What’s your Family History?

In researching Mennonite history for a novel I’m writing, I found the story of a whole village that escaped Russia through Siberia and over the Amur River to China, from where they went to Canada, the United States, and South America.

This was 1929, when the anti-God Communist government was imposing collectivization. They took property from individuals, leaving them barely able to provide for their families. They arrested and executed or sent to labor camps those who owned a horse or cow, machinery—or taught Sunday school or wrote letters to family in North America or Europe.

My grandfather was a minister/farmer; his family, including my father, was in the last group to receive exit visas from Moscow in 1929.

My grandfather, 3rd from left, back row, before he was married. Photo taken about 1900 in the Ukraine.

Others were desperate enough to escape illegally. One such route was over the Amur River in Siberia into China, and from there to the Americas.

Border guards were constantly on the lookout as the Amur was only about a mile wide at the point they planned to cross to China. Escape attempts were fraught with tension. Leaders tried to time their escapes in mid-day when they thought no sane person would cross the river; later in the afternoon when the guards were less well staffed; in the brilliance of the setting sun which they hoped would blind the guards temporarily; or at shift change between 11 and 12 pm.

The entire village of Shumanovsk (Siberia) planned to leave together–a very risky business with 60 sleighs and 217 people. They had to cross the Amur when it was frozen over. Villagers had been hiding sleighs and goods in their barns in preparation. The leaders knew there were several in the village they couldn’t trust to keep the plans to themselves. So they waited until late one night, then went door to door, knocking softly. “We leave in one hour.”

They approached the two homes of those they didn’t fully trust. “We leave in one hour. You come with us, or not, but we are going.” No time to warn the border guards.

There were some tragedies on the journey–several sleighs broke down and had to be repaired or their occupants shifted to other sleighs while crossing the river; and at least one baby was smothered as his mother tried to keep him from crying out. But the group reached China, across the river, as a whole.

In stories from two sources I read that the group learned later that the two border guards who were supposed to be watching for nighttime crossings were arrested. They were asked why they didn’t stop the group or call for help.

The men’s response was that they saw a large group of armed men around the group and supposed they could not overpower them, so they left them alone. The refugees thanked God for the guardian angels protecting them.

I think in these days we need to hear stories like this. I need them! While many have suffered and still do suffer for their faith, we need to be reminded of stories of God’s deliverance as well. And we need to remember that whatever comes, He will be with us–whether that’s by guardian angels surrounding us or by taking us Home to heaven.

Our pastor reminded us this morning that GOD IS GOOD. His character is good, and He does not change. So whether it’s Coronavirus, divisive politics, or anything else stressing us, we can rely on His goodness, knowing He uses even bad things for His own purposes.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Psalm 100:5

When Anxiety Invades

We knew there was an accident on the freeway. Highway 17 is a very curvy road over the mountain between San Jose and Santa Cruz. But the radio announcer had said it was about a five-minute wait through the accident area. We should still be on time for Don’s eye exam.

However, after we were in stop and go traffic for 20-25 minutes, we were routed off the freeway.

“Good,” I thought. “We’ll bypass the accident and get on the freeway on the other side.”

Meanwhile we called the optometrist and explained the situation. They would still see Don if we could be there within about 20 minutes of his appointment time.

Back on the freeway, I spoke into the phone.

“We’re back on the road. Should be there within 20 minutes.”

Suddenly Don said, “Get off here. We’re in Los Gatos.”

“What?” Los Gatos was on the way back home.

“We didn’t bypass and continue. They turned us around and we’re back on Highway 17, going home.”

Oh my. Once again we called the optometrist and explained we couldn’t get past the Summit, that we wouldn’t make the appointment. They were kind enough to reschedule Don for an appointment yesterday, Saturday.

We left home one and three quarter hours before his appointment time, for an hour’s drive. Traffic seemed to be moving well and I thought we’d even arrive early. Suddenly brake lights flashed red in front of us.

We never did learn the reason for the stop and go, but felt terrible knowing we had to call the doctor’s office AGAIN to say we would be late. Once again they agreed to see Don if we could get there within about 20 minutes of his appointment time.

Both of us were tense. I was driving, knowing his eyes would be dilated during his exam. All of a sudden I relaxed, knowing God was in control.

“Honey, it’s going to be ok. We may get there and we may not, but it will be all right.”

We got there 20 minutes late. Don had a bit of a wait but was able to have his eyes examined by a very gracious optometrist before we turned for home.

Maybe we need to find local doctors since we’ve moved away from Santa Cruz. But we do like our doctors over there.

The significant thing to me was the sudden reminder that God wasn’t surprised by our traffic challenges, and that we could trust Him whatever the outcome.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

I Peter 5:7

We face a lot of anxiety these days–traffic accidents, family challenges, fear of illness, loneliness and isolation, concerns about how school will start and when we can meet together in our churches, protests, riots, and political differences even with those we love dearly.

That’s a lot. But God is Our Father. He loves us unconditionally, without reservation, and He wants to bear our burdens.

When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.

Psalm 94:19

What do you need to give Him today? Can I pray for you? I’d like to be an encourager in this time of new challenges.

Be blessed in the love of Our Father today!

How do we Handle Stress?

Recently I mentioned starting a “gratitude journal.” It’s been two weeks now, and I looked back today to see some of the items I noted.

I’ve dealt with insomnia for at least a year. I’ve tried different remedies, some of which helped for 3-4 nights and then stopped. During the last two weeks there were only two nights when I was awake ’til the wee hours. Some of my best friends are also dealing with this issue so I’m not sure if it’s age, stress, or what, but I’m so grateful to be sleeping more regularly–a repeated thanks in my journal!

Some of my other entries:

  • A wonderful hubby who loves me unconditionally, cares for our yard and does a great deal to help me around the house
  • A delicious dinner and meaningful outdoor visit with a nephew and niece
  • Phone calls with Arn and Carol, a brother and sister-in-law; and with a niece in New York
  • Dinner with friends at social distancing
  • Encouraging, challenging online sermons
  • Beautiful, sunshiny days
  • Naps!
  • Making edits on the novel I’m writing
  • Several good walks in our neighborhood

And one morning as I drove, I sang (in my scratchy, breathless voice) “I love you Lord and I lift my hands … to worship you, O my soul rejoice.” I turned on a favorite Christian music station and … they were singing the same song, almost at the same point I’d been at when I turned on the radio. That was like a kiss from my Father. He put that song in my heart–and affirmed it through the radio.

I’ve found that focusing on those things for which I’m grateful is helping me deal with the stress of Shelter in Place, of the bad news that abounds in our media, of isolation.

I’m also encouraged by the example of godly men and women. I see pastors finding new ways to serve their churches, through online services, drive-through communions, outdoor and/or drive-in services. Mount Hermon, a Christian conference center near us, has produced four wonderful online concerts through July’s four Saturday evenings.

Museums are offering virtual tours. Grocery store clerks work hard to pack and deliver online orders.

In the midst of this awful pandemic, good is still happening. Too often we (I) focus on the negatives. I get discouraged and disheartened. But God is still good–all the time. No matter what we go through, what challenges we face, He is with us. He loves us as our caring Father. The prayer Jesus used to teach the disciples to pray was addressed to “Our Father.”

Some have not have good fathers. Some have had horrible fathers. I’m reading a memoir now about such a father and it’s heartbreaking. But if we had a good father, as I had, we need only think of Our Father to know He wants to care for us, walk with us through life, and take us to eternal joy in His presence when we pass from this earth.

So let’s be people of thanksgiving, of praise to the God who will never leave nor forsake us.

Do 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 NIV

Resentment: Reverse Poison

Lying in bed a few years ago, I thought of the people who would travel with us on a much-anticipated trip the following day. One woman had offended me on a prior trip. I thought I’d forgiven her. However, as I prayed I realized I still felt a tinge of antagonism toward her.

“I don’t want that Lord,” I confessed. “Will you please remove the bitterness from my heart.”

When I saw this woman the next morning, I flinched. I had a choice to make, since she hadn’t yet seen us. By God’s grace I chose to greet her with a smile. And she, against whom I had carried a kernel of dislike, responded with warm words of affirmation. We enjoyed talking and kidding around during the remainder of the trip. It felt good to have the resentment gone, that poison flushed out of my system.

When I ask the Father for help He is so very willing to respond, to make me more like Himself.

“For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose.”

Philippians 2:12-b13

Someone once said holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die. Wise words, especially with all the divisiveness in our nation today. And holding onto resentment makes us bitter, dissatisfied, unhappy. Not the way I want to live.

“Let all bitterness and indignation and wrath (passion, rage, bad temper) and resentment (anger, animosity) and quarreling (brawling, clamor, contention) and slander (evil-speaking, abusive or blasphemous language) be banished from you, with all malice (spite, ill will, or baseness of any kind).”

Ephesians 4:31

Are you holding onto resentment or bitterness? Can you hand those to the God who wants us to be whole, righteous, just, at peace? Why not allow God to do His refining work in you, realizing His purposes are above yours and mine?

Blessings, dear readers.

7 Ways Gratitude Helps Me

I walked into the garden section of a popular hardware store near us and looked for tomato plants. I found them–tiny wisps of leaves. I asked “Aren’t there any bigger than this?” But no, that’s what they had.

Don grew a lovely crop of tomatoes on our deck last summer, so I bought three small plants–a Roma and two cherry tomatoes. None were more than three inches high.

We’ve watched them grow almost daily. It’s been such fun to see them–six inches, nine inches, then a foot tall. Their growth has been phenomenal until now, about six weeks after I purchased those little seedlings, they are a good five feet above the planter–and wide–and we see bunches of green tomatoes developing.

Note the tallest shoot is above Don’s head and he is 6′ tall!

It seems like a miracle that these tiny seedlings have grown noticeably almost every day since I brought them home.

So how do we grow in our walk with God, especially in these turbulent times?

Gratitude is one aspect of our growth. Like many, I have gone through cycles of faith, fear, depression, and angst over the past months.

I’ve been through difficult times before.

I lived in the inner city of Los Angeles for ten years and had dear African American, Hispanic, and Asian friends. But I and the women with whom I lived and ministered were also threatened with dismemberment and death. I recall fearful nights going to sleep praying, “Lord, I don’t know whether I’ll see you face to face in the morning, or will have another day to live, but I am yours.”

1970’s staff photo

I faced anguish when I lost my first husband to death.

I grieved at the losses of a nephew, my father and most recently, my mother.

But God’s view is so much higher than mine. He sees the big picture. He sees what will draw people to Himself. And His love is so great He sacrificed His only Son, Jesus, to become a man, live among us, die a cruel and heartless death at the hands of false accusers, and rise again. And this God, who loves us with unlimited, unconditional, unending love has commanded us to thank Him in every situation.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

The late A.W. Tozer, American Christian pastor, author, magazine editor, and spiritual mentor, said “A thankful heart cannot be cynical.” And how easy it is for me to become cynical in this time of racial and political unrest, where I can’t have my faith-friends come alongside me to sit with me and challenge my wrong thinking during those cycles of fear.

Dr. Rick Hanson has studied the happiness factor.

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.

Dr. Rick Hanson, Neuroscientist

So if, as Hanson attests, it takes five good interactions to make up for one bad one, we need to be people of gratitude, persons who notice and thank God, not only for the blessings He has given but also for the opportunities to grow which are inherent in difficult times.

One way of increasing our “attitude of gratitude” is to keep a gratitude journal. The UC Davis Emmons Lab has studied effects of such journaling extensively and found that those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis experienced a host of benefits: (see https://www.dailycal.org/2015/03/06/happiness-keep-gratitude-journal/).

  • They exercised more regularly.
  • They reported fewer physical symptoms.
  • They experienced better sleep quality and duration.
  • They felt a greater sense of connection to others.
  • They were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals.
  • They had higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy.
  • They felt better about their lives as a whole.

Perhaps instead of fearing the future, we can ask questions like these.

  • What do You want to teach me?
  • What do I need to change? What attitudes or biases do you want to root out in me?

And then thank Him.

  • Thank Him that He is in control, and that nothing happening in this world is surprising to Him.
  • Thank Him that He loves you completely, fears, joys and all.
  • Thank Him for this opportunity to learn more of what it means to rely on Him day by day, to trust Him for the future.
  • Thank Him that He wantw to teach us what is good and honest and just and pure and lovely, and to change our hearts accordingly. (Philippians 4:8)
  • Thank Him that He is a good, loving Father who has promised never to leave nor forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Thank Him for family and friends who love and encourage and challenge and strengthen us.

I want to be like those tomato vines on our patio. I’m going to start a gratitude journal. Want to join me?