old in the eyes of some people. I don’t feel old except when I can’t get a touch screen to work or when I realize I’ve been out of college for forty years. Or when I have never even heard of the entertainer for the Superbowl Halftime Show.

I remember thinking when I hit forty that I would now be mature and wise and able to rise above the stresses of life. That didn’t happen. Then fifty rolled around and now I’m on the other side of sixty and I’m still trying to get my act together.

But I hope I’m making progress. I have spent my whole life getting to know myself and learning to love and accept that person. I’m getting closer to my spiritual core.

I’m reminded of the unfinished statues by Michelangelo that I saw when I spent a semester studying in Venice. To this day I remember the emotion I felt when I visited the Academia Gallery in Florence, where his famous Davide stands. But his unfinished works, known as Michelangelo’s Prisoners or Slaves, moved me the most. The figures appear to be straining to push free from the marble blocks that contain them,

Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave

The great artist had the rare talent of being able to look at a piece of marble and see the sculpture inside it. Once he had chosen the right stone, he saw his job as chipping away the excess marble to create his masterpiece. Simple, right?  The four unfinished statues at the Galleria give a remarkable insight into Michelangelo’s process. The men inside the marble seem to be fighting their way out, stuck forever in the limbo of never becoming their true forms.

These statues remind me of my spiritual growth. At times in my life, I’ve felt like I was pushing against rock in my effort to become the woman God wants me to be. But God keeps chipping away at the parts of me that prevent me from being my true self, the one He created. It is a slow process.

Paul talked about this process of spiritual growth as becoming “transformed into the likeness of Christ, one degree of glory to the next.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Moses had to put a veil over his face when he was in God’s presence, but when we accept Christ, the veil falls away and we can look fully at Him. As we grow in understanding, we are able to get closer and closer to that glory, making us a reflection of Christ’s light. We inch along, one degree of glory at a time.

Becoming fully one with God will not happen until my time on earth is over, but I pray that I can keep pushing away the boulders of anger, unforgiveness, jealousy and fear that hold me back. Each stone that falls away puts me one step closer to the light.

Meantime, I will work on my touch screen technique for my next trip through the carwash.

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

2 Corinthians 3:18

Flutters of Hope

For the first time in almost a year I feel hopeful.

We are not out of this Covid crisis yet, but progress is being made. More and more people will get vaccinated in the coming months, including our school employees and other essential workers who need it desperately. With each vaccination, we are one step closer to a place where the threat of sickness and death is not constantly lurking over us at every turn. While we may not ever be totally rid of Covid, I’m daring to be optimistic.

But hope can be tricky.

Emily Dickinson described it as “the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.” Literature experts may interpret this differently, but I take her words to mean that hope can flitter in and sit with us for a bit like the bluebirds outside my window and then be gone in an instant.

As soon as what we hope for comes to pass, we are anticipating the next thing. We hope to find our life’s partner, then we hope for healthy children, then to pay the bills, for the new job, for retirement, for comfort in our old age. During hard days, the object of our hope always seems just out of reach, like the birds flitting around in the trees.

 This verse from the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind when I find myself feeling unmoored and searching for hope:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29:11

This ancient promise that God plans to give me hope and a future carries greater weight when I read it in view of what was going on in the Biblical narrative. Jeremiah is counseling the people of Judah at a time when their country is being taken over by the Babylonian army. If hope is a thing with feathers, it appears to have flown out the window.

The prophet Hananiah tells the soon-to-be conquered people that everything will be okay, but Jeremiah intervenes and says that it’s not going to be better for another seventy years. They should settle in, build their houses and plant their gardens, marry and have children, and pray for the peace and prosperity of their captors.

What if God told us not to worry, that Covid will be around for the next seventy years, but that then he will deliver us from it? That would be little consolation for most of us since we know we will not be around by that time. But it might give us hope for our children and grandchildren, for the future generations. And that might get us through today.

God’s hope is long term. Like Emily Dickinson’s hope that “sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all,” I need the day-to-day hope of a vaccine and an end to Covid as we now know it. But I also need the hope that God is by my side and will take care of me and those I love, no matter what storms come our way.