Thursday, February 27, 2014

For The Birds

Today I'm pulling out one from the archives! I have been asking God to show me what it means to have all my needs completely satisfied through Jesus alone.  And sometimes, I just need to remember that He is enough.  I don't have it all figured out.  I ask new questions every day.  But this journey of allowing Jesus to open my eyes to be more aware of His presence in the everyday and in the ordinary is slowly changing my life. Today He has reminded me of His unwavering faithfulness in finishing what He has started. He will never run out and there will always be left-overs.

But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
~Isaiah 40:31 (NKJV)

MARCH 26, 2013
While in San Diego over Spring Break, I found myself mesmerized as I listened to fascinating facts about the animals at the San Diego Zoo.   The bus lurched to a squeaky stop in front of a large flock of flamingos.  Ordinarily, I am not super impressed with these tall pinkish-orange birds.  Not that they aren’t beautiful, but, come on, we were eager to see the polar bear, panda bear, and big cats.  I would have been fine with riding right on by the birds.

Our guide was telling us that the flamingo’s coloring is a result of the beta-Carotene in their diet.  This is the same stuff that made my babies’ noses orange when they fell in love with sweet potatoes and carrots and would eat nothing else!

I listened as our cheerful tour guide described why some of the flamingos look greyish-white instead of bright pink or orange.  She told us very matter-of-factly that those were the mommas.  She said that all flamingos are born with grey feathers and that what they eat gives them their famous coloring.  So, the birds that lacked that bright, vibrant appearance, well, those were the tired-out, worn-out, exhausted mommas who are too busy feeding their babies to take care of themselves. 

“Huh," I thought to myself, "incredibly familiar."  As I sat there taking in everything our guide was saying, it hit me… hard.  I saw myself in those flamingos.   Only a momma who is ragged and worn around the edges as she rolls out of bed (sometimes at the crack of dawn and sometimes in the middle of the night) knows the energy it requires to muster up the patience, the determination, and the will power to face a day with little ones (or big ones) who are in constant need.  In fact, like many other mommas, I sorta started this whole dance a bit weary, as it took way longer than I bargained for to be a momma who actually got to hold her baby.  If you are there, you know how worn out the journey leaves you as you carry around emptiness in your arms.

And yet, all these years later, I wish I had eight arms like an octopus some days.  Or a shell like a clam or turtle to escape the never ending requests that start with “Mommy, I need.....”  Sometimes, I wish I was as fast as a cheetah so when another a potty request is made after we are all buckled in the car, I can run like the wind and arrive everywhere on time instead of always running late. 

As I stared at these beautiful birds, all of a sudden, I could pick out all the momma flamingos.  Just as the tour guide had explained, they were the ones that were pale in comparison to the birds who were clearly well nourished.  They were easy to spot because they didn’t look as healthy as the other birds, who wore the evidence of a body well-fed.  On days that Jake and Lilly are in pre-school, I often find myself wondering aimlessly around places like Target just enjoying the fact that I don’t have two little ones trying to climb out of the cart.  But without fail, I always run across women who (even if they don’t have their children in tow) have that weary and exhausted look that I’ve come to recognize in my own mirror.

This morning I read Isaiah 40:31, a verse I know well and love deeply.  I couldn’t help but make the bird connection as I asked for strength for the day before me.

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

I love that it doesn’t say “those who strive really, really hard on their own…”
Or “those who muster up all of their left over strength from the day before…”
Or “those who have it all together…”

Those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength.
Those who trust in the LORD shall renew their strength.

I love the idea of soaring like an eagle, far above the world, strong and steady and swift.  I read in one of my bible’s footnotes that an eagle sheds its feathers in the beginning of spring and takes on a new, youthful appearance.  With new plumage comes renewed strength.  Psalm 103:5 refers to this phenomenon as the writer declares, “your youth is renewed like the eagles.”  Oh, how I need my youth renewed!

This past weekend, I had a night out with two other moms.  As we sat around the dinner table exchanging silly stories of potty training and sibling rivalry, I realized that we had so much in common with those pale grey birds I saw at the zoo.  Our time together was refreshing.  Like the eagle, we also share the need to have our feather's made over. But unlike the flamingos, it isn’t what we eat that made us prettier, stronger, more youthful; it’s what we allow to fill us that gives us what is needed to be a strong bird.  The strength is not our own- it’s God’s, and the only way to that strength is in realizing that we are weak and do not have what it takes.  I think that is why the word wait is so important in this verse. 

Waiting is all about trusting.  When I get impatient and try to go ahead of God and do things on my own, it’s because I’m choosing not to trust Him.  When I try to muster up my own strength, I fall short every time.  When I try to quench my thirst and satisfy my hunger with things other than Him, I grow weary and fatigued.

The end of this beautiful verse in Isaiah speaks of running and walking without being tired, worn-out or exhausted.  It seems a bit out of order that the running would be before the walking, but I think it might mean that once we choose to focus on running the race set before us, the next step is to chose to walk in faith each day, beginning with one step, then another and another, relying on Jesus each day for the strength we need.  Though it might seem like a renewed appearance will produce strength, spiritual strength comes from above and is found within.  2 Corinthians 4:16 explains the difference between outward and inward strength:  “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day."

The Hebrew word for renew is chalaph, which means to change for the better, show newness, or sprout again.  It reminds me of trimming back branches at springtime so that new growth can burst forth.  Just as the eagle in the spring sheds those old, used-up feathers, we can shed our miserable attempts to be enough to those who need us.  As we shrug off the idea that we can handle everything, an amazing thing happens:  we get a change of clothes, beautiful and new, given to us by the One who has an endless supply of strength.

A woman who recognizes her own weakness and need for Jesus will be renewed with every ounce of strength she needs to face her day, whatever that day may hold. Jesus has enough for the weary and for the worn out.  He has enough for the brand-new-mom, the teen-mom who's in way over her head, the waiting-to-be mom, the mom with empty arms and the mom with an empty nest, the lonely mom, the scared-cause-her-kid's-sick mom, the overwhelmed-by-the-daily mom and the one who mothers others.  He’s enough for the one who misses Mom, the one who’s never heard "I love you" from Mom, the one who still holds out hope for a relationship with Mom.

As Jesus fills our hunger and renews our strength, we too will become bright and vibrant and beautiful from the inside out.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Unfolding Beauty

I'm restless like a tea kettle trembling under rising pressure.  I feel fists tightening, anger brewing under the surface. Questions without answers spew from within, adding to the intensity of it.

Why do we clench fists, keep hearts tight and closed? Is it control?  Are we gripping something we don’t possess, deceived into thinking we can find it if we fold into ourselves?

I remember the rose bud the kids and I saw in the drug store yesterday, how they couldn’t wait to take a turn pressing the button that began the process of beauty unfolding in a matter of seconds. 

But hearts aren’t mechanical, and beauty happens over time.

They watched in awe as the flower bloomed, opening up slowly, becoming completely vulnerable there on aisle four.  Inside the very center was a love message in curly letters along with a tiny, plastic heart.  More enthused by the cause and effect accomplished than anything else, the kids raced each other to press the button once more, watching as the flower reversed its bloom and closed its petals.  All I could see in this flower shriveling under the weight of pressure was a fist clenching tightly.

Again and again, they pressed the button that made the flower open and shut.  Open.  Shut. Open.  Shut.  They were in control because of that tiny blue button.  But we do not have control, and pressing a button does not make a life beautiful. Pressing a button does not melt away anger.  Pressing a button does not remove what weighs a relationship down.

As I write these words, my three-year-old places a stethoscope gently against my heart.  He tells me I need a check-up.  Yes, I do.

He is scribbling furiously with a fat, purple crayon in his sister’s Doc McStuffins notepad.  He is working on my diagnosis.  It’s a rare thing that she is letting him play with her things.  He turns the pink pad to me, and examining the fat, loopy scribbles, I ask, “What is it? What’s wrong with me?  Is it my heart, Doc?”

He shakes his head, no, and tells me it’s my arm in a way that makes me wonder if he’s right.  He is so sure of it that he nods an affirmative right before he slaps a bright, pink band-aid on my wrist.

I realize he is right.  A heart issue always shows up elsewhere.  Either arms wrap up in self, folded and closed, or they stretch out to embrace others.  Palms close attempting to gain control or they open up to offer grace.  Fingers can clench tight into fists that shake at the sky or they can lay loose on hands that lift themselves up in simple surrender overhead.

I know the things I’m holding tight are expectations.

Of myself.
Of others.
Of God.

Perhaps the greatest love chapter of all is found in 1 Corinthians 13.  It was read at our wedding.  Maybe you’ve heard it before, too.  I find myself going back for further explanation and deeper meaning again and again.  This love stuff isn’t easy, after all.

"Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening]." 1 Corinthians 13:7 (AMP)

Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, even unmet expectations.
Love is ready to believe the best of every person, because it is looking for the best.
Love's beauty does not fade nor does it wither away.

It seems to me that my eyes are involved in the condition of my heart as well, that where they are directed affects whether my arms are open or folded. It’s choosing what I focus on.  It’s deciding what I will see.

Releasing expectations
Releasing results
Releasing relationships
Releasing the need to understand
Releasing control I never had in the first place

Releasing is what opens arms to receive His love, His peace, and oh yeah, His Grace. This is where Beauty begins.

But I have lost track of Beauty.  Full bloom is the greatest state of beauty, the fat dictionary lying open next my notebook tells me. 

I think back to the week-long cruise to Alaska we took many years ago.  A quiet little town in Canada called Victoria stands out in my mind today.  Even its name makes me smile, as if it is sure of its beauty, of its purpose here on planet Earth. 

Victoria's climate has given it a reputation as the "City of Gardens." This place attracts people from all over the world with its presence of flowers that bloom during the winter and early spring, including crocuses, daffodils, early-blooming rhododendrons, cherry and plum trees.

I’m turning pages in the photo album, staring at the images we captured, memories to keep with us and return to when we need to remember. Then I read these words about this charming city from a memento stuck in between the pages.  Something stirs inside me and makes me read it twice: “Every February there is an annual "flower count" in what for the rest of the country and most of the province is still the dead of winter.”

Beauty. Death. These are found in nature, but they are also the great themes of this life.  And all of a sudden, I have a new appreciation, new awe for this enchanted little city.  This place named Victoria is thriving victoriously over death through its beauty. 

So many different flowers, unique in shape, size and color, yet one thing is common to all.  The center.  None are identical, but all thrive from the central part- the reproductive organ- the heart.

Jesus is my center. 

Just as flowers open, empty hands- not clenched fists- receive grace.  And maybe the most astounding part is this: Jesus is Beauty that multiplies.

What I receive is multiplied not for my benefit, but for others.  Grace received spills out of my hands into the lives of others, because my hands could never hold all of the grace and love that flows from His heart.

In the beginning of creation, on the pages of Genesis 1, I see this repetition of evening, then morning.  Darkness, then light.  A cycle of death and then life and it happens over and over and over again to awake us to remember that morning always follows the darkest, emptiest night. 

And beauty always triumphs over death.

So could it be that blooming means letting the outward petals- like expectations- fall away to make room for His Love unfolding?  Is the uncurling of fingers wrapped around control necessary for extending grace?  Is adjusting my gaze upward instead of inward what leads to recognizing the miracle? 

And now I can see.  This Beauty, this Jesus, He is the only place where expectations may thrive. Placing my hope, my expectations, anywhere but in Him will lead only to withering death.  In Him, there is Beauty and in Him there is Life.  Abundant life that blooms fully in the presence of death.  Fully.  Victoriously. Beautifully.

I can never believe the best about another soul without believing in Jesus.  I can never fully release control without surrendering everything to Jesus.  I can never love fully without Jesus dwelling in my heart, because He is the most genuine, most profound Message of Love, waiting to be revealed. And this Beauty is so much more than an empty promise and a plastic heart. 

This Beauty is life-changing. 
This Beauty is victorious over death. 
This Beauty not only blooms; it multiplies.

In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.  Psalm 5:3 (emphasis added)