2016: Page 366 (Goodbye 2016!)

The year 2016 is nearly over and as I look back, it has been quite a year.  It was a year ago that I read a comment about each day of the coming year being an unwritten page.  The question that followed was something to the effect of what were we going to do with each page.  I don’t remember the exact question nearly as much as I remember the idea of the unwritten page.  As a writer it almost seemed like a challenge, and so I embarked on the adventure of living each day and then actually writing that “unwritten page”.  And so, tonight finishes “Tom’s Book of 2016” as I look forward to the next book of unwritten pages.

Page 366 has been a day of recovery and preparation.  Yesterday’s illness eventually subsided and even after sleeping off and on for most of yesterday, I felt like I slept well through the night and into the morning.  When I eventually woke up, I finished going through the photos I took earlier in the week.  After lunch out with my family, the afternoon was spent reflecting on the past year and taking a nap before heading to work to finish up the cleaning and building prep that I didn’t get to because of being sick yesterday.  Fortunately, MJ and Susan had done a good part of it for me so my time at work this evening involves both the building needs and a continued refining of the teaching and sermon I’ll share at Deer Run in the morning.

As I look back on the year and consider the lessons that God has been teaching me, it has been a year of great joy and great sorrow yet through it all, God’s presence has been with me.  Today’s photo is from one of those “great joy” moments.  One of my greatest joys in life is the time I get to spend with my wife and daughter.  Whether it is a day or two excursion hunting down lighthouses or covered bridges, or an extended week vacation in sunny Florida, relaxing together is good for all of us.  Yes, we have our moments of disagreement and tension, and some of those even take place during our getaways of whatever length, but we press on and continue to find joy in the journey and in each other.  As joyous as vacations are, life isn’t just about vacations and good times.  The year also contained one of the most difficult things I have done so far in my life — I conducted the funeral service for my 21 year old niece.  Even now it is hard to reflect on that time and the great loss experienced by the family.  Yes, because of Breanna’s faith in Jesus, I was able to share a message of great hope.  A hope that she has seen fulfilled and a hope that is also available to all of us.  Yet even in the midst of a knowledge of hope, I knew my ability to bring comfort to my brother and his family was limited and the true comfort would have to come from God Himself.

Most of the pages of 2016 fall somewhere between those two extremes and I imagine that 2017 will contain its share of ups and downs as well.  The question for the coming year probably has less to do with what we will face and more to do with how we will face it.  The joys in my life are all amplified by a knowledge that God’s presence is with me in the midst of success and  happiness.  But God doesn’t leave me when times get hard.  In fact, the sorrows in my life are all manageable because of a knowledge that God’s presence is with me in the midst of great difficulty and sadness.  It is that one constant — God’s presence — that I want to be more aware of each day of the coming year.  And so, farewell to the year 2016!  I pray that these written pages have been useful according to God’s purposes.  After I finish my work here tonight, I will go home and go to bed and if God permits that I awaken in the morning, another year of unwritten pages will lie before me and I will eagerly anticipate the writing, and living, of each one that God gives me.

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2016: Page 365

Page 365 began early as I woke up in the middle of the night not feeling well.  I decided to see if a hot bath would relax me enough to go back to sleep and perhaps I would wake up feeling better.  It was a good idea, but whatever was going on inside of me was keeping sleep from returning.  As I tried to rest, I spent the time mentally going over the sermon I’ll share Sunday and even changed one of the points.  As I tried to keep my mind focused on anything other than how I felt, it soon became apparent that plan wasn’t going to work as everything inside of me decided it needed to be outside of me. 😦  The rest of the night and the entire morning was spent trying to rest as much as I could in between necessary times in the bathroom.  

By early afternoon, I was finally empty and could spend longer times resting and trying to recuperate.  I eventually began sipping liquids to try to avoid dehydrating and to see if whatever had caused the internal warfare was done — so far, so good.  In between long times of rest, I spent part of the afternoon and evening going through the photos I took during our recent getaway.  As I did so, I was so thankful that if I had to be sick that it was today and not while we were away.  Some things are better if they don’t have to be dealt with in public or semi-public areas.  While that is true of physical sickness, it is also true of the spiritual warfare that we find ourselves faced with.  Social media seems to have amplified our society’s inability to realize that many things that happen between people really should be dealt with outside of the public arena of social media.  Many times people forget that their battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of darkness.  It is far too easy to find ourselves attacking a person rather than taking the time to understand the warfare that is taking place.  Yes, issues need dealt with and problems need addressed but it is far less harmful to everyone involved if those things are done in private.  Once the public sees us “vomiting” hatred and insults onto someone in public, it is extremely difficult for those watching to get that image out of their mind when we attempt to tell them of God’s love.  My mind seems to still not be firing on all cylinders, so I hope and pray that today’s page makes some kind of sense in a way that is useful.

Today’s photo is one I took this week as we came up out of the beautiful gorge of Old Man’s Cave at Hocking Hills State Park.  The sun had begun to set and as I went through the photos today, this one seemed to call me to a time of peace.  Even when we face turmoil, whether it is through sickness or conflict, God calls us to find peace in the midst of whatever we face as we rest securely in His presence. 

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2016: Page 364

Page 364 was the final day of our mini Christmas break getaway.  While it did take place over the school and preschool’s Christmas break, it was also a family getaway to celebrate MJ’s birthday.  The theme of the trip was photography with the hope that we would be able to photograph some covered bridges and perhaps a waterfall or two as well.  I would say it was a successful getaway as we had a great time together as a family and made it to 24 different covered bridges and visited a state park with some waterfalls.  Ten of those bridges were seen on our trip home today as we traveled from Mason, Ohio.  On one of them, I stopped and took a photo out the window and have chosen to use that photo on today’s page.  Most of today, as well as the rest of  our trip, was what could be described as a “picture perfect” day.  This photo seemed to have come with its own frame and matting as the sky, water, and dam are framed within the window.   

By the time we made our final stop this afternoon, the clouds had filled the sky and the wind which had been blowing fiercely all day brought with it some cold temperatures and the beginning of some snow flurries.  As I finished the drive home in the blowing snow, I thought about how thankful I am that God gave MJ and I each other and for a shared love of photographing the beauty that surrounds us wherever we are.  As we share the results of these photography trips, we are invariably asked how we find the places and scenes that we choose to take pictures of.  There are probably several answers to that, depending the specific trip or what the photo subject is.  For me, part of it is the training I received from my mom and dad.  Our family vacations when I was growing up seemed to always include state parks wherever we went.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the parks were chosen because they were free, or nearly so, and that was the price that fit the family budget.  All I knew at the time was I loved the peace and beauty that could be found in a wide variety of settings.  So whenever we travel somewhere as a family and have the time to do some sightseeing, I always look for a nearby park.  As our interest in photography has grown, sometimes the trips we take are planned with specific photo subjects in mind.  For this getaway, I planned ahead by setting up covered bridge coordinates in my GPS and made lists that would hopefully allow us to visit as many bridges as possible in the time we had.  But regardless of how the destination comes about, the key in all of it is to keep our eyes open for scenes that a photograph would be able to capture.

As I think about the day, I wonder how often we miss the beauty that God has surrounded us with.  I wonder how much beauty surrounds us on a daily basis that we miss because we haven’t bothered to open our eyes.  While it is sad that so many go through life without seeing the beauty of creation that God surrounds us with, it is even sadder to realize that our failure to open our eyes and hearts to people causes us to often miss the beauty of the people God has put around us.  When we go out photographing, we look for the beauty that already exists and we do our best to take hold of it through pictures.  Perhaps each one of us needs to be more deliberate about looking for the beauty that exists in people and intentionally “take a snapshot” that can be shared in a way that honors God.

I pray that you and I seek God for wisdom in how to make the most of the time He gives us.  I pray that we would honor God within the families He has shared with us.  I pray that we would recognize the scenes of beauty that God surrounds us with.  I pray that we would be deliberate about seeing and sharing the beauty that God has put within each of us.

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2016: Page 363

After some long work weeks leading up to Christmas due to weekend snow storms, I took advantage of the Christmas break and spent another day sightseeing with my family.  Page 363 was another “tankful adventure” as we filled up the truck’s gas tank to start the day and came back with it nearly empty.  The day included a variety of covered bridges, some interesting roads, and a hike with a few waterfalls.  About mid-morning we were tracking down a covered bridge using GPS coordinates from a source that has been very reliable so far.  After turning down Chicken Hollow Road, the next turn listed was to veer right onto Fox Hollow Road.  The names were enough to laugh about the fox guarding the hen house.  As we reached our turn, we found a limestone gravel road with an old, faded road sign on the corner indicating it was indeed Fox Hollow Road.  It didn’t look real promising so I drove past it to see if my GPS would recalculate a different route.  Instead of giving me a new route it told me to turn around, so I went back to try the road.  About 200 yards onto Fox Hollow Road there was a gate across the roadway, which usually is a good indication it is no longer a road. 🙂  So, back out to Chicken Hollow Road to keep driving until I’m far enough away from Fox Hollow Road for it to give me different directions.  Finally, about six miles down the road, my GPS quits telling me to “turn around when possible” and gives me new directions to the bridge we were looking for.

As I thought about that, I wondered how often we live by an internal “GPS” of our own creation that doesn’t always sync with the Holy Spirit who ought to be our guide.  The GPS in my truck can be very insistent that I follow its every direction even though it doesn’t always have compete and accurate information.  Many times we find ourselves at some type of “roadblock” in life and assume that our natural means of response is always the correct way to address the issue.  For most people I know, that means keep pushing forward no matter what.  Every “roadblock” is seen as a test of faith that simply requires perseverance to keep attacking it head-on with the belief that we have to be right so this has to be done.  Less common, at least in my experience, is the person who sees every “roadblock” in life as a sign that the course must be changed.  The path of least resistance becomes a way of life to the point that any hint of difficulty causes a change in direction.  There is a problem with both of those approaches.  Each, in its own way, ignores a God that wants to not only be involved in our lives but desires that we would seek all of our direction from Him.  Instead of giving in to our default response, we ought to seek God first when faced with a “roadblock” of any kind.  Sometimes He will lead us directly through the raging waters and other times He will direct us around the land of our enemies.  We won’t know which it is supposed to be until we stop and become still before Him as we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, which is known by all of His sheep.

Today’s photo is of a waterfall from today’s journey.  The beauty is astounding as the water is directed by God — sometimes cutting its way through the rock and sometimes flowing over it all according to His design.  Our life can be just as beautiful when we allow God to direct its path according to His design.

I pray that you and I would find a balance in life that honors God.  I pray that we would seek Him above all else.  I pray that we would understand how our natural tendencies may not be God’s solution to every problem we face — in fact, our wisdom may not be the solution to any of them.  I pray that we would live surrendered to God in such a way that He directs each and every one of our steps.

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2016: Page 362

Page 362 has been a family day as I let the teaching and sermon for this coming Sunday simmer in my mind a bit.  I began the day by finishing up the prayer guide that I wrote for next week.  I needed to make sure it was formatted and available for a church that is using them on a slightly different schedule than my normal publishing of them.  While the next prayer guide will correspond with the sermon I plan to share at Deer Run on Sunday, a lot of my “simmering” time today was focused on the prayer teaching I will do during the Bible School  hour.  One of the favorite teachings that I like to share is about what I call developing a lifestyle of prayer in the real world.  

As the director of a prayer ministry, I often get people to tell me, in one way or another, that they would like to have a more vibrant prayer life but it just isn’t possible for someone in their circumstances.  It usually goes something like this, “I would love to pray more if I could, I simply don’t have the time to pray that others seem to have.”  It is in responding to that scenario that I help people to see God’s command to “pray without ceasing” isn’t directed simply to people who have the time to do that.  No, it is meant for all of us which means God believes it is possible for us to develop a lifestyle of prayer no matter what our life schedule looks like.  Sure, it may take some adjusting to our schedule in areas that we consider “our time”, but mostly it involves praying no matter what our schedule finds us doing.  Each of us have a “real world” that looks different to some degree than everyone else’s, but we can learn some general principles of the who, what, and how to pray in all circumstances as we develop a lifestyle of prayer.

My wife’s birthday was today and part of the day we spent finding and photographing a few covered bridges.  With no leaves on the trees, some of the bridges are more visible during the winter than at other times of the year.  Unfortunately, the winter also brings with it an earlier sunset which limits the number of bridges we can get to in an afternoon’s daylight hours.  Today’s photo was taken through the window of one of the bridges as the sun was quickly dropping in the western horizon.  As I walked through the bridge, the light caught my eye so I stopped to shoot a few photos.  I believe God is constantly shining His light upon us with the desire that it will catch our eye and make us stop and acknowledge His presence.  

I pray that you and I would allow the Word of God and the teachings it contains to simmer in our life on a regular basis.  I pray that godly teaching would mature in our lives for the purpose of sharing it with  others.  I pray that each of us would desire to grow in a lifestyle of prayer as we learn how to incorporate a prayer life into everything we do.  I pray that we would pay attention to the light of God shining upon us.  I pray that when God shines His light upon us that we would freely share that light with the people around us.

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2016: Page 361

Page 361 was a Monday and the “official” Christmas holiday day, so I took the day off — sort of. 🙂  The Lemler family Christmas with my parents and my siblings and their families has traditionally been the day after Christmas for a lot of years, so today was the day we gathered together as a family to celebrate Christmas.  My morning began by checking email and social media messages as I caught up on Christmas greetings and news from friends both far and near.  I also gathered up all the parts of my ice cream freezer and pulled out the recipe to see what I had and what I still needed to get so we could enjoy home made ice cream as part of our family gathering.  I’ve thought at various times over the past week about the supplies I would need to pick up to make ice cream today and each time I would picture my niece at various ages coming out to see if the ice cream was ready yet.  As with many of my nieces and nephews, she shared the Lemler love for ice cream and was very persistent in making sure she didn’t miss out.  As I gathered the supplies together this morning, a short poem showed up in my mind that was worded as a letter to her in heaven.  

Merry Christmas up in heaven,
I pray that you can see.
How much you’re missed and dearly loved,
by friends and family.
And while you’re gone, we carry on
as best as we know how.
Some days are good, some days so-so,
some days the tears flow now.
So as we gather here today,
it won’t be quite the same.
We’ll love and laugh and share a tear,
and I’ll eat ice cream in your name!
So, Merry Christmas dearest Bre,
please help us find our way.
To live for Christ and make you smile,
‘til we join with you someday!

Merry Christmas with much love,
(and no, the ice cream isn’t ready yet 🙂 )
Uncle Tom

After the family gathering, I came home and worked on my normal Monday morning project — next week’s prayer guide.  That also meant that I did some more work on the sermon for New Year’s Day as I’ve chosen to use the prayer guide as follow-up to the sermon.  So, while it was mostly a day off, I didn’t avoid “work” completely 🙂

Today’s photo is one I took a few days ago and it seemed fitting considering all of the feasting that has been taking place over the past few days.  On the day I took this photo, the brush was filled with birds feasting on the red berries.  I caught this robin with a beak full about to enjoy its next bite.  I thought about how food often brings people together to share whatever life experiences are current.  Whether it is grieving together at a funeral dinner, celebrating at a wedding reception, or rejoicing over a Christmas feast, sharing a meal has a way of helping us to share life.  As that thought ran through my mind, I considered how Jesus shared a meal with His disciples many times but as His task on earth was coming to an end, He eagerly desired to eat a final Passover meal with them.  The night Jesus was betrayed and taken off to face the authorities who would crucify Him, He gathered around a table with His disciples for a  meal together.  It was during this meal, this Last Supper, that He laid the groundwork for our remembrance of Him whenever we eat of the elements of a communion service — sharing in His body and blood.  It is through the sharing in His death that we are also able to share in His resurrection and have the confidence of life eternal with Him in heaven.

I pray that you and I would pay attention to a God that longs to be in communication and communion with us.  I pray that we would not only share in the feast of the Lord’s Supper, but that we would know the fellowship that can be had with one another during a meal.  I pray that we would live in a way that makes our loved ones in heaven smile.  I pray that we would share in the death of Christ in a way that prepares us to share in His resurrection.

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2016: Page 360

Page 360 was Christmas Day with the bonus of being a Sunday!  As a double bonus, I had the privilege of preaching this morning at the North Wayne Mennonite Church.  And no, I didn’t feel bad about having to “work” on Christmas Day.  For me, the path that some chose to take of closing the church and not having Sunday services because it was a holiday seems rather strange.  I could think of no better way to spend the day which we set aside to honor the birth of Christ than to actually gather with other believers to do just that as we worshiped together and shared in God’s Word.  

This morning’s sermon continued a character study series I am working on with the series title of “Living As the Lord’s Servant”.  This morning we looked at the person of Mary, mother of Jesus, in a message titled, “Living as a WILL-ing Servant”.  It’s not too bad to think of ourselves as the Lord’s servant . . . at least until we are called upon to actually serve.  How often do we come up with excuses and do everything in our power to avoid the task before us when we are asked to serve in specific ways?  If we truly desire to live as the Lord’s servant, we can learn a great deal from the willing response of Mary after being told by an angel of the specific task she would have, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”

This morning we looked at four aspect of living as a willing servant, and in keeping with my style of sermon outlines we used the first four letters of the word willing with the “ing” being a commonality with each sermon point.  The first thing we addressed from Mary’s life was our need to live as a Worshiping servant.  When our life is lived in true worship of a living God, our response to the work God would have us to do is also expressed in worship.  After the angel had left, we have recorded by Luke a song of praise that Mary offered in worship of God.  Her worship gives us insight into how she saw God and why she could be a willing servant.  Worship is our expression to God of the worth He has to us, but it also serves as a reminder to us of why God is worthy of our serving Him.

As a willing servant of the Living God, Mary was also an Inviting servant.  At a time when a desire for some degree of privacy might seem like a normal response to having just delivered a baby, the shepherds were welcomed into the scene as this servant of God shared the moment with those who had come with curiosity about the news that had been told to them by an angel.  And later, when the Magi made their way to where Joseph and Mary were staying, they were invited in to offer their gifts and worship to the Christ child.  The message God delivered through Jesus is an invitation to all who would come.  When we seek to live as a servant of the Lord, we must live as an inviting servant because the Master has given instruction that we are to share His invitation with everyone.

In addition to being a Worshiping and Inviting servant, Mary was also a Learning servant.  On the surface, the response of Zechariah to the angel’s announcement concerning the birth of John the Baptist seems similar to the initial response given by Mary.  Both of them questioned how it could happen.  However, God’s response to each of them was quite different.  Zechariah’s question was seen by God as doubt and left him literally speechless until John was born and named.  Mary’s question was seen by God as a desire to learn and the response became a teaching moment regarding the way the birth of Jesus would come about.  I know many people who live as if they know more than God.  They would never say that, but there is no appearance of a willingness to learn as they serve.  In order to be a servant of the Lord, we must be a learning servant as we continually grow in the grace and knowledge that comes through God’s Spirit and our time in prayer and the Word.

Finally, living as a willing servant requires that we live as a Loving servant.  Mary’s love for God is obvious in her willingness to have everything the angel said come to pass.  We also see her love expressed in her worship of God.  Being chosen to be the mother of Jesus carried with it the responsibility of raising and loving this child as only a mother, or God, could.  When we realize our ability and capacity to love is something that comes from God, we should know exactly who to turn to when we need help being a loving servant.  When we understand that Jesus came to earth as an expression of God’s love, our serving God will also reflect His love.  It is through serving others with the love of Christ that we find ourselves serving God.  In fact, Jesus said that whatever we do for the least of His brethren, we do for Him.

I pray that you and I would make the most of every opportunity that God gives us.  I pray that we would find (and give) joy and encouragement in the times we gather with fellow believers.  I pray that we would desire to live as a servant of the Lord.  I pray that our relationship with Jesus would lead us to live as a willing servant.  I pray that our willingness to serve would be expressed as a Worshiping, Inviting, Learning, and Loving servant.

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