Seasons

In the middle of the night an old song came back to me. It’s 40 years old and I haven’t heard it in awhile. It used to bring me to tears. It did again.

You feel like you’ve lost control,
And the valleys seem so low,
Well it’s not forever, just a season of the soul.

seasons

When I looked up the song this morning, that butterfly escaping the cocoon image lifted my heart. Again.

The Omartians were among the first artists I heard when I started working in Christian radio. This particular song was not one I heard right away. The track runs nearly 7 minutes, more than twice as long as the usual radio-length songs of the time. But when I finally discovered it in the music library it became one of my personal favorites. The lyrics grew out of Stormie’s personal battles, of which I knew nothing at the time. The song is a sober, serious consolation and encouragement for those facing the oh-so-familiar struggles of life. There is no quick healing or solution promised. It is just a call to be steadfast in the day facing you.

A time to cry, a time to sing,
There’s a time for everything,
Nothing lasts that long.
Don’t look at what you see,
And just keep your eyes on Me.
I won’t let you go wrong.

The description of life consisting of seasons was an image that has stayed with me. At the time I first heard the song, my experience was mostly that of new seasons beginning and coming into bloom. Now, after many years, I’m aware that those seasons have begun to close, one after another.

I realize, even as I think fondly of seasons past, that they are truly past. The eternal future at home with the Lord remains somewhere up ahead. The immediate prospect is more like a growing twilight, with shadows spreading over what was familiar on the journey so far.

When you look for the voice that you’ve known, and no one’s there,
And when it seems the caretaker’s heart just doesn’t care,
It’s the seasons of the soul.
It’s the seasons of the soul.
Well it’s not forever – ….

But right now we must admit: forever is yet to come. We’re still dealing with the day before us.

In the 1970’s Michael released several highly original Christian albums performing songs written with his wife. They helped define the new contemporary Christian music scene that was fueling a new era of Christian radio. Stormie went on to write a number of books on prayer and intercession. Michael became one of the most successful pop music producers of the 1980’s. He was behind such huge hits as Sailing by Christopher Cross and She Works Hard For the Money by Donna Summer. It was a new season for him.

As I was digging up the memories online, I came across one of Michael’s last releases as a lead performer. It was another album of Christian songs written with Stormie. I found another old favorite from this Christian couple that provided a grace note to finish my earlier meditations. It was a statement of closure and assurance, regardless of the day I faced or the dimming light.

The work has all been done
And He’s already called you by name

It is done
Don’t you know that it is done
The battle has been won
It is done
It is done.

When I was halfway through writing this blog, I had an accident. I was standing in the bathroom, leaning for support on my walker. Suddenly I had to sneeze. I had no warning time to brace myself. For the first time in more than a year, I fell, hitting my back against the toilet seat. Fortunately, although the tile floor is a hard one, I broke nothing. My back will probably display a rainbow of colors the next few weeks.

Melanie’s sister had been visiting for lunch. They both hurried when they heard me cry out. Melanie waited until she was sure I was not injured seriously and had helped me to my feet. Then she broke into panicked tears and we hugged.

Another day in a long season. But

Don’t you know that it is done?
The battle has been won!
It is done
It is done.

**********

SEASONS OF THE SOUL

Lyrics by Stormie Omartian
Music by Michael Omartian

Whenever Summer dreams start to fade and lose their light,
And when the Spring in your heart seems so cold, it can’t be right,
And you feel like you’ve lost control,
And the valleys seem so low,
Well it’s not forever, just a season of the soul.

If you could step away just to see how far you’ve gone,
If you would take the time just to be what you’ve become,
You could have the time to grow,
There would be a chance to know
That it’s not forever, just a season of the soul.

Oh, it’s the season of the soul
It’s the season of the soul,
It’s the season of the soul,
It’s the season.

Walkin alone in the desert at night, searching for the rain,
How can this happen to me — it’s not right, when Jesus is my friend,
Everything was going fine,
I was standing on the line,
Where did I go wrong?
Suddenly the sky was gray,
Looking like it was gonna stay,
Far too long.

Up on a mountain I heard His sigh, like an angel’s call,
If you don’t rest when the Winter is here, what will you bear in the Fall?
A time to cry, a time to sing,
There’s a time for everything,
Nothing lasts that long.
Don’t look at what you see,
And just keep your eyes on Me.
I won’t let you go wrong.”

So when you look for the voice that you’ve known, and no one’s there,
And when it seems the caretaker’s heart, just doesn’t care,
It’s the seasons of the soul,
It’s the seasons of the soul,
Well it’s not forever – It’s the seasons of the soul.

 

IT IS DONE

Michael And Stormie Omartian

You’re just along for the ride
Kicking all your dreams aside
Acting like He never died
So you could freely dream them
Spent and overdrawn
Things that you’ve been banking on
Thinking you’re the only one
Ever to redeem them again

Can you be satisfied
Walking in through life’s backside
When the front door’s open wide
Ready to receive you
Let your blindfold drop
You’re standing on a mountain top
Jesus has you lifted up
And He will never leave you alone

It is done
It is done
The battle has been won
It is done

Will you just ride on the rim
Talking like your hopes are slim
When you could be reigning with Him
In power that won’t fail you
Should your heart grow numb
Waiting for your time to come
When the work has all been done
And He’s already called you by name

It is done
Don’t you know that it is done
The battle has been won
It is done
It is done

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The veiled icon

A few years ago on a day trip to Tarpon Springs icon-closedwith Melanie, I picked up a small icon triptych at one of the shops there. There is a central image with two hinged panels on either side that can be closed over and cover the central image. This is done during the season of Lent, as a sort of “fast” from the icon during that time. This triptych stands on a table by my bed.

As I learned more about the history of the Christian church I came to appreciate the non-verbal testimony such traditional works of art contributed. The rest of the year, icons of various saints are a reminder that we have their intercessions and examples to support us. Covering them during Lent is a way of underlining the time of repentance and self-sacrifice we are called to as we approach Easter. For the same reason, the crucifix carried in procession at the worship services is covered with a veil during Lent.

A side note: The picture above is the first one I have taken with my camera since I had the stroke. The last pictures I had taken, one week before that, were of Melanie being awarded the Judges’ Prize at a church food fair. Since the stroke my hands are too shaky to hold the camera safely. I don’t get out of the house much and, when I do move around, my hands are needed to grip the handles of a walker to keep from toppling over. When I pulled out my camera today the battery was dead and needed to be recharged.

Just as well that my icon saints had their eyes covered. My season of fasting continues.

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Lent 2012

I have been recalling an Ash Wednesday service from five years ago when, at the altar, I placed the ash cross on the forehead of a young boy. Here is what I wrote at this blog back then.

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Devotionals

Some days God just piles up the devotional readings for us. It started with this one:

Mark 11:1-11  ENTERING JERUSALEM
Writing for a Gentile audience, Mark mostly skipped over explaining the details of how Jesus was fulfilling one prophetic scripture after another. For example, he makes no comment on the timing of the arrival at Jerusalem in the week of Passover. Zechariah 9:9 foretells the arrival of the Messiah riding on a donkey. Mark describes the fact as if it is just a humble, colorful detail…

Mark notes that Jesus departed the city to stay overnight in Bethany, the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Mark does not bring up the extraordinary history with that household or how it foreshadowed what was about to unfold in Jesus’ own life. The stories that Mark had already written down were extraordinary enough on their own to grab the attention of his readers.

The choices Mark made are themselves a lesson for us as we give our own testimonies. We must find the details that are essential and most likely to earn the attention of our listeners. It is certain we will remember many details that were deeply meaningful to us in all our experiences with Jesus. But at different times, with different people, it may not be necessary to tell all those details. The Holy Spirit will do the work of conviction even with the briefest summaries that lift up and glorify the Name of Jesus.

I had begun that day staring back at myself in the bathroom mirror. I had been trying not to grit my teeth at how stroke-broken my body remains after two years and four months. I had been thinking how I needed to bite my tongue and not write another blog focusing on my own condition. People must inevitably get tired of the details that Melanie and I live with 24 hours a day. “At different times, with different people, it may not be necessary to tell all those details.” I wobbled down the hall to breakfast, thinking to myself, “This is the day the Lord has made… for His own purposes.”

Melanie read and played our morning menu of devotionals while I nibbled carefully at my food. I had read the one on Mark as part of my voice exercises. Now Melanie turned to the Pray As You Go web page.

Our desire to be in charge of our own lives is strong and surely, at least to some extent, a gift from God.  However, does not God sometimes seem demanding?  Where your heart is, there your treasure shall be!  What price human freedom, if God always has the last say?

I worked at swallowing without choking. When I do choke and gag, I can tell Melanie tenses up. I hate doing that to her. But I’m very grateful she stays at the table with me, long after she has finished her breakfast. My breakfast usually takes an hour or longer.

Melanie went to John Piper’s Solid Joys web page.

Many of us need the reminder, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). It isn’t strange.

God seemed to have something He wanted me to hear this morning.

Melanie picked up a small booklet of daily readings we’ve been using this year by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz called Keeping God in the Small Stuff.

It is easy to see and hear God in the big events of life. But monumental or cataclysmic events don’t happen very often. If we expect to hear God only in the spectacular moments we will miss most of what He is trying to say to us.

Melanie had a new name to add to our prayer list. Most of the people on our prayer list are in worse shape than we are. This was another one like that.

A girl Melanie went to church and grade school with had sent a Facebook message. Melanie had posted a picture of the dresser next to our dining room table. It had held all my liquid food and medical supplies when Melanie was feeding me through the stomach tube. That tube was removed last month. Melanie wanted to sell the dresser now that it was no longer needed.

Nancy, her grade school friend in Michigan, saw the picture and wrote her.

“We started tube feeding two weeks ago,” she wrote. We learned her husband has been dealing with cancer. He is on oxygen and has a drip feed going from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. every day. Nancy has to give him insulin shots every four hours. Between times, she sleeps on the floor next to her husband’s recliner. Melanie had introduced them to each other. They’ve been married 50 years.

“Any advice?” Nancy asked.

That night Melanie spoke to her at length on the telephone. From the next room I heard her describing the bits and pieces of the lessons Melanie and I have learned the past two years of our journey. She encouraged Nancy to let her local church help. “People want to help. They just don’t know how unless you let them know.”

That morning when Melanie played the audio devotional from Our Daily Bread, the first words from the announcer were,

Never call it quits in pursuing Jesus.

Because he’s not done with us, or done with making the day yet. He’s still looking for help in the harvest. And He’s able to use us in our present condition.

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Date night movies

Most every evening, after I have finished my supper and if we don’t have visitors, Melanie and I have a date in my home office where we watch travelogues, documentaries, and Hallmark channel romance movies together. We especially like movies on Hallmark’s mystery channel. And one of our very favorites is the series written by Martha Williamson titled Sign, Sealed, Delivered.

Ms. Williamson wrote the Touched By An Angel series a few years ago. She is a Christian and her new series often contains subtle and even overt, Christian themes. Bible verses show up in dialogue though they are not always identified as such.

The S.S.D. series is based in a fictional dead letter office of the Denver post office. A regular disclaimer explains that real dead letter postal offices don’t work like this one does. But those guys don’t have to tell entertaining stories.

The movies follow attempts to solve garbled or missing addresses so the mail can be delivered. People have their lives put on hold because of the breakdowns in communication.

The episodes also follow the lives of the four quirky people working in the office: two guys and two gals. It’s a Hallmark series, so of course the guys have each fallen in love with one of the girls. And here is where Ms. Williamson has fun playing with the garbled efforts of these four characters trying to work and communicate with each other. I had been enjoying the light comedy of the series when I finally realized that this theme might also be an intentional move by Ms. Williamson to introduce more serious spiritual overtones. Again and again, she has her characters struggling to overcome “dead letters” in their own daily lives. Is it more than a clever, ironic twist on their occupation?

For example, in One In A Million, an episode from last year, Norman (Geoff Gustafson) is having his customary difficulties letting Rita (Crystal Lowe) know he likes her. Rita, who battles shyness herself, tries to help Norman by dropping hints. Nikki (Emma Pedersen), a customer who has come to the post office to try to retrieve a letter, has been telling Rita how the boyfriend she wrote to broke up with her before the letter was delivered.

Nikki: I ran away and he didn’t even follow me.

Norman: [puzzled] We’re supposed to follow?

Rita: Yes. Like in the movies!

[Slowly the wheels are turning in Norman’s mind as he realizes there is a huge gap in his information base. He mumbles  to himself.]

Norman: I’ve been watching the wrong movies

Although it’s not a direct commentary on the spiritual life, I immediately thought that’s what God thinks about us as we wander off from Him. We’re not following the right examples! It’s not supposed to be this hard but we keep getting lost because we don’t follow Jesus like we were supposed to do. You could start a conversation with that scene.

Oliver (Eric Mabius), the office director, and Shane (Kristen Booth) also have difficulties communicating their feelings to one another. In the newest episode of the series, Higher Ground, Shane has suddenly been called back for a sensitive assignment at her former job at the CIA. She has been unable to communicate back to her friends in Denver due to the high security and secrecy surrounding the work.

When she finally returns, she discovers Oliver has shoved her desk into a far corner. They have an awkward meeting, uncertain how things now stand between them. Oliver tries to live his life by clear rules, so no one can ever blame him for being out of line. Shane confronts him in the Dead Letter office at the Post Office.

Shane: And tell me again… why you moved my desk?

Oliver: Uh… it was hard to look at every day.

Shane: So you mean you missed me?

Oliver:  [He struggles for the right words.] I mean what I say when I say it. Although I don’t always say what I mean when I do say it, I mean it. For example, when I once said I hoped our first date wouldn’t be our last, that was a true and transparent statement that, if we had ever actually completed a first date, would subsequently have been born out in action. Assuming you were in agreement. Which, given your extended absence, you might understand my assumption that your intentions and mine were not in concert.

Shane: [Staring at him, almost in tears] If you are suggesting that I didn’t miss you – and I might be the only person on earth who understands what you just said! – …

And she proceeds to pull out the letters she had written him but could not send while on the secret mission.

Spoiler alert: they do finally kiss and make up. Remember, it’s the Hallmark Channel.

But I found myself thinking again, God must say that to us all the time! We stumble over our words, trying hard to say things exactly right so we won’t get in trouble, and it’s a wonder even WE know what we’re trying to tell God by the time we stop for a breath.

Fortunately, God has admitted He knows what we’re going to say even before we begin. That should take some of the pressure off.

The ensemble cast is wonderful. They are all capable of communicating so much fragile vulnerability just with their eyes, even before they have spoken a word from Ms. Williamson’s wonderful scripts. I highly recommend the Signed, Sealed, Delivered series for your next date night.

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Existing for someone else

In one of his homilies, Bishop Robert Barron takes note of how Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, describes his followers as salt, light, and “a city on a hill.” He points out, “All these things exist not for themselves, but for something else.” Salt suppresses spoilage in food, light makes it possible to see what it shines on, and a city on a hill was a handy guide to orient travelers on their way.

All these underscore the foundational truth that “it’s not about you.” Each of us is here so that God can use us to benefit someone else. This is not a secret. After saying that loving God was the first and most basic commandment, Jesus went on to say that the second commandment was like it. That was the command to love others, or, as Paul explained, to serve them.

There are times when it is difficult to take joy in being used like that, even if it brings joy to God. I noticed one of these moments that I had failed to see before in the story about the death of Lazarus. After getting the message about his sick friend from Martha, Jesus fails to move.

John 11:4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

What I had failed to pay attention to was something Jesus said to his disciples at that time. The disciples had misunderstood how serious things were with Lazarus and they thought it would be dangerous for Jesus to go back so near to Jerusalem.

John 14:14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

One of the most memorable moments in the Gospels (and the shortest verse in the Bible) descibes when Jesus finally stands in front of the tomb of Lazarus.

John 11:35  Jesus wept.

I would assume Lazarus had done some weeping of his own while he waited for his friend to come and rescue him. His tears would have been flowing at the same time Jesus was telling his disciples how glad he was for their sake that the whole tragedy was unfolding around his other beloved friends.

There is no way to understand such an attitude if our focus is fastened only on the narrow events and moments as Lazarus experienced them. They were not about him. They were not for his benefit. His experience was that of salt and light and being a city on a hill. He was there for someone else’s benefit.

It’s not that Jesus had no tears for him. He had more. And what he was providing was for the benefit of so many more than just his friend.

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Hearing but not understanding

Last year I published a book-length study of the Kingdom parables that Jesus told. (And thanks, Roger, for the great review at Amazon!) The book grew out of an assignment to write some devotionals on the parables that will be published this summer in The Journey.

Today, as sometimes happens long after I have finished a project, I had a further insight into the use of parables by Jesus. For a moment, I thought about adding a chapter to the book and creating a second edition. Then I decided to just post my thoughts here on the blog.

What caught my attention was a moment from the Last Supper reported by St. John.

John 13: 21.  Jesus  was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.”
 22.  His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.
 23.  One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.
 24.  Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
 25.  Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
 26.  Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. 

First, lets look at a verse in the Old Testament. All the Gospel writers took note of a puzzling statement in Isaiah that was referred to by Jesus.

Isaiah 6: 8.  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”   And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
 9.  He said, “Go and tell this people: “`Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'”

When the disciples asked Jesus why he was teaching parables to the crowds, he pointed to this prophecy, saying he was fulfilling its terms (Matthew 13:14, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, John 12:40). Paul based his ultimate decision to turn his ministry entirely to the Gentile world on this word (Acts 28:26).

It seems odd that God would not speak clearly enough to be understood if He wanted to be heard. What I’ve been pondering is the possibility that He was simply honoring the free will He had granted to all of us. He spoke clearly enough to Adam and Eve yet they decided they wanted to trust their own conclusions over His directions. So have we all, ever since. It’s not that God does not speak clearly. It is we who assume we have heard clearly. We base our decisions on that assumption.

Parables are simply a subset of the use of symbols out of which all language and communication is built. We can either assume we are able to figure out and understand the symbols by ourselves, or we can double check and ask for help when God speaks, to make sure we are interpreting the symbols correctly.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said plainly that one of those at the table that night would betray him. The disciples were startled at the idea. John says specifically that they were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.” So, even though Jesus had spoken the truth and spoken plainly, they were left in bewilderment.

Simon Peter, not for the last time, wanted to know more. So he asked John to find out. And when John asked Jesus who he was talking about, Jesus resorted to a parable-like action. To Judas and the others watching, what Jesus did seemed an ordinary gesture of good dinner manners and nothing more.

But Jesus was giving the gesture an additional significance to be understood by those who wanted to know more.

It was what he did day after day in speaking to the crowds. Simple stories, capable of simple interpretations as mere stories. But for those who suspected there was more to learn, the parables carried vastly deeper significance, all hidden in the plain sight of those who were too indifferent to perceive it.

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