Peace by Peace

Plenty of people in this world walk around putting on heirs.  They pretend to be so happy with where they are in their life, when in actuality, their actions tell quite a different story.  Whether it’s nasty behaviors toward most people they come in contact with for no other reason than the fact that they are miserable inside, or judgmental talk about just about everyone in their lives, the hubris seeps out through every pore until you barely recognize who you’re dealing with anymore.   They have themselves convinced they’re living under the guise of honesty, and cannot recognize that their words and actions don’t match their proclamations.  I am a firm believer that our behavior is the best reflection of our true character.  We can talk a certain way, but if our walk doesn’t match that talk, it falls on deaf ears.

I am, in no way, a perfect human being.  I have never claimed to be in my lifetime.  I fall short every.single.day.  But I know who I am – a child of the King who forgives me for my shortcomings and meets me where I am at.  His love is fresh and new for me every day, and I don’t have to every worry about disappointing Him, because His love never fails.

I also know my responsibility as His child – to love Him, and to love others and I love myself.  See that last word – myself – it’s bold and underlined for a reason.  Often times we leave off this key word.  Jesus was asked specifically by the Pharisees what the greatest commandment in the Law was, to which He answered love God, but the second portion of the answer is where we get hung up.  Matthew 22:39 says,” 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  First we are charged to love our neighbor – ALL of them – not just our white neighbor, our Christian neighbor, our young neighbor, our cool neighbor, our nice neighbor, our conservative neighbor, our straight neighbor,  our non-addict neighbor, our sober neighbor….but ALL OUR NEIBHBORS.

And the next part…here’s the deal-breaker.   To love the way God loves, I have to love me first.  This isn’t selfish or haughty, it’s just plain fact.  If I have issues with me, I can’t love like God loves.  If I don’t feel worthy, I can’t love like God loves.  If I have issues with forgiveness, or hate, or self-loathing, or identity, or relationships, or bitterness, or self-control, or selfishness…it is impossible to love like God loves.  Because God does not struggle with these issues, plain and simple.  So until we can lay these issues down at the feet of our Father, we cannot love as we are asked to do, thereby fulfilling the greatest command.

We can walk around thinking we’ve arrived all we want, talking up a good talk, telling all who will listen that we are Christians, but until we’ve laid all down all our junk, we’re nothing more than clanging cymbals in the ears of those around us.  God knows we’re not fooling Him.

My prayer is for a time when we all – us and ALL our neighbors – love ourselves and each other enough to step forward in unity.  We’ve spent far too much time looking at differences.  Far too much wasted time.

Love God ~ Love others as yourself

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Behold

Easter morning celebration at our home church is a big deal.  I’m talking hundreds of brightly colored air filled balloons held tight against the sanctuary ceiling, waiting for that precise moment of their release.  And the confetti…well, after all, we are celebrating the resurrection of our King and what kind of party would it be without confetti.  But not just little snippets of paper pieces here and there, tossed about with lackluster care.  We do confetti like it’s never been done before – from a cannon packing 120 psi showering off the pulpit into the awaiting audience as if an asteroid had just encountered a shooting star.  Meanwhile, every bright-eyed child has been given their own mini popper as the more serious confetti connoisseur brings in the 2-3 foot launching version, in a friendly competition of ‘out-pop’ your neighbor, in the name of Jesus, of course.

This Easter was no different – everyone dressed in their brightest and best, like all the colors of the rainbow has sprung forth for the first time this very morning.  Old friends and new ones gathered with their families to hear the wonderful worship songs that poured forth and God’s Word to be shared by Pastor.  Pastor’s parents were in town visiting, and took their place of pride in the front row, fully immersed in the morning’s activities.  As Pastor got up to share the message, I watched as his sweet Mama snapped 2 quick and quiet photos on her cell phone – no different as if her boy stepped up for his first at bat.  I chuckled to myself, how cute that whole interchange was, as she showed Papa how they’d turned out.   Then I thought to myself how no matter what we do, or where we go, we are always our parent’s children.  We can be playing a Little League game, landing that first million dollar deal, or preaching to the masses on Easter – we are still that love of our parent’s eye.

This is how God sees us every single day.  This…it’s so simple, and yet so complex.  God loves us…it’s easy to say and complicated to comprehend.  God LOVES us – when we hit a home run, when we land that big deal, when we preach in His name, sure…but also when we fall short and tell a lie because we’re scared of the consequence, when we steal because we’re hungry, when we make bad parenting decisions, when we don’t act in love as we should…and on and on and on.  He loves us so very much He sent Jesus – the most precious being to Him – to save us from ourselves.

And when we chose Him, He’s standing there with His camera at the ready, snapping photos for the memory albums – photos of pride and honor.  Photos to share with us for all eternity.  Look, my son…remember when you shared a meal with that stranger?  I was so very proud of you!  Oh my daughter…I remember the time you turned away from alcohol and turned to me.  I love you so!

I am so humbled by this knowledge – that I am loved by my Father in Heaven, on the good days and the bad, and He cannot wait to celebrate with balloons and confetti upon my arrival.  Shoot, if we can do this cool of a job celebrating here, I can hardly imagine what a Heavenly celebration might be like.    I do know it will be quite a sight to behold!

Pruning is Painful, but Glory Remains

So when we bought our house back in 2003, one of my favorite things about the yard was this gorgeous Japanese maple tree perched lovingly in the front of the Bay window.  I have no idea of its age, but if I had to speculate, I would say it’s about 20 years old or so.   Each spring I marvel at its transformation, from stark barrenness and limbs of almost charcoal with wiry cherry tips, to forked buds of deep forest green, yearning for permission to lunge forward and grasp the crisp pale yellow sun.

By this time of the summer, the leaves have begun their fall ensemble, and incredible hues of greens and reds line the tree from trunk to treetop.  The visual unveiling is an emotional undertaking, and I feel blessed to have a front row seat each season to all of God’s bounty.

For several reasons, that tree has become the focal point of the yard.  There are no other trees in our yard, and the children knew from an early age this tree was very special.  ‘We don’t play on this tree,’ you’d hear the children tell their friends.  Just about every single ‘First Day of School’ photo and every other special occasion photo centers around that tree.  It’s like a member of the family, plain and simple.

In October of 2011 we had an early and extremely severe ice storm that wreaked havoc and devastation across much of New England.  Power lines were dropped to the ground like threads; large long-standing oaks were snapped in half like twigs; roofs collapsed from the tremendous weight of this ice – the damage figures soared into the millions.

As you can imagine, my precious sole standing maple took a hit – one of its two main branches cracked under the weight of the ice it was forced to bear.  The crack did not sever the limb, however, but left it crippled and limping…in need of swift attention.  In my absence, the decision was made to sacrifice the limb in order to attempt to save the remaining tree.  When I saw what had happened, and the choice that was made, I was initially destroyed.  A flood of emotions filled me: anger at the destruction, mourning at the loss of such beauty, disappointment at the decision made.

It was a very difficult winter, and I could no longer bear to gaze out my window at my beloved tree that once held so much joy.  Cloaked in my anguish, as spring approached, I missed all the little signs that were sent for my benefit – signs of new life, rebirth.  That tree wasn’t just surviving, it was thriving.  Even with the loss of half of itself, it was shining in the face of disappointment.  It was staring its critics down, and being all that it could be, despite the odds against it.

And today, even though it remains one of the smallest trees on the block – it is missing its entire left side and it is completely devoid of leaves on its backside – it is still the most beautiful.  Other bigger, taller, seemingly stronger trees have fallen despite their best attempts to the contrary.  This tiny Japanese maple – it stands victorious – all because no one ever told it it could not.

I was looking at my dear tree this morning, and thinking just how parallel this tree is to my life lately.  I experienced an ‘amputation’ of sorts a few years back, and though it might not have been my choice at the time, looking at my standing compared to the rest of the block, I am thriving and standing the tallest I have ever stood.  I haven’t physically grown an inch, but my soul and spirit have surpassed Shaq for sure.

Pruning, though often not our first choice, many times saves the life of what is being trimmed.  The process is painful, as dead or dying parts are cut away, without the benefit of anesthesia.   We can be left bewildered, wondering why we have to experience trimming at all.  But once completed, as new growth begins, we can see why the process was necessary, even critical.

John 15:2 states “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”  God’s goal is to make us as fruitful as possible; to bring forth our best so that we thrive; most of all, to bring Him glory.

This is a picture of my tree these days:

And this is me:

We’re both a shadow of our former selves; lean, mean fighting machines; little engines that could.  Just try and get in our way.

“I Will Not Give What Costs Me Nothing”

‘But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.’                        -2 Samuel 24:24

This has been an absolutely fantastic week for me.  Starting last Saturday I spent the better part of my day donating time to a Back to School event my church sponsored, partnering with a local Elementary school in need.  We as a group were able to provide backpacks & supplies, games, activities, lunch, and a tiny piece of Jesus – all in the 90+ degree temperatures that soared throughout the day.  I had done a table offering special education advocacy, and though I’ve been away from public advocacy for several years now, it felt just like home to offer up my gifts to those who might be in need.  Even though it was ridiculously hot and the work was long, I left there feeling blessed and rejuvenated.

By Monday a wild idea began to circle through my brain.  I’ve been feeling really good, both physically and mentally lately.  I thought it might be time to raise the stakes and take on a new physical task, if my doctor approved, of course.  As luck would have it, I had an appointment that very day, and my check-up came back as glowing as I felt.  I asked permission to participate in the Hartford Marathon coming up in October, deciding that I just might be able to complete walking the Half Marathon in the allotted time.  Of course, I’m not looking to win any medals – I simply want to challenge myself to do more than I’ve done before.  I’d basically been walking a 5K every other day as it was, so this seemed like the next logical step.

Looking back over the last few years, I’ve lost 110 pounds and had 8 heart procedures.  The fact that I can walk at all and still breathe should bring God glory…and that’s my job.  My mother dropped dead with no warning of this same heart disease I have, 4 years younger than I am now.  My father struggled for every single gasp of breath as he died almost 4 years ago.  I know countless people who are obese and can barely move, who have COPD and can barely breathe; while I can, you better believe I am going to move.

So Monday night I hit the track, not exactly sure what my plan was.  I just knew I needed to get moving, farther and faster than I had been.  The race is 13.1 miles…my current average was 3.  Monday night I walked 6 miles, and I didn’t die.  Tuesday I woke up, not dead, and went back to the track, where I walked another 6 miles, this time faster.  I was breathing, I was singing, I was talking and I was laughing (maybe a little too much…some of those young chippies started to stare!)

Wednesday I took the night off, got dressed up and went out to laugh with a friend – a great night.

Thursday I pushed myself back to the track.  It was a little harder to get going, but once I was underway, I walked 7.5 miles.

As you can imagine, as I’m walking I have plenty of time to think – about all kinds of things.  I think about this decision I’ve made to try this Marathon.  I like saying the word ‘Marathon’ in conjunction with my name.  I am no athlete.  I was the little smart fat girl growing up.  Heck, that’s who I’ve been most of my life.  I’ve watched from the sidelines at my kids sporting events: soccer, football, basketball, baseball – mostly in amazement at the way they and the other athletes can move their bodies through space.

Several years ago I started taking karate with the kids, first in their ‘kid’ class with them, and then joining the ‘adult’ class, but even then I certainly was not athletic.  I could never find my center of gravity, my balance is awful, and my learning style is multifaceted, so merely watch-then-do does not work for me – I am currently a purple belt as my classmates have far surpassed my level long ago.

But like this Marathon, and much like my life, no one else runs MY race besides me.  I was given all the tools I ever needed to complete MY race.  Some days MY race will be slow, more of a shuffling pace, and I may not cover much ground.  Other days, MY race will look more like a sprint, and all you will see of me is a blur of curly red hair flailing in the wind.  I’ve learned with time and experience that I cannot phone it in.  Though my talents look different than others, that in no way diminishes my responsibility to use them.

That brings me to the title of this piece.  In May I was visiting my family in South Carolina, and heard a lyric from a song in church that resonated with me.  Tracking it down, I find it’s from Desperation Band’s latest album, a song called ‘Break Open.’  In the song, they’re speaking of offering empty sacrifices to God.  He knows what He’s gifted us with, and He knows what our best looks like – in all things.  He doesn’t ask for sacrifice because He needs it – He asks for sacrifice for obedience sake.  If we’re only willing to give God what we have left over, that’s a direct slap in the face to our Creator.  He wants our best, our first, our everything.

As I do my laps on the track, lost in my countless thoughts, calculating how many of the 13 miles I might actually complete in the 3 hours allotted before the medical support dissipates, I start to contemplate what my best effort would look like, instead of simply enough.  I realize I’ve been looking at this whole thing all wrong.  If I focus on doing my best, giving my best, and asking for strength to turn in my best, that is exactly what I will do.  Nowhere are we promised that getting there will be easy.  Anything worth having – better relationships, better health, lasting values – always costs us something.  If we are not willing to sacrifice, the ‘prize’ most likely is short-term.  I’m so much more into hitching my wagon onto things that are made to last.

I can’t wait to see what training next week brings…

Getting to Gray

The last few days have been a series of revelations for me.  I know every day should be a revelation of sorts, but some days I’m pretty thick, set in my own thoughts, my own ways, often bogged down in my own junk so much I have trouble seeing over the piles I’ve created for myself.  But these last two days there’s been a clearing of sorts, and I can’t keep quiet about it anymore.

One of my Pastors preached this morning on a very sensitive topic for this world, homosexuality, and he did a phenomenal job.  The irony was that it was his last sermon at our church, as he and his family are moving to a new job, a new state, and this, as he plainly stated, would clearly not have been his choice of topics to leave his legacy upon.  And while I have my thoughts and beliefs on this topic, I don’t want to write about that tonight.  What I do want to take away from his message, however, were his exceptional parables and use of visual aids, and how relevant they are to what I’ve been revealing in my own walk.

For most of my life, I have been a self-professed ‘black and white’ viewer of the world.  Things were simply wrong or right – and each of us came down squarely on one side of that clearly drawn line or the other, with little room for ambiguity.  And while it’s been explained to me prior to now that the world exists much more in an area of grayness, I struggled with my delineation and my vantage-point so much that there was little room for the grace necessary to view that gray…until this point in my life.

The examples given today’s sermon were so telling: how we manage to draw our lines in ‘waves’ to allow for what we view as acceptable into our area, and back out for what we clearly think is less than.  The dilemma, however, is that these lines are drawn by us…by men…with all our failings and shortcomings.  When God originally drew this straight unwavering line, He allowed for grace by way of a ‘door’ – Jesus – for we sinners to pass to the good side.  When I stand in judgment of someone who fails my ‘moral line’ test, I have no ‘door,’ no safe passage for people to overcome what I have deemed appropriate behavior.  I can be as ‘moral’ as I’d like to appear, but if not for that doorway left open for me, every minute of every day, I am nothing more than those I quickly, mindlessly cast over the line.

God wants us to care about people – on both sides of the line.  Without Him we have nothing, plain and simple.  We can do all the right things, live what by worldly standards, appears to be the best lifestyles, but without an eternal destination, that line might as well be a spiral staircase to nowhere.  If we don’t learn how to extend grace, love and compassion as Jesus did to those who live differently than we do, we are not in obedience to God’s will.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

I have been working on this behavior of mine – this judgment I do in silence – for months now.  Yesterday as I relayed the story of my week to my therapist, I was overcome with many emotions.  I was talking about how tired I am of being strong; of always being the bigger person; of how this whole process of going to court month after month is wearing me out physically and emotionally, and that I just cannot continue to do it any longer; that I am thankful to have someone in my life that is simply my companion – that cares for me in little ways that were taken for granted for so long I forgot what it felt like to be cared about in such tiny, insignificant ways; that I don’t want to keep fighting and I want to let the kid’s dad come to events and not feel like I’m doing something wrong.  I looked up and she was smiling, and then she said the nicest thing she’s ever said…”You’re gray now.”  My instinct was to argue, because I know I still have a lot of work to do…but for just a moment, I let that sink in.

If this experience, this current season has taught me anything, it’s that we all have room for growth.  I have gained so much over the last 26 months – the greatest being happiness.  But not to be forgotten are also strength, self-confidence, self-worth, a better relationship with my children, a good beginning on determining my value, forgiveness of myself and pride in who I am.  Never again will I let another person define me.  And hand-in-hand with that, I do not define who anyone else is.  My challenge is to love others, as Jesus loved them.  As my Pastor said today, I’m going to trust the One who drew the moral line for me, and get out of the judgment business.

My Nephew…the Graduate

I have known you every day of your life.  I have watched you blossom from a wish and a prayer before you were even born from within the womb of your Mother.  I witnessed you spring forth into this amazing world full of promise (with the biggest head we had all ever seen!) and I cherished the moments as you learned to navigate that same world full of wonder, intrigue and the smallest bit of spunk.  It was obvious you had gotten those traits from me – your favorite Aunt – but I digress.

Academically you have certainly found your way, rising to the occasion to meet each and every challenge placed before you.  You never left a stone unturned in your quest for knowledge, and your excellent performance throughout these last four years has solidified your place in an exceptional program in Clemson University, and I certainly could not be more proud.  You will go forth, you will be a mover and a shaker for the next generation, and I have less fear knowing that a young man of your caliber will lead those that come behind him to a vision seen early on and never once given up on.

Athletically, you left every single thing you had on the field, each and every time.  Whether it was baseball, soccer or football – you gave it everything you had and then 20% more for the team.  Your unfailing giftedness is a tremendous God-given talent, and I know you have appreciated this high school experience with these very friends – this ‘family’ to share this last year of lasts with – the ultimate prize being the Football Championship.  I will truly miss routing on “My #55” from afar each Friday night, but I will ready myself to route you on in different ways, in different endeavors, but still filled with the same love that has always been there.

Dalton, as I observe you as a person, a young man – I can only say how pleased I am at the choices you’ve had in your life, how grateful I am for the parenting nuggets you chose to retain and take to heart, at the courage of your convictions that drives your decision making process, and how you remain unphased by the world and its attempts to derail you and your goals.  Always stay true to yourself, and God will honor your decisions.

You have accomplished something incredible here, and in such a way that merits recognition.  You are a leader among your peers, a stand-up guy, and someone any of the lower classmen would be crazy not to emulate.  Accept this responsibility and use it to its fullest potential, in college, in life, in the working world – wherever!

In closing, you are an admirable man.  You are an honorable man.  You are the kind of man I want my son to aspire to be, and that I want my daughters to be drawn to.  You are loving and giving.  You are well-prepared for your future, and because of this you will go far.  God will continue to bless your obedience to Him as you continue to seek His face.  Your foundation is strong and your pathway is clearly marked.  I cannot wait for the next seasons to be revealed.

I love you, Dalton.  I love who you have grown to become.  I wish nothing but the best for you at Clemson, and if you find things get a bit too rough, I always have your back.

Love Always,

Aunt Melissa

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He Heals the Brokenhearted

Psalm 147:3  (MSG)

2-6 He heals the heartbroken
and bandages their wounds.
He counts the stars
and assigns each a name.
Our Lord is great, with limitless strength;
we’ll never comprehend what he knows and does.
God puts the fallen on their feet again
and pushes the wicked into the ditch.

I am about as broken as a person can be today.  All my ideals have been smashed to the ground and stomped on in a public spectacle.  I don’t know which emotion to feel more fully – embarrassment, heartbreak, disappointment, disdain, anguish, disillusionment, disgust – they all seem relevant and yet so far away from me at the moment.  I am numb and overflowing with sadness.  Sadness for myself, for my children, for the plight of the justice system, for the path of this country…

While I am now legally able to reveal the details, I don’t think I can in this post…everything is still too raw and new.  I just need to write down this experience – to express how this step – these 24 hours have been in the path of seeking righteousness.  And how truly empty and dirty I feel at the end of the process – not what I had anticipated at all.

See, though I have strived to live a life of truth, to be that example of truth for my children and those around me, ultimately NO ONE within the walls of the Justice System cared about truth when all was said and done.   The irony of it all – the part that snaps my brain like a twig – is that I told a lie yesterday in front of a Superior Court Judge.  I plead to a charge I was not guilty of, accepted responsibility for something I most certainly had not done, and along with that plea, gave up 3 more years of my career potential.  Faced with 2 impossible choices, I had no other option but to choose the least damning to my children and my friends, all of whom would be swept into the wake of evil and hurt this system was intent on inflicting upon me.

God has molded me into an incredibly strong woman, and for this I am eternally thankful.  But there are days, like now, when I fall to my knees, broken and bruised – after giving my best effort for the last 26 months – and my heart and my brain are having a difficult time rectifying what the point of all of this was.  I know all of the clichés…God has a plan, you’ll get through this, you’re better off…and while I might actually hold stock in a few of these, today, and perhaps tomorrow – I don’t care about those rote answers.

I want to know when our world stopped being about truth and doing the right thing.  I want to know when people like me, with good morals and high values, became obsolete.  I want to know when innocent people had to prove their innocence instead of the other way around.  I have never been someone who simply takes something at face value, and I don’t plan on changing that about myself now.  I’m not talking about fair or easy.  I’m talking about right and wrong.

What happened to me – the whole situation – was nothing but wrong.  I will get over it.  I will move past it.  I have forever been changed by it, as have my children.  But I will never accept that this is the way it is.  There is something very wrong with this world…very wrong.  And until more good people stand up and take notice, these wrongs will continue to happen – to all people.