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When I come into the kitchen in the morning before our kids are up and going, I can almost always count on finding an assortment of water bottles and glasses scattered around the room, and this is especially true in the summer months. These containers usually hold water at varying depths, now room temperature. As a part of my morning routine, I gather the cups and bottles and begin pouring their contents on plants and flowers, both inside the house and outside. I see this perfectly potable, crystal clear water, and I can’t just pour it down the drain. My drooping flowers on the front porch seem to be whispering, “I’m thirsty!” so I give them a drink. It may not be much, and I may have to refill the bottle to give them a really good soak so they can make it through the 100-degree afternoon awaiting them, but it’s a start.
As Jesus walked the earth, I wonder if he was in a constant state of passing those around him and hearing their souls whisper, “I’m thirsty!” Was it similar to how I feel when I see life-giving water sitting right there on the counter and know I have the answer to my flowers’ problems?
Jesus met a thirsty soul one afternoon at a deep, ancient well in Samaria. He saw a woman most people chose to ignore—her life was a mess, her choices questionable, her future uncertain. But Jesus just saw her need for water, and He had the Living Water she required.
The Scriptures say that the disciples went off in search of food while Jesus sat down at the well, tired from the journey. You have to assume that His friends took any buckets with them, so Jesus didn’t have a container to draw water. So He asked a woman for a drink, but as you read all the way through John 4, you never actually see Jesus receiving any water. His human body was terribly thirsty, but those physical limitations didn’t prevent Him from seeing the spiritually-withering woman before Him.
The two unlikely companions chatted awhile—Jesus, the rabbi, and this Samaritan woman who Jews like Jesus would’ve considered unclean considering that their rules and religious practices were different, and thus too impure to share a drinking vessel. Still, Jesus continued to engage her and tell her mind-blowing information, but she was wary and changed the subject when things got too personal.
After spending some time with Him, the woman saw what so many of us know—Jesus offers something we can’t get anywhere else. With His tenderness and mind-reading, Jesus showed the woman that there was a better way to live, and it wasn’t too late to start. The True God who made her and the water and the well and the mountains around them was offering life-giving sustenance that would soak down all the way to her roots if she’d let it.
17th century priest George Herbert discovered this same truth for himself when he wrote: “The whole wide world is not enough to fill the heart’s three corners, but yet it craveth still; Only the Trinity that made it can suffice the vast, triangled heart of man.”
So it all started with a dead pine tree. Our yard is bordered by these giant conifers, and one of them up and died. We had a couple of professional tree loppers (Tree surgeons? Arborists? Lumberjacks? I’m not sure which term they prefer…) come out and give us estimates on the removal of the tree. One of them recommended that we clear out the growth below the trees. Come to find out, the weed trees and vines which have been filling out our fence line could be damaging the pine trees towering above us. For this reason, I donned a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and garden gloves one coolish morning and got to work cutting back these weeds.
Now on the list of things you should know about me, you would definitely see “Abby has allergies.” I’m allergic to nuts, watermelon, and chickpeas, to name a few. I’m also allergic to cedar trees and cat dander. And there was that one time when the Golden Gate bridge gave me a rash when I rested my arm on it. So, yeah, it makes sense that I’m allergic to poison ivy and all its family members. I tried to protect myself from the urushiol, the oil these nasty plants secrete, but at some point that morning, I must’ve scratched my right eyebrow because I’ve got the rash to prove it.
It’s funny because the rash didn’t pop up right away. For about a day after the bushwhacking of my backyard, I thought I was in the clear. But I was wrong. That poison sap got me after all.
There are lots of times when we’re enjoying the Great Outdoors that I ask the question: What’s the purpose of this annoying specimen of nature? Spiders are creepy, but they keep the insect population down. Vultures are gross-looking, but they speed up the decomposing process for roadkill. But what’s the purpose of poison ivy? It doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. You can’t eat it or burn it for fuel. Why is it there other than to make me itchy?
All I can assume is that poison ivy wasn’t in the blueprints for the original backyard—the Garden of Eden. I feel confident in saying that Adam and Eve could look around and see everything blooming and growing perfectly, and they didn’t even need to add any MiracleGro. They didn’t have to slip on their garden gloves (or any other clothes, apparently) to protect themselves from the poisonous parts of the garden. It was heaven on earth. But we know how that all turned out…they followed the bad advice of a snake, disobeyed God, and got kicked out of their perfect garden. Fast forward many millennia to me and the poison ivy.
It’s just another reminder that, though life here can be beautiful and chock-full of blessings, it’s not all that it’s supposed to be. The original plan was a perfect existence of spending our days worshipping our Creator and giving animals names like “hippopotamus” and “ring-tailed lemur.” Instead, we tear out the weeds and rip down the vines because we know there’s something better to strive for. We’re created in God’s image, the ultimate Creator himself, and He has a plan to get us back to a garden free from all that nasty poison ivy.
When our older son Knox was around 4-years old, he was given my husband’s vast collection of Matchbox cars. Included in the throng were sleek sportscars and fire trucks with moveable ladders, brightly colored convertibles and a Volkswagen bus to take to the beach. It was a treasure trove of painted steel from the 1970’s and 80’s.
One day, Knox and I went on an errand to Old Time Pottery, and he took one of the sportscars with us. Now if you’ve never been to one of these giant stores, just imagine a small nation filled with things like bath mats, novelty holiday dishes, and kitchen gadgets. Now imagine that the whole place smells like artificial flowers. I literally could roam around there for hours.
At some point on this particular trip, Knox lost that little Matchbox car which he had brought along. He didn’t realize it was gone until we were checking out, and he became frantic. “We have to find it!” he cried. “It’s Daddy’s favorite!” We left the cart of paid items by the entrance and retraced our steps. We went up and down all the aisles we had visited, peeking under shelves and digging through bins of throw pillows, but no luck. That black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with a golden bird painted on the hood was gone.
Now you should know that Brent, my dear husband, isn’t one of those sentimental collector-type people. He doesn’t know where his first grade report card is and he doesn’t have a binder of prized baseball cards up in the attic. That’s just not his thing. But when Knox lost that car, that little boy’s only thought was disappointing his daddy.
That night, Knox confessed about the lost car, and my husband assured him all was well. Brent wasn’t angry. He wanted Knox to try to be more responsible (or as responsible as a 4-year old can be), but Brent emphasized that he was totally forgiven. I believe our little fella felt a measure of relief initially when he was granted a complete pardon, but he never let go of his desire to reclaim that lost car. Now that Knox is 17-years old and driving his own Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with a golden bird painted on the hood (Just kidding…but wouldn’t that be crazy?!), he still talks about that day with a timbre of tragedy and regret in his voice akin to Romeo’s final speech before drinking the poison. In fact, anytime we pass Old Time Pottery, Knox brings up that lost car even though it never ever crosses Brent’s mind.
I think we all do this from time to time. We’re told we’re forgiven, but we hold on to what we did wrong. It’s like being given the greatest gift, but we’re too wrapped up in ourselves to fully accept and be grateful for it. So we turn to the Scriptures and read how to view this gift of forgiveness. Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
When we get a chance to get away, my husband Brent and I enjoy finding new places to hike. Considering that he was born near the Great Smoky Mountains, Brent loves being outdoors where there are waterfalls, rock formations, dirt trails and, of course, mountains. While we’re hiking, my nature-show-loving husband usually likes to stop and point out the various wildlife, such as funny looking lizards scurrying past us. Sometimes he’ll even snap a picture of some natural phenomenon. He’s just the cutest thing.
For Brent’s birthday, we took a quick trip to South Cumberland State Park. The threat of rain was looming over us, so we hiked for just a few hours. Still, it was enough time to see Foster Falls and cross a couple of cool bridges.
Most days I go for a walk down the sidewalk by my house, but a hike is oh-so different. On this particular hike, the majority of the trail was easy to trace, but there were a spots where we had to stop and survey what was up ahead to see if we were still on track. Though our hike did include some flat areas, there were plenty of places where we had to grasp a spindly tree to hoist ourselves up onto a rock or to help us shimmy down from another rock. There were tree roots bulging out of the ground and decaying logs to step over. I realized that I was mostly watching the backs of Brent’s hiking boots as we trekked through the wilderness, observing where he set his foot so I could do the same.
As we hiked, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages in the Bible—Psalm 121. This psalm is included in a group of poetry called the Songs of Ascent or Pilgrim Songs. They were meant to be traveling songs for Jews hiking up to the hill city of Jerusalem to visit the temple. Psalm 121 begins with “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
As I tried to make my way up the mountainous terrain of our hike, I was concentrating so hard on the ground. I didn’t want to slide down into a brambly ravine. In order for me to “lift my eyes to the mountains,” I had to stop moving. I had to stay standing or sit down on a ledge and just breathe. It was the only way to adequately take in the beauty around me.
The first part of Psalm 121 is about my eyes looking up, and the second part is about God continually watching me. “The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
I need help, so I stop what I’m doing and look up. God offers help, so day and night He looks down. And all this watching goes on forevermore.
Other than your regular holidays—ones like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Arbor Day—there are some pretty crazy celebrations that a handful of (probably very invested and enthusiastic) people choose to celebrate. From “Fruitcake Toss Day” in January to “Wear Brown Shoes Day” in December and a bunch in between, such as the one on May 21st called “Talk Like Yoda Day,” everyone can find a reason to party.
Even though we may already have an overabundance of holidays on the calendar, may I still propose new one? I’m not planning to make it official with an act of legislation or anything, but I am working on the name, possibly “Tell Somebody What They Mean to You Day.”
You see, I’ve been spending time with a group of women, and we’ve been taking turns telling our stories. Even though I already knew most of these women fairly well, I’ve learned so much about them. I learned about their childhoods and their parenting experiences, and most of all, I’ve learned about their faith journeys. And for each of these women, they’ve mentioned someone other than a family member who loomed largely in their lives. They each had at least one person who stepped in a gap left by loss or doubt or natural consequences. Someone who showed up at just the right time and spoke spirit-filled words of encouragement and love and even reproof. After an anecdote about this angel in disguise, all of us would often say something like, “And to this day, she probably has no idea what she means to me.”
This exercise got me thinking: Who needs to hear this from me? Who are the people in my life who I rarely see anymore, but I would’ve been lost without their intervention? Who are the ones who modeled for me how to be a godly woman? Who are the precious souls who are walking around this world every day—doing normal things like folding laundry or making a sandwich or walking a dog—and they have no clue what their words and very presence have meant to me?
So I texted the woman who popped into my mind first, and I told her. I let my friend know that she made a giant difference in my life. I told her that she was my gold standard for compassion and leadership. Not that the date was especially significant, but I told her on May 11th. I’m not saying that this should be the annual date for “Tell Somebody Day,” but it’s a start. There’s no reason to wait until next year. Go ahead and tell someone today.
It’s like the lines from that Garth Brooks’ song:
“’Cause I’ve lost love ones in my life/Who never knew how much I loved them.
Now I live with the regret/That my true feelings for them never were revealed.
So I made a promise to myself/To say each day how much she means to me.
And avoid that circumstance/Where there’s no second chance to tell her how I feel.”
A few weeks ago I washed the inside and outside of most of the windows in our house. This is worth mentioning because I often feel like I don’t have enough time to do a thorough job of cleaning up. Sure, I’ll sweep floors and wipe countertops and do a little light dusting, but how frequently do I take the time and spend the energy to move furniture to wet mop the floors or wipe down the countertops and the cabinet doors and the tile backsplash or dust the ceiling fan blades and the baseboards?
Well, it was a pretty Saturday and we had no where we had to be until that night, so I started taking down window screens to hose them off. I even stood on a ladder to clean the transoms at the tippy top. I felt like Martha Stewart was whispering in my ear, guiding me through all the steps, and she was pleased with my labor. (Her magazines are chock full of cleaning tips, though I have to wonder how often she’s the one who’s actually Windex-ing the windows of her vacation home in the Hamptons.)
Once it was done, and the sun-dried screens were replaced, I sat in our sunroom and marveled at how clearly I could see the world outside. The dirt and dust had accumulated so gradually on all those windows, so that I had no idea just how hazy and obscured my view had become. It’s like the day I got glasses in the 9th grade. As we were driving home, I kept looking out the car window and seeing details I never would’ve been able to see before my vision was corrected. I kept remarking to my mom, “I can see each brick on that building!” or “There are separate, tiny leaves on that tree!” It was a revelation.
It’s incredible how easy it is to get used to living in a way that’s unnecessarily bad for us. Over time, we can stop questioning what we intuitively know to be unhealthy and just accept it like it’s our only option. Then there are some instances where, due to our past experiences, we don’t know that there is anything better.
It reminds me of the story of Saul (later known as Paul) meeting the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus on his way to persecute Christians. Saul was blinded and dropped to his knees in sheer panic. He asks, “Who are you, Lord?” and Jesus introduces himself. It’s an amazing story, and one which Paul (“Saul” no longer) recounts to King Agrippa years later as we see in Acts 26.
Paul tells the king that Jesus was sending him to go and bear witness. Christ told him, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” I love this scripture for lots of reasons, but also because these are the words we used in a prayer group I was a part of a few years ago. We’d randomly choose staff and students from our school to pray over, and that was what we’d pray. Without knowing any specifics about these precious souls, we’d ask that God would open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light. We prayed that they would no longer peer through smudged, hazy glass and think that was the best life could offer. We hoped they’d experience their own eye-opening revelation.
I always wanted a canopy bed, a canopy bed with a frilly dust ruffle and tons of fabric draping over me as I dreamed perfect, happy dreams. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I believed I would have everything if only I had that canopy bed. Well, a canopy bed and Tretorns. Not necessarily Tretorns but at least some kind of name brand footwear—Keds, Sebagos, Nike Pegasus, something like that. Instead, we had what my friend Jenne called “buddies,” knock-off K-Mart sneakers with an empty white rectangle on the back of the shoe that my sisters and I would fill in with a blue marker, which unfortunately was nearly always a dry erase marker so it would be worn away by the end of the day.
When we would sing that song in church about the lilies of the field and how “they toil not…and neither do they spin,” I had an idea that the lesson I was supposed to be learning was about how that stuff doesn’t really matter. “And yet I say that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” we would echo each other in a swelling finale to the hymn. It was moving and I knew better, but I still wanted a canopy bed.
If you go back to the Biblical text of that hymn, you’re transported to a mountainside where Jesus is teaching people a variety of relatable principles—don’t worry, don’t judge others, help the needy, lay up your treasures in heaven. His Sermon on the Mount is compared to Moses delivering the law to the Israelites so many generations before. In the middle of Jesus’ sermon, he offers this object lesson. Birds are flying above his head, and He says “God takes care of them. Don’t you think He’ll care for you?” Then He says, “Look at these flowers. They don’t have to do anything to be beautiful—even more beautiful than the clothes worn by a fancy dresser like King Solomon—and God did that. And He did it for these flowers which will be gone in no time.”
The next part of Jesus’ sermon is pretty convicting, especially if you’ve been enviously eyeing someone else’s car or home or other possession. Jesus says if you’re eaten up with worry over what to eat, what to drink and what to wear, then you’re no different than those who don’t know the Secret of the Gospel. He says to calm down, because God knows you need those things, but worrying over them isn’t the answer. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)
I don’t think He’s saying that we shouldn’t work hard at our jobs or never go grocery shopping. Jesus actually got frustrated with the people who were following him around later on because they seemed to only want Him to feed them again, like the time He divided a little boy’s lunch into enough food to feed thousands. Instead of getting caught up in the details, He advises us to begin by seeking His kingdom. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving… Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”
Now that I’m an adult and not an adolescent pining away for name brand shoes and a canopy bed, I’d like to think I’m beyond the reaches of such immature, materialistic transgressions, but I still have those moments where I’m tempted to futilely toil and spin my heart out. So today I’ll choose to be grateful for what I do have and focus on the God who makes it all possible.
On a cold evening, a few weeks ago, I turned on the television and was pleasantly surprised to find there’s a whole channel devoted to The Joy of Painting, a show which originally ran its 31 seasons from 1983-1994. Most of the episodes showcase the soothing voice and sweeping brushstrokes of Bob Ross, complete with his distinctive, permed afro which was just as wispy as the clouds he would often paint.
In the episode I settled in to watch, Bob was painting a pair of purple mountains in the background with a river snaking its way in front. The water reflected the mountains in reverse and there were trees jutting up all along the riverbank. The serene scene, along with Bob’s mellow voice, made me nestle deeper into the sofa under a blanket.
I found out later that Bob enjoyed painting landscapes which included mountains because of the decades he had spent staring at snowy peaks. Though he was born in Florida, Bob spent 20 years in the Air Force most of which was served in Alaska. It’s comical to think of soft-spoken Bob Ross as a sergeant, barking orders to men in his division as they scrubbed the latrine and re-made their beds. He said that once he left the military, he never wanted to scream at people again.
Besides his afro and painting style, Bob Ross was known for his chatter during the episodes. One of his most famous quotes goes something like, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” But there are other Bob Ross quotes I find even more profound:
“Go out on a limb—that’s where the fruit is.”
“You need the dark in order to show the light.”
“In nature, dead trees are just as normal as live trees.”
Critics might categorize his 30,000+ paintings as nothing more than “hotel art,” but you can’t deny his appeal. When he stepped up to a blank canvas and showed all of the possibilities available to someone with a palette of colors with exotic names like Prussian Blue, Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow, Midnight Black, Dark Sienna, and Van Dyke Brown, and then you watched him make quick crisscross motions which materialized into sky and long, slender lines which became tree branches, it’s hard not to be impressed. By the time the 30-minute episode was over, Bob had created something unique. He had taken a scene from his imagination with bits thrown in from memory, and then those of us watching from home could see on the screen what he had formally only seen inside his mind.
Speaking as someone who isn’t particularly gifted in the painting department, I connect to Bob Ross and his statements about creating art in a non-paintbrush-related way. I see the title of his television program as a call to change our outlook on life. I’m never going to be the host of The Joy of Painting, but, with the right attitude, I could be the star of my own show with names like The Joy of Emptying the Dishwasher or The Joy of Rolling the Trashcans Down the Driveway. I can and should find joy in what I do today and tomorrow and the next day. It’s like Bob said, “Isn’t it fantastic that you can change your mind and create all these happy things?”
When I was in high school, our drama group put on the play The Miracle Worker. As was the case for most productions, I was a backstage participant. My main job for this particular show was to keep the script up-to-date with blocking, sound and light cues, and any other notes which would make the play run like clockwork. (I also sometimes ran out to get snacks and beverages for the director. If I remember correctly, she particularly liked orange juice on the rocks that semester. Showbusiness is so glamorous!)
My older sister Becky, on the other hand, was cast as one of the two major acting roles—Annie Sullivan. If you’re familiar with the play or the movie or just the story of Helen Keller, then you know that Annie Sullivan is hired by the family of a little girl who had been blind and deaf since contracting a fever before she was two-years old. Annie is given the nearly impossible job of being Helen’s teacher. Through lots of persistence as well as a host of inventive teaching methods, clever little Helen is able to connect the significance of the letters which Annie painstakingly signs into her hand with the name of the actual object.
The pivotal moment in the play is when Annie and Helen are by the water pump. As water pours over Helen’s hand, she gestures for her teacher to sign the word. Annie had done this many times before, but this time something clicks. “It has a name,” Annie says. “W-A-T-E-R.” You see something new in Helen’s expression. She signs the letters in response. Then she stumbles around searching for more words to discover and name. It’s such a powerful scene.
My daughter Ella and I visited the place where all of those events occurred. It’s a beautifully preserved home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. We saw the dining room where Annie made her first stand against Helen’s spoiled mealtime behavior, the little house where teacher and student lived alone for a few weeks to focus on learning this new way to communicate, and the actual water pump where that critical realization happened.
We also got to see what happened after Helen had that water pump moment. We saw newspaper articles and citations from world leaders. There were photos of her with U.S. presidents and actors. There were letters behind glass display cases which she had written to cousins and other family members with her own little hand when she was 8-years old. Her handwriting was remarkably distinct and precise. Giant books of raised Braille letters were scattered around the room, along with heavy typewriter-like machines used to add those raised bumps to the pages. Helen Keller went on to write 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays. She lived an extraordinary 87 years, inspiring people and advocating for others.
As we walked through the house and strolled around the grounds, I was struck by the power of words. Helen’s ability to communicate changed everything for her. She was loved and cared for by her parents before she knew what W-A-T-E-R was, but she was trapped. When Annie Sullivan came along and refused to see a little girl with no hope, Helen was given a key and her life was forever transformed. If it weren’t for that caring teacher and Helen’s own desire to learn, none of us would even know her name, let alone pay $7 to see the bed where she slept. The whole experience reminds us that anything is possible. You can understand why Helen is quoted as saying, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”