Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ten Thousand Reasons

You're rich in love, and You're slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find...

                The lyrics of Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” make me think of how rarely we actually take the time to consider the goodness of God-to count our blessings, so to speak. There is so much in this life that we take for granted. We are not promised tomorrow. Every breath I take is by the grace of God alone. In the words of Psalm 100:”It is He that has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.” The idea of belonging to Someone greater may be what causes many people to shy away from God-after all, we are supposed to be independent, aren’t we? That way of thinking led to the first sin-the notion that we, in our smallness, can know better than God. Rather than accept and cherish the security and peace he gives, we want instead to do our own thing, have things the way we think they ought to be. In so doing, we disregard the manifold blessings He bestows.

                As an assignment last week, my husband had his creative writing students list one hundred things for which they were thankful. They could even list individual people, individual food, etc. The point was to get into a mode of gratitude. It’s a great idea, and it got me thinking about the fact that were I to do that, there would not be enough paper or ink. So I have chosen here to name and expound a little upon ten things, in no particular order except the first one, lest I get caught up in the frenzy and mania that begins the day after Thanksgiving. It’s called Black Friday, and, while I do not participate in the insanity because I really hate shopping anyway, it does get me thinking about things I want. Ultimately, I convince myself that some of these are things I actually need, and thus I find myself surfing the Internet, cyber-shopping, when I really ought to be doing something else-probably praising God or spending time with people.

                1.God. This may be a no-brainer, but I list Him first because He should always be first. He is, after all, my Creator and the Author of all that I have. While I was as offended as anybody by the President’s “You didn’t build that” comment, in truth none of us would have anything without God. Mr.Obama did not intend this to be a spiritual statement, but an economic one. Apart from politics, though, there is inherent truth in it .God provides the intelligence, the right circumstances, and the drive to work hard and make our dreams a reality. Even those who deny His existence get their determination from Somewhere, and He is the Where, even when unacknowledged .Without Him, I am nothing.

                2.Family. it occurs to me that many people grew up without one. Many people are alone for much of their lives. I was blessed with two incredible parents who taught me right from wrong, loved me, disciplined me when necessary and allowed me to discover my gifts and be an individual. They also provided me with the beginnings of an understanding of what it meant to live the Christian life, to walk in relationship with Christ. Then there were my siblings, who made my life both a joy and a torment, depending upon the day. I would not be who I am without them. There was extended family, grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and, later, in-laws and nieces and nephews. Now I have the most wonderful husband and my three children, who are a blessing to me every day. God built our family in His own way and His own time. It is uniquely ours.

                3.Friends. I have so many friends, friends I have made over forty-six years of living. Because of social networking, I have been able to reconnect with old friends and even make some new ones. There are friends at work, friends at church, and friends for life. I cherish each one. It’s not easy to live this life; we all need a little Fellowship to help see us through.

                4.Food. Although over the years I have had a love-hate relationship with food, it is a blessing that sustains life. I am married to a man who can cook magnificently, which is good because I can’t boil water. No, I really can’t-I once put on some for tea and forgot about it and burned a hole in the pot. Food is connected with memories, fond and happy memories. It is a way that people show that they care, as evidenced when there is sickness or death and people bring in food by the ton. It was once my nemesis but now that it no longer controls me, I can enjoy it the way it was intended. Meals shared with family and friends have a special warmth and are filling in a way that goes beyond the physical.

                5.Books. To say I love to read is inaccurate. Reading is not a hobby or a pastime for me; rather it is life. It is through books that I find comfort and peace. I encounter God through the pages of literature. Forty-three years of reading has been a true gift. I have lived thousands of lives and my head is stuffed with words and thoughts and ideas that I return to time and again. I cannot begin to describe what books are to me-friends ,portals to wonder and delight-nothing can really explain it, and I wish everyone felt about reading as I do.

                6.Animals. I love our dogs and horse and other pets, but I am in general astounded by God’s diversity in Creation. It is another of the ways in which I experience Him and feel a true connection. I have been fond of and fascinated with animals all my life. When I was younger I found much solace in the fact that there were beings in this world who didn’t judge you but only loved you. My childhood pets were not just animals, they were family. Today, I have a dog who I am firmly convinced is God’s emissary. She came to me at a time when I desperately needed her, and she has been an essential part of my son’s healing. Like books, animals have also been such a natural part of my life that I cannot imagine things any other way. God made them for us to care for and love and enjoy. There are many that He made for food and to serve in other ways, but I believe that some were created for the sole purpose of companionship, and I see dogs and horses as being very different from other kinds of animals as far as the way they relate to humans. I think that was intentional, a part of God’s great plan.

                7.Music. Another consistent element in my life, music has been ever in the background. I have particular songs that I think of as part of “the soundtrack of my life”. They define me and who I am. I am as eclectic in my musical tastes as I am with books and food. I love everything from classical to jazz to folk to country to Christian contemporary and pretty much everything in between. Songs evoke memories, bring joy, and sometimes move me to tears. It is an expression of the human condition, in all its comedy and tragedy.

                8. My students. I could say my job, and I do love my job, but it could not be what it is without my students .Their energy and life, their humor and compassion, their emerging sense of self, their sometimes surprisingly mature insights, all make my teaching worthwhile. Even on the bad days, I remind myself of how blessed I am to be a part of their lives. No two days are alike, and I never know what someone might say or write to make me laugh or cry or think. I hope I inspire them, but how much more they inspire me.

                9.Toys. Yes, I still love toys. I love puppets and stuffed animals and games of all kinds. I like to build with Legos and Tinkertoys, color with markers and crayons, and play boardgames with my family and friends. It is good sometimes to just play, to be a child and have fun, to create something from Playdough or paint and revel in it.When my kids were younger I relished those times of play with them. They have outgrown some things now, but we still play all kinds of games together and sometimes we draw and color and, every now and then, break out the Tinkertoys and wooden blocks and toy animals and build something. Then there is the Wii. I am a beast at the trivia games, but still have not mastered MarioKart or Wipeout. Nevertheless, it’s amusing to try.

                10. Movies. From the first movie I saw, which was Mary Poppins, I was hooked on the magic of films. They aren’t usually as good as books, but they are still stories to be experienced. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Doctor Dolittle, The Sound of Music, Oliver!,Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a thousand others that I saw with my family as a child. When I go to the movies now, I still experience a little of that childhood excitement, especially when the film is something much-anticipated, like the Narnia or Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming Hobbit movie. Plays are wonderful, too, but I haven’t seen as many of those since they aren’t as affordable. In my house, movie viewing is rarely a solitary activity-we watch together. We watch, and we talk, and we share. Occasionally, though, I will watch a Netflix movie on my Kindle Fire, usually because it is something so terribly lame that I know no one else wants to see it, but it’s generally some kind of nostalgia thing that I alone understand. Each season has its particular movies-in the summer we watch superhero films and comedies and musicals and magical things. In the fall we pull out the thrillers followed by a multitude of Christmas movies. At some point every year we do a Lord of the Rings marathon. These are not just movie nights, they are family nights, and they are becoming rarer the older and busier my kids get. Thus, they are all the more precious and sweet.

                Can one find God in all the things I have listed above? Absolutely. One of the many things I love about my church is the variety of people and personalities. There is an innate understanding that, while Jesus is the only path to God, there are many different paths we take to find Jesus, to experience Him fully and completely. In my church I feel accepted, and I know that, as long as we agree on the majors, we can respectfully and lovingly agree to disagree on the minors. The picture of Christianity I get from my friends, family, church family, and others around me is something akin to a collage or a very beautiful mosaic. We all are thankful for God’s blessings, but some may regard football as a blessing while others are more intrigued by the ballet and others by intellectual pursuits. He speaks to us all in different ways, but it’s okay as long as we hear Him.

                So, I am very thankful today, for ten thousand reasons (at least), and among them for you who read this blog. I hope it ministers to you, and that, if your heart is hurting , the things I write about will make you smile and maybe even seek the Source of all that is good. Happy Thanksgiving, and love to all!

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dream

Just because everything's changing
Doesn't mean it's never been this way before
All you can do is try to know who your friends are
As you head off to the war
Pick a star on the dark horizon and follow the light
You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye
You'll come back when it's over
No need to say goodbye. –Regina Spektor

                I have a lot of strange dreams. Sometimes they are awesome; sometimes they are terrifying. Often they are hysterically, ridiculously funny or totally random and make about as much sense as your average Adventure Time episode. Considering that my brain is stuffed with years of literature and movies and simple everyday experiences, plus a few major events that range from glorious to comic to tragic, I suppose the overflow into my unconscious mind is to be expected. Thus, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure most of  my dreams out.But on Thursday night I had one that seemed...different. One of the few dreams I have had where I felt that God may have been trying to tell me Something.

                It began with a newscast on television, an announcement that a storm of Biblical proportions was coming. With one week at the most to prepare, scientists and engineers were frantically trying to design a vehicle that could convert from a car/bus/truck/trailer to a sort of ship or boat. This would, they hoped, save thousands, perhaps millions of lives. With dark warnings that people needed to gather up “every living creature” along with their most prized possessions and enough food and water to last several months, the newscasters told us to purchase these vehicles as soon as they were perfected. My husband bought one big enough for the five of us, plus my mom and sisters and some friends. His brother bought one also and so did most of our friends and neighbors. Some, however, refused to believe it was really going to happen, despite our desperate attempts to convince them.

                Soon a caravan was assembled, with our vehicle in the lead, my brother-in-law’s just behind and three more behind his, filled with various people dear to us. Everyone had their pets and their family photos and the other little things that we cherish and deem irreplaceable. Our bus, and one other, had horse trailers attached which would also float. Legend and his pasture mate, Ghost, were safely stowed in the trailer with their hay and feed and water, and Alyssa had carefully arranged the cages and aquariums that house our rabbits, guinea pig, rat, turtle, and fish. Of course all of the dogs, six to be exact, and my mother’s Siamese CAT were on the bus with us. As we prepared to pull out, our pastor leaned in the window and said, “If you need me, I’ll come alongside.” His vehicle was, of course, filled with his own family and many church members and a menagerie of animals. It was so comforting to know that our spiritual shepherd was there for his flock.

                As we started on the journey to an unknown destination-we had just been told to “Head north”- we stayed in contact via cell phone. But then the predicted rain started to fall, and within hours it was bucketing down and rising on all sides. We converted our vehicle to ship mode as did the others in our convoy, and soon we were cut off from all communication with them as one by one cell phone towers were knocked out. I, in the meantime, was looking frantically for Tony. “Mom, I’m here,” a young man kept insisting-but he didn’t look like Tony. Finally my husband reassured me that it was indeed Tony, and I believed him, but I could not figure out why I didn’t recognize my own son. As we fought to stay on course amid the rough waters, I suddenly heard a voice. It sounded like my dad, but I knew it was the voice of God. “It’s going to be rough in places, “ He said, “but don’t worry. I’m here with you.”

                In the final scene of this dream, which seemed to go on for hours but was probably only ten minutes or so, Raina came to the front of the bus and said, “Dad, I need some help with the horses.” He turned to me and said, “I’ll only be gone for a little while; you take over.” My first response was, “I can’t; I can’t do this,” but he left anyway and I was steering on my own. Only-I wasn’t on my own. The voice spoke again, my dad’s voice that was really my Heavenly Father, and He said, “Just stay strong and keep going straight. Don’t go to the left or the right. Keep looking ahead.” In the next moment, I saw in the sky the face of a huge lion, and then there was a brilliant flash of light and someone gasped, “There He is!” and I woke up with tears on my face.

                So what does this mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe it only represents my hopes and my secret fears. Maybe I’ve read too many fantasy novels and mixed them all up with the Bible. There are five different interpretations of the book of Revelation that are generally accepted as being possibly correct, and all of my life I have heard the story of Noah’s Ark and heard terms like “the Rapture” and “The Second Coming.” My beloved childhood preacher, Pierre Burns, held to the same philosophy about Revelation that my father did. “All I know,” he said, “is that the good guys win.” I’ve read the wonderful novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and of course I am a rabid fan of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Add in a dose of good old hellfire and brimstone preaching from my very earliest memories in the Baptist church, mix in some “Star Trek”, a lot of imagination, and plenty of philosophical discussions with family and friends and students that include time travel, the nature of reality, etc., and yeah, the mind can come up with some pretty cool stuff that manifests in dreams.

                A couple of details stood out to me, though, that are significant on a personal level. First there is the voice. My idea of God for my whole life has been that he was just like my daddy, only lots bigger. This is a perception that I have not truly outgrown, although I know now that he He is much bigger in other ways besides the physical. But I also know that my dad is more alive now than ever, in that heavenly realm that is much closer than we think. I am still guided many times by his wisdom, by the things that I recall him saying or the way he handled particular situations. Maybe I need to go back and think about what he would have said or done more often than I actually do, along with asking what Jesus/God says about things through the Scriptures. Maybe I am in danger of straying from the course He has set out for me.

                A second thing was my failure to recognize my child. This has bothered me since I awoke from the dream but I think that perhaps it is because the Tony I know now is not the Tony he will become. I have watched for eight years this child’s struggles and triumphs and I know that ultimately he will have the victory, because he loves God. Maybe his choices do not always show this, but I know it to be real and true. Thus, the Tony I saw in my dream was the REAL one, the one who has overcome it all.

                Thirdly, there was this whole idea of going it alone, without my husband. That scared me, but I need not read anything dark into it. I believe that God is telling me, not that something WILL happen, but that I could handle it if it DID happen. I could handle it because God would still be there and I would never be alone. I need to know that. I worry too much about possibilities and what-ifs. I need to relax. My God is in control and he will NEVER leave or forsake me.

                The final thing that really stood out was the idea that Pastor Jesse can be trusted to come alongside. He is not perfect because he is human. I know not to trust in any man the way I trust in God, but since the Great Betrayal several years ago I have become at best skeptical and at worst cynical regarding the integrity of pastors and clergy. What God is saying is this: most of them are men of God who do their best. Don’t worship them, but at least give them some of your trust. Even those who have wronged others probably started out with the best of intentions and need to be, yes, forgiven.

                On the apocalyptic nature of the dream, I can only speculate. I doubt that it was prophetic in the sense of there being some cataclysmic event; God promised that He would never send another actual global flood. I think it was simply a metaphor for my journey through this earthly life, with the promise of Something Grand at the end. The face of the Lion in the sky worked for me because I knew him to be Aslan and I know Aslan by his other Name. I do not love Aslan more than I love Jesus, because to love Aslan is to love Jesus, the Lion of Judah.The floating ship that was weathering the storm symbolizes that I and those I love will be kept safe until He calls us Home, whenever and and however that happens. And then we will ALL be known by our true Names, the Names he gave us.

                I could be overthinking this. Maybe it was just a crazy dream brought on my overindulgence in books. I am, like Jo March, too fond of books, and it has turned my head. Still, God speaks to me through those books, all kinds of books, and through movies, too, and through art and music and children and animals and trees and flowers and rivers. He speaks to me through my friends and my daily joys and struggles-so why not in a dream?  Our lives are made up of so many things, and God uses these things to help us make some kind of sense out of our lives. My life is not, as poor guilt-ridden Macbeth said, simply a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Our lives are about Something. They mean Something. The dream is mine, and I may figure out more of its importance in days to come. In the meantime, go on and dream-and follow the Light.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” –J.K.Rowling

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King