Perspective. I love this picture from my recent trip to the central coast of California. It’s sort of an optical illusion, isn’t it? I mean, is the turtle really on a limb, in a grove of trees, perilously hanging who knows how far above the ground below?
There are times in my life when I feel like I am the one perilously hanging on a limb high above the ground without a safety net ~ feet dangling, nails gripping, ready to crash any moment. Recently I received a notice from our friendly taxing authority nicely requesting a tax return. Their request, nice as it was, included a deadline. I did all I could to meet the deadline, but I couldn’t reach our tax preparer to see if she had completed the return. I phoned. I faxed. I used snail mail. I emailed. Silence. The deadline date was quickly approaching and my grip on the limb was getting weak.
In addition to a tax deadline, we had plane tickets to go visit family and so it became even more important to get the return taken care of. I was losing sleep, worried about what would happen if we didn’t get the return filed ~ certainly there would be penalties. Would they also garnish our bank accounts? I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem, wondering if everything was okay with our tax preparer. What would we do if she were unable to prepare the return? Who could we trust to do it for us?
Finally the day had come ~ the next morning we would be flying out of town for over ten days, well past the deadline for our return to be filed and we still hadn’t heard a word from our tax preparer. I felt certain that the chance of getting another extension from the state was slim, but I didn’t have any choice but to try. With a knot in my stomach, I made the call.
Your call will be answered In approximately 17 minutes. If you would like to have a representative call you back, please leave your name and telephone number, the recorded message stated.
No, I thought, I better just wait and talk to a human being, no matter how long it takes.
Within a couple of minutes a pleasant sounding man answered the phone.
“Let’s see what we can do here,” he was so upbeat. I was so nervous. I rambled on about how I hadn’t heard from our preparer, how we were heading out of town to visit my mother-in-law who was celebrating her 86th birthday, how worried I was about getting this straightened out.
“Well,” he said, “no need to worry. Here, how about we give you a two month extension. That should give you enough time to get it in, don’t you think?” I was speechless! Two months was a gift of time I never expected!
“Now go on your trip and don’t worry.” I just couldn’t believe my ears. Then I decided to try calling our tax preparer one more time. Two rings and she answered the phone! Within an hour she emailed over a copy of our return for us to review on our trip.
Because of my limited view of the world, my perspective on the situation was narrow, negative and not right. I worried and wasted mental time and energy for nothing. It didn’t feel like nothing, it felt like I was barely hanging on a limb that hung high over the ground ready to crash any moment. But in reality, my limb was buoyed on water, gently being held afloat by the One who promises to meet my needs. You see, God’s perspective isn’t mine. When I have done all that I can do in a situation, and my perspective is limited, I need to trust the One who sees it all. Oh, and the turtle? He, too, was resting on a limb that was buoyed by water, but unlike me, he knew he was safe and so he didn’t have a care in the world.
The sun was shining and a light breeze blew back my hair. It felt great! I looked at the train tracks in front of me and felt grateful for the calm I felt inside. It wouldn’t be long before I would be clackety clack riding the train to my destination, something that my anxious thoughts kept me from enjoying the week before. It’s amazing what a week of adequate rest and sufficient quiet time can do for the soul!
As I waited for the train, a young man sat down on the bench next to me. He immediately engaged me in conversation and before long asked me what I had been reading; that’s when the conversation took an interesting turn.
“The Bible,” I said, “well, it’s really the Bible written in story format.”
“That’s probably good because no one can sit and just read through the Bible the way you could a novel,” he said. I could tell by his demeanor that we might have a differing philosophical view of the book. His next comment confirmed my suspicions.
“After all,” he said, “it’s not really…you know…I mean it’s not like…”
“Literal?” I offered.
“Yeah, they are like stories and metaphors and parables.”
“I think it’s literal,” I said. “I mean, sure there are parables and metaphors and stories, but I believe there are literal principles that can be drawn from them. And some parts are just straight literal.”
“But you can’t prove it. It’s just faith.”
“Every world view requires faith, even atheism. But based on the evidence I have seen, my belief in the God of the Bible requires the least amount of faith.”
“I think people should be allowed to believe whatever they want.”
“You know what?” I said. “I do, too. After all, God gives you and me and him and her and that person over there ~ He gives all of us the freedom to choose Him or not. Who am I to argue with God?”
He was an interesting young man, and by interesting I mean he made me a little uncomfortable, and not just because we had differing views on life. I can’t explain it but he just made me uncomfortable; still, I was willing to continue having a conversation while we waited for the train.
As if to catch me off guard, and looking me straight in the eyes, as he had been doing the whole time, he asked, “What do you think love is?”
I paused for a moment, again feeling uncomfortable, when suddenly the epitamy of love came to my mind.
“Jesus,” I said with confidence. His eyebrows raised.
“Jesus is love,” I continued. “He was perfect, never did a thing wrong, and yet he willingly suffered a torturous, humiliating death for people who would reject him and not return his love. That’s real love.”
“Yes, but in the garden he asked God if he really had to do it.”
“But that’s not all he said,” I corrected, “he finished by saying, ‘but not my will be done but YOURS.”
“But he was scared, he didn’t want to do it.”
“No, he didn’t. Don’t forget he was fully human and experienced all our emotions. Wouldn’t you be freaked out? He was so distressed he sweat blood.”
“Well, blood came out of his face,” he now corrected.
“Okay, he had drops of blood on his face. And yet, he still sacrificed himself.”
“You know what I think? I think that there is a universe and it is all around us and it knows everything that happens and what we think and what we do,” he said.
“I do, too, but what you choose to call ‘the universe’ I call God.”
By now the train came and the question shifted to “Is this our train?”
I am not sure if I verbalized my next thought or not before we boarded the train, but I hope I did.
It was, “And one day God will come back to judge us on all those things we did and the thoughts we had.”
I wish I had the chance to ask, “If the universe is keeping tabs on what we all do, then what’s good enough? By whose standards will you judge?” To me, that is a thought provoking question. And the follow up question, then what does the universe do once it has passed judgment?
A day of judgment is coming and the standard for judging isn’t arbitrary, as it is in so many other world views. The standard is perfect holiness. I can hear my young train traveler now, “No one can meet that standard!” He would be right, no one can.
And so we will be judged and we will be found guilty – let’s face it, even if we lowered the standard, how many of us can say we were even as good as we COULD or SHOULD have been? Everyone I know could be better; not even perfect, just better, and we can’t even meet that standard.
There we stand, found guilty, condemned for not meeting the standard. Yet, that is not the end of the story. Because of his great love for us, God made a way, he had a plan for our redemption, a perfect sacrifice who would pay the penalty for our guilt and do the time for us so we could go free. Jesus. Perfect. Perfect love. The Way. The only way. The way to reunite a broken, imperfect human being with a perfect and holy creator.
Oh, yes, friend, I also believe people should have the right to believe what they want – they should have the right to choose. They can choose to pay the penalty for their own imperfection or they can choose to accept the sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf. It’s a choice.
There is a train coming, a train bound for glory – the old African American spiritual called it The Gospel Train. Just like the train I am on now, it also has a destination – heaven. And just like today, for me and for my fellow travelers, a payment will be required to board; but only one form of payment will suffice on that train ~ Jesus. If you don’t have him, you ain’t gettin’ on. And yes, I’m being literal and metaphorical, my train traveling friend.
Thoughts. When I looked at the beauty all around me, I shook my head and sighed, thinking about how I might not have made it here to enjoy this part of God’s creation. I hiked up this hill located in a nearby state reserve and looked around in awe, grateful that God had found a way for me to be here. It wasn’t illness or a broken car that almost kept me from coming to the beautiful central coast of California ~ it was, and is, the fearful thoughts that seek to sabotage what God has planned for me.
You see, last week I was out of town, in the Midwest visiting family. It was a long week, and if truth be told, a bit of a stressful week. We arrived home on Sunday and my nerves were shot, my emotional basket drained but I didn’t have time to pause. Instead of unpacking, I began repacking to make the trip to Central California where I was scheduled to speak at three separate luncheons. The week in the San Luis Obispo area had been planned many months before, and when I think about it, was an answer to prayer from God for some quiet time to write and reflect. I was provided a lovely place to stay during the week, a refuge complete with a beautiful garden.
When my father heard that I was heading up here and had a place to stay, he decided to join me for the first few days of my trip. What a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with my Dad! And an added bonus was that I would only need to take the train to his house and he would drive the balance of the three hour trip. I would only need to take the train to his house…
That was the fearful thought that almost ruined it. If you can keep a secret, I will tell you something about myself. Sometimes I suffer from anxiety. Many years ago it was relentless and I was plagued with panic attacks. It hasn’t been that bad in a very long time, but there are times when I still struggle; especially when I am tired and emotionally drained and need to go outside my comfort zone. Like Sunday night.
At 1:30am I woke up. I can’t take the train, I thought. What if I have a panic attack on the train? What about transferring at Union Station? What if it happens there? What if? What if? What if? Until the alarm went off at 6am and it was time to continue packing so I could catch the train in a few hours; a train that my fearful thoughts had convinced me I couldn’t ride.
I ended up not taking the train and I am a little disappointed in myself for not, this time, pushing through the fear. Instead, my sweet husband made arrangements for a friend to drive me to my Dad’s. I’m not proud of this. I wish my story had a really great, dramatic paragraph about how I boarded that train with my luggage in tow and even shared my story of triumph with some other poor soul while we clackety-clack made our way to our destinations. But even so, God is so good and so gracious that He made a way for me to be here, in spite of my fearful thoughts.
I know I made it here on the prayers of friends and family. Their prayers brought me the peace and presence of mind to share my story with a sweet group of ladies at my speaking engagement yesterday; and their prayers will continue to carry me through the rest of the week.
I am feeling more rested, my time here with the Lord is refilling my basket. And that is why this morning I decided to walk up the street and hike up that mountain, in spite of fearful thoughts ~ mountain lions, the boogey man, my own anxiety. It was glorious! When a fearful thought emerged, I replaced it with a thought about the Lord. This thought thing is a process. It will take time and practice ~ and come Saturday I will have an opportunity to put the practice into play since I will be taking the train home. I am already imagining the dramatic and victorious paragraph I will write!
Accountability. Why? I asked myself. Why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut? I tried to justify my response by telling myself the following:
You know she is just so provocative.
You didn’t sleep well last night, or the night before.
If you didn’t have a headache you would have been more patient.
But there is no justification good enough. I just should have pulled out my spiritual duct tape and kept my mouth shut. You see, I was visiting family, people I love, people I want to see and visit and have in my life. People who, I believe, require a little bit of extra grace ~ just like I do sometimes.
After traveling and uneasy sleep and no good quiet time, I just wasn’t able to let the comment slide and I added my two cents. Not once, but twice ~ I don’t know, maybe even three times. Meanwhile, my poor husband is sitting silently between the heated discussion of two women he loves. Needless to say, I felt less than great about myself.
But the situation was a disaster waiting to happen. A California girl, stuck inside for too long because of a snow storm, no real sunshine or fresh air ~ I had reached the limit before I realized it. I didn’t realize that the storm outside was nothing compared to the turmoil inside. I needed to get out ~ in more ways than one.
“I’m going for a walk,” I told my husband. “The fresh air will do me good.” I can’t say he was sorry to see me go, and I don’t blame him. I bundled up as fast as I could and took to the streets. Literally. The sidewalks were buried in snow, so I had to walk in the street. I didn’t care. And I didn’t want to walk too far because, unlike in California where people curb their dogs, in the Midwest dogs are often allowed to run free. I love dogs, but not until we have been formally introduced. So I reduced my walk to the street where we were staying.
Up and down the street I paced, talking to myself as I went. It was a heated, ping pong conversation of “You know you shouldn’t…” with a quick volley back of “But she said this…or she is so that…”
I thought about my focus word for this week: accountability. I knew that regardless of the situation or the people in the situation, I was accountable for my own attitude. I knew this, but my attitude was still bad. So I kept walking.
There was a boy down the street shoveling snow off his driveway, home from school, no doubt, because of the snow. I must have passed him 20 times. I am sure he was beginning to suspect I was either crazy or a child abductor. I smiled and said “hi” and kept walking. After a while his father came out to help him. I’m not sure if he came out to really help or to be sure I really wasn’t some kind of threat. I’m sure other neighbors wondered about the crazy lady walking up and down the street. I didn’t care. The attitude of anger, bitterness and self-pity had blanketed my heart like the snow and I was determined to walk it off.
I got back to the house, still feeling the remnants of the storm inside me, not ready to go back in. I looked at the driveway covered with snow. It had been a long time since I had shoveled snow, and by long time, I could mean never.
I opened the front door.
“Jeff, when you get a second, can you set out a snow shovel?”
Scoop. Throw. Scoop. Throw. I pushed the shovel into the white snow with a vengeance. I heaved it over my shoulder with purpose, as though each shovelful represented a heap of bad attitude being tossed out. I scraped down to the cement, I shoveled one side to the other, I even shoveled the walkway. I like shoveling snow. The exercise felt great, the act of throwing the snow in a pile felt exhilarating, and when I was done I could see the fruits of my labor. That driveway was cleared of more snow and exposed more cement than any other driveway in the neighborhood. I finally sat down and admired my handiwork. The time had come to go inside.
It still wasn’t easy to keep my attitude in check and my tongue under control, but it was easier. I reminded myself that I was accountable ~ to God, to myself, to my husband ~ for my own attitude and words and I vowed to do better. I vowed to do better; but not on my own, because I know too well that on my own I am really not capable. Just ask my husband. But during my walk and shoveling the Lord reminded me that, with Him, I can do ALL things ~ even change a bad attitude. Thankfully, He also provided an endless supply of snow in case I need some extra help.