Strangers Together

20170701-Richardson-ReachI am not good at making friends. I don’t approach people. I don’t know how to start a conversation. I don’t engage first. When that conversation has to happen partly in charades, I’m ready to bow out and let someone more intrepid than I give it a try.

But those eyes told me she could be a friend. They also told me she needed one.

I’m over at (in)courage this morning sharing a story of courage and conversation–but not my own courage. Have you ever found an unlikely friend? Did God turn it into a journey you never expected?

Click Here  to read the rest of the story.

Sign up here to receive free daily notes from (in)courage, sent right to your inbox!  (I love this site!)

Reality Chuck

338e4-img_1831

The poor little guys never had a chance. For several weeks, we had tended our broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, planted from seed and lovingly grown under lights in the basement. A couple dozen strong baby plants grew happily there until the spring thaw, when their hardy souls could easily handle the cool early spring temperatures other less capable vegetables could not.

Already I counted the harvest, imagining how many Ziploc quarts I would be stacking in the freezer a few months hence. With this healthy spring crop and then one more in the cooler fall weather (to be seeded in July), we’d be in broccoli Valhalla all year. I could see the brilliant green color of just-blanched heads clearly in my harvest dreams.

Broccoli Dreaming . . .

The dream didn’t last long. One day, to be exact. After carefully plugging those babies in the ground one afternoon, we went out the next morning to see how they had fared.

They were gone. Not a leaf, not a stem, not so much as one tiny green straggling shoot poked out of that desolate ground. My brain could not register what my eyes relayed to it. How could every last plant vanish without a trace?

IMG_8362

The responsible party soon showed his unrepentant furry face. Under our shed, an old chicken coop in the backyard, lived one very wily, very hungry woodchuck. He must’ve thought that broccoli-cauliflower smorgasbord worthy of his first meal after a long winter’s nap. Nothing remained of our long work and anticipation. To add insult to injury, he repeated his vegetable orgy in the fall when we tried again, along with the ornamental cabbage we put in the kids’ garden. Clearly, this particular rodent had a fondness for anything in the cabbage family.

When Dreams Get Eaten

The woodchuck’s transgressions remind me of a reality I don’t always like to face. This life devours things we hold dear. Something, or someone, we’ve built our dreams upon may be gone tomorrow. We only think we can control the future. Fact is, we have absolutely no say in what may happen tomorrow.

“A rich man had a fertile farm the produced fine crops. His barns were full to overflowing. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. And I’ll sit back and say, “eat, drink, and be merry.” But God said to him, ‘you fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get it all?’ Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” “How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like a morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that” (Lk 12:16-21; Js 4:14-15).

One passing of the moon was all it took for an entire counted-on harvest to disappear from our yard. But other more serious raids on my security have happened just as rapidly. A few quick months destroyed my lifelong dream to return to small town, country life. One brief morning’s surgery severed my mother for our family. “Overnight” devastation shouldn’t surprise us in this blemished world, but it does, over and over.

IMG_3562

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” “I AM who I AM, I will be what I will be, I AM the one who always is.” “His faithful love endures forever” (Rev 22:13; Ex 3:14; Ps 136).

How long? Forever. Regardless of any overnight devastation.

I didn’t get to store that broccoli in the freezer. Not should I store up treasures that don’t really matter, won’t last, and can’t be counted on. I dare not fasten my dreams and security to anything, no matter how precious, save God alone. I must learn to hold the broccoli patches of my world lightly, for they come with no guarantee.

But the love and character of God—now that’s a treasure to hold as tightly as ever I held anything. Besides, it doesn’t need a freezer to keep it fresh every morning.

Refuge

IMG_7201

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require.

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.

IMG_4932

When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.

WINGSCAPES BIRDCAM PRO CAMERA
WINGSCAPES BIRDCAM PRO CAMERA

I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

In Praise of Dandelions

IMG_2587

My neighbors probably hate me. Every summer, white trucks emblazoned with various clever slogans (“Jeff’s Chem Control—We Get the Bugs Out”) make regular visits to their yards. With military precision, lawn tractors, string trimmers, and sprayers seek and destroy any weed so bold as to stick its fuzzy seedhead aboveground. Then they pack up and convoy to the next reconnaissance point.

If we cut our grass before it reaches knee high by the Fourth of July, we pat ourselves on the back. I’m really thinking of just applying for a meadowlands permit and forgetting the whole mowing business. Except it makes for a very challenging game of croquet. Not to mention the occasional toddler who wanders back there and isn’t found until winter.

But the real area of contention, I bet, is those dandelions.

In the back where the grass remains healthy, they’re not too problematic. But in the side and front yards, where grass competes with tree roots, shade, and creeping charlie that could smother Texas? It is quickly losing ground to dandelions.

And I don’t really care. OK, I admit it. I like dandelions. Those seas of yellow shrieking “Spring!” to the world make my heart do a little dance. No subtlety for these tough guys of the plant kingdom. I love to watch little girls squeal with delight as the white fuzzy seeds they just launched with a whoosh of their breath float in the air, or come backward to tickle their noses.

The same girls’ dandelion chains, crowns, and necklaces remind me of a time when creativity was where kids made it, not on an iPad. Not so long ago, I was a total pushover for a small fistful of those bright yellow balls in the hand of one of my daughters, who too soon grew too sophisticated for giving me common weeds as if they were a golden treasure from her heart (which they were).

IMG_2596

But dandelions are bad, right?

I agree that I hate to pull the things out of my garden beds. Kind of like trying to pick up a semi by the antenna. But in my lawn, I’d just as soon leave them alone.

I even have justification.

One morning, as I sat sipping tea at the breakfast table, I noticed a rabbit in the front yard semi-circle. Rabbits are another neighborhood bane. No one’s garden, it seems, remains immune to their appetites for all things green and growing. We see dozens of the cuddly critters around, and we hear tales of their destructive habits.

But as I watched this one, I realized he was in the throes of a gourmet bunny’s delight—eating dandelions. He would pluck one out of the ground, then blissfully chew up the stem as a child would slurp a spaghetti noodle. I swear I spied a smile on his fuzzy little face. Then he’d head to the next one, totally ignoring all the expensive garden center perennials.

I must tell you, bunnies have never eaten a thing in our garden. (We do have a resident woodchuck—that’s another story.) Now I knew why. We graciously and abundantly supplied them with what was obviously a favorite taste treat—why leave the all-you-can-eat buffet for lesser fare? Dandelions, the bane of a lawn care fanatic’s existence, were actually saving our plants.

We never know what unexpected bane will turn out to be be our salvation.

Seventeen years ago, my doctor noticed an enlarged thyroid on the right side of my neck. After unsuccessful treatment, a specialist performed surgery to remove half my thyroid. Surprisingly, she confirmed the next week that it had been a cancerous growth.

IMG_7243

The interesting part of this story is the chain of events that led to the discovery. I had gone to my doctor for a blood pressure check when she discovered the lump. My potential high blood pressure had been discovered under sedation for surgery on my toe. I had sliced a tendon in my right foot in what surely should make insurance record books as a freak accident.

Innocently washing dishes one morning, I stacked a cutting board on top of something else on the counter. A few moments later, the board slipped down, knocking a giant serrated knife off the counter and onto my foot, followed by the cutting board, which drove the knife in. So while the surgeon repaired the tendon, he also discovered my high blood pressure, leading to the discovery of a cancerous thyroid.

You can’t make this stuff up.

While watching blood cover my kitchen floor and screaming for help, I never once thought, “Hey, this is going to turn out to be a great thing!” While eliminating dandelions and cursing bunnies, my neighbors have never once considered how God maybe made these things to work together and serve a tandem purpose.

Time and perspective can change a lot.

“Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10, NLT).

In time, I’m betting God will use our dandelions to make the whole garden glorious.

Just like the lawn care trucks, our attempts to control, sanitize, and tame the stuff of life can eliminate the things that would have made us better in the end. It’s worked well for the dandelions. Now I wonder what eats creeping charlie . . .

Unexpected Joys

IMG_2636

So, last week was a heavy post. I know. But sometimes, heaviness is needed. Sometimes, it’s like a weighted blanket for us–helping us to center and recognize where we need to focus and what we need to prioritize.

Sometimes, though, God knows we need light. For the Richardson clan, it’s serious gardening season. Yesterday, we created a fairy garden waterfall and put in plants along the neighbor’s fence.  We planted beans and sunflowers and tomatoes. My husband checked on the bees to see if their little lives were buzzing along happily. And sometime this week, he thinks I am going to sew together fifteen yards of tulle to protect his blueberries from the birds and bunnies. Ha. He does not know my week.

So, a summer garden series. Because life began in a garden. Some of God’s finest beauties and best lessons are learned in a garden. Here we go.

IMG_3918

In The Garden . . .

As I may have previously mentioned, lawn mowing around our house usually only get done when a) company is coming for a backyard cookout, b) we lose something valuable in the undergrowth (like a kid), or c) the neighbors ask us if we’d like to borrow their mower since ours must be broken. It’s not that we don’t like mowing—I really enjoy it. It’s just difficult to find a long enough chunk of time in my schedule to mow an entire acre.

After a few passes around the yard one morning, I noticed a bird swooping closer and closer to my head. After another pass, I realized that he was actually following me, darting and gliding close, but not too close, in the mower’s wake. I recognized the outline and colors of a barn swallow and smiled at my new friend. He must have thought he’d bellied up to the All U Can Eat Bird Buffet, as the tractor kicked up hundreds of tiny insects from the grass, destined to be a smart swallow’s breakfast.

WINGSCAPES BIRDCAM PRO CAMERA

Apparently, the feast was too good to keep to himself, because before long, at least six swallows dined and rolled about me, coming so close I could see the light bounce off their almost iridescent deep blue backs. We finished the lawn together, my aerial pals and I. I provided them with breakfast; they provided me with entertainment and kinship.

The antics and evident satisfaction of a half-dozen strangers the size of my hand unexpectedly enlivened my morning. They came so close of their own accord, to join me in a kind of interdependence that God must have intended from the very beginning. Those magic minutes gave me a glimpse of the delightful intent of God’s creation and His final plan for its culmination when the lion and the lamb will indeed lie down together, and the bird will no longer justly fear the human. The birds’ brief “friendship” brightened the rest of my day.

One of my husband’s friends and coworkers has a saying, “While I was doing my duty, joy overtook me.” Real joy can come, and often surprise us, not in our zealous pursuit of it but in our daily activities, just doing what must be done.

WINGSCAPES BIRDCAM PRO CAMERA

The Joy set before Him?

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross and obeyed even to death for “the joy set before Him.” Joy? Yes, that’s what it says. It’s not the word we expect. Pain? Agony? Necessity? Maybe those. But joy? Somehow, in doing the things one must, in submissive obedience to God, joy overtakes us.

I mowed the laws because it needed doing. No other grand motivation—just plain duty. But in that obedience, I found a joy that lasted all day and that I still smile to remember.

You’ve felt that joy, too. When what you offered under tight circumstances gave people in even tighter ones a gleam of hope. When a church service you didn’t feel like attending reached your heart with a new vision of God. When a note of encouragement you sent reached someone on the very day she needed it.

In dutiful obedience, joy overtakes us. Let it swoop and glide about your heart sometime today.

“While I was doing my duty, joy overtook me.”

Two Funerals and a Reality Check (#Nevertheless. She Persevered.)

It’s been a week. Not that long ago, I spent some time in the UK. I passed teens and twenty-somethings on the street. I smiled at their gregarious antics, laughed at their spontaneous music and art on the streets of London. I talked to strangers on trains and in bookstores. This week, I wonder if any of those people are grieving.

Manchester.

This week, I also think about veterans and those who followed Jesus’ teaching to its end when he said that a true friend will give his life for others. I think about my dad, who came home but never spoke of it, and my uncle who did not. I think of a friend’s son’s anguish over what he saw in war and could not unsee that overwhelmed him to take his own life. This is not an uncommon occurrence.

01c17-unclealtoned

Memorial Day.

I wonder if this world that seems, at time, swept over with anger and violence is what they fought for and if they were here, would they believe they had won?

Whatever’s Next.

And then I found this old blog post, which seems more relevant now than four years ago. While we talk about persevering, I want to remember, on this Memorial Day weekend. I want to remember what’s worth persevering about. In the end, we can persevere through all kinds of things, but if they weren’t the things that mattered, why did we bother?

If we fight the good fight and then discover we fought the wrong enemy, what was the point?

If we were right all along but being right was not our task, what did it profit us to win the argument?

if we survive but don’t really live, why make the effort?

I want to persevere in holding out the things that bring joy to God and persevere in fighting the things that bring him grief. If anything will explain to you who I am and why I persevere for the things I do, it’s these events of four years ago. Especially the life and loss of a young man who made me question whether my life was governed by what really mattered or what I wanted to matter.

So, two funerals and a reality check. From four years ago.

This week I’m writing a funeral sermon. I’ve never done that before. It’s not been high on my list of career goals. But in fact, this weekend I have two memorial services, at the same time, for two people very dear to me. I can’t help but think that is very, very wrong.

I hate this.

A mutual friend put it well when she said, “I hate that we are mortal and I hate cancer and I hate satan.” I know exactly what she meant. This morning, I am hating the same things.

I hate death. I hate pain. I hate that parents grieve for their child and little boys will grow up without a father. I hate that some people will never see this gorgeous fall day.

But it goes deeper than that. I hate sin that brought death into this world. I hate that I am guilty of it. I hate that, if I went looking for the source of evil in the world, I’d find my own hands stained with the fruit of the Garden of Eden. I hate anger and unforgiveness and pride. The list is endless.

303e6-397747_4204597960159_756383061_n

Making a List

It is making me realize more than ever what belongs on that list and what doesn’t. It’s putting into perspective what we mean when we toss around phrases like “I hate that teacher,” I hate my ex-wife,” “I hate fill-in-the-politician’s name.” I can’t hate any human being today, as I say goodbye to two I loved.

It’s an election season. There’s a lot of hate flying around out there. I have my opinions. But hate? I just can’t muster that up for any political candidate, any person who disagrees with me, or even, yes, any lunatic with a shotgun who barges into a movie theater. Not today. I’m occupied with hating more important things.

The real things. The roots of all this garbage. The things we’re all victims and perpetrators of at the same time. Sickness and cruelty and selfishness and apathy. Those things we once rightly called “sin” but are too fashionable to label so now.

I want to spend my energy and time hating those things. I want to use my life to fight those things. Not petty battles that only give way to more skirmishes on more subjects once they are out of the way. I never want to expend an minute of my limited time hating another human being. What’s the end game there?

I’m done with witch hunts and knowing everything and dividing people with categories that made me feel better but accomplished nothing real.

IMG_5849

Hate and anger are serious things. They are not created for me to use as weapons. The only way I can beg Jesus to sanctify them in me is to use them where he did–against the powers that caused his friend Lazarus’ death, the injustice that left women to fend for themselves as best they could, the evil that offered him (and continually offers us) power in exchange for worship.

That’s a fight I want to persevere at. That’s a sanctification I want to persevere in seeking. Two men I loved are gone. They fought that fight. Sometimes they lost; in the end, they won. That’s the glory, and the reality, of these two funerals. Amen.

Miriam Rockness: 30 Years of Persistence Along the Humble Path

This week, I have a guest post from a dear friend. I spent ten days in this wonderful woman’s house in the UK, surrounded by peace, intelligent and spiritual conversation, and persistent hospitality. She is the real deal of wanting to make Christ her center. I love it when someone’s story gets so entwined with our own–like my own fascination with Betty Greene’s flying story that I wrote about earlier here. Here is Andrea’s contribution to #Nevertheless. She Persisted. Enjoy!

download

Many Beautiful Things

I have fallen madly in love with a biographical film about the life of Lilias Trotter, Many Beautiful Things. Trotter’s story has captivated me like not many stories have. Without the persistence of Miriam Rockness and a handful of other generous souls, this story could have been lost forever. I feel honored and humbled that somehow, I have become but a tiny thread woven into this beautiful tapestry of tales.

Lilias Trotter lived in late 1800’s England. She was a gentle, bold, creative, forward-thinking, courageous and faith-filled woman. Lilias was skilled in her art and dedicated to serving mankind. She was most persistent in her faithful walk with Christ, being willing to go wherever He led. This would include the dark streets of England and, later, the desolate mission field of North Africa. Lilias, by her own right, was a woman who persisted in following her humble path faithfully to the very end.

Each time I watched the film, a different story begged to be told—the story of the woman behind the story. Miriam Rockness seemed to be a woman who remained faithful and persistent along her own humble path to the telling of Lilias’ story.

Putting pen to my thoughts, I was grateful to have the opportunity to talk with Miriam by phone. As we visited, I noticed similar qualities in her to those I had noticed in Lilias from the film. Miriam’s gentleness and persevering passion forged its way effortlessly through the air waves to my soul.

The Story behind the Story

5d359befa9dd31fc21e1abd49795f5c3

Miriam explained that the layers of Lilias Trotter’s story were peeled back over the span of 3 decades. Careful not to draw accolades, she wanted to point out that, throughout her research, she had all the typical tasks that fill the days of most wives and moms. She explained how she stole moments as she could to read, journal and correspond. It’s also important to note that much of her research was done prior to the internet age. Imagine international phone calls and transatlantic snail mail and you can gather how this project was harried but certainly not hurried. Her passion has clearly stood the test of time as she recounted to me a treasure trove of stories.

“It’s so hard for me to separate the Lilias story from my own walk of faith.” 

Miriam first heard of Lilias Trotter from three sisters who visited the church her husband pastored. A connection was made and a few months later Miriam received a package from them containing a cameo biography of Lilias Trotter. It was a beautifully designed leaflet tied up with a satin ribbon. This little devotional inspired Helen H. Lemmel to write the hymn, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. “I was just smitten,” said Miriam.

With her interest piqued, Miriam wrote back. The sisters would send more over the next several months and would eventually entrust the entirety of their collection to her.

“I felt like Lilias was confirming in my heart what really matters. She never saw the church visible. It (her life) wasn’t sensational but all of the writing and insights that helped her deal with the ups and downs of life and ministry and people were feeding richly into my life.” 

Once the last book from the sisters came, Miriam realized that pieces of Lilias’ story were missing. The search for answers to her questions took her down the path of an untold story. Along the way, God provided people, ideas, leads and resources in miraculous ways that would put feet to her pursuit.

images-1

Persistence in the Telling

I asked Miriam if she ever thought of quitting, if she was ever confronted with opposition. She said, “Oh, yes!” Noting that so many in her life, namely her husband and children, were most supportive, there were a few who believed the quest to be that of an endless black hole. She faced roadblocks at times that seemed impassable. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Over the span of these 3 decades, she would follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and remain faithful to do what He asked – even if the doing looked more like waiting. Through physical hardships, emotional turmoil, geographic boundaries, time restraints, monetary challenges and more, Miriam Rockness persisted in discovering and telling the beautiful story of Lilias Trotter.

Miriam was quick to give God all of the credit throughout this entire journey, but to be sure, God needed a willing, faithful and persistent vessel. He chose very well.

“You can never tell to what untold glories a little humble path may lead if you follow far enough.” ~Lilias Trotter

Miriam Rockness faithfully followed the humble path to Lilias Trotter’s story… far enough. Her persistence paid off. And oh, the glories she has told!

What path do you need to follow just a little bit farther? I wonder what stories and glories await you just around the bend.

For more:

A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Miriam Huffman Rockness

Lilias Trotter’s Sketchbooks and Journals

Many Beautiful Things (film)

Many Beautiful Things (soundtrack by Sleeping At Last)

cropped-andrea-stunz

Andrea Stunz is a wife, mom, mother-in-law, and grandmother. She is a world traveler from Texas and finds hope in a beautiful sunrise and a good cup of coffee. A stumbling pilgrim who is ever so grateful for grace, Andrea longs to encourage others in their stories by sharing a part of hers because “a story worth living is a story worth sharing.” Find more of her writings at AndreaStunz.com.