When Christmas is Hard: Cobwebs and Christmas Trees

Our family has always enjoyed having a real Christmas tree in our home.  There is just something about the fresh smell of pine that draws each of us in.  We typically frequent a local garden center to select our tree.  But one year we ventured out to a tree farm to cut down our own.  Unfortunately, I was unable to go because of a commitment at church, but my husband and boys joined my brother-in-law and his children on a tree-cutting adventure.

I remember the day well; it was very cold and snowy.  My husband and I rushed around to find warm clothes, gloves, and hats for the kids;  I was trying my hardest to get out of the house on time while looking somewhat pulled together.  We went our separate ways, which I must admit made me very sad.  I knew that I was going to miss out on some family fun.

Later that afternoon we all met up back at the house.  The boys were very proud to show me the tree that they had selected and cut down themselves.  It was covered in a blanket of powdery snow and tightly bound in netting.  We placed it into a bucket of water and left it out on the porch to dry for a few days.  In short time we prepared our living room and made room for our tree.  Each of us had waited with great anticipation for tree decorating day.

When we went to bring the tree inside we noticed a number of insects flying about on our porch.  Normally, there aren’t any bugs flying about on a cold December day in New Jersey.   We took a closer peek and found that our tree was housing quite a number of bugs.  After my husband broke the news to the boys that we were not going to decorate the tree that day, he asked me to meet him in the backyard.  He then told me that we needed to unwrap the tree and shake it really hard.  We did.  Then we began to bang the tree up and down on the stump.  Finally, for good measure, we tossed the tree around the yard a few times.  I can only imagine what our neighbors thought.  We live in a neighborhood where all of the homes are within close proximity of each other.  What a show we put on for them!  Regardless, we gave that tree a good shaking and hoped that we had evicted all of the insects.

The next day we set up the tree and enjoyed our decorating time together.  The tree was beautiful.  It was full, lush, and perfectly symmetrical.  It was just about the most perfect tree anyone could hope for.

Soon after our decorating day, I began to notice a few cobwebs beginning to form in various areas of tree.  I swiped them away as best I could.  I hoped that the lights and ornaments and all their sparkle would cover over the cobwebs so they wouldn’t be noticeable.  Christmas is supposed to be full of beauty and happiness and joy, right?  There’s no room for spiders and cobwebs.  However, every few days new cobwebs appeared.  I continued to brush them away.  I finally broke the news to the boys that the tree would need to go out to the curb the day after Christmas.  So, as promised, we undecorated our tree on December 26th.   Once all of the ornaments and lights were removed, we could clearly see the magnitude of the problem.  There were spider webs all throughout the tree, on every side, on the top, on the bottom, on the outside, on the inside.  Everywhere.   Our Christmas tree looked like a twisted scene from a scary horror movie.  We quickly sent the tree to the curb for pick up and promptly began cleaning the living room from top to bottom.

It’s was all rather funny…that is except for the small yellow spiders we found throughout the house for the next year.

Our cobweb filled tree serves as a good reminder to me that sometimes underneath all the glitter and lights of Christmas, something is hiding.   For many, sadness and loneliness are a regular guest at Christmas.  While most are busy laughing, smiling, and being merry, many people are left trying to swat away the cobwebs that keep reappearing.  Relational problems, financial stress, sickness, the absence of a loved one, and loneliness seem to be magnified during the holidays.  What should be a joyous season is often one of the hardest to endure for many.

This Christmas season I would encourage you to be on the lookout for ways to extend love to those who are struggling to swat away cobwebs.  We often know who they are, but in the awkwardness of the situation, we rarely reach out.  Take the time to embrace someone and acknowledge their sadness.  Share their burden.  Cry with them, encourage them, show them the love of Christ.  Open up your home to someone that you know will be spending the holiday alone.  Wrap a simple gift.  Make a homemade treat.  Invite someone to church to hear the good news of Christmas.  Remind someone that you will be praying for them.

I’m reminded that Christ came so that one day the sadness, loneliness, and hardships of this world would be no more.  He came as a babe to be victor over sin and to give us hope.  He came to bind up our wounds, dry our tears, and to save us from the depravity of our sin.  So while we share this life together where happiness and sadness mingle together, let’s be light, let’s offer hope, let’s extend love, let’s share Jesus to the people who need it most.

Surprised By So Much Sexual Sin?

Of late, the news has been dominated with story after story of accused sexual impropriety and misconduct.  It seems that with each passing day another politician, celebrity, or public figure falls from grace.  While the depravity of man in general does not take me by surprise, a naive populace does.  I find myself a bit dumbfounded as I hear of the outrage and shock that people have expressed at some of the recent revelations.  Please understand clearly:  I do not condone such behavior.  It is wrong and reprehensible.  But, my question is this: should this trend be surprising?

It shouldn’t.

How can a people who feast on a steady stream of salacious entertainment be anything but products of their feed?  We have become an impulse driven, desensitized people who know not the meaning of delayed gratification or restraint.  Our movies, music, and television shows are filled with gratuitous sex, casual and tawdry escapades, forced rape, and illicit encounters.  Our small screens have become private portals for pornography.  Somehow all of this has become entertainment, entertainment that reinforces the idea that the fulfillment of any and all of my desires is priority number one.

First and foremost, I believe in individual responsibility and accountability for our actions.  But having said that, our society has bred and nourished the depravity which we see.  It has become part of our culture.  We both condone and support it.  We are its financiers and followers; we are its audience.   We are its addicts whose insatiable appetites and lusts allow the beast to grow and flourish.  Were there no consumers of its offerings, no fixated eyes fueling its ratings, no exchange of money for such “goods”, the depravity would have no source; it would have no life.

Yet, pornography thrives.  Sex sells.  Freedom reigns.  Soft porn fills the sides of buses, lights up the city street, dances across our screens, and draws our eye in at the grocery check out.  It spills out into our classrooms and textbooks.  It reverberates through our ears in the music of the day.  It has become the norm.  It has become expected.  It has become the culture even for many Christians.

Do we actually expect that we will be immune to the effects of this steady stream of garbage?  Do we falsely believe that what we see and hear will have no ill effect upon us, our children, and our society as a whole?  I have long told my children this simple phrase:  “Garbage in means garbage out.”  If you fill your mind with garbage, you can fully expect garbage to come out.  It is that simple.

We live in a time where the ideas of purity, chastity, and abstinence are mocked and jeered at.  Its outspoken proponents are scoffed at and made to look as puritan fools.

So I ask the question again:  how is it that we are so shocked and taken aback at what we see and hear in the headlines?  How are we dumbfounded as to its roots?  How are we the least bit surprised that so many casually violate others?

As a parent I feel like I am at war.  I am constantly fighting against this depraved influence.  This depravity seeks to suck the very soul of our children away.  I can see many of my fellow moms and dads shaking their heads in agreement.  As our children grow and become more and more responsible for their own actions, I pray that they will make the right decisions to turn away.  That they will seek out God’s plan for their lives .  That they will take all that they have been taught and choose not to get sucked into the culture.  That they will draw on the strength of the Lord to turn away from filth.  Sometimes they will choose correctly and sometimes they won’t.  This should cause us to pray with great fervency for them.

Experiencing Peace In Times of Uncertainty

Life is uncertain.  Changes and challenges often rattle us to the core with little or no forewarning.  Sickness.  Brokenness.  Rebellion.   They’ve all stepped over the welcome mat and entered into our lives as uninvited guests.  They provoke us to fear and anger, bring disappointment and doubt, and cause us to fret and worry.  Can there truly be a sense of peace and calmness amidst the storms and trials of this life?

A few weeks ago I felt prompted to make an appointment with a cardiologist.  With such a long-standing bout of Lyme Disease and the full knowledge of its potential effects on one’s heart, I felt the need to get a baseline reading on my heart health.  It’s funny, sickness and testing are not foreign to me.  I’ve never experienced true stress and anxiety at the doctor’s office or during testing.  However, this all changed the very moment that I opened the door to the cardiologist’s office.  I was overcome with such a sense of panic, like none I had ever experienced before.  And, if you didn’t realize, there is absolutely no way to mask or hide anxiety at the cardiologist.  After my initial visit, the doctor arranged for a whole host of tests to be completed over the course of the next several weeks.  One by one I completed the tests, all coming back as normal.  The last of the tests was scheduled to be completed at the doctor’s office.  This last test did not produce such stellar results.  The doctor speculated as to the cause and requested further testing.

This normally strong woman simply fell apart as she left the office.   I emerged back home a blubbering mess.  For the remainder of the day I felt such a cloud of darkness hovering over me as the tears flowed.  I didn’t pray.  I didn’t open God’s Word.  I didn’t recall the many verses I knew.  I didn’t remember God’s goodness.  Instead I chose to question, doubt, and allow the seeds of anger to spring to life.

The next day the doctor’s office called asking me to come in again for additional testing in a few days.  Once again fear enveloped me and held on with an intense grip.  Realizing my weakness, I reached out to a few friends asking them to pray for me.

With a few days to wait for my testing, the Lord laid these thoughts on my heart.  I’ll call them  “The Six R’s of Resting in God When Life is Uncertain,” and they have served as a good reminder to me.

  • Remember
    • Remember the many promises of God.  Call to mind the portions of scripture that you have hidden in your heart for moments such as this.  Rehearse them.  Recite them.  Reflect on them.  Repeat again and again.   Our God is a promise keeper.  He is unable to do anything less than keep the promises  that fill His Word.  Here are but a few:
  • Reach 
    • Reach out to the Lord immediately without delay.  He knows our troubles before we ourselves do.  He is concerned for us.  He is near to us.  We need only to call out to Him.  Push aside all the other voices of fear, doubt, and anxiety and come before the throne of the Lord.
      • The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  Psalm 34:18
    • Reach for His Word.  Read the familiar promises in His Word, but delve further into the scriptures to uncover new truths and promises that may have previously gone unnoticed.  Pray that the Lord would open up His Word to you in new and exciting and comforting ways.
    • Reach for trusted friends.  Be honest.  Take down the facade of strength and ask for faithful friends to uphold you in prayer.  Tell them in what ways you are struggling.  Share specific requests.  Set aside pride and ask for prayer.
      • For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. ” I Peter 3:12
  • Release
    • We are all human with God-given emotions.  Our initial response to hardship is not to celebrate.  If you are anything like me, I need to let out one really good and hefty cry.   God understands our frame; He knows our weakness.  Cry out to Him not in anger or frustration but as a child coming to their parent for comfort.  I literally envision the arms of the Lord wrapped around me.
      • For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.”  Hebrews 4:15
  • Reflect
    • Think back and remember all that the Lord has already done for you.  Look back to past valleys and see how the Lord has walked with you through those times.  Remember His faithfulness.  Remember His strength.  Remember His goodness.  Let memories flood your mind.  I often marvel at how the Israelites second guessed God and His power.  They had gazed upon miracles with their own eyes, yet they doubted God.  In my own moments of weakness, I’ve realized how easy it is to forget what God has done.  His work at times can become a distant memory.  Bring them to the forefront of your mind.  Remember and reflect on all that He has done.  He has been faithful and will continue to be.
  • Resist
    • The evil one would like nothing more than to fill your heart with doubt, depression, and despair.  We leave these doors wide open when we turn away from our Lord during challenging times.   The moment we divert our eyes from our Father, the devil will be quick to catch our gaze and to fill our hearts and minds with blatant lies.  We will question the goodness of God, doubt His love, and question His sovereignty.
      • Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  James 4:7
  • Rest
    • Find rest and peace in the Lord.  He alone is in control.  He alone is sovereign.  He alone cares for His children as no other could.  Hand this over to Him.
      • You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”  Isaiah 26:3 
      •  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:6-7 
      • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

So, can there indeed be peace in the midst of the storms and trials of life?  Without God, peace will be elusive.  But with God, all things are possible.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Spaghetti squash is one of my very favorite vegetables.  It is incredibly versatile and a great way to enjoy a spaghetti-like meal without the carb overload.   So last year I tucked a few seeds away and planned to plant them in the garden this summer.  My son and I did just that, and we’ve enjoyed watching that plant grow and grow and GROW!  It has spilled over the garden bed and fence and onto the driveway.  It has literally taken over the side of my house, as squash plants tend to do.  It’s beautiful, lush, and full of blossoms.

The other day my neighbor commented on the abundance and beauty of those yellow blossoms.  “You must have so many squash growing in that patch,” she said.

“Not one,” I lamented.

As beautiful and lush and full of blossoms as that patch is to the casual observer, there is something that has gone terribly wrong, for not one squash has emerged.   After doing a bit of detective work and research, I discovered that there is likely a problem with pollination.  It seems that the local bees are not doing their job.  Hmph!  So the likelihood of our family enjoying spaghetti squash from our own garden is slim to none.

Of late I’ve been tempted to yank the entire plant out of the garden.  It is simply taking up too much space and serves little use other than giving the false impression that my garden is flourishing and thriving.  It bears no fruit and has little benefit aside from its outer beauty.

Then there are my green bean plants.  I’ve lost count as to how many bowls full of beans we have picked and eaten.  The eight or so plants that I have continue to produce a healthy, useful harvest every week.  If you were to take a closer look at these plants, you would see plants that are far from lush and beautiful, and to the casual observer, one might assume that these plants are not producing fruit.  There are small weeds scattered about, yellowing leaves, dry brown parts, thinness, and evidence of damage from insects.   Beauty is certainly lacking.

Yet, when you stoop down and take the time to push aside the leaves and stems and weeds of these plants, when time is taken to look below the surface,  a treasure trove of beans awaits.  These plants, though outwardly not as attractive as my billowing spaghetti squash vine, have yielded much fruit.  Even though one would assume that a beautiful plant would yield a beautiful crop and a homely plant would yield sub par fruit, these plants have shown me otherwise.

Outward appearances can certainly be deceiving.

I suppose this applies to our world today.  How quick we can be to make determinations and judgements about people based solely upon what we see on the surface.  We often take little to no time to actually look past what we see. We assign good qualities to those with beauty and poor qualities to those with a humble or even rough appearance.  Superficiality is the name of the game in our society.

The Lord reminds us that the only way to truly know someone for who they are is by the fruit that they bear.   Appearances are of no value to Him, but the heart is.   In the busyness and craziness of life, we often leave little time to look at people at the heart level.

I’m thankful for the little reminders that the Lord sends to me through my little garden.

How Children View Race

My boys were so excited as they anticipated the end of the week.  Their good friend was coming over to hangout and sleep over.  There would be chess matches and football games, talk of sports, and a bit more football.  Their hands and fingers would intertwine as they greeted.  Their arms would embrace each other as they departed.  Friends.

As the events in Charlottesville unfolded that same weekend,  I would steal small glimpses of the images on the computer as the boys came in and out of the house.  When I knew that they would be occupied for a bit, I turned on the television to see with greater clarity the events that were transpiring.  I was saddened beyond words, and I struggled as I attempted to try and understand how some could hold so much hate within their soul.

As the sweaty brood of boys crashed through the front door, I quickly turned the television off.  They ran into the kitchen for water and snacks, then proceeded to collapse in the living room.  As  I listened in as they described their football game at the high school’s new field, I couldn’t help but study the faces of the boys ever so closely.  I took note of something that I always knew was there but never really thought about: the stark contrast of their skin.

We are white.  Their friend is African-American.  I can’t begin to tell you how it pains me to even type those words here, how it literally hurts for me to separate these boys, these friends, into categories for the purpose of this post.   Our family views race as an expression of beauty and uniqueness from our Most Awesome Creator.  The Lord draws no lines, there is no separation, no difference in value or equality among man in His sight.  Man looks at the outward, yet God, looks at the heart.   We have chosen to do the same.  I know that our attempts have failed at times.

As the weekend came to a close and the boys said their goodbyes, my curiosity was piqued.  Do the boys even regard each other’s skin color as a difference?  I decided to find out and asked my friend to do the same with her son (age 14).  So we set out to question the boys as to what similarities and differences the boys have.  As I sat down with each of my sons (ages 17, 15, and 12) in private, I took note of their answers.  I waited.  Would one of them even bring up race or color?  Would their friend?

No one did.

They noted differences in age, in where they lived, in the grade they were in, the sports they liked, the teams they supported, and the foods they enjoyed.  They identified similarities in faith, the fact that they were all homeschooled, and in their love of sports and competition.  Friends.  They are simply friends, and that’s all that matters to them.

Oh, if the world were more childlike.

So, the boys and I sat down and talked about the real purpose behind my questioning.  We discussed the events in Virginia.  Although it was likely lacking, I did my best to discuss racism.  Then one of my boys piped up,”But, mom, that stuff doesn’t happen today.” And yet again, I find myself in that terrible place as a mom where I take away a bit more of their innocence, where I wipe away their “rose-colored-glasses” view of the world.  But this is their world, and I will soon be releasing them into it as they make their own way.  They must know, they simply must, because if they don’t know the truth, how can they be the difference?

That afternoon the face of racism became a bit more personal to my boys.  I forced them to imagine how their friend would feel when encountered with such senseless hatred.  In all honesty, they grappled over why some would harbor such hatred based on skin color.  It’s just something they can’t understand.  As a mom, I am thankful that they can’t relate to that kind of hatred.  Yet, they must be sensitive to the fact that it is present and that it does affect people’s lives.  They must be willing to stand up against it, to say something without hesitation, lest their silence be taken for acceptance.

I wish that could be the end of the story.  I wish that everyone would just replace hate with love.  But, there is sin and depravity and brokenness in the heart of man, and ultimately, the only solution is Christ.  On this side of heaven, the battle will rage on.  Unfortunately, it will always exist and there will likely be witnesses to and victims of more hate-filled behavior.  How do we stop it?  How do we change the course?

Well, we start at home.

We are honest at home.  We discuss the difficult matters.  We talk about how each of us can be that much needed difference.  We learn about the real story of history.  We think outside of our homogeneous neighborhood and town.  We expand our personal borders to include those who may be different than us.  We share a phone call, an embrace, a meal.  We make sure that through our front doors “sameness” is not the only guest.  We fill our yards with the beauty that is color.  We take a stand, a visible and audible one.  We talk about it with those who are affected instead of pretending there is no need for dialogue. We acknowledge when we fall short or when we succumb to hidden prejudices.

Imagine if we all did this?

We can.

 

 

When Dementia Steals Mother’s Day

It was Mother’s Day two years ago.  My mom had come to my home for dinner.  We exchanged flowers and cards with one another.  As I pulled my card from its envelope and read the inside, I paused.

“Love, Barbara”

That’s my mother’s name.  She had signed her card to me with her name, not mom.

It was that moment…the moment that I realized that my mother no longer knew who I was.

Since that time I have been going through the motions of mourning the loss of my mother.  Although she is still with us in body, she has passed away emotionally and cognitively long ago.  It has been a long, slow progression.  Through the years her forgetfulness and disorientation have eventually given way to panic and fear as everything and everyone around her have transformed into strangers.

Dementia has stolen my mother, has swept her away, has emptied her of everything but breath.   Its arms hold her, not in comfort, but in prison.   Dementia has snatched her sight and clouded her vision.  It replaces the faces of loved ones with the visages of foreigners who are aliens in her land.  Like a thief in the night, dementia comes and ransacks, raids, and pillages memories, names, faces.  It drains motivation, will, and life leaving only the comfort of a wing chair, a wall, and a world of silence.  Dementia has robbed the world of a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor.

Dementia has taken so much from my mother…from us… and left behind so little.  All that remains is a shell, a reminder of the life that once was.

As I was working on this post, the Lord laid on my heart a little object lesson of sorts.  It was a much needed reminder for me.

I’ve always loved the ocean.   There is a calmness in the sound of the waves, a serenity in the water lapping over your feet.  The refreshing ocean breeze seems to infuse one with peace.   My favorite moments at the beach are spent combing the sand for shells.  I’ve always admired the colors and shapes of each one.  They are little treasures that the ocean brings forth and the handiwork of the Lord.  I’m always sure to bring home shells from each beach excursion we have.  My prize find was a shell that I picked up on the Gulf Coast of Florida: a Lightning Whelk.  While not large in size (it only fits within the palm of my hand), this shell is completely intact with brilliant colors and stunning patterns.  I remember finding the shell tumbling in the tide.  I snatched it up and ran to my family like a little child; I was so excited to share my treasure.

As each of us was examining the shell, I explained to my then young boys how that shell had once held life within its curved walls.  That shell was a beautiful home for a creature of the sea.  But in the cycle of life, the creature either moved out in search of a larger shell, or most likely, was eaten or died.  What remained was an outer shell, beautiful and vibrant, yet fragile and lacking life.

That empty shell is much like my mom.   Even though the mom that I have known continues to fade away, even though living life has been replaced with mere existence, there is still beauty to be found in the shell that remains.   While my mom may no longer recognize my face or know me to be her daughter, I can choose to look past that and opt to remember the life that once was and try to honor the life that still is.

So this Mother’s Day I will choose to not allow dementia to steal the day.  I will allow it to remind me that all life is precious, that all life is important, that all life has purpose.  I will use it to  remind myself that my mom is a child of God and that He loves her dearly.  I will hold fast to the knowledge that dementia doesn’t take Him by surprise.

Giving of Your Best

They were there to gather donations to fill the shelves of a local food pantry.  The boys, dressed in their troop uniforms, were greeting customers as they entered the grocery store.  Each patron received a flyer detailing what items were needed and then were sent on their way with a smile.

Many gave generously that day.  They maneuvered the aisles, their thoughts on those less fortunate, on those who were in need of even the most basic of supplies.  One cart after another was filled.  Cars were loaded with bright yellow shopping bags.  Many made cash donations.  It was a good day…a very good day.  The kind of day that renews your hope in humanity a bit.

How encouraging it was to see a group of young men working to benefit others, working to meet the tangible needs of those they may never meet face to face, may never speak to, may never know.  It was good to see their excitement, good to see their zeal, good to see their hard work.  It was also good to see the generosity of the local people.  They freely gave.  Some gave much, others gave little, but all gave.

That evening, my husband, who was assisting the troop that day, told me about an interesting encounter that he had earlier that day.  A middle-aged man had approached him during the course of the food drive.  After asking how much longer the boys would be working, the man made this comment:

“I will be back in just a bit.  I have some expired food at home that I’ve been looking to get rid of.  I’ll bring it back to donate”

My first instinct was to ask my husband if he was kidding.  He’s known to be a jokester.   But no sly smile crossed his face; no elfish grin emerged.  He was serious.

In all honesty, I instantly judged, criticized, and condemned this unknown man.  How insensitive and callous he was.   How blind he was to the needs of others.  He saw nothing wrong with tossing his leftovers, his expired goods, his garbage bound food, to those who had the simplest yet greatest need. Why not just go into the store and pick up a can of vegetables instead?  Why not simply walk past the collection sight like many others did that day?  Why would he offer less than his best?

One year has come and gone.  And as the troop prepares for this weekend’s food drive, I am reminded of that man.  With knee jerk reactions and condemnation  put aside, I turned my gaze inward.  Was I any different than that man?  Was I willing to give less than my best to others?  I didn’t have to ponder for long.

I remembered the time that I was rummaging through my boys old clothes.  I wanted to clear out everything that no longer fit or was in poor condition.  I systematically sorted the clothes into two piles.  One pile contained clothing that was still in good condition; I had planned to pass these pieces along to a friend.  The second pile was filled with everything else: stains, tears, wear, fraying.  I must admit that I bagged up that second pile of clothes and dumped them into a collection box.  I never gave thought to the young man that would be wearing that stained shirt or the woman who would be modeling those frayed pants, or the child who would be dressed in rags.  I gave them my garbage and never thought otherwise.

I was no different than that man.

Imagine if I had simply gone to the store and picked up a new piece of clothing…tags still on.  It wouldn’t need to be fancy or expensive.  I’m a great bargain shopper.  Surely I could have picked up something nice for merely a few dollars.  I’m sure we could have forgone a bag of chips that week or a cup of coffee.  Imagine the reaction of some one in need, someone who likely never has worn a new piece of clothing.  Imagine them, imagine the look on their face and the swell in their heart.  I wish I could have retrieved my less than best bag and substituted it with one new item.  I can’t look back, but I can look ahead.

Keeping the best for ourselves is nothing short of selfish and completely out of step with how the Lord wants us to live our lives.  The Lord who gives abundantly, who showers us with blessing upon blessing, who provides for each and every need, has not created us to live selfish, self-centered lives:

  • And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:16
  • My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. John 15:12
  • not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  Philippians 2:4
  • Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,  and he will reward them for what they have done.  Proverbs 19:17
  • The generous will themselves be blessed,  for they share their food with the poor.  Proverbs 22:9
  • Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.  Romans 12:13
  • You must present as the LORD’s portion the best and holiest part of everything given to you.’  Numbers 18:29

Give of your best and nothing less.

 

Lyme Disease Prevention: 5 Tips to Be Tick Smart

Lyme Disease is no longer a Northeast problem.  It’s a nationwide issue.  While the CDC reports that nearly 300,000 new cases of Lyme Disease are reported each year, I estimate that the number is far greater.  And while I do not advocate staying indoors and avoiding the great outdoors all together, I do recommend that you take a few common sense precautions before, during, and after you head out to enjoy the world around you:

1.     Dress Appropriately

I have watched far too many children and adults camp and hike in shorts, flip flops, and tank tops.  I am always left scratching my head.  Wearing appropriate clothing while enjoying outdoor activities is the easiest prevention tip to follow.

  • Wear a hat – Ticks love to hide in hard to find spots: behind the ears, armpits, groin areas, and in your head.  If you have a dark head of hair, finding a minuscule tick hiding in your mane could be next to impossible.  Wear a cap or camping hat to reduce the risk of ticks meandering about your head.
  • Wear pants – No one wants to wear pants in the summer; I totally get it.  However, your legs are the number one part of your body that should be covered while hiking or camping.  They will likely be the first parts of you to come into contact with ticks as you brush against trees, branches, tall grass, and bushes.  My kids wear lightweight, track style pants or lightweight camping pants.  The advancements in clothing are nothing short of amazing.  Lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking, SPF certified clothing is readily available to provide both coverage and comfort.
  • Wear long socks – I hate long socks.   I’m the first to admit it.  But ankle socks or peds just won’t cut it while camping and hiking.
  • Tuck your pant legs into your socks – No, this is not terribly fashionable, but it is highly effective.  Case in point, we were hiking a few weeks ago.  When we arrived home we found several microscopic ticks attached to one of my son’s socks.  Had he not been wearing high socks or had not tucked his pants into his socks, those ticks would have likely found a comfy home on his ankle or leg and would have started chowing down.
  • Wear a shirt with sleeves – Even in the hottest conditions, we wear long sleeved shirts while hiking.  We’ve invested in a good quality, lightweight, moisture-wicking, breathable shirt for each of our children.  These shirts allow them to remain cool and covered.  At a minimum, you should wear short sleeved shirts.  Avoid tank tops .
  • Wear appropriate footwear – Flip flops and sandals just don’t cut it.  Opt for hiking boots.  Even putting the tick issue aside, hiking boots are designed for your safety, providing traction, grip, and support over varying terrain.

2.       Stay on the Trail

While hiking, choose to stay on the marked trails.  Often times these trails are maintained by park service personnel.  In addition, with regular foot traffic, these trails stay clear of thick brush, high grass, and overgrown bushes.  Cleared trails provide a bit of space between you and those favorite tick hangouts.  Once you meander off the trail and onto unblazed territories, you will likely be walking through unkempt areas where ticks love to call home.   Grab a trail map and stay on the trail.  Here are some examples of good and not-so-good trails:

Good
Better
Best
Beautiful but not so good.
Really, you’re thinking of hiking here?

 

3.      Use a Good Quality Tick Spray

I am pretty cautious about chemicals.  While DEET is an effective deep woods option, it is also highly toxic.  I’ve avoided the use of traditional bug and tick sprays all together.  A friend of mine recommended a cedar based spray.  We’ve used it for years and it has proven to be highly effective.  It is expensive but so is treating an undiagnosed tick bite.  We use TickShield Tactical by Owens Organics.  I receive NO compensation for this recommendation.  I simply use it, like it, and have found it to be effective.  I recommend spraying both skin and clothing.

 

4.       Strip, Shower, Check

This is our family’s tick check routine.  After a time of camping, hiking, or extended outdoor time,  we follow these three simple steps.

(A)  Immediately go to the laundry room.  Strip down to your underwear, and place all of your clothing into the washing machine.  Look for any obvious ticks on your body.

(B)  Take a shower.  Use a washcloth to scrub.  Wash your hair thoroughly.

(C)  Before getting fully dressed have someone do a tick check.  A secondary person needs to carefully look over the back, neck, legs, feet, toes, head, behind ears, armpits, and arms.   Ticks can be tiny…as small as a pinhead, a fleck of dirt, or a dot on a piece of paper.  Sometimes they can be larger and more obvious.  Look each and every time.  It only takes one missed tick check to miss a tick.

5.     Use Common Sense

Don’t think that it won’t happen to you.  Don’t think that a tick is no big deal.  Don’t think that some people are simply paranoid, crazy tick lunatics.  Don’t think that Lyme Disease is no big deal.  Remember, the people writing these types of posts, the people tucking their pants into their socks, the people being adament about staying on a trail, are often the people whose lives have been forever changed by a single tick bite.  Heed their warning and advice.  None of us want to see anyone of you incapacitated.  An undetected tick bite today can cause debilitation five or ten years down the road.

You can read more posts from Life in the Van regarding Lyme Disease here.  Work from the bottom of the page, upward.


The Story in the Scars

It was the Saturday before my first day of middle school. I was scheduled to babysit for a family from our church.  When I arrived, the couple was finishing up a few last minute details.  Their youngest son looked up at me and asked, “Do you want to see my dog?”

Without thinking twice, I said, “Sure.  Let’s go.”

Never one to shy away from any animal, I went right up to the dog.  What happened next was a blur.  I remember bending over a bit when all of a sudden the dog lunged at me.  When I picked up my head, I instinctively covered my face with my hands.  The young boy, horrified, yelled, “My dog bit you,”  and ran inside.

I stood there covered in blood.

The boy’s mother, a nurse by trade, ran outside to see what had happened.  She took one look at me and ran back inside to grab clean towels and ice.  I was in no pain, but I could see that everyone around me was visibly upset which made me quite uneasy.  In a few short minutes, the young boy’s dad was driving me to the hospital.

The thirty minute drive seemed like an eternity.  Few words were exchanged.  However, I do remember the father repeatedly stating that he hoped that my nose was not broken.  Not terribly comforting words.

Upon arriving at the emergency room, I was sent directly in to see a doctor.  My mother would arrive shortly after.  She came into the room and asked me to remove the covering from my face.  I did, and she promptly asked me to cover it again.

We waited for quite a while in the emergency room that evening.  A plastic surgeon was called.  I remember his name, Dr. Tuckman, which I thought was a rather funny, yet appropriate name for a plastic surgeon.  He was wonderful.   He was incredibly calm and had a soothing voice.  I remember him looking at me in the face, something that most had evaded doing that evening.  He had an incredible bedside manner.  He spoke very plainly and tenderly to me.  He assured me that he would work carefully and slowly to piece me back together.  He commented that once he had completed his work, there would definitely be some pain and my face would look beat up, but I needed to trust him.  He knew what he was doing and with time the scars would fade.

I would come to find out that my nose was severed in two, punctured, and torn.

I remember going home that evening and heading off to bed in silence.  The following morning I examined myself in the mirror and cried.  My face was discolored and swollen with lines of black stitches all over.  I was a mess.

With time, I began to heal.  The swelling and discoloration subsided, and eventually all of those stitches were removed.  What was left was nothing short of amazing.   Eventually my scars were undetectable to the casual observer.

I imagine that most of our bodies bear a scar or two, and each of them has a story to tell.  Some stories are painful, others humorous.  Some traumatic, others a badge of honor. Scars are evidence of both the pain our bodies have experienced and the healing that has taken place with time.  It is interesting how the two are married, how pain and healing work together hand-in-hand.  While scars typically fade with time, they never completely disappear.  There is always a remaining bit of evidence of past pain.

Not all scars are the same.  While some scars are obvious and out in the open for all the world to see, others are nearly undetectable or completely hidden from view.  Many people bear their scars alone or in secret:  The scars of wrong choices, missteps, and foolishness; at innocence lost, of sickness, of loved ones gone too soon; of harsh, cutting words, of disappointments, rejection, and failure.  Some scars cut down deep into one’s soul and change the very fabric and make up of who we are.  They shake our very core and change the course of life.

Most of us likely bear both types of scars.

There are so many people with a story, so many people whose scars speak.  So many people who have experienced hurt.  So many people who still look for healing from their scars.  For some, healing is elusive.  Many look for ways to soothe the hurt, to cover the pain, to forget it all together.

During this Easter week, I am reminded of how true and lasting healing is possible.  There is one set of scars that heals.

I can’t help but reflect on the ultimate story of pain and healing; the most powerful story found in the scars, the story of my Lord.  The Easter story doesn’t begin with Easter or Christmas, it begins before time.  Our Lord knew our desperate need; He was keenly aware of the separation that sin would cause between our Heavenly Father and His people.  In His infinite love He sent His son to be born a man with the sole purpose of dying to redeem me.  Me…an undeserving, sinful soul, in need of a way to Him.

So Christ bore my sin on the cross.  He was wounded for my transgressions.  He was beaten and scarred and became a vessel for the Lord’s wrath, all to pay the penalty of my sin.   All for me…for you…because of love.   Through His scars we can experience true healing, healing from our sins.  His sacrifice has loosened the chains that bind us, has bridged a great chasm, has restored us, has healed us in the truest sense of the word.  His resurrection defeated sin and Hell.

Would you consider who Christ is this Easter?  Would you contemplate those scars and the story they tell?  Do you search for healing?  You need not look any further than Christ.

 

But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.
 Isaiah 53:5

When God Leaves Mountains Unmoved

A few weeks ago my husband and I conducted a little experiment of sorts.  We gathered our children around the computer to watch a video clip of a church service from a very, very popular pastor.  This mega church leader and author is known for his uplifting, positive, and inspiring messages.  Regardless of how his message begins, the ending is always the same:  All will be well; the Lord will bless; you will be happy because that’s what God wants…your happiness.  The prosperity gospel defined.  This, my friends, is a dangerous, yet popular gospel and millions of people are drawn into the false hope that is preached.

We wanted to see if our kids could pick up on the erroneous ways of this kind of preaching.  Our children are getting older.  In a few years they are likely to be on their own, making their own decisions.  Would they fall for this hook, line, and sinker?

Well, we sat through roughly 15 minutes of the sermon.  Within two or three minutes my youngest, twelve, looked at me through the corner of his eye.  I looked back at him and asked, “What?”.  We paused.

“Mom, Dad; why did he just say that on the other side of the valley God has promised everyone blessings?”

Hmm.  “Hold onto that and keep watching,” we said.

As we continued we heard groans and comments from under the breaths of our boys.  Finally, my oldest piped up, “What in the world is this guy talking about?”

We stopped and talked for a very long time about what they had picked up on.  Blessings.  Happiness.  Prosperity.  Self.  Little God.

We were thankful that the boys picked up on the false nature of this teaching.  As we ended our time I pulled up a picture of the arena filled to capacity for one of the church services.

“Is that a concert,” one asked.

“No, it’s one of the church services.  This church has a membership of over 40,000 people.  They meet in a 16,000 seat arena.  There are a lot of people who fall for this and cling onto a false sense of who God is and how He works in our lives.”

You may be asking, “What’s wrong with someone giving hope to others?  Doesn’t God want us to be happy?  Doesn’t the Bible say that He wants to bless us?”

Our happiness is not God’s first priority.

I am not a Bible scholar, but I am unaware of any verse in the Bible that tells me otherwise.  We are a people of happy endings and lovers of a rags to riches story.  We want to hang onto the hope that God will fix, bless, and prosper.

He may.  But, He may not.

It is very easy to get pulled into this thinking.  Very easy.

A few weeks ago I was working on my last blog post.  It was a tough, pointed one that came from a very personal place.  This was a heavy piece.  I had read my rough draft to my husband before publishing the article.  He had suggested that I needed an ending paragraph to tie everything together.  He was right.  As I reread my piece, I was compelled to end the post on a high note…to leave some encouragement with people.  I typed away.  Once completed I had asked a dear friend to read things over one last time for me.  She did.  In her honesty (the mark of a true friend), she questioned my last paragraph.

What was in that paragraph?  The promise that God would make beauty out of the ashes.  The false promise that all would be well.  The misguiding promise that God is planning to fix all problems and provide a storybook ending.

I had done it.  I had written the happy ending.

I got to work and rewrote the ending paragraph so that it was Biblically sound.

This now leaves us with a question:  What happens when God doesn’t make everything all right?  Here is where the false teaching of prosperity and happy endings causes the most damage.  If we expect God to fix everything, and He doesn’t, we are often left feeling angry, let down, and bitter.  Our perceived lack of action from the Lord drives a wedge between our relationship with Him.  We begin to question and doubt His goodness.  We doubt His love.  We question His sovereignty and authority.  We doubt that He has a plan.  We simply begin to doubt Him.  Our doubting brings us exactly to the place where satan wants us to be.   Doubt does not come from a loving heavenly Father; it is a tool used by the evil one to draw us further away from the Lord.

I do not need to search for long to come across instances where the Lord chose not to remove hardships.  The life of Paul…imprisonments, shipwreck, snakebite, house arrest, beatings, stoning, mockings, plots of his death, loss.  Most notable is Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a persistent condition that many have speculated about.  The word thorn is best translated “stake”.  From this we can assume that this condition was significant and intense.  Three times Paul petitioned the Lord to remove this thorn from him.  In His will, the Lord said no.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12: 7b – 10

As was with Paul, sometimes the Lord does not remove our thorns.  He permits them because He has a far greater purpose in them, a purpose that in our limited minds, we can not comprehend.  Storybook endings do not necessarily fit into the Lord’s earthly plan for us. Yet, through pain and sickness and loss He moves and works and refines, drawing us closer to Himself to make us more usable.

We were recently driving home from a college visit in Virginia.  Everyone in the car was snoozing, so as I was driving,  I turned on the radio to help me stay alert.  An unfamiliar song was playing.  As I listened to the words in the quietness of the car, I was brought to tears.  The words of this song summed up perfectly everything that I had been experiencing over the past few weeks; it brought all of my Bible readings and discussions regarding blessing, prosperity, and happy endings to full circle.   Here are a few snippets of the lyrics as well as a link to the song (with the lyrics).

Even If
by Mercy Me

…It’s easy to sing
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now

Chorus:
I know You’re able
And I know You can
Save through the fire
With Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

But God when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Give me the strength
To be able to sing
It is well with my soul

Chorus:
I know the sorrow
I know the hurt
Would all go away
If You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

You’ve been faithful
You’ve been good
All of my days
Jesus, I will cling to You
Come what may
‘Cause I know You’re able
I know You can

It is well with my soul

Like many of you,  I’ve experienced hardships of many kinds throughout the course of my life.  There have been times that my faith has faltered.  There have been times when I have ached for the Lord’s hand to simply move and heal and fix.  And while there have been times that the Lord has indeed moved and answered, there have also been times of silence.  There have been times when the mountain in front of me has remained unmoved as part of God’s plan.  Through it all my God has been good.  He has been faithful, and my hope still does rest in Him.