Flashlight or Flamethrower?


(Originally published on my first blog, Camped Out On Mt. Never-Rest, on February 5, 2018)

Nearing the end of my hubby’s twenty-year career with the Army, we purchased a home outside of the city limits where we could be comfortable. Living in military housing in urban areas had worn on us, and the idea of having corn, cotton, and cows for neighbors after spending so much time around interstates and airports was a breath of fresh air–quite literally, in fact.

Our first night in our new home was an adventure. We made everyone pallets on the floor, ate a picnic supper in the living room, and bedded down with the anticipation of getting settled into a new life of freedom in the peace and quiet.

And then we turned out the lights.

When you spend your entire life surrounded by bright lights and the glow of cities, that first taste of true darkness hits you right in the face. Or maybe that was just the wall I walked into, I’m not completely sure. Either way, flipping that switch and attempting to walk across the house to my bedroom stopped me in my tracks. Sure, I was used to having to adjust to the [relative] darkness as a brightly-lit room gave way to the dull glow of street lights that provided enough light for me to walk through the house without running into furniture or stepping on the dog. This, however … this was a new sensation. The nearest street light is half a mile away. We are far enough out of town that the mountain blocks the glow of the city lights. When there is no moon and those house lights go out, it gets DARK. Can’t see your hand in front of your face, dark. I froze. My brain locked up, unable to recall where a single wall was in relation to my current location. We laughed about it and still do, but being immersed in the suffocating shadow of the earth, apart from any of the sun’s light was an experience that stuck with me.

Being in true darkness, in the absence of any hint of light at all, is a strange experience. There is an odd sense of false security in not being able to see any of the things that “go bump in the night”, but it’s the type of security that causes you to stop and measure your steps with anxious care because you just don’t know if you’re going to step barefoot on a Lego or if a bloodthirsty monster is going to leap out of the abyss and tear you limb from limb. The darkness takes on a strange life of its own; you can almost feel it surrounding you.

We humans crave light. Unlike some animals who were created with eyesight that can amplify even the smallest bit of ambient light to allow them to navigate the nocturnal world, we need it to be able to survive in this world full of dangers and obstacles. If we lose our ability to see, we require outside assistance to help us function.

I am so thankful that Jesus used lessons that we can visualize to help us understand His will and our purpose in this life and the next. Darkness and light are concepts that we can comprehend even from a very young age; in fact, the unknown terror in the dark is the first true fear that most people have. Jesus never sugar-coated evil; He likened it to the paralyzing darkness that is found in the absence of light–and seeing the truth of the Gospel as the illuminating light in the darkness is a very clear word picture that anyone can understand.

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16)

Can we talk just for a minute about HOW we’re supposed to shine that light? I don’t know if it’s because I’m one of those weird people who have major sensitivities to light or not, but have you ever noticed how it feels to be faced with those high-intensity headlights as an oncoming vehicle crests a hill? How about having someone turn on a bedroom light when you’re struggling to wake up? Ever have an insensitive camper shine an LED flashlight right in your face while you’re looking for something at a dark campsite?

It hurts.

There are a lot of people in this world who are trying to feel their way around in a spiritual void. We know, because we’re IN Christ, that they need the Light of the world to give them direction, security, and peace. However, we have a bad habit of shining our light–our high-definition, super-refined, LED light–directly into their eyes, and then we wonder why on earth they turn away and don’t want to hear another word. Or maybe they try to humor us, but it’s just too much for them to deal with? Are our well-intentioned efforts unwittingly blinding them?

During a power outage, we use flashlights to get us around until we can get to matches and candles. When we camp, we use campfires and torch-lanterns to illuminate our base camp, but we use flashlight and headlamps to navigate from place to place. Have you ever thought about why? Why is it that our tiny little portable light sources aren’t enough?

Natural light is always a superior source of both light and heat. No one needs to turn on a table lamp in a room with lots of windows during the daytime. Unless you’re a kid who doesn’t care about wasting batteries, we all turn off our flashlights when we sit around a campfire. Being in direct sunlight, even when it’s cold outside, is the best way to get warm–with a wood fire being the next-best thing.

We all know that Christ is the Light of the world. He said so in John 8:12 when He told us that anyone who follows Him will not walk in darkness but have the light of life. As followers of Jesus, we bear that light, with the dual purpose of bringing glory to the Father and drawing others out of the darkness. We can visualize His church, our fellow laborers, as that campfire that radiates the light and warmth when we gather around it. Staying near the source is necessary for us, but of course, we have to carry our light into the darkness of this world to hopefully help others find their way to God. We’re just tiny little flashlights!

Brethren, when you use a flashlight, you don’t shine it in someone’s eyes. You cast the light at the path they need to follow, so they can see where they need to go. We walk beside them, so they can visualize every step. If we cast the beam too far ahead, they could trip and fall on something that’s right under their feet. Those we are trying to show the way need to see that we are willing to walk with them, and that their eternal safety and security are most important to us, but also that we care deeply about every dangerous step they are taking! We may know the way, we may understand the path, but not everyone does. We would be wise to tread carefully around those who are taking those first steps!

Perhaps the most dangerous thing we could do is to think that since a little light illuminates the path enough to take a step here and a step there, that bringing a flamethrower to them to blaze a fiery trail would be better. After all, faith is the most important thing, so wouldn’t a scorched-earth method work exceptionally well to burn the bridges we know they need to leave behind? Shouldn’t we show them just how brightly we can shine as God’s chosen people? Shouldn’t our fires be so hot that we melt every trace of evil we come in contact with?

Brothers and sisters, flamethrowers are destructive weapons. They may emit both light and heat, but they burn up everything in their path. God forbid we leave a trail of destruction in our wake in the name of “shining the light”. We should take special care with those who are struggling to adjust to getting a glimpse of the light in this dark world. We can easily cause more harm than good if we are reckless. Don’t throw flames. Be a flashlight. Walk with those who are fearful of the dark until they are comfortable carrying lights of their own. Give comfort; share warmth.

Shine.

A Piece of My Heart

There’s something I need to get off of my heart. It’s been suffocating me like an oversized weighted blanket for the last year, and with each passing day I become ever more aware that it is coming between me and God. This blog post is different than any I’ve ever written. It’s intended for two people–me and one other (who, at the time of this writing, is legally forbidden to have any contact with me). So why a blog post? Well, I suppose it’s the only hands-off way to go about it, and who knows if there’s a chance of her actually reading it? If sharing it will help others work through feelings of unresolved hurts or offenses, I suppose that’s a good bonus.

Dear D,

I’ve struggled with whether this is a good idea or not; I’ve struggled with the sickening need to see your face again, and I’ve beaten myself up over this insane pit in my heart that somehow misses you, despite everything you’ve done.

The simple fact is I absolutely NEED closure, and this is the only way I can feasibly ever even come close to getting it. I have prayed until the words won’t come. I have had actual, verbal debates with myself in the bath. I’ve laid awake more times than I care to admit, agonizing over every word, every discussion, and every red flag I should have seen. I know I will never be able to live with my own thoughts unless I get them out of my crowded head. I need to move on. I need to say these things, and the words need to be out here in cyberspace where you can’t dismiss them or throw them away. I need that ridiculous sense of permanence to heal my heart.

While ideally, this should be said face to face, legally that won’t happen. Even if it could, I can’t do it. I know what you’ve said about the two of us who investigated you, gathered evidence on you, and turned you in. I know how you’ve tried to spin things so we are the evil Christians who treated you so horribly.

I also know the truth.

The plea deal that you got for deceiving thousands of people online and hundreds in real life will never be enough to make us feel like justice was served. To us, you didn’t just lie. You didn’t just take money, favors, gifts, food, clothing, and provisions. You took our trust. You took our love and rubbed our faces in it. You took advantage of people who wanted to help, and you did it in a way that would make us look like monsters if we ever questioned what turned out to be a web of lies. The state calls what you did a property crime, and your victims should be happy to “get their money back”. Funny, but the ones I’ve spoken with don’t want the money back. You can never repay what you’ve taken.

It disgusts me to look back and recall how enthusiastically I put myself out there to defend you when others didn’t believe your lies. Whether you want to believe it now, you WERE family to me. I meant every word. My heart was behind every bit of the encouragement I poured out to you, even while you complained to your online followers that you had “no one” in real life but your kids. What you did to MY children was unthinkable, but to make your own children believe their mother was dying, and then to let them shave their heads to support your lie? The only word for that is cruelty. You did it willingly. 

The truth is I don’t want to forgive you. Yes, I said that. I want to do what comes naturally–to hate you. Being lied to, used, manipulated, and taken advantage of has left my heart bitter toward you. To hear your attorney tell the press that you “owned up to” what you did when I know you’ve ranted to people since your arrest how awful you were treated by the very ones you took advantage of is sickening to me and reeks of a lack of remorse. I could very easily hate you.

But I can’t do that. It’s not in me. I want to see you actually repent of what you’ve done. Real godly sorrow. I want to see you turn away from the corruption and deception that has been your way of life for so long and hand yourself over fully to God. I want to see you become the person you claimed to be. I want to see what God and His transformative power can do in your heart. I want to see you in heaven. But that’s on you. None of us can help you now.

DO what your attorney said you wanted to do–make it right. But first, with God. Until your heart is right, your actions will continue to be warped.

I’ve got no choice but to let my hurt go. But that’s just for me. I pray you will do what you need to do for your own soul’s sake. I pray that you will seek forgiveness instead of just release from the consequences of your actions. I pray that one day, you’ll learn how to live truthfully and as a victor over your own demons.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It has not been as easy as I’d hoped to get my thoughts organized and typed out. In fact, the process has been one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever written. In getting it outlined, I found my head and heart drawn in several different directions, but through several bubble bath prayer sessions, I have come to realize that God has been drawing me out of my comfort zone for several years while I’m clinging with all my might to the last thread of excuses. Time to let go.

There are so many things I learned during the five days that my two oldest teenage daughters and I spent in New York City last month, and I’m sure I’ll be able to share more once I can get this out of my head. But those other lessons? They all nudged my mind one way or another toward one ultimate thought–the Great Commission.

β€œAll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Jesus began these “marching orders” by stating his authority to give it as an actual command. It’s not optional, and it was given not just to the disciples who were gathered together that day, but His disciples today as well. Now here’s where I have to get very personal; if I’m not working on fulfilling this command, but rather I’m relying on my contributions to one mission or another to do it for me … am I **actually** fulfilling my own mission, or am I committing a sin of omission by basically passing off a direct command of Jesus Christ?

I know, that was harsh. But maybe it’s time we get serious about our purpose as Christians as we go through life in this mission field of a fallen world. Are we actually doing our job, or are we just trying like mad to insulate ourselves from being affected by what’s around us? Of all the things the girls and I saw and experienced while in NYC, both good and not-so-good, there’s one thing we didn’t see–churches. Yeah, I know, we were coming from the heart of the super-tight genuine leather Bible belt of the deep South, where you will easily pass twenty church buildings while driving to worship on Sunday morning. That is kind of a culture shock! I’m sure they’re there somewhere, but we were looking! In the 46 miles of walking we did around Manhattan for five days, we saw ONE advertised meeting place. Just around the corner from one of our favorite cute coffee shops was Times Square Church, which describes itself as an interdenominational, come-as-you-are gathering of believers. No, I’m not counting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a tourist trap with a hefty price tag for a tour, and unless you’re a practicing Catholic, it’s just a pretty building.

One.

Oh, sure, there was also an oddly decorated RV known as the Mitzvah Tank, which is used as a mobile educational and outreach tool by Orthodox Jews to reach non observing or alienated Jews with a mini-synagogue, hoping to draw them out of the hustle and bustle of the world and reconnect them to their faith.

Did I go out of my way to look up churches in the area? Nope. I’ll admit it, we didn’t bother. We weren’t there on a weekend, so I wasn’t really “needing” to find a group of Christians to worship with. I will say this, though: God definitely met us in downtown New York City. He opened our eyes to many things we’d never have even considered before. God showed us beauty in the eyes, hands, and words of random New Yorkers. We received smiles, kind actions, and we had our days blessed by more people than we could count. We couldn’t help but love them. We connected with them. They became real to us; no longer obscure faces of heathens living in some God-forsaken cesspool of immorality, but real souls just trying to find their way and pass on joy.

There are several devotional songs that we have come to love that beg the Lord to open our eyes, break our hearts, and to show us Jesus. God did just that in the Big Apple–He showed us people. Hearts. Neighbors. Souls. And then He showed us the reality of what was available to minister to those souls. Precious little, compared to what the world has to offer to keep them away from Truth.

And yet … the Commission is still great. It still stands as a command for individual followers of Jesus. It doesn’t really on buildings, it isn’t restricted to organized mission teams. It’s a command for each one of us to be an ambassador of the Gospel of Christ. It is our job to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Nearly two thousand years ago, three thousand people responded to the first Gospel sermon with obedience, in just one Day! For the first time in history, the risen Savior gave hope to the world. People today still need hope. It’s what will draw them out of the world and into Christ.

Of course, it’s wonderful to share fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that’s not our mission. Our business is to be a neighbor like the”good Samaritan” was. Isn’t that what Jesus told the lawyers who tried to entrap Him?

She can’t WHAT?

Two years ago, we started the process to get our third child medically treated for something that we had no idea existed even though she has dealt with it all seventeen years of her life. Tomorrow, she is having a simple procedure done to correct a rare and relatively unknown condition. She has retrograde cricopharyngeus dysfunction, or R-CPD. Basically, she can’t burp.

Nope, not even if she drinks soda.

Her gastrointestinal system still produces the same gas that you, I, and every other functional body burps out so often that we don’t even notice it. Her body just lacks the reflex that loosens the esophageal sphincter to allow that burp up and out. Gas from eating, swallowing, and normal GI functions gets trapped right at her Adam’s apple and stays there, causing all sorts of trouble. And it always has.

When she was a baby, she didn’t burp. She didn’t have colic or reflux, but she just wouldn’t burp. After feedings, we’d try to burp her, but would always be faced with projectile vomiting every single time. That’s the only way any air would come out. Her pediatrician told us that her esophageal sphincter was just too tight, and since it wasn’t inhibiting her growth or causing her obvious pain, just let her outgrow it. As she started eating solids, she stopped vomiting with every feeding, so we relaxed and thought it had resolved.

Not until she was in the third grade and our homeschool co-op students tossed around the idea of a “slurp and burp” soup-eating celebration in conjunction with our geography study of Japan did she start realizing that she couldn’t do something that everyone else could. We found it slightly amusing at the time, because again, it wasn’t causing her pain.

All that changed as she entered late puberty. When she stopped growing, her body decided to let her know in no uncertain terms that she had most definitely NOT outgrown that problem we had been able to ignore since her infancy. She started having tightness in her chest, constant pressure and pain after meals that didn’t resolve easily, and an odd gurgling in her throat that sounded like a frog trying to croak. With time, she stopped being able to exercise and do the physical things she’d done before, because the tightness and pain in her chest and abdomen made it hard to breathe. If you are struggling to breathe, it’s difficult to exercise. She also became less able to hold long conversations because of the difficulty breathing.

What seems to you and me to be something of a minor inconvenience was making her miserable. She was withdrawing from normal activities and was not able to enjoy things the rest of us did because that pain was always there. We HAD to get it taken care of.

Unfortunately, most doctors don’t have a clue what to do with someone who can’t burp. We’d already done a fair amount of digging online before we could get in to see her doctor, trying to find simple tricks to help her, and we’d learned that Dr. Bastian at the Bastian Voice Institute had not only identified this as an actual medical dysfunction but was also treating it successfully with a Botox injection into the esophageal sphincter. We had hope that we could have her treated if we could just find a doctor who would be willing to do something that isn’t widely recognized in the medical community.

Her pediatrician was our first stop, and she wanted to “rule out all other possibilities” because just not being able to burp sounded impossible to her. First she prescribed Prilosec to attempt to control the gas production, but that did absolutely nothing, leading to the most ludicrous attempt at a treatment I’ve ever heard: she prescribed my daughter antidepressants to treat what she surmised was an inflated story of pain from a “hormonal teenager”. I insisted on a referral, and we were sent to a pediatric gastroenterologist, who ran some standard tests. First up was a swallow study, then and esophageal motility study. Results of these tests were conclusive: there was nothing wrong with her GI function, so she’s fine. Just take antacids for the pain.

A second pediatric GI at a second university teaching hospital wanted to run even more (invasive) tests to see if she had eosinophilic esophagitis, even though she had literally ONE symptom–pain. I showed him printouts from Dr. Bastian’s studies, and this time, I at least got one remotely helpful answer–“That’s not my specialty; you are going to need an ENT.”

And then COVID-19 shut down the world, so we were stuck waiting until non-emergent referrals were available again. That was last February. This July we finally got in to see the pediatrician again and submitted a referral for a pediatric ENT at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. When we received the notice of the referral approval, we were very amused to learn that the doctor she was referred to was named Dr. Belcher! We don’t believe in “signs” but we had a really good feeling about seeing him! When he sat down in the exam room and listened to my daughter talk about what she has gone through and how this has affected her life, then took the printouts about R-CPD from me and read them right there, you could almost cut the anticipation with a knife.

He said to her, “How about we try to get you some relief?”

She and I both nearly cried. After a minute or two when it sunk in to her that he was actually going to do the procedure, she DID cry. Relief? He’s going to do this?? It was surreal. She’s spent the last eight weeks counting down the days, and tomorrow, it happens. She will be getting general anesthesia, have an endoscope placed to check her esophagus, and then one injection of Botox will be administered into her upper esophageal sphincter. That’s it. Once she’s awake and stable, we will go home. Hopefully and prayerfully, she will be burping within a day or two and will be able to start living again!

Let’s do this.

Wake-up Call

When Pearl Harbor was bombed. When JFK was shot. When we landed on the moon. When the space shuttle exploded. When the Twin Towers fell. If you were alive for these events, you remember vividly where you were. You remember the setting. The emotions of that moment haunt you, and you connect to others who experienced that event simply because that precise moment in history changed your perspective on the world instantly. Not everyone had the same reaction, but you couldn’t not react–it affected everyone to one degree or another.

Three years ago, I was at a nursery with my girls and my aunt, filling little garden wagons with plants and enjoying a beautiful spring morning when my world changed. I got a phone call informing me that the doctor wanted to do some follow-up tests because he was concerned about my mammogram. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten a phone call like that; three years prior, my first mammogram had to be repeated because dense breast tissue made it difficult to read. But this phone call … It was different. This time they had found a specific spot that needed to be explored. Even though it was another week before I had a definitive diagnosis, my life changed that day. I became one of the many to have my perspective changed by one word: cancer.

Our stories vary drastically after that phone call. Some of us will have chemotherapy, some will have radiation, some will have surgery. Some will be cured, some will only have a few precious years, months, or weeks before their body succumbs to the disease. But it all starts with that phone call that turns the world upside down.

My battle wasn’t nearly as difficult as the vast majority; mine, even though the tumor was very large, never invaded the surrounding tissues, so it was easily removed during surgery and didn’t require any other treatment. However, what I’ve learned is that there is a brotherhood/sisterhood regardless of degree or stage. We’re fiercely protective of one another, and the level at which we empathize with our fellow warriors is sometimes overwhelming, especially if we have grown particularly close to someone who is facing a fight that seems insurmountable. We’ve all been changed by this, and that’s what connects us. That phone call alters how we see life and death; it puts us in a fight for our life and opens us up to us see the value in each day.

Thankfully, the vast majority of those I’ve known personally on this battlefield have been faithful, devoted Christians. A few have been either unbelievers or “pew sitters” (those whose belief isn’t strong enough to make them truly die to self but who can put on a convincing display to fit in with church folks), and it’s honestly very easy to see the difference. You can almost see the peace and hope radiating from God’s children. They don’t fear the future. They have heaven in view, and they understand that our numbered days are not nearly as long as we expect them to be. They know that whatever time they are given here is a gift that they can choose to either squander or take full advantage of, in hopes of bringing others to the Lord. They mourn the time they won’t have, but it isn’t an all-consuming sadness, bitterness, anger, or hopelessness. The feelings are there, of course, but the “peace that passes understanding” is a steady keel that keeps the mind stable. Death is not a defeat, but rather a victory that we share because Jesus already won that battle when He walked out of the tomb.

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future and life is worth a living just because He lives.”. (song by Bill and Gloria Gaither)

This world we live in today is filled with the cancer of sin. It is ravaging individuals, families, communities, and our entire country. Division, distrust, dishonesty, and raw hatred are killing what is good, decent, and wholesome. We spend too much of our precious time fighting against one another, because we lack perspective.

We need a phone call.

On My Knees in the Master’s Garden

Have you ever felt like you were “meant” to do a thing, but even thinking about that thing left you feeling completely vulnerable, inadequate, and terrified? I’m there. And that, I suppose, is why I’m here, baring myself to the whole of cyberspace in a feeble attempt to do something that’s been on my heart for decades.

I’ve never had much self-confidence. In fact, I have spent most of my years wondering how God could even have a purpose for me. I’m prone to self destruction, my past is a train wreck, and most of the time if I’m speaking, I can barely string two sentences together without flubbing big time.

There’s one thing that has been repeated to me almost as often as the mental rehashing of all of my failings. Many people have told me that I have a gift for writing, but I’ve got a bad habit of negating their compliments as “they’re just being nice.” Recently, however, I’ve had a bit of a loving reality slap from a dear friend who reminded me that if I’ve been blessed with a talent that I refuse to use for God’s work because I’m afraid I’m not “good enough”, I’m no better than the unfaithful servant in Matthew 25 who fearfully buried the one talent he was entrusted with by his master.

It’s time to get to work.

You may notice, if you read much of anything I post, that I use a lot of metaphors in my writing. I do my best thinking while my body is actively engaged in physical labor, and these last few years, much of that has been in my garden. I feel closest to God when I have my hands and feet in the dirt, and my big “light bulb moments” come when I’m elbow-deep in meditation … and mud.

Of Jesus’ many parables, one of my favorites is the parable of the sower. I find my mind delving deeply into the object lessons the Savior gives while I’m in the garden. I am a visual learner, so when I can see a lesson come alive in a practical way, it is wonderfully faith-affirming.

No, this isn’t a gardening blog; I’m far too inexperienced to believe I have any wisdom to offer. You will find, however, examples of what spiritual wisdom I have gained through my time in the Master’s garden. I hope what I’ve learned can be a blessing to you! Join me in the mud, will you? 😊

In the Master’s Garden Part 2: Wild Tomatoes and Feral Hearts

We had a tiny little glimpse of spring weather as the new year arrived, and as we put away the last of the Christmas decorations, my mind wandered into the garden I don’t have yet. We still don’t have a garden at our new house, but I’m determined this year, if the Lord permits me the time I need to prepare for it.

Our last house was a gardener’s paradise. An acre of wonderfully fertile soil out in farming country for me to begin our amateur homestead! Twenty years of military moves and tiny, temporary residences prevented me from gardening until we “retired” to the country, so when I tilled that first plot, my zeal definitely outweighed my knowledge.

I planted corn, beans, cucumbers, okra, and tomatoes in that ambitious little piece of dirt. It was WAY more than I was prepared for, and the only bumper crop that year was my experience. I had hoped for a natural, organic garden, even a bit wild. What was wild about it was how quickly the entire garden resembled a bed of tall weeds, producing very little in terms of healthy veggies. It was a learning experience to be sure, but painful nonetheless.

Among the many lessons learned that year was that tomatoes don’t do so well left out in the field with every other plant. Oh sure, they’ll grow, but not very well; the sprawling was too difficult to control. My second gardening season, I added a couple of raised beds in the hopes that having better access to my tomatoes would make it easier to maintain them. I still didn’t fully grasp how much I’d have to train those branches. It didn’t take long for the chaos to take over again. We did at least get a few sweet little cherry tomatoes to whet the appetite. I did a lot more research that fall and winter.

Year three, I got serious about my ‘maters. I’d planted asparagus where the previous year’s tomatoes were, and with that perennial addition, I found myself fully invested, committed, and charging ahead with the intense training my unsuspecting tomato seedlings had been signed up for.

I experimented with two different forms of tomato training that year. In one raised bed, I held my growing plants up by firmly (but gently) tying them to tall, thick, deeply-embedded stakes. In another bed, I supported them using horizontally-run lines of garden twine, known as the Florida weave. Both methods were equally successful, although I came to prefer the stakes, as the twine had a habit of becoming tangled as the plants grew taller and wider.

What I eventually learned was that my much-earned bumper crop of tomatoes wasn’t particularly due to the method I used to train the plants, but rather the fact that I was diligent to train and prune them regularly, as well as making sure they had the proper conditions for growth.

Perhaps the pruning and feeding of tomato plants could yield another “parable” post entirely, but the training of these plants is something I’d like to make a practical application with, if I may. These little tomato seedlings of mine were very much like the tender hearts of those who are trying to live the life of a faithful servant of God–especially children or those who are babes in Christ–new Christians of any age. Given the right conditions for growth, any plant will grow well. But as we are with our own vegetable gardens, our Heavenly Father is far more pleased with those who bear fruit. That kind of growth requires diligent and firm training. Otherwise, as I saw with my wild (albeit huge) plants in the untamed garden, we may end up with feral hearts and souls that are wild and bear very little fruit.

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. John 15:8

If we are not careful to provide firm support for growing hearts, training them to grow upright and to cling tightly to the firm foundation that will keep them steady, we may end up losing them to uncontrolled conditions that can pull them down where they can be broken or trampled on, or even swallowed up by weeds.

It’s definitely countercultural to say that not all growth is good growth and to suggest at all that we are firm in the training of young hearts (or those young in the faith). “Tomato staking” sounds mean and harsh in a world that celebrates free expression and resisting authority, but let us never forget that God isn’t looking for the biggest, most beautiful plant.

He’s wanting us to bear fruit.

In the Master’s Garden Part 1: Don’t let poison ivy grow on you!

Poison ivy is one of those plants that one has to wonder what God was thinking when He created it. Maybe its original design was to use it to keep Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit? I’m sure it would have been an excellent deterrant! One run-in with the three-leafed menace is all it takes to make us appreciate the danger found in not being careful with our movements.

Over the last week, I spent about three hours covered from fingertip to toe, removing a wall of poison ivy and Virginia creeper from the old house we’re getting ready to sell. In the two years since we moved out, vines had taken over an entire exterior wall and were encroaching on the roof and the front wall as well. Fear of allergic reactions kept our renters from ridding the brick of the ivy, which is understandable. I was actually thankful to tackle the problem once the plants had gone dormant for the winter. Still dangerous, but not leafy with active oils seeking out naked skin. I have always been careful when I’ve dealt with it, so I wasn’t fearful–just very purposeful with my movements and the way I handled the gloves and clothing afterward. No itching!

As I often do while gardening, I let my mind wander into God’s Word while removing all that ivy, and couldn’t help but think that the chore of weeding, especially of dangerous plants like poison ivy, is not unlike the removal of things that threaten to do harm to our souls.

The weeds in our lives are fruitless pursuits that crowd us and keep us from receiving vital spiritual nourishment. What constitutes a weed is different for each of us, because not all of the fruitless pursuits of this life have the same effect on us as individuals. But if we don’t keep them under control, they will take over. They deprive us of what we need to fully thrive, and we spend our spiritual energies just going through the motions instead of putting our effort toward bearing fruit in God’s Kingdom.

Poison ivy, though … Well, that’s a different matter altogether. Poison ivy is never *just* a weed. It’s dangerous, no matter where it is. One leaf can cause a reaction just as easily as a hundred, so these menaces cannot simply be left to grow wild. They must be forcibly removed, in their entirety, or they will be a danger to every move we make.

There are things in our lives that act as poison ivy to our spiritual lives, and no course of action will do other than to remove all traces of them in our lives.

For some of us, it’s an addiction. It doesn’t really matter what *to*–whatever we are addicted to will dominate our spiritual lives and keep our hearts divided. Jesus said plainly in Matthew 6:24 that we “cannot serve two masters”, and addictions will win over service to God every time.

Still others are poisoned by toxic relationships. Friends, romantic interests, even family members can be toxic to our souls and incredibly harmful to us even in small doses. When there are people in our lives who expect us to overlook sin, we are allowing ourselves to be unequally yoked. What’s tricky about this is that sometimes these toxic people claim to be Christians. They hold onto a false identity but live in a way that displays a splintered allegiance. Make no mistake, these are tools of the enemy of God if they are producing fruit that is not loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. These people are far more dangerous than a wall full of poison ivy. They can harm your soul eternally.

Equally damaging in the Christian’s life are habits that draw us away from our purpose as God’s people. Jesus came to seek and save the lost; He commissioned us to do likewise. We have people to minister to, souls to bring to Christ, and lives to live for the glory of God. If there are habits in our everyday lives that cause any of those missions to be compromised, we need to stop right where we are and get them OUT of our lives.

If we could see physical effects of these poisons in our spiritual lives as easily as we can feel the effects of contact with poison ivy, we would do everything in our power to avoid ever having their dangerous vines growing around our hearts. We need to suit up and both carefully and thoroughly remove every trace of these toxins.

As we enter this new year, let us each face this challenge of weeding our lives with the full armor of God. To face our opponent any other way would be a mistake. We can’t remove it without God’s protection.

Lessons From the Hidey Hole

Day 3 of our agonizing game of hide and seek with our escaped cat dawned a few hours ago. I didn’t sleep much last night. It was more than the night before, which was spent in fitful bursts of tearful prayer interspersed with tossing and turning. Yesterday’s headache is back. A cat should probably not cause this much emotional distress, but this isn’t just *any* cat.

Jack was placed in our path at a time we were in no position to take on another pet, let alone one that would need so much attention. I almost didn’t see him huddled in a little black ball in the parking space we were turning into, but a tiny flash of white from his paws caught my eye in time to avoid disaster. It was 95Β° in that north Florida parking lot, and we were headed to Disney World the next day. However, when God puts an animal in need directly in front of you, you don’t say no. Thankfully, we were able to leave him temporarily in the care of my well-seasoned cat nurse aunt, and while we didn’t think his tiny little three-week-old body would survive the night, he has spent the last six years being spoiled into the oversized (but yet very healthy) cat that torments me today.

I’ve always been a cat person. Sure, dogs are great, but there’s something about cats that I identify with, and on the rare occasions that I’ve been blessed to find a cat I truly “clicked” with, I have gotten attached to a degree that is probably unhealthy. However, that’s how God wired me, and since there’s nothing sinful about it, I’m going to accept it for the bittersweet blessing it is. I’ve had the privilege of finding only two such feline companions during my lifetime, even though we have had many cats in our family. Jack is the second. He truly is MY cat; the girls love him to pieces, but there is no doubt who Jack’s person is. He spent several months curling up around my shoulders, sticking to me like velcro, and following me around more like a dog than a cat. Jack was the one who stayed by my side at all hours of the night after my surgeries, making sure I had a purring blanket even when I didn’t even want one. He would insist on me taking his can of food into the bathroom, where he would eat while I bathed, every night. This cat owns a rather large piece of my heart.

Not having that these last few days is tearing me apart. We truly have done everything we can think of to do to get him back home. We’ve posted on both Facebook and our Nextdoor group, spoken with all of the neighbors (well, the ones who would answer their doors; πŸ˜’ we left notes for the others), walked the neighborhood calling him all hours of the day and night, left food and his litter pan and even laundry outside.

This is an awful feeling, to know that he is probably so close that he can hear us calling him. He’s the type of cat who hides silently when he’s scared instead of running, so he’s likely within range of our voices. But yet, nothing for three days, other than one neighbor who saw him run away when she approached him. There’s not much more we can do other than to pray that God will keep him safe and to keep doing what we’re doing.

As I often do when I’m kept awake in the wee, silent hours of the morning, I’ve been pondering what possible lesson God would want me to glean from this experience. What else other than worry do I have to do? How about the standard, “What would Jesus do?” Well, actually …

I’m doing what Jesus would do. I’m doing what He DID do. And now I get to experience this waiting game from His perspective, to some tiny extent.

You see, God knew before He ever spoke the world into existence that I was going to get lost. He knew we all would. And yet, just as I knew when I decided that I was going to take in that tiny kitten that would one day shatter my heart into a million pieces, He created this hot mess of humanity anyway. Jesus knew, before He ever left the splendor of Heaven to show us what pure, selfless love looks like, that the majority of us would choose to stay lost rather than to reach out in faith to the only One who can bring us home to our Father. He knew.

As I’m sitting here typing this, there is a storm building outside. Our other animals are safe and warm and dry in here with us, but Jack is not. That very fact has my stomach in knots. I want SO badly for him to just come out so we can find him and bring him home. I want him to be able to rest where his stomach is full and he is loved. But he won’t move, because he’s afraid. He’s choosing the cold and wet hiding spot he is in over the true safety of home because he’s too afraid to come out. And his family is in agony, knowing that his life is growing shorter by the hour, all because he refuses to take the risk of going toward the voice that has grown hoarse from calling him.

Why do we do this to God? Why do we insist that we’re *fine* where we are, while the dangers around us threaten to steal our souls away? Why can’t we just step out of the place we’re hiding and let Him bring us home, where we will be safe and loved and protected? There’s a sad sense of false security in the tight confines of what we can see and feel and touch in the here and now. Stepping out of our spiritual hiding place makes us vulnerable. What if we’re made fun of, or ostracized, or what if … what if we have to take a stand against the comfort and convenience of sin? What if I’m hated? What if I’m threatened? What if I lose everything?

The scary thing about faith is that it doesn’t remove the storm that we have to endure. This life is still going to have its fair share of pain and suffering. That prosperity gospel thing? Yeah, umm, sorry to say it isn’t biblical. Jesus never promised a carefree life here. Because He isn’t trying to keep us here; He’s trying to bring us HOME. To a life beyond all this.

Just as we need Jack to come out of hiding for us to be able to get him back home, God needs for us to move. He’s already lit the way, opened the door, and He will even send people to help get us home. We just need to step out of what we are hiding in.

Can I really do this?

My hosting service ends in 21 days. I’m still not sure this blog thing is worth the effort. I’m feeling woefully inadequate, technologically speaking. I fear that I’m not cut out for this blogging thing, and that bothers me.

Because I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I AM cut out for writing. I’ve known it for a long time. It may be the only thing I know I can do well. In fact, off the top of my head, it really is the only thing I can think of that I can say I’m confident in my abilities. But on a virtual platform? Oy. I feel like I’m trying to speak into a microphone in front of millions who can’t understand me because I don’t speak the language.

The thought of actually doing this in any way that would ever be monetarily profitable is almost laughable to me. It’s not my thing.

So … To blog or not to blog? That is the question of the day. Well, okay, the next 20 days. After that, I’m pretty much dead in the virtual water.