Saturday, April 28, 2012

Laughter's Return

Last week I was naughty. Did you notice?

I know one person noticed, because he told me. Actually, two. But one was my mom, and moms always notice naughtiness, whether or not they comment on it. This time, though, she gave me license for it.

You see, last week I preached the sermon at church, and when I was done with that, I spent a big chunk of time catching up with a couple of friends with whom I'd fallen out of touch. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I'd "used up" my blogging energy. And I didn't post. (It's a sorry excuse, I know. But it's all I've got.)

And so I went on with my study-filled week, with Midwest spring daily offering me contentment and satisfaction. Gone are the lonely brown days that drive wistfulness and repining into the soul. Here, instead, are blooming flowers, leafy trees, growing garden shoots, flitting songbirds, and peeping frogs. I putter through busy days with a smile, and go to bed feeling that all is well.

Still, I've been missing something. Yet, until Monday morning, I wasn't even quite sure what it was.

Monday morning, when my nieces woke me up via pre-recorded cell phone alarm, I began my day with a grateful prayer. I thanked the Lover of my soul for contentment, quietness, and inner peace. "But Lord, there's something missing," I said.

Then I knew what it was.


Not just chuckles. I mean laughing hard. Irrepressible laughter. Contagious laughter. Convulsions. (You know: Cheyenne laughter.)

"To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).

Yes Lord, that's it! I've enjoyed the time of contemplation and quietness; introspection is refreshing. But could You maybe send me back my spirit of laughter, and let me giggle my way through life again? Or is that not who You are calling me to be? 

I wasn't sure how God would answer. Maybe He wanted to teach me to be the sober, quiet type, like the picture-perfect model of a good-old fashioned, feminine woman. Still, I could hope. Maybe He would swirl the two: regal femininity with spunk and humor.

A few hours later, at lunch, my dad teased my mom about her comment that the leftovers had come back to "haunt" us. I giggled.

As the meal continued, we got into a conversation about potatoes. The potato plants in our garden had been frosted on, and they'd been looking a little sick. Still, my parents were confident they would recover.

"Yeah, I guess they are a cold-weather crop," I said. (I'm definitely not a potato expert, but I think Northerners and mountain tribes depend on them.)

"I think it gets pretty hot in the Boise valley," Papa remarked.

"Well, I'm talking about Russia," I blurted.

My dad's eyes twinkled and teased as he replied: "Well, I'm talking about Idaho."

That did it. Mom and I burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of my Russia comment. I laughed so hard I had to put down my fork as my nose dove for my plate.

And then it hit me: God had answered my prayer, and fast. I laughed even harder, reveling in my Master's goodness.

That wasn't even the end of it. The incident tickled me all day. I kept convulsing with giggles I couldn't keep down. I even giggled myself to sleep. And I found plenty more things to laugh at throughout the week.

Can you really beat a God who cares so much He even answers prayers about details such as laughter? Can you really do better seeking fun in the world? Can you doubt that His plans for you will be fun and rewarding—not just in a sober, religious way, but even humanly, in a deeply satisfying, personal way?

I can't. My God is so awesome, He makes me laugh.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Strands of Thought

Blue skies and clouds, sunshine and rain, wintry frost and summery breezes. Baby blessing, church dedication, laughing with friends, shedding worried tears. Cold night shivering under the covers, warm nights listening to peeping frogs. Dreaming of the future, reminiscing of the past. Working, studying, praying, reflecting.

What happens when I don't have an exciting week? When "notable" doesn't write itself on the calendar?

I still live in my deep world of thought. I awake wondering what I should talk to God about first, and decide to thank Him for contentment, connection, quietness, and fulfillment. I go through my days contemplating and exploring my Master's love, and pondering and examining the thoughts and behavior of others. I look for little lessons along the journey.

A tufted titmouse chirped in at us all week. The first day it bombarded our windows, my mom decided that since the nights had been frosty and the mornings chilly, the bird must be asking us to fill up the bird feeder. But the birds hardly noticed the return of their easy meals, and the titmouse kept coming. He found us wherever we were: my dad in his studio, my mom in her office or at the kitchen window, me at my desk, and all of us at our dining room table. He flitted up and down our windows, as if going through a ritual dance, staring in at us and chirping all the while. His nickname changed from "honey" early in the week to "deranged bird" by its close. For all we could tell, that little titmouse surely acted like it wanted to enter our home. But what would it have done if we'd let it in? Freak out, no doubt. Artificial human residences are no home for wild birds.

And what of me? I certainly act like I want to go to Heaven. But would I freak out if God were to translate me there? Would I be like a wild bird in a human house, or would I find Heaven to be my true home? How I spend my time on Earth determines the answer.

The assisted living center where my grandfather lives called this morning to ask my parents to take him to the Emergency Room. He'd been complaining of terrible pains in his face, jaw, and neck—and not a stationary ache, but a fluctuating, changeable throb. After a couple of hours checking in on different body systems and functions, the doctor had the diagnosis: blocked salivary glands. The prescription: lemon drops.

It's the small things, isn't it, that make life painful or joyful? Who ever thinks about their salivary glands' contribution to their well-being? In 26 years, I've rarely given them a thought; but I have now been made aware of their importance to my comfort. And what about the little courtesies: the gentle tone of voice as we speak with family; cheerful, genuine greetings; hugs, smiles; little acts of service; happy little texts; a few moments to share someone else's pain, joy, or confusion. If these little kind acts get blocked up, life becomes painful.

We had almost arrived at church yesterday when something started flapping under the hood. When Mom turned into the church driveway, she found the power steering had failed. In the parking lot, the elders checked out the situation. A couple of belts had come off. After the church service, we called roadside assistance to tow the car, and then hitched a ride home with friends. We got so involved in conversation that the driver missed our exit and drove 20 miles past...and none of us noticed.

Do I ever get so caught up in the social realm or the demands of everyday life that I fail to take into account where my life is headed long-term? To make sure I don't lose miles going the wrong direction, am I carefully guarding my health, my character, my relationships, my time?

I tracked my blog hits throughout the week, watching Kodiak's story rise to most popular post in a matter of days...even though I didn't post it at the optimum time. How do readers so quickly know when I've bared my raw emotions, shared deep, sensitive feelings...written posts truly worth their click? And given that not every day can be so dramatic, how can I make my normal life an intriguing, open book for all to read the story of God's love?

Ordinary, everyday experiences. Without a pause for contemplation, they and their lessons could easily be lost. And yet, all these weave together as strands of thought, collectively forming the tapestry of my worldview. Each experience, with my responses, changes my character in its own subtle way, making me more or less like the deranged bird: more or less a true subject of God's Kingdom.

Thank God that it isn't only in the big, startling, powerful revelations that He manifests Himself. Thank Him for each strand of thought in the weaving.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Canine Devotion—and Divine Love

I could talk for hours about that dog. How he used to "knock" on the door to let me know it was time for our jog. How he knew the difference between friend and stranger, greeting my friends with affectionate enthusiasm yet barking protectively at anyone potentially threatening. Of his love for hiking with me in the wilderness, and how he frolicked, dashed, and danced through the meadows. About the time he foolishly charged at a moose, and the time we lost him on the trail. How he delighted in a fresh snowfall, springing joyfully through the drifts. How he loved car rides, and would stand in the console on his front paws to nuzzle and cuddle me as we drove. About his floppy ear, and how everyone adored him, not only for his overwhelming handsomeness, but for his pure and golden heart.

I'd never really been a "dog person." Much to the contrary: I favored cats. Anyway, cat or dog, I didn't have time for a pet. I took long trips away from home and often went away for the weekend.

And then a stray dog showed up in our neighborhood. Everyone else had enough pets already. My landlords were trying to decide whether to feed him or take him to the shelter. I'm still not really quite sure how it happened, because I wasn't interested in animal adoption. But somehow, the neighborhood kids prevailed upon me to keep him, promising to look after him when I was away. Looking at the canine tied outside my screen door, I shook my head, not believing that I had just adopted a DOG of all pets. Still, I had to admit he was pretty cute. With his thick, long coat, he looked like a bear. I knew his name instantly: He was Kodiak.

He had come at an emotionally trying time in my life. Six days previously, I had called it off with a guy I had been casually seeing for a few months. Now, I felt lonely and unwanted. Then came the dog, and he did have one good quality: He wanted my attention. We started jogging together every day—sometimes twice. In the evenings, I'd sit in my yard and stroke his fur and just hug him. He seemed to understand and hug back, leaning against my chest and resting his head on my shoulder. After all (Heaven only knows why), he too had been abandoned...alone and unwanted. It didn't take long to fall in love with this angel dog. He had a darling personality, and I knew God had sent him. Through him, God reassured and encouraged my hurting heart—and let love and happiness return to my world.

That first summer I was so paranoid of losing him that I kept him on a leash or chain almost perpetually—even out in the wilderness. Nobody was going to wrench that lifesaver from me! He tolerated my protectiveness, but I knew he'd be happier off his chain. He had such a free spirit, and he wanted nothing more than to be exploring or else right next to me. When I had to chain him several feet away, he howled and wined till I tied him up closer.

The first backpacking trip we took together, my dad slowly taught me to let him be free to run in the wilderness. Dogs like Kodiak, he told me, were meant to run free and wild. I soon discovered that when I let him off the leash, Kodiak still wouldn't stray far—and when he did, he'd be back to check on me. I grew to love watching him bound freely through the woods and meadows, nothing to hold him back—no damper to his joy. Off his leash, Kodiak nearly burst with bubbly, exuberant energy.

We spent three wonderful years together...almost. I took him everywhere I could, and felt terrible when I had to leave him behind. As I cherished him, I learned to like other dogs, too. Still, none of them could compare to my Kodiak. He was the best dog in the world, and I depended on him to always be there and love me.

And then the day came. A girlfriend and I had a planned a snowshoeing "date," and of course Kodiak would be coming along. He could hardly contain himself that day, so excited to be heading into the mountains with me. As Jessica and I got our backpacks ready, he whined in the car, wanting the adventure to begin. Then, he jumped into the front seat and out the open door.

Once outside the car, he explored the little parking area, totally uninterested in the vehicles trickling past. Finally, we set out down the road to pick up the trail. I had his leash, but the highway didn't seem busy, and we didn't have far to go. Besides, Kodiak was being obedient and staying on the side of the road.

Then one of us stooped to retie a shoe, and I took my eyes off him. He bounded across the road, to the snow drifts. As he jumped from drift to drift, I couldn't remember ever seeing him happier. He made me grin. So much energy and joy.

Then in one fated moment, he plunged down the snowbank to cross back over to me. Just then, a truck rounded the corner.

That scene has haunted me now for a year. Even as I write, I have tears streaming down my cheeks. I just couldn't believe it. No, not now, not my precious Kodiak. I had just broken up with my (much more serious) boyfriend a month before. I needed my doggie hugs and jogs. Oh, why hadn't I put him on the leash? I felt like a murderer.

Then something unthinkable happened. At the sound of my voice, Kodiak raised his head and scooted over to me on broken legs. He would cross that road and be next to me if it was the last thing he did.

I knew he couldn't last long. Stooping next to him, I stroked his beautiful fur and told him I loved him and was so sorry, that it wasn't his fault. Then we loaded him into the back seat and headed for the vet. Trembling, I listened for his belabored breaths.

Then my angel raised himself up, struggled forward, and rested his front paws and his head on the console, looking up at me with loving, hurting, yet unaccusing eyes. "Oh buddy," I choked. "No, no." I didn't want him to use up his strength. I wanted the vet to be able to fix him. But he insisted on being there with me. Weeping, I patted his head and told him I loved him.

He stayed there a few moments. Then he crawled into the back seat, nestled onto the floor, and breathed his last. Only then did I realize what he had just done. In one of the most loving gestures I have ever witnessed, Kodiak had told me of his devotion to his undeserving master. One last time, he had told me he loved me.

That night I couldn't sleep for anything. The darkness was too still and quiet without his barking lullabies. I didn't know how I would ever face the neighbors. If only I would be the only one to suffer from the loss of my treasure...but Kodiak had been everyone's dog. All my friends loved him. They would all be devastated. Ashamed, I kept thinking of that poor wounded dog I thought had already died lifting his head and crawling over to me. Looking up at me with those big trusting eyes, not accusing me of my horrific negligence. Struggling to get close to me to say his last good-bye, his eyes saying nothing but "I love you, sweet master." I couldn't understand it. Why did he love me so much?

Suddenly, as I gazed in imagination into those riveting eyes, the picture changed. Now it was Jesus dying on the cross, with the same big brown loving eyes. Only, He knew I was the one killing Him. He threw Himself in the road for me. And even though He understood it all, He just wanted me to know that He loved me anyway.

A transcendent moment.

Awestruck, I let the mini vision soak in. The death that I've caused 10,000 times over is so much more heinous than the foolish yet unwitting failure to keep my dog from harm's way. But Jesus loves me anyway, and He's willing to bear the brunt of all my sorrows, even the ones that I cause. I couldn't understand it, but I found myself in awe of that love.

I still miss my buddy terribly, but I've clung to that vision of divine love. And, though I tremble to admit it, I dare say it has been a fair trade.