Monday, May 29, 2017

This Land is Our Land—Yours and Mine

TODAY IS MEMORIAL DAY in the United States, and I hope you’re honoring it wisely. Not by going to the mall to enjoy all of the Memorial Day sales, but in humble remembrance of those who have fallen so that you can live a life of freedom. All over our country, men and women have sacrificed their own comfort and lives to protect others, both here and abroad. And that truth burrowed down into my heart a little deeper while I was traveling this last week.

            My husband and I took a different route than usual to the Southern California mountains, one we haven’t traversed in a long time—actually, in the last twenty years. The first part of the trip was the usual, as we traveled west from Tucson thorough Yuma and made the pre-requisite stop for date shakes in Dateland and then to Yuma to dine at Cracker Barrel restaurant (where I snagged a special edition copy of MercyMe’s new Lifer CD). Then we passed between the eerie, shifting sand dunes (that never look the same from one trip to the next) and sped off to the area around El Centro, California where we turned north and headed toward the Palm Springs area. This time, though, we took the east side of the Salton Sea rather than the west. My engineer husband was curious to see what this post-apocalyptic-looking water mass looked like from that view. I had to admit it was a far more interesting angle than the west side offers.

            By the time we get to the north of the Salton Sea, it’s usually pit stop time, and we have to locate some decent gas station or fast food restaurant sprouted out in the middle of this desert wasteland. It always astounds us that we manage to find something. From there, it’s on through the thousands of wind machines blanketing the landscape for miles. This is where the engineer goes giddy—watching all of those monstrous blades whirring, producing energy. He knows this landscape like the back of his hand. The vision transports him back thirty-three years to his first job out of college, on one of those wind farms.

            Right around the western edge of those farms, we altered our usual course and took a turn north on Highway 62 through Yucca Valley. And this is where both of us were in for a surprise.
            Out in the middle of that vast land of rock piles, sand, scrub brush, and Biblical-looking Joshua trees is a bustling little town. Twenty-two thousand people strong, if the town’s website census is accurate. We were amazed at the sight. And as we careened up and down the hills and looked out over the sand-brown and tree-greened landscape, the engineer kept exclaiming, “I can’t believe all of these people live out here!” For miles he repeated that line over and over in one form or another. And I kept agreeing with him. Not only did we find it amazing that all of those people lived out there, we probably found it more amazing that anyone would want to.

            And then, as we ascended to the top of one of the hills, my haughty attitude was abruptly humbled. Off to the side of the road, atop a huge rock pile outcropping stood a flagpole, the Stars and Stripes flapping proudly above a black POW/MIA flag. Nothing else stood around it, not a house or any kind of building. One flag to show support of a homeland and another flag to let everyone know that homeland doesn’t forget the ones who were taken prisoners in another country during war and are still prisoners, missing, or unacounted for. And in one instant Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” popped into my head, and I realized that this seemingly barren landscape was someone’s beloved homeland. A land they felt was worth fighting and dying for; a land worth waving the country’s flag over. A land that—in some respects—belongs to me and the rest of our country as much as it does to the people who live there.

            In Big Bear we feasted on the lake and snow-clad mountains and marveled how this terrain of deep green and vibrant blue was only a forty-five minute drive from the parched desert. And it deepened our love for the diversity of this country.
            On our way back home a week later, I looked for the flags. And they were still there, flapping and hanging tightly to the flagpole in the vicious winds, proudly proclaiming their symbolic statements. It was a fitting way to kick off the Memorial Day weekend, where we take one day to remember the fallen soldiers that have sacrificed so that landowner can lay claim to his acres of rocks and live free. So all of us in this country can lay claim to our own parcels—expansive or puny—and live free.


           The miles and miles and miles of parched desert didn’t look so forlorn and forsaken to me on the return trip. It actually looked—beautiful. The engineer agreed, and we were doing a lot of rejoicing on the drive home, (MercyMe music aided the mood), and as we stopped in Westmoreland, California to sample their dates and date shakes and buy local olive oil and raw honey. (Most of the farms around there also raise bees, and the stacked little white boxes were covered with shade material to keep the precious little pollinators from scorching in the rising temperatures.) And we rejoiced as we re-crossed the Colorado River and re-entered Arizona and stopped again at Cracker Barrel for campfire chicken and Rainbow trout dinners before making the final leg of our journey home. We arrived home more grateful than ever, and more in awe of our beloved homeland.

            And today I'm remembering, all those men and women who died for me, for this country, be it 240 years ago during the country's founding, or in our bloody Civil War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other battlefield they were called to serve in. Today is not really a day to celebrate. That day comes on July 4, when we celebrate the founding of our nation. Today is a day to honor, remember, say an extra prayer for peace.
            And to thank God that there are men and women willing to fight for freedom, and to honor those who died for it.

Until next week,

May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

Photos by Andrea Arthur Owan, Chris Owan, Parker Owan, and Google Images

Monday, May 22, 2017

Withdrawing and Retreating: The Importance of Ascetic Elements in Life

IN MY LAST POST, I shared with you how I always look for God when I travel. And I’m doing it again this week as my husband and I return to the mountains of Southern California, a place we’ve been retreating to off-and-on for thirty-one years and plan to return to yearly now. I felt a little slow on the uptake this last week, though, since I was flattened with bronchial pneumonia, partly due to the horrendous winds we’ve had in Arizona the last couple of months (I’m allergic to dust, and there’s an overabundance of dust in the desert), and partly due to my overextended, exhausted lifestyle.
            I think that latter reason is caused by several factors:

1. It’s a curse I’ve inherited from my Pilgrim forefathers. (Although they did know how to observe the Sabbath, something—to my detriment—I’ve been laying aside the last couple of months.)

2. It’s an ingrained habit I’ve acquired from adopting that uniquely American, Puritan work ethic. (Something we Yankees tend to brag about, without examining some of the negative effects that can accompany it.)

3. I’m married to a visionary man who’s determined to pack a dozen lifetimes into one. (I shouldn’t lay all of the blame at his feet, though, since I have a propensity to do that too.)

4. For some unexplored reason (undoubtedly psychological) I feel guilty if I’m not functioning as a human doing rather than a human being. Somewhere deep down, and even though I know better, I feel as though my self worth depends upon it.

           If I’m honest with myself, that last one is probably the main issue: I feel as though my self worth depends upon it. And I’m (once again) paying the price for that erroneous belief.
            In the last several weeks, God whispered to me that I needed to s-l-o-w down, but—being the stoic, ex-competitor athlete that I am, I tried to muscle through. He spoke louder, and I backed off, a little. Then He hollered, I was flattened, and I waved the white flag of surrender. And now I’m on a re-scheduled relaxation vacation (funny how God plans these things ahead of time knowing when you’ll really need them), looking for God in the pine-tree laden terrain, decomposed granite peaks, and winter snow-drenched lake.
            I was still feeling a tad guilty about it, (probably because we had to leave our two four-footed children at a pet hotel), until I happened to read a passage from Mindy Belz’s great new book They Say We Are Infidels. (God even sent me vacationing with just-right reading material!)

            “Christianity has had an ascetic element from the start. Jesus withdrew to
            rest and to pray in private. He warned his disciples not to be weighed
            down by the cares of this life. The apostle Paul retreated into the deserts
            of Arabia after his conversation and later added his own counsel in favor
            of a solitary life. From their earliest days, some among the followers of
            Christ became solitaries, or monachos in the Greek” (pages 18-119).

            While I’m not about to begin practicing a life of extreme asceticism, abstaining from all indulgences, I do know I need to incorporate an element of it into my life. I need to take my own advice, and I need to take it more often. If withdrawing from the crowds and His closest circle of friends and from daily labors was good enough for my Lord, then it’s good enough for me. More than good enough, actually. If it was necessary for Jesus, then how much more necessary for me, a mere mortal? If He warns me not to let the cares of this world weigh down my heart and mind, then I need to take His advice. My physical, psychological, and spiritual health depend upon it.
            I need to set any guilt aside, reject any pre-conceived notions of a work ethic that borders on extreme and neurotic; and I need to remind myself—often—that my self worth is not measured by what I do or by my performance. My self worth is inherent because I am made in the image of God, and is further established by my relationship with His Son Jesus Christ.
            And knowing these truths helps me live more purposefully, and in a state of peace. And when I take time away, extended times of Sabbath and mini-sabbaticals, I can hear Him more clearly. I can love more fully. I can focus more intently. I can set aside those things that encumber me. And as I look forward to the week of rest and recuperation, I do so with an expectant heart. Because I know, as He is so faithful to do, God will be speaking to me, as often as I am ready to hear and listen.
            Even this vacationing can become an idol, though, so this is not about doing or not doing. This is about doing all that I do unto the Lord. It’s about eating unto the Lord. It’s about working unto the Lord, and playing unto the Lord. And this week, for me, it’s about resting unto the Lord.
            It’s about having joy and peace in all things because the joy of the Lord is strength to all who possess and enjoy it. It’s so much easier to do when you’re on vacation, but I know when I return home, I need to follow Jesus’ advice and find more frequent ways to remove myself from life’s stressors and its cares, so I’m already thinking ahead. I’m jotting down what I can do:

1. Daily—maybe setting my work aside sooner, getting myself ready for bed sooner, unwinding, and then spending some extra time in mediation and prayer at the end of the day before going to bed.

2. Weekly—making sure I really honor the Sabbath, from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. Rest, worship, and pray.

3. Monthly—Take a full day to take a drive, get away from my surroundings, go up the mountain behind my home. Or maybe head to one of our local botanical gardens to walk, sit, pray, and write. Niggle my brain and be refreshed.

4. Quarterly—Maybe pack a duffle bag and head to a nearby town for a change of scenery. Or load the dogs in the car, attach the trailer to it and head to some nearby campground to live in the wilderness for a couple of days. That’ll quickly recharge the senses.

5. Yearly—Taking at least a week-long vacation, although my husband and I are prone to stretching it out much longer than that. We find we have to, probably because we’ve avoided all of the ascetic elements—of withdrawing to rest—that we should have been practicing throughout the year. It takes us at least a week to recover so we can actually rest and rejuvenate on the vacation.

6. Sabbatical—It would be a dream to actually take a seventh-year sabbatical like some college professors get to do, but I’m dreaming!

            For now, I’m reveling in the week I’m being treated to right now!

               This is the vision I awoke to Saturday morning, the first full day of our vacation. I expect to enjoy a lot more of these kinds of views this week. My heart is already overflowing with the possibilities, because now there’s room there for them to be nurtured.

I’m even making sure that I am enjoying the delicacies of the mountain town and eating unto the Lord!

The playing will probably come later in the week as my lungs recover more fully. J

What ascetic elements do you practice, or can you start practicing in life right now? What’s working for you?


Pursuing rest and peace at 6,752 feet and above!

May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

Photos by Andrea Arthur Owan

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reducing Your Risks in Life

            EVERY PLACE I travel, the Lord speaks to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten to the age and stage of life where I’m searching for and expecting it. I'm listening. He speaks to me in nature, in people, and in sights, smells, and sounds. And He did so again on my recent trip to Savannah, Georgia.

              The weekend of May 4-7, I gathered with eleven other Guideposts Magazine writers and four of their editors to tear apart and reassemble stories we’d written for one of the Guideposts publications—Guideposts, Angels on Earth, Mysterious Ways, and their new publication All Creatures. It was a packed weekend of meeting new people—with hearts to tell God’s stories—making new friends, and a crash course in historic Old Savannah. Staying right on the Savannah River, in what was once a cotton warehouse, helped transport me into the antebellum era-meets-modern-amenities city. If I closed one eye I could almost see the antebellum Southern dames strolling the cobblestone and brick-lain streets with their handsome, chivalrous beaus.

            When you’re a writer, you look for even the smallest clues and events that might give you a story, a reason to write. (Sometimes we look for a story where there is none, but that’s another topic.) And I went looking.
            Not only did God answer my prayers as He spoke to me through the amazing lives and testimonies of the women writers I gathered with; He spoke to me through a sign—a black and yellow metal warning sign posted on a brick wall. Not the likeliest place to hear from God. I found it one day while I was out strolling around the waterfront.

           Let's zoom in closer to the sign on this brick wall.

            What do you think I did when I came across these? Turn around and take a different route? HA! I couldn’t resist. I strolled over to the several-hundred-year-old steps, looked them over, decided they looked navigable, and definitely too attractive to avoid. I gingerly placed my foot on the first one. Seemed sturdy enough, so I ventured forward and upward.
            I was immediately struck by how steep they were, the rise being pretty high and the tread being very narrow in depth. My thigh muscle actually complained as I lifted myself to the first level, and I’ve got pretty conditioned thigh muscles. A couple of thoughts that ran through my mind while I climbed were: They must have had pretty tiny feet back then; and How did they walk up and down these steps wearing those voluminous skirts!? 
            But those thoughts were incidental to the first thought I had when I encountered the sign: How very like life those steps and that sign are. Not the HISTORIC part. The USE AT YOUR OWN RISK part.
            So many things in life should have USE—or DO—AT YOUR OWN RISK signs plastered on them. Scripture is full of things we should bypass at all costs. God has already laid out a nice instruction manual for us to use to avoid or reduce trouble and heartache. If we have good parents, they reinforce those truths, and if we’re smart children, we pay attention to them and follow them. God has also instilled in us a sense of right and wrong; we know when we’re throwing good judgment and behavior to the wind and taking unnecessary risks that might injure or damage our lives.
            God provides us with ways out. He even tells us in Scripture that He does. With those stairs, just to be safe, I could have turned around and taken a different route up to the main street. I could have avoided them altogether. But they were so alluring, so enticing. It was as though they beckoned me, as so many harmful things in life do.

            And such is the same with life. Taking unnecessary risks. Not fleeing lusts, enticements, or worldly pleasures. Not putting my spiritual armor on everyday and then leaving myself vulnerable to attacks that make me cave in. Deliberately putting myself in a situation that could compromise my good character or end up making life unnecessarily difficult for me.

            Daily, and sometimes hourly, we are confronted with choices. And in order to make the best ones, we need to:

1. Be saturated in God’s word. Know what it says and don’t do anything that contradicts it, no matter how enticing it is.

2. Be prayed up. Go away someplace to be alone with God. Pray for His wisdom and discernment to guide you. Be sensitive to the leading of His Holy Spirit, who will never mislead you.

3. Spend a lot less time listening to the world and its wisdom. Turn it off and shut it down. Raise a hedge of protection around yourself. That way you reduce the harm that can come to you, while also reducing the harm that you might bring to someone else. It will also abate the harm you might bring to yourself.

            If you do all of these things daily, you’ll scale down the risk you encounter.
            And you’ll enjoy a lot more peace in your life!

            I couldn’t resist showing you some of the sites I encountered in Savannah. Enjoy!

On the last picture, I'll let you guess which one's me!  

Until next week!

May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

Photos courtesy of Andrea A Owan and Google Images