A Matter of Perspective

During our first church service of 2015, our pastor was praying – he tends to do that a lot, of which I’m glad. As he prayed for those who had a rough year, I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s me. It was pretty tough.” Then I stopped. The entire year of 2014 wasn’t bad – just the last two months. Why would I classify the entire year solely based on the events at the end of the year? This was a question that sent me on an introspection journey, which I decided to share with you.

Without boring you with the week-to-week details of November and December 2014, here is a brief rundown. During the course of thirty days, I traveled over 3100 miles through 7 states for 44 hours – all on the road. It started with a trip to southern Georgia to be with my mom when she took her last breath, followed by her funeral in Illinois, ending with Pennsylvania for a pastor’s conference (fortunately I didn’t have to drive on that last trip). This all ended with getting sick right after Christmas with a cold, bronchitis, and ear infections. Even though January is almost over, I am still trying to get rid of some of that gunk.

What I realized was this: I cannot allow the first ten months of 2014 to be overshadowed by one incident. Yes, it was a major event, and I’m not downplaying it or the effect it has had on me. (I feel sorry for those who had to be around me for the month of December.) It’s just not accurate to define an entire year as “bad” or “good” based on one incident. I’m sure most of 2014 was good. In fact, thinking back through the year there were some great things that happened.

My mom & I on a scenic train ride summer of 2013. We shared a love of trains!

My mom & I on a scenic train ride summer of 2013. We shared a love of trains!

Sure, there were other things I went through this past year that took their toll on my psyche. But there were also just as many good things that happened. I’m reminded of the illustration our pastor shares frequently. Life is like a set of railroad tracks. One rail is bumpy while, at the same time, the other is smooth. Have you ever been on a train ride? I’ve been on several, and I’ve never experienced one that was smooth as silk. In a nutshell, life is bumpy, even when amazing things are happening. I think too many times we immediately go to the negative and forget the positive. Me included.

Thinking back to when my dad died, I never claimed it was a tough year. I’ve always worded it like this, “The year 1999 had a rough start.” And it was. He had a massive heart attack on my living room floor just three weeks after I had knee surgery, and he died ten days later. The thing is, I never classified 1999 as a bad year, even though it started that way. So I shouldn’t label 2014 as a bad year just because it ended that way.

It’s all about perspective. It’s all about how we view the events, the victories, and the defeats that happen throughout the year. When you define 2015 at the end of December, which perspective will you choose to see?


Home Sweet (and Sour) Home

It was the only home I ever really knew. About a year before I was born, my parents and three sisters moved from Iowa to Illinois. After the two oldest were married and out of the nest, my mom and dad relocated the rest of us to a house across town. It was a small town. Yet, we still changed schools. I was in kindergarten and my sister was in fourth grade. But since the school year was almost over, we finished out at our old school which was just a short 10-12 blocks away. It wasn’t until I was doing a college assignment that I learned how small my hometown actually was. A brochure from the Chamber of Commerce stated it covered three square miles. It sounded wrong to me, so I counted the city blocks in my head to verify. Lo and behold, the Chamber was right. The little town certainly seemed much bigger than that when I was a kid. Of course, everything did. Whenever I’m asked where I grew up, my answer is usually, “A small town in the middle of cornfields.” It’s really not too far from the truth!

Because I was only five years old when we moved in, I only have a few memories of the old house. Like the time I sat at the bottom of the steps, trying to cut my hair with plastic scissors. It didn’t work too well. Or the time I got a rock stuck in the bottom of my foot after my mom told me not to go outside barefoot. From what I’m told, the neighbor boy and my sister carried me back to the house.

My head, however, has many memories – both good and bad – of the house I grew up in. It was the typical mid-1800’s farmhouse style that was square with two stories and a creepy basement.

Isn't that creepy? Two rooms off of this big room are even creepier.

The creepy basement. Two rooms off of this big room are even creepier.

With a double lot and a huge garden, we spent a lot of time mowing and weeding. And cleaning. The living room was about 25 feet long, which came in handy when having about twenty people for a family Christmas. Next to the bathroom, my bedroom was the smallest room. It was at right at the top of the stairs with no door. And no closet. I had to share the closet in my sister’s room, which meant my clothes were shoved in the back. (And my sister claims I was spoiled?) The only advantage to sharing her closet was she could never tell me to stay out of her room. Only after I moved out of the house did a door appear on my bedroom. What was up with that?

A twin bed, two dressers, a desk were squeezed into this room.

A twin bed, two dressers, a desk were squeezed into this room that served as my private haven.

My dad was notorious for starting projects and not finishing them. After the living room, the next biggest room was one he added upstairs. He started the project back in the 1970’s, I think. The plan was for it to become the master bedroom. Mom and Dad would move into it, and I would move into their bedroom. Yes! I would finally have a bigger room with more than two feet between the bed and dresser. And my very own closet! Not so fast. This room that we affectionately called “The New Room,” to this day has never been finished. It has served as a recreation room, where ping pong balls are now resting in the walls at the bottom of the house, to its current state of a storage room.

Years after moving out and spreading throughout a few states, this old house became the hub for our entire family at Christmastime and other special events. Oh, if the walls could talk! It was part of our family for 41 years, and it held 41 plus years of stuff or “treasures.” Growing up during the depression, my mom was a pack rat. I mean, she kept everything! Why throw away a perfectly burnt out blow dryer? “I may want to fix it.” Or the multitude of egg cartons and paper towel and toilet paper rolls. Those she saved in case the kids’ ministry at church needed them for crafts. Really? So when we were preparing to part ways with this adopted member of our family, I was amazed – which I shouldn’t have been – at some of the things I found. Some cool family history stuff as well as things that made me go, “Huh?” For example, I came across one of my Christmas lists from the early 1990’s. I’m not complaining. I inherited some sweet family heirloom things, like a mirror that belonged to my great-grandfather and a quilt my grandmother made. It just boggled my mind why she kept all the newspaper clippings of random topics. We won’t even talk about the multitude of recipes she collected over the years.

After a lifetime, we said our goodbyes this past summer. It was bittersweet, but it was time. The house was in rough shape, and my mom was hardly there anymore since she travels during the winter with my sister who takes care of her. The first visit home to help sort through stuff, I was caught off guard. I was squatted down looking in the cupboard overflowing with pots and pans when all of a sudden tears slid down my cheeks. Then I laughed at myself. I was crying over pots and pans! A little later as I was walking around the house, my 8-year old grand-niece looked up at me and asked, “Are you okay?” As I said, “Yes, I’m fine,” I was thinking Wow, I must look really bad! Again, I laughed at myself. When I took a good look at the closet I shared with my sister, I said to myself, “Wow. That isn’t as deep as I remembered.” Once again, my perception of size was way off.

While I will miss the house, the memories will always be with me. The times my sister and I played house on the front porch and the front door was a convenient refrigerator. Or playing Star Trek with our cousins, using the front porch as the Bridge since it housed a swing. And we can’t forget the time my sister caused me to put my hand through the back door window. I think she did that in retaliation years after I threw her Barbie down the stairs and broke off her arm. This could go on and on…

My hope is that another family makes this house their home to remember for a lifetime. Their very own Home Sweet (and Sour) Home.

My childhood home today.

My childhood home today.


Happy Chicken Dance

Hmm…what was my favorite meal or treat from my childhood? That’s really hard since my mom was a great cook. She wasn’t one of those fancy cooking kind of moms. She had grown up on a farm, so we had a lot of meals like cornbread and soup beans, or liver and onions. Yes, I grew up on the meal that 90% of America hates. And yes, I liked it. Still do. We would smother a pile of mashed potatoes with the onions. I did not, however, like the soup beans that always accompanied the cornbread. Just give me the cornbread soaked all the way through with butter and syrup. Yum! But this post isn’t supposed to be about the food I didn’t like.

My favorite meal of all was probably Mom’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. I can’t say it was a meal that was special or was a celebration of anything. I just loved her fried chicken. As an adult, I tried to copy it but it just wasn’t the same. And now that I’m on a healthy living kind of diet (at least most of the time), I don’t even make an attempt anymore. I have absolutely no idea how she ever did it, but the skin would be brown and crispy while the meat was juicy. The skin was my favorite part. When we were older and the doctor put Dad on a “low everything” diet, my sister and I would fight over who got the skin from his chicken. And then Mom started taking the skin off the chicken and cooking it in the microwave. What?! I told her to leave the skin on mine or else. Okay, maybe not, but I did instruct her to leave it on my chicken. Like I heard someone say once, “Don’t make that chicken die in vain!”

The only thing that could make the meal any better was if she made a German chocolate cake for dessert. No store-bought frosting for that baby! Mom would make the coconut frosting from scratch, spread it nice & thick on top, and then put it under the broiler for a few minutes to toast it and make it crispy. Oh great…now I want some!


Winter Escape

The air has turned cold, and my bones with it. It’s this season of the year when I long for someplace warm and tropical. While I’m not picky about where to go, I long to go back to St. Maarten, a Caribbean island shared by two nations. My last visit was only for a day, but I’ll never forget how my feet sunk into the soft sand of the beach. Lounge chairs blanket the beach, waiting patiently to be occupied by sun worshiping vacationers. Bright blue and yellow umbrellas join the chairs in anticipation of winter-weary guests.

I remember the glorious feeling of wading into the clear water as the waves smashed against my winter white legs. The underwater sand was softer than that on the beach, and my feet sank as if I had just stepped into a pool of quick sand. After having enough of the salty water, I collapsed on the beach towel and relaxed, letting the sun soak way down to my sun-deprived soul and taking in as much Vitamin D as I possibly could.

Beyond the restaurants and hotels at the edge of the beach, fancy homes litter the mountains surrounding the town. Walking the historic main street of Phillipsburg sent me back in time when life was simpler. No motor vehicles travel on the brick lined road, because it’s not very wide. Plus, they would be unable to make their way through the pack of tourists. Palm trees and stores of all kinds frame both sides of the walkway: jewelers, souvenirs, candy, clothing, and many others. At one point along the way, there’s a mile signpost resembling the one in the TV show, MASH. This one is painted white indicating the distance to other tropical destinations like San Juan, Puerto Rico (195 miles) and Port au Prince, Haiti (599 miles). Also included were some not so tropical places like Evanston, Illinois (2189 miles) and Halifax, Canada (1843 miles).

And then the rain joined us on the trip. Ducking under a covered doorway, my nephew and I discussed what to do next. Wait to see if it stops? Or head back to the ship? After a few minutes of deliberation, we made our way back to our floating vacation home. Then the sky split open and buckets of rain let loose. This time we took shelter in a tiny candy store that would probably hold only about 8 people comfortably. We spent the time talking with the store owner who had hailed from Canada. He had been living on the island for quite some time and informed us that it was unusual for them to get this much rain at one time.

When we finally made it back to the ship, a steward was distributing warm towels fresh out of the dryer. What a wonderful surprise and treat! They were comforting as we covered our rain soaked bodies where a dry spot couldn’t be found.

As winter encroaches on Northern Ohio once again, the desire to return for a longer visit will be strong. But for another year I will tell myself, “One day.”


The Mystery of Faith

At the end of every August, our church gears up for one of the biggest events of the year: the church picnic. This is not your typical church picnic, though. Our two services are combined and moved to an amphitheater at a local park. Then we make our way to a nearby shelter to stuff ourselves with some of the best food in Ohio, made by some of the best people in Ohio. The day before this huge event, the weather forecast was not looking favorable. Thunderstorms were predicted for Saturday night through Sunday morning. With over 400 hamburgers and hot dogs on standby, and everything else in place, several of us on staff began praying. It’s not as easy as one would think to cancel this huge of an event.

When I went to bed that night, I prayed two things: 1) that the Lord would push the rain to the south of us and 2) that I would get a good, restful night’s sleep after a not-so-sleepful week. My body didn’t get the memo for Prayer #2, and I woke up at 3am without seeing the inside of my eyelids after that. Checking out the weather for an update, I was thrilled to see the chance for rain had plummeted from 80% to 30%. Yes! There was hope, so I continued to pray. But something happened during the next four hours.

By 7:30am, the chance of rain had skyrocketed back up to 70%, timed right with the picnic! With this shindig starting at 10:30am, and help arriving at 8:00am, we had to make a decision. Can you imagine 300 plus people getting caught in the rain? Not a pleasant picture! A fellow pastoral staff member, who is usually more positive than I am, sent me a text declaring it was going to rain after all. I called her Negative Nelly and was adamant it wasn’t going to rain. When I discussed the situation with our fearless leader about what to do, I recommended we proceed as planned. I told him it was rare I had this much faith, but we had prayed – and prayed hard – so I knew it wasn’t going to rain. Lo and behold, it didn’t rain the entire day! There was a strong urge to say, “I told you so,” but I resisted.

Fast forward a week to the moment I discovered we were low on communion cups for the next day. As I prepared the trays, I worried we wouldn’t have enough. What did I do? I prayed. Right before I made a hurried 20-minute trip, hoping the store would still be open at 6:00 on a Saturday night.

Where was the abundance of faith I had just the week before? I don’t know. That’s the big mystery of faith. Jesus told us if we had the faith of a teensy weenie little mustard seed, we could move a mountain and nothing would be impossible (Matthew 17:20). But one day we can have so much faith that we feel like we could literally move a mountain while the next day it seems like we couldn’t move an anthill with a tiny mustard seed. An often quoted verse describing faith, Hebrews 11:1 (NLT), says this: “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”

As I pondered this mystery called faith, a scene from the movie, Empire Strikes Back, came to mind. (Of course it would – I’m a Star Wars fan!) Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi Knight like his dad so he’s being trained by Yoda, a Jedi Master. Here’s what transpired after Luke’s X-Wing fighter (basically, a fighter jet) finished sinking into the swamp:

Luke: We’ll never get it out now.
Yoda: So certain are you? Always with you, it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
Yoda: No! No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Luke: Alright. I’ll give it a try.
Yoda: No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
 Luke gives it his best shot at using “The Force” to pull the jet out of the water.
Luke: I can’t. It’s too big.
Yoda: Size matters not. Then he continues with a long speech about The Force.
Luke: You want the impossible.
Yoda proceeds to show Luke how it’s done and brings the jet out of the water and moves it to land.
Luke: I-I don’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

By now you’re probably asking me, “So what’s your point?” My point is simply this: Faith is believing God’s Word and trusting He will fulfill His promises to us. We may not visibly see God answering our prayers or even working on the situations we pray about, but He is listening nonetheless. He tends to work below the water line, so to speak, where we can’t see anything until He completes the answer. Just like Luke Skywalker, we tend to rely on only what we see. Luke didn’t have enough faith in The Force (God, in our case) to believe it was possible for big, and even huge, problems to be solved.

I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about faith; that’s why it’s a mystery. But take it from someone (me) who struggles with doubt on a regular basis, faith is so much more than believing God is going to give us everything we ask for. Because, frankly, He just might not give us everything we want. Faith is believing and trusting that He knows what’s best for us and that He will fulfill the promises He has laid out for us in His Word, in His timing, whether we see it happening or not.