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Mary’s Servant Heart

I am the Lord’s servant…may it be to me as you have said. Luke 1:38   

How easily we identify ourselves as being the “Lord’s servant”, but do we stop to consider what that really means?

Mary had been given a startling revelation, along with a difficult assignment. She would be privileged to give birth to the Messiah, but most would doubt her story. Being pregnant before marriage would certainly cause people to question her morality and the law said that an immoral woman could be put to death. She had no idea how this pregnancy would impact her engagement to Joseph.

There were risks for Mary, but she didn’t seem to contemplate the cost. Her response, “may it be to me as you have said” demonstrates an unreserved commitment of her body to the Lord for His purpose. Disregarding any cost, she responded in total and absolute submission to the will and plan of the Master—that is the essence of true servanthood.

How was Mary so quickly able to come to a place of total surrender? She had a deep and abiding trust in a loving God—One who would not ask her to do anything that He would not empower and equip her to do. If her Master gave the assignment, He would also protect her. He was and is totally trustworthy.

When God places you on a difficult path, He can be trusted to give you the needed strength to complete the journey. He wants us to trust Him enough to accept the challenging assignments, with a true servant’s heart. Your assignment may involve risk, the possibility of being hurt, or doing mundane tasks.  Can you say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said”?

Thanksgiving Memories

As I think of my most memorable Thanksgiving, my mind quickly travels to a tiny apartment in Tampa, Florida. My new husband and I have been married just five months and although we are quite happy, we are also very broke. He is an Airman, Second Class, and together we are bringing in a little over 200 dollars a month.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we plan to go to the base to eat the reasonably priced holiday meal that the Air Force offers to servicemen and their families. I do not recall the exact price of that meal, but I believe it was around three dollars—definitely not big bucks.

The day before Thanksgiving we receive a notice that we are overdrawn at the bank and it takes every penny we have to cover that overdraft; to ignore it would not set well with the military brass.

Thanksgiving Day arrives and we will not be eating out and we do not have funds to buy more groceries. We will not be having turkey in our tiny apartment. We are over 3,000 miles from home and will not be with other family members. I am suddenly seized with agonizingly brutal homesickness. I recall the many Thanksgiving feasts at my grandparents’ house with aunts and uncles and cousins. I think of holidays with Mom, Dad, my siblings and their families—my adorable little niece and nephew. I miss them dreadfully. I think of all the scrumptious food that will be piled on their table. I am not thankful.

We attend Thanksgiving service at our church and the pastor gets up and talks about how we will all be going to big feasts with our loved ones. His sermon makes me even more homesick. I am not thankful.

We return to our apartment where I pull hamburger out of the fridge and make a meat loaf for our Thanksgiving dinner. My husband thanks God for our food, but I am not thankful. Do I think of the millions of starving people who would welcome our meat loaf and slim trimmings as a feast? Nope! That thought never enters my mind. My focus is not on what I have, but on what I don’t have. I am homesick, eating meatloaf for Thanksgiving dinner, and I am not thankful.

Decades later, I look back and am very grateful for that memorable day and the lessons learned. I gained a deep appreciation for my family of origin. I had always taken their love, their provision, and their sacrifices for granted. I developed a deep compassion for people who are alone and broke during the holidays. It’s a sad and difficult place to be. I also learned that if I focus on what is lacking in my life, I lose sight of the many blessings God has given. When looking only at what I don’t have, depression and self-pity quickly suck away all chances of happiness.

As Thanksgiving 2013 approaches I am thankful that family will gather at our home and thankful that we can provide enough food that they will go away as stuffed as the turkey. I’m thankful we can welcome a few guests who are not family. I am grateful for health, for family and friends, for food and shelter. I am grateful for a God who loves and accepts me in spite of my faults and failures.

And if the day should come that I would be far away from family and friends, eating meatloaf on Thanksgiving, I believe I could, with a genuine heart, thank God for it and invite some lonely person to join me. Yes, I am thankful!

Finding Grace

I look in the mirror and failure glares back—failure as a wife, failure as a mother, and failure as a child of God. Drowning in great waves of doubt, I hesitate to pray. Why would God answer the doubt-filled prayer of a miserable failure? I recognize I am woefully inadequate in the three most important areas of my life.

One Sunday evening this failure walks into church fighting to hold back tears. A godly woman grabs hold of me and asks, “Can we talk? I have something I need to share with you.” We find a quiet room where she looks me straight in the eye and boldly proclaims, “God wants you to know that you are precious to Him. You are the apple of His eye.” The tears that I had fought to hold back refuse to be held back any longer. The dam bursts and with agonizing sobs I share with her the many ways I am failing.

That woman totally ignores my pathetic assessment of my miserable self and simply begins to pray.  “Lord, show her she’s the apple of your eye. Show her how precious she is to you. Bring her joy and laughter.” Her prayer is very specific, seemingly stuck on the apple of God’s eye theme. She prays that same prayer every time I blurt out another area of failure—at least half a dozen times.

Parting company an hour later, I am emotionally drained. I don’t feel particularly special to God or to anyone else. I certainly don’t see myself as the apple of God’s eye, but I walk away with a faint glimmer of hope. Really? Could God see me as special when all I see is failure?

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Arriving at work the next morning, I find an envelope on my desk—a card placed by a co-worker who has no idea of the turmoil I feel. On the front of the envelope is a small sticker—a picture of an apple with the words, “You are great!” Remembering the very recent prayer session, I smile and open the envelope to find a brief three-sentence note of encouragement. The middle one reads, “You are the apple of His eye.” A huge lump forms in my throat and my eyes grow misty. Could this be a personalized message from God’s heart to mine?

 When I return from lunch a few hours later, I find a humongous apple on my desk. That afternoon our most recent publication is distributed to employees; its cover—a huge red apple with the title, The Gift of Love. I laugh out loud, throw my arms into the air in praise to God, and say, “I get it, God! I get it!”

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That life-changing day I move from the oppressive drive of perfectionism and legalism into the glorious freedom of grace. God has shown His precious acceptance of this miserable failure in such a personal and tender way. I have freedom to boldly enter His presence, freedom to seek His help, knowing that His grace receives me when I have failed, and He receives me exactly where I am.

Grace is all about the freedom we have in and through Christ. Jesus has set us free to enter God’s most holy presence. He specializes in taking messed-up failures, cleaning them up, and demonstrating His glory though them.

Do you realize how deeply God loves and treasures you regardless of failures in your life? Grab hold of the freedom that is so lavishly offered through the grace of God. His love is reaching out to you today. Receive it, cherish it, and enjoy grace-based freedom.

Lessons from a Garbage Can

I was pleased when yard-waste recycling first came to our area. Along with the service came a huge, cube-shaped yard waste container on wheels. I eagerly anticipate wheeling the big container around the yard while cleaning up the mess of pine cones and pine needles that grace our yard every autumn.

After my first hour of raking, I wheel that awesome container to one of my many piles. I pick up the first pile and begin pushing it to the second. Suddenly without warning, I am slammed to the ground, face down inside that container—a most undignified position. I am face down inside a garbage can and it hurts!

I pick myself and my not-so-wonderful garbage can on wheels up and gather the next pile of yard debris.

As I proceed across the yard, that garbage can attacks me a second time. Once again I am slammed to the ground, face down inside the garbage can. Now I am mad. I’m in pain and I’ve decided this dastardly contraption is dangerous.

I pick up yet another pile of yard debris, and very, very cautiously begin to move toward the next. Again that evil garbage can attacks, and I am thrown to the ground face first inside the reprehensible container a third time.

I am beyond mad. I am livid! I am going to call the garbage company and give them an ear full. What if this happened to one of my parents? Would someone end up with a broken hip? This contraption could seriously injure someone. Why would anyone design such a demonic piece of dangerous equipment?

Infuriated, I slam the lid of that evil garbage can shut, only to discover the following message in large letters: “Caution: Close lid before moving!”

What had landed me face down inside the garbage can? I had stepped on the bottom lip of the open lid as I pushed the container. I hadn’t read the instructions! I had ignored them.

As I painfully make my way to the house, I think of how often we find ourselves face down emotionally or spiritually in the garbage can of life. God’s Word is our instruction guide. Ignoring His instructions will lead to tremendous amounts of unnecessary pain. We repeat the same mistakes with the same painful results.

When we choose to follow the guidance of His Word, we are better equipped to handle the issues and temptations that would throw us into life’s garbage can. Read and follow the instructions! It can equip you to break the cycle of failure and its resulting pain and frustration.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV

Loving When It’s Difficult

The Fruit of the Spirit is Love—Galatians 5:22

Although we hate to admit it, loving others can be a challenge. While love may seem relatively easy for some, for others it is gut-wrenchingly difficult. We try to love, focus on our feeble futile efforts, and give up in despair. Fractured relationships and broken homes provide ample evidence of the challenge to love.

How do we obey God’s command to love when it is difficult? Can we will ourselves to love? Desperate to make love happen, we put immense effort into trying to make ourselves lovable and loving. We perform loving actions, sometimes through gritted teeth, but that isn’t real and doesn’t last. In moments of anger we lash out with harsh or unkind words, and unloving actions follow. Trying to produce love in our own strength is futile. While we may be able to temporarily perform loving actions, we cannot motivate ourselves to love on a long-term basis.

Galatians 5:22 identifies love as a fruit of the Spirit and fruit grows best on a healthy tree. When I was a freshman in college my dad purchased a pathetic looking apple orchard. The grossly misshapen trees were overgrown and the apples so little and worm infested that the previous owner hadn’t even picked the crop. To my all-wise teen age eyes, my dad had made a foolish mistake. Why would he spend that much money on such an obviously sick orchard? Because he knew exactly what was needed to bring forth healthy fruit. He pruned ruthlessly, he sprayed regularly, he watered often, and he thinned to provide room for the apples to grow. To my surprise and his joy, those same trees produced an abundant and healthy crop the next year. My dad knew healthy trees quite naturally produce good fruit.

In John 15, Jesus likened Himself to a vine and promised His followers would bear much fruit if we remain in Him. Because love is a fruit of His Spirit, staying connected to Him is essential. As we draw intimately into His presence, He lovingly prunes us, removing that which drains our spiritual health and vitality. His refreshing living water nourishes our souls and then His love can flow in and through us to impact others.

Take time to draw into God’s presence. Jesus came to reveal a God who not only loves, but is the essence of love. As we bask in His presence and surrender to His Holy Spirit, the spiritual fruit of love will result. He alone can empower us to love with a pure heart.

Her Children Call her Blessed

Her children arise up and call her blessed. Proverbs 31:28

IMG_2954 Today is the 95th birthday of my awesome mom and how blessed I am to be able to spend it with her!

Mom was the 13th baby in a family of 15 children and is the only one still living. She was raised in a home rich in love and laughter, but extremely poor in material wealth. As far as I know there is only one photo of my mother as a child. That picture is a school class photo and her face in the picture is about one-half inch high. With such a large family and extreme poverty, there was no camera and no money for non-essentials like photos.

Her clothing was either of the hand-me-down variety or dresses made from flour sacks. Being the ninth daughter in the family left very little possibility of ever having new store-bought clothing.  Her mother was a good seamstress and always altered the hand-me-downs to make sure they fit well. One year, Mom was certain she had out grown every available coat and hoped desperately that this would be the year she would get a new coat. That hope was dashed when a kind lady offered her daughter’s outgrown coat, and it fit.  Mom found it difficult to be thankful for that gift!

She got one new pair of shoes at the beginning of the school year and they had to last the entire year. Summers, they went barefoot. Unfortunately, kids’ feet don’t always stay the same size for an entire year. She wore out and outgrew her shoes in the 8th grade, and there was no money for another pair. Her dad cut the tops off of a pair of men’s high-top shoes, thinking that would make them look more like women’s shoes. Mom wore those embarrassingly ugly shoes to school the rest of the year.

Her mother ran a cook-house for an orchardist during apple harvests. Mom and her sisters helped to prepare food, set tables, serve the workers, and wash the dishes. It was there she met the love of her life, our dad. He was a young, hard-working man who took a fancy to her and soon he had won her heart. They were married in January of 1935 when she was just 16. She wore a new store-bought dress that the hard-working young man had purchased for her.

Two sons and two daughters were added to the family and she was an awesome parent to all of us. She loved and accepted us unconditionally and always put our needs above her own. She was a strong lady who made us behave and treat others with respect, but she was also fun and played games with us. She still has a great sense of humor and loves a good joke. She taught us to laugh at ourselves and not to make fun of others.

At the age of 24, she committed her life to Christ and determined to bring her children up in the love of the Lord. I can never remember a time that I didn’t love Jesus and want to serve Him: I know the Holy Spirit used the love and compassion of Jesus, demonstrated so clearly in Mom’s life, to draw me to Himself.

She taught Sunday School for years. One morning a couple of rambunctious boys kept crawling under the table—being ornery and causing distractions. They didn’t realize who they were dealing with. She took the entire class under the table, and that’s where they spent the rest of the hour. At the end of the class, they decided it was not fun to have their class under the table and it never happened again.

Mom was a gracious hostess who loved to have company and it didn’t matter if the house was a mess—it was comfortable and lived in! Company was and is warmly welcomed and she makes sure they are well fed.  At 95, she still loves company and is always happy to see friends and family.  When we talk on the phone, she always asks, “When are you coming over?” When I get there today, I know she will be happy to see me and I strongly suspect she will want to play some pinochle.  Yes, she still likes to play!

I feel tremendously blessed to have this wonderful lady as my mother and to still have her with us at the age of 95. She has been, and still is, a loving, caring, and compassionate mother and grandmother to our family. I will forever thank God for the incredible gift of a mother, who gave us a happy, secure childhood and who taught us the love of Jesus!

Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you more than my words can ever express.

In Loving Memory

Today marks the 100th anniversary of my Dad’s birth. He’s been gone a little over 10 years now and I still miss him. Occasionally I see a little old man with a baseball cap and a memory floods over me and a big lump forms in my throat. Let me tell you a little about him.

Dad’s early years were not easy ones. He was born in Pennsylvania to parents who were immigrants from Romania. By the time he was eight, death had claimed his father, his mother, a younger sister, and a grandpa who lived with them.  After the loss of his mother, he was sent to Romania to live with his dad’s relatives. Upon arrival he was separated from his two sisters who were sent to other relatives. At age 11, death again impacted his young life when he lost his grandpa–the only person that he felt really loved him. He was left in the care of an abusive uncle, but ran away when he was 14. Somehow he managed to travel half way across Romania to find his maternal grandmother and his sister, Anna.

When he was 16, he received notice that he was being drafted into the Romanian army. An uncle told him that since he was born in America, maybe he could go back and agreed to check it out. Through his uncle’s help, he was able to get the necessary papers and the needed funds to enable him and Anna to return to the US. He jumped at the chance, indicating he had wanted to come back to America since the day he left. He loved America and was proud to be an American. One of his most prized possessions was the passport that brought him back to America, and today I cherish that memento of him.

He returned to the US in 1929 just as the world was dropping into a deep financial depression. Jobs were scarce and he worked at any thing he could find, traveling from job to job by hopping freight trains. His job searches led him to Washington State in 1932 and then to Brewster where finally he found home and much of what he had wanted for so many years.

He found his career—he arrived in Brewster and started working in the apple orchards. He was always a hard worker and never had difficulty finding work once people got to know him. He began by working for others and later purchased an orchard for himself. Although he had only a 4th grade Romanian education, he learned how to raise good apples and his strong work ethic helped him to make it profitable.

In Brewster, he also found a lovely young girl who became his bride, and although the next 67 years had some ups and downs, most of their years were happy and filled with love. He loved Mom deeply and toward the end of his life, he became her constant shadow.

He also found a family. Mom had a huge family and they all took Dad in and loved him too. Even her many sisters who some referred to as the “Sisters Mafia” appreciated and liked Dad. My grandparents became the parents he had lost and he loved them deeply.

Our Dad was a loving, caring father. He wasn’t the perfect father, but he was a good dad. Like most fathers, there were times he got frustrated with us, but typically he was fair and we deserved any grumpiness we got from him. For me, I remember him being safe. One of my earliest memories is that of being held, and rocked, and sung to by my daddy. If I got scared in the middle of the night, I would head for Mom and Dad’s bedroom and Dad’s side of the bed. He’d pull me into bed with him and wrap his arms around me and I would fall asleep, feeling utterly protected. I never doubted his love.

He was a loving Grandpa and Great-Grandpa, with a lap that was always inviting. One day he came to my home, and had been there about 5 minutes when Mom nudged me and said, “Look at that.” I looked into my living room and there sat Dad in the big rocking chair, with not one, not two, but three great-grandchildren in his lap. He loved kids, and they knew it and loved him back.

He loved to laugh and tease and had a fun sense of humor. Some of his stories we wouldn’t repeat in polite company. If his stories got a laugh, he’d always repeat the punch line. Mom says that his favorite song was “Amazing Grace”, but the song I most remember him singing was, “Way down south in the land of cotton; my feet stink, but yours are rotten.”

He loved his dogs and took good care of them. One day he and Mom were putting out pollenizing bouquets and Mom was in the back of the pick-up so she could easily put out the bouquets. A neighbor saw them and word went around town, “George had that dog in the front seat and Grace was riding in the back of the truck.” How he enjoyed that!

He loved to play Pinochle and had been known to cheat on occasion. I remember Mom’s telling about playing Pinochle with our aunt and uncle. The boys were winning every game, but the girls hadn’t been counting the trump. The boys were pulling the aces and trump back out of the tricks they had taken and were replaying them. He loved playing with his buddies at the Senior Center, and their weekly Pinochle games turned into a contest to see who could out-insult the other. Mom said she was sure they would lie awake at night trying to figure out nasty things to say to each other. We weren’t sure if the object was to win at Pinochle or to win at insulting, but we thought it was probably the latter. However, it was all done in fun and they loved it and they enjoyed each other. After all his Pinochle buddies had passed away, he continued to play Pinochle with Mom, even after he had forgotten all the rules. He loved to play and Mom often accused him of cheating because he was making up his own rules as he went, but he would just smile his big smile. It was fun for him and it helped to pass the long days.

Dad will be remembered for being happy, smiling, and loving. Even after his disease had robbed him of so much memory and ability to think, he was still happy, smiling, and for the most part, exceptionally sweet. When he no longer remembered our names, he still knew our faces. The excitement in his eyes and the big smile when we visited assured us he recognized us and was exceptionally happy we had come. The disease had taken his ability to carry on a meaningful conversation, but he never forgot how to say, “I love you” and he said it often.

As his life drew to a close Dad loved being home, and we were blessed that he could be home to the end. Mom did an incredible job of taking care of Dad and I will be forever grateful. How fortunate we were to have not just one, but two loving parents! We were blessed to have him as long as we did, to be able to keep him at home, and we were blessed that God took him peacefully in his sleep six months shy of his 90th birthday.

I thank God for my Dad. Although, he wasn’t much of churchgoer until his later years, he had always expressed a faith in God. Because of Dad’s love for me, it was easy for me to see and accept God as a kind and loving father. I never struggled with a mental picture of God as being distant or angry or uncaring. Dad’s love enabled me to easily accept God’s love and for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you, God, for giving me a loving, caring, safe Daddy.