Monday, November 28, 2016

Thankful For the Advent Season

"Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord: let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.  In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care" (Psalm 95:1-7 NIV).

Wait just a minute. Don't pack away the thoughts of thanksgiving just yet; let's carry it with us through the season of Advent! It makes so much sense to lift our arms to our God in heaven and fill the air with our praise for the gift of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Our hearts are already full of gratitude and love, why not continue on that path of offering praise in music and song, and dancing around the room in the advent of joy.

Little compares to the joy of a newborn baby. The sight of that tiny human being who was formed secretively in the womb of his mother. Ten tiny fingers and toes, that itty bitty nose and those perfectly formed lips: a freshly picked child born of the miraculous union of an egg and a sperm. Amazing beauty, a creation of love.

As we wait for the Holy Child of Mary, we again anticipate the arrival of the long-promised baby in Bethlehem who comes to save us; to save the world from its sin and shame. From God's own hands comes the Messiah, Immanuel, God With Us, Son of God: Jesus, the Lamb of God, God in human form.

May your hearts remain full of thanksgiving throughout the Advent season. We have so much to be thankful for as we anxiously await the celebration of the Virgin birth. Jesus is coming! Hallelujah!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Heart of Thanksgiving

"Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts" (Psalm 105:1-2 NIV).

Blessed be His Holy Name! Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

The turkey is ready to go in the oven and soon the whole house will be filled with the fragrance of holiday food. As I sit here in a quiet house, anticipating the joy that is ahead, my heart is overflowing with thanksgiving for a year of blessings. We made a lot of changes this year and God has been with us through them all. A year ago I couldn't have anticipated all that has come to pass so smoothly and so wonderfully.

As the psalm says, this is a day to sing praise to God. Though I love our contemporary services at church, it is during times like these that I especially miss the old hymns I learned as a child. The words of those traditional hymns still ring true to us today, though they are a century or more old.

"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing; He chastens and hastens His will to make known; the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing, Sing praises to His name: He forgets not His own."

"Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest-home: All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin; God, our Maker, doth provide For our wants to be supplied: Come to God's own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest-home."

"We plow the fields, and scatter The good seed on the land, But it is fed and watered By God's almighty hand; He sends the snow in winter, The warmth to swell the grain, The breezes and the sunshine, And soft refreshing rain. All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above; Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord For all His love. Amen."

"When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Cout your many blessings--name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. Count your blessings--name them one by one; Count your blessings-see what God has done; Count your blessings--name them one by one; Count your many blessings--see what God has done."

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen."

May your hearts and mouths sing of the blessings in your life today. God bless you all.

Monday, November 21, 2016

So Thankful For Fall

Iowa  was blessed with a very mild November this year and I am so thankful for the extra weeks of warmth. The first real cold days arrived this weekend, reminding me that we are in Iowa in November. Like a lot of others I waited until the day before the cold was to arrive to finish all my winterizing. It was wonderful to spend a 75 degree day putting away my flower pots, pulling the dead flowers, covering the grill and outdoor furniture and watering the new trees for the last time. I even put up my shepherd and sheep Christmas display while it was warm. I'll plug it in after Thanksgiving.

We have enjoyed pleasant Thanksgiving Days in the past but they seemed to be a respite from an otherwise cold November. There have been many times when the football was tossed around outside on a sunny Thanksgiving. But I also remember an icy Thanksgiving when driving was treacherous. We still have a fine looking pumpkin sitting on the front step as a reminder of the bountiful harvest season just past.

The act of Thanksgiving was not original to the Pilgrims or Native Americans. Thanksgiving was included as part of the fellowship offering required in Old Testament times.

"These are the regulations for the fellowship offering a person may present to the Lord: If he offers it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering he is to offer cakes of bread made without yeast and mixed with oil, wafers made without yeast and spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well-kneaded and mixed with oil. Along with his fellowship offering of thanksgiving he is to present an offering with cakes of bread made with yeast. He is to bring one of each kind as an offering, a contribution to the Lord;" (Leviticus 7:11-14 NIV).

Though we no longer need to present specific offerings to God because Jesus Christ was the sacrificial offering once and for all, we still gather together on Thanksgiving to give God the glory for all the blessings we enjoy. We prepare the special feast and join around the table, thanking God for good health, good harvest, wonderful family, and special friends. While the traditional turkey is prepared, the vegetables and dressing are made, and the salads are stirred, our thoughts are on the freedoms we enjoy in America, the life we are able to live, and the peace we look forward to in eternity with our Savior.

May our hearts be overflowing with thankfulness as we ready our homes for this special holiday.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

So Much To See

"At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure" (Luke 10:21 NIV).

The 2016 North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, KY held experience after experience. When we arrived the first order of business was to unload the sheep and all the equipment. Our first car arrived and they immediately scouted out a good location for the pens as well as nearby space to set up the shearing stands, lawn chairs and the huge storage box. They found a great spot close to the show ring, access to water and room enough for three shearing stands, six lawn chairs and the sheep tack box adjacent to the pens. They made claim to the area while they waited for the truck and trailer to arrive with the sheep.

The roads around the Kentucky Expo Center ran right along the freeway and seemed to take us in circles as we began the search for the appropriate sheep docks to unload. There was a massive line of trucks and trailers for several blocks, all waiting to do the same thing. Occasionally one truck would pull out after unloading so the line of vehicles edged ahead. The instant we were parked near a dock all our troop swarmed around the trailer and truck to unload the equipment and sheep. The kids took their own sheep by halter and led them through the maze of pens, people, sheep, and sheep tackle to secure them in the designated pens, following the line of our troop all loaded down with equipment. It was quite a procession, woven amidst tens of other families doing the same thing.

Following the check in, parking the trailer and getting the sheep settled and fed, we were starving and tired so we all headed to a restaurant - along with hundreds of others. We finally found a place that wasn't an hour wait and gratefully fell into our seats to enjoy a meal. The next stop was our hotels where we again did the unloading, of luggage this time.

As Friday morning arrived it was showmanship day. The first order was weighing in the lambs, getting show numbers for the kids, washing and shearing the lambs and preparing for the showmanship competition that started at 4 p.m. The classes were announced, sorted by age of the exhibitor, starting with the youngest of 6-years-old and ending with the oldest class of 20, I believe. We had grandchildren in the 8-year-old, 11-year old, 16-year-old, and 18-year-old divisions. There were up to 50 in every class. Kids lined the huge show ring with their sheep and did their best to make their lambs look their best for the judge. Each class took nearly an hour as the judge eliminated those who made a mistake or struggled to show their lambs. The judge narrowed it to about the top 10 showmen in the class. We were very proud that all of our kids got pulled to be in the top 10 of their class! But it was a very long night of showing and waiting.

Saturday was open for us as all of our sheep were in the black face crossbreed market show on Sunday. There were four sheep to wash and shear and plenty to see in the enormous exhibition Center. One of the favorites was a huge General Store geared to livestock showmen and breeders. Much like the Varied Industries Building of the Iowa State Fair, this was a huge collection of businesses ready to sell to the target audience of agriculturalists. For years I'd heard about the great shopping and the comments were correct. As a sheep lover, I was amazed to sort through all the little booths of collectibles, decorator items, equipment and western and show wear. I've never seen so many blue jeans with sparkles and bling!

The younger girls had a great time finding all the special sights at the expo. There were horse and wagon shows going on in one arena, and they found every family that was selling kittens or puppies in the area. There were dozens of dogs that accompanied sheep families for the expo so it was always fun to see them walking down the aisles or sitting on someone's lap.

Sunday was the big show day bustling with washing, shearing, primping of the sheep and the girls, also. The lambs were divided by breeds and weight classes. We had sheep in five weight classes of blackface crossbred lambs. There were at least 30 lambs and exhibitors in each class. The judge would pull lambs he liked as they came into the ring, then start through the lineup and feel each sheep, looking for the best of the best. He reduced the competitors by more than half, keeping the top 10-15 lambs in the ring while the others were excused. Then he would focus on those remaining in the ring and begin to rank them according to his opinion. It was a long task and a tough job. We were pleased that all of our lambs ranked in the top 10 of their class. Eight-year-old Bailey got to show the lamb that placed the highest: fifth in the class!

Though no one won a class, there weren't any downcast faces in our group. They all felt good about their placings and the experiences they enjoyed. Throughout the show year the grandchildren learned what the judge was looking for, what worked best to show off the good characteristics of their lambs, and they knew that practice and hard work pays off. Their experiences revealed wisdom of more than just sheep know-how, they learned about respect and professionalism, patience and the pleasure of a job well done.

Often the kudos of life seem to go the the rich, the famous, the popular, the smart or the big shots, but  there is more to life than being number one. Fortunately, God is available to everyone who is able to trust like a child. Thank you God for being available to all of us and for creating ways for us to grow and understand how important a relationship with you is to our well-being. We praise you, God, for revealing your love to the children.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Eye-Opening Experiences

One thing I like about traveling is the opportunity to see new places, new people, new cultures and to have new experiences. For four years or so, John, Brent and Brady have taken an annual trip to Louisville, Kentucky in November to attend the NAILE (North American International Livestock Exposition), taking along the grandchildren to show sheep in competition with hundreds, if not thousands of sheep-sters from across the nation. This year I went along to observe and of course take pictures.

The 4-day adventure began Thursday morning. Eight Stewarts, three friends, eight sheep, a trailer of equipment, a truck and a Sequoia, with luggage departed at daylight on the 9-hour trip. Just getting on the road was no small feat. We arrived independently in Louisville during rush hour but made it to the Kentucky Exposition Center by dusk. I got my first sight of the Center from the bumper to bumper freeway: literally thousands of livestock trailers lining the enormous parking lots that surround the Center. NAILE is a 2-week international fair consisting of competitions for nearly every agricultural species and every breed. While we were there for the sheep showmanship and judging competitions by breed, there were equal cattle and horse events occurring at the same time in other equally colossal wings of the massive facility (over 1,200,000 square feet) on 400 acres.

Inside one wing, there were rows and rows of livestock pens and two large show rings with bleachers covering an area similar to two football fields (my guess) under a roof. The preparation for this must have taken weeks. The floor was protected by rolled roofing which also added a bit of traction to the otherwise slick concrete floors. Interspersed with the pens were watering troughs with hoses connected to water through the floor and electrical outlets also through the floor. The washing pens were located on outside walls of the building, requiring a healthy walk, often through a maze of people and multitudes of sheep 'stuff' consisting of fitting stands, show boxes, folding chairs and tables for more 'stuff', blowers and shearing equipment, plus straw, bedding and sheep feeding supplies and buckets. Add to that the smell of sheep and the green dust from the fancy dyed wood shavings that coated the show ring floor and you have the full effect of the NAILE experience, Part 1.

This just sets the stage for the really big experiences with the grandchildren that I'll explain on Thursday.

"Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it," (Luke 10:23-24 NIV).

Monday, November 7, 2016

Hayride in the Country

Our country church has a tradition of hosting a hayride followed by a meal in the fall. Yesterday we enjoyed a beautiful fall afternoon tour of the countryside on a hay rack with hay bales for our seats and plenty of blankets to keep us warm.We filled the hayrack and the back of the truck that pulled us with people.

It has been a few years since I had gone on a hayride but I was quickly reminded that hayrides are always fun! It was a multigenerational hayride with kids from age two to senior citizens. We took our two youngest grandchildren along for the experience: Graham 6 and Piper 3. Those two had taken a tractor/wagon ride in an apple orchard before but they were intrigued none the less. They were anxious to see where we were going and what we would see as we wound our way along the gravel roads of rural Marshall County.

As the ride began, everyone adjusted to the hay bale seats and the fresh air that cooled us. The early part of our trail took us along a curvy road, under trees and past farm homes and fields. We saw sheep enjoying the recently picked corn fields and farm dogs chasing along our tires. We drove under tree-draped roads and smelled the freshness of overturned soil and crunchy falling leaves. We drove through Grammar Grove, feeling sheltered by trees overhead. We looked through tall barren branches to see the beautiful blue of the sky. We saw the quarter-moon hanging high in the southern sky and watched flocks of birds dipping and diving over the harvested fields.

The next trail took us down a dead end road, into a forest reserve along the Iowa river. The wagon brushed through the tall grasses along the narrow dirt path that soon became muddy and puddle-covered. The hayrack wobbled and creaked as it moved through the mud holes and splashed through the water. We all swayed back and forth with the movement and tried to stabilize the hayrack by leaning. The grandchildren's eyes became wide as they wondered if we were going to get stuck or tip over. Our awesome tour guide driver reached the end of the road and aptly navigated the truck and hay wagon in a circle to lead us out the way we came. The setting sun lit up the golden maples and oaks that still had leaves so they exploded with warm color against the sky.

The laughter and chatter echoed out into the wilderness air as we reversed our path and returned to the church. Dusk was falling quickly as the first evening of the end of daylight savings time was upon us. The moon sliver became brighter and brighter against the dark sky until we unloaded at the church, just before darkness engulfed the countryside.

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all," (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV).

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Celebrating Someone Else's Joy

Over the last 10 days or so I have become a World Series watcher. I typically don't like watching baseball unless I know someone who is playing. I attended more than my share of Pee Wee through Little League games when my boys were playing and John was coaching, and I enjoyed every game. But when it comes to the big leagues I've never gotten into it - until the Cubbies made the World Series. I guess just because Chicago is close and the Iowa Cubs prepare players for the Cubs sometimes, I was interested in the Series this year. And maybe because it was so long-awaited.

By watching the games, and hearing John's play-by-play commentary, I got to know some of the players and learned some insider tips on pitching, batting, and fielding. We had a good time cheering on the Cubs. It was a good Series with both teams having some great days and coming down to a tie and extra innings during the final game. It doesn't get much better than that.

I can't help but feel a little guilty for celebrating with the Cubbies as just a part-time or fair-weather fan. There are folks out there who have been waiting for this World Series win for decades. They can tell you everything you want to know about every player and probably every game the Cubs have played. They deserve this joy. I do not.

Real joy comes from a consistent, on-going relationship with Jesus Christ. My study Bible says in the footnote to John 15:11, "true joy transcends the rolling waves of circumstance". I have struggled to feel that real joy all of my life. The chronic depression I live with seems to place a cap on my joy, preventing it from truly sinking in to my being and becoming part of my soul.  I know it is Jesus with me who helps me walk through the darkest days.

Jesus said, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete," (John 15: 9-11 NIV).