Heavenward

I walk the woods in the evening – my woods, I tell myself – the familiar trails, dear to me and near to my heart, winding through old creekbeds, beneath towering pines and wizened oaks, along hillsides sparkling with white chokecherry blossoms. Treading the same way again, my heart thrills. Each step is a delight. Each breath of the cool evening air tastes sweet. I want to pour the coolness over my head and drink of the freshness. It is familiar, so familiar, every step is one I’ve experienced before, each tree and flower and perfume of evening – but it is new, always new.
IMG_7227eWith the earth comforting beneath my feet, grasses growing tall to above knee-height, trees leafing out in their array of green, my heart is drawn upwards, Heavenwards. These woods are my sanctuary. I find that my time alone while hiking becomes my time alone with the LORD, since I can’t imagine walking these woods and not being struck to the heart by how good God must be to have created so much beauty for us to enjoy. He didn’t need to create beauty. God could have allowed sin to completely wipe out the beauty on this earth. But He didn’t. And it is wonderful. Even in this fallen state, His beauty is reflected in His Creation.
IMG_7015eMy heart breaks with joy. Have you ever felt that? My heart breaks and soars, and I murmur Oh, my! Again and again. Oh, my. My eye is drawn here and there – to a splash of color from a larkspur violet or a shooting star or a bluebell, to the wild white and lavender of crazyweed, to the little golden blossoms of wild currant or the coral of columbine or the dark blue-eyed grass, or the pale birch trees on a north-facing hillside of emerald moss. A gleam of sunlight through the trees on the next hilltop melts me, but I know my camera couldn’t do it justice, so I don’t even try. My heart breaks with joy – there is too much, too much, too much. How can a human creature take in so much beauty and goodness and majesty, and not be overwhelmed? And if I cannot understand Creation, how can I possibly understand its God?
IMG_7150eThe too-familiar sights, the amber scents of pine resin and the fresh earthy perfume of green life or the sweet evening air, the lullaby of wind in the pines – so many memories and impressions left over, brought back by glimpses or tastes of the familiar, the familiar that never seems to change. I remember my childhood, our visits here, my heart’s longing for this place. I remember past joys, and revel in present joys. Then my heart breaks with grief. Because I know that one day this place won’t be here for me. One day it will be sold and divided into lots and developed, and I weep at that thought, dropping tears on the grassy path. How harsh it feels – to be brought to live in the place I love most in the world, but knowing that it may not be here, a mere few years from this time. This place may only be land, and I know that, but it holds and brings back so many wonderful memories. It is a place that is part of my childhood, part of my dearest memories.
IMG_7156eThen I repent. How could I have the audacity to challenge God’s goodness and His Providence by weeping over what He may someday in His sovereignty take away from me? If that day comes, I don’t believe tears will be wrong, but weeping now and letting even a moment of joy be spoiled by what God may in His love give to me or take from me – that is wrong. I pray for contentment and peace in my knowledge that God is good. I remind myself that God only does that which is for the good of His children and for His glory. I remind myself that He only gives good gifts, and He is a loving Father, not a cruel taskmaster. If a gift is good in the giving, it is also good when He in His sovereignty removes it. If He removes a blessing and strips me of something I sinfully think is necessary for my happiness, I know He does it for my good, not to punish. If He takes something from me that I love, He does it for my good, not out of malice. Whether or not I comprehend it, it is for my good. At the very least, pain allows me to experience the sweetness of God’s comfort. One day, I’ll understand. But for now I need to be content to not understand and to take comfort in the things I do understand – that God is a loving God, a generous God, a compassionate and comforting God – and He always provides. Not necessarily how I in my humanness want Him to provide, certainly, but if God is good, His Providence is as well, and I cannot challenge it.  And so even in my tears, I thank Him. Even in my tears, this place draws me Heavenward. And then my heart lifts and I savor a soul-deep peace, content to enjoy however many days and years I have left to enjoy this. Few or many, they are a gift. How sad to spoil them with misplaced regret.
IMG_7182eThe low rumble of distant thunder tells of a coming storm, and the clouds are bright in the west, shining flame-like through the trees. The crimson and coral turn to slate and blue. The golden sunlight disappears beyond the horizon and banks of heavy clouds. The rain will come.
IMG_7223eHow can I not gaze Heavenward?

The Living Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” ~John 15:4-5IMG_5956eOver the last few weeks, I watched the plum and apple trees for blossoms. We have had some heavy frosts, and I was concerned the buds may have gotten frozen off or even that parts of the tree could have been killed by the winter’s cold. But today, I saw a white mist clinging around the plum tree – bountiful pale flower clusters. The tree is alive. The flowers are the precursors to harvest. They evidence life and health.

“Abide in me,” Christ said. “I am the vine; you are the branches.” He encouraged and admonished his disciples to rest in him, to bear fruit. Healthy fruit comes from a thriving branch. A thriving branch only comes from a living Vine. Bear much fruit. He told this to his disciples, men who had sacrificed everything for him to follow him and participate in his ministry.  And then he was executed like a common criminal.

Resurrection Sunday comes and goes every year, and we hear the same message every year: He is risen!  “He is risen indeed!” we respond. We can go through the motions of celebrating Resurrection Sunday as if the Resurrection were old hat. Perhaps we even feel a little sheepish, maybe a little too counter-cultural with all of the empty tomb and back-from-the-dead talk. Not to mention, Easter has been so commercialized, all the plastic eggs and chocolate bunnies and pastel colored paper shreds. We lose our wonder in the colorful array of secular trappings, the childish nature of the eggs and bunnies and cute chocolates. Maybe we wearily approach the bustle and expectations surrounding Easter, and question the significance of setting aside a day like this. Maybe in the whirlwind of “celebration,” we forget Who and Why.

Because Christ is alive, and perhaps that more than any other truth in Scripture is what must be dear and real to us. Christ is alive, and he is sitting at the right hand of the Throne of God (Hebrews 12:2). Through his life, death, and resurrection he has given us the right to become Children of God (John 1:11-13), to be reconciled to our Heavenly Father (Romans 5:10). It isn’t through his life and death, but through his life, death, AND resurrection. Because if Christ hadn’t risen, then he is no better of a sacrifice than the Passover lambs or the sin offerings, then he is no better of a king than King David or King Josiah, then he is no better of a prophet than Moses, no better of a father than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, no better of a priest than Aaron. They each in their own way foreshadowed the coming of and our need for a Savior – the Lamb, the Sacrifice, the Prophet, the Priest, the King, the Father of Many Nations. But they had no power over death. They each died. But Christ did not. And that is of utmost importance.

For the Christian, everything hinges on the Resurrection, everything we say we believe, everything we say we hope for. If the Resurrection did not happen, then we have hoped entirely in vain, and all Christ’s commandments about abiding in him are null. In fact, if Christ didn’t rise again on the third day, then the entire Bible is a pack of lies. That is how important the Resurrection is. It isn’t just an interesting anecdote. It is Biblical record that is absolutely vital to faith. Because our hope hinges on Christ’s power over death. If he, the “resurrection and the life,” has no power over his own life, how can he promise life to us? (John 11:25-26 and John 10:17-18)

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15.  The Bible has no merit if the Resurrection didn’t happen, because the entire Bible depends upon the Resurrection for its completeness. Without the Resurrection, then everything from Genesis onward is pointless and fraudulent. Without the Resurrection, there is no hope, there is no life. Without the Resurrection, then our Vine, the Vine from which we are supposed to draw sustenance, is dead.  If he is the Vine and he is dead, we are unable to bear the fruit we were commanded by him to cultivate. If he is the Vine, and if he is dead, then our faith is a dead faith, sealed in the tomb along with the man who claimed to be God Himself.

But that is not what we believe. That is not the end of our faith.  Because Christ’s story didn’t end at the  tomb. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” Paul continued in Corinthians. Because the next morning, the tomb was empty. Gloriously empty.

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.  Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,  and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples went back to their homes.

 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.  And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. ~John 20: 1-18

So, abide in me. Christ is alive, and only because of the Resurrection are we able to truly abide in him. We are not part of a dead Vine. We are part of a Living Vine, a Vine which is bearing bountiful, beautiful fruit and has been bearing fruit for thousands of years. The ax of false doctrine and the winds of persecution and the fire of the culture have no power against our Vine. It is in perpetual flower, perpetual fruit-bearing. We have something to be excited about on this wonderful day! We have a faith that springs from and abides in Christ, and he is alive today. Reflect on that truth and revel in that hope.

 


 

 

Messages in Bottles

Rummaging around in a 70-year-old garbage pile is probably not considered socially acceptable. I was thinking about that as I trudged out to the ravine with spades and a large bucket, pulling strands of old barbed wire out of the grass as I went along. Those will be for craft projects. But the trash pile was even better than anticipated, since I seem to have found the “source” pile! I learned a few things about the person who lived here – Pretty sure he drank whiskey and he had false teeth. No, I did not find the teeth. But I found a couple tins of false teeth cleaner! IMG_3033The pile is made up mostly of rusty old tin cans, but digging around we pulled out some interesting-looking glass bottles, a teacup with moss growing inside, an old enamelware bowl, rusted license plates from the 1930s and 1950s, and the head of a pitch fork. It is interesting to think about all the life that has been lived on the family place, people we never knew, people we aren’t related to. Mining, homesteading…living.  IMG_3076My mom wanted to know if I was ready to throw away all the trash I had brought home. Well, not really! I have ideas for some of these things. Someone else may have cast them off, but they will be added to my collection of “treasures.” As they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”IMG_3080These bottles and the whole notion of treasures bring a number of ideas to mind – How often do we recognize as a treasure only that which has intrinsic worth, or worth that has been assigned materially? How seldom do we recognize as a treasure that which is worthless by material standards, but which has value beyond reckoning?  Phrases like “rags to riches” call to mind a Cinderella-type story. Ashes to diamonds…Caterpillars to butterflies. Those phrases resonate with us. Maybe because our Creator put that longing on our hearts, a longing for transformation. And I suppose those are descriptive of the earth-to-Heaven part of the Salvation story. The Salvation story is the adventure of all adventures, the romance of all romances, the rescue of all rescues, the transformation of all transformations, the Bible being the Saga of the story of Salvation. We don’t belong to this world. Read Genesis. We don’t belong here. But what about “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?” That is a different kind of transformation. The difference between the trash and the treasure isn’t what it is, but whose it is.
IMG_3101These bottles were nothing special when they were in the junk heap, and they’re still nothing special – Except that they belong to me and I happen to think they’re nice. In a sense, isn’t that the story of the Christian? Yes, Biblically there is a heart change that happens at Salvation and we are fundamentally transformed in one sense, and then are progressively transformed throughout our earthly life, and will then be gloriously transformed after death. Change is a result of genuine Salvation. So don’t misunderstand what I’m saying! Yes, there is a change. Ezekiel 36:26 reads: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a new heart.” But at the moment of Salvation, God doesn’t magically transform our circumstances or our flaws or our sins or our pain or our struggles. He doesn’t suddenly make us angelic creatures that deserve passage into Heaven by our own merit. We have no merit of our own! I was a wretched sinner before I was saved, and I am still a wretched sinner now. I still have a sin nature. I struggle with doubt, fear, pride, gossip, lust, and on and on. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make those things go away automatically. Sometimes, I think it actually intensifies those things, because with the heart change comes a knowledge that the “old way of life” is no longer acceptable, and then ensues the struggle against sin nature. Paul the Apostle recognized this all too well, and cried out in the book of Romans: “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” IMG_3087 The Christian is a lot like those bottles and rusted metal. Nothing changed when I pulled them out of the junk heap. They weren’t treasures then and they aren’t treasures now. They aren’t worth anything to anyone. Except to me. Not because they changed. But because they are mine. I have given them meaning. In the same way, God doesn’t change what we are. He changes Whose we are. He gives us His Spirit, and the strength to change. He gives us a new heart. He puts His stamp upon us. He gives us meaning. IMG_3066He makes us treasures. His treasures.

Laura Elizabeth

Pondering

One thing I love about photography is the changed perspective it provides. Even something as seemingly mundane as last summer’s grasses are enchanting, with the sunlight just so, highlighting the varied textures and colors of the winter. Photography provides an avenue for pondering. I find myself staring again and again at these pictures, even though I don’t consider them particularly good pictures, simply because there is mystery – The mystery of the beauty of Creation. If I sat down in a stand of tall grass without my camera, I would feel the warmth of the sun, the damp of the earth, I would see the blue of the sky and the way the sunlight catches in the fronds of grasses, and I would breathe deep the fragrance of a beautiful day. But with a camera, perspective deepens. Magic happens. Individual moments when the sunlight is perfect, individual stems of grass which could otherwise be lost in the tangle of grasses, individuals leaves and glints and glorious sparks of light, become visible.
IMG_2804eIMG_2795eI have heard it suggested that one’s perspective is limited detrimentally by the camera. Yes, the camera limits one’s perspective, but I heartily disagree that this limiting is a negative thing. God is infinite, and the many wonders of his Creation reflect that infiniteness. How are we finite human beings to process and understand it all? We can’t! Photography is a means by which we can impress on our mind’s eye more specific glories of God’s Creation. It is all too easy to miss the tree for the forest. In gazing at a whole field of flowers, it is hard to wonder at the flower itself – One instead wonders at the field. Focus smaller, closer, and it is possible to wonder at the actual flower.  Photography is an outlet for pondering, for deeply considering, for wonderment and awe and delight.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

Romans 1:20

Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.

Psalm 111:2

Laura Elizabeth

God With Us

Christmas Day commemorates a turning point in history – It marks the beginning of the end of the story of redemption and reconciliation with our Creator God. Everything in the Old Testament, everything in history up to that night in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago, points to the coming of a Savior, the need of a Savior, the hope of a Savior. Everything in history since that night has pointed both back to that event, as well as forward to the longed-for day when Christ will return.
IMG_0132It is a day we celebrate with joy, sharing it with those we love, rejoicing, giving to those we love just as God in love gave us the gift of Himself, as the God-man Christ Jesus. He wasn’t just a tiny baby in a feeding trough, but He was God Incarnate, God Himself come to earth. God gave hope to the hopeless, life to the dying, grace to the wretched sinner, peace to the troubled. He stooped to earth in love, that we might be raised with Him, dying that we might have life. He came in the form of a sinless, helpless infant, with the purpose of saving His people from their sins.
IMG_0192Isaiah 7:14 reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel. God with us. Wonder at that. Marvel at that. Rejoice, and give God the glory.

Merry Christmas!

Laura Elizabeth

On This Day of Thanks

How wonderful it is to have a day set aside from work and the normal routine to gather with family and friends to remember our blessings! For Christians in particular, Thanksgiving Day should be poignant and meaningful, in a way that goes beyond the sweet platitude of “an attitude of gratitude.” We must not fail to acknowledge the Person to whom we are giving thanks. We have so many things to thank God for. We thank him for family, for friends, for our church homes. We thank him for freedoms. We thank him for religious liberties that we still are able to enjoy here. We thank him for the blessing of a good job, of financial security, for good weather and good harvest. We give thanks for the sumptuous feast before us on the table, for the familiar faces of family and friends around the table with us. We thank him for health and gifts of prosperity. We thank him for successes. These are all things for which to thank God, by all means.
IMG_8464But there is a problem. We often spend our Thanksgiving cultivating gratitude for the temporal, the ephemeral. There’s nothing wrong with giving thanks for the temporary; after all every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17), so indeed, give thanks. But some, many, don’t enjoy many or any of those things that I listed. “What in the world do they have to be thankful for?” we may think in sorrow.  Or, “What in the world do I have to be thankful for?” This is wrong thinking. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church proclaimed this: Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (II Corinthians 4:16-18) If we know Christ and have the hope of Heaven, we have everything to be thankful for. Everything, that is, being God himself. For if we are in Christ, isn’t he our everything? And if he isn’t, shouldn’t he be? Circumstances of life may devastate us. Thanksgiving Day may be a day of heartbreak for many. But with an eternal hope, a hope that is realized beyond the grave, beyond pain and sorrow and hardship and trials, how much we have to be thankful for! All of this life is so temporary and so short. All the sorrow (and all the joy!) we experience in this life will be nothing compared with the resurrection joy, the eternal joy, the Heavenly joy of our future home. IMG_8502Tomorrow we could be stripped of our family by death. But the command and truth remain: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:34). This sentiment was sung by Asaph and other ministering musicians appointed by King David to bless the Lord before God’s people, and this sentiment is echoed again and again throughout the Psalms. With this as a model, we should thank God, for he is good. Really, nothing else matters, except that God is God, and he is good. The secure job could be taken away: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. You or your loved one could receive a diagnosis of cancer or another terrifying illness: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Your small business could fail, cattle prices plummet destructively, crops could be destroyed by hail or drought, your home taken away through fire or flood: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Your spouse could die, your children could turn away from their faith, your wife could miscarry: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. My point isn’t to sound a bell of doom and mourning, or to make light of any tragedy. These are events that devastate families on a daily basis. The early church itself faced grief, persecution, loss, death, trials of kinds we in America can only imagine, and many trials we can too easily imagine. And yet they were commanded: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And only can we do this through the hope of what is to come, the hope of purpose beyond what we can see with our eyes. For we are also told, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). And in Isaiah: He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). 
IMG_8533The James 1 passage continues: Every good and perfect gift is from above….He chose to give us birth through the word of truth…. (James 1:17-18). This is the manifestation of his love toward us, that While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We are to thank God for his glorious Gift of Salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, God Incarnate, the Son of Mary, the Son of God. This is truly the most glorious Gift! God created mankind to glorify himself, and for mankind to enjoy fellowship with God. In Genesis 3, we are told that he walked in the Garden in the cool of the day. He fellowshipped with his creatures Adam and Eve in the lush and plentiful Garden he had created. Sin destroyed this intimate fellowship, but through the life and death of Christ, we are able to again experience fellowship with God on a spiritual level now, and one day we will actually stand before him, and come to live in a world without death or pain! And this gift is a free gift, offered to everyone. IMG_8535Thanksgiving in a Biblical sense implies a proper understanding of our place before God, and God’s place above us. We are to replace the old pattern of our sin lives with a proper understanding of our place before God. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:3-4). Our lives now are to exhibit this precious fellowship with God through Christ – With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are to weed these things from our lives, not to earn our way to Heaven, but because they are out of place in the lives of those who have been brought into fellowship with God. And that precious fellowship is exhibited in us pouring forth thanksgiving. How simple, yet how difficult. Thanksgiving. IMG_8494On this day of Thanksgiving, give thanks for all of the blessings you enjoy – God truly gives lavish gifts, the greatest being the gift of Salvation. If you are mourning rather than rejoicing, if you are struggling, experiencing loss, remember that God is good, and his love endures forever – Take comfort in the hope we have in Christ. Give thanks for the visible blessings, but don’t forget the eternal blessings.IMG_8550Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Laura Elizabeth

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