Monthly Archives: May 2011

Obedience Training

Today my brother and I loaded bags of sand into our packs and set out for a short training hike, preparing for a longer backpacking trip later this summer. All would have gone smoothly except for one little thing–a little thing with four legs and a wagging tail. Yes, Corona was making a nuisance of herself again. No matter how many times we commanded, she would not stay put. She just couldn’t bear to be left behind. We finally convinced her to stay seated at the bottom of our driveway and made it all the way out to the road before low and behold, doggy came trotting happily behind us. I guess she thought she’d sat still long enough and was entitled to some applause. She didn’t get it. Instead she got a stern lesson in obedience. It took about four times of being rudely dragged back to the driveway for her to clue in and decide that obedience was a better idea than doing what she wanted. She finally lay down resignedly and watched us walk off. Being prematurely tired out by all the back and forth, walking backwards to keep an eye on her, etc. we didn’t go very far before heading back to our waiting pooch. More importantly, I wanted her to succeed at obeying me so I could end the day with praise, not discipline. I didn’t want the temptation to come running after us to get the upper hand. As we approached her, Corona laid full out on her stomach, as if she were a puppy apologizing for bad behavior and showing us she knew who was boss. I think she was afraid we would still be angry with her. The moment I gave her praise she was up running circles, happily basking in the joy of being loved and forgiven. It was a good moment.

Why did we make such a big deal out of Corona not coming with us? Well, she’s an outdoor dog, and we prefer to keep her unchained and free on our property because we are all happier that way. Since she is free to run, she needs to know where her boundaries are. We have needed to do our best to let her know “you can come this far but not further,” and we have gotten pretty serious about it in the last few years because we’ve seen what can happen if those boundaries are not respected. About ten years ago we had two dogs who broke out of their kennel while we were away, ran off, exploring everything they wanted, until they were miles away. One of the things they discovered was a farm with chickens. Not having been exposed to these strange creatures, they made a game of killing them. And the farmer responded by killing our dogs. Yes, boundaries are important. As masters, we feel a responsibility to protect Corona from a similar fate. And while we’d much rather praise her and pat her and let her play and explore, discipline is a necessary part of giving her protection. It’s either that or chaining her down.

Free will is a difficult gamble. We can all understand how much better off we are as free creatures, not chained down, but given the ability to fully live and explore our world. And yet God knows the dangers we could loose upon ourselves if we did exactly as we wish, and so He gives us stern commands. He finds it necessary to discipline us, to let us know that the boundaries are serious. He allows us to experience pain not because he hates us, but because he loves us as children that he longs to protect. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father…Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” Hebrews 12:7-11. Sometimes God’s love is tough as nails. There’s a slew of popular songs about God’s love out there, but I can’t think of one expressing the tough love of God. Can you? I’m guessing it’s not our favorite aspect of his love for us. But when I think about it I am glad that His love is so tough, even though it’s tough to take. His love is not wishy-washy or weak. It is 100% strong and set on my good. Maybe someone should write a song about that.


Learning From a Slobber Machine

I was out weeding one of many flower beds on our hobby farm today, just me, myself and I, when harumph, our dog, Corona, planted herself firmly in front of me, right on top of the weeds I intended to eradicate. Since I could no longer accomplish my objective and was getting slobbered, I moved to a different position. A few minutes later, harumph, she positioned herself right in my path again. I was nose to nose with a happy go lucky slobber machine, and the look in her eyes said she was tickled pink to be in my presence. It’s an amazing thing about dogs, perhaps our dog in particular–they absolutely love to be near you. As I sit inside and type, she is only a few feet away, lying at the full length window that allows her to be as near me as possible. If I go outside to sit on the deck, she will sit next to me. If I go for a walk, she will want to walk with me. When my family sits down to meals at a certain table with windows right alongside, she is up on a lawn chair, peering in at us.

As I pulled weeds today with this ever-present dog as a close companion, I got to thinking about how Corona’s behavior is akin to prayer. When we are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17) the idea isn’t that we are always on our knees making petitions, but living constantly in the presence of our Father. Prayer as a lifestyle means ever aligning myself with where God is and being attentive to Him. It is delighting just to be with Him, glad that He is so close by. It is keeping my eyes on His movements and moving where He moves. And it is being quick to honor His commands when He speaks, even if I would rather not (“Stay,” is one of those commands for me!). Even in prayer for specific requests, praying continually is not all about the words I say, or making the same request over and over using different words in order to be heard. No, it is simply continually putting myself squarely before God (harumph!), waiting for Him to give me what I need. God sure knew what He was doing when He created an ever-present slobbering prayer reminder to be Man’s Best Friend!

“To you I lift up my eyes, O you, who are enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hands of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us.” Psalm 123:1-2

Prairie Fire

The pungent aroma of burnt land met me as I walked up my driveway today. Our neighbors had just done a controlled burn of their property, reminding me of when my family burned our own several years ago. Fire as a prescribed measure to make your land more healthy and productive is a normal concept out here. Fire kills off exotic plants and trees that tend to take over the prairie and also burns up dead vegetation, releasing its nutrients back into the soil and allowing new plants to have a better start. I did some research and learned that land that is burned sees increased diversity in plant life and also produces 3-4 times more buds and flowers in the first two seasons after a burn than ground that has been left alone for twenty-five years. The science is clear–controlled burning is a very good thing.

I think if Jesus had walked and taught in central Minnesota He might have told parables about prairies and DNR workers instead of vines and vine-growers. John 15:1-2 says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” In Minnesota terms it might say, “I am the pure prairie-land, and my father is the prairie conservation officer. Every plant in me that is non-native and insidious he burns away, and every plant that is true and fruitful he also burns, that it may flourish even more.”

Taking a walk past the blackened remains of yesterday’s burn brings up a question–am I willing to be so desolated by God today in order to be more beautiful and flourishing tomorrow? In the moment it seems a heavy price to pay. It is much easier to leave things as they are. But left alone, the dead vegetation in my life (which seems to insulate me), will choke out new growth. Without God’s fiery intervention, invasive growth that has no place in His property will take over and possibly kill the good. The aftermath of a prairie fire is not pretty; the aftermath of God’s fire in my life is often equally unattractive in my sight. But the end result is good. One or two weeks from now my eyes will feast on a sea of vibrant spring green as tender new shoots of grass poke through the blackened cinders. It is one of the most beautiful views on the prairie. Take heart, burned and blackened life. Cling to the fire-master. Your glory is coming.

Purpose Fulfilled

“I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills His purpose for me.” Psalm 57:2

We’re coming to the end of a school year. Too soon I will be signing girls out of the dorm for the last time. I will be giving final hugs and sending them off into the wild blue yonder, into an unknown future on faraway continents. And in the final days there is this frightening question hanging over me–Did I do what I was meant to do? Did I do all I could to prepare these girls to leave? What, if anything, do I still need to speak into their lives?

Over the weekend I took a brave group of international students camping on Minnesota’s North Shore. The purpose was to enjoy a lot of beautiful places and also get away from the hubub of the dorms one last time before the final flurry of activities was in full swing. I would also have one last chance to say some things–but what to say? In the huge list of possibilities, how could I discern what was most crucial? It intimidated me to no end, until I realized that Jesus had once been in a similar position. Jesus had a small group of students he had invested in too, students He needed to say goodbye to, release into the world and also ensure they were prepared to do what they were meant to do. His final charge to them is recorded in Matthew 28. We call it the Great Commission. I called it Eureka!

In his last words, Jesus hits on three big things. A pastor might label them purpose, power and promise. Jesus tells his disciples what their lives are to be about–the making of other disciples, teaching the good news. He tells them He has all authority, all power, to send them on such a mission (and by implication to make their mission successful). And He promises that even though they won’t be able to see Him, He will be with them always. I decided my focus for the weekend would be “God with us on Life’s Journey.” We looked at the Road to Emmaus story, and how Jesus can be walking with us and we don’t even recognize Him. We walked through beautiful places, and talked about where we’d seen God. But the whole time I had these niggling doubts. I was afraid the weekend was a bust. I was afraid the message was hollow. I was afraid I was failing in my purpose.

On Sunday morning before leaving camp we had to climb a rock-face next to our site. It was discovered that you could totally get up the back way with a guitar, and everyone voted to have our worship service up at tree level, looking down on the world below. As I shared my “last words” about Jesus’ last words, I suddenly realized how much I needed them. I realized that these three areas were precisely the places I am most tempted to give way to fear, to doubt God. First, I fear that God doesn’t have a special purpose for my life. Second, I fear that even when I know my purpose, I will fail. I won’t be able to succeed. And third, I fear that God isn’t really with me when I don’t “see” Him show up. I was juggling all these fears that very weekend! And in His wisdom, God gave me truth to fight off all my fears. His “last word” was to have the last word in the face of my doubts. Whether I saw evidence of it or not, He was able to fulfill His purpose for me.

We closed our service that morning with a song, but were startled in the midst of it by strangers approaching our perch. “We’re believers,” they informed us, “and we wondered if we could join you?” They turned out to be mission students who were really excited to meet my young believers from other countries, and asked to pray them out, asking God to go with them and empower them for what they would face at home. I was floored. It was a divine “amen” to our weekend, a God moment I could never have planned. In the Psalm that a member of the group felt led to read (Psalm 57), God had the final word. In the prayer of another, He did the official commission and send-off of my students. And later when I ask ed my girls what the best part of the weekend was, they all pointed to this moment–the moment God showed up, the moment He confirmed what I had been saying, that God was with us. He was with us in power. And He was with us to fulfill His purpose.

God is with us on the journey, and the adventure continues...

Facing the Flood

Last week I drove past a farm that was an arresting sight. A stately old red barn stood at the forefront of the property, two doors wide open to the world, completely flooded by water. I don’t know why, but I found it fascinating. I wanted to stop and stare at it; I wanted a picture. It was sad and beautiful and seemed to silently speak volumes—if only I could figure out exactly what it was saying.

Today, half-way through another three week stint between days off, I got home and spent a couple of hours doing little more than staring at the floor, my eyes like vacant doors, my thoughts muddy and scattered, like murky waters that weren’t going anywhere fast. And I remembered that old barn. If only the owners of that barn had been prepared. If only they had seen what was coming and put up protective walls to keep the dangerous flood waters at bay. If only I had done the same.

Burn-out is a strange thing, making a wreck of lives once purposeful and beautiful. Like flood-waters, it is a danger that often encroaches by inches. A person may think they are safe from its hazards, but who in our culture is not in some danger of being swamped by the myriad pressures all around us? How easy for life expectations to get out of whack, especially in the areas of work, relationships, school, finances and ministry—things that feel so crucial. The pressures come from without and within, from the demands of others and our expectations of ourselves. The dangers without are like that flood—beyond our control, only escapable by sand-bagging our lives with firm boundaries. The dangers within are often subtle, easily overlooked or ignored. Two years ago in my family home one tiny leak in an inconsequential pipe flooded the bottom levels of the house. The damage was ghastly, and even though a year and thousands of dollars in repairs later it could be called relatively “normal” again, it will never be exactly like it was. So it is with burn-out. It can be very costly, and there’s no saying how long it will take to come back to “normal.” Some optimistic psychologists say it’s likely you’ll never be back like you were again. It’s all very haunting, especially when you realize the pipes have burst, the river is overflowing, and you’re up to your glazed eyeballs in a flood problem.

It’s at times like this that I’m glad God has the final word in life, not the psychologists. They don’t give me much hope, but God is a worker of miracles and reversals. One of my favorite scripture passages in Isaiah 61 is full of ugly realities God intends to turn inside out, comfort in place of mourning, beauty in place of ashes, gladness instead of despair. And one verse which seems to pertain particularly to my current mucky situation: “They [His grieving people] will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Is. 61:4). If God can restore whole cities that have been demolished for ages, certainly He has the ability to restore the mess I’ve made of my own house, which He built and which is now His. The waters of burn-out may be strong, but God is stronger. He can push back the flood waters or give me the strength to swim through. One thing is certain—He will never leave me to struggle alone.

“But now, this is what the LORD says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:1-2