Take time to be with loved ones

Japanese MapleI have spent a lot of time in gardens this year, more time than ever before.

One of them was a large garden–Gibb’s Gardens up in Canton–and the others were gardens of those who attend my church.  At church, we have been working on a prayer garden of our own for our 30th anniversary as a congregation.

Each garden I visit, I have to remind myself to slow down, enjoy the view, smell the flowers, and appreciate the beauty and wonder of all that God has created.

The other day, for instance, I was visiting Fox McCarthy’s garden.  You may know him as the man who ran a Japanese Maple nursery in town.  He must have upwards of 100 Japanese Maple trees on his land right now, and for almost every one of them he stops and says, “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Before, I would have simply said, “It looks just like the last 99 trees you showed me;” but, now, I have learned (and the secret to enjoying a garden is learning and listening!) to see every tree and every flower as unique and beautiful, a result of mother nature and God in partnership with one another.

It was during this same trip that Fox and I were remembering some people who passed away this last year.  His wife, one-time county commissioner Barbara McCarthy, and my father died within 8 months of each other.  (This Saturday would have marked my parent’s 44-year wedding anniversary.)

We recalled the great things we remember about their lives, and we recalled all of the people that we’ve met at the different funerals and memorials we attended.

Fox asked a question I won’t easily forget: “At these memorial services, you meet all of the people who were touched by the lives of the deceased.  Why haven’t we met half of them before that day?”

In other words, why do we turn out in droves when someone dies and come together as a family only after someone leaves our presence on this earth?

I thought about this more, and I realized that the very same patience with which I enjoyed those gardens is the same patience I need in the relationships I have in my life.

My family should not have to wait for me to die in order for all of us to enjoy the company of good friends and family no matter how much distance separates us.

We need to put our relationships with others back on our top-priority list.  If you’re like me, you’ve been working too hard and for too many hours to spend time with loved ones.  You make excuses, and you let days or even years pass before you call a cousin or a friend with whom you needed to connect.

Ever since my father’s passing, I have made an intentional commitment to spend more time calling my cousins, siblings, and family or by writing letters to them every so often.

There is something special and intimate when you take time to write or call someone just because you are thinking about them.  On holidays, such contact is expected; but, on ordinary days like today or tomorrow, it comes off as a real blessing.

As Fox and I stood in the midst of those uniquely, well-adorned Japanese Maples, I realized that I stand in the midst of people whom I have failed to keep in touch with.  I have failed to encourage people and remind them of their unique beauty in the Lord too.

The poetic, Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes encourages readers to enjoy one another and let tomorrow worry about itself for “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9, 10).

As we enjoy all that spring and summer affords us, let us foster the friendships and family relationships that have long been torn asunder by time, distance, and seasons of separation.


Breaking through to God in prayer, Part 2

Last week I mentioned that prayer is an important part of faith but is not something we can naturally master.  In fact, prayer can be downright difficult, and there are many things that disrupt an effective prayer life.

Guilt, resentment, fear, and sheer laziness can all hamper a wonderful, growing relationship with our Lord.  But a deeper, more personal hindrance exists.  Sometimes we find it hard to pray because we do not want to face God’s silence.

We get on our knees, close our eyes, shift our weight from bad knee to good, position our hands just right, and finally settle in.  And there, at that moment of timeless stillness, despite the occasional ticking of the nearest wrist-watch or the tumbling of clothes in the dryer, is that deafening silence.

Jesus faced God’s silence when he was dying on the cross.  There at Golgotha, Jesus prayed the first verse of Psalm 22:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Curious that Jesus chose this prayer, because if you keep reading Psalm 22, you find that the psalm plunged ever deeper into the darkness of unanswered prayer: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer.”

All of us have hit the wall of silence in our prayer life.  Too often we miss it entirely because we drown out silence with endless chatter of the television, radio, or recitations of our to-do lists.  But it is still there.

There are two sides to this coin.  Psalm 22 may expose the undercurrents of unanswered prayer, but it must be noted that the author of the psalm (and, by default, Jesus) was still praying.  Like the persistent friend in Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:5-13, the author continued to knock on God’s door even though God seemed to sleep in the midst of crisis.

Persistence is a key that turns the tumblers for effective prayer.  Continue to read Psalm 22, and the author eventually recognizes God’s presence in his life and in all creation.  “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” the author writes, “God did not hide His face from me, but heard when I cried to Him” (v. 24).

The second side to this coin is that the author of Psalm 22 was honest.  He (or she) did not hold back, and he trusted that God was big enough to handle petition and despair.

A modern prayer of honesty comes from French priest, Michel Quoist, who once prayed:

“Lord, do you hear me?  I’ve suffered dreadfully, locked in myself, prisoner of myself.  I hear nothing but my own voice; I see nothing but myself.  And behind me there is nothing but suffering.  Lord, do you hear me?”

For Christians, prayer is a school of honesty, and only when we open up to God in persistent, vulnerable prayer will we slowly recognize God’s mysterious activity in every aspect of our lives.

As a result of persistence and honesty, we remember that Psalm 22 is followed by Psalm 23, which affirms God’s presence with us while we travel in the valley of death’s shadow.

This type of prayer does not come easily.  We avoid discussing it in the pulpits of America, where we simplify prayer into cliché equations and acrostic formulas.

Truth is that we all pass through seasons in our prayer life, including seasons of death-filled winter.  But no matter where we find ourselves, Jesus tells us to pray all the same: Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened unto you.