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Girlfriends pic 4The older I get, the more I value my girlfriends and the relationships we have built over the years. Thinking back on how my various friendships began, and when certain people were brought into my life, I have no doubt God’s hand was involved. God places certain people in our paths because He knows what we need. For example, long before I married a pastor I was befriended by several women who were already in that role with years of experience as a “pastor’s wife.” God knew the journey I would be taking and sent me girlfriends who would understand, guide, and encourage me. Prior to that, I crossed paths with women of similar backgrounds; or women who were experiencing life changing events that I, too, had experienced. The bond of these relationships continues to grow and even though we may be separated by miles, or just the busyness of our lives, our hearts remain united.

Because of our demanding lives, the opportunities to spend time with my friends are few and far between. I look forward to those opportunities with a grateful heart and praise God for bringing these special ladies into my life. Girlfriends call or show up at just the right time, know just the right thing to say, laugh together until they cry…or cry together until they laugh. Girlfriends uphold each other through the toughest of times and rejoice with each other through the best of times. “A friend loves at all times…” (Prov. 17:17)

So whether it’s a weekend at the beach, lunch or shopping at the mall, or over a cup of coffee, enjoy the grace and peace the gift of a true girlfriend brings. And may God bless you with many good, hearty belly laughs that only your girlfriends will understand!

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I recently received an e-mail that began: “It’s that time of year when we need to be thinking about the less fortunate.”  Really?  I can’t recall anywhere in the Bible where Jesus tells us to think about the less fortunate on an annual basis.   Granted, the Christmas season is typically the time of year when most individuals and organizations make a special effort to help people in need.  But our giving and helping should not be restricted to the holiday season.

A few years ago, our Sunday School class decided to adopt a family for Christmas.  I contacted Social Services to get the name of a family who needed help.   I was surprised when the case worker told me they didn’t have many families on the needs list.  The reason, she explained, was because everyone wants to help at Christmas, and most of the families who needed assistance had already been “adopted”.  I remember her specifically saying that she wished people would help throughout the year, and not just at Christmas.  After all, she said, people are hungry and need clothes year-round, not just at Christmastime.

I had a similar experience last year when I called a local assisted living facility about scheduling a time for our choir to present a Christmas music program for the residents.  I was told their calendar was booked through December with people who wanted to do something special at Christmas.  She mentioned that there were plenty of openings throughout the year, though.  We did offer a Christmas music program, but we did it in January, still during the Christmas season, but after all the holiday hype died down.  The welcome we received was overwhelming.  We were invited back and since then have made regular visits to this facility to sing for and with the residents.  Many of them shared with us that they don’t have many visitors and feel forgotten.  Although they enjoy the music, they are especially touched that we take time out of our busy schedules to visit with them; and, that we come throughout the year, rather than just at Christmas.

As a result of the poor economy, many have lost their jobs.  Some of our neighbors have lost their homes and are turning to shelters for housing and community soup kitchens for food.  But it’s not just food and shelter that our brothers and sisters need.  Maybe someone in your neighborhood needs help with the yard work or home repairs.  Maybe someone is recovering from surgery and needs someone to clean the house.  Maybe someone needs a ride to the grocery store.  Maybe someone is lonely and would like to have a friendly visit or some companionship.   And the list goes on.

This year, let’s remember that we are called to love and help our neighbor throughout the year – not just during the Christmas season.

Serving JesusFor I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35-40)

God’s peace can be found in so many places.  Some obvious places are the mountains, the beach, the front porch with a cup of coffee.  We go to these quiet, restful places seeking peace.  My favorite and most restful place to go when I’m feeling stressed is the beach.  The beauty and magnificence of the ocean combined with a gentle breeze and the warm sun provide the perfect environment for me to do a complete brain dump.  Once my head is clear of all the clutter I can sit for hours just taking in the beauty of God’s creation, resting and enjoying His peace.  But God’s peace doesn’t have to begin and end there.  God’s peace is all around us and can be found even in the midst of the chaos in our lives – a very unobvious place, but it’s there – if we look for it and claim it.

finding peace

It’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of our daily routines: getting the kids off to school, the busy office, telephones ringing, deadlines – that we allow the chaos to take over instead of turning to God and making His peace part of our daily routine.   In John 14:27, Jesus tells us “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  He doesn’t tell us He will only give us peace at the beach, nor does He place any other conditions on when His peace is available to us.

So, when our busyness rules our lives, we feel like we’re suffocating in despair, and a trip to the beach is nowhere in sight, how do we find God’s peace in our chaos? It’s a tough question; one I have been struggling with for some time.  The answer, so simple, came to me through a song – a favorite hymn actually, but one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.  As I listened to this hymn so beautifully arranged and sung, the words registered with me like I was hearing them for the first time:

All to Jesus I surrender; All to Him I freely give;

I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live.

 Tears filled my eyes as I began releasing the turmoil that had built up inside of me.  We find God’s peace when we surrender our chaos to Him.

 “I Surrender All” by Judson W. Van De Venter

Using Our Gifts

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  (Romans 12:3 NIV)

As a young, aspiring musician, I was never confident about what I had to offer and always tried to perform like someone else.  From experience I can tell you that trying to be like someone else just doesn’t work.  Feelings of frustration and inadequacy began to build which only fed my already low self-esteem.   It wasn’t until I began directing a praise and worship band that I realized the importance of our individual gifts and how those gifts needed to work together to make the band complete.

I have been very blessed to have Christian friends, some who are accomplished musicians, who recognize my gifts and are willing to help me develop them.  As a result of that nurturing, my self-confidence grew as did my level of skill, and I became more comfortable using my gifts according to the grace God gave me.  Of course, I’m always eager to learn new things, but only to the extent that God leads me.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear that we should “use our gifts according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6).  Simply put, God wants us to be who He made us to be, not who we try to be.  As a music worship leader I learned two very important lessons.  The first was to develop the gifts God gave me and not try to create something else within me that God didn’t put there; the second was to encourage others to do the same thing.

So often I hear others say they wish they had musical talent.  Friends, music isn’t the only gift God gives us.  It takes prayer and discernment to know what our gift – or gifts are.  Do not believe that you have nothing to offer.  And especially, do not allow yourself to feel jealous of another’s gift.  I remember years ago in middle school the girls were required to take home economics and the boys were required to take wood shop.  In home economics class I learned that cooking and sewing were not my gifts.  Likewise, my sister made a gallant attempt at learning to play a musical instrument.  She discovered that creating music was not her thing.  However, when put in front of a sewing machine, she could whip up the most beautiful clothes in no time!  Today she is an incredible cook and decorative tile artist.

God made us unique for a reason.  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others…If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach;  if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.  (Romans 12:4-8).  God gave each of us a gift – the greatest one being the gift of His grace, which allows us to be who we are in Christ.  Just think, if God made all of us the same, what a boring world we would live in!

(Artwork by Marina Bosetti, Bosetti Art Tile: http://www.bosettiarttile.com/)

Some things don't changeMy parents raised six kids in a very small house. There were eight of us in a three bedroom;  one bath ranch in the sub-burbs of Pittsburgh. The girls shared a bedroom and the boys shared a bedroom; we waited in line for the bathroom. We were crowded, but we managed. My most memorable years were the 70’s and early 80’s.  Sunday was the family day.  The usual routine was to go to church, have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, and watch the Steelers play football.  We really were not any different from most families; we had our fun and we had our conflicts.  But there was a closeness that only an Italian-Catholic family could understand; a closeness that remains many years later.

I recently returned to Pittsburgh for a family visit.  I’ve been back annually since moving to North Carolina in 1984, but there was something very different and special about this particular visit.  My father no longer lives in the house in which we grew up.  He now lives in a much smaller house, and although I’ve been to this house many times, for some reason I was struck by the simplicity of it.  My father was never one for upgrading to fancy or even more modern styles.  As long as it worked, he was happy.  He still has many of the material things we had growing up such as his recliner, the silverware, even my mother’s favorite cast iron frying pan.  I guess some things just don’t need to change.

Perhaps it is this simplicity that contributes to the closeness of my family.  In reality, we all have very different lifestyles and our routines and priorities are far from simple.  The geographical distance between us prevents us from seeing each other very often.  Yet when we come together, our complicated lives seem to fade from focus, and we experience the closeness we had growing up.  For one week there were five of us sharing a two bedroom, one bath house – girls in one room; boys in the other.  We were crowded, but we managed.  Now, I must take a moment here to be completely honest.  We are close, but we are also a bunch of loud Italians.  Just like it was 40 years ago, there was the chaos of everyone talking at the same time, bumping into each other because there was no room for all of us in the limited space, waiting in line for the bathroom, no privacy, and no peace.  It was a good visit, perhaps one of our better ones.  During this visit I was reminded of some very special moments we had many years ago.  I am very thankful for my family.  I’m thankful for the memories and thankful that so many years later we still love and care for one another.  How wonderful it was to experience and share that kind of love and grace again.  No, some things just don’t need to change.

Be devoted to one another in love.  (Romans 12:10 NIV)

PurposeI remember when the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds was popular.  It was one of my favorite songs.   I would listen to it and sing it repeatedly because I liked the music and the words made perfect sense to me.  Of course, back then I had no idea the words were taken directly from scripture.  Sadly, I admit that back then I wasn’t that familiar with scripture.  Later in life when I began my faith journey, a relative and spiritual mentor told me I should study the Book of Ecclesiastes.  “It’s the book of life,” she would say.  I laugh at myself now when I recall my excitement over discovering that the words to one of my favorite songs were in the Bible!

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.  (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NKJ) I have come to accept and appreciate that everything does indeed have a season and a purpose.  Seasons prepare us for the next thing God has planned for us.  One common season we experience are high school years.  After four years we begin a new season either by going to college or starting a new job.  Another season may be marriage after years of being single.  For me, my greatest seasons have been during times of simply waiting – waiting to see what would be next in God’s plan for me.  God certainly has taught me much about waiting.  The best part about waiting is watching God’s plan unfold.  After a period of being still and listening for God’s direction, small but significant things begin to happen.  Then they begin to make more sense, and the reason these little things happened become clearer.  The grand finale is when God whispers to my heart and tells me it’s time – time to follow His leading, take the next step, and start a new season.

There is no set time for how long a season will last.  Some of my seasons lasted for many years; some just a few weeks.  The end of a season may be a welcomed change; sometimes it is bittersweet.  But the new season, when it comes from God and in His time, will be worth the wait.  He has made everything beautiful in its time…no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NKJ)

Amazing GraceThere is an Alzheimer’s/memory care facility in our community.  My husband and I were invited to offer a brief, weekly service.  Nothing fancy – just a short devotion and lead the residents in some of the old, familiar hymns.  I must admit, when we began this ministry, we were nervous.   We questioned whether they would understand the devotion being offered, or even care.  Would they sing?  Could they sing?  Would they even show up?  Shame on us for doubting!

It is during these little “services” that we see God’s grace really kick into action. At the mention of Jesus’ name many faces light up — because they know who Jesus is.  I hear an occasional “amen” in response to the devotion my husband shares.  Residents who usually have nothing to say sing “Amazing Grace” at the top of their lungs – and they know all the words!  Others follow the words in the songbooks we provide for them, or tap their hands or feet to the time; others just lift their heads and smile, or sway to the rhythm of the music.  One resident even sings harmony!  After the service, as we are collecting the songbooks, some who looked like they weren’t paying attention or seemed not to be involved at all will tell us how much they enjoyed those old songs.    I’ve read articles about the stimulating effect music has on patients with varying kinds of mental disabilities such as Alzheimer’s and autism.  Actually seeing it is truly amazing and a tremendous blessing.  But my greatest affirmation came as I walked down the hallway one day and a resident reminded me, “Jesus is with us.”

I’ve grown quite fond of these children of God.  They all have a story to tell, but the one consistent story they tell is of the amazing grace of Jesus.  This horrible disease may take away what and who they know, but it can’t take away who and whose they are.  They still know they belong to Jesus.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matt. 5:3,8 NIV)

Traveling LightIt started with a small purse – a place to hold my stuff so I could carry it with me wherever I went.  As I ran out of room in my purse, the solution was to get a bigger purse.  Eventually, I graduated to a much bigger purse, one that some would call a suitcase.  Then one day my back started to hurt.  Until a friend lifted my purse and made a comment about how heavy it was, it never occurred to me that there could be a relationship between carrying a heavy bag and my backache.  So I took an inventory of the contents of my purse and discovered I had things in there that I didn’t know I had and, much less, didn’t need.  My purse had become a holding place for useless baggage.  Once I dumped the useless baggage, my backache went away.

As I was cleaning out my purse, I realized that excess baggage is a lot like the personal burdens we tend to carry.  Burdens such as worry, fear, frustration, and doubt can weigh us down much like the excess baggage we carry in our physical purse.  The more we carry, the heavier our load.  In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Jesus is true to His word.  When I released my burdens into His hands, my load did indeed become light.  It was in that moment that I could truly feel His peace wash over me which allowed me to carry with me only that which I really need to get through each day – God’s grace.

Over the last few months the contents of my purse grew so I switched to a bigger purse.   Slowly and without realizing it, my back started hurting.   I cleaned out my purse and, again it feels so good!

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.  (Psalm 68:19) 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Hebrews 11:1(NIV)

If I were to look into my future several years ago, I certainly would not have seen what I am today.  When my first marriage ended, I had a baby, two jobs, a trailer and endless bills inherited from the divorce.  Being a single mother was not in my plan.  But that’s what I was and I was determined to make the best of it.  My daughter and I were “two women of the 90s” and as long as we had each other, we had everything.  For 16 years it was just the two of us.  We laughed and cried together and we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese.

Back then, I would have assured you that I would never leave the security of my environment and that I would never re-marry.  I had everything under control.  Then I met the One who would ultimately become the love of my life and would turn my whole world upside down.  Yes, Jesus came into my life.  We took it slow for a long time.  After all, I was a woman of the 90s and there was no room for anyone except my little pumpkin.  And following a failed marriage and some really bad dates, I was not going to jump into a relationship.  Over the years Jesus taught me how I should be living my life.  He helped me learn how to say “no” and how to accept “no” for an answer.  He helped me raise my daughter, got me out of many scrapes, and gave me discernment and wisdom to prevent me from repeating mistakes.  And I think that sometimes He allowed me to make the same mistake twice to be sure I learned my lesson.  He was always home when I called Him and always available to talk.  He taught me that I could trust Him; even when I felt like I could trust no one, He would never let me down.  Little by little, as I let Him get closer to me, my wall of self protection began to dissolve. 

Then, one day, my little pumpkin reached adolescence.  The typical mother/daughter conflicts began over friends and curfews, boys and the car, household chores and rules, and just “whatever”.  It was during this time Jesus shared His sense of humor with me.  He told me to give Him my pumpkin.  I refused.  No one could have my baby.  I brought her into this world, and by golly, I was the only one who could take care of her.  But as she got older and more and more independent, I knew in my heart that Jesus was the only One who could give me the help I needed.  When I finally called on Him, it was His hands that reached for her.  Peace was restored to our house and although she and I still had some tense moments, I had a better sense of direction on how to handle them.  Putting my child into Hands I couldn’t see was the first real step of faith I took on my walk with Jesus. 

My faith has grown significantly since then.  God has called me to do some pretty scary things – like public speaking and playing the piano in church – two things that have terrified me in the past.  He once told me to stop dating someone for no apparent reason.  I later learned that with that person, I was headed down a very dangerous road.  Three years ago He put me to (what I thought at the time was) the ultimate test of faith and told me to get married.  But not just to anyone – to a pastor of all people!  Yes, God has quite a sense of humor. 

God calls us to do some seemingly crazy things.  Sometimes I think that the crazier the idea, the more sure I am that it’s coming from God.  God does not want us to carry dead weight that doesn’t or no longer serves His purposes.  He wants us to remove obstacles from our lives that take up room for Him to work within us and help us grow for His glory.  In John 15:1-2, Jesus tells us:  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (NIV)  Pruning our lives, as a gardener prunes the vines, allows God’s nutrients to feed what is important so that we can produce more fruit.  Producing fruit allows us to receive the abundant blessings and grace God so freely gives to us.

But we must remember that when we receive a call from God, whether seemingly practical or impractical, it requires prayer and discernment.  Answering God’s call requires trust, obedience, and genuine faith to step out of our comfort zones and into a place of uncertainty.  We can think with our heads, but we have to hear with our heart.  My favorite description of faith is found in the song, “That’s What Faith Must Be”, by Contemporary Christian singer and songwriter, Michael Card:

To hear with my heart
To see with my soul
To be guided by a hand I cannot hold
To trust in a way that I cannot see
That’s what faith must be

I have never regretted answering God’s calls, including marrying a pastor!  When God calls you to do something that you or others may question or even oppose, how will you respond?  Will you take that step of faith and trust God to work out the details?

The Heart of the Matter

Jeremiah 29:12-13 

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (NIV)

I never knew about sea glass, or even heard of it, until I met Sherry.  We were talking about the beach and how we both enjoyed long walks along the surf.  She told me about sea glass – pieces of broken glass that are polished and smoothed as they tumble in the waves and the sand.  Eventually they end up on the shore among the thousands of shells that are brought in with the surf.   Funny, I thought.  All the times I have been to the beach and all the walks I have taken, I have never seen a piece of sea glass.

My husband and I spent a week at Cape Hatteras this year.  On my last day of work before vacation, Sherry’s parting words were, “Have a great time and bring home some sea glass!”  When asked how she finds so much sea glass, Sherry’s answer was very simple.  “Ask God to show it to you.”

After we settled into the rental house, we made our way over the dune to the beach; David with his fishing gear and me with my chair and book.  (I don’t fish.)  I stopped at the foot of the dune, closed my eyes and prayed, “Okay, God, show me some sea glass!”  When I opened my eyes and began approaching the surf I saw the most beautiful, emerald green sparkle I have ever seen…on the beach. SEA GLASS!  Sherry was right – I asked God to show it to me and He did!  Why was I so surprised?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (NIV)  Understand me, these verses do not mean God will grant us everything on our “wish list”.   What they are telling us is that if we seek God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33), then everything else will fall into place. Seek an intimate relationship with Jesus.  Pray, listen, study and seek to know His Word, intimately.  Our heart’s desire for God must be greater than our heart’s desire for what is on our wish list.  God knows our heart.  When we earnestly seek God’s will for our lives and strive to live our lives according to His Word, putting nothing before Him, then we are seeking Him with all our heart.

Look into your heart and there you will find God.  He is that close.  And the next time you go to the beach, ask Him to show you some sea glass.