Fuzzy Bills

We are under siege from a small, non-biting coastal pest known as the Fuzzy Bill. These small, mosquito-like insects are attacking the Outer Banks in hordes with the passion and fury of White Walkers on a winter prowl. They are heartless, mindless and unstoppable. People are literally scooping up bucketfuls of these things from their pools and porches. Fuzzy Bills, also known as midges, love water and light, so you have to strategically race from the car to the front door in the evenings, making sure all of your party has arrived at the door together (just like at a restaurant) before you can open it and woooosh in as one body. Even with that tactic, you’ll get about 200 Fuzzies in the door with you. Vacationers are complaining that they can’t enjoy the decks of their rentals due to the proliferation of bugs.

And to add to the fun, midges attract spiders. Yes, spiders. When they descend in swarms, the spiders get super excited and emerge in your house to build large, sticky webs in hopes of catching a crunchy meal. There’s nothing better than annoying flying things that increase the spider population. Basically we just try to stay indoors with the lights off until they leave.

Usually I am not one to question the majesty of God’s creation, yet I wonder why the Fuzzy Bills even exist. They don’t pollinate flowers like the bee, they don’t add to our beauty like the firefly….why, God, WHY?

A little research gave me the answer. Midges are a very important part of the aquatic ecosystem. The larvae are laid in the water and exist off of marine debris, thus cleaning the water like a Britta filter. The adult midges provide food for fish and predatory aquatic insects. So these seemingly useless annoyances actually contribute to the cleanliness of our water and the health of our fish. And here in the Outer Banks, we live off of our water and our fishing industry.

Did you ever think that way about people? You probably know someone whose contribution to the world seems minimal. Perhaps they appear lazy, distant, or just unconnected. Yet like the Fuzzy Bill, that person just might turn out to have a purpose, and is useful in ways that aren’t as obvious to the naked eye.

Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” 

God always invites us to take a second look, and offer a second chance. He urges us out of our comfort zone to explore people who are off-putting from the outside, and to see them as he sees them. Even the most broken person has something to teach us about compassion and patience. The addicts, the criminals, the unrepentant, and the rest of the “not-us” people are precious to God, and thus should be precious to us.

I know a young woman who succumbed to heroin addiction. For years it was her master. Several attempts at rehab were unsuccessful. Her mother would reach out to me for prayer, and we prayed hard every time. This mother never saw her daughter as an hopeless addict. She saw her as a lost child of God. Eventually, finally, the daughter remembered her purpose, and rehab took hold. She now is a bright and shining star; she is a well sought after personal trainer, newly married, and has been clean and sober for four years. It would have been easy to have written her off, but her mother looked into her child’s deep waters, and believed she was called to a better purpose.

Who is God calling you to see in a different light today? Who needs a second chance? To see as God sees is a thing of beauty. To look deeper than surface appearances is to be Christ-like. Beauty might only be skin deep, but so is someone’s attitude. They may be hiding pain, depression, addiction, intense loneliness, a need for attention…you won’t know until you dive into their deep waters and seek to understand their heart. Give it a try and learn the why behind someone’s who. You just might be Jesus to someone today.

Focus

Dogs love walks. They may not like leashes, gentle leaders, other dogs on the street, or rules, but in general, dogs love walks. When I am walking Georgia, her intense focus on the task has almost pulled my arm out of the socket. We live in a cul-de-sac, so every single day we walk in the same direction. We may add a street at the end, but every day, twice a day, we walk the same street, pass the same houses, and greet the same neighbors. Yet Georgia walks with such gusto and purpose, it’s as though every walk is a new and exiting venture. And don’t try to talk to her when you’re walking; she is busy concentrating.

You’ve watched kids do the same thing. Give a kid a Lego project, and watch her tongue slip out of the side of her mouth as focus draws her in and the background activity fades away. The ability to tune-out in order to focus-in is a gift from God, and has brought us all through driver’s exams, final papers, graduation, scoring the touchdown, childbirth, accomplishing the big project at work, and has even saved our lives when the surgeon’s focus was accurate. Olympians, politicians and three year olds know the value of focusing.

But even the strongest among us can occasionally lose focus. Or maybe it’s a matter of shifting our focus to the wrong things. We can focus a lot of time, energy and attention to things around us that are not going carry us forward to the goal of being citizens of heaven. All day long our focus can shift to useless things like comparing ourselves to all those happy, beautiful (fake) families on Face Book, envying the coworker’s expensive car and wondering why you don’t have one, clicking on a friend’s vacation video, reading announcements of someone’s child who got straight A’s and won four school awards….all these things are focus-stealers that take you down wrong paths. Too much time on Instagram can lead to Instagrim, where you get caught in a sticky comparison trap that makes your vision blur. When you do that, you lose sight of what’s really important.

So what’s really important?

Seeking a relationship with the One who makes us beautiful and whole.

Building a partnership with the One who will transform our earthly bodies into glorious ones like his own.

Staying on the right track and living a life worthy of the cross.

Focusing on God, and letting the rest of it go. All of it.

Philippians 3:15-21

So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision – you’ll see it yet!

16 Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it. 17 Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal. 18 There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I’ve warned you of them many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s Cross.

19 But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites. 20 But there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.

Gracious and Loving God,

Help me to focus wholly on you today. May my eyes gaze only on your Word, may my ears hear only the whispering of your Holy Spirit, and may my heart be set only on doing your will. And please bless the dogs. AMEN

Photo by Sherri Henderson.

You’ve Got a Friend

A few summers ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to see the Broadway musical, “Beautiful”, which is about the life of singer and songwriter Carole King. Her story is fascinating. I had no idea how many songs she has written, and how reluctant she was to sing her own compositions. Many of her greatest efforts wererecorded by someone else, as she took “second chair” to somebody else’s great talent. It is fitting that one of her best known works was recorded by her friend James Taylor: (ear worm alert! You’ll have this stuck in your head all day!)

When you’re down and troubled
And you need some love and care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night
You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend

King, an extraordinary talent on her own, served as a type of “Barnabas” to Taylor. Forty years later, they still tour together.

Barnabas was an encourager to Paul, and his presence and actions brought the early church into focus. He gave Paul the center stage and stood with him as the church was growing and expanding beyond Jerusalem:

Acts 11:22-26 New International Version (NIV)

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

When I think back to my own times of trouble, I realize that God sent me some pretty incredible”Barnabas” friends along the way. I have been prayed over, lifted up, listened to and loved through many trials and tribulations. Every day I have an opportunity to walk my dog with a true friend who bends her ear and offers great counsel. I am blessed with two running partners who embody Taylor’s lyrics, as when I call out their names, they come running, (see what I did there?) offering me a safe and nonjudgmental space to be myself and WHINE as we put in our miles.

Who in your life needs you to Barnabas them today? Who would thrive under your encouraging and uplifting words? Who needs reminding that they are loved unconditionally, and cherished by the creator of the universe, who offers life abundant? Someone you know needs encouragement today.

Barnabas’ entire life was focused on bringing people to our ultimate friend, Jesus. Jesus was the kind of friend of whom it was said:

John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Everyone needs a friend like him.

My grandmother once told me that to have a friend, you need to be a friend. I bet God has put someone in your life right now that needs your friendship. There is someone in your life right now that needs to be reminded of Jesus’ love for them. Make the call, send the text, reach out to someone who is hurting and alone, and tell them “you’ve got a friend”. You just might save a life.

Night Terrors

Have you ever wished to go back to your childhood so that you could sleep with your stuffed animal and feel the instant security and peace that your old friend would bring? Somehow just pulling that fluffy thing into your chest as the lights went out made all the scary things go away. A warm feeling of not being alone replaced the fear of separation from parents, Watching children cradle their “lovies” gives a parent a sense of security too, as we reluctantly close the door and whisper goodnight to the two friends snuggled together.

It is our fervent hope that the safe haven of their sleep won’t be interrupted by night terrors. Night terrors are common in childhood, and are thought to be the way the subconscious expresses daytime fears and stress that found no voice.Watching a child have one is just as terrifying for the parent.

Typically we grow out of night terrors, but they seem to be replaced in adulthood by a similar sleep disruptor: night guilts. Night guilts occur when your overtired brain lays its weary head down, only to immediately begin to replay everything you didn’t get accomplished that day, every harsh word you said (or heard), every feeling of failure, worrying about everything, the oppression of “unfinished business”, etc. Throw in a little stress about tomorrow’s list of things to feel bad about, and you are in a full blown night guilt insomniafest. Bring out the jugglers. Oh, wait, did I remember to hire the jugglers?? What will they wear, should I coordinate my outfit with their costumes?? Rats, why didn’t I hire the dancing elephant instead?

And this all gets stuck on “replay” in a continuous loop.

Next time you find yourself reaching for the light switch at 3AM, read this:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

“For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”

When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep, I try to drive out all those unprofitable, useless, stupid sleep-stealing mind guilts and imagine myself hidden and secure under the Father’s wings. I feel the strength of his pinions protecting me from the incoming arrows of my negative thoughts. His shield bounces away every worry from causing permanent damage to my psyche, and these imaginings help in quieting the insomniafest that rages within me.

“Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge

no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.”

So tonight, when you fall into your bed, hear God saying this to you:

“Because you hold fast to me in love, I will deliver you;
    I will protect you, because you know my name.
When you call to me, I will answer you;
    I will be with you in trouble;
    I will rescue you and honor you.
With long life I will satisfy you
    and show you my salvation.”

Isn’t that so much better than a teddy bear?

Mr. Elephant, courtesy of Connor James Callahan.

The Sign of the Fish

The ichthus is an ancient secret sign of Christianity. Born of a need for protection during the Roman persecution in the early 1st Century, the ichthus was a way for Christians to identify one another. It had been a pagan fertility symbol, so it already existed in the world. Legend has it that when two Christians met on the road, one would draw half of it in the sand and the other would complete it to signify they were safe. The word ICHTHUS is an acrostic of the Greek words, Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. 

Today the ichthus is used commercially to indicate to customers that a particular business is Christian owned. Folks have ichthuses on their business cards, beach cottages, cars, etc. May I just stop here and offer this PSA: if you have an ichthus on your vehicle, please do not cut me off on the highway and shoot me the bird. You are not being a positive witness to the Savior. Fish and birds should not be connected in that way. OK, back to the holy talk.

A friend and I were chatting on beach last week, and she shared a wonderful faith story with me. She was going through a particularly difficult time, and the hope and answers she sought were elusive and long in coming. She and her husband got away to the coast for some rest, and she walked the beach alone every morning, thinking, crying, praying, and hoping.

As she described this, I thought how similar we are. The reason I call these devotionals “At Water’s Edge” is because I have always found the peace I lacked at the beach. The rhythm of the waves, the bright reflection of the sun as it diamond-sparkles on the water, the sound of happy gulls overhead, have often brought the calm that I was lacking into my soul. I, too, flee to any water’s edge in times of stress, complexity, and chaos.

As she turned around one morning to go back to the hotel, she made her way down to the water’s edge where the waves were breaking gently on the shore so that she could rinse the sand off her feet. Her prayers that morning were those of surrender and submission. She was ready to give up her burden to God. The situation had become so heavy and worrisome, it was dominating her life and stealing her joy. It was in that moment that the wave at her feet receded, revealing this:

The sign of the fish. The sign of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the one who saves us. Nestled there in the sand among the footprints of the seagulls, another Christian had marked a symbol of hope, which she discovered just at the moment she had given hers up.

The moment of surrender is often exactly what God is waiting for. When we finally yield, he can finally come in. Holding tight to our burdens, trying feverishly and fervently to work it out, thinking we can actually control things that are truly beyond our control, are things God will wait out. It’s not until we loosen our grip that our hands become empty to receive his goodness.

What do you need to let go of today? What worrisome thing are you obsessing over to the point of distraction? How long have you been holding your breath, hoping for something to change? Breathe out. And breathe in the Son of God, the savior. Kneel before him and LET GO of that which you can’t control anyway. Lay that burden down at the foot of the cross, and look around for signs that God is active in your situation. You’ll find them at the water’s edge.

Philippians 4:6-7 New International Version (NIV)

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Last Picked for Kickball

There was a time in Elementary School when I felt like the least, the last, and the lost. The cool kids’ table had no seat for me. I felt the sting of being at the bottom of the popularity heap. While I was never terribly bullied or completely left out, my low position on the social strata of my school left me wanting inclusion and acceptance.

I experienced some bullying when I grew way too quickly and towered over everyone in the third grade, including the teacher. Because children tend to reject what is not normal, my height (5’6” in the third grade) resulted in my being called names. The one that brought the most hurt was “Jolly Green Giant”. This was yelled at me the Monday I proudly wore a brand new green fur jacket that we had purchased at the Berlin Auction over the weekend. I loved this jacket, and was relieved that it actually fit. It replaced a jacket I had definitely grown out of. But the name calling was too much, and so on Tuesday, I wore the four-sizes-too-small coat to school. Or tried to.

My mother, wise and wonderful, asked me why I didn’t want to wear the new green one. I hesitated to tell her about the name calling, so I tried to pass it off as a problem of the new jacket being uncomfortable and not warm enough. (Winter in New Jersey can be frigid, and we had to walk to school. Uphill. Both ways.) She wasn’t buying it.

I can still remember her words to me that morning. She reminded me of how much I loved the jacket, told me that it fit well, and said that if I gave into the pressure of capitulating to the name callers, I would never overcome them. But if I wore my jacket proudly and ignored them, they would eventually stop.

I wore the jacket and she was right. Only one kid persisted in yelling, “Hey Jolly Green Giant!” at me for a few more days, and I heard my mother’s strength coming out of my mouth as I yelled back, “Well, at least I’m JOLLY!”

Yes, I was sassy at a young age.

I learned an important lesson about rejection that day: we fear rejection because we want to be accepted by those around us. But we should never, never, let anyone’s opinion dictate our self-esteem and feelings of self worth.

I heard a remarkable sermon about a woman who also felt left out. She was the lowest gal on the totem pole of life, rejected by society and worse, rejected by Jesus. I have to say that this passage has always bothered the heck out of me. Until now.

In the 7th Chapter of Mark we meet a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon. She comes to Jesus and asks him to cast the demon out. He tells her, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She boldly replies, “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The pastor explained two key understandings:

1. The Canaanite culture the woman belonged to were Satan worshippers; this is how the child was possessed.

2. The word “dogs” in its original translation is understood as “puppies”, and therefore they were understood as members of the family…but not the status of children.

So instead of rejecting the woman, Jesus is telling her that her choice to follow Satan was an impediment to her request. By worshipping Satan, she rejected God, yet Jesus included her. He saw her outside of the community, and he felt her sense of rejection. He then granted her request and healed her daughter.

NOBODY is outside of Jesus’ worldview. Nobody is separated from him, unless they choose to separate themselves and remain separated.

Romans 8:31-39 New Living Translation (NLT)

Nothing Can Separate Us from God’s Love

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Hurt and rejection are things that the world gives us. But in Christ, we are known and cherished. There may be a time in your life, past, present, or yet to come, where you feel left out and unwanted. Know that the Savior of your life sees you, wants you, and accepts you as you are.

Photo by Kathy Weeks.

Shed it

We are in full blown soft shell crab season here on Colington Island. A casual drive along Colington Road reveals rows and rows of shedders all over the place. Shedders are the shallow, open tanks used to harvest the crabs. Blue crabs are placed in water-filled trays and watched carefully until they begin to shed their shells. The shell comes off to facilitate the crab’s growth. When it begins to come off, there is a small window of opportunity to harvest it before the new shell begins to grow. The crabber must retrieve it in an hour or so once the shell has fully peeled off. Soft shell crabs are a fantastic delicacy, as they can be eaten whole in their shell-free state with no pickin’.

Shedding is a 24 hour operation for the crabber. When I drive home at night during the season, I can see the light bulbs that are stung overhead all lit, with crabbers moving to and fro, bent over in their labor. The crabbers must get up (or stay up) every three hours to capture that exact moment when the shell is shed and the crab is ripe for processing. It is a fascinating and lucrative industry.

The entire process is amazing to me. I see my community working hard through the night to provide for their families. I see local restaurants celebrating the harvest with tasty dishes that you can only get here. Colington’s local restaurant, The Salt Box Cafe, sits directly across the street from a row of shedders. You know if you order soft shells there, they were swimming last night!

Two parts of this process capture my imagination.

1. The crab has to shed its shell in order to grow.

2. There is a small, defined opportunity to harvest the crab.

The story of Moses also begins with being “drawn out of the water.” His Hebrew mother had to hide him as an infant in a reed basket and float him down a river so that he wouldn’t be killed. He was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian in the palace. But time came to shed that shell and reclaim his people, so that he might be ready to lead the oppressed Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. God grew him into a great leader, but not before his old self was shed away.

How about you? Where is God calling you to shed something so that he can grow you into the person he is calling you to be? How about your attitudes? In this politically divisive society, many of us are walking around in hard shells of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” We have settled into the mucky bottom, entrenched in our positions, encased in a shell of self righteousness. God can’t use that. The harder you become, the harder it will be for you to be of any use in the kingdom. And for what? This present darkness will eventually pass in our lifetime. Will your vitriol be worth it in the end? Where do you want to be when the shouting is over? It’s time to shed that shell of hardness toward you neighbor and embody Christ’s peace to the world.

The harvest time is short. We have one brief moment on this planet to either work from a stance of love or a stance of hate. To either build up, or tear down. God is reaching down into the shedder and calling us to leave behind all the nasty posts, the divisive memes, the snappy retorts, and grow the heck up.

The Harvest Is Plentiful, the Laborers Few

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

You are invited today to become a laborer with Christ, and be a witness to peace, compassion and healing. God calls us to speak words of love into a harassed and helpless world. It’s time to shed anything in your spirit that keeps you from this call. The time is ripe; don’t miss it.

I Need a Hero

This is what my neighbor heard me say as he opened the door at my knock. I had just had a very loud and impressive tire blow-out on the way to the airport. Fortunately, it did not happen on a five-lane Virginia highway, nor our congested 50MPH Bypass, or worse, the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge. It happened after I turned around because my car had started to shimmy, and my daughter and I decided to go back and get the truck so we could drop the car at the repair place. We didn’t know what was wrong, but something obviously was wrong. So it happened as I turned onto my own street.

My neighbor quickly grabbed his tools, his jack, and his work assistant, and in less than half an hour my spare was on the car and we were on our way to the repair shop. A second neighbor stopped to offer help, and there were at least three others on the street that I felt that I could have called on.

The tire repair guy listened to my story and told me I should go and buy a lottery ticket, since I was having such a lucky day. (That’s how bad a breakdown on the bridge is: if your tire explodes anywhere else, it’s a lucky day). We laughed and joked a little more, and without correcting him, I told him I thought I was very blessed. There is a difference.

Luck is success or failure apparently brought by chance, rather than through one’s own actions. It is arbitrary, a happenstance, something that randomly occurs with no predictably or pattern. Blessings are the purview of a gracious and giving God. There is a deliberateness to his action. He is consistent. He is always working for our good, and is generous in his blessings. And sometimes they come in disguise.

My biggest blessing today, not counting the fact that I didn’t blow out the BRIDGE, is the kindness of my neighbors. I am blessed with good neighbors. In so many places in the world today, communities live in groups of strangers. Neighbors don’t know each other’s names. There is no interest in exchanging more than a compulsory nod of the head when passing on the street.

God has blessed me by placing me on a street where I am known and cared for. I can’t walk my dog down the street without people coming out to give her a treat….which is counter productive to the reason why we are walking…but how can I deny her the blessing from her neighbor?

Jesus once explained the neighborliness of being a good neighbor. It is interesting to note that it was in response to a question about how to receive eternal life.

Luke 10:30-37 “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

Want eternal life? Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. So go out of your way today to be a good neighbor. Smile. Wave. Learn somebody’s name. Be friendly, take a casserole, weed a flower bed, or be someone’s hero. Good neighbors are a blessing, so go be one.

And good news, Outrigger Drive; you’re going to heaven, based on dog treats and blown tires alone.

Automatic Thoughts

Every time I go to the hairdresser, I learn something new. The conversation at my salon yesterday revolved around “automatic thoughts”. These are unbidden images or words that flash into your mind in a seemingly random occurrence. One person described having an automatic thought on the way to work as she was driving. She instantly “saw” a big wreck where she watched herself running to a burning car to help. Anyone who has ever driven the Bypass in the Outer Banks on a Saturday in the summer can relate to this sudden image while driving. It’s dangerous out there, folks!

Automatic thoughts can be negative or positive. I find in times of great concentration or stress that my mind will conveniently supply an automatic thought of someplace I’d rather be. Suddenly I’ll flash on walking around the lake in a beautiful town called Celebration in Florida, or seeing a botanical display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Those images will creep up without warning, giving me a 5 second respite from my work. When automatic thoughts are negative and related to emotional triggers, they can be problematic. Help can be found in working with a cognitive therapist to untangle the auto response. In the case of the car wreck image, it made the person drive more carefully and be alert to other drivers, which is a good thing.

I have always longed for a way to help people develop an automatic thought response that brings the peace, hope and contentment that they lack. That is why I began writing these devotionals. When folks are in a deep hole of despair, the stress of their situation only pulls them farther and farther down. It is in times like these that the automatic thoughts can be most harmful. Sad, hopeless and despondent thoughts just continue to spiral in times of trouble. I want to be able to help them manufacture a positive automatic response that would focus on thoughts that uplift, and rebuke the darkness.

I often wonder if that was what the Psalmists were doing. The Psalms were written as songs for the journey. They describe great challenges, intense pain, and life threatening situations, but they are balanced with great anticipation of God’s activity and presence. The positive images far outweigh the negative, serving as point-counter-point to the dark. Look at Psalm 23, one of the most beloved Psalms:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

David wrote that, and David had trouble. Most of it was a result of his own activity, but he had trouble indeed. And yet in his darkest moment, he forced himself to counter his trouble with a positive auto response and wrote “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME.”

Today, let’s try to create an auto response like David. When the negative thoughts try to intrude, say back to them, “GOD IS WITH ME.” When bad images flash unbidden in your mind, shake them off and say, “GOD IS WITH ME.” If you feel yourself slipping into the deep, stand up and yell, “GOD IS WITH ME.”

Go in peace. God is with you.

Photo by Kathy Weeks.

Darn you, Little Debbie

Imagine the scene. I am walking down the aisles in the local Kroger, minding my own business. It is early September, many years ago, and I have ten thousand things running through my brain as I shop. “Get broccoli/what time is that meeting tomorrow/don’t forget cream cheese/need to work on my sermon tonight…and BAM. I am suddenly in the Little Debbie snack aisle, and my unconscious brain is chanting, “Oatmeal Creams for Jamie, Swiss Rolls for Sarah”.

I stop my cart to search for these items, and suddenly I am overwhelmed with a tidal wave of grief. I literally burst into tears as I realize that there are no kids at my house that require stocking up on school lunch items anymore. My youngest has just joined her sister at college, and I am….wait for it…..an EMPTY NESTER. Lord, I detest that label.

These life transitions for parents can be extraordinarily painful. The journey from preschool to Kindergarten, (oh my gosh, the bus with the big kids? NO!) then leaving the security of Elementary School for the wildness of Middle School, (Lord, have mercy!) through High School, (ride that river of denial!) to college, (which goes so fast, it actually lasts 2.3 months in mom-time) is hard.

Then they have the nerve to leave home forever to start a career, marry someone and live in another state…..had I fully understood that having children would be a series of letting go that gets harder each time, I might have just skipped over having kids and gone right to being a Nana. Oh, wait…

This time of year brings back all those tender ‘see-ya’s” and ‘come home soons’. I’m watching parents of seniors every Sunday as they move slowly into the reality of their impending September. It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. I see the impact coming, I want to warn them away, but I can’t stop looking, and I can’t do anything to help them.

And they are sitting on the same pew as a man who is desperately gripping the back of the pew in front of him, hoping to remain standing on the first Sunday in 61 years that his wife will no longer be sitting beside him. Across the aisle is a young mother soothing her two young children and wondering how in the world they will survive her husband’s sudden and abrupt departure from their marriage and their home. I see the woman behind her tearing up at the mention of losing a loved one; it is the seventh anniversary of her father’s death.

Everyone has lost someone. Life is a process of saying goodbye to places, things and people we love. Where can we go when our hearts are broken?

Psalm 147

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
    he gathers the exiles of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars
    and calls them each by name.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
    his understanding has no limit.

Sing to the Lord with grateful praise;
    make music to our God on the harp.

The Psalmist make a bold and life-sustaining claim that the God who ORDERED THE NUMBER OF STARS IN THE SKY sees your hurt and knows your pain.

What does that mean to you today? We are invited to take every wound to the Wounded Healer, Jesus. He will bind up those wounds and gather you up, no matter what exile or dessert you are walking through.

This may actually be the greatest power of the incarnation. By becoming human, God as Jesus walked the painful paths that we walk. He experienced hurt and his heart was also broken. He watched Judas, whom he loved, leave him, and then he left people he loved. He GETS IT. He GETS US. Glory to God, we are known and understood by our great and powerful God.

And parents of seniors, you’ll get through it. And soon enough it will be December, and they’ll be back, with a ton of stories, experiences, and laundry.

Photo by Brian Moore.