This tomb, seen along the roadside in Israel, reminds me of another tomb where God testified regarding eternal blessing and renewal.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Amazed (once again)

Returning from Israel only two weeks before the Paraguay renewal has created some lag time in any posts regarding that amazing trip. Even now, I cannot take the time to write about it as I would like, but some things MUST be said!

In February--about six weeks after we received an unexpected invitation to accompany Dr. Randall Smith on a 12-day study tour--four of us, myself, board members Suzy Jeffrey and Linda Forrister, and leadership team member Mariana Long--departed for Israel. The trip was neatly packaged in regard to the Paraguay renewal--we would leave two weeks after the team preparation retreat (pretreat) and arrive home two weeks before the renewal itself. The very idea of making such a trip seemed ludicrous, really. But... we had been praying for an opportunity to "spy out the land," and God had offered one
with the very teacher we were hoping to hear! As Suzy Jeffrey said, "When the Lord drops something this wonderful in your lap (even with a discounted rate), you need to set up and take notice." So we did!

For 12 days we raced through Israel, following a man who possesses a never-ending supply of energy, a rapid pace, and an inexhaustible and comprehensive skill set. While living in Israel for over a decade, Dr. Smith owned a business near Jericho. He also studied in Jerusalem & holds degrees in Near East Archaeology & a Doctorate in Comparative Religion from Conservative Theological Seminary. His understanding of Biblical culture, history, geography & rabbinic teachings provides him with a unique perspective and one the four of us thoroughly enjoyed.

I had no idea what to expect (other than what I pulled from the pages of the Bible). Though I feel sure that I have spent more hours in the pages of the gospels than many, every turn seemed to provide some new insight. For this post, I decided to post only four surprises--not amazing
things, for sure--just observances that amazed me.
  1. The Mount of Beatitudes was covered in wild flowers. No wonder Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field--how they grow! (note the picture above; that is the Sea of Galilee on the left. To the right are more hills, forming what is called a "natural amphitheater." Tests conducted using modern technology indicate that 3,000-5,000 people could hear a person speaking without amplification in that valley.
  2. Peter's mother-in-law's house (yes, there is good archeological evidence that they have located it) was not outside Capernaum as I have always imagined, but two doors down from the synagogue! No wonder the "whole town gathered at the door." (I loved Capernaum, by the way).
  3. I understood that Israel was small (about the size of Travis and Williamson counties I have heard--that's where I live, by the way), and I knew that virtually all the Bible occurred there. Once I even went through Genesis, drawing a tree in the margin of my Bible every time the Oak(s) at/near Mamre appeared--noting how many significant events had occurred nearby. But... for some reason I was totally unprepared to discover on one short walk: a) the source of the River Jordan, fed by the melting snows of Mount Hermon, b) the site of Jeroboam's altar--the place he built so that the Israelites could worship in the northern kingdom rather than return to Jerusalem (thus the site marking the beginning of the downfall of the kingdom at large); c) the gate attacked by Tiglath Pileser when he stormed into the country, intending to take it all in 722 BCE, and d) the city gate from 4,000 BCE--very likely the one that Abraham approached when he entered the land that God would show him.
  4. How mountainous--yes, really--is Israel. One truly does "go up" to Jerusalem all the way from the Dead Sea. And, Mount Hermon is 9200 feet and still had snow while the wildflowers bloomed everywhere in Galilee. The mountain seems even taller in a country where a significant part of the land mass is 500 feet below sea level....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hour of Clearing: Lessons Learned in Prayer

The women in Paraguay (thank you, Benay Blume) reminded me that I have done little of anything to let everyone know about the online Bible study, "Finding Renewal in the Love of God." The study is posted on the Come before Winter website ( as a resource for personal study or teaching.

The CbW team has come to believe that sanctifying a period of time to focus on the God of this universe will renew the spirit of His people. Thus, in six units (18 lessons), the study explores the personalities of God as reflected by John in his first epistle--as Father, Word, and Spirit. Students examine each manifestation of God, then explore how they might best respond to the One who has made humankind in His own image. Each unit includes three lessons which focus on hearing, exploring, and processing the text through reading, study, discussion and experience. Following is an article from unit six, "The Day of Clearing: Lessons Learned in Prayer." The article recalls a personal prayer experience on September 22, 1990. My hope is that this article, most of which is pulled from my journal of that day, will exemplify the way one might walk through a conversational prayer with God, especially in terms of hearing a personal word from the Lord in regard to a troubling situation or experience. Printed here, I also hope the candid sharing will bless others who have struggled with healing from sexual abuse and inspire them to seek healing in the love of God as they come to terms with His Power to heal and His steadfast love for all His children.


In the fall of 1990, I was working hard to conclude six weeks of intensive therapy in regard to sexual abuse during my childhood and adolescence. Before I could be “released” from this intensive vein of my program, I was told that I had to address my anger in regard to authority figures in my life who would have known about the abuse, but who had done nothing to help. Though my counseling would extend over the next five years, that autumn would mark the end of the most intensive phase of my “recovery.”

Honestly, I had been reluctant to display anger of any kind in regard to those who had been “my protectors;" in my mind, it seemed unfair to blame those whose lives and suffering had equalled or exceeded my own. However, my counselors explained that they were confident the anger was there, and thus needed a release. Still, the scenarios they suggested—screaming or beating some piece of property into oblivion—too nearly resembled rage to me. How could one enter healing through such a door? I could not imagine following “rage” into healing. However their insistence matched by my commitment to heal, alongside the constant support from my husband Barry, helped me to land on a possibility. We would go to the family ranch and in Barry’s company I would select and chop down a tree…or do something physical. Mostly, I determined to very prayerfully follow God’s lead. Thus, I entered into my first deliberate prayer walk in which I fully expected God to lead and to speak.

On the morning of, Barry and I rose early before our children (13, 10, 8) and dressed in silence. The moon hung in the air and all was quiet as we exited the house. We crossed the porch and walked into the shed where I would select my “weapon.” Surprisingly, the ax we sought was not to be found. So, instead, I chose what was available: a sledge hammer and a hand-held pick ax—part ax, part grubbing hoe. They seemed right, but I did not understand why. I did like the fact that they were both tools that could be used to build as well as to destroy.

“Okay, Lord, lead me. I cannot do this without you,” I prayed again. With no small amount of determination, Barry and I set out to cross the field, down through a small dry creek bed and up on the other side into a cluster of trees—a very lovely site from the distance. “Show me, Lord. Show me what I need to do.”

My journal entry on that day, September 22, 1990, follows:

The spot looked ragged and overrun. There were dead tree limbs protruding and wild briers in abandance. Forsaken for ages, it was an overgrown heap. The dead, ugly limb that protruded from the tree caught my eye. I was looking for some symbol to represent the evil I wanted to attack. I chose this symbol to represent the destructive obsession of my abuser—the one that had haunted my life since childhood. I had only my two weapons and my Protector and observer (Barry). I was led only by prayer.

“Be with me, Lord, in my therapy with this tree. Allow that which is full of you to be brought forth. I love you.”

I approached the dead, protruding limb and stumbled on the debris beneath my feet. Rotten stumps, broken branches, entangled thorns. I could see that before I could approach the limb, I must clear myself a place to stand—a sure-footed plot that would allow me to atttack the deadened branch. How like life this was! I attacked the cluttered ground with a vengeance. I dug and pulled, depositing each bit of debris into a pile that would rise to my shoulder as the hour progressed.

The irritating briers grabbed at my hands and arms. I fought back, fiercely uprooting each as an anger seemed to emerge and revel in each blow of the hoe. Thoughts chanted through my mind: “Uproot the briers, discard the broken limbs—clear the land—sift the soil, purify the past.”

“There’s grapes on this vine.” The Protector’s voice became an unwelcome interruption from my work. “Look,” he called.

“Not now.” I winced and continued my concentrated attack. This wild abundance that reached out and tore my flesh had become my enemy. I tore at its roots which reminded me of my own—wild, painful, untamed. I chopped and pulled and dug them from the damp earth. The sky was threatening rain, but I knew God would grant me this time of release.”

“Teach me,” I prayed, “what it is that I must learn.”

The vines tore at my bare legs; their thorns bit and grabbed, yet I continued. When I had cleared an area beneath the limb, I changed weapons. Lifting the heavy hammer above my head, I swung hard at the base of the dead branch as it protruded from the tree. I missed, stumbling from the force of my swing. I raised the hammer again, striking again, hitting dead on. The limb hardly moved; my strike left only a dent in the wood. My foe was great. As in true life, my enemy was strong and I remained but a girl. My next blow struck further out on the limb, and a piece of the branch cracked and drooped. At last, I had done major damage. I began to see that beating away the dead limb would occur in stages, yet removing it would not hurt the tree. It would enhance its beauty.

Then I saw the grapes, the fruit of the vine that grew there, and I claimed this as a message from God. Good existed among the "evil." I saw a new vision in regard to my morning's labor: a healthier tree with fruit; it could become a hollow of clearing. I worked on. My Protector observed, thinking of I know not what. Standing further back, his perspective was more holistic than my own.

“This is a wonderful place for a tee-pee,” he said, as if on cue. He was imagining the fun our three sons might have in this clearing I was creating. The observance gave me joy as I also imagined the fittingness of my own offspring gathering in joy to play on ground I had cleared of the rubble that lingered from my abused past. Life could surely mirror this image. His words gave me new energy. A brier grabbed my leg, biting sharply into my skin. The clearing was not yet adequate for the work that remained before me. The "safe foundation" did not yet exist. I turned my attention once more to the ground.

The briers were thick and scattered and seemed to attack me from all sides. I realized that they caused me even more constant pain than the anger I fought. It seemed that they were too personal of an enemy to represent my abuser. They snapped at my legs and brought blood. Surely, these foes lived closer to home. "Which foe lives so actively in the soil of my life," I asked. At once I knew. They represented Satan's lies in regard to my very being; lies that had caused me to fight with desperation to become worthy of God's love. Specifically, I named these briers work salvation—my continual striving to be perfect enough that a broken, ashamed little girl could finally grow up and deserve God’s love. The declaration helped me to feel the destructive nature of such lies. With each step I saw more clearly the way such lies attack joy, entangle, and create pain. “Feel the pain involved in seeking self worthiness,” I told myself.

At that moment, a picture of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns swept into my mind. Only One has earned the salvation of many. Only One was perfect. Only One needed wear the brier. I squeezed a brier in hand, looking for some type fellowship with His pain, but as much as this green brier stung, I realized that the pain it could cause was actually minimal. In fact, it hardly represented my own pain--created from years of trying to earn a position of value.

“Show me the brier, Lord, the one that symbolizes the pain of one who seeks worthiness through deeds.” With that prayer, I dug the grubbing hoe deep into the dirt. My hoe hit upon a hard brier—long and old and brittle and harsh. I pondered it. This was a painful thorn indeed. I took it in my hand, gingerly closing my palm around it. As I held it, I prayed, “Lord let me remember this moment. Let me long consider this pain."

I fell in the dirt and prayed, “Lord, let me leave it here. Let me leave the pain of the past, not the past itself (I cannot leave my past), but the pain. I want to feel your love, your acceptance. Teach me what I can learn.” I wept and dug my hands into the dirt, sifting it to remove any unwanted thing. I sat and pondered what I had done, the picture that lay before me. I knew that not all this life I had uprooted was evil. The tender grass had co-existed with the briers. I prayed again that I might leave the torment of my past, the anger of an abused girl, behind in the debris of whatever God was directing here.

I saw the tree once more. There had been all manner of life beneath the tree—vines and briers--but most of it was stunted, overgrown and beyond use. "Lord, can any good thing have grown here in this mess?" I asked; I was thinking of my own environment, growing up. Could I be healed?

Then I saw it: the grapevine grew in the midst of it all. At first it looked as dead as the rest, but when I caught it and began to pull, I discovered life--not only leaves but grapes, as well, fruit. I became a caretaker, no longer frantic or vengeful. I worked on.

Clouds continued to gather; rain seemed more and more imminent. “Lord,” I prayed, “let me leave this day in your hands. When it begins to rain, I will cease.”

As I worked I discovered the broad vine from which the oldest of the briers had sprung. It was huge and round and consumed most of the area beneath the tree.

The Protector was not focused on the brier, though; he had claimed a more holistic perspective. “Look there," he said. “There is a pecan tree, buried in the middle. It’s been stunted by years of being shaded by those briers.” Truly, there was more life here than I had seen.

A rain drop fell on my head, and I surveyed my progress. I had not accomplished nearly enough, I thought. I continued to work, attempting to redefine my prayer. “If I must quit, rain me out. If not, I will continue.” The rain ceased.

I was seeing my life in every action and decision of the morning, yet a sneaking suspicion was arising from my work: perhaps God did not intend for me to conquer bare-handed my intrusive desire to make myself holy. Perhaps He intended to cover and conquer this sin of perfectionism, of work salvation as He did all the others--through Christ. Still, I continued to strive against the brier, working even deeper into the foliage. By now I was removing a large portion of the vine, and my legs were taking a serious lashing. The pain drew me up short. Finally, I stopped, all of a sudden convicted by the folly in my situation, and I repented.

“Father, you intended for me to stop at the first drop of rain?” I asked, really as a confession. “I manipulated your answer. I will stop now, if you will.” I waited, but the rain did not begin, so I returned to work. But this time I worked with a serious conviction to listen more intently.

I worked a bit more before a gentle rain began again. Remembering my promise, I laid down my tools and sat in the midst of the unfinished clearing, resting from my work and examining the mystery that lay before me.

The beauty of the spot was emerging. The bent tree rose out of the ground, laden with vines and clusters of fruit—both green and ripened; the young pecan grew straight and tall nearby; the ground—some recently turned soil, some rid of its briers, some with grass, green and soft. The stages of my conquest lay before me. Like this plot of ground, I had changed that morning—from angry attacker to visionary husbandman, from blindness to vision, from confusion to understanding, from the fruits of sorrow to the seeds of joy.

Yet the grandaddy brier remained—cut back for sure, but firmly grounded. “Why, Lord? Why must he remain?” My effort seemed (was?) so incomplete, so imperfect! Yet, my soul seemed to accept this ending with peace. The rain fell slowly around me as I sat, seemingly alone with only my thoughts in the presence of my God.

“Mind if I work?” the Protector asked, and he picked up a large grubbing hoe he had brought on one of his trips back to the shed. He stepped into the thicket and began to work, methodically hammering at Grandaddy Brier as I watched with interest and prayed.

The rain slowed but did not stop. Gradually the thicket began to be cleared as I watched with keen interest. When the majority of the briers were gone, he paused. Examining his efforts he seemed pleased. The persistence of the rain was dampening his appetite for work. We were getting wet. He was done. I rose, and without speaking, we gathered our tools.

Before we left, I turned once more to the clearing and examined the pile of rubble. Though most of the briers had been removed, the thicket remained a mystery. After all our work, briers remained. It had not been His will that we would perfect the clearing to celebrate our efforts. Yet, I rested in His Will.

“Zach’s awake,” the Protector shared. I noted the Lord’s timing; the morning’s work was done, uninterrupted and in silence before our "baby" awakened. The rain pelted now, sprinkling my face in a baptism of new assurance. I had gone out angry and confused, needing to complete an assignment, to find a release, yet hating the idea of destroying anything.

In His wisdom and by His power, the morning's work had not been destructive at all, but a creataive beginning, a lesson by the Spirit so personally and lovingly delivered that it will forever remain a highlight in my walk, a milestone to be remembered. I need never again doubt the leading of His Spirit, nor the ability of Him to teach through His indwelling. The celebration of my soul, the far-reaching consequences of the encounter will remain above my understanding. Yet, from this day on, I will remember the Hour of Clearing, the freedom of hearing, and the reality of being.

Nearing the house, I clutched my momento—a green pecan—a gift from the Protector, found in the midst of the clearing as he had worked. Like me, the tall, thin pecan tree had struggled from its seedling years. In the midst of briers, with little sunlight (sonlight in my case), it had grown above the darkness of its birth. Like me, its struggle had been rewarded with fruit. And like me, through some freak turn of events, it had been chosen for an hour of clearing, of pruning, and of beauty.

What would happen to the clearing? It could become a playground for little boy forts or a garden spot with flowers and a bench. It could become an annual pilgrimage for the Protector and me or a place to gather fruit each fall, a vine to prune each spring. It might return to what it was, yet nonetheless, its position in my heart will remain unchanged. Other briers may appear, but those removed today have been cleared forever. These briers cannot return. I know I will never pass there that I do not remember the miracle of today and thank God for lessons learned in the Hour of Clearing.

Paraguay Marks Return to Our Beginning

Returning to South America with a new Come before Winter curriculum always brings back particularly sweet memories—memories of July, 2001, almost nine years ago, when we hosted our first-ever CbW renewal. Perhaps because this is where it all began, the anticipation of reconnecting with some of our original participants builds continually prior to the event and culminates in thanksgiving and celebration. We have never failed to receive a warm welcome and decided affirmation. This year’s Paraguayan renewal, held March 15-19 near Asuncion, was no exception.About one-third of the women participating in the ministry’s nineteenth renewal had attended the ministry’s first event in 2001. Seven of the original 24 participants from 2001 and four members of that 12-member team showed up. Similarly, 19 of this year’s 28 participants attended the 2005 renewal, while seven of this year’s 12-member team also served in 2005. Representatives from five South American countries (Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador) attended; team members came from three U.S. states (Texas, New Mexico, and Tennessee). Missionary Ambassador Eunice Herchenroeder serves Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea.

Since no group can better measure our maturation as a ministry, we found particular gratification in hearing this group’s evaluation of our Psalm 103 curriculum. All the groups we serve appreciate the new pace—slower and more fluid than our Mark and Philippian studies. But to date no group has responded with such enthusiasm as the women in South America. The daily showing of the theme video on the hesed of God –His steadfast love—touched this group deeply from the first viewing, and they anticipated it with expectation. Worship was incredible, the singing and prayer erupting from the depths of faithful hearts struggling as we do with life. Yet, a simple comfort existed among us—the joy of community—team with participants, participants among participants, and team member alongside team member—the sharing has never been sweeter. Faces that reflected heavy burdens on Monday began to relax by mid-week; on Friday unburdened hearts carried away a new resolve to better represent God’s grace and forgiveness to a hurting world.

Nine years of experience had prepared us to anticipate the depth of struggles we might find. No renewal to date has faced as many challenges as this one. Technical changes in the ministry’s websight followed by miscommunication caused registration to open two months late. Then Paraguayan visas proved difficult; some, including our original Missionary Ambassador, never acquired these necessary papers. Every step of the way seemed fraught with difficulty including, and maybe especially, the team’s final travel day. With only a two-hour time change, the day we left managed to extend over 40 hours from the time we rose on Friday, March 12, until we reclined our heads on Saturday, March 13, at midnight. The extended trip literally swallowed our normal Saturday preparation time at the hotel, forcing our normal spiritual preparation day of Sunday into a creative mix of rest, worship, and work. A tired, but determined team met challenge after challenge with flexiblity and grace—including intense thunder storms all day Sunday which resulted in the need to transport our many suitcases of registration materials to the conference room in a steady downpour along muddy, slippery paths in a steady downpour marked with lightning and deafening bursts of thunder.

As sometimes happens, the team grew to love the whole hotel staff, a group of young Paraguayans the Texan-born manager lovingly refered to as “her children.” It seemed they took as many pictures of us as we did of each other—and that is saying something. They met our every need before we could even anticipate our desire—often following us at meals to deliever a necessary spoon or fork they noted we had forgotten or to exchange our water—whether sparkling or still—having memorized our preference and noting our own mistake. The staff and facility at Casa del Monte near Atyra, outside Asuncion, was exceptional for our needs, and we all relished the distant beauty of this hillside resort.

All in all, the experience reminded me that we have become (by God’s grace) a mature ministry—flexible, able, and faithful, having established rich relationships during nearly a decade of service. Our love for South America and those who serve there continues to multiply. We left that southern continent once again, praising God for the amazing women who walk there, supporting, teaching, and loving not only those they serve but the land to which they have been called. We can never thank God enough for His steadfast love in bringing us to this point and for giving us these remarkable opportunities to stand with Him on the holy ground of His presence.

May the One who is forever faithful bless those we love there and in every place of His dominion. Amen and amen.