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Swim Lessons

I was never afraid to jump in the water. In fact, as a kid, I loved the water. Both my brother and I were like little fish in all the places we lived growing up. Whether it was a swimming pool in Oklahoma or a beach in Hawaii, we jumped in with joy and definitely without fear; that is, until, one day, my courage was challenged.

My father had decided to swim with us, so that meant I could swim in the deep end.   I was standing on the edge of a pool in the same type of place I had stood so many times at the shallow end and effortlessly and seamlessly ran and jumped.  I had always trusted the waters to catch me in the shallow end, but now I was being asked to trust my father in the deep end.  He gently prodded me saying “Tara, jump. I’ll catch you. I will not let you drown.”  I agonized over that jump and after what seemed like at least five minutes of prodding and convincing, I finally jumped, and just as he promised, my dad caught me, and I didn’t drown.

How many times has this type of incident manifested in my adult life?  As I try to navigate “jumping” into the unchartered waters of my life, I stand by the side of the “pool” hoping my Daddy God will catch me. Knowing that God is in the deep end ready to catch me, why is it still so difficult to jump into the water?

I sense that when God removes our ability to be independent or when our jump or leap requires a trust that wasn’t demanded of us before, we can all struggle to fully trust just like Peter did when He stepped out of the boat. Some may focus on the fact that Peter sank while walking to Jesus, but even though he lacked a certain faith to completely make it to Jesus without sinking into the water,  he had the faith to at least step out into the sea and begin to walk.  It’s not like he had ever seen someone do this before in his lifetime.  Well, actually he had seen someone do it just minutes before. That someone was Jesus.  Jesus had already walked on the water that he was asking Peter to step out upon.  The Author and Finisher and Alpha and Omega had already been in those waters, and, now,  He was asking Peter to trust Him in those same waters.

Jon Acuff, a speaker at the Love Does conference I attended recently in Austin, TX said, “Sometimes God gives us courage before He gives us clarity.”  I considered if this was really true.  I first thought of those in the Bible to whom this could apply, and I thought of Noah building an ark when it had never rained before, David standing before Goliath, Moses being told to say “I AM” sent  him, Abraham moving to the land God would eventually show him, and Esther approaching the king hoping for favor. Then I began to think, “If this was true for them, is it true for us? Has God given us courage before clarity?”  I wonder, if like another speaker (Rebekah Lyons) at the conference asked:  “Should we spend more time praying for courage than we do praying for clarity?” Could God be calling to us in the midst of the ambiguity and saying “Jump to me!  I’ll catch you and you won’t drown!”

I wonder if that is what happened to Peter. He had a burst of courage to jump, but when he realized what He had done, he panicked. In that moment of panic, he failed to remember he had obeyed what Jesus had told him to do, so there was no reason to fear. The only clarity he needed in that moment was the fact that Jesus had told him to do something and that Jesus was in the water with Him.  He is our clarity to go along with the courage He gives us. He is our Light, and even if we can only see the path directly in front of our feet, if He is with us, and we obey Him, we cannot fail.

Some, if not most of our greatest successes or experiences in life are usually the results of these types of blind leaps of faith. God’s arms feel much more secure than the air around us in the moments between take-off and landing, but once we make it into His arms in the deep end, just like any kid, we want to climb out of the pool and do it again.  God being in the deep gives us all the security we need to leave the familiar and shallow where our feet can touch the bottom and our “floaties” could save us, but it requires a courageous leap.

Hope and a Future

On Thanksgiving Day 2013, after spending over a week helping my grandparents whose home was severely damaged by the tornado that demolished a significant part of their town this November, I realized in an even greater way that I had many things to be thankful for.  I began to lavish upon God my thankfulness that my grandparents were still alive, that sentimental mementos of my mother who passed away in 1999 were still preserved and intact in photo albums in my grandparent’s home, and that, by God’s grace, I had made it through the “tornadoes” in my life this year.

As I continued to thank God in my car drive on Thanksgiving night, I said one thing that triggered a response from Him.  I said, “Thank you for what You protected me from this year.” Immediately, I heard Him say, “I don’t want you to just be aware of what you were protected FROM. I want you to also know what you were protected FOR.” God is not just Alpha (the beginning), but He is also Omega (the end). He is not just Author. He is Finisher. He has a perspective beyond our own, and what a blessing it is when He gives us glimpses of what He already knows as our Omega and Finisher.

Looking back over 2013, I can honestly say it was both one of the worst and one of the best years of my life. The loss can be easily measured in the same way media footage and photos of the tornado damage of Washington, IL measured that devastation. It would be easy to go back through the pictures in my mind and review the losses of 2013, but there is another “photo album” I choose to thumb through. That photo album may not have any pictures in it yet, but when I look at those empty pages, I am filled with hope that can only come from a God Who has assured me that I have been protected FOR something. At the end of a year of bests and worsts and the beginning of a year of unknowns, I can trust in the God who promises to give us all a hope and future.

Shoes for Christmas

I never thought God cared about the shoes I wore until one recent Christmas.  A few weeks before Christmas, I felt God prompting me to ask Him for the desires of my heart. He had revealed to me that I really only asked Him for the basic necessities, and He challenged me to ask Him for not just what I would interpret as a “need” but for things that were “wants.” This was difficult for me since I have traveled all over the world and seen people in abject poverty. I felt guilty asking God for things that I wanted when others seemed to only have the basic necessities.  However, at this moment, God was asking me to do something, and the conversation was between me and Him, not me, Him and the Third World.

So, I decided to ask Him for something that I wanted but didn’t necessarily need.  I asked Him for shoes. I asked Him out of obedience and I really only half-heartedly believed He was actually listening; however, a few days later, I got a major confirmation that He does hear me. Keep in mind, I told no one about my prayer for shoes. Frankly, I was a little ashamed and still feeling guilty that I had prayed that prayer. I went to church one Sunday in December, and a friend of mine came in carrying a tiny box for me.  When I opened it, there was a note inside along with a gift card. As I began to read the note, I was in shock. The entire note was an encouraging word for me about how God wanted to give me new shoes and that I was going to be walking in new areas of His authority in the coming year.  Along with the note, was a $150 gift card for a shoe store in the area.

When I asked my friend what prompted her to give me this extravagant gift, she said that a few days before, she was shopping for shoes, and as she walked into the shoe store, she clearly heard God say to her “I want Tara to have new shoes too.”  She said that prompting was so strong that she bought my gift card before even getting her own shoes. She had made this purchase on or around the day I half-heartedly prayed for new shoes.

What did God want me to learn from this? That He was some genie in a bottle and I could ask Him for my wishes? No. There are plenty of times, I have asked for things and haven’t gotten them. I believe, in this scenario, He was simply teaching me to ask, teaching me to trust, teaching me to have faith in a God who loves me and knows what’s best for me.

What was the fruit of this lesson? I learned to ASK more often. Not just for myself, but for others too. After the shoe blessing, I asked Him to provide for a mission trip to Thailand. And, as a result, within one month of getting my shoes, God provided almost $4000 for me to spend one month in Thailand ministering in the red light district there. The same God who gave me new shoes that I didn’t need, sent me to those in greatest need. I’m sure they were on His heart when He was teaching me to ASK.

What if God’s Voice Sounds Like Ours?

There is great potential of amazing things happening when we respond to God’s whispers, but so often those whispers, that many times come in the form of a thought, are dismissed as being “just me.” That’s what I thought the night God whispered to me to buy my friend Nancy some flowers…..

It was December in Pennsylvania, and I ran through the parking lot in the cold rain as I rushed into my condo to get out of the elements.  It was not the kind of night I wanted to be out and about, and I had just gotten home from a long day.  I made my way up the steps to my room, and was relishing the fact that none of my roommates were home, and although I loved them, I savored any precious moments of alone time I could get amid a busy time of  year.  It was then that I had a thought that went something like this, “It’s close to the anniversary of Nancy losing her husband to cancer five years ago. Go get her some flowers and a card from Jesus to her.” Then, I thought of the story of how Jesus wept when Mary was grieving over Lazarus’ death.

It literally only took ten seconds for that thought to pass through my mind, and five seconds to dismiss it as being “just me.”  It was cold and rainy outside. I was tired. I had a moment alone at the house.  This mounting evidence “proved” to me that these thoughts were clearly “just me.” However, the thoughts wouldn’t leave.  They persistently pursued me like a dog wanting to be fed, and eventually, I listened.

I couldn’t figure out why there was such a sense of urgency these thoughts brought with them, so instead of putting my cozy flannel pajamas on, I put my winter coat back on and rushed back out into the elements to get flowers for Nancy  from Jesus.  I arrived at the grocery store, and I had another thought. “Red Roses.” This went against my better judgment which would have been to get her Gerbera daisies (what I would have preferred to receive as a gift), but I figured if the other thoughts were God speaking to me, then I would go with the flow and assume that this thought was Him too. So, I bought the red roses and a card and raced home to get the card written before Nancy got home.

Staying with theme of the night, I included the analogy of Jesus weeping when Mary grieved, and I told Nancy in her card that Jesus was weeping with her as she grieved. I placed the flowers and card in her room, and I waited for her to come home.  One hour prior,  I was excited about being alone, and now I found myself listening to every noise hoping it was Nancy’s  car door announcing her arrival.

Finally she arrived home, and for one hour she never noticed the flowers or card in her room.  A sucker for surprising people, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I thought if I was going to have to wait for her to notice  the flowers, I was at least going to have some fun.  I yelled to her in her room, “Hey, Nancy! What’s your favorite flower?” And she promptly replied, “Red Roses. Why?”  My heart pounded with delight and I thought I just might have heard God after all. She explained to me that her husband always gave her red roses and that God had often referred to her as His rose.  She also shared that her sons had been sending her roses since her husband had passed away and that she would remove one rose from the dozen roses and leave it on her husband’s grave leaving her to enjoy the leftover eleven roses.

After her sweet story, I couldn’t stand waiting anymore. I stepped over to her room and told her to turn around to see what she had been missing for the last hour and she gasped with joy. I left her to read her card in privacy.  In just a few minutes she came into my room and she was weeping.  She said, “Did I tell you what God told me in the weeks after the night that my husband died?”  I knew that she had not shared this information with me. It was then that she said that she knew God was in the room with her the night that her husband passed away, but she had often wondered what God was doing in that moment. I am sure that is often a question God is asked in moments like that. When she presented this question to God five years before, He gave her a scripture reference and it was the reference to the verse “Jesus wept.” In essence, He was telling her that He was not only with her, but that He was grieving with her and for her. That was the very reference He had me put in her card (remember the thought I had??).

We were both overjoyed at how God had spoken to us both, and I seriously thought God had truly outdone Himself that night. That was until Nancy counted the roses.  She had gone back to her room, and not long after, I heard a loud scream. I rushed into her room and through her tears she exclaimed, “There are only eleven roses here!!!”

This night was a night that made me realize even more how I wanted to be even more deliberate about not dismissing my thoughts as being “just me” and believing, instead, that God could be whispering to me through those thoughts. Only He could have known that the florist at the grocery store had made a mistake that very night and that there was a bouquet of eleven red roses with Nancy’s name on them.

Intersection

What if the things that we label as random coincidences in life actually were divine appointments from God?  Our day seemed like it couldn’t have been more complete, but God upstaged all of our plans with one of His.  With bellies full of jumbo sea scallops and and eyes satisfied with a beautiful view of the river running through Harrisburg, PA, my friend and I decided we would forge forward in our much needed girls-day-out.(We had just spent the last few hours moving my things from Northern Virginia to Mechanicsburg, PA. ) 

After pulling away from the restaurant a “coincidence” happened.  We made a wrong turn.  Even with my beloved Australian man guiding me along the way, his demand to “recalculate” through the GPS speaker didn’t seem to help.  There was no turning back now. I, along with my friend,  was  on a date with destiny.

I made a sharp left when I could, and I ended up on street that reminded me of Sesame Street.  The little brownstone houses with the steps. Kids jumping rope on the sidewalk.  Parents sitting on their porches sipping out of bright colored plastic cups.  Amid the archetypal neighborhood and iconic picture of what a family weekend used to be, my attention was drawn toward a little girl walking down the sidewalk in front of her family home.  She appeared to be wearing clothes designed for a woman her mother’s age because they didn’t make kid’s clothes in her size.  Not only did she fit into these woman’s clothes but she had the the walk of woman burdened with the sufferings of life.  She already had a story and she was only nine or ten years old.

In the ten seconds it took to pass her, my heart was undone.  In those ten seconds, her life flashed before my eyes and somehow I knew that if God didn’t intersect her life, she would never know her purpose and would never fulfill it. I saw the sadness that her physical predicament would bring her, and I saw the suicidal thoughts and depression that would one day overshadow her if she didn’t come to God’s intersection.  All this happened because of my making the wrong turn and having to recalculate.

Now, I don’t have this response every time I pass by a kid on the, shall we say, more chubby side.  I, too, was one of those kids in school. I empathize with their struggle, and so does God.  For some reason, yesterday, I had to see and feel what this young girl would one day see and feel if things didn’t change, and I wouldn’t find out the reason why for several more hours.

 A church service, some late night diner eats, and purchasing the movie tickets had all happened right on schedule.  It seemed there would be no time for any more “coincidences.”  Then, at the last minute, my friend and I decided that it would be best to use the ladies’ room before the movie.  Little did we know, but we were about to have another “coincidence.”  Upon entering the ladies’ room, I was astounded at who I saw.  At the sink washing her hands, was the little girl I had seen four hours earlier in a neighborhood that was a fifteen minute drive from where I was standing now. 

I quickly went into one of the stalls.  Somehow, in my walk with God, I’ve learned that when something like this happens twice, it’s probably for a reason. I asked Him what I should say to her.  He said, “Tell her that she is one of the most beautiful young ladies that you have ever seen.”  My first thought was…’How am I going to tell her that without looking like a weirdo in a movie theatre bathroom?’  I watched her go out the door and I said nothing.

Then, I couldn’t resist.  I had to obey.  I rushed out the door to find her, and the words of wisdom came to me as I saw her rejoin her grandmother.  I decided that I was to announce God’s words of affirmation over her in the presence of her family.  I walked over to them, and asked the grandmother if this young girl was her grand-daughter.  She said yes, and I immediately shared these words: “You should be so proud of your grand-daughter.  She is one of the most beautiful and polite young ladies whom I have ever seen. I just thought that she should know this and you should know this.”  Without hesitation, a huge grin plastered itself across the young girl’s face as well as that of her grandmother’s.  With a “Have a good night!” I was on my way into the theatre.

As I walked to my seat, I heard the Lord say, “The enemy has plans for people, but you have the power to intersect people’s lives with my plan.  That one sentence that you proclaimed over that young girl’s life reversed the collision course she was on with the enemy’s plan.”  Imagine if we, with Christ in us Hope of Glory, allowed ourselves to be that “intersection” where people can meet the Father.  What if the circumstances that we write-off as “accidents” and “coincidence” were treated more tenderly and with care? His voice many times is so”still” and “small” that we fail to listen.  I want to be someone who doesn’t require God to yell if He wants to be heard.  I want to hear His word and do it even when He whispers.

This event reminded me of the “still” and “small” voice I heard in a grocery store a few months ago.  In Loudoun County, Virginia, if anything is going to happen, it better happen fast, and nothing was happening fast on that particular evening at the local grocery store.  We all know the feeling of being in a store with ten people in line and one cashier.  After we get done debating whether that one gallon of milk is really crucial when it requires waiting behind a women juggling a cart full of popsicles, Lunchables, diapers and three kids, we may decide to feel sorry for the poor cashier who is underpaid and over-worked. 

It was on this particular night that I stood in line with six or seven of Loudoun County’s most “patient” citizens.  While they were glaring from the cashier, to their watches, to their carts of food and back to the cashier, I stood back and watched the scene unfold.  Not in a judgemental way.  As already explained, I too, had been in their shoes, but that night, I decided to take things in strides. 

I had nowhere to be, but apparently the woman behind me did.  After a long dissertation of how a grocery store should always have at least two checkout lanes open, she asked me what time it was.  I replied, with a big grin only God could give out for such circumstances, “I have no idea what time it is.  But you know what that means don’t you?”  The lady irritatingly replied “What?” I said, “It means we are on vacation. Nobody ever knows the exact time it is when they are on vacation.  Lets enjoy this vacation together.”   This comment was sealed with a hearty laugh. And it wasn’t the woman’s.  She didn’t know what to make of me, and I didn’t know what to make of myself. I wondered what God had done with the “real Tara” who could just have easily found herself tapping her foot and looking at her watch.   

The woman and I struck up a conversation to pass the time. She began to express her desire to return to the teaching profession, and I was able to give her some advice about transitioning back to teaching.  After finding out that I am a teacher in Loudoun County, she was that much more intrigued with my advice.  She then declared, “I think you were a sign to me tonight.  I am supposed to teach again.”  As I walked to the car, I heard the Lord say, “You are always supposed to a be a sign of Me to others. What she spoke was true.”

We are all called to be a sign.  God will paint the image on the sign, but we are called to make sure the passers-by can see it.   Sometimes we will be a sign that says “Stop” or “Caution.”  Sometimes we will be one that says “Make a U-turn” or “Reduce Speed Ahead.” Sometimes our sign will say “You are one of  the most beautiful and polite young ladies I have ever seen.” But no matter what He puts on the sign, we have the blessed opportunity of staking the sign at the intersections of people’s lives, and watching God help people “recalculate.”

Book of Remembrance

There’s something special about the person or persons who are the first to remember your birthday each year. It’s almost as if they launch you into “your” day.  Last year, the first person to remember my birthday was a former student of mine named Chanele.  She called me at 12:01 a.m. December 13th and wished me and my voicemail (obviously I was asleep at 12:01 a.m. on a school night) a “Hip-Hop Happy Birthday” complete with her own rendition of the “Happy Birthday Song” in the tradition of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.  I still have this archived in my voicemails just so I can remind myself of the feeling of being remembered every once and a while.  I wish I could have archived what happened on December 13, 2004. 

Being a teacher has its perks.  Summers off. “Sympathy” discounts from vendors.  Sipping from the fountain of youth every day you encounter your students who seem to be able to program your technology faster than you can say “Atari.”  Ten years ago, I launched into the world of teaching, and just as quickly as I entered, I now make my exit.  Amid all the memories of emotional discussions about current events and literature, the dreaded discipline referrals, the gleaming lightbulbs finally appearing above student’s heads, and the board game filled classrooms the day before a holiday break, sometimes the little things that mean the most get lost in the shuffle.

It was December 13, 2004, and the drive to Olympic High School started off like any other.  Most likely with a startled awakening to a blaring buzzer and a quick shower.   A luxurious authorized trip to Starbucks then ensued.  After all, it was my birthday.   Little did I know, but the authorized trip to Starbucks wouldn’t be the only variation to my seeminly normal routine.

While juggling my Starbucks and a bag of ungraded papers I, with wishful thinking, took home to grade the night before, my unexpectant self made my way into the school.  As I rounded the corner and headed toward my classroom, I could hear students, in their opinion, whispering “Shh! She’s coming!”  At first, I wondered who “she” might be, but I quickly realized who “she” was.  When I walked into my classroom, my entire first period class stood before me shouting “Surprise!!!!” while standing next to a buffet of homemade food and a birthday card created on the whiteboard that read “Happy 16th Birthday (LOL), Ms. Browder” amid all the signatures and personal messages from each student.   

Nothing compares to the feeling of being remembered.  It’s a feeling that swaddles us with the reality that we matter and that the stamp we leave on the world may not be forgotten.  I believe God, in all of His splendor, relishes this feeling too. In fact, over fifty times in the Psalms David reports “remembering” God.  I doubt that it is a coincidence that every time something amazing happened in the Old Testament, someone built an altar right where it happened so the event would never be forgotten.  A permanent marker of praise left an indelible reminder that God was and is with us.

Not only does God enjoy being remembered, but, like my “Happy Birthday Song” He archives it.  In Malach 3:16-17 it says, “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another and the Lord gave attention and heard it. and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and esteem His name.” (NASB)  God literally leans down over the bannister of heaven and listens in on our conversations about Him. When we celebrate Him over lunch with a friend, share a testimony in church, or call someone with a praise report in the fifteen minute drive to work, God leans in, listens, and takes notes.  Why? What’s He going to do with all these archives?  I don’t know, but knowing Him, it’s got to be for a good reason!!! 

Malachi 3:16-17 has an intersting translation in The Message Bible.  It reads, “Then those whose lives honored God got together and talked it over. God saw what they were doing and listened in.  A book was opened in God’s presence and minutes were taken of the meeting, with the names of the God-fearers written down, all the names of those who honored his name.”

Notice, God only writes down the good things we say.  He is not making a book to remind us of when we said something we should regret.  Keeping this in mind, I really hope that every day, I say something that He wants to record to remember forever.  I can’t wait to reminisce with Him for eternity.  I better get to talking and testifying!! 🙂

Memory Lane

It’s always intriguing, as an adult with adult eyes and understanding, to return to the places associated with your childhood.  After landing in Tulsa, OK, Thursday night, immediately greeted by that notorious Oklahoma wind, I now knew why it was not only fashionable but a necessity to have a teased, hair-spray laden coif when living here.  Not only was hairspray suddenly “legal” again, but things like saying “Ya’ll,” talking to people you don’t know, and waiting an extra thirty seconds to honk a horn at someone stopped at green light, were no longer taboo.  Within twenty minutes of my arrival, I remembered why I loved living here, and wondered why I was in such a rush to leave.

I didn’t land until midnight, but that didn’t stop me from driving through Taco Bueno to get a party burrito for the bargain price of fifty nine cents and a small “Big Red” soda with which to wash down the  Mexican fast food goodness.   Sitting in my rental car, savoring a burrito that can be eaten in literally three bites, two if you are really hungry, I remembered the many off campus lunches at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City.  Once the lunch bell rang, all students with driving privileges rushed to their cars so that they could make the most of that forty minute lunch.  Time Out, Taco Bueno or Mazzios were usually the places of choice, but for me and my friends, Taco Bueno usually won.  Forty minutes with a good friend, a good burrito, and Big Red Soda somehow made the ominous reality that the school day was only half over less painful.

The next morning, the fact that I was still full from my Taco Bueno indulgence from the night before forced me to skip breakfast and to enjoy only a Starbucks coffee, the universal food that links us all together whether we say “Ya’ll,” “Howdy,” or a fully enunciated “Hello” to greet someone.  The drive down the Broken Arrow Expressway could now begin.  Coffee in hand and radio up, I began my drive, only stopping once to ask directions from a semi-toothless man at a gas station.  There’s something comforting about being around people who don’t care if their coffee is Starbucks, and they proudly and shamelessly present their pinkish red gums when giving directions.  Once again, Oklahoma exuded the Southern charm I forgot amidst all of my East coast civilizing. 

The best part of my trip, hanging with my brother John, was about to ensue.  After paying the bargain price of $1.50 for a thirty minute trip down a toll road,  I had arrived at my destination.  There was my brother, waiting with his caretaker.  Without warning,   I was gently pried from that place called “Memory Lane” and plopped into the present where my once young “Bubby” stood before me as a man with graying hair, strong stature, and deep voice.  I wonder what I must look and sound like to him. 

In no time at all, John and I were on the road returning to Tulsa and to Memory Lane.  It wasn’t long before John began to say “Remember when mom…..” or “Remember how dad used to……”   This made me realize how important it is to park our cars on Memory Lane more often; however, Memory Lane looks much better in the Spring than it does in the Winter.  It’s easy to remember the things that brought us sadness or disappointed us in the past, but how glorious it is to remember those times when the Winter is over and the Spring comes.

Since my mother passed, definitely a Winter on Memory Lane,  memories, good and bad are the only things that I have to keep her alive in my heart.  Sure, there are pictures, family that look remarkably similar to her, and even my own eyes and voice that are constant reminders that I am my mother’s daughter.   However, there is something powerful when you sit with someone else that shared those same memories.  Somehow it makes those memories real and authentic where before you wondered if they were just a dream.  There’s something comforting about someone else verifying your life, and bringing you back to the places that established your identity.   My someone else was John, my brother.  He and I both established that the twenty-three years we lived before mom’s passing did exist.    Others may have chosen to forget those times, and many others may have never shared those times with us, but John and I will always have them and tuck them away in the hope chests of our hearts.  Although they may get dimmer over time, at least we will have each other to light the street lamps on Memory Lane,  and preserve the things that matter most in life.