The Power of A Gentle Lead

Lily is a lunger. I stopped walking her for a week because a back muscle spasm left me doubtful I possessed the strength to control her without incapacitating myself. Its embarrassing really, an indictment on our dog parenting skills, to have such an ill-behaved dog.

She seems ferocious with her heavy chain collar we bought to walk her. Don’t judge y’all.

It helped a little but didn’t keep her from pulling when she approached the big Collie she dislikes. Some dogs she likes and some she can’t stand. She can’t stand that glorious Collie. It’s hard to know how she judges or what they’re saying to her that sets her off. We just walk past, heads hung, sheepish smiles of apology on our faces as our dog barks her face off.

Our neighbors wouldn’t know she spends most of the time in our home sacked out on a couch or bed, completely docile. She behaves like an attack dog in public. I’m sure we’ve avoided a break in just due to her behavior on walks in our neighborhood.

We went to the pet store to look at lizards, my son’s absolute favorite category of the animal kingdom. We wandered into the leash aisle and browsed a bit before spotting a box with an idyllic picture of a cute dog on a walk.

What must that be like I wondered?

We agreed it was a lot to spend for a thin cord contraption but I’d seen other dog parents using it. Their dogs did what I wanted Lily to do. They walked beside their owner and generally behaved themselves. I admired their behavior and thought I’d like to walk my dog in a similar, calm fashion. My son convinced me the purchase was inevitable.

So, I bought the new lead and wondered what would happen when we put it on Lily. Could this little cord really hold back 35 pounds of dog torque? Ok, you’re laughing but it’s a lot when she she sees a deer and imagines the kill.

Here’s an example of what brings out the killer instinct in our dog…Bambi.

I was doubtful. I saved the receipt and my son and I expressed gratitude that the box wasn’t one of those contraptions that needed a box cutter to open. We opened it without losing a finger and raised our eyebrows. It was small and thin for what it claimed it could accomplish.

We finally figured out how to put it on Lily and everything changed.

Immediately.

She went wherever I led her. A new problem emerged, our leash dragged on the ground and got under her paws. Trucks went by, she hardly noticed. Bunnies jumped and she just glanced at them. We walked by the yard of her arch nemesis, Cujo we call him, and she reacted not a bit.

Lily was a new dog.

A tiny bridle-like leash brought her to submission in an instant. She’s going to get more walks now. She will make new friends. People might break into our house but at least we can show our faces in the neighborhood without folks checking to make sure she’s up to date on her rabies vaccine.

I’m going to look like a queen with my medium sized dog walking right beside me.

Being a city girl…ok, a suburb girl…I never saw the power of a bridle quite so clearly until now. And, of course, it reminds me of more than just controlling animals.

Small things can control big things. Small things can turn powerful things. Small things can do big things. James, Jesus’ brother, connected this phenomena to our personal lives. Our tongues. Our speech.

It wreaks havoc in our lives, sets things on fire. The only way out, the only way to bring it in check is to submit our whole selves to Jesus Christ’s gentle lead.

This year I can’t believe some of the things said by people I used to respect. Insults that were off limits in the past got plastered across social media. I grieved the evidence of what lay in the hearts of so many. It became evident we couldn’t control much and tongues wagged, set things on fire and burned relationships to the ground.

I can’t believe things I’ve said in my life, things I deeply regret and needed forgiven. When I begin to see the power of my words it is sobering. How can I have such power to speak words that hurt so deeply? Yet I do, we all do.

It became so common place to breathe out angry words, it was held up as being brave and honest. I think, in reality, it was just a power play, a stab at controlling…something.

Now here we are, divided, suspicious, and scared because we did not put on that bridle and submit ourselves to God who gives the power to resist those forces that tempt us to try and control what we never could control.

I know the arguments.

What if He leads us on a way we don’t want to go? What if it hurts, what He wants us to do for Him? What if we suffer? What if we’re not the winners in this world but we look more like losers.

Jesus told His follower, Peter, what to do under such circumstances…you must follow Me.

Peter, you follow Me and you will lose earthly power and reputation, you won’t even get to dress yourself or decide the next place you sleep.

And Peter submitted to Jesus but somehow I sense we forget. I know I forget.

I forget that life with Christ was never about power but about sacrifice. It was never about my way, but His Way. The call to follow Jesus was never about being in control and it was always about making disciples.

So if I submit to Him, maybe my tongues will stop lunging at other people and I’ll look like Jesus a little more. He’ll seem a little more like who He is because I display who He is a little more accurately.

At least, that’s what I hope for myself. I’m not sure I’ll ever get comfortable with the bridle this side of heaven but I know I need it…desperately…and I know I’m not alone.

Maintenance and the Soul

For the past many, many weeks an army of construction workers rotates around our neighborhood repairing the curbs. A section is cut out, dug out, framed and then poured. Some sidewalks are repaired but some are not. Eventually, the street gets a new, deep black layer of asphalt.

On dozens of walks we discuss whether the work even needs to be done. I mean, I’ve about lost a wheel on the pothole near the kids school and the roads over there look like they need the work a bit more urgently. It’s all quite a mystery and the neighborhood keeps scratching its head.

This last week the condo in Miami collapsed on top of itself. One floor on another floor on another floor. Maintenance was needed but the problems didn’t seem as urgent as we now know they were. So many souls lost. Much is yet unknown but maintenance was desperately needed.

And maintenance is a total drag. Its expensive and it feels like it’s not really needed urgently so it gets put off. Like painting our house or figuring out why one slab of the driveway is sinking. We know that the problem is growing, will require some work someday, and it will be expensive.

Walked by this house once and itched to trim, paint, and repair it!

It doesn’t seem worth it until the problem is way beyond minor.

And so it is with my soul too. Things are working so why dig into that tendency to make a joke instead of respond differently, engaging the other person more lovingly? I’ve read the Bible through a few times so I probably remember what it says well enough to put it aside for awhile, right?

But our world and our souls are constantly pulled in the direction of chaos, disorder, and decay. If the house doesn’t get painted, the wood rots. If the source of the water leak isn’t found, the damage extends. If the crack isn’t investigated we don’t know how deep it goes or how quickly it is growing. If I don’t read my Bible, I forget.

Then crisis hits and we scratch our heads trying to figure out what went wrong. I then face the reality that I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t maintain.

I didn’t want to put in the daily, seemingly mundane toil of repairing what wasn’t quite totally broken. It didn’t seem worth the effort to shore up what was weak or protect what was vulnerable to the very active forces in the world.

Honestly, anything that holds together or makes sense, an atom kept in stable balance or even an atom that races toward another to stabilize itself, shows me an aspect of God’s character by revealing that order still exists. There is a force, God, that keeps things together, that heals, that puts together our souls and keeps them together.

He is the One that does that for our souls. Maintenance for the human heart involves surrendering ourselves, mind and body, to His skilled hand. It’s easy to think we can and need to maintain ourselves, but it seems more that my work is to cede the work to God Himself and comply with His Way.

The surrendered life, the crucified life, the cruciform life.

The abiding life.

That is the life that is kept in perfect peace, solid against the dark forces of the world that would tear us apart.

Re-entry

We walked around the busy grocery store, my sister-in-law and I, carefully following our list and eager to escape back to the quiet lake house retreat. She just returned to the US after 2 years uninterrupted overseas. You know why, pandemic.

Grocery stores are among the most overwhelming re-entry experiences. The choices are different, the quantities are measured in different scales, and in America the abundance can be overwhelming. Choices become more difficult. Mentally tallying the dollar signs from the foreign currency taxes the brain. At some point, you just give up and dump it in the cart resolving to care another day.

America is the land of opportunity. The opportunity to have it your way. To customize. To choose. To never see the back of the grocery store shelf. To not have to rework your menu mid shopping trip because multiple things are unavailable. To not experience as many social restrictions or curtailed freedoms.

Except for this past year and a half.

In many ways, 13 years of life overseas prepared me well to encounter a lack of toilet paper, a reworked menu, an acceptance of social restrictions, and jumps through bureaucratic regulations. We signed up for difficulty when we made the decision to live overseas.

We painted a lot of things this last year, including our front door, a portal to a different place…like re-entry!

Life in lock down reminded me of some aspects of life overseas and I relished the time to jump off the treadmill of the busy American lifestyle so many warned us would come when we moved back to America. After 5 years of life on this side of the Pacific, we’d definitely become increasingly busy and committed. And not just us, but our kids had commitments on top of ours.

Jumping off the treadmill was a gift in many ways. I read through the Bible a couple times because I didn’t have to get anyone off to…well…anywhere. We spent a lot of time together as a family, something which I ached for as our kids got older and busier. It felt like a gift.

But we also lost friends, grieved the unfairness of life, felt guilty at times for having enough, wrestled with how to relate to others during a particularly divisive time in a country that we already struggled to fit into after 13 years living away.

Now life is picking up again. We are faced with re-entry in a wholly different form than ever before in our lives. Alongside an entire world, we are all wondering what we are entering.

Because its not really re-entry. Its entry.

I feel this push and pull about what is to come, what we are entering. I don’t want to go back to the insane schedule that challenged us trying to find time together as a family. But it’ back. The school extra curriculars are laying out time intensive schedules.

Everything is starting up and I’m feeling a little like my sister-in-law in the grocery store. Overwhelmed. Stressed. And feeling like I just need to dump some stuff in the cart of life and try to figure it out later.

But this isn’t cereal or potato chips. Its time and energy and cultivating a life in dependence to God in ever changing circumstances.

Re-entry and entry take time…mostly time to think, feel, and align ourselves with what following Jesus looks like in new seasons of life. And besides a world opening up…kind of…I also have a daughter a year away from graduating. That alone is catching my attention and heart.

Another sign that I am entering, not re-entering. My life will change drastically soon.

So maybe you can relate to me on some level with our current times or maybe not. I have a feeling that many of us may need a little more time to do things we once did so effortlessly before a global pandemic.

For those that have not experienced the grocery store scenario of the newly returned expat, let me tell you it’s ok. It’s normal. It will take time. It will make you angry, sad, confused, insecure, and probably many other things to navigate the new world with its new challenges.

But in all that unsettledness, I’ve learned that following Jesus is the surest foothold through rocky life transitions. Something that all that reading the Bible brought into focus this past year.

If you’re looking for a first step, I suggest the Gospel of John and reading about Jesus who pretty much shook up every life He encountered.

As always, thank you for reading my thoughts and musings! I’ve struggled to write this year in the midst of so much…well…just so, so much of everything. I resolved today to write and break the silence and I’m so thankful you got to this point in my ramblings!

Gardening Gems

Every so often I’m in the car around noon on the day the gardening talk show is on the radio. Somehow I just never want to turn the dial eventhough I don’t garden.

It might be his soothing voice saying who knows what about a topic of which I know little. Or, maybe this will be the year I’ll need to know these things because this will be the year I become a planter of things. 

But a couple times over the past month, I’ve stayed tuned because what he’s talking about resonates on a deeper level than maintaining my yard. 

Once it was soil. Yes. Dirt. He was talking about dirt. It caught me because he said something like 75% of the chance that a plant grows is determined before the plant is put into the dirt. He was talking about the soil. If the soil was prepared well, the plant would grow well.

That explains a lot of why my flower bed look like they do. I just dig holes, put stuff in and pray. It hasn’t worked great. 

Then, today they were talking about pests and diseases in plants. They complained about people who see pests and disease and just want some spray to take care of it. So silly their tone suggests.

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No, I did not grow this. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Hmmm. That’s kind of what I do. Just get rid of the pest and we’re good, right?

No! They talked about looking at the whole situation and taking care of what was causing the issue in the first place or it would come back.

I realized my gardening is very surface level. I’m in it for fast results, not really the long term cultivation. I’ve not learned to cultivate the land and truly care for it. 

The same is often true of my spiritual life. I want fast methods to lead to quick results.

Instead the Bible talks often about gardens, cultivation, tending, and shepherding…all activities that are wholistic and slow but when embraced in our soul, yield the lives we really want. 

Lives that grow and produce beautiful things that can sustain others too. 

Open Your Mouth Wide

School begins in a couple weeks…maybe. Who knows in all this uncertainty? The one thing I’m told to accept in this season is change. So. Much. Change.

I cannot think of many things that are certain besides what we will have for dinner…if the grocery store has all the ingredients, of course.

I wish this what I made for dinner but we can’t be happy ALL the time, can we?

As the pandemic continues my tolerance of change is wearing thin. I want to know things. I want to be sure of something. I want to be able to tell my kids a piece of information I’m certain will not change.

Right now, I want to do something normal. I want to buy school supplies. I want there to be a list and I want to buy everything new, neatly packaged and put it in a backpack because it feels normal.

But I don’t need all the things on the list. I don’t know if my kids will darken a school door in a historically “normal” way. But I don’t really care.

I want the order to calm the storm that is happening around us.

When I check the news or social media, it provides mostly grief. We are all trying to latch onto something certain like desperate people drowning at sea.

Maybe its a politician, a plan, an ideology, or conspiracy theory…but we want a life preserver.

And when we think it will save us, we latch on hard. So hard.

One phrase in my readings of the Bible comes to mind often when I feel so much want that I don’t know what to do with it. Where do I go with these impossible longings for a life that looks different than our current reality?

Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.

God wasn’t just talking about food. He is talking about total reliance on Him to fulfill our needs, wants, and desires. In the context of this verse, God’s people are going to many, many other people for stability.

It’s worth noting who they were going to:

Spiritual leaders who promised peace when God was promising captivity.

Political leaders who promised power when God’s power was with other nations.

Foreign leaders who promised alliance when God said rely on Him.

Material objects that promised fulfillment when God said only He could fulfill.

And nothing has changed, has it? I still want to go to these things and claim a place of power, of agency over my circumstances. More than many other turbulent times in my life, this era is unique in its universalism.

The whole world is scrambling.

The whole world is longing for the same things. But will we go to the One who is truly capable of providing for us?

I don’t know. I hope so. I labor towards that end.

And I open my soul mouth wide, naming all my hungers, and I wait and trust that God will feed me.

Somehow. In some way. Because He promised He would.

I don’t know how He will do it, but I am eager to see.

What if…

So much news predicts such a grim future. Life as we know it gone. Futures forever changed. This generation will suffer the worst.

I’m glad I don’t know the future. Anticipating the unknown has usually proved more awful than actually walking through it for me.

But, what if all the adversity predicted is the severe road to a better future, a different life lived from a different source, for us and our kids?

Along those lines, I wrote the following lines…

What if all the losses taught us to mourn?

What if all the mourning taught us to empathize?

What if all the empathy taught us humility?

What if all the humility taught us our poverty of soul?

What if our poverty taught us to search?

What if in our searching we found God? Who knows loss. Who mourns. Who empathizes. Who endured poverty. Who meets our needs?

Our need for Him to restore our dignity. Forgive our wrong. Heal our wound. Feed our mouth. Guide our path… Replace our heart.

With a new heart. A heart warm, not cold. A heart alive, not dead. A heart that feels, not numb. A hear not sick anymore.

What if our hope was not on the stock market, the cure, the vaccine, the vindication, the political party, the back to normal?

But in Christ

Who makes all things new

Even this broken world

Even we broken people

Would we then welcome the losses that taught us to mourn?

The mourning that taught us empathy?

The empathy that taught us our poverty?

The poverty that taught our need?

And the need that taught us to search?

And the search that brought us to the heart of God?

To me, the stairs are the adversity and the joyful girl at the top, my daughter, like the joy of finding God along a hard steep, path in life.

Being Still

I expected Easter weekend to be full of far flung friends gathered for a special wedding celebration—a dear friend united in marriage in the witness of many other dear friends.

A big celebration surrounded by many other little celebrations of a community separated and once again united for a weekend.

As shut downs and shelter-in-places spread across the world, the celebrations are delayed, the wedding postponed as we all wait for the unknown.

Our plans all yielded…

We may never be so closely linked in experience or feeling with the followers of Christ this Easter season. The joys of Spring Break in early March feel like Palm Sunday when life seemed like it was going well. An expectation of wonderful Spring!

The snowball of our restrictions parallel the turn of events during Holy Week as Jesus went from a heralded king to a hunted and betrayed man. Life turned upside down for Jesus’ followers.

A much anticipated celebration season flipped to unexpected mourning.

As they witnessed Jesus’ procession with His cross, this man they had followed everywhere for three years, did they think what we think now about our plans…this should not to be? I never saw this coming?

And, when Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb and the Sabbath began, and they sat in their homes did they sit stunned like we do now?

I don’t know what is next? Life as I know it is flipped upside down. What happens when this is over? When we emerge from our homes to a new reality? The ones passed over and not taken by this pandemic.

We wonder about our jobs, whether our kids will go back to school, what our community will suffer. The disciples also worried about their jobs and their lives… what they would suffer when those in power came looking for them the first chance they could leave their home.

Our world, with so many people, has never been so still as on this Passover, this Easter weekend. I have never experienced alongside so many others such uncertainty about what is next.

With all the unexpected quiet and stillness in my home right now, all the itching eagerness to escape and do something, anything else…I identify with Jesus’ followers in a new way this weekend.

Unlike them, I have the hope of knowing the next part of the story for us as followers of Jesus. The joy of the resurrection. The assurance of redemption and the security of a new purpose as His follower that the disciples would soon discover.

But, this weekend, I can identify with them…a party weekend upset and turned into a weekend of wondering quiet waiting for a new, uncertain day.

Exposed

Shopping is exciting these days. I’m used to empty shelves from time to time from my life overseas. Like when a rumor floated around in Asia that salt would undo effects of radiation after the Fukushima plant melted down. Then, overnight, there was no salt at the grocery store. None.

Or when I found Dr. Pepper overseas and cleared the shelf myself. I mean, why not?

Right now, shopping is a little too exciting, like a hunt. I’m not used to that in the US. I’m used to hunting food overseas, going to multiple shops, making expensive trade offs. I’m not accustomed to needing those skills in the land of plenty, America.

It’s unsettling.

Anyone buying a bidet soon?

Because it used to be that when I encountered such difficulty and lack, I knew that Asia would not always be my home. Someday I’d be back in the well stocked stores of the US. Now that I’m experiencing this here in America, I’m faced with another stripping away of the security I’ve placed in lesser things.

And the exposure of the pillars of my security is rather startling. I didn’t realize I placed such a large degree of confidence on the stock market until it started its roller coaster dips and rolls. I didn’t realize I relied so much on being able to control my schedule until my kids schools said don’t send them back to school…for who knows how long.

Early on, there was some talk that the disease spread correlated with national hygiene habits…and now America is pretty much proven unclean by that standard. And I didn’t realize how much I trusted my in my national identity as better than…until it was challenged.

All this upheaval and exposure brought about by a teeny, tiny, microscopic tenacious virus we can’t even see. Rather startling. Rather humbling that something so small has brought pretty much the entire world to its knees.

I’m still a bit stunned, wondering along with the rest of the world how this will all play out. There’s no escape hatch this time to a different land…a land of relative plenty. I’m pressed in to my circumstances and forced to look at what God exposes in me.

So, I wait, and trust, and do what I can do while I hopefully realign my heart more to depend on the Lord.

Leash Lessons with Lily

I’m sure my right arm is starting to come out of socket from walking our dog. She’s only 25 pounds of puppy but I’d like to attach my luggage scale to the leash soon and see how many pounds she pulls on the leash. Our scale might max out.

My son and I joke about what she’s thinking when we go on walks. As Lily pulls on the leash to the point of choking herself we wonder what exactly is going on in that puppy brain of hers.

Their chasing me! I’ve got to get going faster or they’re going to catch me!

Must pant say pant hi pant to pant that pant dog pant.

If I put my ears back, I’ll be more aerodynamic.

Yay! We rounded the corner! We’re halfway home! Time to pick up the pace!

Since we don’t know much about dogs, we google search our training objectives. Apparently, we want to teach our dog to “loose leash walk”, that’s PC dog trainer speak for “stop choking herself to death on the leash.”

I get really excited when I think of Lily walking like that super well-behaved Sheltie we sometimes see on our walks. Oh the joy of a dog that just walks by my side and doesn’t have me worrying about how many people will notice in a few years if my right arm is noticeably longer than my left!

The basics of most dog training seems to be to make the dog realize that fun is not to be had with their chosen behavior. They don’t get us to yank them around when they, say, have a ball in their mouth that you want back. You just hold it still and they realize oh, this is no fun, I guess I’ll let them have it.

The longer we have a dog, I think my husband and I would have worked through a lot of our parenting style issues if we’d started with a dog. Or, we’d just have a really confused dog.

Anyway, I’ve begun walking the dog with the wonderful Sheltie in mind as my desired future.

Lily is learning but its a tough process. The leash is slack for a while then she starts getting after that deer, squirrel, cat, dog, leaf, etc and snap the slack is gone and I’m planning my next visit to physical therapy.

Now, I’m letting her get to the end of the rope and experience the reality that she’s not having fun. We stop for a few seconds until she stops pulling. I praise her and we move along a second or so until we repeat the whole process again. I’d not have much patience for it except that she is slowly learning.

And so am I…but not so much about dog training. My mind wanders to other things which is why I write this blog. I have thoughts.

I’m not a great loose leash walker with Jesus. I’m just like my dog, chasing after the next distraction I think will bring me so much …something…and I’m quickly wondering why life feels a bit…chokey.

Ah! My mind pieces things together quickly, God is after me and doesn’t want me to have fun! If only I got to live life on my own…

And I fail to remember that He feeds me, He gives me a safe refuge, He loves me, and He cares for me. My highest purpose is fulfilled not when I catch that squirrel of an experience…

but when I’m with Him.

Humility: Lesson #1

Most days I pass through a 4 way stop near my house. I’m on my way to drop off a kid or pick up a kid or go to work or the store or…anywhere.

It gets busy around rush hours and becomes more of a 4 way pause instead of a 4 way stop. People honk sometimes. I could be included in the word “people”.

I usually tap the horn when someone has not appropriately observed the law. They should know, right? I’m preventing an accident. They are in a hurry, they should slow down and pay attention.

Well, a couple days ago I pulled up behind a car at the 4 way pause. A million things were floating through my mind that first full week of school and crunch time in ministry.

As I pulled through the stop, I noticed a car start to pull out even though I was in the intersection. How dare he! I thought.

I didn’t tap the horn but I gave a look. You know, the get-in-your-place look. I may not be a police officer but I wish I was at times like these.

The driver did that Texas thing where you keep your hand on the steering wheel but wave your fingers around in a way that says what’s up with you lady?

As I completed my turn I realized I was still pretty close to the car that had been in front of me.

Huh.

Why was I so close to them?

It slowly dawned on me that I had tailgated the driver in front of me through the stop! A cascade of thoughts poured out of me…

I was wrong

I deserved a ticket

I did what I hated other people doing

My behavior warranted a honk and a dirty look

I am a hypocrite!

And I was totally unaware of it.

I also wondered how many times I condemn others for something and fail to see clearly my own behavior that’s worthy of condemnation. I can name a number of times that I encountered this in my life. This incident reminds me that there must be so many more that I still do not see.

I will always need grace and mercy for ways I mess up that I have not figured out.

So will you. So will others.

That other driver I thought so arrogant now seems so merciful. He didn’t blast his horn at me and I deserved it! How many times have I taken the opportunity to come down on something I felt justified in condemning instead of letting it roll on past? Instead of showing mercy…

I really want to thank him for showing mercy! So, if you’re reading this and were driving a nice grey suburban when a lady in a grey minivan gave you a dirty look while breaking the law…thank you for showing mercy.

To me, pride seems like one of those really stubborn, kind of hopeless character flaws. I’m usually very blind to it so how can I possibly grow in humility?

And then humility! The minute you say you’re growing in humility it reveals you’re not! Catch-22.

Here’s my hope straight from Proverbs 29:

A person’s pride will humble him,

But a humble spirit will gain honor.

So, through my pride, I’ll get humbled. Fun! But, I don’t need to dread this beat down. Even more encouraging is that my pride is not a hopeless condition. The joyful paradox, though, is that by the time any honor comes I won’t even care about it anymore!

Humility is content without the honor it engenders. It has its own internal reward.

And I’d love to know what that’s all about!