Deliverance

When our family took a trip to Mexico for vacation, our youngest son unexpectantly became sick. My husband Brent—who’s a pediatrician and famously low key—came and found me where I was napping on the beach and said we needed to take Ezra to the hospital and that he may need surgery. I was completely caught off guard. This was our last day of vacation and we were flying home the next day. Ezra had seemed a little off but I had no idea his condition had reached this level.

 

We got a taxi to the hospital and after what felt like forever—if you’ve spent time in the waiting room with a sick loved one you know what that’s like—we got to see a doctor. He examined Ezra and said he needed an ultrasound. We went back to the waiting room and the receptionist called Brent to the desk and said there was no radiologist on duty so we’d have to come back another time. By now, Ezra had thrown up everything he’d ever eaten and was completely miserable. The doctor who’d examined Ezra earlier walked by, and Brent asked him about the ultrasound. He said he’d arrange everything and came back to tell us that a driver had been sent to bring the radiologist to the hospital.

 

Long story short, Ezra was admitted and as I held his face in my hands while they tried unsuccessfully about a dozen times to find a vein to start the IV, he looked up in my eyes through his own tears and said, “Mom, ask the church to pray.” I asked him to tell me who to text (on my phone which was about to die) and he gave me three names. Those women and their families prayed for Ezra. Then they wheeled him into the operating room, still awake.

 

Brent and I took a taxi back to our hotel to tell our big kids what was going on. Brent was going to shower and go back to the hospital for the night. (They only allowed one parent to stay, and it was decided that the one who went to medical school was the best choice), and I prepared our big kids to fly back without us the next day since they were saying Ezra would need to stay 2-3 nights. Before Brent went back to the hospital, the five of us huddled together to pray. Brent tried to start the prayer but his voice failed. He couldn’t get a word out. Instead, our daughter Ella prayed for our little boy who was scared and worried.

 

Brent taxied to the airport. And after a mostly sleepless night, the next morning, they told Ezra he could leave after all. Brent and Ezra made it to the airport just in time for our flight.

 

As we were stopped for a layover, Ezra and I discussed the way we saw God show up during that scary 24-hour period. We retold the story to each other…How the doctor fought for us and the radiologist was available on his day off. How the patient rep who worked at the hospital was Canadian so she could speak English and guide us through what was going on. We talked about the airport employee, appearing out of nowhere with a wheelchair and helping us quickly move through all of the airport hurdles. We talked about Julissa, the woman who worked at our hotel who we had befriended at the beginning of the week who became my contact as I was trying to possibly lengthen our stay if we had had to remain in Mexico, but she turned out to be a fervent prayer warrior and her little church prayed for us. All of God’s provisions laid out like a road map as we named them.

 

It’s our privilege and obligation to stop and remember God’s deliverance. We need to list these moments and remind each other that God was there all along. The Jews understood this better than just about anyone. God commanded that they have festivals and feasts for this very reason—to remember that God sees the Big Picture but He’s also in the little details. And every time we stop and remember what He’s done, we’re compelled to thank Him and worship Him.

Something familiar

I’ve published a few books over the last eight or nine years, and something I’ve noticed when a person has read one of my books is her comments often circle around to what’s familiar to her. “This character reminds me so much of my grandmother!” or “That character grew up in my dad’s hometown!” These reviews lead me wonder if we always consume art—reading books and watching movies and listening to music and studying paintings—with an innate desire to make connections. Are we always looking for the familiar, ultimately searching for ourselves?

 

When our family travels and visits other cities, I often find myself glancing around the crowded airport or hotel lobby or amusement park assuming I’ll see someone I know. Maybe it’s because I live in a mid-sized city, am a member at a large church, and have four kids who’ve attended a variety of public, private, and magnet schools, and I do frequently bump into friends around town. Because of this, I operate on this notion that there’s always a friend somewhere in a sea of strangers. Whatever the reason, my mind will often begin to play tricks on me in these away-from-home spots. I’ll ask my husband, “Doesn’t she look just like our neighbor?” or “Wow! He looks exactly like your cousin!” Every so often, Brent will agree with me and say that the stranger is a doppelgänger for a person we know, but usually he doesn’t quite see eye to eye with me, making me think I’m grasping for something not quite true.

 

Part of our flawed construction is that we’re all selfish in varying degrees. We all try to make sense of situations by passing it through the lens of our own experiences and prejudices. And this attitude can make us lean toward compassion or toward narcissism. Fortunately for us, God knows we’re made this way (of course He does—He’s the One who made us!), so He gave us the ultimate example of empathy. He sent His Son to earth in human form. He let us see ourselves in the stories of the Bible, including the ones in which Jesus was sad or joyful, angry or pleased, hungry or thirsty, tired or cared for, dying or fully restored. He experienced all of this for us.

 

Philippians 2:5-8 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message)

Artificial reefs

“They don’t know that it isn’t real.” This was the reply from Rodrigo, the man who took our family snorkeling on his little boat, the ship’s name painted in blue letters on the side: Flaquita. I had asked him about the artificial reefs we’d seen on the ocean floor, dome-like concrete structures covered with round holes where the fish blissfully swam in and out of.

 

We had seen a few natural reefs down there, too, but these concrete versions were all over the place, and I was curious about them. I figured Rodrigo might be able to answer my questions. Short and round and wearing a tank top and shorts, he would slide off the boat and into the water gracefully in spite of those awkward flippers. Then he would dive down deep, his back nearly resting on the sandy ocean floor so that he could take pictures of us as we mostly hovered at the surface with our snorkel staying above the water, each breath coming out forcefully and noisily. Considering the amazing length he could hold his breath, I began to wonder if he was actually part fish.

 

At the end of our underwater adventure, the six of us sat across a makeshift table constructed from a foam boogie board and ate the ceviche prepared by Rodrigo’s friend, the man who drove the boat and therefore was just referred to as Capitán. We drank sugary Mexican sodas and used homemade tortilla chips to scoop up chunks of the tender pieces of Mahi-Mahi cured in lime juice and tossed with cucumbers, red onions, and tomatoes. As we ate, I asked Rodrigo about the artificial reefs. “Do the fish like them right away, do you think? Or do they see them as something that doesn’t belong down there?”

 

“They don’t know that it isn’t real,” he answered. Maybe he thought my question was silly. They’re only fish, after all. One fish identical to the next one, their only goal to survive another day and avoid being a tasty lunch. But we humans at least claim that we crave authenticity. We scorn the pretenders, expose the counterfeit, mock the phonies. I’d like to think that if I were one of those striped beauties swimming in the clear water, I’d see those artificial reefs and know they weren’t the real thing. I’d recognize that they were out of place and go looking for the natural ones not made from concrete. Oh, no. They wouldn’t fool me!

 

With all that’s troubling around us, I think we’re all looking for shelter from something trusted and real. Real relationships. Real information. Something and somebody we can count on and understand when the craziness swimming past us in a blur seems unrecognizable and often pretty scary. The sand is shifting beneath our feet, so we crave something sturdy, something real. At that moment, it’s time to be reminded of our Great God. There’s nothing artificial about Him. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging….The Lord Almighty is with us.” (Psalm 46)

 

Say “You-hoo!”

When our girls were little, one of their favorite games to play was hide-and-seek. They would tell me or my husband Brent to hide our eyes and count to 30, then they would scurry off to hide, giggling and tripping over each other. Nearly every time, the girls would hide in the same spot over and over again—behind the sofa, in their bedroom closet, under a blanket on the floor of the bonus room.

 

Though we knew just where they were hidden, Brent or I would play along. We’d say in a loud, exaggerated voice, “Where could Ella be?” or “I can’t find Lucy anywhere!” After a few minutes, we’d find them. “A-ha! There you are!” we’d shout, triumphantly.

 

When we would switch places, with mom and dad doing the hiding and the girls doing the seeking, they would count to 30, then start their search. I can remember many times when we’d be hiding in our spots, waiting to be found. Then we’d hear a little voice squeak out a plaintive cry, “Mommy…Daddy…” Even though we had only been concealed from sight for less than five minutes, they would begin to get nervous. We’d know they were really about to go berserk and notify the authorities when they’d call out, “Mommy, say yoo-hoo!” They’d want us to reveal our complex hiding locations—under the kitchen table or behind a door—with the comforting call of two, simple syllables. They needed to hear our voices and follow the sound to discover where we were. So we would call out yoo-hoo. Then they would scurry to us, relief and victory displayed on their sweet, little faces.

 

As we enter a new year, I see so many of us searching for something which seems completely hidden. Often our search is futile and aimless, so we desperately want to hear a voice directing us where to look. It’s like the prayer of the afflicted person in Psalm 102: “Lord, hear my prayer! Listen to my plea! Don’t turn away from me in my time of distress. Bend down to listen, and answer me quickly when I call to you.”

 

As we begin 2022, let’s all tune our ears for the yoo-hoos of Scripture and the Author of words like: “Seek and you will find…” and “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” There are also you-hoos which tell us we’re neither alone not forgotten, whether we’re deliberately hiding in a seemingly inaccessible spot of our own choosing or one where we find ourselves by surprise. Either way, we are being pursued by a loving Father who is revealing His location multiple times every day, if only we are willing to listen and seek Him out.

Faithfulness

It’s funny to track the differences between my childhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the world that my kids live in now. The ways we shopped (from fussy department stores to low-budget Kmart) and played (biking through the neighborhoods with abandon), how we listened to music (records and cassettes) and what foods we ate (TV dinners were a treat! Who wouldn’t want your fried chicken leg, mashed potatoes, corn, and soggy brownie to all taste exactly the same!?) were so different from what they expect today.

 

One big change is how my kids watch TV. With the help of things like online streaming and DVR recordings, they have, at the touch of their fingers, a bajillion (trust me about this number…I’ve done my research) options. But there’s one thing they don’t get to experience much, and that’s commercials.

 

My sisters and I had so many commercials memorized. We knew—and still know—plenty of jingles (“My Buddy, My Buddy, My Buddy and Me!”)

and taglines (“Mr. Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? Good question…uh one, uh two, uh three, crunch.”)

We could sing along to the record compilation commercials which ticked off one snippet of a popular song from some bygone era at a time, the song titles scrolling by with the words in white or yellow. We would act out the Folgers commercial where the older brother comes home early to surprise his family for Christmas and brews them coffee so strong that it literally rouses his family from their upstairs bedrooms. (“Peter! Everyone’s asleep. I know how to wake ‘em up!”)

 

One commercial we talked about a lot, which I often think of when I’m cutting up a tomato, is the one for Ginsu knives. It showed a man breaking a board with his hand and then trying the same method to slice a rather mealy-looking tomato. It should come as no surprise that the man’s hand did not in fact cut the tomato…it shmooshed it. The commercial went on to show an amazing knife which could cut a can, and then, without losing dullness, it could perfectly slice that tomato.

It cut meat and halved a block of frozen spinach, and it hacked away at a 2×4. Then the announcer asked us what we’d expect to pay for such a wonder tool. “But wait,” he told us, “Here are some steak knives and a spiral slicer and a meat fork…” It all sounded too good to be true.

 

That’s what I remember most about commercials from that time—products which seemed so good and yet were so cheap. Could we trust these advertisers? Was this a trick, a scam? Could I really cut an aluminum can that easily? We wanted to know! This wariness was the start of my cynicism and mistrust. If it sounds too good to be true, it must not be true.

 

Then I learned about a word we don’t use very often anymore—faithfulness. When we do hear it, it’s usually in reference to a marriage, or less often a friendship. But mostly it’s just in old church hymns. If you dive into the Book of Psalms, we see faithfulness used nearly 80 times. King David, one of the authors of the Psalms, pairs faithfulness with love and says that God’s faithfulness reaches to the skies. But David also says that God’s faithfulness protects him from wrongdoers. The assurance of God’s enduring faithfulness gives David strength when he’s having a rough time. So what is this quality which is as multi-faceted as a Swiss Army knife (and sharper than a Ginsu)?

 

Faithfulness means keeping promises. It’s means being reliable and truthful and following through. It suggests associations which are personal and connected. And to some people, especially those who have been continually hurt and disappointed, it sounds too good to be true. But it is possible and available. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s your homework: Read the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Watch God weave His promises all through this crazy drama. Watch God bring it all around to a faithful ending, even down to the burying of Joseph’s bones in the Promised Land. Then recite the following verse to yourself: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Looking for my enemy

I was in Atlanta last weekend with my older son to watch him play a couple of soccer games. Not being a sporty person myself, I have had to learn a lot about the world of competitive sports over the past decade or so. But I’m not just referring to the rules of the game (although I definitely came in without knowing anything about “offsides” and “corner kicks” and “slide tackles”). A big part of my education was trying to understand the psyche of the players and fans.

 

For instance, it’s common for parents from Team A to suspect that preferential treatment is being shown by the referees to the players of Team B (“Come on, Ref! How’s that a foul?!”), but to feel entitled to the exact same treatment for their own players (“Finally! You have a yellow card! Use it!”). It’s cuckoo.

 

I usually tell myself that the only reason my son is on this team and not that one is basic geography. Same age, same sport, different cities. That’s it. Those boys on the other team aren’t our enemy. And although I might like to throttle those screaming parents from the other team, they aren’t my enemy either. Neither are the opposing coaches and the referees. But when we get angry, we humans seem to want to find someone to be angry with. We want a villain. That kid who just fouled my son will do, or maybe the referee who didn’t call it the “right” way. Something like hate boils up in us and comes spewing out. It’s not pretty, folks.

 

Jesus had a lot to say about how to regard those you’ve labeled as your enemies. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (NLT)

 

When Jesus stood on a mountainside and taught those words to the large crowd who were following him from town to town, he was giving them one example after another about how to be an alternative to what the World offered. He told them that God blesses the poor and the humble and the persecuted. He told them to be salt and light—to be different.

 

Jesus wasn’t necessarily referring to my conduct during a soccer game or our behavior towards others during this election season, but it’s applicable all the same. It’s a waste of time to villainize those around us. Friend or foe, we are called to love them all anyway.

Fireflies

A friend recently told me about taking a group of Texas teens to Nashville for a mission trip. As they sat outside at an evening devotional, the group became fascinated when one by one fireflies emerged from the grass and shrubbery to soar around the darkening sky. The majority of the mission team had never seen fireflies before. My friend showed them how to catch the insects without harming them and how to capture them in empty water bottles (from which they eventually released them). She told me that one of the girls in the group began to cry. The beauty of these tiny insects overwhelmed the Texas teen who’d never witnessed their brilliant dancing in her hot, dry hometown.

 

As someone who has spent each and every summer in places where fireflies are common, I was amazed at their reaction. For me, it is a case of the extraordinary becoming ordinary through repetition and the assumption that it will always be there.

 

Later that day, after I had told my family about my Texas friend’s story, my daughter was standing outside with a group of friends. Prompted by my friend’s experience, my daughter asked a guy who had just come to Middle Tennessee from another country if he had ever seen fireflies before. They were outside, so she pointed to the flying dots of light.

 

“No,” he said. “I’ve never seen them before.”

 

“Aren’t they awesome?” she asked.

 

He shrugged, unimpressed.

 

His reaction surprised me. Is he so accustomed to seeing strange insects that this particular species failed to astonish him? Is he so well-read about the cold light of bioluminescence that seeing this energy produced right in front of him left him unmoved? Whatever may be the reason for his indifference, it’s a cautionary tale for me. I don’t want to be a person who loses the wonder. I don’t want awesometo turn into boredom.

 

And if you’re thinking that it can’t happen to you, beware. The Israelites had seen amazing things in the land of Egypt: the Nile turned to blood, three days of total darkness, a river that was split for them to march through just in the nick of time. And yet, they complained that the manna—their food which fell from the sky—just wasn’t tasty enough. “We don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but this bread that we’ve been gathering every day just isn’t cutting it anymore. We know that all we have to do is pick it up from the ground and eat it, and don’t get us wrong—it was great…at first—but we could really go for a hamburger. Actually, a cheeseburger would be even better.”

 

How could they have lost the wonder so quickly? Who has the nerve to complain to a God who had produced these miracles?

 

I wish I could say that I’m always in the “Awe Zone,” but it isn’t true. I forget to be grateful, forget to see how far He’s carried me, forget how I didn’t get here on my own, just forget.

 

So when I look at those fireflies, at least for this summer, I’ll remember the wonder.

Surprise ending

I rarely watch a movie or read a book more than once. There’s a part of me that says, “I already know how this ends, so I’m not really interested in going through all of it again.” I mostly prefer the excitement of finding out what happens more than moving step-by-step through the plot. Still, there are times when I will get so engrossed in an already familiar story that either I forget what will happen or I hope it will turn out differently this time (pointless, I know).

 

The beauty of hearing a story for the first time, with no spoilers or hints of the final outcome, is that you are evenly informed with the protagonist. You, the spectator, know as much as the main character. There are some stories I’ve known from infancy that I wish I could hear as an adult but for the first time.

 

One of those stories is the account from the Book of Genesis about Joseph. Here’s a quick summary: Jacob, Joseph’s father, gives Joseph—his favorite son of his favorite wife—a special coat. This gift along with Joseph’s penchant for telling his dreams which feature his brothers bowing down to him gets Joseph thrown in a pit by his scheming brothers and eventually sold as a slave to a wealthy Egyptian named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife takes a liking to our boy Joseph and when he thwarts her advances, he gets put in prison. While in prison, Joseph interprets the dream of a baker and a butler. The dreams come true: the baker is killed and the butler is released from prison. After which, the butler tells dream-vexed Pharaoh about Joseph and his ability to explain dreams. Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream and Joseph replies, “I can’t explain it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” Joseph explains that Pharaoh’s dreams mean that the land would have 7 years of good crops followed by 7 years of famine. So Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. Joseph puts his plan into action, saving up good grain for those bad years. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers back in Canaan become desperate for food. Ten of his brothers (all except the youngest—Benjamin) go to Egypt to collect the grain. Joseph plays some crazy mind games with them because they don’t recognize him, the brother they long ago assumed had died. Joseph calls them spies and thieves. He even puts them in prison, all a ruse to get his youngest brother Benjamin to come to Egypt. (And maybe exact a little sibling revenge?) Finally, after Joseph runs out of tricks, he reveals his identity. He weeps as he holds his brothers who tremble at thought of their persecuted brother now holding their lives in his hands.

 

It’s a wild ride. There are soap operas with fewer twists. But, in the end, this is what Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 45: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you!” (NLT)

 

When young Joseph was sitting at the bottom of that dark and dirty hole, listening to the whispered voices of his big brothers above who argued over how to punish him, he wouldn’t have thought in a million years that the hole was a part of a bigger plan to rescue those same jealous brothers from starvation. And when he sat in chains in the prison of a foreign land for a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph couldn’t have known he would eventually be sitting next to the throne of the most powerful man in the world, advising Pharaoh and ordering servants to obey Joseph’s every command.

 

This is a reminder to me that when things aren’t working out the way I’d hope and I can’t figure out why it’s so difficult, it’s best to rest in God’s faithfulness. Four times in Genesis 39, we read “The Lord was with Joseph.” Joseph knew he wasn’t alone in the hole or in prison. The Lord was right there with him, crafting a surprise ending to Joseph’s tumultuous story.

When there are no instructions…

When my twin daughters were 3-years old, I walked in the dining room (though we called it the “yellow room” because, obviously, it was painted yellow and seeing as how there were no table or chairs, there was also no dining happening in there) and found them standing by the low, open windows taking turns punching through the mesh of the window screen.

 

After I pulled their tiny fists out, my next move was to say, “Why are you doing that?!”

 

Their response was: “You never told us not to.”

 

That’s when I knew I was in trouble. How could I ever think ahead enough to give them the rules and guidelines for every situation before they come up? It was an impossible task. I had never dreamed that it would be necessary to sit my sweet cherubs down and say, “Listen up, girls. It’s a beautiful day so mommy wants to open the windows. This metal screen is here to keep the bugs out. No matter how fun it might seem, don’t start punching it. Got it? Great.”

 

Now that I’ve been a mother a bit longer I see that specifics aren’t always required. My girls have been with me for nearly 15 years, so even though we don’t have rules for every scenario, they know my basic feelings and they can speculate what I might say or think or feel on the matter. Over time, they have discovered the essence of my parenting just as I have learned so much of their strengths and predilections.

 

When all else fails, the whole idea of “When in doubt, don’t” comes to mind in these instances or at least “When in doubt, ask mom or dad.”

 

Of course, that’s not to say they always do just as I would have them do. They aren’t robots. But I am fairly certain that they have a twinge of guilt when they do something that doesn’t line up with our family philosophies. At that moment, I want them to pay attention to that slight to painful spasm so it doesn’t become commonplace and calloused.

 

This is how I feel about reading ancient texts from God’s Word. I wish God gave Moses “Ten Commandments for Your Teen and Her Cell Phone” along with the other Ten. I wish God had inspired Paul to write a postscript to his letter to the Ephesians stating exactly what to do when the only people running for political office are yahoos you wouldn’t hire as a babysitter. I wish we had specific rules for when these specific issues arise, but that would make the Bible so large and cumbersome to study that no one would be able to get through it all. Let’s face it, it’s hard enough to get through ONE book of Leviticus.

 

In place of step-by-step instructions, I want to humbly learn the character of God. What does it mean that God is love while at the same time He is a consuming fire? He is unchanging yet we can come to Him looking for mercy. He is perfect and just and faithful.

 

Even when I don’t know for sure what to do, I can look at God’s reputation and His preference for righteousness. I can listen to that soft voice of the Holy Spirit whispering to me of God’s direction for my life. I can hear it saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”