Spirituality and Spandex

I belong to the church of the physically fit. Members do marathon mudders. They sprint up stairs.  They are at peace with their lean to fat ratio because they  have nothing to put in the denominator. They run. They jump. They bench press twice their weight. And they look good in spandex.

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In my day, spandex was tights which, unless they were anchored in place by a leotard, succumbed to gravity pretty quickly. School girls suffered until bathroom breaks allowed them to hitch those buggers back up. By 3:00 P.M., my tights had settled into Shar-Pei like wrinkles down my skinny legs and I was walking funny. After a few years of this,  I switched to knee socks for school, reserving the troublesome tights for dance class.

Eventually even dance tights changed. I’m not sure when the modern dance movers and shakers decided to take the feet out of their tights, but by the late 1960s, I was dancing barefoot. I can only assume that this bit of brilliance eventually evolved into the leggings that most of the church ladies wear. Truth be told, I even own a pair. I ordered them in a spirit of rebellion. To heck with arthritis and tendonitis!  I’d wear my leggings as a proclamation of life, or tribute to freedom, or to who I used to be- but I’d be sure to wear a long tunic top. . . with freedom comes responsibility. Until I ordered the leggings, I hadn’t realized how closely I associated life with movement. “Moving slowly these days, Deb? You must have less life.”

Really?

Life does not consist of the things I can do. That list has become embarrassingly short. Life comes from God. The person sitting in a wheelchair at the back of the church might just be the most “alive” person there- deceptively quiet on the outside, but bursting with life on the inside, his “spiritual stem cells” multiplying lickety-split, connecting him to his Creator in all kinds of wild and crazy ways. Who’d have guessed it?

Jesus promises us life. He told the Samaritan woman that whoever drank of the water that He gave would never thirst, but that it would “become. . . a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 3:14) There is apparently no shortage of life. We just need to know where to find it.

 

Hunting for Thanksgiving

 

 

 

It’s November. Leaves are falling, skies are gray, and my son-in-law has been here visiting the deer. While he’s with us, I never need an alarm clock. I wake up abruptly just before dawn, smelling coffee and hearing the front door click shut. The hunter exits like a ghost, neither waking  his brothers-in-law nor the four dogs. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that our pony ignores him as he threads his way through the barn, down the gulley, and into the woods. Once he reaches his destination, he stays there all day watching and waiting. When he comes back to “deer camp” after dusk, he will, if pressed, talk about his days’ adventures. I’ve learned a lot because, being deer camp cook, I pump him for information while he devours his dinner.

I enjoy hearing his wildlife stories but I’ve learned more by watching him. Apparently, hunting is not just sitting up in a tree for a couple of hours shooting at harmless Bambis as they stroll beneath you. It’s clinging to that tree in rain, wind and sleet while your extremities stiffen with cold. It’s holding a drawn bow forever while your prey decides whether or not to come your way. It’s getting up early and coming home tired. It ain’t that simple. And I am torn between my compassion for the beautiful animals and my admiration for- well, I’ll call him “Uncas.”

While I want Uncas to bag a buck, I secretly wish the buck could go home with him as a pet and live happily in his back yard. Of course, being a meat-eater, I see the inconsistency of this attitude, and admit that my method of procuring meat is cowardly in comparison (buying plastic-wrapped muscle on styrofoam is so much easier). Oddly, the easy method of acquiring food doesn’t automatically make me more thankful for it. As long as I don’t have to watch an animal die, the only obvious cost is the one stamped on the package. Custom and convenience have numbed me to the fact that blood was shed so that I can live.

In ancient times animals were killed not only for food, but for forgiveness of sins. We don’t offer animal sacrifices anymore-  a circumstance for which I am profoundly grateful. I mean, if the necessary killing of animals for food bothers me, imagine how badly I’d feel if I had to regularly slaughter a lamb because of my sins. But maybe that was the whole point. Although the “inner animal lover” in me cringes at this idea, I do think that gazing into the eyes of that lamb might be revelatory, a shocking reminder of the darkness of sin.

 

 

For the Christian, the animal sacrificial system ended with Christ. I Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God…” It’s done. No more animal sacrifice. Because He shed His blood, the blood bath is over. And when I look at this last sacrificial Lamb, I see  not condemnation but love. My burden of guilt is forever exchanged for the burdens of praise and thanksgiving. How unexpected. How remarkable. How glorious!

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 1st Peter Blues

I live in the boonies- it takes twenty minutes to get to the grocery store; water is collected in cisterns, and everyone has a gas generator.  Nothing is convenient, but everything is beautiful- the river, the hills, the wildlife.  Unfortunately, the domestic beauty requires effort.

Last week, I was grubbing out weeds from flower beds with sweat  stinging my eyes, and I thought about how hard and how long Jon could work.  His stamina coupled with his desire to complete a project was incredible.  I, being a take-a-breaker, travel the low road. Work hard for a while and then reward myself for it – that’s me.  For Jon, the work was his reward.  And at our house there was plenty of work to satisfy him.

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We grow stones up here- some of them huge- and it has been a constant battle to dislodge them.  Shortly after we moved here, Jon introduced me to the “spud -bar”, a heavy tool used to pry or break up rocks. Our horticultural efforts included:  take a step, use the spud-bar; walk another step, use the spud bar.  Over and over and over again.  I thought, “To heck with it.  Build raised beds, or plant around the rocks”, but  Jon just kept digging them up.  Characteristically, he moved from one problem to another, working toward solutions, motivated to “get it right”, while I dashed  to get by the problems, hoping that “Happyland” was just beyond them.  The problem is that there is no Happyland. There’s no getting around it- life requires a spud-bar.  I call this phenomenon “the 1st Peter blues”.

   

 

Peter and I go back a long way.  I couldn’t begin to count the number of I Peter studies I’ve sat through because of Jon.  “Let’s do something else,” I would say, “how about John or Philippians?”  But in the end, it was mostly  Peter  because Jon identified with him.  I avoided Peter like the plague. Because he was trouble.

When Peter writes:  “… even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials”, my “fight or flight” mechanism wakes up.  Whoa.  Hold it right there.  Right off the bat, I see Peter addressing troubled people and telling them their trials are necessary.  Suddenly, I turn into an intercessor for appliances.  I pray that the dryer drum will keep circling, that the oven will keep heating, that the computer won’t get a virus for which it has not been immunized.  But these are just the fears I acknowledge.  There are much deeper ones.  Peter’s audience would have been thrilled to exchange persecution for minor domestic inconveniences.

Of course these things are everywhere- hardships of one sort or another.  Some we just deal with and move on; others paralyze us.   Peter was certainly no stranger to hard times and tragic events, but he was able to see past them because he knew the risen Christ.  Therefore, he closed his first epistle with an encouragement:  “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”  

Jon, it’s taken a while, but Peter and I are finally good friends.  I don’t enjoy trials, but I acknowledge the value of facing them with an eternal perspective, knowing that there is a purpose behind them.  A purpose with a promise.

 


 

Over the Mountain with Mom

 

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Libby was busy, determined, and quick.  A petite whirlwind, she took care of us with high speed devotion and pretty much wore herself out doing it.  She wanted us to be good, to be accomplished, and for heaven’s sake- to look nice!   I attribute my relative indifference to fashion to Mom’s fixation with it, but that is beside the point.

She sewed all of our “Sunday” clothes- matching suits for my brothers and fluffy dresses for me.  The dresses were beautiful, but I was mostly ungrateful.  It’s not that I disliked dresses- I liked to twirl as much as the next girl- but to achieve the right amount of volume, Mom had to add some kind of netting underneath.  And it made me itch.

And then there was the hair.  I had long dark hair, as unlike Shirley Temple’s as possible, but Mom spent forever winding damp sections of it around her fingers so that I would have ringlets.  She knew that my hair held its shape, and the shape she wanted was cylinders.  So while she meticulously molded my tresses into chocolate slinkies,  I waited in sullen rebellious pouting.  Depending on the degree of  rebellion, she’d either ignore me, or pop my twitchy little butt.  By the time I was five, I’d had enough of the Shirley Temple treatment, so I sneaked Mom’s pinking shears,  did a zigzag pattern across my forehead, and lopped off the side hair.  That was the beginning of the “pixie” cut era.  So long Shirley!  Hello freedom!

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Mom eventually gave up on movie star hair, and by the time I took my first dance lesson, it was long again.  Dance lessons were necessary because Southern girls had to be graceful as well as attractive.  So on Tuesday and Thursday nights, she packed me and my brothers in the car, and drove to downtown Birmingham, so that I could unclumsify myself. At that time, we lived in a village planted on the northwest face of Shades Mountain, and the trip up could be either picturesque or perilous.  One night we encountered thick fog.  Mom piloted our Plymouth up the mountain, creeping through the cloudy atmosphere.  She knew (and knew that I knew) that somewhere to the right of us earth gave way to air.  I remember how tightly she gripped that steering wheel, how she watched the road’s center line,  and how cheerfully she sang.  Somehow, her singing became more substantial than my fear, and the scary  world was manageable.

Normally, we expect people to remember our strengths, so it’s odd that Mother’s singing made such a strong impression.  She liked to sing of course, but she certainly wasn’t a soloist; her voice was small and her range was limited.  No, it wasn’t how she sang that made it memorable; it was when.  Her habit of singing through the darkness revealed her faith.  Better than dresses, better than dance lessons, my mother gave me a more powerful gift; she gave me a triumph tune to sing in the night.

Psalm 96

Sing to the Lord a new song;
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
 Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
Tell of His glory among the nations,
His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised

 

 

Old, But Not Done (with thanks to the Olivers)

 

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I have really good friends- the kind who will keep my gelding for me when my fences have gaps in them; who feed him chopped up, organic carrots; who let him pick fruit off their little apple tree, and who injure themselves fixing up a shed for him.  Why any horse would want to wander away from digs like that and people like that is beyond me, but a week ago, he did it.  Frolic discovered an open gate, hauled his bony behind up the long hill to my house, and followed his nose to the garage where we keep his feed.

I was shocked to find him there, but it was a much greater shock to my border collie puppy, who must have thought the ancient Welsh pony was Horsezilla.  Seamus bravely planted his little feet in the instinctive “prey stance’ and froze.  I didn’t expect him to make a sound – he was much too busy sizing up his enemy- but the other three dogs  were barking their heads off.  Unconcerned, Frolic, shifted from foot to foot,  and swished his tail, patiently waiting  for me to make a plan.

Eventually, it was done.  The bony pony was imprisoned in his old stall, quietly slurping up geratric formula, shifting from foot to foot, and swishing his tail.  The puppy was calm and crated,  chewing on a toy.  The disappointed adult dogs  had wandered off to bask on the back porch.  And the menagerie owner was seated at the breakfast room table, sipping hot tea, resting her knees and thinking.

How is it that an old horse, gaunt, arthritic, and lonely, can find motivation to trudge up a long, steep hill, ignore the threatening sounds of prey animals, and patiently wait for his owner to arrive and provide for him?  If I weren’t old and arthritic myself,  I might not even be wondering – but I can identify with the pain in his knees,  and  marvel at his perseverance.  At 32, he still cares about grass,  feed and water.  At 32, he still follows his nose wherever his legs will take him.  Does he remember better days, when he jumped hurdles, took trail rides, and grazed with a herd?  Who knows?  What I do know is that every time I ask the vet whether he’s suffering too much, she says, “No, he’s still got spunk; he still cares.”

When the Israelites were conquering Canaan, an old man did an amazing thing.   At 85, he began to conquer the hill country of Hebron.  Having fought alongside his brothers for many years, helping them to claim their inheritance, he started off on a quest of his own.

“Now behold, the Lord has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me; as my strength was then, so my strength is now, for war and for going out and coming in. 12 Now then, give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the Lord will be with me, and I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.”  Joshua 14: 10-12

What motivated Caleb to begin a new quest on his 85th birthday?  What kept him adventurous and inspired him to climb steep hills in pursuit of his goals?  I think the text tells us:  “…the Lord has let me live…”, “the Lord spoke this word…”, “give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke…”, “perhaps the Lord will be with me…”, “I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.”  Apparently- God had something to do with it.

I don’t think Frolic worries about his life. In meandering through the pasture, searching for clover and flicking flies, he is content.  The fact that life is harder than it used to be doesn’t seem to matter to him, because he knows instinctively, what humans can only know through faith- that as long as we live, we have purpose.

 

 

Learning to Listen

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When William, was a toddler,  he distinguished between his two grandfathers,  calling one, “Pop”, and the other “Papa Horse”.  The first grandfather is still active in William’s life, a kind man, full of integrity, eager to share the things he knows with his grandsons.  The second, who also delighted in his rambunctious grandsons (there were no granddaughters at the time),  is fading into pleasant memory.

When the little boys were able to sit up and take notice, Jon would carry them out to the barn and plop them, bareback onto Rufus and Frolic.  It was high adventure for them all, but it was especially delightful to William, who lived too far away to see us frequently.  Those barn interludes eventually caused him to refer to “Papa Horse” in everyday conversation,  hoping that his parents would humor his equine yearnings and take to the road. But even before the words were present, his desires existed, and William let us know about them in a  language of his own. In the early days, we struggled to interpret his cries of frustration, feeling helpless to identify the problems.  But Jon could take William to the barn and set him on a horse, and magically, William’s face would break out in delighted smiles.  “Papa Horse”  had figured something out.  Instinctively, he’d learned to listen to his grandson.

Listening can be hard.  I remember a biology course I took in college,  where the teacher’s great idea was to furnish all the students with casette tape recorders in lab.  In this way, he dictated each step of the rat dissection for us without actually being there.  Jon thrived on it, while I,  frustrated at being tutored by a faceless voice, loathed it.  I struggled all through the course, and ended up turning off the stupid tape recorder, and doing the dissections by looking at the pictures.  It was a situation where I failed to learn to listen.

But as I’ve gotten older and slower, I’ve begun to listen better.  Last spring, I decided to learn some bird songs, wanting to know what bird was singing,  just out of sight.  I bought a game called “Larkwire” and began actively listening.  It was hard for me, and I undoubtedly required many more repetitions to learn each call, than my auditorily gifted family members.   I learned the “chick-a-dee dee dee” call of the black capped chickadee, and the liquid,  musical notes of the wood thrush.  Early in the mornings,  I heard the  pileated woodpecker  taunting me from deep within the woods, and  recognized its call as one of the “jungle sounds” often heard in movies.   It was a wonderful, energizing thing to comprehend a new language.  Even a little  knowledge made me feel more alive.

Birds and babies speak  a different language from me, and I have to listen hard to understand them- but I am motivated.  With babies, the need is obvious- they keep on screaming until I get a clue.  And bird language?  It’s not necessary that I learn it, but it’s fun.  So why is it that listening to  God is so hard? If I can slow down long enough to listen to screaming infants and random bird calls, why do I consider listening to what the Creator has to say as burdensome and complicated?  Scripture proclaims His messages over and over and creation shouts to me.  Although He has condescended to speak, I hide from a tete-a-tete on the basis that He is too far away or that He is incomprehensible.  The difficulty, in this case, lies not in translation, but in desire, and the results of handling things without His input can get ugly.  I tend to be judgemental, rash and superficial.  I let unimportant worries waste valuable time.  I concentrate on urgent trivia and forget people.  If I would just  listen to God, I could avoid making so many messes.

Too often, my cynical spirit says that God isn’t speaking  to me.  I wonder whether I’ve really taken the time to hear?

 

Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
 For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.  Psalm 73: 25-28