Following God · Spirituality

Following

We can put so much emphasis on being a leader in our families, churches, and communities that we sometimes forget the importance of being a follower. Last week I was a follower, and I learned some lessons.

I was with a group from my church, First Baptist in Dalton, building the framework for a house church near Blairsville, Georgia. We were helping Carrie and Nathan Dean, a couple with hearts as big as the North Georgia mountains. The Deans have a vision of creating a haven where troubled people can come to find God and peace. Having started a successful church in the inner city of Atlanta, they moved their four young children to the woods, where they are living in a two-bedroom cabin. They plan to use the new home we helped to build as a place to invite and gather folks who may not feel comfortable gracing a traditional church building.

Our group of twenty volunteers arrived on Monday morning to a bare concrete slab on the side of the mountain, surrounded by mud and forest. We had three levels of workers. Three professional contractors from our church gave up their time working on paying jobs to lend their expertise to the project. Next were those who are not professionals but have strong carpentry skills and are active on our church’s wheelchair ramp building team. The final group was the one I fell into — those who may have used a hammer or paintbrush before but knew next to nothing about building a house.

May be an image of outdoors and tree
Day one

The professionals and semi-professionals understood what we were attempting and could look at the architectural plans and translate them to actual walls. They quickly divided us up into two groups, one putting up the studs and joists for the outside and another group working on the framework for the inside walls.

I was with those working on the outside walls. I had no idea what we were doing. I just did as I was told. I carried two-by-four’s, held the boards while someone ran the dangerous circular saw, and learned to read a level so that I could holler “Go!” when the boards were ready to be nailed.

May be an image of 4 people, people standing and outdoors
Our crew

By the second day I was not as blind a follower as I was when we started. I had learned to anticipate what boards were going to be needed, where I should stand to be out of the way and the best way to be helpful to those doing the actual cutting and nailing. I picked up trash, brought water and painted boards for the rafters. But I still did not have an overall vision of what we were building. I just did the little part that was given to me.

By Day Five, we had put up the skeleton of a house, complete with metal trusses for the roof. We were all exhausted, but in awe of what we had accomplished. With the framework of the house in front of me, I finally understood what we had been doing all week.

May be an image of one or more people, people standing and outdoors
Last day!

As we gathered up tools and packed up to leave, each of us signed our name and a short message on one of the studs, which would eventually be covered with walls. As I thought about what to write, I kept hearing in my mind, “Trust in the Lord and He will direct your path.” I knew I didn’t have the whole verse right, but I took the Sharpie and wrote it on the stud.

The next morning when I turned to my devotional for the day, there was the verse:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge Him,
    and He will direct your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

God was trying to get me to see that framing that house is so much like my relationship with Him. I usually cannot see how God’s plan is going to work out, but I keep doing my little part. Just as I trusted the contractors, who understood what we were building, I am learning to trust that God knows what He is building in my life.

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the entire building, tightly framed together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God through the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22 (MWV)

Gardening · Spirituality · Teachers

Tender Shoots

This weekend I attended the graduation ceremony for Southeast Whitfield High School  to celebrate the students that I knew when they were middle schoolers. Seeing these young men and women, so grown up and excited, walk, strut, and stroll across the football field to accept their diplomas filled me with joy.

Sunset over the graduation

To be honest, I was surprised to see that a few of them made it to graduation. I knew that in their middle school years they had struggled academically, socially and/or economically. Dropping out, not passing, or ending up in trouble were all paths that these students could have taken.  Receiving that diploma was a huge accomplishment, especially during this past pandemic year, which challenged even the best students. 

I was thinking about this as I tended to my baby trees yesterday. For several years, Keith and I have gone each February to the Arbor Day Seedling Giveaway in Calhoun. We bring home armfuls of little saplings in an attempt to replace the many old established trees we have lost to storms, disease, lightning and old age. Our success rate with the free trees has not been the best, but several bald cypress, red tips and oaks now grace our yard, having grown tall and strong from their humble beginnings.

A bald cypress in the front yard.

This year I was slow getting the seedlings in the ground, but I finally planted several dogwoods, cherry barks, and red oaks. They look like sticks stuck in the earth and as I watered and pulled up weeds around them, I saw few signs of life. I wasn’t sure any of them would survive.

 Then the other morning as I was pulling away some grass at the base of one of the dogwoods, I noticed something green. I dug carefully and saw that it was not a weed, but a tender shoot coming up from the base of the tiny tree. In a few days, cute  baby leaves were coming out on its fragile limbs. A tree is growing. The other seedlings are showing similar signs of life. The saplings are not strong yet and to keep them growing, I will need to keep caring for them over the summer.

My baby tree leafing out

Like my baby trees, children need patience, attention and someone to believe in them. I might have given up on some of those young people wearing caps and gowns on Saturday night, but fortunately someone did not. Someone kept their noses to the grindstone, fed and watered them, both physically and figuratively, and told them they could do it. 

Behind every graduate were family members, school workers, ministers, friends and coaches who had encouraged and supported them. As the families clapped and cheered for their sons and daughters, I felt their pride and their hope for their child’s future.

Jesus said, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” Thank you to all  who helped grow these children into strong young trees, able to withstand the storms of life. 

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.