Welcome to my blog...

Green trees, cool water, a gentle breeze...the perfect place to sit at the feet of the Master and learn. Jesus taught so often on the shoreline, and He's still speaking today.

This is where I share the lessons He teaches me, often during the time I spend on the shores of a local lake. I don't have all the answers...and some days I don't have any. But I go here when I need to draw near to Him in a tangible way. Come with me...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beyond the Beyond

Last year, I attended a Bible study where, via DVD, one of the speakers was Priscilla Shirer.  She is a wonderful speaker - funny, down to earth, and powerful.  She's also the daughter of preacher Tony Evans.

I have seen many of her teachings on DVD, but one has stayed with me more than the others, perhaps because I've seen the subject played out so many times in my life.  Priscilla was talking on Ephesians 3:20 and 21.  "Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever.  Amen." 

I've heard the words from those verses spoken many times as a benediction or in sermons, and I confess, until I listened to her teach on them, I never fully grasped the enormity of them.  Perhaps it was her examples.  She gave several, and each time she was done with the example, she'd shake her head and say...no, no, you still don't get it...let me tell it to you this way.

Her last example was of a friend who had a special birthday coming up.  She was lamenting to Priscilla that her husband wasn't the type to make a big deal of such things, and while she loved him dearly, she wished he'd a least make a minor fuss by giving her a card.  The day of her birthday came and her husband gave her more than a card...he actually presented her with a gift!  An...umbrella.  Well, it wasn't candy, flowers, or diamonds, but she didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth - it was more than he'd done before.  Then, he handed her a card.  It said 'don't forget your umbrella - I hear it rains a lot in Paris this time of year.'  Yes, he had gotten her a trip to Paris! 

Okay ladies - focus - this is not about what you didn't get from your husband on your last birthday...and guys, this isn't a tutorial on how you should right that wrong LOL.  This is an example of how we come at God with low expectations...hoping for a card...and how he not only meets them, but exceeds them...he goes beyond the card by giving us a gift...and then beyond that by giving us the gift of a lifetime!  Beyond the beyond.

As Priscilla describes Paul in this passage, she says Paul is running out of words - he is piling superlative upon superlative to get the point across of how much God is able to do - "far more abundantly beyond"...some translations say "exceedingly, abundantly more".

Why do I write about this today?  Because I'm in the middle of watching it happen...again.  In an earlier post, I described what I learned in Kids Camp, which is my church's name for Vacation Bible School.  At the end of Kids Camp this year, an announcement was made.  An opportunity has arisen for us to take this same program to a location in a more economically challenged part of Trenton the week of August 22nd.  It's the first time in our over 155 year history that we have done such a thing, and our goal is to register and reach 150 children.  I accepted the task of creating a menu and finding ways to feed those 150 kids not a snack, but an actual dinner for 5 nights on a budget that amounted to less than $2 per child.

I immediately began writing to different organizations requesting donations of food, but I know many of the chains like a lot of notice - at least a month - and the day I began writing was a month to the day of when the food will be needed.  One large chain sent me my first turn down yesterday.

Of course, 'me' of little faith begins to fret.  Not sure why my first reaction is so often doubt and fear when I've seen God come through time and again, but, the tiny time frame silhouetted against the enormity of the task allowed them to come in, kick off their shoes and make themselves at home in my mind for a bit.  Then after the person in charge told me last night she was going to have to cut my budget to move monies elsewhere, doubt and fear got really comfortable - they even ordered take out because they figured they'd be there awhile.  Enter God.

A few minutes later I was in my meeting planning what the menu would be, detailing who I'd contacted for donations, soliciting suggestions on how we could cut costs, when one of the team members walked in.  It seems while I'd be courting doubt and fear, she'd been counting stock...and arrived to tell us she had access b to 5 types of entrees - kid pleasing foods - and there was enough for 150 kids.  Did you catch that?  God not only provided food, he took care of ALL 5 DAYS from one source.  We still need to provide some side dishes, but I'm not worried anymore...I'm just looking to see when and how many are coming our way.

As Priscilla would have said, you aren't getting this, let me put it another way!  I walked into a pizza place before my meeting...a place where I know the owners...and said to one of the guys 'do you ever do donations?  I'm hoping to get some free pizza for something my church is doing.'  'Sure, sure' he says...and he hands me a receipt for 1 large free pizza.  I thought...that's not what I had in mind...at this rate, I'm going to have to hit a lot of pizza places!

My efforts netted very little.  But God is not a one pizza God.  God was already going exceedingly abundantly beyond what I was asking for or could imagine he'd do - he was taking care of all 5 meals at once.

How big is your God?  Do you trust him to meet your needs?  Do you trust that he can and will do that and even more?  Don't let fear and doubt limit your perspective of what he's capable of...as I learned again last night, He loves to go beyond the beyond.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Silence

Two nights ago I finally made it down to the lake.  It was very different from what I'm used to.  There is usually a cacophony of sounds from birds singing to cicadas chirping in the trees to boats paddling across the lake.  But this night, everything was still.  No cooling breeze.  The water was like glass...not a ripple crossed the surface.  And few people were out and about.  The mosquitoes weren't even on the hunt. It was...strange. And the silence was deafening.

As I sat and watched and listened, I slowly began to see the slightest of movements...a turtle's head broke the surface of the water and disappeared.  Then I heard a splash and turned my head in time to see a fish jumping.  In the distance I finally heard the faint but familiar noise of cicadas.  If I had left even a minute sooner, I might have gone away believing that nothing was going on...that everything was unnaturally and completely still.

Suddenly I had a thought.  How often is my prayer life like this?  I come to God with a certain level of expectation, but everything is different.  God seems silent.  It feels...strange, unfamiliar, unsettling.  When I don't take the time to sit and listen for more than a few minutes, it's easy to walk away upset because I'm convinced God isn't there.  Why would he leave me?  Where did he go?

But that's not how God operates.  His word says he'll never leave or forsake us.  While we may not see or hear him straight away, he's always there.  Sometimes it's just for a day or two.  Sometimes it's longer.  But we can't lose heart.  Knowing that he is true to his promises, we need to take the time to watch and wait.  When we're patient, when we continue to seek despite the outward appearance of circumstances, that's when we notice that he is moving...just below the surface.  And when we quiet our voice and take a break from lamenting one thing or another, we can hear him. 

You know you have a real understanding of someone when you can both sit in silence and it's not awkward.  Besides, sometimes, silence is necessary.  Sometimes, silence is healing.  Sometimes, when silence is shared, it deepens the relationship.

I went back to the lake last night.  Just 24 hours made a huge difference.  Everything was 'back to normal'.  It was the same bench, the same water, the same trees, the same me...but the silence was broken and the level of activity was high from the moment I arrived.  Was one situation better than the other?  I'd say no, because the temporary silence taught a valid and necessary lesson.  God is always with us, always on the move...just because we can't see, hear or feel him for a time doesn't mean it's not so.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What I learned at Kids Camp

I've been missing my time at the lake.  Between the scorching heat and a full schedule, there hasn't been much time or motivation to leave the safety of air conditioned buildings and commune with God outside.  But that doesn't mean I haven't learned from Him.  It doesn't mean we stopped talking.  Instead, He's been teaching me through the simplicity of a children's program. 

This week is Kids Camp at our church...you may know it as Vacation Bible School or VBS.  Ours is 3 and half hours of Bible stories, games, food, skits and fun.  The overall theme of the week is "God is Wild About You".  There's a different point that each activity reinforces each night...God made you; God listens to you; God watches over you; God loves you, no matter what; and God gives good gifts.

They all seem like such simple concepts, but they are so incredibly deep and rich with meaning not just for children, but for adults as well.  God has been using these concepts to reinforce so much that I know about Him, but don't contemplate often enough.

God made you.  The whole of Psalm 139 goes into such detail about His relationship with us, but let's take a look at just a few verses.  Verses 13 - 16 state..."For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.  I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them."  God created us from the inside out.  From BEFORE conception to our last day, God has seen us and knows us intimately.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Think about it the next time you feel all alone or think no one knows or cares about you.  Personally, I'm trying to memorize the whole of Psalm 139, but it took me several days to get beyond the overwhelming concept just in verse 1..."O Lord, you have searched me and you know me."

God listens to you.  So often people ask me about my prayer life. " How do you keep it from getting stale?" "How do you not make it a laundry list?"  "You get so many answers - I don't think God hears my prayers."  I'm no one special...I'm not "super spiritual" - whatever that is.  But I talk to God often.  Everywhere.  At all times of the day or night.  In every day plain language.  Isn't that what you do with a close friend or loved one?  When you are privileged to find another human being who cares about you, loves you, desires to spend time with you and wants to hear what you have to say as well as share their loving thoughts about you...does that get stale?  Of course not.  So why would you treat a relationship with God - who loves you and cares for you more perfectly than anyone on this earth - differently?  Of course, YOU need to listen too...it's what makes it a real conversation.  I could write so much more on this subject, but I think I'll make it a separate blog post or you'll never get through this one!

God watches over you.  There's a prayer you probably said as a child..."Now I lay me down to sleep...I pray the Lord my soul to keep."  In Psalm 4, that very promise exists.  Verse 8 says "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, oh Lord make me dwell in safety."  I've mentioned in an earlier post that I'm divorced and that being alone for the first time in my life was a real fear.  So much so that for the first 6 months after my husband left, I was afraid to sleep upstairs where I couldn't hear if someone tried to come in.  I'm not sure what I thought I could actually DO if someone broke in, but I slept on the couch - and not very well.  Then one night, I had a picture in my mind of huge, 10 foot angels, bright and brandishing swords standing around the perimeter of my home, guarding against evil.  Later, I found Psalm 4:8.  Getting a good night's sleep is no longer an issue.  I know God watches over me - at night, in the day, when I come and go.  Going back to Psalm 139, it says in verse 5 "You hem me in -behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me."  You can't get any more 'watched over' than that!

God loves you, no matter what.  Romans 8:38 - 39 says "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Nothing can keep us from God's love...no matter who or what comes along.  No matter what we have or haven't done.  Once again, that's a concept that sounds simple, but is mind blowing when you really consider it.  We've all had friendships end, experienced family rifts and the like.  Usually it's because someone did or said something we found offensive, hurtful, unforgivable.  Even if we are able to extend forgiveness, continuing to love or care for them is quite another matter.  Do you think you've ever hurt God that deeply?  If you think not, you're kidding yourself.  You curse Him, deny Him, ignore Him, blame Him unjustly, break His laws.  And you do it in one way or another every day.  But the Bible says in Lamentations 3:22 & 23 "The faithful love of the Lord never ends!  His mercies never cease.  Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning."  Bottom line...God love you, no matter what.

God gives good gifts.  Ever experience a 'coincidence'?  You meet just the right person to help you.  You get an unexpected check in the mail that's just the right amount of money to pay a bill.  I don't call them coincidences...I call them God-incidences.  And of course, He still answers prayers...I've filled a book with the stories, so I know this first hand.  God gives good gifts.  Some are big, life-changing, WOWs!  Some benefit you in ways you might not even immediately see.  But any way you slice it, God gives gifts to us...and they are good.  Matthew 7:11 says "So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him." 

God made you.  God listens to you.  God watches over you.  God loves you, no matter what.  God gives good  gifts.  God is wild about you.  At Kids Camp the response to each of these 'points' is "Thank You God!!"  Such a small token in acknowledgement of so much.  Thank you God indeed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lakeside Services

I've been attending lakeside services with God for 4 years now. 

The chapel has no walls, doors, or steeple. Just grass, trees, water, and sky. A far more beautiful place to worship than any man-made building. 

And the sermons?  Well...they're truly Divine!

It amazes me that although I've lived in the same place for 25 years, I never really knew about the lake until recently. 

I more or less stumbled upon it 5 summers ago when I was in a dark place. 

The short version is I'd been married almost 27 years when my husband left in January 2007. It had always been a rocky union, so the separation actually brought a sense of relief. Still, I had a huge fear of the unknown. Married at 18, there was never a time when I was alone. And because I was constantly told I had no common sense, no worth, and no abilities, I was convinced I couldn't make it on my own. I wasn't sure how I could survive this new phase of my life.

In truth, it was hard.

I struggled financially teetering on the brink of collapse. All the costs of running the household were on me. 

I was excruciatingly lonely. Not that I hadn't been lonely often in my marriage, but this was different.

Then one day, I found myself driving through the park and decided to park by the marina. It was the sunset that drew me down to the shoreline of the lake. I sat in one of those 'left side' benches I've mentioned, surrounded by people enjoying the evening.

I silently wept feeling completely and utterly alone.

All these years later, I'm a very different woman.  I've learned I have abilities - many of them - all God-given and useful. And I have worth. I am, through God's grace, being used to touch many lives in important and lasting ways and helping others do the same. Common sense? Well, I strive to gain Godly wisdom because often what appears to be common sense to this world is foolishness in His eyes.

But all these years later, my Achilles Heel is sometimes believing I'm the same fearful woman who sat on the bench and cried 5 long summers ago. 

Loneliness is still one of my toughest battles and the enemy can somehow narrow my focus so that it is all I see. I temporarily forget all the miraculous wonders and provisions I've been the recipient of. I forget how far I've come.

Those are the days I sit on the bench and dissolve into tears, crying out to God "how it is possible so much time could go by with no change?  How can 5 years have passed with me, still a party of one, sitting on a bench for two?" I want someone to share the sunset with. Someone to walk and talk with. 

I have myself a fine little pity party on those days.

Patiently, God waits until I'm done with the temper tantrum and then He gently, but firmly, puts His hands on my shoulders and turns me around, encouraging me to take a good look at my past. 

I see myself in those early days - feeling as if I'd been cast out to sea without so much as a life jacket. The waves of finances, job uncertainty, personal insecurities, and more pummeling me, threatening to take me under and drown me.

"Change your focus Toni...look again," He whispers in my ear. 

Now I see Him on the shore. His hand stretched out across the face of the waters, calming the storms of life. Providing the needed finances at just the right time. Protecting the job when it was on the chopping block. Surrounding me with friends who love and encourage me. 

"I am with you always, Toni. Sometimes in this life you will go through storms, but I am in control." 

He brings Isaiah 43:2 to mind. "When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you." 

God has been there to share the sunsets with. He made them for me!

He is always there to walk with me and talk with me and He listens intently to everything I have to say.  

He reminds me when I look forward, all I see is my limited snapshot of a particular moment in time. I have to look backward to get a clue as to how it was all working together from the beginning.

Only He has the panoramic view of eternity looking forward. He is in the picture every step of the way.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Turning on a Dime

A few days ago, my attitude turned on a dime.  Ever happen to you?  A minor disappointment, then an email that just hit me the wrong way and all of a sudden, I've got a major chip on my shoulder.  Why?  Neither was earth-shattering.  Blips on the radar screen of life.  So why did I allow such simple things to alter the mood of my otherwise relatively easy day?  Good question.  I once heard a preacher say that when something upsetting or unpleasant happens, you need to hold it up to the light of eternity to see how it really measures up.  A good habit I need to get into BEFORE allowing the chip to form. 

I thought about that later the same evening when something else turned on a dime - my ability to breathe.  I had tickets to a game for the local Double A baseball team.  It was a beautiful night in the company of family and friends - no humidity, no clouds, a full moon, an awesome fireworks display...and the home team won.  As we began to exit the park, I walked on some peanut shells. 

Did I mention I'm allergic to peanuts?  It's an allergy I developed about 7 years ago and it's the throat-closing kind.  I carry an Epi-pen and Benadryl at all times now. 

Well, I had flip flops on and I guess somehow oil or dust or something from those shells got on my feet and was absorbed into my skin.  My sister, nieces and I piled into my car, but I had started to cough and clear my throat repeatedly.  I knew what that meant, but couldn't believe something so simple could really be causing this reaction.  I asked my niece for my bottle of water.  I drank half the bottle but the coughing didn't go away.  Now my throat was feeling sore, and was that...yes, the telltale sign...there was a huge lump forming fast in the back of my throat.  I opened my mouth to tell my niece where the Benadryl was and scared myself - I could barely speak.  I began gesturing rather wildly...pointing to my purse...'pink pill'...now! (I use the Epi-pen as a last resort - I hate the side effects of the epinephrine, so the Benadryl is my go-to solution whenever possible.)

I popped the pill in my mouth, took a swig of water and prayed.  In a few minutes the coughing and throat clearing had mostly stopped.  It took more than an hour for the lump in my throat to fully go down and when I finally allowed myself to sleep, my throat was still sore.

Aren't we like that sometimes with the sin in our lives?  We think...it's just something small...it can't  possibly have big consequences...let alone life-altering consequences.  We try to ignore it, try to brush it away from our consciousness, but it's insidious and it begins to fester, choking the very life out of us.

Take my poor reaction to the disappointment and email earlier in the day.  I didn't even consider my attitude sin at first.  But when it began to change my perspective on the entire day, it should have been obvious something was wrong. 

Our lives can change in an instant.  An illness, an accident, the simple act of stepping on a peanut shell can change everything.  So when it comes down to it, how important are the petty annoyances we deal with every day?  It took my encounter with a peanut shell to make me see how quickly things can turn around. 

God has a lot to say in His Word about the subject of turning.  We are told that all have turned away.  We are entreated to turn from our wicked ways, to turn from evil and do good.  We are also told that God will not turn His face from us if we return to him.  Turning is an action with huge consequences.  Will I never experience my attitude turning on a dime again?  Unfortunately, I'm sure that's not the case.  But I do know I can turn it back again - it's matter of choosing.  Choosing to turn the other cheek, choosing to turn the battle over to God, choosing to turn the annoyance of the petty bothersome things in my life into an attitude of gratitude for all that I have.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

One Path

I love sunsets.  You may have guessed that from the picture on this blog.  And I love the water...again, the title 'lakeside lessons' might provide a clue.  Somehow I feel closer to God near water - whether it's the power of the crashing waves of the ocean, the music of a brook splashing over stones, or the lapping of the water at the edge of the lake, it's where I love to talk with Jesus.

But the other night as I made my trek down to the lake something struck me as odd.  There are many paths and trails around this body of water.  Some are paved, some not.  People explore them on foot and on bikes.  All day long, there is a ton of activity in and around the lake.  But in the early evening, when the sun hangs low in the sky and the stars begin to appear, the people who remain, gather down a single path.  Actually, it's more like a paved road - wide at first, then narrowing as it stretches out into in the water...a peninsula of sorts...a long finger of land with a gazebo as the destination at the end.  On either side of this piece of land there are 4 benches.  To the right, there's a dock, crowded with paddle boats and canoes and in the distance a playground.  To the left, less 'things' to look at, but there is a large expanse of water.  The benches on the left face west.  And that is where the sun makes  its spectacular exit every evening.  Yet I am amazed at how many choose to sit on the other side, their backs to the glorious colors in the sky, oblivious to what they're missing.

How many of us are like that?  We have come from many walks of life - various trails if you will.  We've spent a good portion of our days exploring, trying to find our own way.  Some leave never knowing the benefits of the narrow path and where it leads.  Others are on the path but settle for something less than the wonders God sends our way.  They choose a view cluttered by things going nowhere...moored to a dock...stagnant...rather than embracing the fullness of what God has for us here right now.

These past few days there's been a scripture I keep hearing/reading/seeing, and I know when God repeats things, it's time to really sit up and take notice.  1 Corinthians 13:12 says:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

We already see things imperfectly.  Why worsen the effect by turning our backs on the gifts God gives us daily?  I know I've been guilty of having my attention misdirected from the glorious by the mundane.  Why do we settle?  It's not a matter of being so heavenly minded we're no earthly good...it's about allowing our souls to be refreshed by God's goodness instead of being bogged down in the drudgery of daily life.  Everyday we have a choice.  Today I choose not to turn my back on God's gifts, but to embrace everything He has for me until I see him with perfect clarity.  Sit with me on the left side bench!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Majesty

Last Sunday, I heard a sermon on Psalm 8 which opens and closes with a verse which says "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"

Majestic.  What visions does that word conjure up for you?  Do you think of people?  Royalty decked out in 'majestic' robes and finery?  Or does a vision of nature come to mind - the Grand Canyon, giant redwoods, or Niagara Falls. Or perhaps the words we sing in America, The Beautiful - "purple mountains majesty?"

The dictionary describes majesty as 'regal,
lofty, or stately dignity; imposing character; grandeur'...certainly words that reflect either a royal person or a natural wonder.
But those words - lofty, stately, imposing - also create a feeling of something untouchable.  They aren't words that give you the warm fuzzies.

But read on in Psalm 8 - verses 3 & 4 . "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"  Again, we are reminded that God is a majestic God who created everything...but wait...He's mindful of man?  Back to the dictionary!  Mindful means 'attentive, aware, or careful' - in fact, the Bible goes a step further and says who is the son of man that you CARE for him! Care..."to make provision or look out for."  Now the warm fuzzies are beginning to rush in where dignity fears to tread.

All day these thoughts were batted around in my mind...majestic but mindful...lofty but attentive...only God could take things so seemingly at odds and have them make perfect sense.  Only God could be the majestic King over the universe, worthy of praise and honor...and yet bend down to turn an attentive ear and caring gaze to those who fall so short of His glory.  Then, as the day drew to a close, I found myself outside in time to see the beginning of a most glorious sunset.

I rushed to the lake
so I could watch the sunset in all its grandeur.  I had brought along my new, favorite devotional book - "Jesus Calling" and randomly opened it to an entry that brought tears to my eyes. It was based on Ps. 8:1-4 as well as Ps. 19: 1-2, 1 Cor. 6:19, and Jer. 29:13.  It said "I speak to you continually. My nature is to communicate, though not always in words.  I fling glorious sunsets across the sky, day after day after day (yes Lord - I see it...I hear you!).  I speak in the faces and voices of loved ones.   I caress you with a gentle breeze that refreshes and delights you.  I speak softly in the depths of your spirit, where I have taken up residence.  You can find Me in each moment, when you have eyes that see and ears that hear.  Ask My Spirit to sharpen your spiritual eyesight and hearing.  I rejoice each time you discover My Presence. Practice looking and listening for Me during quiet intervals.  Gradually you will find Me in more and more of your moments.  You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me above all else".

At the water's edge, as the sun slipped behind the trees and the golden light that shimmered on the water faded, the sky was painted in royal hues of red and purple. But even as His majesty was written across the sky for all to see, His voice gently whispered in the breeze..."I love you."  Majestic and mindful...lofty and attentive...King over all the universe...and my dear, sweet friend.