Friday, November 13, 2015

SCREAMS AND WHISPERS

The first time we met, he sat tall and quiet in our living room. Our initial hello was cloaked in smiles and a warm hug. I liked him instantly. He was soft-spoken, yet eager to connect. We covered the usual topics of conversation common to first encounters.

I wasn't prepared for what happened next. I can only say it felt like I was tiptoeing on rugged, holy ground.

Images ~ ugly visuals and tormenting vitriol ~ began to bombard my thoughts. I heard a man's voice scream cruel and injurious words. Not knowing what was happening, I took a deep breath and tried to push the painful thoughts away.

But they persisted, relentlessly screaming the same cutting words over and over. And somehow I knew. These horrible messages had been spoken over this young man. And now, they clung to him like an extra layer of skin.

My thoughts quieted down after he left. But there was much to process. And I wrestled. What did all of this mean? I had felt an instant connection with him. But those painful images haunted me. Try as I might, I couldn't shake them.

The next time I saw him, the same images and screaming words came rushing in. And I began to realize the long history of wounds this young man carried.

Write it down! I felt such a strong urge to put pen to paper. Eager to release all the toxic words and visuals, I did just that. Little did I know I'd be given the privilege to introduce him to my God. Or that I'd feel the pressing need to give him the paper littered with those ugly words tucked inside a card, and the domino effect it would have.

How did you know? Those were the exact words my dad used. Followed by gut-wrenching sobs and the release of emotions pent up far too long.

Because, along with the screaming words of a broken father, there were whispers from another. Bathed in agape love. And though it came from a gentle and quiet whisper, I knew it had to be God. I want him. I want to heal him.

How I marvel at the ways of God! Somehow, hearing and sharing what I heard with this young man, opened his heart and mind. And new words ~ affirming, loving, beautiful messages began to seep in and take root.

There's a long road of healing ahead for him. But I'm confident that God will not abandon the work of His hands. And this young man's heart? It will slowly heal, one loving whisper at a time.

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands." ~Psalm 138:7,8 ESV


Thursday, November 12, 2015

MOUNTAINS AND DESERTS

The photo, captured at a much higher altitude, jumped out at me. Mountains bathed in green flanked one small row of trees, bursting with autumn colors. The caption my son wrote underneath it struck home. "Think you know where the water runs through the canyon?" Of course. It was obvious when seen from a much higher location. And I realized, the further the ascent, the better the view. Truths we cannot see at ground level become obvious when we are given a loftier perspective.

I think about the photo he shared. This particular mountain range is planted in the high desert. At its base are cacti and mesquite trees, rattlers and javelinas. The contrast between the two is striking.

Oh, the desert! We've been talking about desert seasons in my small group. Boy, do I know all about them! When I'm there, I often feel as though they're a punishment...a consequence of my actions or inactions. But why? The desert has a beauty and power unique to its terrain. And just like the mountaintop experiences, it has its own gems to offer.

Desert seasons can be holy ground. It's there we learn to trust God more deeply and unconditionally. I have learned, when I press into Him during the stretches of barrenness, I encounter Him in ways I don't when I'm sitting high on the mountaintops.

Again, I look at those trees in the photo, bursting with fall foliage. "Think you know where the water runs through the canyon?" I see another truth. Even when we find ourselves walking the dry and dusty roads of a desert season, we can still thrive and flourish. If our roots are planted deeply along God's river of Living Water, He will sustain us in those parched places. We will stand out, glorifying Him in the midst of our rugged terrain.

I love how nature speaks to me, and how it so often reflects truths about our Creator. It can also teach us much about ourselves, the paths we walk, and the seasons we encounter. And this photo he shared? It reminds me. Stay firmly planted by the River of Life. Embrace each season, whether climbing new heights or camped in a dry desert. If I do, God will take even the barren chapters and create something beautiful. Like a tiny row of trees, bursting with autumn glory.

Copyright 2015 by Julie Cowell. All rights reserved.

"Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." ~Isaiah 43:19 ESV

"Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" ~John 7:38 ESV

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

DIRTY WORK

The dirt was everywhere. I could feel the earthy residue in my nose as I breathed in deeply. Even my eyes were achy and itchy from the dust. I stood and stretched, then brushed myself off and headed for the bathroom.

I was startled when I caught a glance in the mirror. Little remnants of a long morning's work clung to my hair. Though I hadn't known it was possible, even my lips wore a gray, dusty hue.

Last year, I learned how to get over my need to always be clean. There were endless projects crying out to be completed quickly, and I slowly accepted the truth, it's okay to get dirty!

Just as I've learned to embrace the dirt, I am also grabbing hold of another truth. There are people  around me who are standing knee deep in disarray. They have had messy circumstances flung at them. And God is asking me to consider getting into the trenches with them. He's encouraging me to position myself in difficult places I've resisted in the past.

And I realize, by entering into the trenches, I'm bound to get a bit dirty, too. The deeper I go, the messier it's going to get. Jumping into someone else's pit experience can be very uncomfortable. It can even be grueling. Just like the work we did on our property.

I love the idea of a clean, polished appearance (though I've never really pulled it off). But I'm learning to let it go. Get dirty. Say yes to God and position myself in those messy places so He can use my hands, my feet, my voice. I can do NOTHING in my own strength. But I can show up. And let him do the work through me.

How about you? Has God been calling you into any trenches lately? Are you knee deep in your own messy circumstances? Let's encourage each other. And put aside the need to have a neat and tidy life.

"He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us." 2 Corinthians 1:4 The Message




Monday, November 9, 2015

RED CUPS

It's a cold and cloudy morning. My cinnamon-vanilla cup of joe is nestled in my right hand, a warm welcome. But my mind keeps traveling to those little red cups, filled to the brim with tasty goodness. Peppermint mocha and pumpkin spice lattes woo me!

I suppose I can blame all the images bombarding social media right now. If I didn't take the time to read, I'd likely think Starbucks is going heavy on their holiday promos this year.

But the company doesn't need to do much in the way of advertising right now. The ranting of one man gone viral has done the job for them. The ridiculous (in my humble opinion) notion that we Christians are being slighted (and that Christ is being removed from Christmas) because the red cups no longer wear a WINTER emblem, has become a hot topic. And those innocent red cups have dominated much of social media's threads. Making it all the harder to put my temptations to rest. My budget cries NO! But nothing quite compares to a red cup of hot peppermint mocha latte piled high with whipped cream.

Honestly, I do not believe Starbucks is making a statement with this year's little red cups. If anything, they might be encouraging simplicity, a notion most of us can glean from. You know what I'm referring to here ~ slowing down the hectic pace, the mad rush to the malls, the spending frenzies, the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality, the deck-the-halls-or-it-won't-be-Christmas mantra.

Because, really? As a Christian, this is NOT where I want my focus to be. I want it to be on a manger, and the babe who occupied it, then grew to be a man, who bore my sins and died for me so that I might live. This is the heart of Christmas as I understand it. This agape love of Christ is what we are called to show the world.

Starbucks, I don't want you thinking the rantings on social media in any way represent true Christianity. I am embarrassed at the thought of being lumped in the same category as this hyper-antagonistic young man. This is not what being a Christ-follower is all about.

Wouldn't it be a better witness (and a more pleasing one to God) if we stop criticizing businesses that don't even claim to be Christian? What if we were to set down our political correctness arguments, and start walking the walk? You know ~ feed the hungry, care for the sick and elderly, love the enemy across the street, and exemplify the love of Christ. (Let's not forget ~ faith without good works is like dead wood.)

This, I believe, is how we reach people ~ one loving act at a time. Not by throwing a tantrum over a simple red cup. As for me, please fill one with a peppermint mocha latte...extra whip, and put my name on it. Though my wallet screams no, all those red cups are calling me!

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." ~James 2:14-17 ESV

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." ~1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV

Sunday, November 8, 2015

ONLY TODAY

We sat in a circle, a small group of friends who are truly more like family. We shared our concerns ~ people we know who are face to face with unexpected illnesses and frightening health issues. Unwelcome diagnoses. Symptoms that remain a mystery. Wondering if the days they have left are counting down much faster than they realized or dreamed possible. These are people we love ~ close friends, family members ~ two of whom sat in the circle with us. Wondering, what will the next days and weeks hold?

And I thought about the psalm so familiar to us. Because truth? We ALL have one thing in common. All of us are terminal. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." There it is! We don't recognize it most days. We choose not to acknowledge or dwell on it, and with good reason. But honestly, while we walk this earth, ALL of us journey through this valley. The shadow of death can overtake us at anytime. No one is guaranteed a tomorrow, or even a completion of today.

"I will fear no evil..." How comforting this is! We don't have to be afraid of death. How this frees us to live ~ really live ~ every blessed day we are given.

"For You are with me..." If we can wrap our heads and hearts ~ even a little bit ~ around this game-changing thought, death loses it power over us. HE ~ God who made and loves us ~ is with us. This is the truth that sends fear packing and running. It cannot remain when we grab hold of the knowledge of His presence and let it become our truest reality.

"Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me..." Not only is He with us, we have the reassurance He wants to come alongside and protect us. Always His rod serves a loving purpose. And that staff? If we veer off course, it pulls us gently back to the path He's marked out for us.

Sitting among my circle of friends I look into the eyes of people I love. People who wonder if their days are winding down faster than they'd hoped. And my flesh cries out. Heal them! Please spare them, God.

But the truth is, we are all walking a rugged road in this valley. All of us are shadowed by death. And maybe, just maybe, we can put our fears to rest and make the most of each day we are given. Remembering, we have a Good Shepherd who is with us. Telling us, we have nothing to fear.

I will continue to pray for my loved ones. With all I've got, I will cry out for their healing, and ask God to add many more years to their lives. But I will also pray for their peace as they wrestle and wonder. And I will remind myself ~ none of us is given any guarantees for tomorrow. We only have today.

Copyright 2015 by Julie Cowell. All rights reserved.

"How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog -- it's here a little while, then it's gone." ~James 4:14, NLT

"Tomorrow is promised to no one." ~Clint Eastwood



Saturday, November 7, 2015

MOSAICS

I have a friend and sister-in-faith who is a gifted mosaic artist. She takes broken pieces of glass, clay, tile, even expensive China. She brings them together to create stunning pieces of artwork. I marvel at her vision that can see beauty from brokenness, and her ability to transform her ideas into one-of-a-kind creations. And I can't help but think, something has to be broken before she can transform it into a glorious new item of beauty.

My friend reflects our Creator and Father. He, too, is in the transformation business. When we stand knee-deep in brokenness, we may wonder why our world has fallen apart. We might scoff at the concept of any good coming from THIS. We may cry and lament  and wish things could be different. We might even shake an angry fist at God (if we dare to be honest) and play the blame game.

Where were you, God, when all of THIS fell apart? Why is my life such a mess? Why do I feel so utterly broken and hopeless, and why would you permit THIS to happen? Aren't you supposed to be a loving and good God??

But like my friend, God sees through the eyes of an artist. Somehow, when we relinquish all of the broken pieces into His hands, He tenderly begins to form a piece of artwork our limited thinking can't grasp. Our finite minds wonder, how could beauty be the final product of such ugly brokenness?

This is the heart of our Father. Lovingly, intentionally, with beautiful plans and purposes, He works ~ arranging and building breathtaking pieces of art. His signature is written all over them whether we see it or not. Because honestly, only He can take the awful, painful experiences and circumstances and transform them into something wonderful.

I am blessed to provide a home for some of my friend's mosaics. Not only are they pleasant to look at, they are a lovely reminder. All the brokenness ~ it has a purpose. And if we let Him, God will take it and form a one-of-a-kind mosaic masterpiece.

Just like my friend, God our Father is a masterful mosaic artist, creating beauty from brokenness. When we surrender it into His care, we become pieces of His glorious masterpiece, transformed into His image ~ one broken piece at a time.

Copyright 2015 by Julie Cowell. All rights reserved.

"Blessings sometimes come through brokenness that could never come in any other way." ~Gerald May

"Brokenness has the power, unlike anything else, to bring forth new beauty, strength, and inspiration to others. Because it's often in those moments that we've tasted deep suffering, that we noticed, we were made for more. There's more. There's purpose." ~Debbie McDaniel

"God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It's the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume." ~Vange Havner

"Behold, I am making all things new." ~Revelation 21:5

"Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." ~Isaiah 43:19

Friday, November 6, 2015

ONE WORD

God knows I am a slow and distracted learner. Because I process information in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and because I'm so quick to forget what I learn, He simplifies the process ~ with one word.

The past few years, I have intentionally sought His "one word" for me ~ to meditate on and to implement in my life. When a new word quickens my spirit, I add it to the others. Slowly, each word gets lovingly woven into me, a work that only God can do.

HOPE. This word came to me at a time when I didn't understand its significance. I felt hopeful. But there it was. HOPE. I found every verse I could that covered my "one word" and wrote them down. I meditated, memorized, and prayed my way through HOPE. Gradually, I began to see areas ~ circumstances ~ where I had given up hope. What felt hopeless began to rise to the surface. It was a painful process as each became magnified in my mind and heart. And I discovered what it meant to cling to my own word, HOPE.

TRUST brought its own set of life lessons. Let me just say, when God is teaching us to trust, it isn't when we are cruising down easy street or tucked cozy inside our comfort zone. Trust comes when we climb rugged terrains, face giants we've cowered from, and watch people we love most wrestle with their own unknowns and sorrows. TRUST ~ what God revealed to me about this "one word" is how it begins and ends with a cross...trust. If I'm not seeing Him present from beginning to end, I cannot let go and trust. But oh, the freedom and exhilaration I have experienced during those rare moments when I close my eyes, unclench my fists, breathe in deep, and TRUST.

THANK. It wasn't until I became focused on this "one word" that I began to realize what it means to live in a thankful mindset. I can harp and complain and dwell on each and every problem and frustration. This comes so easily for me! But to stop and thank God ~ no matter what ~ in good times and bad, knowing He is always good and the Giver of all that is good? This changes me! It transforms my thought life, soothes my spirit, and heals my heart. In ALL things give THANKS. It's not only possible, its powerful!

PRAY. This is the "one word" I received at the start of the year. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. PRAY? I do this! Boy, do I do this. I felt chided, like my prayer life wasn't enough, and didn't meet God's standards. But my initial response proved wrong. PRAY ~ entering into God's presence, sharing every burden and care, talking through each circumstance, covering many...MANY... people and seeing Him respond...Wow! PRAY. What a privilege. What a joy! It has become my favorite "one word".

And now, a new word pierces me. WAIT. Oh boy, this one does not sit well. So many unknowns and decisions loom before us. I want to know the direction we are taking. I yearn to settle and nest and know where my home is. And as I pray, I am hit with this "one word". WAIT. Not only during my prayer time, but just about every message I read repeats the same refrain...WAIT!

Have you ever asked God for a word? May I encourage you? He longs to meet us where we are... yearns to teach and guide and encourage us. One word. It might change everything. I know. They are transforming me, "one word" at a time.

Copyright 2015 by Julie Cowell. All rights reserved.

"How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" ~Psalm 119:103 NIV

"Everything starts with one step, or one brick, or one word..." ~Jeremy Gilley

Thursday, November 5, 2015

LIFE LESSONS

Maybe it's the teacher in me. Always, I am compelled to discover whatever lesson is buried in my circumstances. I want to find it! I want to grab hold and let it sink in. I don't want to have to repeat the same lessons over and over in order to learn.

Here I sit. In God's classroom. Pen and paper in hand. Waiting. Wanting so badly to see the lesson, glean the wisdom, and adjust my life accordingly.

My eyes are planted on my Teacher. But I get so distracted. There's always a pull to plant my attention elsewhere. Scattered thinking doesn't help.

Perhaps this is my lesson. Learning to wait, to focus, to remain fixed on my Teacher ~ this might be the ultimate lesson.

Waiting is so hard! This culture we live in doesn't help. Always, there's the ongoing message to rush...accomplish...push ahead...stay busy...go - go - go. Nothing gets done when you're idle. Nothing is accomplished when you're still.

But I'm beginning to think, maybe we've been sold a bill of goods! Maybe some of God's best work comes to us in those quiet, still moments. Could it be that our hurriedness and busyness drowns out the lessons our Teacher longs to give to us?

Seasons of quiet...of waiting...of stillness ~ they are a gift. When we embrace them as such, and open them reverently and thankfully, glorious lessons pour into us. Wisdom we could never unearth on our own begins to seep in and take root. We start seeing everyone and everything through a new lens. A shift in perspective has a rippling effect...into our thoughts, and eventually our hearts.

Here I sit. In God's classroom. Waiting and ready. Teach me, Lord. Breathe your good thoughts and purposes into me. I want to learn.

Copyright 2015 by Julie Cowell. All rights reserved.

"Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long." ~Psalm 25:4-5 ESV

"To wait is often harder than to work." ~Peter Marshall