Saturday, November 18, 2017

In Defense of Drinking Tea and the Three-Kiss Greeting

I love the Middle East. 

I love the colorful souk (outdoor market), the sounds of raised voices bartering, mingled with the distant sound of chickens around the corner, and the call of prayer sounding overhead. 

I love the aroma of spices: cumin, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves. 

I love the crowds and the exotic clothing. Don't hate me for this, but the hijabs and abiyahs are beautiful to me. I wouldn't want to be forced to wear them, but many are made of rich fabrics, exotically decorated with sequins and beads. In the windy valley, they're more practical than you might think. (I'm not talking about niqabs.)

I love that the people (both men and women) still wear their native dress. A long, loose cotton "dress" is much cooler in hot weather than American jeans and t-shirt. I haven't tried wearing a keffiyeh, but I believe it would be a nice protection from the sun. 

I love the hospitality. Mississippi calls itself "The Hospitality State." Admittedly, we're a social people, but in comparison to the Arabs, we have a way to go. 

Middle Easterners have honed hospitality to a fine art. "Come have tea with me," is an invitation many made and all meant sincerely. When I dropped by their homes for tea, they stopped whatever they were doing and welcomed me. The hostess gave me the seat of honor, and served hot tea and some sort of sweet. Homemade cake, pastries from the bakery, cookies straight from the box. They always offered something, and I always ate whatever I was given. 

Their welcome can't be beat. I was greeted (by women) with hugs and three kisses, one on my right cheek and two on my left. When I returned home, it felt odd to greet my friends with a distant "hi," even when the distance was only two or three feet. 

In case you can't imagine this, when you hug your visitor and kiss her three times (and she does the same), you instantly slow down and settle in. 

I'm in favor of the three-kiss greeting.

Today, I finally came to 2 Corinthians 13:12 in my study. "Greet one another with a holy kiss," Paul wrote. The three-kiss greetings came to mind and I realized something wonderful. Paul was a Middle Easterner. The kisses I received were something that was practiced even in Paul's time.

How beautiful is that?

Why don't we continue this lovely practice of greeting with holy kisses?

Why don't we have tea and a little sweet and visit for a few minutes with our neighbors on a more regular basis? Why don't we welcome drop-in visitors and stop what we're doing when they come by without inwardly rehearsing all we have left to do?

We're too busy. That's why. But to what point?

Jesus was a Middle Easterner, and His ministry was one of relationships. That's how He trained His disciples. Jesus spent time with his followers. He ate with them, walked with them, and talked as they traveled. They probably drank tea together. He built relationships and, in the process, those disciples became a little more like Him. 

What would happen if we built relationships in the same way, including with unlikely people? If we acted like Jesus, might they become a little more like Him? Might they learn of Him from spending time with us? And we from them? Of course, we'd probably all be more like Jesus.

As we enter the holiday season and the mad dash to those few moments under the tree when tape is torn and wrapping paper tossed aside to reveal gifts we don't need, let's stop to reconsider our relationships, our greetings, our busyness. 

Let's stop, and do something wonderfully different instead.

Take a few moments for a visit with our neighbors. Greet each other warmly. Offer a holy kiss on the cheek. Make a pot of tea and drink a cup together. Eat a cookie from a package or a piece of homemade something. Talk. Visit. Pray. 

Spend time together. Build relationships, not our stash of stuff. 

"Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss." 2 Corinthians 13:11-12 nasb
In case you missed it, here's the link to yesterday's post: The Thanksgiving I Almost Missed

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Thanksgiving I Almost Missed

I haven't missed Thanksgiving yet, but I almost did. 

During staff meeting yesterday someone mentioned that Thanksgiving is next week. Next week? I sneaked a peek at my calendar to be sure. Yes. It's in less than a week.

I still have my July 4th door decoration up. Really. 

I'm way behind.

I haven't spent the month of November being grateful. I've spent it watching Sam die, memorializing him, and trying to recover from two years of caregiving. 

There's no list of things for which I'm thankful on my refrigerator. I haven't baked cornbread, much less made the dressing. I don't have a pumpkin, or acorns gathered, or colorful leaves. My pilgrims are still in the storage house. 

It's not much of a start, but I did buy a can of pumpkin recently. Today, I'm officially embracing Thanksgiving, and not because of next week's holiday. I'm embracing thankfulness because it brings healing. 

King David wrote these words, "I am afflicted and in pain...I will praise the name of God with song, and shall magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it will please the Lord better than an ox...You who seek God, let your heart revive." Psalm 69:29-32 nasb

It's a principle I've decided to embrace. Even though he was having a terrible time, David chose to praise and thank God, knowing that giving thanks in hard times pleases Him. He also knew it would help revive his own heart.

Today, I began a list of things for which I'm grateful (in no particular order):
Ryan will home in less than a week
~ Great trip to the Middle East, where God protected and used me
~ Safe trip there and back
~ Sam didn't die until after I got home
~ Recent repair of my old and much-loved tractor
~ Snuggly lap dogs
~ Working from home is one of my options
~ Being a finalist in First Impressions competition was such a nice surprise
~ I have amazing friends

Once I started my thankful list, I felt my own heart revive. Life has changed, but it's still good. God's still on His throne. He'll still see me through. Funny things will happen as I make my way through this transition, and blog posts are sure to follow. 

I didn't realize it until I started giving thanks, but there's so much for which I'm grateful.  

No matter what we've endured or what we face, thanksgiving is still our best option. In the midst of sorrow, trouble, or great loss, there is always something for which we can be grateful. Want to feel better? Spirit need reviving? Give thanks. 

We may not have a choice about the circumstances of our lives, but we have a choice about our response. Let's choose well. Begin with thanksgiving. 

"In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:18 nasb
In case you missed it, here's the link to yesterday's post: When Normal Isn't Normal Anymore

Thursday, November 16, 2017

When Normal Isn't Normal Anymore

For twenty-eight years, Sam was in and out of my house all day long. In the early years, he did everything for me. He took care of the farm and livestock, bush hogged, mowed the grass, changed light bulbs, took out my garbage, and got the mail out of my mail box. My newspaper was by the coffeepot when I went downstairs in the morning.

Sam literally did everything. He made my life possible.

I didn't hesitate when I bought a high-maintenance dog, because I knew he would walk Maggie three or four times a day while I was at work. He'd take care of her and Mamie (my second high-maintance dog) when I went out of town. 

He slowed down over the last few years. By early summer, Sam could no longer walk the dogs. By July, he couldn't get Ensure out of the refrigerator, but he could still answer questions about how to do things. 

Now, he's gone and I'm trying to figure out how to do things for myself. 

It's strange and feels as if my life has been turned upside down. I've never locked my doors because I knew Sam would be in and out repeatedly. Now, I'm diligent about the deadbolts and the chain locks. I'm looking at security systems, considering electronic gates. 

Because Sam was in and out all day long, I was always fully dressed. I've never had a "pajama day" or changed into pj's early. This past Sunday, it was cold and I was tired. I thought about getting ready for bed early but hesitated because of Sam. It hit me like a brick. Sam wouldn't be coming over. I changed into sleep pants and a t-shirt just after 5 pm, but it felt strange and oddly wrong.

Last night, it was dark when I turned into my driveway after church. A light was on in "Sam's house." For an instant, I thought, "Sam's still up." Just as quickly, I remembered. I'd left the light on myself.

My normal's been disrupted. I'm looking for the new normal, but I haven't found it yet. 

I've told myself this isn't grief, but maybe it is. I don't wish Sam were back. He's in a much better place and he's no longer sick or suffering. I do, however, grieve the life I've lost. 

The life I knew isn't coming back. I keep reminding myself of this, and that I need to figure it out. I know it will take more than a week to find normal again, and it won't be the same. As much as I hate to admit it, the old life is gone for good.

A new life is coming, and it's going to be good, too. I feel fragile and weak and uncertain right now. Six months from now, I'll have learned to bush hog, ground the leaves, made it through a winter on my own, and (hopefully) kept the pipes from freezing and the animals fed and watered. 

A year from now, I'll feel safe again. 

Today, though, I'm hanging on to the truth I know. My faith never rested in Sam, although I depended on him for so much. My faith is in God alone.

I'm not tough enough for this new place in life, but My God is more than able. I read the words of Paul this morning and grabbed on to them. 

"And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.'" Most gladly therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.'" 2 Corinthians 12:9 nasb

I'm not to the "boasting" part, but I have the weakness part down pat. For now, I'm counting on His power and looking forward to the day His power dwells in me.
In case you missed it, here's the link to yesterday's post: A Few Good Surprises

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Few Good Surprises

I've received quite a few surprises lately, and they haven't all been good. Last night, though, I received a call I almost didn't answer because I thought it was a telemarketer. When I saw a call back from the number,  I finally answered and received the happiest news I've had in a while. 

It was the Category Coordinator calling to inform me that my novel is a finalist in the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) First Impressions Competition. I've worked hard on the novel, but I entered on the spur of the moment and promptly forgot about it. It was a surprise to remember I'd entered, and even more of a surprise to find my novel is a finalist. (I'm seriously thrilled.)

This morning, I had another surprise. I've read 2 Corinthians before, but I'd forgotten about Paul going to third heaven. My first thought was, "there's only one heaven," but I decided to keep an open mind and check it out a little further.

As it turns out, there are three heavens. I don't know if there are more, or not, but for now, I'm holding to three. I won't list all the Scripture I've searched and the commentaries I've read, but please trust that I've checked this out. 

The multiple heavens description is based on the understanding of the ancients, who saw the sky/air/atmosphere/etc as non-contiguous, heavenly layers. First heaven, then, is where the clouds are and the birds fly. Second heaven is where the stars are located. Third heaven is where God resides. 

Hebrews 4:14 tells us Jesus has "passed through the heavens." I have long wondered about the term "passed" used instead of "died," so this was another surprise. When Christians have "passed," they have "passed through the heavens" to their eternal destination. 

Ephesians 4:10 says Jesus "ascended far above all the heavens." I don't know where that lofty place is located, or if there are multiple stories/levels in third heaven, but I do know His people will be with Him wherever He is. (Based on John 14) 

Paul wrote that, in third heaven (where God is) he heard "inexpressible words" and experienced "surpassing greatness of revelations." (Col 2:4,7) When we get to third heaven, then, we'll all be surprised, and in the best way of all. It's better than we think, and the streets of gold and pearly gates will not be the best parts, the presence of God will be.

One day, we will all "pass" to our next destination, either heaven or hell. According to Paul, heaven is much more wonderful than we can imagine. Hell is almost certainly worse than we can imagine, too. We'll be surprised, either way. 

The thing that should not surprise us is the destination to which we arrive. That's determined here on earth. Do we follow Jesus (not just claim to follow) here? Then we'll be with Him in eternity. Do we reject Jesus here? We'll spend eternity away from Him. 

What kind of surprise will greet us in eternity? We choose whether our eternal surprise will be wonderful or horrible based on our response to Christ. Let's choose well.

"And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." Hebrews 9:27-28 nasb
If you're looking for an advent devotional, check out my book The Road to Bethlehem: An Advent Prayer and Devotional Guide, available on Amazon.

In case you missed the last blog post, here's the link: Why Sutherland Springs Still Needs Our Prayers

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why Sutherland Springs Still Needs Our Prayers

I've been home less than two weeks, and am still reeling from the effort of processing all that's happened since my return. I finally noticed the flag at half-staff and, for a millisecond, I thought it was for Sam. I know it wasn't sensible to think that an entire country shared my grief, but that's how grief works. It absorbs us and permeates every pore of our being.

The flag wasn't lowered in memory of Sam, of course. It was lowered because of the dozens of people who were tragically killed in the Sutherland Springs church shooting a few days before I returned.  

My church held a special service Sunday evening to pray for the town, the church, the families affected. I'm sorry to say that I stayed home because I didn't think I could spend one more minute grieving loss. 

Today, I'm rethinking that decision. I'm praying for comfort and healing for those believers who went to church expecting to see people they loved, hear lessons of faith that strengthened them for the week ahead, pray for those in need, worship the God they served, and go home to eat a nice Sunday lunch afterward. 

Instead, they saw people they loved gunned down, bleeding, and dying before their eyes. They were the ones in need of prayer. They were abruptly immersed in devastation that rocked their world and tried their faith. I doubt anyone felt like eating Sunday dinner after that tragic service. 

Their grief slammed into them with a barrage of bullets. The noise of gunshots, the smell of gunpowder, the scent of blood, will linger for a long time. They'll jump when they hear a loud noise. There'll be reminders all around them, and it will bring their grief rushing in like a flood when they least expect it. 

Trauma-induced grief is pervasive, gnawing, hard. The temptation will be to set aside the grief so they can move on, but that risks letting it fester and grow into an abscess of bitterness. The other temptation will be to hold the grief and let it control the future. Neither option brings freedom.

I'm praying for the people of Sutherland Springs, that the peace of God that passes all understanding will fill their hearts and their lives, that the perseverance of Christ Himself will guide them through the next weeks and months, that the love of Christ will still flow from them like a river of living water, that the grace of Christ will be extended by them to all who bungle their condolences and say thoughtless, unkind things. I'm praying that they will choose forgiveness, not because their attacker needs it, but because they and their children do. 

I'm praying that the body of Christ will surround them with help, and love, and hope and that they'll allow them to draw close and carry their burdens for a while.

By now, the church has been cleaned, the funerals have been held, paperwork has been filed. Life has begun to go on again, but the horror they've experienced will take a while to process. It won't be "over" soon.

The prayers of a nation sustained them during those first few days, but what about now? Are we still praying? They'll need our faithful prayers more than ever as the days pass and the memories of the news fade from our consciousness, but not from theirs. 

Even from a distance, we can be a part of their healing. How? Through prayer. Scripture tells us that our prayers are powerful and precious to God. Today, let's lift up the people of Sutherland Springs, even if we've prayed for them before, and ask God to see them through. 

". . . the prayer of the upright is His delight." Proverbs 15:8 
In case you missed the last post, here's the link: Thanking God and Thanking You

If you're looking for an advent devotional, check out my book The Road to Bethlehem: An Advent Prayer and Devotional Guide, available on Amazon.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Thanking God and Thanking You

I don't have a word burning with passion that demands to be written today. Instead, I simply want to say thank you. You loved Sam well, and you grieved along with me. In so doing, you loved and blessed me more than you'll ever know.

Yesterday, I saw a friend from church when we were eating lunch at a local restaurant. "I've been keeping up, and I'm still praying for you," Kim assured me. It was all I could do to say thank you. I wanted to weep with gratitude.

Your prayers have mattered more than you know. In truth, they've mattered more than I expected. I'm so grateful. Thank you.

Your physical help has been invaluable. From visiting Sam, singing to him, reading Scripture to him, and introducing him to spray whipped cream (thank you Jerry and Sonya Iverson for that joy) while he was still in my home, to visiting, washing his face, kneeling at his bedside, singing to him, and sitting with him while I was gone, you've done what I could never have done alone. You've loved him and treasured him in tangible ways he understood. 

Sam felt loved, because he was.

I've received so many comments on posts, texts, emails, calls, and offers of help that I'm humbled and stunned. I can't begin to reply to them all, but I've read and treasured every one. Friends have shown up at my home to help with tasks they knew were needed but I could barely begin to accomplish. Again, I'm so grateful.

Ryan has been home since Thursday evening. It's been like the balm of Gilead to have him here. We've laughed, remembered, and begun to look toward a life without Sam. 

Ryan said, in his eulogy at Sam's funeral, "I don't remember a time without Sam because he's been there every day of my life. . . I told the people at work I was going home for my Grandfather's funeral." That's what Sam was for Ryan: A constant in his life. The grandfather my daddy would've been if he'd lived to see and know Ryan. 

Tomorrow, I'll attend the memorial service for my decades-long friend who taught me that an ordinary person like me could be a writer. He cheered me on from a distance, even when his writing career took a long pause. I hadn't seen him in years, but he often emailed me encouragement for a line well-written or a post that touched his heart. 

His tragic death is one more blow that, added to Sam's dying, seemed like too much at once. It's not. Today, both he and Sam are whole and rejoicing at the throne of God. They're with their much-loved wives and families and their long-served Lord.

Tuesday, I'll resume my "normal" life. I'll go back to the office, open my computer, and start emailing missionaries again. I'll work on prayer projects and plan for upcoming speaking engagements. I'll make a start on a mountain of thank you notes that are long overdue. 

More passionate blog posts will come, but none will be more heartfelt than the thanks I offer today. You've been the hands and feet of Christ to me, and you've helped our Lord carry Ryan and me through this very hard time. We're eternally grateful to God and to you.

Though expressions of gratitude vary from one language to the next, the meaning is still the same, and equally heart-felt. May God bless you for the love and generosity of spirit you've shown to us.

Shukraan. Merci. Gracias. Grazie. Thank you.

"I thank my God every time I remember you." Philippians 1:3 NET Bible
In case you missed the last post, here's the link: Caregiver Chronicles: True Success: Living Like Sam