New names

My word for the year is love. Other words have come to mind – faith, hope, trust – but as the scriptures point out, “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2.) Being confident that I am loved allows me to step out in faith. Drawing on love allows me to be patient with myself and others. Love is the path to forgiveness, and the way out of fear. Love is God shining in me, and through me out into the world.

You may have noticed that my last name is Love. That became my married name many years ago and although we later divorced I kept the name. I shared it with my kids, and Dr. Love has been an awesome name to have. Students and parents alike smile or laugh when they hear it. Store clerks and TSA workers comment positively about it. The play on words for my blog and book title has been fun.

This year, however, I am marrying John Van Der Karr and I am choosing to change my name again. It is important to me to signify this new phase in my life, to embrace this new beginning! Throughout the Bible people take on new names as a sign of God’s promises – Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah; Jesus gave Simon a new name, Peter, when Simon met Jesus and became a disciple; after his conversion Saul became Paul. These are name changes that represent dramatic changes in the lives of these people, and a reminder for me that a wedding is the start of a dramatic change in life too. A marriage joins families, brings different groups and customs together, and reminds us to be steadfast in love throughout the ups and downs of our lives.

I like the symbolism of love being my word for the year in the same year that it no longer will be my legal name. My blog title will remain the same, as I don’t have to have the last name of Love to be Inspired by Love. And neither do you. What new name or word might you claim for yourself this year? Write it in the “comments” section below to share it with other readers and to let your light shine brightly. Go ahead! (You can always change it later. 🙂 )

Lord, thank you for being the living word in my life. Amen.

A new shoot

The thermometer outside my kitchen window read 0.9 degrees (F) this morning, well below the average for January in New Jersey. And it’s not just in the northeast; much of the U.S. has been gripped by severely cold weather since Christmas. Although it was sunny and bright yesterday it was the coldest day yet this winter, barely getting out of the single digits. The start of the new year has been bleak from that perspective.

How happy I was to look closely at my orchid later in the morning and to see a new shoot! This orchid was given to me by the Deacons at my church in June last year as a “thank you” for the three years I had served as a Deacon. The white flowers lasted for months and when they died off I cut the stem short and put the plant, pot and all, into a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag to preserve the humidity, then placed it out of direct sunlight. More months passed without any sign of new growth yet here it is, the little piece at the top of the old stem, pointing to the left! What a timely reminder that new growth is happening even when it cannot be seen. What a timely reminder to have patience even in times of darkness and cold.

new shoot - orchid

This brought to mind the prophesy that a king would be descended from David: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1.) A stump may not look like fertile ground for the future beauty of an orchid, or of the Lord, but a stump is almost all that is needed. Add a trace of water, don’t burn it out in direct sunlight, and be patient. Even when I cannot detect any movement, a new thing is happening!

Lord, thank you for signs of new life and growth. Amen.

Hopeful expectation

For much of the world Christmas has passed. The Christmas trees have been put out at the curb or packed away, the decorations taken down. Radio stations have gone back to their standard programming. Shelves in stores are displaying Valentine’s Day items. But in the Christian church Christmas is a season, not a day, and and it is still here! The expectation of God come to earth in human form, the waiting for God’s peace to rule over all creation – these are things we look for daily, not just on December 25.

I thought of expectation today as I plan my wedding. It will be a joyful occasion for two families to come together and meet, extending the love that my fiance and I have for each other. I am making hotel reservations, expecting the arrival of family members from near and far. Some have just started new jobs and they may not be able to make the trip but I expect that they will come. I don’t hold this expectation as an obligation to be fulfilled, but as a hopeful desire that they can be with us for this very special event.

It’s been said that expectations are premeditated resentments, meaning that we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and resentment if/when an expectation is not met, but that implies expectation as an obligation, not a hope. It is the same kind of expectation that we have in Christmas – not that Christ was obligated to appear, but that he did. My expectation of his presence in my life can be one of hope, even in the dark periods of my life, because Christmas happened. At Christmastime and throughout the year I can be hopeful, knowing that Emmanuel – God with us – was here not for a day but for always.

“and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:5.

Lord, I am grateful for the gift of hope that came to earth at Christmas. Amen.

First day of winter

Sunrise was at about 7:20 this morning and sunset will be at 4:32 p.m. The day with the shortest amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere heralds the approach of longer days, although it will be months before warmer temperatures arrive. People in the northern hemisphere celebrate Christmas in the same season as the earliest Christians, and the theme of light overcoming darkness has this seasonal touch to it. I wonder how Christians in the southern hemisphere experience the theme of darkness at Christmas time. Do they revisit the Christmas story in June when they are having their winter solstice?

Of course, we can experience darkness any time of the year. Our hearts can be heavy with grief or fear at any season. Illness, homelessness, betrayal and disappointment can come at any time. The fact of God coming in human form to live among us is one we recall every time we come together to worship, and anytime, anywhere in prayer and praise, not only at Christmas. Just as there is no season specific to our experience of darkness, there is no season when the light of Christ is not present. Some days the light of God may seem like a barely discernible ember not strong enough to offer warmth, but we are assured that it is here. We have the ability – and the responsibility – to bring together our embers (or our flames – whatever the strength of our faith today) so that we can build a strong source of light and provide warmth and care to each other.

Dear Lord, fan the spark of light that is within me so that I can share it with others who need some extra light and warmth in the darkness. Amen.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

Trying new things

I don’t like this.” That’s what I thought when our choir director introduced a new piece of music. It was a Nigerian tune with Nigerian words, the rhythm was difficult for me to sing, and I just didn’t like it. I could feel my face tensing, my eyebrows pulling together, eyes narrowing, nostrils pinching, lips puckering. “I don’t want to sing this song,” I said to myself.

But I did sing it for the six or seven minutes that our director led us, and I sang it again for a little longer at the next rehearsal, and again that the rehearsal after that. The rhythm became more familiar and the tune was peppy. I focused on the notes and the syllables and I stopped frowning. I didn’t know the song well enough to sing it without the written music in front of me, but singing it with the choir was pleasant.

As I recalled this process of getting past my initial reluctance I was reminded of myself as a child who needed coaxing to eat her vegetables some days. I resisted for all kinds of reasons, screwing up my face and saying, “Yuck!” This new music took me right back to my five-year old self, and to an appreciation for the people in my life who have helped me to try new things. The familiar things in life may be comfortable, but unfamiliar things, people, places, and jobs can be enjoyable too. With practice and patience they too can become familiar, even loved.

As I think about trying new things I am reminded of this verse from Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19.) In this time of year as the winter solstice approaches, with shorter hours of daylight and colder temperatures in the northeast, it can feel as if nothing new is happening, or worse – as if God is far away. I am thankful for the reassurance of scripture, music, and the people in my life.

Lord, keep my close to you, and to the people who encourage me to be open to new ideas, roles, and experiences. Amen.

Saving the good stuff

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.’” Exodus 16:4

I was really happy with a devotional I had written and I thought I’d post it to my blog. Then I thought of the devotionals I had committed to writing for a publisher and I wondered about copyright issues. If I posted it here I might not be able to send it to the publisher, so maybe I should hold onto it and save it for that purpose. The problem with that, however, was that the essay wouldn’t be published for almost a year. Was I really going to wait that long to share it? Waiting really meant that I wasn’t confident that I’d have more good ideas to write about. A lack of confidence had me thinking about saving the “good stuff” in fear of a future scarcity. What if I couldn’t write more essays that I was happy with to send to the publisher?

Fortunately, my faith teaches me that God’s inspiration and grace are not finite resources. I do not have to live with a mindset of scarcity, but can live with a belief in God’s abundance. Like the Israelites who were given their daily manna and quails, I can give of myself each day and be confident that the well of inspiration will not run dry.

Are you saving your good stuff (love, talent, money, time), fearful that if you share it with others you may not get any more in the future? At Thanksgiving we are reminded to give thanks and share our abundance with others, but at other times of the year (or even the next week!) that mindset slips away. With repeated practice can we change our minds and our habits. We can do so by surrounding ourselves with stories of faith, remembering acts of bravery and good will carried out in the face of ill will, and giving thanks for the daily blessings and grace we receive.

Oscar Hammerstein wrote the following lyrics and they remind me to be generous in sharing: “A bell’s not a bell ’til you ring it – A song’s not a song ’til you sing it – Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay – Love isn’t love ’til you give it away!”

Happy Give-thanksing to you!

Lord, give me the confidence to live with faith in your abundant grace and love. Amen.

Be bold!

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness . . . .” Acts 4:29

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” This is the question that greets me every day on a little sign in my kitchen. Some days I hardly read it, some days it stops me in my tracks and I wonder, “What would I like to do with my life?” One recent morning I allowed myself to admit that I’d really like to pursue inspirational writing – really pursue it, not dabble in it once every few months – and I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s presence, a feeling of awe and gratitude. God’s spirit seemed to be saying “Yes! You can do this. You must do this.” Later that day I received an invitation to write a series of devotionals for a Presbyterian publication. When I described to the person who had sent the invitation what I had experienced that morning we both were amazed at the timing of God’s grace.

I invite you to contemplate, prayerfully, your response to that question. Let God work in your heart to reveal hopes and dreams you haven’t yet discovered, or been willing to admit. Be bold, shutting down the voices of doubt that immediately will crowd out any timid response. It may take some practice, so go ahead and make your own sign and put it in a place where you will see it every day. And let me know what happens!

Lord, thank you for your awesome, amazing grace. Amen.

Beware

“[The scribes and the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew, 23:4

Last week I was in Florida, sitting along the shore of Lake Pierce, at the Future Farmers of America Leadership Training Center, an educational retreat center where I was leading a workshop for faculty members and administrators from Florida Southern College. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not humid, with a light breeze. I watched an egret on the shore and a great blue heron that was chasing the egret from place to place along what must be good fishing grounds. There were occasional splashing sounds in the reeds and water in front of the dock on which I was sitting. Those sounds made me a bit uneasy, thanks to the big sign warning about the alligator. By the time I heard the splashing and looked in its direction I couldn’t see any movement, not even ripples on the water’s surface. I wondered if the sign meant that there is one alligator to beware of and I doubted it. In this context I’m guessing that “alligator” is the plural as well as the singular, similar in an odd way to “moose.”

Beware of alligator sign

What were my “take-away” thoughts from this peaceful-although-occasionally-anxious setting?

  1. Danger is a part of life, whether we can see it or not. Depending on the kind of danger (an alligator) we can take preventive measures and be pretty confident that we will be safe. Other kinds of danger (illness, loss of income) can arise regardless of what we do or don’t do, and their unpredictability brings its own anxiety.
  2. Some people have more resources to deal with danger and its accompanying fear and anxiety than other people, depending on the form of the danger and the type of resource.

I should add here that I’m reading David K. Shipler’s book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, a very sobering account of Americans whose lives are different than my own. My parents remain married to each other (and celebrated their 63rd anniversary this year!), still are healthy, and both earned bachelor’s degrees before they had children. My dad had a steady job as a teacher and my mom was a full-time mom for my brother and me. We were well cared for and loved, got great educations, and were raised with a Christian faith that emphasized God’s love and minimized God’s judgment. I could believe in the American dream because that was my family’s experience.

Given what I’m reading, I have to acknowledge that for me to write about danger in life is like me writing about playing football – I’ve sat on the bleachers watching many games but have never played the game. So I’ll bring this essay to a close not by providing a happy, Pollyanna-type ending, but by being thankful for what I have been given in life (lots of advantages, including good health); praying for peace and justice in our country and our world; and committing to take action, in addition to prayer, for the same.

God, thank you for your loving grace, freely given and not earned. May all your children experience it every day. Give me humility and compassion, and the courage to work for justice for all. Amen.

Lake Pierce

Photo of Lake Pierce

Suspicion vs. Faith

The phone on my desk started ringing. The readout said Mitchell Publishing. I answered, suspecting that it was a solicitation call from someone who would try to sell me textbooks or an assessment product. When the caller stumbled over his words and asked how I was doing, I said with irritation “Is this a solicitation phone call?” “No!” he said. “I’m calling about my son.” I gave him the information he needed and then he asked, “Why did you think this was a solicitation call?” I explained that I had jumped to that conclusion based on the caller ID. He laughed, I laughed, and we said goodbye.

Later I thought about how quickly I had become suspicious and drawn the wrong conclusion. Was I crossing the line from healthy skepticism to unhealthy skepticism? My knee-jerk reaction had been to distrust the intention of the caller. After all, we do live in a world where all claims cannot be believed and we are inundated by stories – some true and some false – of scams, fraud and deceitful behavior. I could see how I was being conditioned to expect the worst.

I want regain a trustful approach to the world! I was raised in a family with an optimistic mindset and I am an optimist still, but I realize how my optimism can be undermined over time, worn away by repeated exposure to blatant lies, willful ignorance, fear-mongering, and a steady stream of sensationalized information that passes for news.

Taking positive action is one way to build up my reserves of optimism. So is prayer, reading scripture, and worshiping with a community of positively-oriented people. Being selective of what media streams I tune into is another way, and supporting local journalism is yet another way to resist the narrative that says that the sky is falling in. Reaching out to friends, going for a walk outdoors, cooking something from scratch – all are good ways to claim and proclaim God’s abundant goodness in our world.

Lord, give me faith that conquers distrust. Thank you for your light that casts out darkness. Amen.