When Choices Aren’t Totally Free

I received a text message from a dear loved one yesterday. He and his wife are thinking about selling their beautiful home in order to move to a smaller, one-story home. With their increasing health issues, they are becoming unable to maintain the property and live comfortably. After putting so much love, money and hard work into the home, the decision is gut-wrenching for them both. The memories and the joys of living there have blessed them richly. Their grief is immense.

His text reminded me of the decisions Jim and I had made after my cancer and his open-heart surgery. We eventually made several difficult decisions, all related to simplifying our lives: leave our ministry positions, sell our home, reduce our belongings, move to a different state, and rent an apartment. For me, the grief was less about selling our home, but more about ending my ministry. I had finally received the opportunity I’d dreamed of for so long: serving as the youth and education coordinator in our loving congregation, teaming with Jim, who was serving as pastor. Less than a year later, I learned I was ill… and a month later, Jim learned he had an aortic aneurysm.

There is an extra heartache when we make decisions or life changes that aren’t freely chosen; those decisions made because of circumstances beyond our control. What might actually be a “happy choice” in a different situation becomes a “what do we do now?” choice… and we feel as if it is unfair. Even if it is good. Had Jim and I decided to make these changes as healthy people at retirement age, the choices would have felt right, good, and even exciting. The timing and the reasons for our decisions are what make them bittersweet.

I’m trying to learn to embrace what is… and to find the blessings despite the reasons. My friend, Lisa, says, “It is what it is… and it’s all good!”*  We have experienced many joys and blessings since our move. We are content and happy. We remember our previous life with tears and smiles, holding the moments in our hearts forever. But I have been incredibly surprised by this new joy and peace I have- joy and peace beyond my imagining, beyond the potential good we had even tried to anticipate!

Life is often difficult. Choices are difficult at times, too. But in all things, God works for good. Today my heart is grateful for all of the good I have seen, experienced and felt during some very challenging times and difficult decisions. If we embrace it all- every life moment of joy or grief, challenge or ease, health or illness- and allow “what is” to bless us, we will find God working for good.

Even on our darkest path, there is always light ahead. There is always beauty to be noticed. There are always companions to be found for the journey. There is always an inner GPS saying, “recalculating, rerouting” for our detours. There are always discoveries to be made.

There is always hope in our hearts, perhaps yet to be uncovered.

There is always God, our very-present help.

Peace and joy to you today.

 

*If you haven’t read Lisa Schuster’s book, Just As He Is Right Now: A Mother’s Memoir on the Price of Freedom and the Power of Hope, I encourage you to do so! (www.matthewdrakestory.com.)

 

Sharing Our Inadequacies

During our worship service yesterday, Rector Cheryl asked us to consider what fears keep us from generously sharing our gifts with others; not only our monetary possessions, but our other gifts of kindness,talent, support or friendship.

We moved to West Virginia a month ago.This morning as I walked, I was thinking of- and missing- my Toledo friends. Rector Cheryl’s suggestion came to me… what fears keep me from blessing someone with a new friendship? My fear is that I will not make a good initial impression. I worry that I will appear foolish or may even be snubbed in some way. Once friendships are established, I feel very comfortable and open, but those initial encounters are challenging! I feel very inadequate. Will I say the right things? Is my appearance acceptable? How do I begin conversations? Does this person even want a new friend? I have had this inadequate feeling quite often since our move- almost everyone is someone new!

My walking loop passes an assisted living facility. Today a gentleman was outside the entrance, sitting on a glider, quietly observing the hilltop view. We simply exchanged “good morning” greetings, but after I passed him, I wondered if he might be lonely, too. I reminded myself, “If I am to make friends, I need to actually MEET people!” I decided to loop by the facility one more time, and if he was still there, I would somehow introduce myself. I hoped that he would be blessed as much as I would. Of course, I immediately became concerned that I would appear foolish, or even a bit crazy or threatening to this elderly man.

This time, the gentleman had a friend with him; he didn’t appear lonely at all. But I began with a greeting about how lovely the morning was. When they responded in a friendly way, I just blurted out my ‘friendship inadequacy’ openly: “I know this sounds silly, but I just moved here and I don’t have many friends. May I introduce myself so we can at least say ‘hello’ when I come by?” And so I met Bill and Jack! (The people in West Virginia have a wonderfully warm way of softly saying vowels, and so I was thankful that I paused and thought for a moment before responding, “Hi BAIL”!)

Who knows if I will see them again. But I was so exuberant that my honest, flawed words and my need for friendship enabled me to meet these folks, and so I joyfully played the air guitar on my walk home. I wonder if these men are puzzled by my introduction. I wonder if those who may have observed my “guitar playing” are certain I’m crazy. But maybe, just maybe, I brightened someone’s day.

May fear never prevent us from sharing our gifts with others. May fear especially never prevent us from sharing our honest, faulty, hesitant, and inadequate selves with others. Perhaps our example might actually bless someone (like me) with a new, needed, honest, accepting, and welcoming friendship. We are better together.Simply Soul Searching

Writing Assignment…

My Friends, My Readers,

Currently I am writing devotions for Christ in Our Home, a quarterly publication. The assignment is due May 20th.

I have so many thoughts I’d like to share in the near future! All is well here; watch for new posts in the next few weeks.

Thank you for your patience- and for reading!
Karen 🙂

 

Borders

HT Art and Soul, Desk, Hair March 1 2016 025Early each morning I take my first cup of coffee to my writing desk, light a candle, and journal about whatever is on my heart. After I write about my reflections of the day before and my hopes for the new day, I end with a question for God: “What would you have me know today?” I then write the inspirations and thoughts that come to me.

I’ve become rather “fastidious” about my journal. I begin writing at the top of a clean, fresh page with each new day. I also try to fill each page completely so that there is no wasted space between days. This practice makes the pages all so “neat and tidy.”

So this morning I asked God my usual question, but I noticed that I only had 4-5 lines remaining on the page. In my heart, I was hoping that whatever I heard would be concise enough to fit in the remaining space! I could almost hear God chuckle. “Yes, God, I will follow wherever you lead me, just don’t make me venture onto the next page of my journal.” “God, I’m making myself totally available to listen to you, but will you please keep your message brief this morning? You have about four lines to convey your message. Thank you.”

We are hearing the word, “borders” quite a bit these days. And now I am thinking of my own invisible borders, even with the God who loves me more than I love myself. In my heart, I truly hope to follow where God leads me, and yet I harbor these constraints with my time, space, security- and even journal pages!

This morning I have been reminded to allow God the space to move freely and to speak openly. If I am to hear God’s guidance for me, my heart needs to be genuinely open to receive the entire message. I hope that I am learning what it really means to be available… to let go of practices and parameters and other invisible borders… to be willing to reflect and listen beyond the allotted space… to surrender a “neat and tidy” life… to follow God bravely onto the next new page of the journey.

Beyond The First Few Lines

A few years ago, Bill and Bonnie’s annual Christmas letter had arrived early in December. I was always blessed to hear from these dear friends who had moved from Ohio after retiring. Bonnie had been a treasured friend and mentor while we served together in ministry. But it WAS Advent, the holiday season, and I was busily immersed in all of my preparations for Christmas. I read the first few lines Bill had written, describing fun trips and family times together. Then I set the letter aside to be read more thoroughly at a later, “less busy” time.

Imagine our shock a few weeks later when my husband, Jim, learned that Bonnie had died. I immediately went through the pile of Christmas mail to find their letter. Sadly, I read Bill’s last few paragraphs, written to inform us of Bonnie’s cancer and that she was not expected to live. They had one simple request: Bonnie would be “nesting” in their den, and we could help “feather” her nest with cards and notes to help provide comfort during her last earthly days. I was deeply grieved that I had not taken the time to read the whole letter, and to be able to bless her in this small way. There were so many reasons I was thankful for her life, her friendship. Before moving away, Bonnie had introduced me to a deeper spirituality, a different way to live my faith. She had changed my life so significantly.

Even though I truly regret missing this opportunity to bless her, I know that Bonnie would not want me to be sad. Bonnie did know how much she meant to me and to so many others. But I think Bonnie would be blessed to know that this experience has shown me just how important it is to “read beyond the first few lines.”

In our daily conversations we often begin with the casual, surface-level news in our lives. We share greetings and other pleasantries, then go our different ways, perhaps believing we will catch up at a later time. But if we can take a few moments for additional listening, sharing and observing, we strengthen our relationships by knowing and understanding the other person better. When we read further into the story or even “between the lines” we are more apt to really discover that person’s needs, blessings, dreams and concerns. We get to the heart of the conversation; what is held within his or her heart. In doing so we may even learn of ways we might help or bless that friend.

This also is true of our prayer time, isn’t it? How often do we simply share our daily news and concerns, our lists of requests, and then say, “Amen”? How often do we take the time to truly listen, to ask the deeper questions, to have more meaningful conversations with God? We need to go beyond those first few lines in order to get to the heart of our conversation. As we take extra time in our conversations with God, we might learn to see more deeply into what God is saying to us; what God is really asking of us. Even if it may only be a simple nudge to read someone’s letter.

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In The Eye of The Beholder

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This morning I had a small “pity party” for myself as I looked in the mirror. The side effects of my cancer treatments have taken a toll on my appearance. My head of hair is growing back, but very slowly- straight and dark gray- in uneven lengths. However, I have had an alarming growth of long downy hair in my eyebrows and on my face and neck. My nose has red blotches and is often runny. These truly are petty concerns, but they are real for me. Inside, I am feeling healthy and vibrant, but on the outside I look a bit unkempt and haggard.

But then I seemed to hear God telling me that I was beautiful. I am beautiful in God’s eyes simply because God created me and called me “good.” We all are. And as I reflected more on beauty, I knew in my heart that beauty is really found in such qualities as a loving and welcoming nature, a peaceful countenance, a gentle presence. Beauty is noticing God’s handiwork with a grateful, appreciative heart. It is letting God’s love radiate to others. It is focusing not on my flaws, but in making others feel good and beautiful about themselves. It is living the humble, healing, and helping ways of Christ, so genuinely that others won’t even notice my physical imperfections.

So, at least for now, I may be unable to do much about my side-effects, except to trim hairs and cover spots here and there. Instead, I can choose to ask for God’s help as I work on my inner beauty, praying that God’s generous love and Jesus’ incredible life will shine through this imperfect appearance.

A Word for the New Year

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A few years ago, I learned the practice of choosing one word as my focus and desire for the year. This practice has become very helpful and clarifying for me! The word can become a way for us to choose our tasks and commitments, a way to set goals, and even a way to see how God uses the word to shape our souls.

This year my word is “EMBRACE”. The word embrace has several beautiful meanings: hug, hold, welcome, accept, or adopt. The word perfectly summarizes the way I hope to live this year. Whether it is a midlife seeking, or a new awareness after Jim’s and my health issues, my strong desire is to live each day abundantly.

  • I hope to embrace God’s love shown in Jesus, and to drop everything that prevents me from doing so.
  • I hope to not only embrace Jesus’ love, but also his ways.
  • I hope to embrace each day as a precious gift from God, a bonus day to live well.
  • I hope to embrace whatever comes my way: the joys, blessings, opportunities and challenges.
  • I hope to learn from, grow in, and savor all moments, fully and fearlessly.
  • I hope to embrace my dear ones with love- in every moment I can, to bless them in every way I can.
  • I hope to embrace my health and body with nurturing care, doing all I can to honor this temple God has given me.
  • I hope to embrace any new opportunity God may reveal to me, to be open to God’s loving guidance in each new day.

May you grab every day with gusto. May you savor every simple moment.

The significance of one’s life is not measured by its longevity; it is measured by its love.

 

With Open Arms

During each Advent season we are encouraged to prepare our hearts to receive the infant Jesus once again. This Advent, as I recovered from cancer surgery and treatments, I decided the best way to prepare my heart was to stop actively seeking inspiration for my writing, and to simply allow God to nourish my soul. To that end, I stopped writing my blog and also didn’t do the “Watching for Christ” Facebook devotions. Instead, each morning I asked God, “What would you have me know today?” and then journaled any answers that came to me. Christmas is now only a couple of days away. What have I learned about preparing my heart in these past weeks?

The image of taking and holding the infant Jesus keeps coming to me. I like to imagine I would do this as I would receive any precious gift- with my arms open, extended, ready to embrace and treasure what I am about to be given. But to actually open my arms as I eagerly and lovingly reach for Jesus, I may need to do something else first. Perhaps I need to let go of another worldly treasure. Perhaps I need to stop wrapping my arms around me in self-protection. Perhaps I need to release my fear of opening myself to something new. What do I need to release in order to fully embrace Jesus?

I believe we tend to tightly cling to those things that give us a sense of control. For me, it is releasing my fear that cancer may return one day. I try to do everything possible to be healthy- eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, rest well, nourish my spirit, and take treatments and supplements. But in the end, I am not in control of my outcome. Whether or not the cancer returns is out of my control. But if I let go of this fear in order to embrace the love of God as shown in the infant Jesus, I receive the gifts of hope, trust, joy and peace- NO MATTER WHAT.

We can do our best, choose wisely, live well, be prepared, organize our plans, and prayerfully ask for guidance. But we cannot control our outcomes. How wonderful that the infant Jesus is our perfect example of this! Jesus lived a life of faithful obedience, even though he couldn’t control his outcome: his death on a cross. How wonderful that God then turned this terrible outcome into victory, with Jesus’ glorious resurrection!

This Christmas, I will open myself to eagerly embrace the infant Jesus, who comes to me in lowly circumstances. I will draw him close to my heart and ask him to replace my fearful need to control my outcome. I will know- because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection- that God will make GOOD from anything that comes my way. And this is the most precious gift of all. Come, dear Jesus. Come.

Walking Gently on the Journey

You could say that I’m a wimp. I don’t consider myself much of a fighter, and I try to avoid conflict as much as possible. But after my cancer diagnosis, I began to notice courageous words and phrases such as “the battle against cancer”, “you can fight this”, “working to beat this disease”, and “waging the war on cancer”. Battle. Fight. Beat. War. Strength. Enemy. Brave. Tough. Survivor. Words that didn’t describe or inspire me. And so I began to wonder if I wasn’t going to do well. Right from the start I didn’t feel as if I had the grit and determination to FIGHT this battle I had been given. My lack of fighting instincts actually frightened me. How could I take on all of the aggressive qualities that I needed to be cancer free? 

Fortunately, over time I realized that the best way for me to face my cancer is to remain my authentic self. As much as possible, I should live each day as I would normally hope to live- and for me, it is to walk gently on the journey. The qualities that I admire in people- gentleness, humility, peacefulness, kindness and joy- are still the ones I can strive to have. I can continue to eat nutritiously, walk regularly, cherish relationships, remain aware of God’s presence and healing love, appreciate nature’s beauty, explore my creativity, and savor the moments of each day. I can see my cancer simply as an unwelcome guest that will soon be leaving, instead of an enemy to be defeated. The chemotherapy is doing the battle for me. I only have to keep walking the journey and living each day as abundantly and as healthfully as possible. 

We can see how God created all living things with unique gifts to thrive in this world. Animals may have keen eyesight, the ability to fly or run swiftly, sharp claws, camouflaged bodies, or protective shells. Trees and plants may have strong limbs, protective thorns, or flexible stems. Each quality helps all of nature to endure the adversities that life brings.  

God has given each of us unique gifts for thriving in this world, too. When we face troubles or adversity of any kind, we have an opportunity to truly discover our authentic selves and our unique gifts. The qualities we would like to emulate can be tested and strengthened as we endure and overcome our troubles. Whatever trouble we face, we can hone our personal integrity by discovering and letting our true selves shine. Is patience one of your strengths? Perhaps you will find it helpful when trials seem unending. Are you optimistic? You may be able to find the bright side of this trouble you’re facing. Do you wish to be more kind? Even in our trials, we can find opportunities to bless others.  

We do know that when we encounter trouble- even if we use our unique qualities- we may not be able to control our outcome. But we are making the best of each moment we are given. We are living with the integrity of being the person God created us to be. I’d rather live this one day as my true self than to live a long but inauthentic, unfulfilling life. Wouldn’t you? 

I hope you treasure this day as you savor each moment of blessing or trial; discovering who God created you to be, and living as your true, authentic self.

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Bicycle Lessons

“Are you angry with God?” The question was asked of us as Jim and I endured quite a trying summer that included chemotherapy, open-heart surgery, cancer surgery, and water damage to our basement after torrential rains. 

God is beyond our understanding. I can’t even begin to explain God, or how God “works”, or what God’s reasoning is for the way life happens. This is the sacred mystery of our faith, of our trust in the One who loves us- who loves us way beyond our worldly comprehension. But when I consider God, I like to think of bicycle lessons. 

I’m thankful that my parents gave me a bicycle when I was young- and coached me as I learned to ride it! Oh, the “adventures” I had. Bicycle riding gave me a new sense of freedom and a bit of independence. I rode my bike to a summer recreation program, to the library, and to visit friends. I cruised the neighborhood sidewalks, pulling fearless friends wearing roller skates behind me. I also learned important lessons: keeping my balance, watching for cars and hazards in the road, leaning with the bike for turns, and braking gently on downhill slopes. I remember the exhilaration of riding with “no hands” on the handlebars, the feel of the wind on my face when I pedaled as fast as I could, the joy of being momentarily airborne over bumps on my route.  

When I became a parent, I realized the sense of anxiety and surrender my parents felt when they taught me to ride my bike. As much as I wanted my children to know the joy, freedom and independence of cycling… I knew there would be falls and injuries and tears. Parents KNOW what can happen. We hold our breath as our precious child wobbles down the road, wondering when the fall will occur and what injuries there will be. We hope and pray that our child will always be careful, will make wise decisions and be vigilant, and will not encounter any trouble on the way. But we must surrender that responsibility to them as they ride away. 

I like to think of God as a loving parent who sets us free to learn to travel this journey of life, much like a bicycle ride that is filled with moments of exhilaration but also times of pain. God provides the teaching and the coaching. We keep improving in our “life-cycling” skills- NOT because God is pushing us off our bikes to teach us lessons- but because God is allowing us to keep navigating and asking for help as we go. We can always turn to God for instruction and direction. And when we do stumble or fall, God is lovingly there to heal and comfort us. 

So every day, I am thanking God for this gift of life, this bicycle ride we are journeying together. I have felt the joy of times when life is smooth and easily navigated. I have felt the comfort of God’s love and healing when life is a series of tumbles and injuries. I have treasured the beautiful scenery along my route. I have been forever blessed by wonderful companions who have joined me on the way. Yes, the ride has been difficult and painful at times, but oh, I have had such joy-filled, delightful moments with precious loved ones!  

Certainly I hope that my life, this bicycle journey, will be long and abundant; filled with many beautiful sights, times with wonderful loved ones and friends, and new experiences to enjoy. But I also gratefully know that, should I hit a sudden bump in the road, God will be there to pick me up and carry me home. And I will be so very blessed and thankful that I even had one moment of the sheer joy of the wind on my face, of being airborne and free, on this amazing ride we call life.