Sunday, February 26, 2012


The mittens in my trunk supplied all the evidence needed for the indictment. Their warm layers, from the soft Thinsulate inner lining to the weather-resistant nylon shell, had been shredded to bite-sized crumbs that now littered the floor. Annoyed, I snatched up my down jacket for an inspection. Phew! The mouse hadn't munched on it.

My dad advised me to haul in everything chewable from my car...and I thought I had. Still, each time I got into my car after that, I found more evidence of the unwanted resident. Papers from my trash bag shredded on the floor. Scat underneath the driver's seat. More holes in cloth items I hadn't noticed when I cleaned out the trunk.

The first time I set traps, I found the peanut butter licked off clean, the trigger still set and ready to fire. The second time it happened, I brought the traps in for inspection. My dad and I played around with them for awhile to see how to work around the poor, hard-to-trip design (a "safety" feature?). I didn't reset them right away...and then, well...I guess I forgot about it.

The kitchen at church belies the presence of mice, too. Last month we came in to find one of the ladies wiping the counters with bleach. We have to wash out the dishes before we use them to serve the fellowship meal. The deaconesses keep saying they're going to get some traps or poison and dispatch the church mice.

Curled up on the couch in the youth room yesterday after lunch, I thought I detected a slight movement on the floor. Not feeling well, I didn't really want to sit up and check it out. No problem—I still got a good viewing. The mouse scurried into the middle of the room, looked around, then arced back toward the other couch and sat looking at me from the safety of the shadows. His perfect little profile made me smile: big, funneled ears; plump body; long, slender tail; and pointy nose twitching as he looked sweetly on.

Then I remembered who he was. Dragging myself up, I shuffled out to the kitchen to tell the ladies about the sighting. "Why didn't you catch it?" they laughed.

Nestled again on the comfy couch, I got another good sighting of my little friend. I don't know why I went to tell the other women again. When I saw them involved in conversation, I simply turned and went back to my hideout. This time, the mouse kept hidden, too.

Stretched out on my own bed later that evening, I thought again about the mice. When I remembered the damage to my mittens, the evasion of the traps, and the troubles they caused in the church, I felt silly for my affection for the cute mouse in the youth room. A more stereotypical response would have been a shriek; a more appropriate emotion, disgust. But that mouse, I liked. If he could promise not to do any damage, I'd want him to stay.

But of course he can't promise that. He's a mouse! Mice belong outside my car, outside of buildings, and certainly outside the church—the way sin belongs outside my heart. If either one is caught inside, they've got to be exterminated.

And then it hit me. Just this week I'd been admiring a cute little sin. I let it stick around awhile, just looking and thinking how it didn't seem to be hurting anything. Most sin, I agree, is raunchy. But this? I shamefully admit it—I found this little sin rather sweet.

I'd had a talk with God about it, told Him I didn't understand what could be wrong with what I wanted permission to do. When He didn't seem to answer, I realized I needed to take His written Word for it. Wrong is what God defines as wrong—not what I see as hurtful. And then, once I repented and surrendered, He let me see how my cute little sin really did hurt people.

A few days later, as an extra reminder, He sent a cute mouse to reinforce the lesson.

I found the mouse traps again today, and set them out in my car. I've been too laid back about these critters, but now I'm ready to take them on. Once I dispatch the car mouse, I'll take the traps to church, as well.

More importantly, I'm going to restock my spiritual defenses with prayer, watchfulness, and memorization. I've been too lackadaisical there too, or else I wouldn't have found my sin the slightest bit cute. Mice chew up fabric and dirty up buildings. Sin tears and smudges the human soul. I can't afford to let it stick around my heart!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Hidden Grime

Company: the kind of people you clean your house for. Prestigious company: the kind who motivate you to scour it. When I got out the long-armed feather duster on Friday, Mom thanked me but said she intended to dust properly today. So, putting away the "quick 'n' dirty" tool, I got out the rags and oil soap.

Although it had been awhile since we'd formally dusted, the house really looked fine to me. After all, we don't burn wood for heat, and the snow and mud haven't given the road a chance to kick up plumes of dust. Never mind. We had company tomorrow.

Maybe it's because we always keep the dishes washed and the rooms picked up and tidy; or perhaps I don't notice the grime my mom sees because the place doesn't belong to me. Still, I think it's more than that. In the absence of grandkids, our house is a never mess, because Mom doesn't give it the chance to get truly dirty. But for company, of course, we'd make it perfect.

I expected to fly through Friday's dusting and be on to the next task; but today, of course, I had to be extra thorough. The first rag collected more filth than I'd expected to find in all the house! The crevices in the wooden furniture had actually accumulated thick layers. The feather duster hadn't gotten up close underneath the candles and other knickknacks. The lampshades had a thin film I'd never noticed before I started cleaning.

Most shocking of all were the corners. Behind the draping leaves of a viney houseplant I found cobwebs, dog hair, dead ladybugs, and wads of dust caked onto the legs of the plant stand. How could such grime be hidden in our cleanly dining room? Why had I never even partially noticed it? The ordinary film on the horizontal surfaces I'd seen and intended to whisk away—but this was no typical accumulation of dust. This was filth.

Hidden grime, obscured behind the beautiful, trailing leaves of a plant I've often admired. Even the best of housekeepers could miss it—till the leaves were drawn aside. It probably would have stayed hidden longer, if it hadn't been for the company, because no one would have investigated behind those lovely leaves.

It felt like an insult, finding that hidden grime in our clean house. Insult? Hmm...maybe a rebuke. Not that we'd put the plant there to hide the filthy corner; we'd simply forgotten to clean the corner because the plant had it covered so well. Neglect, all the same.

This time, I lingered in that corner, carefully cleaning away the grime. I didn't mind the work, because it inspired deeper thoughts. How many corners hide filth in my mind, my character, my soul? Behind the traits that others admire, what grime have I stashed away? Bitterness, resentment, egotism, jealousy, lust, pride, distrust, unbelief? Do I even know myself what's there—or have I been satisfied with my good housekeeping?

It takes extra investigation to find dust in the soul I've always tried to keep tidy. It's not intuitive to peek behind my strong points and check for ghastly faults and sin-inflicted wounds. Still, it's worth the probing. After all, a prestigious Visitor wants to be my guest. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me" (Revelation 3:20).

Then again, I need His help to find and eliminate my hidden grime. I think I'll just let Him in "as is," and we can work on those corners together.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tears of the Soul

"Your Aunt Janis is in the newspaper!" Mom handed me the Saturday issue of the Des Moines Register.

From the headline, I knew why my aunt had made the state news. Aunt Janis heads up the annual Suicide Survivors' Walk in Des Moines, Iowa each year, and she speaks regularly on suicide and drug abuse at churches, schools, and special events. I scanned the article, looking for a quote with my aunt's name behind it.

Instead, I found a whole page full of the stories of teen suicides. Not a line or two, but several paragraphs had been devoted to Neil Linquist. I tried to distract myself by reading other stories, but my cousin's name in bold type drew my eyes back. My throat constricted and my stomach tightened. It was like seeing his obituary all over again. As I read the column of print, I marveled at my aunt's courage to travel around the state telling his story in unashamed detail. Forcing down the last few bites of breakfast, I fled to my room.

Falling to my knees, I burrowed my head in my elbow and leaned against my the bed. Bitter tears and sobs shook my torso as memories of my little cousin played in my mind's theater. Would it ever be possible to "get over" this pain? Other hurts I have grieved over, forgiven, and nearly forgotten—others I am still working through. But more than six years since the day I got the horrific phone call, I found myself weeping as though it had been last month.

My mind drifted back to the days, weeks, and months following my trip to the funeral. The first few days, my friends had been sympathetic and freely asked how well I'd been coping. But all too soon I had found myself alone to deal with my pain—states away from my family, surrounded by an environment that felt too awkward to rehash the pain. I could understand. I wouldn't have known what to say to me either. Still, my ragged heart yearned for someone to listen and not act self-conscious about my family's dark sorrow.

I wanted to be able to share the tears of my soul. Instead, I cried them into my bottled heart and sealed the lid.

I'm not alone. Those few special people who share their hearts with me tell me of deep chasms of pain, anger, and confusion that go unspoken to the world. In the lives of many who don't tell me, I can read the story of neglect, abuse, disappointment, and bitterness—tears of the soul bottled up so well that often even their possessors don't know they exist. We buck up and bear it before our friends and colleagues, but inside we're ravished with pain, unfulfilled longings, and shame.

And yet, knowing this, I'm still guilty. I treat people as though they aren't hurting and longing for a deeper life. I let misdirected expressions of someone else's own pain offend me. I build walls around my heart and shut out those whose own stinging chronicle of woes prevents them from being able to understand mine.

To all of these troubles, there is one shining solution: Understanding my worth to God. For in doing so, I find One who will listen to every sad tale I could tell. In Him I have a Friend who doesn't feel awkward about my recital of the shame of my past or the ache in my heart. His love soothes the pain and fills the emptiness. And through His eyes of love for me, I begin to understand how He sees those who hurt and neglect me—how He loves them—how they, too, are suffering deep wounds.

"Blessed be God, Who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me!" (Psalm 66:20)

"A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God" (Psalm 68:5).

"Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4). "In all their affliction He was afflicted" (Isaiah 63:9).

" 'With everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,' says the Lord, your Redeemer. . . . For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you" (Isaiah 54:7, 10).

"Thus says the Lord . . . I have called you by your name; you are Mine. . . . Since you were precious in My sight, you have been honored, and I have loved you" (Isaiah 43:1, 4).

"He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3).

"You hold me by my right hand" (Psalm 73:23).

"Beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness" (Isaiah 61:3).

"The Lord delights in you" (Isaiah 62:4).

"For great is Your mercy toward me, and You have delivered my soul from the depths. . . . You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth. Oh, turn to me, and have mercy on me!" (Psalm 86:13, 15, 16).

"Because Your lovingkindness is better than life" (Psalm 63:3).

Comforted in the realest love the universe knows, I find strength to continue my day. Challenged and humbled by that love, I join in a new resolution with a dear friend: "A friendship that dreams up ways to help and bless others instead of laughing at them or gossiping about petty annoyances." Stirred by the pain of unnumbered hurting treasures, I purpose to be a comforting, safe, encouraging friend—unashamed to hear, cry, and feel the tears of the soul.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wilderness Peace

I haven't always been in love with the wilderness; the passion developed along with my ability to reason logically. As a young child out hiking with my family, I infamously stated that I'd rather be staring down the hole of an outhouse than walking this (spectacularly scenic Yellowstone) trail. My childish sarcasm gained me nothing but teasing from my siblings and a story I'll never live down. The family continued to drag me out hiking. Step by step, my appreciation for the wild outdoors grew, until by my teens, I had developed the family addiction.

The best kind of wilderness begins a whole day's hike in from the trail head, where the expanse of mountains, prairie, lakeshore, or desert land spreads out untainted and seemingly endless. The sunset's flaming colors paint soul-stirring magic on the wild countryside. Only the campfire, moon, and stars light up the black night. Only coyotes and owls, the crackling fire and the whispering wind break the stillness of your humbled, inspired thoughts.

Threads of thought tangled by the stresses and trauma of life begin to uncoil that first night in. Perplexing problems start finding solutions. The soul relaxes from its daily strain and hears more clearly its own voice and that of its Lord.

God used the wilderness to shape many of His human heroes. Before Moses confronted the king of Egypt and led Israel to the Promised Land, he spent 40 years in the wilderness communing with God and herding sheep. Before beginning his mission to the Gentiles, Paul spent time alone in the Arabian desert studying, meditating, and praying. John the Baptist spent most of his life in the wilderness, and it was there that he received his education for his life calling to announce Jesus as Messiah. Jesus Himself spent 40 days in the wilderness, to be alone to contemplate His mission, to fast and pray and brace Himself for His work—and be tempted and overcome sin on our behalf.

Time in the wilderness isn't wasted. Though no goods are produced, no words spoken, nobody influenced and no "good deeds" accomplished, time apart establishes clarity within one's thoughts, strengthens faith, and cements one's goals and life purpose. It gives the soul space to see and hear and understand God.

Out in the woods of the back 40 acres, the Iowa wilderness stirred my soul. White tailed does scampered out of my way as owls hooted and songbirds twittered. The wind rustled in the fallen leaves, and chattering squirrels scurried up regal old oaks. And the voice of the Spirit whispered inside my soul.

My wilderness isn't far from civilization, but that makes little difference. What matters is the delicious hollowness in my heart—emptiness, silence, openness; a quiet, undemanding readiness to be filled.

For at its core, my zest for the wilderness is a lifelong quest for peace.