Wednesday, February 29, 2012

29 reasons to make the leap

Unless you've spent today under a rock, you probably know it's leap day. You've probably heard people urging you to "Seize the day," or do something different today.

If only we treated every day as leap day, a day to break out of our comfortable routine and shake things up a bit. No matter what day you actually get around to reading this, I've made a list of reasons to make the leap -- into whatever you've been putting off, whatever you have wanted to do but lacked the courage to complete.

My reason is simple and selfish: I've been putting off migrating this blog over to WordPress, and I figured if I told you, my dear readers, about the move then I'd actually follow through with it. So next week (at least, I hope it'll be ready by next week), visit my blog here to see news about the move and to find the new link. In the meantime, here's the list of 29 reasons to leap.

The first four are mostly a pep talk for me and a handful of friends who have considered migrating their blogs over, too, but the rest apply to any of you:
  1. One-way conversations are simply no fun (I know people who are all talk and no listen, and being around them is annoying, and I don't want my blog to be like that un-fun). Plus, y'all have told me that commenting can be really frustrating or even downright impossible.
  2. WordPress will give the blog a cleaner look for readers using smart phones and tablets.
  3. I'll be able to blog more easily from a tablet (yep -- they make an app for that). So that means I can keep in touch with you more easily while I'm traveling or otherwise not chained to my desk.
  4. I'll have more layout choices for the blog, which means it'll be more fun -- or at least easier -- for you to read and navigate the blog.
  5. A leap like this can teach yet another small lesson about how to stop procrastinating. I believe this to be a lesson that will take a lifetime for me too learn, one that I won't get it right until the last possible moment, and even then, I may try to find a way to put things off a bit longer.
  6. Leap year only happens once every four years -- so take advantage of the extra day to try something adventurous.
  7. You won't have to keep wondering, "What if ..."
  8. You'll gain a sense of accomplishment.
  9. You'll gain a sense of peace.
  10. Leaps usually aren't boring.
  11. It's good to take your breath away from time to time.
  12. You can quote Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Hobgoblin is just a fun word to say. Try saying it out loud to yourself right now. Does it make you smile a bit?
  13. After the leap, you'll free up your mind to think about the next challenge.
  14. Leaps give you an interesting topic of conversation.
  15. They're also a great reason to pray.
  16. And they're an even better reason to ask others to pray along with you.
  17. Leaps can re-energize your mind.
  18. Impress your kids and set a good example for them. A friend posted the words to one of my favorite Avett Brothers songs on Facebook today, and I thought it fit perfectly with this: And I want to stand up and I want to stand tall/If I ever have a son, if I ever have a daughter/I don't want to tell them that I didn't give my all./ And I just want my life to be true/I just want my heart to be true/I just want my words to be true/I want my soul to feel brand, brand new.
  19. Impress your dog.
  20. Leaps give you something to crow -- or tweet -- about.
  21. Leaps can make your life better/easier/more exciting/richer (I don't necessarily mean material wealth, here).
  22. A leap could make you a better friend/neighbor/expert.
  23. You'll have a story to tell your grandkids one day.
  24. Your leap may bring a blessing to someone else.
  25. You might just learn something new.
  26. You'll expand your options.
  27. You may discover a new calling.
  28. A leap could be the most exhilarating part of today.
  29. A leap may be God's way of preparing you for an even greater leap -- and maybe each subsequent leap will be less and less scary to you.
Whether the next few days find you trying to decide to move your blog, quit your job, jump across a stream during a 50-mile trail race, start a new church, start a new hobby, or start a big new chapter in your life ... make the leap.

Legal disclaimer: I'm not encouraging you to try anything stupid, death-defying or death-enducing, but if you do something and don't manage to defy death, your family and friends can't sue me because of this list. However, if you follow my encouragement and moments of joy, freedom or even hilarity result, I hope you'll share them by commenting below.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The ashes of our celebrations

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent that will be a time of penitence and preparation for Easter.

As you know from last week's post on obedience, I'm struggling to obey God's call. Being sorry for that struggle comes easily to me. Being ashamed of it does, too. However, Lent isn't about shame. It's about repenting -- turning back around toward God. And that's exactly what I intend to do during this Lenten season: turn to face God and to learn to hear His voice and obey His call in my life.

To mark that intention, I'll go to my church's Ash Wednesday service tonight and have a minister place ashes on my forehead as a reminder of my desire to repent and of the promise of God's gracious forgiveness through Christ's sacrifice for us.

Even as far back as the old testament, people repented by wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. While I'm glad the church doesn't require us to wear sackcloth until Easter, I'm also glad for the blessing of wearing ashes, even for such a short time, as a reminder to focus on God's work in this season.

May I tell you a bit about the ashes at my church?

Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday mark the most joyous celebrations in our church. Palm Sunday is less raucous than our Easter services, but it offers a glimmer of joy at the beginning of Holy Week, the week we mark Christ's arrest, torture and crucifixion. On Palm Sunday, to commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the children's choirs and adult choir process in waving palms. The children crowd in to the front of the church, happily waving their palms and sometimes batting each other with them. They know it's a time of celebration, and hey, if you can torture your little sister standing in the row in front of you by hitting her with a palm branch, that's just a bonus, right?

Our choir director retired this past summer, but for many years, he has taken those palms from Palm Sunday and burned them down into ash. That's right: the ash we use to mark the beginning of Lent comes from the palms we wave at the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent.

There's something I find comforting in that completed circle from one year to the next. Our celebrations in life come and go. Some are more joyous than others, but they never last. Think of what was left of your last party: probably a stack of dishes by the sink, a full trash can and recycle bin, and good memories of time with family and friends.

Sometimes, all that's left of a good celebration is ash. We generally think of ash as something to be disposed of, something useless and even mournful. But even in the ashes, we find blessing. Ashes are reminders of something past, but the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of the hope we have for our future. In the ashes, we find a closeness to God, a reminder that He desires our coming nearer to Him, and a promise of Easter on the horizon.

Today's ashes mark us for God, a mark worth of celebrating. Not in arrogance, but in humility. Are you willing to carry His mark?

I'd love to hear about your Ash Wednesday traditions. Have you attended an Ash Wednesday service already? Or will you go to one later this evening? Even if your church doesn't have a service of ashes, I hope you'll see this day -- and the season of Lent -- as a blessing and not a burden.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Will I ever learn to shut up and obey God?

This week, as I've continued work on the book I'm writing about trees in the Bible, I've turned to the book of Exodus to look at Moses. When you think of him, what pops in your mind first? The ten commandments? Moses proclaiming to Pharaoh, "Let my people go"? Or maybe it's a Moses that looks remarkably like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea? Those are all images of a strong, confident Moses, but he wasn't always that way.

One day, he was leading his flocks near Mount Horeb (known as the Mountain of God), when he saw something peculiar:

     The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush;
     and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not
     consumed. So Moses said, "I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight,
     why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look,
     God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, "Moses, Moses!" And he
     said, "Here I am." Then He said, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals
     from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said
     also, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the
     God of Jacob." Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
     -- Exodus 3:2-6 (NASB)

Moses' curiosity stopped him in his tracks, and his encounter with God that day would change him forever. Notice that God didn't call out to him until Moses had turned aside from his flock. God was waiting until Moses was quiet and fully paying attention.

You see, God had a plan for Moses that He knew would be difficult for him. He wanted Moses to leave his life of hiding and return to Egypt to speak for the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt. But Moses had a lot of reservations.

During their conversation, Moses whined and asked God to choose another messenger to free the Israelites. Take a look at Exodus 3 and 4 to read about this encounter, and you'll see Moses offer excuse after excuse about not being able to fulfill God's call. Here's my take on Moses' side of their conversation:

  • I'm nobody. Shouldn't You send someone more capable and important? (Exodus 3:11)
  • Who are You? Are You really *that* God? (3:13)
  • Um, I don't really think the Israelites are going to believe me. (4:1)
  • Besides, You know I'm terrible at public speaking. (4:10)
  • Okay, God, it's a good message to send to Egypt, and so I ask You to send it (just maybe could You pretty please pick someone other than me?). (4:13)
Up until that last comment from Moses, God had been patient, but the last comment finally pushed God over the edge: "Then the anger of the Lord burned against Moses" (4:14).

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't want to face an angry God. And yet, I can definitely relate to Moses' reluctance to obey God. Did any of his comments sound familiar to you because you've said them yourself?

I've been putting off writing this book, starting and stopping and getting sidetracked with life and other writing projects for the last seven years. I'm ashamed and embarrassed that it has taken me so long to be obedient to God's call for me to write a book. Even now, I struggle to keep the book on the front burner as other project ideas inspire me. But this is the season for me to write this book, and so I keep putting other projects out of my mind to stay focused on accomplishing this one task.

Moses' encounter at the burning bush provides us with two key lessons about our relationship with God, two disciplines we must learn: being quiet and still before God, and obeying His call.

My problem is that I'm crummy at both of those disciplines. I mean really, really crummy. However, because I don't ever want to read, "Then the anger of the Lord burned against Hope," I'm working on developing both. Each morning, I take time to be quiet and still before God. Not easy, but I'm trying. I'm also refusing to take on other projects while I finish writing the book.

It's a daily struggle, though. So -- my friends and readers -- do you have insights or successes or stories of your own struggles in these two areas that could help all of us learn these disciplines? If so, please share them by writing a comment below. 

You don't even have to sign in or include your name -- simply choose to share your story as "anonymous," if that's more comfortable for you. (After you click on the word "Comments" below this post, you'll find a screen with a box where you can type your comment and then a drop-down menu to choose "Comment as." Anonymous is the last choice in the drop-down menu). I'd love to hear how you're meeting the challenges of quiet and obedience.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Valentine's ode to trees

Valentine's day is just around the corner, and I've been reminded in the last few days of a few of the reasons why I love trees.

One reminder came yesterday in The Diane Rehm Show. Rehm invited a panel of experts to discuss the state of the cacao tree -- which provides us those lovely pods filled with beans that, when fermented and roasted, are transformed into a favorite Valentine's gift: chocolate.

Save the chocolate trees
Scientists are hard at work trying to learn more about cacao trees so they can help farmers around the world produce stronger, healthier cacao trees -- ones more resistant to climate change, drought, pests and disease. They're doing this in part by mapping the genome of known varieties of cacao trees, and by exploring the Amazon to find wild, uncultivated strands that may be able to infuse greater genetic diversity to the current pool of cultivated chocolate trees.

Blights have taken out swaths of cacao trees, and changes in climate are currently threatening to shift some of the prime growing regions in Africa. Why is this a big deal? Because 60-70% of the world's chocolate comes from a relatively small region in the African countries of Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Liberia and Cameroon. The cacao trees there are not all that genetically diverse and are therefore more vulnerable to the same diseases and pests.

According to the show's panel, 95 percent of the world's cacao farms are small operations, and many of those are family-based. Because cacao trees love shade and thrive well mixed in with other crops, these small farms often grow and sell a variety of fruit, not just cocoa. Their livelihood depends on healthy cacao trees, as well as educational systems in place to help them sustain and improve their trees. If these trees get wiped out, it's not just major farming operations and corporations that will be in trouble.

I don't usually give much thought to where my chocolate comes from, but this show made me stop and think more about trees that I take for granted to give me the chocolate I so adore.

I'm admittedly picky about the kinds of chocolate I'll buy: the darker the better if it's in a bar, and if it's chocolate milk, it has to be Silk brand regular chocolate soy milk. No other brand (I've tried several and been disappointed), no light chocolate Silk (ugh, not worth it) and no dark chocolate almond milk (too sweet and thick). How about you? Do you love chocolate? Do you have a favorite? Or does it simply need to have the word chocolate in it for you to be happy?

Saving lives
Besides being a fan of chocolate, I'm also a fan of World Vision, a relief organization that focuses its efforts on child sponsorship in the most impoverished areas of the world. Its latest magazine arrived this past weekend, with a story that held the other reminder of why I love trees so much. (I had hoped to point you to the issue online, but the latest one doesn't appear to be on the site yet.)

World Vision's president, Rich Stearns, kicked off the magazine with an article called "The Famine That Never Happened," about the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa. What amazed me was his statement that not one of World Vision's sponsored children in that region has died because of the drought and famine ravaging other parts of that region.

Stearns credits that to lessons learned in the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, when World Vision came in to help local families recover then from the devastation caused by deforestation and drought. His description of the Antsokia Valley in Ethiopia really caught my attention:

     Orange groves, maize, sorghum, and grazing farm animals blanket the valley today.
     In the shadow of the surrounding hills, 20 million trees nourish the soil and bring
     income as farmers sell their fruit. More than 90 percent of the valley's children are in
     school. God has turned the parched ground into flowing springs.

     During a more recent drought in 2000, farmers in Antsokia provided food for other
     regions in Ethiopia. The formerly dry valley became an oasis amid drought. This
     year World vision will phase out its work in the valley. We're no longer needed, as
     the farmers there are reaping "a fruitful harvest." ...

     In World Vision communities, farmers are learning how to conserve water and
     promote rain by planting trees. ... This work is changing the future. Years from
     now, we'll be talking again about the famine that never happened.
     (World Vision Spring 2012: 4.)

I'm heartened by his mention of trees, and the crucial role they play in keeping an environment safe (or at least safer) from drought that leads to famine. His organization is encouraging a life-giving cycle: plant trees to strengthen the environment and use the fruit of those trees for a better livelihood and for protection from drought and famine.

So maybe this Valentine's Day, you'll consider sponsoring a child through World Vision. It costs $35 a month to give a child the gift of hope, a gift lasts a whole lot longer than flowers, or dinner out, or even your favorite chocolates.

I'd love to hear from you if you decide to sponsor a child. But I'd also love to hear about your favorite chocolate treat, too. Happy Valentine's Day a little early!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Running roots

I've mentioned my love of running before, but these days, it takes up a lot of my thoughts. Just a few short weeks ago, I registered to run my first marathon and sat down with my husband (who also happens to make a great unofficial running coach) and mapped out my long runs from now until mid-June, when I'll run the marathon.

I wish I could say I feel completely confident about reaching this new goal, but overly tight muscles and memories of old injuries keep threatening to drag me down. Anyone who has run a marathon will tell you that overcoming the mental hurdles is half (or more) of the battle. And so I know I need to win the mental race before I'll be able to endure the physical one.

That's where patience and discipline come in. Let me be the first to admit that neither of these two virtues is a strength of mine, but I know I'll need to cultivate both to toe the line at that June marathon with a firm hope of finishing.

Running the marathon is a bit like enjoying a fully grown and thriving tree planted in your yard. Trees don't just spring up fully grown overnight, just as humans don't typically wake up one morning and find themselves magically able to run 26.2 miles.

As I look out at three young trees in my own yard and wish for them to grow healthy and tall and strong, I can see parallel lessons for completing the marathon. You may not run, but I share these lessons with you because achieving your own dream may also feel like running a marathon, and some of the insights here may help you achieve that dream.

1. Strong roots = healthy tree.
The three young trees in my yard have been growing underground in ways that I can't see, but their roots are what will sustain them in wind and drought and storms. Similarly, you haven't seen my running log probably haven't seen me out on a training run, but my running roots are getting established. Over the last seven years, I've logged miles and miles that are all part of the preparation to get me to the point where I am now -- optimistic about possibly completing a marathon, despite the rocks and storms that may lie ahead.

You know what else gives my running stronger roots? Lots and lots of prayer. I don't listen to music when I'm out running, and that gives me a lot of time alone to think and pray -- lifting up pleas and praise to God, depending on what's happening in my life on any given day I head out for a run. I like to think of these prayers as an emotional taproot that I've been establishing, one that will sustain me on race day.

What roots are you establishing to achieve your dream? And do you see prayer as an integral part of a healthy root system?

2. Don't underestimate the power of water.
Quite simply, just as trees need water to thrive, so do humans. Runners, especially. I temporarily forgot that essential lesson this past weekend. I was running a half marathon in considerably warmer, more humid conditions than my winter training has provided. Though I carried a bottle of gatorade with me, it was too sugary sweet for me during the race, but because I had it in hand, I skipped past a few too many water stops along the course.

That's when I got cold. No -- it wasn't because a lovely breeze had picked up across the water as I ran over a bridge. No -- it wasn't because of the cloud cover (a blessing from God that kept me from getting into serious trouble and needing an ambulance). I got cold because I wasn't drinking enough water, an early warning sign of heat exhaustion. And because of it, I had to slow down and walk more and drink a lot of water simply to cross the finish line.

For you, actual thirst quenching may not be an integral part of achieving your dream, but I've written before of waterers who can help you quench an emotional or mental thirst through their encouragement of your dream. My husband and other running friends are waterers whose counsel will sustain and encourage me when marathon training gets really tough (which I expect will happen in approximately 10 days when I run farther than I ever have before).

3. Grow a little at a time.
This is where those pesky areas of patience and discipline come in. Those three trees in the yard aren't bogged down by fear. They're doing exactly what they're supposed to -- growing a little bit at a time, not trying to over-reach but simply taking in water and sunlight and good soil nutrients to reach up a little taller each passing season.

I'd love to be able to go run a marathon next weekend and cross it off my bucket list, but I know that's not practical, and I'm pretty sure that would skip past the lessons of patience and discipline that God wants to teach me over the next few months as I build up my mileage each week. Every long run will be just a little longer than the previous one, training my body in a gentler way that will strengthen me and keep me less likely to get injured by expecting too much from my body.

Are you writing a book? You simply cannot write it all in one go. Are you trying to raise great children? That'll take 18+ years to see to fruition. Are you moving into a scary but exciting new role at work? You will not be perfect at it from the moment you begin (you may never be perfect at it). All dreams come with challenges, and they're going to require daily growth -- sometimes frustratingly slow -- before you can look back and see what you have accomplished.

4. Take rest days.
This is also where those pesky areas of patience and discipline come in. Trees have seasons of rest, seasons when they do not bear fruit or flower or hold green leaves, but even during those seasons of rest, they are still living and strengthening.

When you have set goals, expect some setbacks. Maybe your whole family came down with the flu during a week you had planned to finish a special project. Or maybe you ran a half marathon without drinking enough water and now your quads hurt so much you can barely walk without pain, much less go for a short run (ahem).

Rest days are important, even though you may chafe at them. God rested. And He insisted that His people rest, too. Don't try to outdo God by ignoring the essential need for rest. Rest, renew and recharge -- ready for the next effort.

I'd love to know what dreams you have and whether you see them as the growing tree or the marathon training. What roots have you established? What or who will water your dream and wait with you while it grows? Do you have tips for learning patience and discipline? I'd love to hear from you and run alongside of you as your dream grows toward harvest.