Open the Floodgates

By mid-February, the warm breath of God melts the remains of a 100-year blizzard. Within hours, the huge snowdrifts, sculpted by an invisible finger of icy wind dissolve – leaving behind pools of nourishing moisture to replenish the earth. As the temperature fluctuates, the snow quickly recedes and the ground becomes saturated. The cycle repeats: first cold, then snow, then thawing wind. And then, by some awesome miracle, the grass emerges and greens under the sun-warmed sky.

Just as the snow melts and replenishes the earth, our tears replenish our souls.

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
Passing through the valley of Baca (weeping) they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:5

The valley of Baca is a valley filled with tears – tears from trials and testings, from traumas and tragedies. Once we fall prostrate in this valley, we may wonder how we will ever regain the strength to continue on life’s journey. But God’s word tells us while passing through the valley of Baca, we are to make it a spring from which we may dip freely from pools of blessings especially in the midst of our greatest grief and pain. In a season of deep sorrow, we are to draw close to God and receive His grace for the journey.

Even Jesus cried.

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety (reverence and love for the Father). Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…” Hebrews 5:7-9

Jesus prayed, cried, and agonized. And God heard.

Given time, tears cleanse and purge our souls from sin. They prepare us for dying to our flesh and awakening to new life in the spirit. And in some miraculous way, just as the snow nourishes the ground, our tears saturate the soil of our hearts, making the conditions right for new growth.

When last did you weep before God? Have you ever felt His overwhelming presence in a floodgate of tears?

Washington Irving said, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”

Over our lifetime, we will find ourselves many times in the valley of weeping, but remember, we’re only passing through. The circumstances that cause us to agonize and shed tears matter to the merciful God of the Universe who is intimately involved in the minutest details of our lives. Our Savior will draw us close to His heart as we journey on. We do not wander or weep alone.

“You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” Psalm 56:8.


Be Still My Soul

Beneath the snow, my garden lies waiting for the rebirth of spring. For months, there have been no visible signs of growth – no change, no movement, no life. Frigid and cold, the world outside my window appears locked in a state of suspended animation.

The sunflowers stoop low under heavy caps of crystallized snow. The bean trellises and toppled tomato cages take on magical forms as the flakes stack quietly, softening the rigid contours. The rest of the landscape is indiscernible. Boundaries between hedgerow and field have merged under an insulating blanket of white. From one storm to the next, the snow drifts deeper, accumulating, stretching far to the horizon.

Just as winter has gripped the landscape, I, too, have been gripped by life’s circumstances. In the call of duty, boundaries once clearly defined have become indistinct. My joy is gone, my cup half-empty. Hopelessness stretches far out before me. I fight the day-to-day sameness – despair over God ordained limitations. I cannot change my life’s circumstances any more than I can tell the southerly breeze to blow and melt the winter’s snow. But unlike my garden, I resist every effort to be still, to wait upon the Lord to provide what my thirsty soul longs for.

How long, oh, Lord, how long? How long will I have to endure this season Thou hast ordained for me?

To everything there is a season, but this season is particularly long. Will spring ever come? Will hope ever spring eternal? Spring and autumn pass quickly, summer lingers, but winter is longer and harder to endure.

But then I am reminded of a passage of scripture from the book of James, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Let endurance have its perfect result.

There are two Greek words for the word endurance. The first is prosdechomai,  pros-dekh’-om-ahee which means to await (with confidence or patience): accept, allow, look (wait). The other is hupomone hoop-om-on-ay’ which means cheerful (or hopeful) endurance, constancy: enduring, patience, patient continuance (waiting).

In order to find joy, I have to let endurance have its perfect result. I have to be still. And finally when I allow my soul to be stripped of its defenses – its busyness, its escapes, its pleasures, finally when I cease to strive, the words of comfort come in the truth of the familiar hymn, given by a loving heavenly Father who knows, who cares about the minutest details of our lives.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Even when it appears there are no solutions, in the stillness He speaks. And through the hymn writer, He reminds me to bear patiently my cross of grief and pain. Wanting so desperately to escape my circumstances, I fail to acknowledge all the grace-filled moments that exist within them.

Some spiritual seasons are longer than others.There must be a time of inactivity to experience growth. There must be time of near death, for life to teem again. I embrace the lessons my garden gifts me even in the dead of winter.

I choose to lie hidden in my Maker, awaiting rebirth – my heart dead to its own will, slumbering through a long cold winter of the soul. Grace is here, waiting to be received.

Take comfort my soul; the Lord is on thy side.

The Window to Heaven

Consider it all joy, my brethren,
when you encounter various trials,
knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
And let endurance have its perfect result,
so that you may be perfect and complete,
lacking in nothing.

James 1: 2-3

Have you ever just wanted to crawl into bed and stay there permanently? My body is fatigued, my muscles ache, and I can’t seem to muster any strength. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally. The smallest act of kindness brings tears to my eyes. My husband brought me a cup of coffee the other morning and I felt so loved – it was ridiculous.

I feel totally overwhelmed from having to care for others right now because of the high level of care we’re giving to my 90-year-old father with Parkinson’s. Is it any surprise? We’ve been taking care of Grandpa for over a a year now and there is no relief in sight, although I am hopeful some things that need to change will be happening in the next few months. Grandpa has lost a little more mobility over the last month (as if that was possible) and it’s hard to watch him regress.

I’m not writing to elicit pity for my situation. I write to record a dialog between God and myself, to bring clarity and healing to a tough situation. In exchanging words  – His and mine – I hope to see victories large and small in this new season of life. I would enjoy your companionship along the way, too. After all, we are fellow sojourners along with a crowd of unseen witnesses, the saints who have faithfully traveled the well-worn path of suffering before us. We are in good company.

I’m sure you have your own battles to fight, your own set of unique circumstances and obstacles to to overcome. And if you don’t at this particular moment in time, you most likely will in the future. Trials are God’s way of giving us an opportunity to become totally dependent upon Him, to draw us close to his heart. Through times of severe trial and testing, He is especially near, wanting to reveal His character to us, His lovingkindness and faithfulness to all generations. And most importantly, through trials He begins to remove all the props – the things we rely on and put our trust in other than Him.

Is this journey one of comfort and ease? No. But as Christ’s followers, we learn to take up our cross daily and trod the path specifically designed for each of us to travel – one in which we may humbly follow in His steps, call upon Him for assistance, and die to our own will in the process. But we won’t be able to stay the course unless we are willing to quiet ourselves and listen for His words of love and direction.

We have to allow God a window, an entrance into our soul – a quiet place where He can open our eyes to see the sin which so easily besets us and trips us up on our long passage to the other side. What is God’s purpose for each of us at the end of any trial? That we would be more fully-fashioned into the likeness of His Son. But to be victorious, we must be willing to undergo the journey with endurance.

What is endurance? The Greek word for endurance is Hupomone: patience, endurance as to things or circumstances, longsuffering, endurance toward people. It is associated with hope and refers to the quality that does not surrender to circumstances or succumb under trial.

So I must ask myself a hard question and one I hope you will ask yourself today. How am I handling the trial I am walking through right now? Am I letting endurance have it’s perfect result? I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but “knowing” is not enough. Am I willing to surrender my will to His? Am I obediently doing all He has required of me? Have I accepted this new season of life with joy?

In a time of quietude this morning, when the window to heaven was open, God showed me that I once again have been fighting His latest assignment with every fiber of my being – so much so that tears of exhaustion well up and spill over at the least provocation, exposing emotions raw and worn-thin like a glove with a hole in the thumb. I wish there was a quick fix, but I can’t just slap a patch over the frayed threads and expect the mend to hold. I have to take the time to sew the edges down tightly, slowly pulling the thread in and out the patch and glove to prevent the hole from becoming larger and unraveling altogether. It’s no secret that mending takes time and patience. So it is with the mending of our souls. Letting endurance have it’s perfect result takes time and patience.

Lately, it seems as if I couldn’t find a needle and thread if my life depended on it. Due to sheer exhaustion, my whole life seems to be unraveling. That is until I stopped again to open the window to heaven. It was then that God in His mercy reached out and showed me the true condition of my heart and what needs to change to run this race with endurance.

We can’t deliver ourselves, so why even try, right? Well, not exactly. We cannot deliver ourselves, but we can place ourselves in the right position to receive deliverance.

The hymn writer expresses this spiritual paradox this way:

Born to wander Lord I feel it,
Born to leave the God I love,
Here’s my heart now take and seal it,
Seal it for they courts above.

We can throw open the window to heaven wide and invite the Lord to minister to our heart and soul in times of trial or we can board it up and refuse Him access, making the journey even longer and harder than it was before. The choice is ours.

The Golden Haze of October

In August, after a month-long heat wave subsided, I moved my lawn chair to the southeast corner of the garden under the branches of a young walnut tree. The leaves were lush and green, and it was a pleasant place to view the beans and cucumbers “close up” and from a new perspective. The tree was the size of a small bush when we first moved here and there were many times I thought that it should be chopped down, especially when my husband tilled a new garden plot around it, but I am glad he left it alone, because it has earned a cherished place in my heart.

We had lots of rain this summer, too much in fact. The walnut tree started losing its leaves early in September, a good month before the first frost. Once again I searched for a place in the shade. I hadn’t been up to the garden for a few days, and as I slowly navigated up the hill – coffee cup and journal in one hand, lawn chair in the other – I saw walnuts lying on the ground under the tree.

Suddenly I remembered another time in October, a day cool and delicious like this one, when my mother and I picked walnuts on the side of the road in the nearby town of Long Grove. I can still see the sun filtering through the yellow leaves of two huge walnut trees and hundreds of bright green husks lying on the gravel. I remember how we filled our baskets over and over again, dumping our stockpile into boxes in the back of mom’s brown station wagon. The beauty of that day lingers in my memory.

After reading my Bible and journaling for a while, I picked one of the last bushels of beans from this year’s harvest and headed back down to the house. I accidentally left my camera hanging from one of the trellises, and sent Elizabeth up to fetch it. She saw the walnuts lying on the ground, too. When she came back down to the house she said, “Mom, I want to make ink out of the walnuts.” I thought to myself, Oh Lord, I see the connection you’re making – special moments planted in the fertile soil of a young girl’s heart seasonal traditions passed down from mother to daughter on hazy October days.

We filled a cast iron Dutch oven with water and walnuts to slowly simmer on the stove. Hours later, after some of the liquid evaporated, we added a tablespoon of gum arabic (a preservative used in making ink) and a tablespoon of vinegar.When I researched how to make walnut ink on the internet, I came across the Hammon’s black walnut site. I was tickled by a sentence I read, “Black walnuts are a hands-on product, from planting to harvest to final processing.”  “That’s it,” I exclaimed to my children. “That’s my job. To give you a hunger and thirst for the Lord – from planting to harvest to final processing!”

After my mother became a Christian, she gave me that hunger, born out of the pain and suffering she experienced as she bravely fought against a debilitating disease. My father recently wrote a letter to us kids (there’s five of us), and included this sentiment about her. “Your mom was the fire that lit all of our lives; we should always remember her with reverence and gratitude for her relentless effort to get us all saved.”

My mother led me to the Lord in her living room and I am forever in her debt. She showed me how walk by faith through the good times and bad, especially when God moves your chair through circumstances to another window or in this case another side of the garden, to help you gain a heavenly perspective and a whole new outlook on life.

I don’t know what prompted my mother to invite me to go walnut picking. I’m glad we had a few special times together before she died because I was married and busy with a life of my own and looking back now, my visits were all too infrequent. After she passed away, I was helping my father get ready for a rummage sale when I discovered several cans of walnuts in their basement. A warm feeling washed over me. I brought those cans home as memorial  of our relationship and kept them in the back of my closet for the longest time.

I wonder, come next fall, if Elizabeth will remember the special time we had together this year making ink. Will the golden haze of October remind her that it’s time to gather walnuts? The Lord willing, I will be ready and waiting with my basket at the garden’s edge…

The Young Walnut Tree

Thy Word is Pure

I am needy.
I groan with Godly sorrow
My eyes pool with tears.
Like David, I am painfully aware that I have sinned against Thee, and Thee only.

Thy Word,  O Lord, is pure.
Tried as silver, refined in the fiery furnace of the earth, seven times.
Tried in the furnace of my heart, seven times seventy.
Will I ever learn? My tears overflow.

Thy word comes on a hot wind, a refiner’s fire.
Do all things without complaining or arguing,
Without grumbling or questioning,
Without disputing or murmuring
Be ever on your guard against a grudging and contentious spirit.

In my innermost being, I hear and bow low
Forgive me, Lord.
Purify me within, cleanse me without
Send forth Thy Word, O God, and refine me.

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling;for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” Philippians 2: 12-15

Like My Mother Before Me

There are about five weeks of summer left, and I’m doing all I can to make it last. After a long string of hot days, I’m spending mornings up in the garden again, sipping coffee and reading my Bible under the shade of a walnut tree that’s next to my husband’s Cucumber Haus.” The roof, constructed of nylon netting, is now covered with curly tendrils fingering their way skyward, while the creeping vines around the base spill over into the path.

When I step inside the wooden frame, I am surrounded by a canopy of fuzzy green leaves and delicate yellow flowers. The air is cool and delicious, and I feel like a child again, exploring a secret garden. I love picking the prickly cucumbers and listening to the bees buzz from blossom to blossom.

The “Cucumber Haus” has become a spiritual dwelling place, a temporary tabernacle. But its glory is short-lived. Come fall, the frost will strike with a vengeance, shriveling the life-giving vines to the ground. Still, the memory of this year’s harvest will be permanently fixed upon my heart.

Years ago, I began making pickles out of necessity because I married an over-zealous vegetable gardener. I didn’t learn the art of canning from my mother, however. Even though she loved to garden (she planted a salad garden every year), she was overly cautious about germs, and afraid of botulism. So it’s no surprise that she asked a woman at a local grocery store how to make pickles. Now mind you, my mother has been with the Lord for 19 years. I didn’t know anything about this conversation until a couple weeks ago, after I had made my first batch of pickles and posted about it on my blog.

I received an email from a home school mom related to my husband’s sister through marriage. She wondered if I was the same Jill Novak that was married to Bobby Novak (that’s what Robert’s family calls him). After I let her know that, yes, indeed, I was “Bobby’s wife,” she wrote back saying, “I was reading your blog and I knew that you were the Jill I know. The Lord used your mom to change our family’s life. She witnessed to my mom in the produce section of the Eagle grocery store in Mundelein in 1979. She asked about making pickles. I remember what a prayer warrior your mom was! As a result of that my mother accepted Christ, and through a series of events, my husband and I did also. Your mom used to say we were “shoe-string” relatives! We have been homeschooling since 1989, and have been blessed with 8 kids ranging from 25 to 6.”

When I close my eyes, I can just imagine my gregarious mother striking up a conversation about making pickles with a total stranger in the grocery store. I can hear the woman assuring her that there is really nothing to worry about if you follow the simple instructions. I can see my mother’s face aglow with the thought of making her own pickles, and before you know it, she is sharing her faith about a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. She makes Him so appealing, so appetizing, that this woman accepts Him as her Savior right then and there in the produce isle. The two women exchange recipes that day – one for Kosher Dills and the other for Eternal Life.

I’ll never know how many people my mother led to the Lord in her lifetime through normal, everyday conversations about things like making pickles. She didn’t go out of her way to evangelize the world; she just bloomed where she was planted. People tend to laugh at me, too, because I have a way of telling my life story and sharing my faith with total strangers (especially at garage sales). That’s why hearing this story about my mother, 27 years after the fact, moved me to tears. The older I get, the more I miss her, and after all these years, the Lord confirmed something I already suspected – I truly am my mother’s daughter.

Well, this is the fourth time that I’m harvesting cucumbers this season. As I pick, slice, and can pickles, I’m passing down recipes to my own children: the joy of growing a garden, the sweet and spicy smell of pickles simmering on the stove, and the appetizing aroma of a relationship with the Living God, the recipe for Eternal Life. The memories I make now will be permanently fixed upon their hearts, and I will be remembered, like my mother before me, as a woman who nurtured her children’s souls, and reaped an abundant harvest – a winsome evangelism at best!


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