If you’ve followed this blog for a number of years, you may recall my tree signs series from California in 2015. Well, a few weeks ago, as I walked through a park near my home, I noticed someone had started putting up tree signs here, too.
I took it as a nod from God, a call to notice messages of calm and hope and peace during this truly hard time. While we are keeping our physical distance from one another, a neighbor in my community is trying to connect with us all through these signs, and I want to pay attention to that person’s blessing.
The last one here, this cracked tile, landed right on my heart. In a time when so many of us feel a bit (or a lot) broken, when we stumble for prayers, when life feels too difficult, this beautiful, cracked prayer sits quietly under a tree’s branches.
It’s Maundy Thursday today, and so I wanted to share these tree signs with you, partly as a reminder of the Easter promise that’s coming Sunday, and partly to help us remember that even in broken times, God is with us, and God hears our prayers, be they fractured or whole.
Courage, my friends. Do you have a short prayer or song that’s sustaining you during these challenging days?
Before we get started with the final sign of the tree sign series, I’d like to ask a favor. Wherever you live and whatever is pressing on your heart, would you please lift up a prayer for the fire fighters, the residents displaced, those who are grieving a loss of home or beloved animals or livelihood because of the California wildfires? Would you also pray for quenching rain to fall on the flames?
Now back to the final tree sign of the series.
I knew this last sign existed, but the day I walked along the road to take photographs for the series, I could not find it. I knew which direction it faced but looked and looked and looked. The road is not the sort of road that’s safe to walk along, and despite picking an especially quiet morning, I had to give up and go home without a picture.
My sweet husband drove along the road later that day while I sat in the passenger seat with camera in hand. We had to make a couple of passes before I finally spotted it, high up and partially hidden in prickly leaves.
I’m not sure it’s coincidence that this sign is so elusive. Its word is hard for us to grasp and can be covered in prickly emotions:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32
Forgive. What does that word conjure up for you? A moment, a memory, an act, a hard thing, a blessing?
In Old Testament times, God’s followers had to follow specific rules about sacrifices that would earn God’s forgiveness. The New Testament brought change to the need to exchange sacrifices for forgiveness: Jesus’ death became the ultimate sacrifice.
I’ve written about forgiveness both here and in my book. It never ceases to be one of the most difficult concepts for me to tackle, perhaps because I don’t enjoy thinking about those I have yet to forgive and those who have yet to forgive me. Yet forgiveness lives at the heart of faith and is essential to our relationship with God and one another, and to our own emotional well-being.
Why does it have to be so darn difficult?
Some of us cannot believe God forgives certain sins (and sinners). Sometimes we ourselves have committed “unforgivable” sins. Sometimes we look at others and deem their sins unforgivable. The uncomfortable truth of a life of faith, though, is that we must forgive one another. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis reminds us there’s no escaping this requirement to forgive, but he also offers excellent advice on how to tackle the challenge of forgiving others.
I have to admit: knowing someone as amazing as C.S. Lewis struggled with the concept of forgiveness makes me feel better. If forgiving others were easy, our faith might remain weak and simplistic. Instead, learning to forgive builds strength, character and a reliance on God for help.
If forgiveness is a struggle for you, I highly recommend Forgive & Forget by Lewis B. Smedes. I’ve reviewed his book here before (scroll to the last bullet of the post) and cannot say enough good things about it. It’s one of those books I imagine I’ll go back to again and again throughout my life, ever needing to learn how to forgive, and ever needing to beg for forgiveness from others.
It feels like the Bible contains a bazillion “forgive” references, and choosing one for this week’s sign was a good exercise in reminding myself of God’s requirements and great love and sacrifice for me. So why did I choose these particular verses? Quite simply, the ideas of letting go of bitterness and anger, embracing kindness, and being tender-hearted fit best with the rest of the signs. These two verses provide the perfect ending to the series. If we could remember and live out all seven of these every day—kindness is free, you matter, love never fails, hug a stranger, u r loved, peace = kindness, and forgive— how would we change as individuals? How would the world around us change?
Just for fun before we leave the series, would you let me know which post or sign you liked best? Did you miss a couple along the way? You can catch up on all of them here.
If you could add any sign to this road, what would it be and why? Please leave your answer and any other thoughts about forgiveness and the other signs in the series in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you!
Time is flying by, and I can’t believe we’ve already reached week six in the tree signs series. You have to look closely at this week’s sign to see its full message:
peace = kindness
I love the equals sign here, but its presence also made it harder to find just the right Bible verses. Verses about peace abound, as do ones about kindness. But equating peace with kindness? Those verses are rarer. A passage in Romans 12 comes pretty close:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:18-21
Does this admonition to be at peace with everyone make you uncomfortable? What about that part about giving your enemy something to eat or drink?
I love the concepts of peace and kindness but often fall short in the actual practice of them, especially when it comes to people I fear or do not like. I’ll admit it: Being at peace with a vague “all men” seems easier to accomplish than giving my own personal enemy something as life sustaining and as simple as a glass of water.
Is it part of the human condition to want revenge? We want villains to suffer as their victims did. We want evil masterminds to die at the end of the movie (and in real life). We want some sort of street justice for the neighborhood jerk who lets his ferocious dogs terrorize children and adults alike. We don’t want to give water and food and kindness to such as these. We don’t want to wait for God’s vengeance (perhaps because we can’t believe it will be as severe as we’d like). We want to heap the coals on our enemies but not by practicing acts of kindness toward them. We want to heap coals by leaving them thirsty and hungry and in pain.
Yet we know stories of those who heap proverbial coals by extending kindness instead of hatred. We are surprised when grieving families of shooting victims stand up in court and speak forgiveness to the killer. And when gruff people show a tender heart for someone in need. And when undreamt of reconciliations happen in our own families. It shocks us to see kindness where we would expect apathy or rejection or cruelty.
The Syrian refugee crisis is front and center in the news, and perhaps like me, you’ve experienced shock at Hungary’s refusal to help and relief that Germany has flung open its gates and greeted the refugees’ trains with kindness. If my neighborhood were to become a border town for refugees pouring in, I hope I would be more like Germany than Hungary, and I hope it wouldn’t take the photo of a dead toddler to get me to find new ways to tap into the depths of sacrificial kindness.
Too often, though, we seek our own safety and comfort instead of extending an inconvenient kindness to one another. We hope others will step up to help so that we only have to pay lip service to the sort of radical kindness some tragedies require of us.
Romans 12 doesn’t leave much room for negotiation, though. Radical kindness is how we are meant to interact with those around us. “So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Being at peace means a willingness to be kind when it’s undeserved. And being kind can bring about peace where there otherwise would continue to be animosity.
How would our world look if we all acted on these verses and actively tried to be at peace with all humans? How would our world change if we let go of our desire for revenge and instead practiced kindness? Have you experienced a kindness that led to peace? What about a peace that led to kindness? I’d love to hear the ways you’ve experienced peace = kindness in your own lives.
How is it already September? How are we already five weeks into this seven-week tree sign series? For those of you who have followed the whole series to date, you may have sensed a thread running through all of the signs, a thread about how God views us and how God hopes we will view ourselves and others. Love is the prevailing theme in the tree signs, and this week’s sign states the truth as plainly as possible:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. – John 3:16
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. – 1 John 3:16-18
When I was searching the Bible for just the right verses, I noticed something beautiful and new (to me anyway): John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16 tell exactly the same love story. One looks at Jesus’ death from God’s perspective and the other from Jesus’ own perspective. Why say it twice? Quite simply: we all need to hear someone huge and important and unstoppable loves us.
Don’t we all have days when we feel unloved, or maybe unlovable? Days we feel alone or ignored or unappreciated? These are the days the 3:16 verses were meant for—the days we most need reminding that the greatest love in the world applies to each of us as individuals, not just some vague “others” in the world.
Whoever created the “U R Loved” sign wrote it using passive voice, often a bugaboo for this former English teacher. But I love passive voice here because it encourages you to fill in the inherent blank. Who loves you? U R Loved (by God/by friends/by spouse/by children/by family/by someone).
Driving by this sign causes me to make a mental list. I am loved by …
The length of my list is a blessing I try not to take for granted, and I hope those people on my list know how much I love them right back.
The last few weeks have been tough for several of my dearest friends back east, and it has been difficult for me to do much more than say, “I love you,” and “I’m praying for you,” and “I hope you heal quickly.”
But I also know the deep truth in the rest of the verses in 1 John 3. I wish John had written: “let us not love only with word or with tongue,” because sometimes words are the only way we can love. It has been hard for me to trust that my words are enough, that where I cannot show my love for a friend through my actions, others in my hometown can. There are others who can give the hugs. Others who can bring the meals. Others who can walk the dogs and pick up the kids from school and bring the toilet paper and laundry detergent. And the ice cream. Because sometimes, ice cream speaks joy and comfort and happiness and love all in one bowl. Right?
Want to remind someone that they are loved? I’d be honored if you’d send them this post. I’ll be sharing it on my Facebook author page, and you may share it from there or from the social media links at the bottom of this post. Or maybe you need to pick up the phone and call a friend? Or pick up some flowers for your spouse at the grocery store? Or pick a date on the calendar to visit with each other?
I’d love to hear your creative ways to show others you love them and also the beautiful ways others have reminded you recently that U R Loved.
We’re four weeks in with the tree signs series. If you’ve missed any, don’t fret. You may read them in any order.
Today’s sign is the first one I noticed while riding along the road with a neighbor, a new friend who went out of her way to make sure this “stranger” felt welcome.
At once a biblical story came to mind: the story of the Good Samaritan.
But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied back and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt great compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”
And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
– Luke 10:29-37
This story has long been one of my favorites, a story easy enough even for a child to understand, yet complex enough for adults to stumble over.
Jesus told this story in response to a young lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor?
It’s one thing to the love the neighbors who are like us, but the Good Samaritan story isn’t about the easy-to-love neighbors. It’s about loving and caring for strangers as if they were our neighbors, as if they were ourselves.
In Jesus’ time, Samaritans were untouchable in the eyes of the Jews, and that’s what made Jesus’ story shocking to his audience. He wanted them—and wants us—to get beyond deep-seated prejudices. The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that we are to help and care for each other regardless of our plans, our schedules or our prejudices.
Hugging friends is easy. Hugging a stranger interrupts us, maybe inconveniences us. But hugging a stranger can make all the difference to that person.
As I cried in the Atlanta airport earlier this summer, a stranger asked if I needed a hug. I had not been left for dead, but a migraine and the frustration of being stranded overnight made me feel miserable. Her kindness has stayed with me. Imagine if more of us were willing to step outside of ourselves to offer the simple gesture of a hug to a stranger.
Jesus never called us to be comfortable. He called us to do what is right, no matter how uneasy that makes us. Perhaps this modern day Samaritan will inspire you (and me) to step beyond prejudice and busyness.
Need something a bit more scientific to convince you to hug a stranger—with their permission, of course? Here you go:
And because I’m really quite distracted with the World Track and Field Championships this week, this article’s “who” bullet really caught my attention. One of the enduring images from the games so far for me is of Jeff Henderson’s coach consoling him with a long embrace after Henderson failed to finish the long jump finals. The interwebs has let me down, though, and I can’t find a picture of their hug to share with you here. (If you find it, please share the link below.)
So how can we surprise ourselves by being the Samaritan? Can I make myself step past my own fears to hug a stranger? Can you? Have you ever been on the giving or receiving end of a stranger’s hug? How was that moment a blessing for you? I’d love to hear the stories of your hugs in the comments below.