Monday, December 30, 2013

An Uphill Journey



  "I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
     and in His word I put my hope" Psalm 130:5

Recently I spent over an hour reading a friend's online journal chronicling the saga of she and her husband's life during the last year.  Sometimes I wept, sometimes I chuckled, but all the way through, I marveled at their amazing, Spirit-filled testimony and faithfulness to God.  It has truly challenged me in my own Christian walk.  I want to share just a bit about her story in hopes you too might be challenged to view faith and God's plan for our lives in a new and fresh way.

To represent Sandy and Scott's journey of faith, I chose this picture that I took a few years ago in the town of Charlotte Amalia on the island of St. Thomas.  These stairs are called The 99 Steps - they lead from a lower street to an upper street with a beautiful view.  The stones were brought from Denmark as ballast in the sailing ships and the stairs were built in the mid-1700s.  The steps are steep and often uneven -- and it's a tough climb to the top.

Sandy and Scott's last year and half has truly been an uphill, exhausting climb, but it is the attitude of their hearts that has made all the difference.  Here's a synopsis of their story:

In 2007, Scott was diagnosed with liver disease.  He was a healthy young man -- a Christian who neither drank alcohol nor smoked, but lived an active lifestyle.  It was not until 14 months ago that he began having real problems from this disease and he, his wife and two young daughters began the uphill journey that still continues.  In March 2013, he was approved for a liver transplant at a University hospital in the state. 

I won't go into detail about all the ups and downs of his health during that next five months, but it was deteriorating.  On August 17, he received a liver transplant.  That should have been the turning point, but their uphill journey was only beginning.  Scott nearly died on the operating table primarily from excessive bleeding and had to have 100 units of blood.  Since then, infection, bleeding problems, blood clots, collapsed lungs, kidney dialysis and other issues have combined to make recovery a dream they continually pray for. 

They have now been at the hospital for 19 weeks - most spent in the ICU!  In spite of this, Sandy consistently writes in her journal, "We continually remind ourselves that God is in control.  He knows the desires of our hearts and He is not surprised by any of this.  God knew this would happen."

At the end of most entries, Sandy includes a verse and praise to God.  Here's one that reflects the attitudes of their hearts in spite of the many setbacks:  "O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvelous things, things planned long ago" Isaiah 25:1.

Two days ago, Sandy was praising God that Scott's blood count was looking good and that he had been able to take 10 bites of food.  They're hoping he can be moved to Rehab in a few days.  Her verse that day was in Isaiah 12:2:  "Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord Himself is my strength and defense; He has become my salvation."

In closing, I want to share what Sandy wrote about a chance meeting (planned by God, no doubt) in the cafeteria with the daughter of another patient.  When Sandy asked the young woman how her Christmas had been, she began telling her how difficult it had been with her father in ICU and how tired she was after nine days spent at the hospital.  Sandy said I just stood there, listened, and told her I'd pray for her dad's recovery.

Then the woman started asking about Scott and if he'd be home by New Year's Day.  Sandy said, I told her a little about Scott and casually mentioned that we'd been here for 19 weeks.  She was shocked and then apologized for complaining about being here 9 days.  I told her the same thing I've told many people...I don't thing God has given us a bigger burden than anyone else - just a different burden.  I said her dad being here for 9 days was just as big to her, as our journey is to us.  Then I was taken back by her next statement - she said, "You're a Christian aren't you?  I can tell your faith is what's keeping you going right now."  I was thankful that a perfect stranger noticed Jesus in me. Although I was surprised at first, I shouldn't be surprised that HE answered my prayer - I've been praying I can stay strong and people here would see Jesus in me.  Thank you for praying that I daily maintain my testimony - people are watching.

As we begin this new year of 2014, I just wanted to share this story about two of God's choice servants and their family who are still climbing that staircase, but praise God, they know that God is right there beside them and that He has a goodly plan for them and a beautiful view at the top of the staircase. 

Please pray for Scott and Sandy, and their precious young daughters, Paige and Sidney, and for Scott's parents who are helping with the girls.  What an honor to have a part in praying for such warriors of God in this battle.  I thank God upon every remembrance of them and pray God's richest blessings on their lives -- and their continued testimonies.





Friday, December 27, 2013

Red Cardinal Blessing

God sent this bright red cardinal into my backyard this morning to cheer my heart.  You might say, "Get real! You really think God sent that bird just for you?"  My answer is a joyful, "Yes, I do!"  And by the way, I praise His name for sending me this gift.  Here's how the story goes:

A few days ago in the morning, lots of birds were flitting around my backyard, including this cardinal (at least, I assume it was this one).  I snapped a some photos of various birds, but the cardinal would never sit still long enough and only showed up briefly.  This morning, I was feeling a bit down and as I was looking out the window at the bare winter trees, I spoke in my heart, "O God, it would be so nice to see that pretty little cardinal to lift my spirits."  A moment later, this little guy showed up and perched himself on a bare branch.  Not only that, but God commanded him to remain in that spot for several minutes so that I could get his picture and enjoy his beauty.

The prophet Isaiah records God speaking specifically about summoning a bird and sending him wherever He wished him to go:  "I say, My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.  From the east I summon a bird..."  Isaiah 46:10-11.

I smile as I write this because it was indeed a direct answer to a simple prayer -- a small request really, but one that blessed my heart and once again indicates that the great God of all creation who keeps the planets in every universe spinning, cares enough about me to send a tiny red bird to my little ole backyard.  If that is not a wonder and a mercy and an indication of amazing grace, then I don't know what is!

One of my first thoughts when I saw this lovely spot of red in a gray tree on a gray day was that it reminds me of the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from every sin and covers our unworthiness with His wonderful righteousness.  "Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience...Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds"  Hebrews 10:22 & 24.  And to go even a bit deeper, that blood was shed on a bare tree.  Just thought of that.

Don't be afraid to ask God for little things as well as the big things.  He delights in showing His children that He loves them and cares for every aspect of our lives.  Since our heavenly Father is all-powerful, He has the ability to send all manner of surprises and blessings our way.  Just make sure you don't miss it by neglecting to notice.  His blessings can show up in the strangest places -- even on the bare branches of a simple tree.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!


A Very Merry and Blessed Christmas
and Grand New Year to You All!


This lovely holiday scene is in historic Atalaya, located at Huntington Beach State Park, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.  My sister and I visited there two years ago and I just loved the way they decorated this rustic 1930s home, warming up the stark brick walls and hard stone floors in such a beautiful way.

There's something about the Christmas season that warms hearts -- even those that are stark and hard.  It's not just the pretty lights and decorations either.  The glow of that long-ago Christmas star shining down on that humble manger spotlights the reason for the season and the warmth in our hearts.  I'm so thankful Jesus made that journey from His kingdom in heaven to become a man on this lowly earth.


Let's join the angels in their great song of praise to our holy, matchless Savior Jesus Christ -- 

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace 
good will toward men" Luke 2:14


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sailing



The third port in our recent Eastern Caribbean cruise was St. Maarten/St. Martin (there's a French side and a Dutch side to the island).  We took a tour around this beautiful island and stopped at these two beaches (above).  There's quite a difference in the water in these two pictures.  I so often think of my inner thoughts as being like a sea - sometimes calm, sometimes rough -- always needing my loving Father to guide my little boat into His safe harbor.  That's what I see in these two shots.

The first picture shows a sailboat plying across a rough sea.  I like the way the water has a silvery sheen, contrasting with the green bushes in the foreground and the muted sky and distant hilly land.  Some days, I feel like I'm on a rough sea as described in James 1:6:  "...he who doubts is like a wave of a sea, blown and tossed by the wind," and also in Jonah 1:4:  "Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up."  At such times, I cry out to God -- please, calm the sea in me, help me for I feel as if I'm drowning.  Do you ever feel that way?

When we feel caught in a raging - or even slightly rough sea, our first instinct should be to call out to the Captain of our soul and seek His help.  When the disciples feared they'd drown in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, they called out to Jesus and He "rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm" Luke 8:24.  Often, it's during those rough seas that we learn the most and grow in the Lord, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm..." Job 38:1.

The second photo was taken at Orient Beach and looks quite different than the first.  We see a sailboat peacefully anchored on a beautiful, calm turquoise water with a gentle white froth of surf in the foreground.  A small green-topped island and cloud-studded blue sky complete the scene.  At times, our lives resemble that peaceful sea.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite verses:  "The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage" Psalm 16:6.  And of course we can't forget lines from the famous Psalm 23:   "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters..."

When peace like a river flows around us, let's praise God and bask in that glorious beauty.  Likewise, when the rough seas toss us about, let's also praise God and thank Him for the opportunity of growth and to see Him work in wonderful ways.  Storm and Calm / Calm and Storm -- they are each close to one another.  We never know when the waters of our life will change.  We have One who knows the forecast and has a plan for our voyage.  I am so thankful He holds our little boat in the hollow of His hand.

Keep me safe 'til the storm passes by.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pigeon Holes



Yay and Hallelujah!  The pictures loaded today -- I hope you like them.  These two shots were taken in San Juan, Puerto Rico at a spot where hundreds of pigeons reside.  The wall beside a wide plaza on a hillside above the harbor is filled with pigeon holes.  I was fascinated with these multi-colored feathered friends and their interesting tenement dwelling.  They really act like they own the place -- and I guess they do.

I immediately thought about the words pigeon hole and its various meanings.  Originally the words were only used as nouns.  The first usage seems to be in medieval times when pigeon holes were just as these pictures show -- openings in a wall in which pigeons nested.  In the 18th century, desks were made with compartments used to file documents, which were called pigeon holes.  By the 19th century, the phrase had taken on the trappings of a verb when it was used to classify information.  Today, the term pigeon hole is often used by society to classify people.

Have you ever felt like you were being pigeon holed?  Do you feel it was a negative or a positive classification?  Sometimes people are pigeon holed as "Christian."  Now, that's a pigeon hole I'm happy to be put into.  Some people may be throwing out that classification with a negative spin, but I totally accept it with a positive outlook.  If our lives shine for Christ and we are labeled "Christian," then we're following that commandment of the Lord that says we are to let our lives shine for Christ so that others may see Jesus and glorify the Father.

How about the noun usage of the words?  I tend to compartmentalize things in my life -- put them in pigeon holes, so to speak.  I look at the openings in the second photo above and see two nicely-squared pigeon holes and then one that is jagged and messy looking.  That's how some of the issues are in my heart.  Some of the compartments are nice and tidy because I let God control those issues.  Then, there are the issues I try to handle in my own strength and the pigeon holes where I've placed them have painful, jagged edges that I just can't seem to get right.  I wonder why I don't let the Master clean them up and make them whole.  Sometimes that old "me" nature has a hard time letting go.

Wouldn't it be great if all the pigeon holes in our lives could be labeled "Christian," and that God could be in control of each and every one.  He'd keep them cleaned up and nicely-squared and we could live with greater peace and power and purpose.  And, on top of that, we wouldn't suffer from so many ruffled feathers from those jagged edges rubbing against us in our pigeon holes.  



  



Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Problems

I'm having a problem getting my photos to load up for my blog posts.  I feel almost lost with no picture sitting above my written words.  I'm not particularly computer-literate so such a problem is a mystery to me.  I can only hope that we'll be able to find someone who can help fix it.  Until then, no photos (boo-hoo!).

Even so, there's always a spiritual application I can learn from pretty much anything that crosses my path.  I'm pretty sure God plans it that way since every step we take here on planet Earth is part of the roadmap He's already marked out for us on His giant timeline.  In this case, I'm reminded that there will always be problems (not that I really need a reminder of that obvious truth).  My frequent comment when a new problem pops up:  "Well, if it's not one thing, it's another."  Isn't that true? 

I like the opening phrase in Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities":  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...  You could probably say that about most weeks of your life -- maybe not to that extreme, but to say, "Yeah, there've been good things happening this week and there've been problems happening this week."  It's basically the story of our lives, taking the bad with the good on a regular basis.  God says it plainly, "In this world, you will have trouble...."  It's not a matter of "if," but an assurance of "you will."

But then there's that last half of the verse that gives us hope and helps make those problem-riddled days seem a little less overwhelming:  "...But take heart!  I have overcome the world" John 16:33.

When these problems arise, take a deep breath and look up to the One who knows the end from the beginning and is in control of every drop of rain and ray of sunshine that crosses our paths.  Let's say, "Thank you God for another opportunity to see you work."  I'm adding my own special prayer at this moment, "God, please clear up this blog/picture issue.  Thank you!"

I'm so thankful that, in spite of all the earthly problems that crop up, I will never have a problem with my Father God who has promised always to be there for me, always to love me, and always to have a perfect, problem-free home ready and waiting for me when it's time to leave this problem-riddled earth.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

San Juan

 
 
 
Here are three views from our visit last month to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  It was a beautiful, sunny, hot day in November and we enjoyed walking the hilly streets of historic San Juan.  The architecture of the homes and buildings is really pretty.  There is a mix of colonial, Spanish and Caribbean to the style which, along with palm trees, lots of greenery and their famous blue cobblestones, is a real delight.
 
We started our touring in the well-preserved Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort (an edge is seen in the top photo).  It sits atop a high promontory overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay so we also had a cool view of it as we sailed into the harbor as well.  It was a bit of a jaunt from the ship to the fort, but the walk was pretty as well (although hot and uphill most of the way).  Begun in 1539, it wasn't totally finished until 1787.  It's been an active fort, attacked over the centuries by the English, the Dutch, and even the United States.  It's now part of the U.S. National Park system, which meant we were able to get in free with our Golden Age Park pass (:
 
The second photo offers a glimpse of the colorful houses, hilly cobbled street, and lush greenery.  The last photo shows the interior of the Catedral San Juan Bautista Basilica Menor Nuestra Senora de los Remelios -- that's, of course, in Spanish so I'm not sure what the translation would be, but it is a beautiful cathedral with some striking stained glass windows.  We sat down and I prayed for a few minutes beneath the "shadow of the cross."
 
Seeing the fort reminds me that in spite of a peaceful appearance, our world is in the midst of intense warfare.  These visible pictures appear peaceful and even beautiful - and it was a peaceful and beautiful visit, but we should never forget that in the midst of what is visible, there is an invisible world that is clanging with crashing swords and fierce fighting -- right above our heads.
 
Jesus tells us in His word that Satan is a roaring lion and that the forces of evil are strong and insidious - seeking to invade our homes and families.  They want nothing more than for us to be lulled into letting down our guard.  The enemies intention is to destroy us -- or at least our own peace and testimony.
 
The picture of the church is a symbol of Jesus overcoming the forces of evil by dying on the cross and rising from His grave.  He conquered death and hell and I'm so thankful that in all these things He is stronger and that He has given us His Holy Spirit as our great warrior - "Greater is He that is within us, than he that is in the world."
 
Go in the power of the Holy Spirit, O warrior princess and warrior prince!
 
 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Santa Maria Cemetery



This is the most unique cemetery I've ever seen -- and one of the most beautiful.  You've heard the old term, "Location, location, location."  Well, that term is relevant even in the place of burial in this case.  Not only are the central building and surrounding monuments beautiful, the location right beside the pounding surf of the vast blue Atlantic Ocean, in a valley between two handsome historic forts, is absolutely stunning!

We visited the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery on our recent visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as one of our cruise ports.  I'm a bit of a "cemetery junkie" and so this was one I really wanted to see.  I took the first photo looking over the old walls of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort.  I'll share some more of the pictures from San Juan in a later blog.  This cemetery is in the colonial style and was began in 1863.  Forty feet walls surround the estimated 1,000 graves.  I read that the Spanish government "viewed death with fear because it was a mystery."  They also built it overlooking the Atlantic to "symbolize the spirit's journey to cross over to the afterlife."

Several things strike me about this.  First of all, giving that old term, "Location, location, location" a spiritual spin changes our view of this cemetery (even though I still think it's visually beautiful).  While these deceased bodies lie in a beautiful location, it is the location of the soul/spirit that is of paramount importance.   There are many cemeteries throughout the world where bodies lie, but there are only two locations in all of creation where their soul and spirit reside.  Those two locations hold the spirits of every single person who has ever died.  Heaven and Hell -- they are the only addresses available to those who have drawn their last breath on earth.  Which address is listed on your ticket for eternity?

The beauty of accepting Christ as Savior and being sure your future address is "Heaven" is that even before you die, your eternal home is secure and -- in essence -- you will never truly die.  You'll just take one last breath on earth and the next breath in your new home.  Jesus promises, "...whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life...; he has crossed over from death to life" John 5:24.

Lastly, there will come a time when this beautiful graveyard will be emptied of its residents.  Sounds spooky, doesn't it?  It is, however, a bit of a mystery, but not one that should be viewed with fear -- not if you are a Christian (if you're not a Christian, yes, be afraid, be very afraid!).  Jesus made another promise in the book of John, when He said, "...for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear my voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" 5:28-29.

If you have chosen the way of truth through the Lord's gift of salvation, there is nothing to be afraid of and everything to look forward to.  We can view a beautiful cemetery like Santa Maria Magdalena with an eye for the aesthetics and enjoy our visit.  We can also feel joy in the knowledge that we will never truly die.  With Paul we can gladly sing out, "O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?" and two verses later, "But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" 1 Corinthians 15:55 & 57.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Change in Plans

There was an interesting little article in our newspaper this morning about a deer, so I chose this picture I'd taken of a herd of deer a few years ago in Yorktown, Virginia.  They're daintily nibbling at the winter grass in the late afternoon and I like the way the dark and light blend in the picture.

Back to the article:  Here is a situation where a 71-year old woman gets in her SUV one morning, on her way to a particular destination.  At the same time a 27-year old woman was out jogging on the side of the road near where the woman was passing in her vehicle.  Everyone was minding their own business, probably thinking of their plans for the day, when all of a sudden a deer pops up on the scene right in front of the SUV.

As you can imagine, there was a considerable impact as the stunned and frightened driver hit the deer with a shuddering -- and no doubt loud -- collision.  The impact sent the deer flying through the air.  Imagine the young jogger's surprise when a flying deer falls on her and sends her sprawling along the side of the road!  Yes, this is a true story -- one of those happenings that is "stranger than fiction" - for sure!

Both the driver and the jogger were taken to the hospital and treated for non-life threatening injuries.  The deer, however, was not so lucky and is no more.  While this story has a real "wow!" factor, it also has a spiritual message (it has a number of messages actually, but we'll just stick to one).  When you and I start our day, no matter how many plans we have in place, we really don't know how that day is going to end.

The driver of the SUV had no idea her car would be wrecked that morning and she would end up in the hospital.  The jogger had no idea she would be hit by a flying deer (let's face it, that's one scenario we really can't imagine happening!) and end up in the hospital.  And the poor deer (did you catch that pun?) really didn't expect to go airborne and become a carcass on the side of the road that morning.  We just don't have a clue what our future will be the rest of this day.  One assurance we can have about our future if we are Christians, is that no matter how our day goes, or even if it's our last day on earth, we know beyond a doubt that our last day on earth will be our first day in heaven. 

No matter how your day plays out, if God is your Father, you can hold onto this promise:  "The steps of a good man (or woman) are ordered by the Lord; and He delights in his way.  Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholds him" Psalm 37:23-24.

In these days of uncertainty, that's a marvelous promise to hold onto.  I'd like to add one final bit of advice from Proverbs:  "Lean not unto your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Grand Turk


Because Grand Turk was my favorite port, I can't just let it go with one post.  The top photo was taken along the shoreline in Cockburn Town, where Larry and I wandered around for 2-1/2 hours.  While there, we enjoyed their small, but informative museum.  It's a very small town, but picturesque and "real," meaning it's not commercialized as are so many Caribbean locations.
 
The second photo shows our ship (the smaller Holland Westerdam) moored beside it's bigger Carnival sister.  The pier was built by Carnival Cruise line at one end of the small island so they could bring cruisers to this beautiful place.  Most of the visitors remain at the lovely beach and shopping village, but they miss out by not visiting the town, which we very much enjoyed.
 
Only eight of the 40 islands in the Turk and Cacaos chain are inhabited.  One of the things I found so fascinating about Grand Turk is that it is separated from its related islands by a 22-mile wide body of water called the Columbus Passage (yes, named after our friend, Chris).  The fascinating thing is the depth of the water in that passage -- after leveling off for about 40 feet, it drops suddenly and dramatically to 7,000 feet deep!  That's nearly 1-1/2 miles.  Needless to say, we didn't venture past the shallows near the shoreline.
 
When I think of how deep the oceans are -- many of which have never had their depths plumbed, it reminds me of the depths in God's Word.  I love studying the Bible and have marveled time and again that even a story I've heard dozens of times can have new depths revealed as I study it more deeply.  Even as I enjoy indepth Bible study, I realize I'm only scratching the surface of what God has written in His Word.  Like those divers who descend a few thousand feet into the depths, there is still so much more to be discovered. 
 
"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!  Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been His counselor?  Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever!  Amen"  Romans 11:33-36.
 



Monday, December 2, 2013

Small World Moments

 
I love the stained glass featuring the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."  This beautiful glass sits above the entry doorway we're looking through in the second picture.  It's one of many lovely windows in the St. Mary's Anglican Pro-Cathedral Church on Grand Turk Island in the Caribbean.

We enjoyed our first port call for our recent Eastern Caribbean cruise on the island that is capital of the Turks and Cacaos Islands.  It was my favorite port.  You can glimpse the gorgeous azure blue water just beyond the opening.  Most of the town of Cockburn is located along the curving shoreline of these incredible waters.

When we stepped into the church to admire it's beauty, the docent there told us about the stained glass windows.  It turned out to be one of those "small world" stories.  Some years ago, a group of stained glass artists from a town in North Carolina, came to St. Mary's and installed these windows.  Amazing!  That town where Larry grew up and many of his relatives reside.  We had just been there  two weeks earlier for a family reunion.  It was one of those "wow!" moments.

As if that "small world" moment was not enough, there was another one at dinner on the ship the previous night.  We were sitting at a table in the dining room with five strangers who we were chatting with as we tried to get to know one another.  The couple beside me said they lived in Macon, Georgia.  Larry looked at me and said, "That's where Cliff --- lives."  He'd grown up in our church, we'd taught him in Sunday School as a teen, and his mother attends my Bible study.  Our new acquaintance, Jan, snapped her head around and said, "You know Cliff ----?!" 

We then proceeded to hear from she and husband, Tom, how Cliff had gone to their church in Macon and that Tom and Cliff had served together in the church, and what a fine Christian man Cliff is.  We were all taken aback by yet another "small world" happening.

It's just delightful to me the way God brings His people together, because these were dear Christians as well, and reminds us how the Holy Spirit binds us all together in a mysterious way that is exquisitely beautiful!