Seeking a Joyful Heart

Retirement is great! After working forty years, I now have the opportunity to choose to do that which I want to do. Even then, I can still decline if something doesn’t meet my expections – that was never an option while I was working. The problem now is finding the time to take advantage of all those opportunities! Whenever I am asked if I am working, I tell that person that I am “blissfully retired.”

With that status, however, comes a further obligation…and that is keeping up with what I’ve committed to do. Too often I have discovered that it is quite easy to slack off. Worse, when you already know you’re a procrastinator. When I get behind, I begin to feel pressured, frustrated, annoyed, impatient. These are times when it becomes easier to snap at someone who has no knowledge of my situation.

Today I am resolving (once again, as I attempt to organize my desk for the umpteenth time) to keep up with my commitments. Since I am doing things I want to do, staying on top of those things should be my joy.

Father, help me to commit to keep up with my daily, weekly, and monthly obligations, and to do so with a joyful heart. Help me to honor You by always being ready for whatever You send my way.

 “Give me your heart, my son, and let your eyes delight in my ways….” (Prov 23:26)

Be Still…and Seek to Trust

Trust does not come easily. The adage “once bitten, twice shy” comes to mind. Slowly, over a lifetime, we learn about it. Who is the person upon whom we always rely? Sometimes we misjudge a person, and we are devastated when that trust is shattered.

Trusting God is even more difficult. We can’t see Him – except in His works that are all about us. Actually hearing Him is a greater challenge. While He may speak strongly and directly to some, many of us struggle to know if it is God speaking to us, or instead, our determined free will rearing its insistent head. It is extremely difficult in this technological world to shut out the noise.

Try it for yourself. Shut off the radio, television, CD player, MP3 player, phone. Listen to the silence. You may find it most uncomfortable at first. You will also find that it is not easy to shut off the mental “list making” of things you need to do. Even looking around is often a distraction. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Quiet yourself.

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

 Begin paying attention to how your prayers have been, or are being answered – things not readily seen. When you realize that He does indeed answer prayer, and is always there, trust begins. Indeed,

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:10)

 Believe.

Trust.

Grow faith.

It is on Him we rely.

Is Less More?

I have never thought of myself as controlling.

Yet…my husband has said that he thinks I am. I will admit that the older I get, the more set in my ways I become. I feel I have (mostly) figured out “who” I am, and what I want, but it is very hard to give up that identity search that has taken me a lifetime to perfect. I do continue to try to hone the person I have become. Does that make me controlling?

I wonder if a controlling person has a more difficult time following biblical advice to trust in the Lord? How do I now stop this behavior that has taken me years to develop, and learn to patiently wait upon the Lord? Just how do I convince myself to NOT proceed toward a goal (in my own possibly hell-bent fashion), instead of stopping…listening…and trying to hear that which He is trying to tell me? How do I learn to long for, pray for, hope for, all of that to happen in His time? How do I listen for His voice? In a sense, how do I now stop being me?

Perhaps that is what Scripture means when it speaks of losing oneself (Matthew 16:25).

Lord God, I would agree that I need Your help. I am often headstrong and determined. Help me to die to my selfish desires, and to desire to live in You. Help me to want – for me – the same things that You want for me. Holy Spirit, open my eyes, and my ears that I might recognize and achieve Your nobler path.    

Christmas Miracles and Prayer

As 2014 comes to a close, I have become more and more convinced that the prayers of prisoners are special, and that God hears them.

This year I have been blessed to attend a fellowship and bible study with about forty prisoners each week. I’ve been impressed with the nature of these prisoners’ prayers, their subjects, and their reasons for praying the requests. These men have, for the most part, done their time. They are looking toward the future. They are anticipating a return to family, wife or girlfriend…a fresh start…a chance to begin again. Not only do they have concerns about their families, but for the world as well. They are aware of all that is going on in the news, and not only do they have opinions, but they really care. They actually want to pray for others. They no longer look at life through a veil of self-involvement or anger.  Now they desire to be part of the solution.

Throughout this past year I have listened with interest to prayer requests that range from needing emotional support as they await review by the parole board, to being highly concerned about family members who are ill or dying. The prayer request that stands out most, however, is one that was made repeatedly throughout the year by one of the volunteers. Her brother had been diagnosed with cancer, and he had persistently resisted turning to God. Our volunteer continued – just as persistently – to ask for prayers that her brother would eventually come to know the Lord. The brother rallied for a while and was able to enjoy a gathering of family at Thanksgiving. Then he took a turn for the worse. He made it to Christmas. Blessings be to God, he did turn to his heavenly Father shortly before his death!

These men also recognize when prayers have been answered, and they joyfully tell of their blessings. To watch as these men grow spiritually is a delight. It warms the soul to witness this. I have a strong streak of skeptic that runs down my back, but, being privy to this faith-filled community has allowed me to see the power of prayer at work.

I have had a special intention for which I’ve been silently praying for some time. Last night I shared my own need for prayer with one of the men there. I told him that if he wanted to pray for me, he could pray for my special intention – and this morning I had a revelation that clarified something huge for me. Coincidence? I think not.

“For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.” Psalm 69:33

Yes, I believe God hears our prayers…including the prayers of prisoners!

From the Depths…

Pain from chronic loneliness does not easily go away. For me, it is especially more difficult throughout the holiday season. Poignant and warm memories flood from the past – and remind me of happy moments and people dear to me. Then I look about me at this often unfeeling and materialistic world, and I am brought coldly back to the reality of the present.

I would like to think that, while I have my low moments, I will always bounce back on my own, but there are times when I become so filled with emotion, that I must find a body to listen to me. Not being someone who opens up to very many, very often, the listener I choose has to be the right one. I also must remember to take the time to consider any response I receive from that listener.

I had just such an experience recently. Feeling my own defenses kicking in from a bout of hurt and anger, my chosen listener helped me to see that I was doing to the person who hurt me, the very same thing – and I hadn’t seen it!

That was one of those “aha” moments.

“And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye,but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:30

Indeed, God seems at times to have a rather perverse sense of humor. But He also hears us when we pray. I had in fact asked for guidance, and I received it.

“O Lord, Thou has searched me and known me.” Psalm 139:1

I urge anyone who is feeling imprisoned by their demons – whatever they may be – to reach out, especially during the holiday season. Seek out a friend or a counselor. And remember, you are never alone.

Who is Your Mentor?

They come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. Regretfully, I used to think that I had never really had anyone in my life who would have counted as a mentor, other than my father. But I have come to realize that I have actually had many who mentored me – in bits and pieces.

I learned responsibility and duty from my mother, creativity and believing that I could be anything I chose to be from my dad. I found a great humanitarian in books I read by Dr. Thomas A. Dooley. Through the years I learned to respect diversity. Grade school and high school teachers were Dominican nuns who really cared how we all turned out and made an effort with each of us. Aunts and a cousin encouraged my writing. The parents of a close friend treated me as their own and shared their family with me when mine was quite sparse. Time and again I witnessed the impact of treasured friendships on loved ones around me. In more recent years, I received selfless help from countless sources in creating a book, having it published, and marketing it. None of those things would ever have happened otherwise. And through church friendships and prison ministry I have discovered individuals I know I want to emulate.

Though there has been no single, stand-out person in my life, I have reaped all the benefits of mentorship. I have been taught how to behave, and how to dream. I have learned certain tasks, and been exposed to new ideas. I have found people to love, and heroes to admire. Great or small, the role of a mentor shows another how to be.

To mentors everywhere, and especially to those who have impacted my life, I say thank you. My life is richer today because of you.

Renewal

I’ve never had occasion to have to defend my religion, so I often wonder, just how much do I believe? 

I am confident that God has watched over me throughout the years, and that everything that has happened, in some way fits snugly into His Grand Plan. We are told that we are of more value than sparrows and the lilies of the fields, so perhaps I shouldn’t worry…but I do.

For years I did my own thing – which I’m certain was not God’s thing. I had my own agenda and was sticking to it.

Today I am more content trying to be cognizant of others’ needs. Today it seems more important to look around me and be able to see what I can do for others.

Yet I continue to struggle. I do read the bible more often now, and I believe I am more aware. Jesus’ question, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works?” has become a guideline by which I now choose to live.

But Jesus, help my unbelief!  I feel untested and weak. Am I a hypocrite because I doubt my value to others? How long would I stand for the Lord under duress? So many others seem to believe so much more strongly than I do! Yes, I feel I am among those who seem to be “of little faith.”

Recently, however, I was given a gift of hope. The men at the prison just completed their Keryx weekend. As one by one, they recounted their reactions to the weekend for our fellowship group, many were still glowing. One man stood up to tell us that, when someone believes in you and encourages you, you are able to keep going. Gradually, you then begin to believe in yourself. What a wonderful testimony! My guess is that many who are in prison simply have never had someone to believe in them or be a role model for them. The male volunteers who give of their time over the Keryx weekend often provide this kind of model.

I love being a part of this fellowship group. My hope is that if, by my faithful attendance and example, I can be the smallest of lights to someone who is still seeking his way, and provide encouragement, then perhaps I will make a difference and maybe even move a mountain or two.

That is my hope. With that, I am refreshed and renewed.

Pondering the Past

I’ve heard that hindsight is “twenty-twenty.” I’d concur with that because if we had the ability to have such insight ahead of time, we’d realize so much sooner that God really does have a Master Plan. Regardless of whether or not we see purpose in each day’s events, they do indeed seem to happen for a reason.

I saw a question posed recently that asked “which ten books have remained with you?” As my mind wandered around this question, I found myself pondering my job history as well and why they all happened. Books and jobs taught me so much about myself. They molded me into the person I am today.

The Diary of Anne Frank and several books by Dr. Thomas Dooley probably had the most impact on me early on. Each of those books opened my eyes to man’s inhumanity to man. I didn’t understand how our own species could treat other human beings so horribly. Growing up in the 1960’s I also saw prejudice and discrimination right in my own backyard, and I observed beggars on the streets of downtown – begging amidst the often unheeding bustle of businessmen and women and shoppers.

As my work history grew, I gained experience working with developmentally disabled, mentally ill, physically handicapped, drug users, patients in hospitals and nursing homes, the poor, and the homeless. Once again, within my immediate surroundings I encountered gay and lesbian individuals, the emotionally struggling, alcoholics, and others who were spiritually broken.

When I look back now, it seems to have been a very thorough education in Life and Brokenness. It also was great preparation for relating to prisoners who, in one way or another, have more than likely encountered at least one of those conditions. I may never have been a drug user, discriminated against,  hungry, or homeless but I now know people who were.

And now I worship with prisoners.

I’ve questioned myself, and God as well, wondering what I might have to offer prisoners? I think I now know the answer. I had great parents, a good education, and many positives in my life growing up. I have seen where those things lead, and where lives go without them. I enjoy getting to know peoples’ stories. I’m eager to listen, to encourage, and to believe in others. I have learned that, too often, that may have been all they ever needed…but never had. Whatever my presence lends to their lives, this journey has opened my eyes and my heart to so many – and my soul feeds on that!

I am thankful to have been shown life’s hills and valleys. I have been able to open my heart to many whose lives have been less satisfying and more challenging than mine. Best of all, I get to be a part of lives that have been discarded or rejected by others. Yes…God did indeed have a Master Plan, and He even provided a most thorough educational opportunity for me! I am indeed blessed.

Haven of Hope

One might think that a prison is the least likely place a person would find God, but, for me it has become a haven of hope.

Each week when I attend the prison bible study with Level I men, I am repeatedly struck by the sincerity, humility, awareness, and general appreciation that these men have of their lives, and of their journey with God.

Perhaps because I have been praying for a way to find a deeper faith, I have been hearing a medley of doubt run through my head. It is as though the closer I get to finding something very special, the more active in my life Satan has become!

The men I visit are encouraged merely by the volunteers’ presence. That isn’t enough to satisfy me, however. I feel so ill-equipped to be of any help to them! In my head, I am a person who has not had a loved one imprisoned, nor have I lived “on the edge.” I’ve always been law-abiding, gotten good grades in school, and had positive role models. How can I relate to men who have committed robbery, sexually abused another person, or gone back to prison time and again for driving under the influence?

Perhaps, though, I am the right person to be there – precisely because of my background. I know the way I grew up, the way it should have been for so many of these men. Maybe, just maybe, they will see in me something they never had, but want in their lives. Perhaps if there were more people to show them that they truly can turn their lives around, and to show them how to do it, we would have less folks who return time after time to prison.

I don’t mean to say that I know it all. I don’t. But I don’t see the crimes when I look at these men. I see men who have had very positive experiences with religion. I see men who are looking toward a future where they won’t be returning to this lifestyle. I see individuals who have thought a great deal about what they did, about what led them to doing it, and how they intend to change their lives so that they won’t return to prison. I see men who are trying to be better individuals, and men who are good examples. Some are so fired up to know God! Of those men, I am envious. When we face each other to sing, I look around at the many faces and I have to believe I actually see God. I see beautiful creations in whom God is working mightily. How could I not feel hope?

I feel hope for these men, that, when they leave, they will know better lives. I feel hope because THESE are the men I see being released from prison. I feel hope that they will be able to hold onto all that they have gained and use it for good. I even feel hope for me because, if Satan is working so hard to try to cause me to doubt myself – and God -then perhaps one of these days I will have that same glow many of these men have as they prepare to lead new lives…with Christ as their companion.

Heaven…and YOU!

I am reading Surprised by Grace by Elizabeth Sherrill. It recounts her transformation to becoming a believer. I am taking a stunningly beautiful walk, traversing steps of her past. In this insightful memoir, one of her questions is “What is your heaven?”

I imagine many responses would include feelings similar to mine where I hope to someday see certain loved ones once again. Beyond that immediate thought, however, I must confess I never thought enough about such a question to clarify its details for myself, let alone anyone else. One speculation the author suggests is that heaven is different for everyone. For instance, an avid reader might envision being surrounded by books. Another idea is that each of us will have a purpose when we get there. I am intrigued by both ideas.

A part of me wonders if this earthly life is given to us merely to BEGIN to see what we are best at, what we are passionate about, and how we would like to live if we had the opportunity to do it all again. What a delightful concept to think that our past – even our mistakes – have been with purpose! That would mean that the life I have recently begun to see as two-thirds spent has not been wasted. It has taken me so very long to find a path that seems to work – even, at that, I am only a “newbie” – and I have such a long, long way to go on that path, now that I’ve only just begun!

Have you envisioned what your heaven will be like? I invite you to share your thoughts….