The Great House Mystery

“Go work on your house and forget about it.” 

That random quote is written on one my bible’s front cover pages. I cannot remember exactly when I wrote it down there, but I have a memory of being intently focused on the pastor’s words while he was speaking to us that Sunday morning at church.

At the time, the words struck me as so very important, so relevant…but now, I can’t recall the specific circumstances in my life that made that sentence evoke such a strong reaction in me. However, decades later, despite the mystery behind why they are there (or what they even mean exactly) they still do something for me.

I believe I was in my twenties when I entered that phrase on that page. It’s possible I was in my late teens. It was before I met my husband, that’s for certain. The bible I wrote it in has been in my possession since I was thirteen-years-old, so that means it could’ve been written any time between ages 13 to 28. It has been a mystery I’ve been wanting to solve for years. That is, why did I make note of that? In my bible, of all places. What was it in reference to?

I remember the feeling I had when I wrote it down. It was a moment of discovery. That feeling you get when understanding unfolds in your soul and you can breathe just a little bit deeper than you ever had before. The joy of comprehension bubbles and rises up in your heart so big that you smile with wonder. Or maybe you might dip your eyebrow down a little as you ponder that new nugget of wisdom and attach it to old memories tucked away in your brain.

I recall the urgency I felt to make sure it was a message I would not forget. But, human that I am, I have forgotten the details. So over the years, every now and then, I work rather hard at puzzling out what exactly it was supposed to refer to.

The reason this mystery is important to me is that it’s written in my bible. In nearly 30 years, I’ve underlined scripture, made notes in margins, drawn hearts over verses that have caused me tears of thankfulness and joy…all between Genesis and Revelation. But it has been rare that I’ve written down anything in the blank pages of the front and back covers.

My bible is sacred to me in the sense that it is not the place where I make grocery lists or the like in it. I cringe, actually, every time I see Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park (near Big Sur) crossed out on the inside of the front cover. Lacking paper once, I’d dashed off the name of a place a new friend had recommended visiting (I discovered it is a beautiful place, by the way). But afterward, I vowed to not write unnecessary things in there again.

There are three blank pages at the beginning of my bible, its leather cover fractured and torn in multiple places on the spine from being handled and read for twenty-eight years. These front pages are a bit warped, the ink on some of them a little blurry now. They hold just a few little pieces of info from years past that, in the moment, I wanted to remember…quick jots of heart-musts.

For example, written in pencil at the top of one of those pages is the title of a hymn I loved immediately after I sang it for the first time–“‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus #581”. I had scrawled that in a hurry. A tiny little pair of eyeglasses are doodled off to the right, my signature note-taking symbol which was to remind me to go look it up again in the hymnal later when I got a chance so I could take time to really savor the words.

Underneath that are three words in skinny black ink: “He is Able”. No mystery there. That was a wow moment during a time in my life which was a steep climb when I felt weak.

A hand-written quote is third in line–the thicker black ink a bit fuzzy, possibly from the the humidity which engulfed my apartment. A pipe had burst while I was away on vacation and left water on the floor unnoticed for a week. I had carefully written,“Contentment is not our goal, it’s a by-product of living your life for Christ.” 

Beneath that John 17:1-26– with a puffy heart and the words “JESUS’ LOVE FOR US” in all caps– is boxed confidently, secured in the center of the page.

And then, from what must have been a really rough patch in my life, my heart twists in sympathy for my younger self as I reread in barely-brave-enough pencil, “I don’t want to hurt anymore, I just want to live in His joy.” 

I don’t remember what exactly caused me so much pain when I wrote that sad sentence in my very special, very-much-a-part-of-me-book…wait, stop. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t even remember what hurt so bad. What a testimony to God’s grace and goodness. That, too, has passed.

I also can’t recall where I was when I penciled that determined vow. But I do have to go off-course for a minute here to remember that it must have been the beginning of a season in my life when, for the first time, I deliberately and persistently sought joy instead of holding out hope that it would be brought to me on the UPS truck.

Until I discovered joy is a choice, and it is sometimes hard work choosing if you’re not familiar with how to infuse it into your soul.

But the work is worth it, and the reality is that seeking and attaining joy is a roller coaster. You have to hang on during the lows and keep your eyes focused on the hill as you chug slowly upward, closer to the heavens, having faith that eventually you will get to the top again and experience joy once more. Have you ever noticed how easy and fast it is to decline on a roller coaster, and how difficult it is to keep the momentum as you race to the top? And once you’re up there it’s a brief and fleeting thrill before you drop to the bottom again. Joy is like that. Life is, too.

If you are searching for joy right now, keep searching. Keep climbing. And expect the lows now and then. Be prepared for them. Know that there is no limit to the number of rides you can take on the roller coaster of joy. You get a free pass. It’s just up to you whether or not you hop on. Focus on what you can be grateful for. Make lists. Redirect your negative thoughts to positive thoughts. There is power in gratitude.

And back to my bible, there are a couple more notations on that second blank page. But then you flip to the third blank page and, sitting all alone, are the mystery words:

“Go work on your house and forget about it.”

The only handwritten line on that third page of my bible cover. Nothing else on the page. The teeny black-inked words scribbled in haste, so that I wouldn’t miss out on the rest of the message in church that day.

What did that mean? What could it mean? Perhaps it’s referring to our aspirations. I know sometimes I am overly ambitious…unreasonably ambitious. To the point I get overwhelmed and have taken on so much that I can’t do justice to all of the things on my plate. Maybe it’s a reminder to step back and focus on what really matters.

Maybe it was in reference to worrying. Don’t worry, have faith, just bloom where you’re planted and everything will come out according to God’s plan. The pieces of your life that are not within your control aren’t worth wasting your energy on…so go work on what you can control so you won’t waste your time on what you can’t control.

Maybe there was someone in the bible who God basically tells “go back to what you were doing, I’ve got this.” 

I’m just making guesses here. I read it often, and I wonder for minutes on end. And each time I come across it, I happen to be facing something different in that moment of my life. Surprisingly (or not), the phrase seems to mean something profound to me in its own little way for each of those respective times.

And maybe that’s what it was meant to do.

What does “go work on your house and forget about it” mean to you? What are your favorite notations in your bible, if you’ve made any? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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Broccoli Bird

My breath…I can feel it finally returning from a few weeks lost. Caught up, it was, in excitement and self-doubt—too impatient to go deep and swell, too busy to give clarity as it ought to do.  It takes wistful, eclectic Celtic music on a chilly Sunday afternoon to find the rhythm of the air which enters and leaves my lungs, peaceful and long. Staring up at the timid sunlight stripes at the tops of the windows, I pause to be thankful for this solitary moment.

Away from the music, outside, the wind chimes are right on cue to begin their daily two o’clock performance. It makes me wonder about the silky black cat who loiters frequently in our flowerbeds.

As I walk on bare feet from the couch to the back door, I think about the next chapter I’m about to read in a book recommended over at Higher Purpose WritersBird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I’ve peeked ahead to see the next chapter is called “Broccoli”. In the middle of that thought, I rub the bottoms of my feet on the cold hard floor to somehow warm them. On days like these, they miss carpet.

Do I really want to read several pages who introduce themselves as “Broccoli”? The tree-like vegetable is something I simply tolerate out of necessity. Thinking on necessities, I turn the knob on the door leading to the backyard, curious about the cat….believing that after I check on him, I will need water and chocolate. My mind nags that only one of those is truly a necessity, but I don’t have the heart to choose a winner. It will have to be both today. My eyelashes touch the blinds as I spy midnight fur on wood.

Yes! My mind both celebrates and decides at once. Yes, the black cat lounges in the tangled tanbark yet again. The corners of my smile lift higher at the evidence of that small joy. A furry creature is good news, because life itself is always welcome here. Even though we are not cat lovers. His head swivels quickly at the first sound of the door cracking open, only a bit, just enough to peer out with both of my hazel eyes and the tip of my nose. I breathe in cold afternoon sunshine.

Will he come closer today? My breath holds, just like it has for weeks. Waiting, anxious, excited all at once. Like with the writing. We stare each other down….one heartbeat, two…my hope floats as the third and fourth beat pulse silently between us. His yellow green eyes so like mine are fascinated with something in me. He stretches his arms and legs out slowly, eyes still glued to mine—a small victory, as it is a clue that he grows more comfortable near our home. Maybe he is a she. Maybe someday we’ll make introductions. Mike and I would like that. Even if he is cat.

Before my veins pulse for a fifth time, he-she sprints to the intersecting boards where four properties meet. With one swift leap, he is up and over the other side of the fence heading to the place we assume is where he calls home. Today, though, he stops a moment and bends his neck to look backward at me one more time. He stares. I don’t cower. My turf…but I plead with my eyes for him to stay. To add a little mischief and laughter to our forsaken backyard now that Amber has gone. With a slow blink, he reassures me he’ll return. I wave small, hopeful, and pivot back to face Bird by Bird waiting on the arm of my reading chair.

Yes to the broccoli, too, then. Because just like the hope that someday I will pet that cat and be close enough to hear him purr, I want to learn more about writers and how they think. What works and what doesn’t. If I am like them. And with each word, the author draws me in to a sense of familiar and home. She’s already had me whispering yes to her sentence that says “Writing can be a desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Hand on the door, pulling it closed, I recall my jaw dropping—like that moment when you realize there’s a surprise birthday party going on and you belatedly realize the party is for you—when on the fifteenth page I read, misty-eyed as it hit me, “Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.” 

And so, as this adventure of carving out time to write for some kind of meaningful purpose sometimes has me breathless with many emotions, defeat will not be one of them. I’ll even read about broccoli, if need be. As I leave this page to go dive into another, I can’t help but be thankful for music, which leads me to nature, which leads me to cats, which leads me back to learning, which leads me back to writing.

Time, patience…perseverance. Breath.

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Sing Anyway

Some people sing so beautifully that it causes others to stop in their tracks with wonder. I’m not one of those people. There were clues along the way. For example, I vaguely recall my little brothers asking me to stop singing in the car during weekends at Dad’s. At the time, I thought optimistically that it was because the radio took precedence. However, things started to become clear when I joined the college choir as a rookie, eager to raise my voice in song with others because it just felt so good to sing.

On the first day, when it came time for introductions and to share with each other what part we sing, I said to the group that I didn’t know. Soprano, alto? I had no idea.

“I have no idea”, the choir director teased in a Minnie Mouse voice in front of the small class. We all laughed.

My feelings weren’t hurt, but some of the curious looks I got when we all started singing were hints that I was out of my element.  After that experience, I decided to hide my voice in the ginormous choir at my church on special occasions, like Father’s Day. I just wanted to sing, and maybe this would be a better opportunity to sing where no one would notice. Well, maybe no one noticed, but I struggled. My throat fought against the imaginary boa constrictor which had taken up residence around my neck. Now I was just overthinking it.

So I thought perhaps the best thing to do if I was going to seriously try to improve was take a voice class. Oh, that was painful. My vocal stylings were akin to nails on a chalkboard as I stood alone in front of my classmates, knees shaking, trying to make something beautiful out of something obviously broken…their glances creeping towards the mid-century modern windows as if looking for an escape from my interesting performance of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s The Willow Song gone wrong.

When I got married, my husband gently confirmed my suspicions without even saying a word. I started to notice he’d stealthily do pretty much anything to avoid my singing. On days I just couldn’t help myself and start to belt out tunes in the kitchen while doing dishes, I noticed the volume would go up significantly on the TV in the next room. At first he dropped those kind of subtle hints, but now that I have accepted I am vocally challenged we laugh about it together and he literally just begs me to stop. Therefore, I sing even louder. In his face.

Part patriotic respect, part golden opportunity, my students and I sing a song every day after the flag salute. It’s the best moment of the day. We’re mostly off key, all of us, and as a musician who plays the bassoon and clarinet I could help them improve their singing (at least, I think I could) but I don’t. I don’t because they are happy and in love with singing and they don’t really care that they don’t sound perfect, so that is good enough for me. Plus we have to move on to the math lesson. I notice some days their little heads will swivel around with eyes wide as saucers when I really tank the “rockets red glare” part, but they’re so sweet that they don’t say a word about it. They don’t even laugh at me.

I really don’t understand it, my voice. It’s like I was born from a family of hummingbirds, meeping and chirping away, unable to get it just right. I played in bands and orchestras for almost twenty years, so how come I just can’t seem to sing beautifully? It’s a puzzle. And over time, I’ve finally decided this:

I can’t care.

I can’t care anymore if I don’t sing well, because usually it is God I am singing to. He listens. And God doesn’t make mistakes. For some reason, He made my voice my own curious little thing to the ears on earth. But to Him, I imagine He loves my voice. How could He not? He loves yours, too.

Psalm 139:13-14 says “For You have formed my inward parts; You have covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.” And then it goes on to say in verse 17, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!”.

Marvelous and precious. That’s what we are to the Lord. I’d reckon our voices are not excluded in that. No matter what they sound like. He formed us just as we are. So, let’s come to Him in song just as we are. Wherever we are. His opinion is all that matters anyway. I’ve decided that, as Martina McBride’s song celebrates, I’ll just sing Anyway. (I love watching this video of a woman signing the lyrics of that Anyway song.)

Each of us has our own unique individual voice. Voices that are lovely to the One who designed them to be so. Let’s be unabashed with our outpouring of joy. Let’s allow ourselves comfort in sorrow with song, if that’s what suits us. It would be tragic to deny ourselves this thing just for the sake of worrying what others think.

So that’s why I’m just not going to mind anymore if no one likes my voice. It will take courage, yes. I’ll likely have to shut my eyes sometimes as I sing to block everyone out; I may have to take deep breaths to bolster my heart. But the feeling of singing, for me, is such a happy feeling and brings such solace that it’s worth the risk of being out of harmony with others. At least in this small thing.

“Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;

Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.”

-Psalm 98:4

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Fear

To reach that spectacular, beautifully rugged land’s end, I needed to cross that blustery bridge. It was the summer of 2015, and my husband and I stood on the rocky soil of County Antrim, Ireland. The smiles of the people waiting in line for their turn were like lifelines to me. Tourists who had already made their way over the popular Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge waved across to all gleefully, eager to share their joy at reaching a point of the Emerald Isle that would have been treacherous any other way—if not for the bridge made of simple wood planks and intricate knots of thick, trusty rope.

I wasn’t so sure that rope was so trusty.

Shortly after we returned to our home in California, I turned on the computer in our home office and immediately discovered my husband had changed the desktop wallpaper. It was a picture of me on that bridge. I was confused. Why not a picture of the two of us from some other photo op on that trip? Usually, our desktop wallpaper was something of us together, or of our beloved dog, Amber.

I called out my question to him from where I knew he could hear me in the living room. It was quiet for a bit, and then I heard the muffled sound of his feet brushing across the carpet as he made his way to the room.

“I know how hard that was for you,” he replied quietly from the doorway.

I felt my heart swell with love for this man.

“I know how hard it was.”

Although our trip to Ireland that year was overall an amazing experience, it seemed like I was trapped into facing one battle after the other. Instead of being excited to fly across the Atlantic, I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing in fear of our upcoming flight. Instead of every moment thrilling to the luscious green land all around me, at times I struggled to catch my breath. Instead of marveling at the natural wonder of the hexagonal columns at the Giant’s Causeway, I trembled in near panic as we walked along dirt paths next to cliff walls…certain they would crumble down on top of us at any moment. The odds of that happening were extremely slim.

The fear I struggled with is a distant memory now, but at the time that gruesome pest was taking all the fun out of an extraordinary trip. And my worrying over every little thing was draining the strength out of my mind and spirit.

So by the time we arrived at the “car park” of the rope bridge, he looked over at me before we got out of the car. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I peered out the windshield and looked at the path which led to the ocean. I could barely see the bridge, but from this point it didn’t look quite as scary as I had imagined. “Yep,” I huffed with a tight smile. “Nope,” my heart shot back, the echoes of my discontent bouncing around my rib cage.

As we got closer to the line of tourists waiting to cross, however, my breath started to come out in hesitant, quivering bursts. I squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to quiet the evidence of my uncertainty. “Are you sure?” he checked again when he caught me staring down at the crashing sea 100 feet below.  (That’s the part you can’t really see in many pictures.)

“Yep.”

When we were next in line, I looked up at the young, fair-haired Irishman whose cheeks were red from being slapped by cold, wild coastal air. He was one of two workers there who were the gatekeepers, so to speak, supervising and limiting the number of bridge crossers. The three of us chit-chatted loudly over the roar of the waves while we waited, laughingly trading California and Irish stereotypes, and how he’s been meaning to make his first trip to the States to visit a friend in San Diego.

Finally, I looked into his friendly blue eyes—certain God had placed him there that day to comfort me with his quick camaraderie—and all of a sudden blurted, “I’m a little terrified, but I’m going to do this.” It had been the statement I’d repeated silently the whole way down the path up to this point. I was sick and tired of letting fear beat out my faith and trust. I said it over and over until I believed it.

The stranger’s kind smile gentled, and his eyes turned serious as they acknowledged my fear.  “Not to worry,” he said, his musical Irish accent calming me, “you’ll do just fine. Are you ready?” He had received the nod of permission for us to trek ahead from his partner across the way.

And so, step by step I worked my way across the bridge. The creaks of the rope swaying in the gusty wind invaded my ears, but the strength of the planks below my feet, my silent prayers, and my belief that I could squash this feeling of trepidation—because I chose to—upheld me and my courageous soul the whole way and back again. For the rest of the day, you couldn’t take the smile off my face if you tried. Even thinking back on it now, the memory girds my heart.

“I know how hard it was for you.” My husband’s answer whispered to me again.

Currently, I’ve chosen to focus on the truths of courage over the lies of fear…but I still have my moments of not believing I can do certain things. Even now, I have some goals that leave me shaking in my boots when I think too long on it. But the things I want to conquer don’t have to be achieved all at once. I believe that some day I will be able to scratch each one off the list, but I have to be patient with myself and give myself the grace to persevere—one step at a time, if need be.

There are some fears I’ve fled from and didn’t triumph. And yet, I won’t dwell on the ones from the past which I may not have the opportunity to face again. Instead, I’ll find new things to find victory in.  Whatever you may be facing, believe that you can declare yourself the victor. The feeling of accomplishment and relief…the burden of dread lifted…the surrender…it is so worth it. Will I ever bungee jump? Never will I ever. For me, today… in about 10 minutes, it’s going to be the pile of dishes in my sink that I will conquer. That mess seems impossible. But I believe I can tackle it, and so I will.

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Awaken

It was one of those mornings when I woke up wondering what day it was. After being completely exhausted all week long, I finally slept THAT well. Too well, because all I wanted to do was snuggle deeper into the covers and go back to dreaming. Work beckoned, however, and couldn’t be avoided. I thought to myself, “I’m going to throw on some jeans and wear yellow”.

Yellow is possibly the friendliest and most uplifting color in the world. It says hello to us through the daffodils and sunflowers. It greets us in the morning as the sun begins to rise. For me, it is a beautiful reminder of hope and perseverance.

Well, I didn’t have any yellow to wear that day, but then the sun began to shine…and I guess once in awhile that’s all it takes to feel that little zing of happiness begin to awaken. Sometimes just recalling the love Jesus has for us via little gifts like sunshine, flowers, and vivid colors of life is all we need to rise to meet the day. Each morning begins with hope. Hope and love. Know that you are loved, and then go have a terrific day.

“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”  -Romans 5:1-5 (NKJV)

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