Heart Keeping

“Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it flow the issues of life,” wisely advises the psalmist.  Heart keeping begins the moment a baby is born, before the child is able to do any heart keeping of its own.  Good mothers and fathers know this and begin from the first day surrounding the baby with soothing sounds, stimulating movements and colors, and all manner of visual experiences to help the baby want to connect with the world and people around him/her.  The fresh smells of lotion and the comfort of being bathed and clean and wrapped in soft clothing and dry diapers, the taste of warm milk while being cuddled close, and the sweet sound of a lullaby all are first efforts to keep the young heart “with all diligence.”

Liam’s first hair cut.

Liam’s first hair cut.

Right away our stories begin, and making memories together is and should be the serious occupation of the loving family.  As the child experiences all those amazing firsts, each person in the family gets to relive them, too, and regain the sense of awe and wonder that comes with splashing in the water, feeling sand between the toes, rolling in the cool grass, hearing the song of a bird, listening to music, experiencing new tastes, feeling a furry puppy….

Photographs, drawings, homemade recordings and movies, stories, poems, prayers, and jokes all become ways we use to preserve and relive those shared experiences that make each person both unique and a part of a family and community.  There develops an unspoken agreement between us to treasure the story that is being written with the days of our lives and to keep it safe and accurate so that we can from time to time when the need arises, remind each other exactly who and Whose we are.

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As these babies we so tenderly hold begin to grow, there are piano and guitar lessons, sports accomplishments, academic achievements, pool parties, cook-outs, family vacations, and a hundred other moments to celebrate and store in our hearts and add to our scrapbooks.  Usually, during adolescence when kids sometimes try on other identities and tend to forget who they are, those who love them most are there to remind them of the person they are becoming and how valuable they are, “too good to waste” on influences that would pull them down.  We are the community of love that keeps singing the songs of the redeemed when other voices would entice them to trade freedom for license and enduring riches for cheap trinkets of the moment.

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When they come through the maze and choose a life partner, a new heart keeper will join the circle, and promise before God and this community to love and cherish and keep the heart “’til death do us part.”  The new adventure begins that songwriter Andrew Peterson has called “dancing in the minefields,” a new relationship committed to keeping their hearts and joining them in the journey of being memory makers and keepers together.

It is the communities each of these two brings to this new union that will in most cases make or break the hearts, depending on how seriously and how well they have been memory makers and heart keepers.  Now the parents and families must begin the tricky dance of letting go without going away, keeping the treasures of who these two are and pondering them in our hearts.

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As we all make new memories on this journey, heart keeping sometimes makes more literal demands of us.  Some of us will find our memories turning to liquid and slipping from our grasp.  With the memories can go our identities, too, and we may have to then ask someone we trust, someone who has walked with us, who we are and where we’ve been and where we might be going.  How treasured then are those who have been the keepers of our memories, guardians of our hearts.  What a gift that long ago some lovers of life signed on to be the keepers of our hearts and the guardians of our true identities.  Thank God for those who have walked with us, shared our adventures, weathered our losses, celebrated our great joys and are still guarding not only their hearts with great diligence, but our hearts as well; for truly out of the heart flow the issues of life!

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Best Story of All

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I am a child.  I must be four or five years old.  It is Wednesday night, and we are having what we call prayer meeting but what is really, at our little church in the tiny farming village where my father pastors, an informal hour of singing, testimonies and a short study of a passage of scripture.  The person “leading the singing” is not a “musician” or a “minister of music.”  He is a farmer who has finished his chores, taken a shower, put on a clean cotton shirt and “work pants” and eaten a simple supper with his family before heading off “into town” to the service.  His wife plays the piano as those gathered in the little white church by Michigan State Road M-60 begin to sing.

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I am singing, too.  I know the familiar words by heart to the first song “When We All Get to Heaven.”  But I have my finger in page 444, marking my favorite just in case the song leader says at the end of this song, “Does anyone have a request?”

I will be quick.  I am ready.  “Page 444!”  I say before anyone else even has time to thumb through the hymnal.

“Turn to page 444,” the song leader says with a twinkle in his eye and a smile in my direction.  I am suddenly bathed in the warm embrace of acceptance, love, and confirmation.  And I sing – do I ever sing! – at the top of my voice.

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I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true;
It satisfies my longing as nothing else can do.

Now I am a songwriter myself.  I have written my life’s journey into nearly a thousand lyrics to the wonderfully accessible tunes my husband has heard in his head.  I’ve watched amazed as my words of praise, discovery, question, and revelation have found their way into other persons’ lives, words that at the time seemed so personal to our pilgrimage that I couldn’t imagine them helping someone else.

And I have come to believe that we as a body of struggling, growing, emerging believers need a shared history with God to stockpile against the winters of our lives and the dark nights of the soul.  Like the Israelites who carried stones from the bed of the parted Jordan River, we need to have resources in our possessions with which we can stoop to build an altar in celebration of those times when God “showed up” in our distress.  We need to be able to point to these altars – those Ebenezers along our path – when “Satan would buffet” and say to each other and our children, “I know God is with us!  He met us there, and there and there.  I know He will be faithful in this hour, too.”

The words I learned as a child flowed over me like a warm shower.  I loved the sound of them, the embrace of the voices around me singing them.  But decades have passed since then.  The words and the tune that glued them to my memory have been investigated and scrutinized under the glaring eye of reality.  What have I discovered? A resource of truth richer and deeper and broader then I ever could have imagined.  As the years have passed, life experiences have spotlighted the validity of different verses for me. 

 At this juncture of my journey, this is currently my favorite:

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest;
And when in scenes of glory I sing a new, new song,
‘Twill be its old, old story that I have loved so long.

When we tell the eternal story, let’s tell more than the punch line.  We need the whole song, all the verses and the choruses to serve us as our own story unfolds because, trust me, life is hard, but God is good.

 

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January Bones

How I love the starkness of January!  I love that everything is shucked down to the bare bone essentials.  Oh, I love the lushness of June, too—the trees lavishly clothed in leaves, the outrageously vibrant greens of the grasses, the surprising flashes of color from flowers and birds, the blue, blue of the summer sky.

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 But January tells the truth.  It confesses the framework that holds everything together--the skeletons of the giant maples and oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores, black against the pale gray sky, the brave sticks of bushes and vines that in summer inched their way sunward through the thicket of obstructions while holding up the weight of foliage and fruit.

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 January exposes the crimes of men who under the guise of “tree trimming,” assault and rape the pride and grandeur of hardwoods, slashing the branches off like a privet hedge, wounding and forcing the proud oaks and maples to form knuckles of scar-tissue, making them vulnerable to disease and insects, and, eventually, making the tree send out twig shoots as if they were saplings.

 Nature does no such assassinating.  Even an ice storm picks and chooses, pulling down branches grown too heavy or eliminating limbs hollowed by disease. But January also lays bare the beauty of trees that have survived storms and injury to spread their giant arms over fields and meadows to shelter wild life, shade cattle herds, and cool homesteads.

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 January reminds me to be thankful for the framework that holds up our lives as well—thankful for the laws that protects our freedoms, the social systems, like hospitals, schools, government agencies, and churches, that hold the communities of breathing peoples together, giving society shape, structure, and strength.

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 The starkness of January reminds me to be thankful for the gracious mercies of God and for hope and love and faith that hold us together when we forget to be thankful.  And in the chill of winter when the sky is black and dotted with constellations, I am reminded to be grateful for the Greater Law, the very breath of God that holds together our fragile universe and those beyond, galaxies unending.

Thank you, God, for January, that reveals that you are the ultimate framework that
holds all things together.  Without you, we are just leaves and thistle down, fragile
grasses and chicken feathers the wind blows away.

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The Gift of Memories

Bill and I got for Christmas one of the best gifts ever from our kids, their spouses, and grandkids!  It seems it was their solution to giving something meaningful to parents who are in the “riddin’ out” phase of our lives, as Bill’s Aunt Lillie used to say. We hear it was Amy who came up with the idea, but eventually all three of them, their spouses, and all of the grandkids (ages 9-26) eagerly signed on.

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 What we received when we got together at Benjy’s and Melody’s house for our big Christmas dinner was a huge glass jar filled with folded slips of paper.  They all seemed to hold their breath while Suzanne explained that this was our main gift. Each person—all 13 of them—had been given color designed paper on which to write their best memories growing up with Bill and me on our homeplace.

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 What a joyful adventure we have been on ever since!  Each morning while we are having coffee in our old farm kitchen, Bill and I take out a handful of slips of paper and take turns reading the “memories” aloud.  Then we sort them into piles from each person.  We have laughed.  We have cried.  We have giggled at each experience remembered by each of these thirteen very different personalities.

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 Almost every day since Christmas, we have texted or called various contributors to say how much their memory of life on this hillside has meant to us.  We can’t wait to eventually reread each stack of memories from each separate person.  They are such unique personalities that each collection of memories will be better than a personality profile or DNA test.

 The beauty of this very special gift is the assurance that all those years of trying to make memorable their experiences in this house we built 54 years ago, actually have become treasured memories to them.  Little do they know that we could fill another jar with our memories of and with each of them!

 When we watch the snow fall and stack high on the iron framework of the slide and swing set, when we see how tall the maples, oaks, and pines have grown that we planted when Benjy was six, when I pick daffodils Mia and Liam helped me plant, or hang the child-sized hammock we got for Madeleine, our hearts are flooded with the moments God has allowed us to have here as a family.

 We are ambushed by memories from behind every hedge, from the “fishin’ rock” by the creek, and in the English garden.  They will never know the joy and richness each of them has brought to our lives.  And best of all, now we know they remember, too!

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Dreaming The Best Dreams

The Bible is full of dreams and dreamers.  According to this reliable source, dreams may turn out to be the roadmap for our lives, the warnings that keep us from tragic blunders, and the aspirations so lofty that we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to them.

Dreams may usher us into heaven or leave us with a limp that will always remind us that it’s worth wrestling with angels to find our true identity in God.

One thing is sure: as the wise man said, “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)  There must be a dream.  There must be a hope.

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I love the idea that God has a dream for us.  We are a “promise” He has made to himself and to the world.  Brian McLaren suggests in his book The Secret Message of Jesus that we might even paraphrase the line from the prayer Jesus taught us to pray that says “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” this way: “May all your dreams for your creation come true.”  If we pray this, of course, it means that we must “trust God and God’s dreams enough to realign our dreams with God’s, to dream our little dreams within God’s big dream.”

As we live this year out, may we dare to “Dream On”, and may those dreams be lived inside the eternal dream of God, a dream so big that “we will never see the end of it or fully understand it” until we are at last “filled up with God himself. “ (Ephesians 3:19b)

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Give It Away

In the U.K. December 26th is Boxing Day.  The tradition started when servants who worked hard during the labor-intensive Christmas holidays, were given time off the day after Christmas; gifts of needed clothing, food, and extra money were given them by their masters. But in the U.K. today, this day has become the day to box up things families have accumulated or outgrown and give them to charities that serve the needy.

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 But not just on Dec. 26, but as a way of life, maybe “Give It Away” should be more than a catchy song title, but a revolutionary way of living that goes against the grain of almost everything we see or read or hear in the culture around us.  We hear much about accumulating as much as possible, protecting and securing what we accumulate, and making sure that when we die, we keep our accumulations from being taxed, siphoned, stolen or diminished any more than is absolutely necessary and legal.

But Jesus taught a different way and invited those who want to be truly happy to totally tip the culture up-side down.  If we spend our lives always striving to win, He taught, we will ultimately lose.  But if we spend our lives giving ourselves away, we won’t be able to even hold all the winnings.  He said the gentle-spirited folks would end up with the whole earth, and that the comforts of life will fall to those who know how to mourn.

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Now, it seems, psychologists and counselors are catching up to what Jesus said.  Ingrown living tends to contribute to depression, fear, and anxiety, while caring about others, getting involved in great causes, and investing energy to be the answer to the problems we see and sense is an incredibly enriching, joyful, and rewarding way to go – and an effective cure for sadness, depression, and feeling overwhelmed.

So, after this season of gift-giving how shall we live?  We can “live large” or stay small.  One thing is promised: we can never outgive the Giver of all good things.  Go ahead.  Just try!

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If you want more happy than your heart can hold ,
If you want to stand taller – if the truth were told –
Take whatever you have and give it away!
If you want more happy and a lot more fun
And deep satisfaction when the day is done –
Throw your heart wide open and
GIVE IT AWAY!

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Touch Christmas

What a wild circus of textures Christmas is!  Come, let’s “feel our way” around the glories of this tactile celebration!

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First feel the soft skin of a baby, who is God-made-most-touchable, most-vulnerable for us who “were afar off.”

Touch a baby; tenderly embrace a child to honor Him who was Love in a baby blanket…. in our arms.

Touch the rough texture of a well-worn wooden manger and the prickly straw that fills it.

Touch the moist noses of the cows and horses that stand, curious, around.  Feel the night air.

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Then touch the celebration that has gradually come to surround this “most touchable” happening.  Feel the needles of the evergreen tree and boughs that announce that because of Jesus we shall always live!

Touch the snow that covers the ground and remember the “covering” – the atonement – that makes us “whiter than snow” in the eyes of God.

Touch the red berries on the branches we gather and put in all sorts of containers, remembering that this child would one day shed his blood that its life-giving qualities could fill us all no matter the shape, size, or condition of our containers.

Touch the lights as they burn warm, string them everywhere.  Light the streets and the houses, the cathedrals and the back streets with them, for the chill of death has been replaced by warmth and light.

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Touch your children, your neighbors; the community with reconciliation.  Take someone a warm cake; extend a warm handshake; offer the thawing warmth of forgiveness.

Hold and ring the gold and silver bells.  Ring out the news that the Creator of the galaxies has touched us.  Yes, ring the bells and pass them on!  Touch someone else.  We are not alone!

 

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Christmas in the Country

I believe there is a homing device in every human heart.  Even if we’ve never had a good home to go home to, there is an innate yearning for one where we are cherished and understood.  In our yearning, we see this as a place of peace where there is no pretense and where we are accepted for who we truly are – not for what we’ve accomplished or how we look.

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And there is no time like Christmas for pulling us back to such a place.  Usually, how much we love and look forward to Christmas as a holiday is in direct proportion to how close to this ideal home really is.  Sadly, for many the reality of the holiday is one of the most painful experiences of the year.

Perhaps the reason we cling to the ideal at Christmas more than any other time is that this celebration is in honor of the One who came to bring true peace, joy, love, and a place to belong.  And the truth is that no family home and no human relationship can ever totally give us what we need.  Every parent fails sometimes.  Even love falls short.  Every child disappoints and turns prodigal at one time or another.  No sibling is totally supportive or faithful to protect the secrets with which he or she has been entrusted.       

Even so, home is the nearest thing we have to a metaphor for belonging.  The imperfection of us all keeps us yearning for another place – that place that will truly be Home. 

Thankfully, our memories tend to preserve the good and forgive the flawed.  I’m sure my Grandma’s house in the country was not as good as I remember it.  The “front room,” as she called it was not as big, the kitchen not as warm, the snows not as white or as deep as I remember trudging through to get to that farmhouse with the fieldstone porch.

As I recall, she and grandpa opened the big double doors to that front room only for special occasions.  The piano was in there, and she would always have the old itinerate piano tuner come just before Christmas so we could sing carols around that piano when we all crowded in.

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The Christmas tree she put in that room was not a pine, but a cedar tree Pa would cut fresh from the woods behind the barn.  The ornaments were of World War II vintage and before – scenes painted on clear glass balls – and there were strips of foil we called ice sickles, big lights of every color and real candy canes.  Grandma would always make fresh popcorn balls with sorghum molasses, wrap them in a new thing called Saran Wrap® and hang them on the tree for us kids to “snitch” when no one was looking.

Grandma baked for days before Christmas: pies of apples and cherries from their orchard, fudge, taffy, and “divinity” layered in boxes between buttered sheets of waxed paper, cinnamon rolls for breakfast and homemade bread.  These were all prepared before the real cooking started.

To this day I find myself running my fingers over mixing bowls in antique shops that have brown and gold sheaves of wheat on them or picking up green Fire King baking dishes and pie pans longing to take them home to see if they would somehow turn things I make into the magical tastes of my childhood for my grandkids to remember.

Country life always seemed to separate the boys and the men from the women and girls.  The guys would “mosey” out to the barn to talk to Pa while he milked the two cows they always kept to supply them with milk and butter.  The boys would help him throw down hay for the night, feed the cats and gather the eggs from the henhouse.  On summer mornings gathering eggs was Grandma’s job, but in the winter when she was less sure of her footing, Pa brought in the eggs.

Meanwhile, the women would take up stations in the kitchen peeling potatoes, opening jars of green beans Grandma had canned the summer before and cutting up squash, onions, brussel sprouts, and turnips.  The girls would set the table in the living room, then work on the puzzle that became a family project all through the days of Christmas. 

I don’t remember much about the gifts.  They were simple, practical and usually handmade.  I do remember hugs and thank you’s.  I remember Grandma loving whatever I gave her as if she’d been wanting it all her life.  I have a picture of someone in our family holding up a string of pearls – probably ordered from the Sears catalog (“the wish book,” we called it) – and looking as if this necklace was as precious and rare as diamonds.

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There was never any doubt why we had Christmas.  Since Grandma had lost most of her eyesight, my daddy read the Christmas story from Luke while the children sat on someone’s lap or on the floor leaning back on some seated grownup’s knees.  We all knew the words by heart, but familiar as they were, they always brought tears to our eyes – like we were hearing this wonderful story for the first time.

Grandma would pray, and when she prayed, the angels quit fidgeting around, swishing their wings and got still.  We knew that sooner or later every one of our names would be specifically mentioned; Grandma would thank the Lord for the gift of each one of us and ask His tender care and guidance as we grew and changed and became what He intended for us to be.

After prayer and presents, the music would begin.  Grandma played both the piano and the guitar; Pa played the “fiddle” and the “mouth harp.”  We all knew sooner or later he’d grab Grandma by the arm and try to make her dance around the room; she’d say, “Oh, Pop, quit!”  And we’d all laugh.

The children would ask for their favorite of the songs that Grandma had always sung to them:  “Redwing,” “Mockingbird Hill,” or “Listen to the Mockingbird.”  It never seemed strange that all our favorite songs were about birds. 

We also sang Grandma’s favorites: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “I Must Tell Jesus,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

It seems to me now, looking back, that I was the most adored of children, and I know all the grandchildren would say they thought they were.  Truth is we all were.

As night fell and the kerosene lamps were lit, it seems to me that the love in that house could be touched – like soft velvet or the smooth fur of a kitten.  The snow could pile to the eaves for all we cared.  We were home, we were fed and we were loved.

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When Bill and I started thinking about recording a video for Christmas with the Homecoming Friends that would come to be called Christmas in the Country, it was the images of Christmas at Grandma’s house that came to mind.  To that, I added the memories of my own childhood home and the rituals that have been now handed down first to Bill and me then to our children, and now to their children.

Someday there will be a new celebration in a new Country. There will be no gap between the ideal and the reality; the relationships around that circle will be perfect and totally beautiful. There will be songs of thanksgiving and praise for Christmas completed, for the One who brought heaven to earth will have then brought earth to heaven, and we will all finally be home.

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Thank God For Grandparents

Amy with her grandma Lela

Amy with her grandma Lela

Thank God for grandparents everywhere who love with perspective, and to grandchildren everywhere who so need such love.

Sometimes I think that love – to be it’s sweetest – must ripen on the family tree one generation beyond the parent stage.  Oh, parental love is tough – like a fruit picked partially green; it will take a lot of jostling.  But to be infused with the sweet juices of compassion, humor, and understanding, love needs a little ripening.

Someone has said the generation gap is only between succeeding generations.  Defenses seem to wane after that.  When you can’t tell your parents, you can always tell grandmaIf daddy can’t fix it, grandpa can.  And don’t we all deserve to have at least one person in our lives who thinks we’re the prettiest, the smartest, the cleverest, and the least flawed person on the face of the earth?

With environmentalist Lee in Colorado

With environmentalist Lee in Colorado

Simon with is papaw Bill at Culver Academy

Simon with is papaw Bill at Culver Academy

Let others warn, discourage, point out the pitfalls.  Grandparents are for encouraging, embracing, accepting and risking the moon.

Of course, grandparenting has changed.  Granny, these days, is seldom knitting in her rocker.  She is more likely to be racing her grandchildren down the street on her motor scooter or teaching them in-line skating.  Grandads are more likely showing their grandkids to speed-shift the convertible than to plow a straight furrow.  But grandparents still think you can, believe in the impossible, and take the time.  They may even, if you’re good, let you stay up late watching Gaither Homecoming videos!

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Thanksgiving -- A Hymn Of Praise

You are probably in the middle of plans either to “go home” or to prepare for family and friends who are “coming home.”  The foods you are preparing have a history with your family and just thinking about them brings back waves of memories: grandma’s pumpkin pies, Aunt Lillie’s banana pudding, mother’s homemade yeast rolls.   Even the recipes cards are smudged with fingerprints made by mamma’s butter-covered hand or a drop or two of turkey broth someone smeared on the page as they stirred in the now familiar ingredients.

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The tables will be set soon with linens someone gave you, and the arrangement of the house will likely be the way it was last year that seemed to work best for a crowd.  You may go out and cut the flowers for the tables from the rosebush Aunt Evelyn started for you or the hydrangea your daughters sent to celebrate your twenty-fifth anniversary.  And the autumn or Christmas candles will be set in the crystal candle holders that came from dad’s side of the family.

If you stop to consider, you will, like our family, find yourself being so grateful for the long line of memory-makers that have made life rich and beautiful, who taught by being thoughtful, caring, generous and selfless what is truly important in life.

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There may be other memories, too, those memories that made you vow to “never say that to a child” or “always notice when someone is lonely.”  Negative memories shape us, too.  We can choose to take a different course, to forgive instead of holding grudges, to embrace instead of pushing away.

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Rituals are those habits we make in celebrating what is good and sacred and important.  They are sometimes the motions we go through – the framework of our lives that holds us together until the more worthy emotions return after love has been betrayed or promises broken.  Rituals and heirlooms help us remember our better selves, our purer natures, our more admirable moments.  They call us home to our ideals and reestablish our center of being.

In the end Jesus is the only ideal against which all else can safely be measured.  He is the center of our joy.  He is the ground of our gratitude.  He is the focus of our family celebrations.  He is the Source of all that does not disappoint.

May this be the year where like a magnet draws metal, your family and ours will be drawn to the centering force, the only inexhaustible Source for all we expect from holiday relationships: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, long suffering, forgiveness, tenderness…and great memories!

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What Good Are Love Songs?

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Ezekiel must have been an amazing speaker.  (He must have been the Tony Campolo of his day!)  He warned, he told stories, he reminded people in colorful terms of their history with God.  He called out wicked leaders and exposed corruption in high places.  He predicted the very collapse of the country God had chosen for them and with which he had blessed them.

 He drew great crowds!  The people said, “You’ve got to go hear Ezekiel!  He is such a passionate communicator!  He’s incredible to watch and hear.”  But when all was said and sung, they went home entertained and stimulated, but nothing really changed.

 Ezekiel fell on his face before God for some answers, and God spoke to him giving him even more things to say to the people, things so dire that it tore Ezekiel’s heart out to have to preach them.  Then God said this to Ezekiel: 

 As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come, and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’  My people come to you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice.  With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words, but do not put them into practice. When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them. (Ezekiel 33:30-33 NIV)

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What God wants is for his creation to not only listen but turn. He woos; he gives a land flowing with milk and honey.  He longs for His children to bask in His love, feast from his amazing supply, love each other, and dwell in His sweet peace.  He longs for us to reflect and spill out mercy to others, joy in His presence, and rest from our frantic and empty pursuit of pseudo-living.  He promises that if we follow the “decrees that give life,” we will surely live.

There is still time to turn.  There is still time to do more than enjoy the music and the poetry. There’s time to internalize the message and let the music draw us into the dance God intended life to be. 

Once there were prophets, but we wouldn’t hear them.
Once there were wonders; we wouldn’t believe.
Fire and manna once rained down from heaven;
Great mighty winds once parted the seas.

When we were blindest, God sent his vision;
When we were deaf, He spoke and we heard.
The Light of the World walked through our darkness—
Jehovah, Himself, the Incarnate Word.

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But what good are love songs, if they don’t make us lovers?
Why be an eagle that won’t spread its wings?
Why write our hearts out?  We’re not moved by the passion,
And if love songs don’t change us, then why do we sing?          

                                   
                                               

Lyric:  Gloria Gaither ©Hanna Street Music (BMI)
Music: Woody Wright Wouldhewrite Music(ASCAP)

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Wisdom From Ann

Our Grandson celebrating his birthday with his friend Ethan and Ann Smith

Our Grandson celebrating his birthday with his friend Ethan and Ann Smith

My friend Ann Smith is well into her tenth decade of life.  She is smart, wise, witty, and perceptive. She is a global thinker and international traveler.  She spends a disproportionate amount of her time with college students, young married couples, and mid-life persons in ministry.  And she has been a close friend and mentor to Bill and me for over fifty years.

 At the beginning of each decade, Ann asks God to show her what He wants to grow in her.  She asks God to give her a clear insight into her deficiencies and a vision of what He is calling her to become in this decade of her life.  Though Ann considers these revelations to be personal, many have turned out to be life-changers for us as well.  Here are a few:

  • There is a big difference between expectations and expectancy.  Work on getting up every morning with expectancy and not expectations—of yourself, events, and other people.  With expectations you will always be disappointed.  With expectancy you will see each day as a great adventure and every good thing as a bonus.

  • When meeting any human being, ask God to reveal what He had in mind when He made them, then to give the grace to treat them as if that had already been accomplished.

  •  Ann and her husband Nathan were long-term missionaries to Japan. On her last three-week trip to Japan to say farewell to the country and people she loves so deeply, she sat alone on a hillside, looking at the mountain in front of her and the flowing river below.  God seemed to be saying: “Ann, I am calling you to be as solid and unshakable as a mountain and as flowing and adaptable as a river.  There have been times in your life when you have been as solid and firm as a mountain, but not as flowing and adaptable as a river.  And at times you have been as flowing and adaptable as a river, but not as grounded and solid as a mountain.  My child, I want you to be both.  Find the balance.”

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 How wise are all of these insights!  In these precarious times, God is calling us all to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”  He wants the trademark of our days to be joyful with childlike expectancy, and like Moses when he and the Israelites were facing the formidable Red Sea, be able to say, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.”

 When we get edgy with others who don’t see things exactly as we do, even people who are contentious and difficult or downright wicked, could we pray silently that God would give us the vision of what He had in mind for them when He made them and give us whatever internal resources we need to be instruments of change for an eternal outcome?

 And dare we strive to be grounded in the things that are deep and unchangeable truths, yet be gentle, flowing, refreshing, and adaptable to the situations and personalities He brings into our lives?  May we “dwell together in love” and dare to trust that we dispel the darkness, not with a sword, but with the light?

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Learning To Lose

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Grief comes in many forms.  There is the deep grief from the loss of someone dear—a mother, a father, a sibling, an influential grandparent.  Each of these are totally different losses, and the grieving is complicated by the kind of relationship we had with each when they were alive.  Was the relationship deep and true?  Was it broken by betrayal, anger, or jealousy?  Is there regret on our part that we didn’t try harder, say more, make that trip, write that letter, make that call?

 There is the grief of losing a spouse, a person who has literally and spiritually been the other half of us, a grief that seems to split us right down the middle.  If the grief is a death, especially of a long-term marriage partner, we lose the habits we’ve formed together, the memories we’ve made, the places to which we have travelled or planned to visit together. We lose the “knowing you’ll be there” when we wake up in the morning, the shared routine of each day.

 Some griefs are for the living: friendships lost, loves betrayed, trust destroyed.  Maybe these are the hardest.  Such losses never really resolve but are like a splinter buried deep in tender flesh; scar tissue may form, but the splinter is always there to fester anew when life brings new irritation.

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 The bitterest grief must be the death of a child, no matter the age of the child.  The things only a mother knows, the dreams only a father can harbor—all these things (as Luke says of Mary), parents just keep and ponder them in their hearts forever.  A baby is a unique person from the beginning, developing like a seedling every day into the quirky specialness of a personality dictated by generations of accumulated DNA.  Added to that is the environment those who love (or neglect or abuse) these children create for them to live and breathe in, shaping or distorting the person God intended them to be.  So the loss of a child is a deep enduring grief.  And as with most griefs comes with the question, “What if…?”  Even the best of parents, lovers, spouses, friends, care-givers, mentors ask themselves, “Could I have done more, made other choices, taken advantage of other opportunities?”

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 Regret and remorse are only helpful to us if we use them to change this day.  Loss is of a part of this temporal life, but, unfortunately, we, especially in America, don’t seem to have a very good theology for loss. We seem to be all about winning.  We are not very intentional in our circles of spiritual formation about asking, What do I have left?  What opportunities do I have today?  What would I do, where would I go, what would I say if I knew the person coming in the door, the friend whose text I just received, the old classmate I bumped into at the grocery this morning, the child I just tucked into bed, the sweet man whose body I just reached for before I went to sleep—what if that person was living for the last time today? What should I let go of?  What should I treasure and notice?  How should I break the silence? What priceless gift am I taking for granted?

Lord, whether I’m losing my shape, my hair, my status, my fortune, my influence, or someone dear to me, help me to choose wisely what I’m hanging on to and what I need to let go of.  Help me to turn my grief into gratitude, my loss into love, and my regrets into restoration. Let me reach for and embrace the joy you promised in the morning.

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Enjoying The Trip

I can’t remember when I didn’t love to “go someplace.”  My childhood memories could be chronicled in cars and the trips my family took in them.  I loved, for example, the “Model T” kind of car my grandparents had with running boards and prickly hair-velvet upholstery, and I looked forward to the occasional days they would pick me up from school when my parents were away and take me to Tekonsha for ice cream or out to their farm to spend the night.

1949 Hudson Hornet

1949 Hudson Hornet

            When I was seven my daddy bought a Hudson Hornet 4-door Sedan. It was big and smooth and low.  It had a heating system that actually heated in the winter and even defrosted the windows.  There was room up in the back window (in the space behind the back seat) for a small child to curl up and go to sleep. Those were the days before seat belts.  I remember the magic of night trips when I would lie in the window and watch the street lights go by as we passed through the Michigan towns, and the moon smiling down on me as we traveled through the countryside.

            I remember my first flight on an airplane (all alone to a speech contest in Washington, D.C.) and the trips our family took to camp meeting and fishing vacations.

From the “Bread Truck” to a motor home.

From the “Bread Truck” to a motor home.

            The first traveling Bill and I did together was in a station wagon.  Our small sound system and boxes of LP albums were in the back and sometimes extra boxes were even under our feet or on our laps.  In time, The Gaither Trio graduated to a white panel truck that we called the “Bread Truck”, then to a Dodge motor home, and eventually to a used “Eagle” bus.

            I always knew that “home” was a lot bigger concept than a house in one town on one street.  Being a P.K. (preacher’s kid) the temporary places we called “the parsonage” were only “home” because our family lived and loved in those houses.  By the time Bill and I had our babies, we were quite certain that “home” was portable – it was wherever we could be together, and when we weren’t together, it was never really “home”, even if one or some of us were at our house in Indiana.

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            We learned to  create “home” in motel rooms and dressing rooms and tents and campsites.  We learned to play games, notice things, and savor experiences along the way--together! We found that no matter where we were in the country or in life, it’s all about enjoying the trip…and each other on the way.

            It is a good thing, I think, to know that home is portable, that home is a condition of the soul.  In the meantime, we are allowed places to rest our souls for a while here, and wherever our souls are at rest, it is home. 

            I have a feeling that when we get restless on this journey we call life, if we listen, we just might hear our Father say:  “Hang on, child.  We’re not there yet!”  I can only imagine, because of the wonderful places we have been allowed to “rest our souls” together here, what our Father has up his sleeve when we get where we can settle in forever.  It will be enough just to take it all in and be together with no need to pull up stakes and move.

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Victory Lap Of Summer

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The end of summer is the victory season!  It is the wonderful “big win" over the long battle with beetles, weeds, and dry spells, when we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors.  How natural and beautiful it is, then, to decorate our tables, mantles, countertops and doorways with the harvest!

How about filling a huge old wooden bowl with acorn squash, gourds, small pumpkins, colorful cabbages, and even red potatoes?  Slip in some red oak branches (with the acorns still attached), sprigs of golden wheat, or twists of bittersweet to fill in the spaces and add color.

Or fill a tall container (a tin bucket, an old crock or churn, a hollowed-out birch log, or a copper pitcher) with cattails, Japanese maple branches, sunflowers, or black-eyed Susans.

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English ivy, bittersweet, and Washington hawthorn branches with their red berries all make a beautiful mantle display.  Add chunky candles in a fall color and a few Osage oranges (They are green!) for accent.

With chrysanthemums, so plentiful this time of year, create a welcoming entry with pots or bouquets of yellow, orange, rust, or burgundy mums.  Add a basket of shiny red apples and a stack of pumpkins around a rustic fountain or a weathered garden bench.

Think of the five senses—sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch—as highways into the city-center of the soul and mind.  The more “roads” you can use, the greater the impact, so use as many textures, colors and shapes, fragrances, tastes, and sounds as you can to invite your guests into the soul of your home.

Have the coffee on, the music playing, the candles lit, the fountain flowing, the apples polished.  Everything must say, “Welcome home!  Now you can breathe!”

 

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The Ultimate Navigation Device

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I just signed up for one of those all-intelligent GPS apps on my cell phone because Bill and I are on a road trip, and this thing promised everything, including the moon!  I followed its yellow brick road all the way through the inquisition this faceless entity in silicone valley dreamed up, demanding codes and credit card numbers and my grandmother’s maiden name.  In much less time than all this took, I received an email telling me that I had, indeed, been charged for the app.

The only problem was in setting it up.  I chose every option on every instruction and could find no place to re-set “home.”  Someone at software Oz-land had set “home” to be in Santa Cruz, California.  No matter what destination I set, the directions were always from a home base that was never mine.   As a result, all the directions the lady genie-in-a-jug gave with that I-know-more-than-you-do certainty in her voice were about 1300 miles off.   Oh, the directions claimed to be headed for our destination in the wondrous lake country of Michigan, but they were starting from a place that was never home and would take me back to a place that never would be home.

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I want a homing device that will take me home.  I want one that when I am lost or on the wrong road will keep saying, “Re-calibrating.  Re-calibrating.”   And even when I think I know what I’m doing and where I’m going and oh, so confident about taking a shortcut, I want a device that will insistently not let me off the hook until I get back on course and heading home.

A good navigational app is accurate because the chip implanted in it is constantly receiving clear signals from a satellite that can pinpoint where the person holding it is anywhere on the planet.  It tells me exactly where I am on the map.

There are a lot of metaphors for the written Word of God:  a light for my path, a roadmap, a sword to fend off enemies, a guide on the trail of life.  But the greatest thing about the written Word of God is that it is the signal received from the Logos, the Word that is the Source of all things. 

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If I “hide the Word in my heart”, if I “eat the Word”, if I internalize it and make it a part of my very being, I am carrying always the “chip” tuned to the signal from above and beyond that can trace my journey, and always, no matter how far I wander, bring me safely home—home to myself, home to the True North, home to the First Cause of all things—home to my God.

 

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Pain: What Good Does It Do?

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When we stand before any audience anywhere, there is one thing at least that unites us: we are all “going through stuff,” and most of what we are going through is not pleasant.  No, it is mostly painful, whether that pain is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.  Many times, it is all four, at least to some degree.  Illnesses, for example, affect our relationships, our mental well-being, and our emotional state.  These make us question God or lead us to cling to Him more, seeking His wisdom, trusting Him not to waste this experience but to somehow use it for some good and lasting purpose in our own lives or those of someone else.

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Some of those to whom we sing have been taught harmful and untrue things about God and pain: that their loved ones were allowed to die or they themselves experience great loss or illness in order to punish them for some past sin, or that emotional agony was sent by God because they were not one of the “chosen few.”

So, not only are we called to sing the truth about the nature of God as revealed in Christ himself, but to dispel some tragic fears and doubts instilled in hearts long ago by ignorance, superstitions, or well-meaning error.  Fortunately, we can trust the Holy Spirit, by His promised presence, to take the inspired songs and the truths in them and speak to hearts on both sides of the footlight correcting what is wrong, illuminating what is true, and revealing purposes never before recognized.

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We all know this: that we were promised a great Comforter, and He has come to use every pain, failure, setback and loss for our ultimate and eternal good – both here and in the life to come.  He who came to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”       (Is. 61:1a – 3a) – He has come!

The pain we feel is not for nothing.  The tears we shed are not wasted.  The losses we know will be redeemed and our mourning turned to laughter.

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The Log Cabin

In 1978 Bill and I built a log cabin in the woods.  At that time, we were traveling on the week-ends and keeping up a schedule all week--running a publishing company, writing songs together, and doing what parents of young children do.  We ran kids to music lessons, school activities, horseback riding lessons, ball games, 4-H, and church activities.  Our home was filled with guests of extended family, traveling singers, and the friends of all three of our children. Like every other mother I knew, I did the grocery shopping, cooked meals, weeded and pruned the gardens, swept the porches and walks, and tried to keep up the laundry. Bill mowed our big lawn and planted trees.

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We needed a place where we could get a break in this schedule, where I could write, and we could enjoy nature, play games and do crafts away from our busy house.  We considered maybe getting a little cottage on one of the northern Indiana lakes, but realistically we knew that after a full concert week-end, we would not be excited about packing up supplies, food, and kids to drive three hours from home again.  That would not be restful or restorative—especially for me! So instead, we decided to build a little log retreat only a bike-ride away from our house in the middle of the woods. 

This sweet place has been a sanity-keeper through so many chapters of our lives.  When our kids were in elementary and middle school, I would often go there after I dropped the kids off at school and spend the day reading and writing or just thinking and praying.  I would take something to fix for supper, and Bill would leave the office early to pick up the children from school and come out to this quiet place.  We would gather wildflowers, build a hut in the roots of the giant oaks, or find craw-dads under the rocks in the stream.  Bill always built fires, in the fireplace and Franklin stove in the winter or in the firepit in the summer and fall.  We would all play checkers, Rook, or dominoes or paint with water colors, make cornstarch clay ornaments, or build with Lincoln logs. If it wasn’t a school night or in the summer, we would sometimes spend the night; other times we just stayed until bedtime and went home. 

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As the kids got older, the cabin was party-central for birthday sleep-overs, Halloween parties, chili suppers, and cook-outs.  Amy hosted after-theater production cast parties, and all three of them went to the cabin for leaf-collecting, mushroom hunting and exploring expeditions.

When our children entered young adulthood, this was where we had wedding or baby showers or going-away parties for schoolmates leaving for college.  As the kids married and had children of their own, the cabin welcomed them home.  Amy and Andrew and little Lee lived here the year Andrew was writing his doctoral dissertation; it was also the place where they brought home newborn Madeleine.  Suzanne and Barry and their boys have used this place as a getaway, and Benjy and Melody have stayed here with their two little ones, retracing with them the steps down the hill to the creek and the trails through the woods.

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Now there are just the two of us. Today when I finished working at home I came to the cabin around 2:00 and brought out tomatoes and sweet corn from the garden for supper and some bacon and eggs for breakfast.  I sat on the deck swing with my coffee, praying for the grandkids, listened to the birds and critters, and inhaled the air full of oxygen straight from the maples, elms, sycamores, and oaks.

Bill joined me after his appointments were finished at the office; he walked the long trail back and forth to the county road, registering 12,000 steps on his fit-bit.  As technology has gotten more sophisticated, the woods and the cabin in it has remained pretty much the same.  By evening the cicadas began their symphony.  The evening sun turned the trees of the forest a golden shade of green.  The stream down below was a bit deeper this week and wider, too, because of the late summer rains we’ve been having.

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After supper, we sat on the deck swing being so thankful that we still love each other.  We breathed in the nutty smells of the woods and listened to the gentle sound of water trickling over river rocks.  Bill disappeared for a while, and I knew without checking that he was building yet another fire in the firepit, and that soon the smell of wood smoke would draw me out to sit until well after dark; we would recite the stories and recount the memories we’ve made here.  I knew too, that I’d pull out my cell phone and take a video of Bill’s crackling fire and record the crickets and cicadas to send all over the country to our kids and grandkids that in my memory still dash through these woods, playing “ditch-em” or “monsters”, or huddle around this fire roasting marshmallows.

The text I sent read: “We’re at the cabin.  Wish you were here!”  It wasn’t long before my phone began to ping with messages as those we so love and miss sent back: “We wish we were, too!”  It doesn’t get better than that.

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Finding Balance--Really!

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We hear a lot these days about moderation and balance: a little work, a little play, some good food, some entertainment, a few days off, a little religion, a good book or two, a self-help class, a good physical fitness program…a little of everything and not too much of anything.  So, by today’s standards the instructions in Deuteronomy 6 for running our lives and rearing our children seems a bit extreme.

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“Love the Lord your God,” the instructions say, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  (Seems to me that pretty much covers everything – everything seems to be focused on loving the Lord your God.)  Then the manual goes on to tell us how to pass that single-minded commitment on to our children.  We are to teach it by talking about God and loving Him when we sit at home and when we go jogging, when we get ready for bed, and at the breakfast table.  We are to paste it on the refrigerator and the kitchen bulletin board.  We are to put sticky-pad notes on the steering wheel (as we go on the way) and on the back storm door window when we leave the house.  We are to “bind it on our foreheads” and tie it “as symbols on our hands.”  Now, I don’t know if that means wearing “Jesus saves” bracelets and “sign of the fish” rings, but I think it means to keep around us reminders to ourselves of what life is all about.

Now, you might be saying, “That’s a lot of religion, don’t you think?” And you might just be right.  Unless, as we go about being balanced physically, mentally, emotionally, vocationally and religiously, loving God is WHAT WE ARE!

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I Will Go On

“I Will Go On” is one of the most encouraging songs we’ve ever written.  It is also one of the most discouraging, and I must say it was far easier to write than it is to live out.  It is encouraging because it reminds us over and over to get the hard stuff into perspective, realign our worldview, and get the past behind us.  It is one of the most discouraging – at least for me – because about the time I get to the place where I have put the past behind me on one issue in my life, repented for my attitude of resentment, self-deprecating regret, or paralyzing discouragement and asked God to help me refocus on Him and the future and surrender to the upward pull of His grace, some new life-tsunami sweeps into my life.   

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Perhaps that is why confession, repentance, trust in, and reliance on the work God has done (and not on our own abilities), gratitude and praise, and active compassion for others are all so essential to the ongoing faith life of believers.

“I Will Go On” comes to the surface for Bill and me as one of our favorites of the songs we have written.  We have found that it is so basic to a healthy spiritual life to keep on forgiving not only others, but ourselves as well.  It is so necessary to have the courage to admit it when we are less than gracious, to let go of bitterness and regret before it takes root, to embrace hope – both for ourselves and for those around us – and to choose to turn and face forward, as Paul said, “toward the prize set before us.”

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Counselors tell us that this song is not only good theology, but good psychology as well.  Baggage from the past can shut down our future.  Grudges and resentment can sabotage the good relationships just waiting to be realized.  Authorities say that kids who grow up around score-keeping and getting even or who hear their parents stewing on injustices (when has life been fair?), learn to come at life with their fists doubled up ready to take on the first person who crosses their path.  From there it just becomes a matter of bigger weapons: fists, sticks, clubs, guns, bombs…until the whole earth becomes encampments of bullies, lying in wait to blow up the planet.

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How incredibly revolutionary are the words of Paul and Timothy and their letter to the community of faith in Philippi:

You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things
true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the
best, not the worst, the beautiful, not the ugly, things to praise,
not things to curse. 
(Philippians 4:8 The Message)
Photo by Miguel Bruna

Photo by Miguel Bruna

The cup of life holds only so much.  In order to fill it with love, joy, peace, contentment, goodness, and progress, it must first be emptied of anger, blame, resentment, bitterness, grudges, and negative energies.  It’s up to us.

The great news is that God promises to empower us for right living the minute we admit our failures and embrace His perfect work in us.  “Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:13 The Message)

 

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