People Need People and Friends Need Friends

friends2Sometimes it’s what’s written on the inside cover that speaks volumes – long before you ever read the book.  For my high school graduation, our youth pastor presented me with a devotional book. “That was nice,” I thought, but I was so busy and preoccupied with the usual teenage angst and drama that I never read it.  After that, time accelerated as I went on to Bible college, got married, moved to Florida, had three babies and when the youngest was just 9 months old, moved to Sicily for two years with my U.S. Navy sailor husband.

We jumped right into ministry with the American church in a quaint little town at the top of a hill overshadowed by Mt. Etna, and I was soon recruited to help the Italian congregation with music as well. They had no musicians, so I played the piano for their afternoon services, accompanied some of the teens who loved to sing, and gave guitar lessons.  Then some new missionaries moved in across the street and a lovely friendship developed as Linda and I began singing for the Italian church’s weekly radio broadcast. How I wish I had a copy of those recording sessions from Pastor Vincenzo’s living room!

Our time in Sicily soon came to an end and my friends presented me with another book – this time an Italian hymn book that I cherish to this day. The kind words written in delicate European penmanship on the inside cover evoked torrents of tears at the time, but warm my heart and conjure up sweet memories of our time together. I can still hear their beautiful, heartfelt singing.

Circumstances and directions changed. We moved – again and again. And then I found myself in what felt like a wasteland to me. Oh, I was surrounded by family and friends, ministry, busy-ness, and lots of snow (2 feet for our first welcome-to-NY storm). But I was lonely. I missed my southern friends. I missed our church. I missed the recording studio in Jacksonville, FL, grieving for all the opportunities and dreams it represented to me as a songwriter.

That’s when the devotional book reappeared.

I had forgotten all about it but there it was, after all those years and moves, sitting at the top of an unpacked box, waiting to comfort and challenge me as I read the words that a young college student and servant of God from Lebanon (by way of Liberia) had written on the inside cover:

People need people and friends need friends,
And we all need love, for a full life depends
Not on vast riches or great acclaim,
Not on success or worldly fame,
But just in knowing that someone cares
And holds us close in their thoughts and prayers.

For only the knowledge that we’re understood
Makes everyday living feel wonderfully good,
And we rob ourselves of life’s greatest need,
When we “lock up our hearts” and fail to heed
The outstretched hand reaching to find
A kindred spirit whose heart and mind

Are lonely and longing to somehow share
Our joys and sorrows, and to make us aware
That life’s completeness and richness depends
On the things we share
with our loved ones and friends.

~ Helen Steiner Rice ~

Let’s save discussion of the devotional book for another time (it’s still my favorite and the impact on my life has been huge) but the point is this: our lives have become a constant whirlwind of activity.  We are filled to capacity with things to do – some necessary and worthwhile, others not so much – pressures, obligations, mindless diversions and distractions all competing for our attention and affection. Technology is great and social media has its place (I’m sure thankful for you, Facebook Friend), but let’s not forget that people still need real people and friends still need true and faithful friends.  God has already placed the people in our lives, so let’s go out and be that kind of friend to someone today!

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.” ~ Helen Keller

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Just An Excuse

“Never trouble trouble ’till trouble troubles you!”

“It is never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”

“It’s not the ups and downs in life that’ll get you, it’s the jerks!”

1My Dad had a host of quips and quotes that remain as whimsical sound bites from his 53 years of ministry. Some originated with people who influenced him: authors, teachers, poets, parents and preachers, while others were reminiscent of growing up in a time when such pearls of wisdom were valued and repeated often, passed down from generation to generation in a farming community. Still others, or so I am told, came from signs on the barber shop walls where he used to get his hair cut!

“I hate the guys who criticize and minimize the other guys
whose enterprise has made ’em rise above the other guys!”

“Never kiss by the garden gate. Love is blind but the neighbors ain’t!”

As a teenager, those favorite sayings of his were sure to elicit a groan or rolling of the eyes from me. I wondered if anyone else noticed how many times he’d repeated them. But there was one in particular that got under my skin a little bit because he had a real knack for knowing when I least wanted to hear it and would deliver it with gusto, even though it wasn’t necessarily directed toward me:

“You know what an excuse is, don’t you?
It’s just the skin of a reason, stuffed with a lie.”

Ouch! Let’s be honest – we all make excuses for things we don’t want to do (or don’t believe we can do) and our culture encourages it. Even in church. In the name of being sympathetic and understanding, we need to be careful we don’t ease someone else right out of a commitment or worse yet, their calling. We have become experts at justifying a lackadaisical, non-sacrificial, Christian-like existence and highly skilled at encouraging others to do the same.

Well, you can sugarcoat it but it’s just an excuse!

When you know what God wants you to do, and he’s provided repeated opportunities to act on it but you haven’t, you’ve opened up your heart to a slow process of decay that sets in and festers every time you repeat the lie. Others know it, too, but they may slap a band-aid on it and repeat it with you anyway, so as not to make you feel badly. And then everyone goes about their business, never really speaking the truth and never knowing what it’s like to experience the fulfillment of growth or the thrill of victory; seeking every day yet another distraction to take away that gnawing sense of defeat.

It’s just an excuse – it’s what you do;
And each time you choose to use it you lose
And you just can’t win!

Excuses breed mediocrity and failure, and while I don’t like the sound of either one of those outcomes, I am pretty sure I have employed my share of excuses. They have the potential of destroying relationships and integrity, and are harsh in their treatment of cherished dreams, subjecting them to a slow and painful death. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had just about enough of that!

Excuses have whittled away some of the best years and greatest opportunities of my life. Some were born out of vulnerability and weakness, others in pride; all of them desperately trying to hide a lack of faith in the One who promised to fulfill His good purpose in my life.

But that was then and this is now! I keep reminding myself that as long as I wake up every morning to a brand new day in this old world, I have yet another opportunity to do something with the time and talents God has given me – something of value for the next. I am committed.

How about you?

“The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him.”  – 2 Chronicles 16:9a

A New Song

That moment you realize it’s not about you.
The gifts you’ve been given were meant to share.

6Blessed by the generosity of a family of gospel singers and a couple of dear friends with a penchant for road trips, I found myself in the middle of a week-long songwriting school at Lee University in Cleveland, TN.  Thinking I was in pretty good shape with several of my best songs, my heart sank as the instructor informed us on Day 1 that he didn’t want to hear anything we had previously written.  Of course he didn’t – ’cause that was just one more frustration to add to my growing list.  Recently unemployed, I was disillusioned with ministry and feeling like I’d been drop-kicked to the curb. I was also recovering from surgery and had been on complete vocal rest for six weeks. To be honest, I was unsure as to how well (or if) I would be able to sing after that.

“They meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

These words were etched in a stone monument in front of the dorm where I would stay that week. The original building had been destroyed by arsonists but a new one triumphed in its place.  Choking back the tears, I reflected on the Old Testament story of Joseph and was reminded that God had a way of turning things around.  The same God had promised to continue (and complete) his good work in my life – no matter how it hopeless it seemed at the time.

Our assignment for the week was to write a completely new piece by adhering strictly to the instructor’s very methodical (and might I add, boring) process.  I labored over it, every word an effort and every effort a drudgery.  I felt completely out of place with this group of professionals and chastised myself for spilling my guts on the first day when asked to write out what we hoped to accomplish in his class. My, I had some lofty goals! I was embarrassed and wished I could retrieve that paper, hit the road and pretend this never happened.

Rip it up in pieces – the song I tried to write; I know I’d never sing it anyway!

Returning to my room after a deeply moving chapel service with the Voices of Leeon Wednesday night, I panicked at the thought of presenting my song in class the next day. Disappointed with myself and a little mad at God, I tore the lyrics into tiny pieces, throwing them on the floor in my frustration.  “I’m not singing that! I hate that song!”

So why pretend it’s working when the words don’t seem to fit?
The rhyme and meter move to different times.

Self-condemnation, feelings of inferiority and fear of humiliation were followed by my usual litany of questions. “What was I thinking? Lord, why did you bring me here, anyway?” Moments passed. He reminded me of the prayer I had prayed months earlier, asking him to show me what was holding me back in my songwriting. In my heart I knew that God had ordained the time and place, and had chosen and prepared the instructor well in advance and, while many others benefited from it, it seemed that week was just for me (I’m not spoiled, just blessed).  The tears of doubt subsided and I realized after a while that the struggle had quietly crept away in the face of God’s peaceful calm.

So what if I didn’t have the latest songwriting software or laptop computer with all the bells and whistles? The Lord had always managed to use me just as I was –  a simple singer with a classical guitar and handwritten lyrics on a legal pad.

So what if no one else ever recognized my potential or validated my songs? It didn’t seem to matter anymore as my heart rejoiced in knowing it was his validation, his approval, his anointing that I needed and without them, I wouldn’t want to sing anyway.

What mattered most was the condition of my heart and my relationship with him. This was his work, these were his songs.  His gifts and calling are irrevocable and were never intended to be admired like trophies on a shelf. They are more like relief planes dropping supplies across enemy lines to the starving, war-ravaged masses; first responders heralding a message of hope and healing.  They have a purpose – they are given to bless others.  I picked up my guitar and began singing softly through tears of gratitude, without a single thought as to what anyone else might think:

Someone’s waiting for my new song;
Are they longing for peace and harmony?
It’s worth waiting when a new song
Brings new life and sets you free!

And then I knew – everything was going to be all right.

He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. – Phil. 1:6