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Friends: No Strings Attached

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A neighbor called and asked if she could come over. I was surprised since I had just seen her and her husband the night before. But she was such a delightful and bubbly person that I quickly and enthusiastically said yes.

When she arrived, she held in her hand a large carton of heavy Costco cream – the kind I enjoyed using in my coffee.

I invited her in, and she handed me the box of cream. “This is for you.”

The look on my face reflected my surprise and confusion. As she declined my offer to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me, I went to get my purse to pay for the cream.

But she quickly said, “Oh there is no cost – this is just a gift. I know you like this cream and last night at dinner you said you were out of cream.”

I had invited her and her husband over for dinner, and in serving coffee with dessert, realized I had no cream to offer with the coffee. So, when her husband went to the store that morning to pick up some groceries, she asked him to pick up the cream for me.

Overwhelmed was an understatement. I still wanted to pay for it, but quickly realized that she wanted this to be a gift – no strings attached – just a friend being a friend.

“There is no cost – it is my gift to you.”

Never was cream so tasty. Never did the coffee it was poured into taste so good.

To refuse a gift would be like refusing the person. For with the gift comes an extension of that person – their kindness, concern, and appreciation.

To refuse would be hurtful. And the most important gifts we receive come in the simplicity of cartons of cream and a bouquet of flowers brought because someone is hurting. These say, “I am aware. I know. I care. I can’t change things, but I can help make it easier.”

Friends. They are truly one of God’s blessings to us.

Who can put a value on friendship? True friends are more valuable than gold. They can be neighbors; they can be people we have known for some time or recently met. They can even be part of our family.

Over the years there have been many people who have moved in and out of my life. Some have simply been nodding acquaintances or associates I have worked with professionally.

Others came into my life when I needed someone I could rely on or when they reached out for support. Common needs, concerns, or life situations brought us together for a short period of time as we worked on projects or agendas.

Travel introduced many people with common interests, where, within a short period of time, we became friends

But friendships that remain over many years are friends on which no price can be put.

These are the friends whose loyalty, tolerance and genuine caring have helped me over the many bumps and tragedies of life.

Like the friend who flew home from England to help me when my husband became ill. No hesitation – no concern other than to be there to help. No matter how far apart we moved, no matter how seldom we connect, there is a bond that goes beyond distance or time that remains in place despite the years. These have become more than simply friends – they have become a part of my family.

What does it mean to be a friend?

A friend is loyal and faithful through the good times and the bad times. With unconditional love, I am accepted with all my faults as they reach out with support even in the toughest of times.

A friend will believe in me and hold confidences. We share similar values and feel free to discuss even the most contentious and opposite of views. As a friend, I listen and respect our differences. I feel free to give constructive and honest criticism when needed or asked for.

My friend will stand up for me when others are intent on tearing me down.

Perhaps there have been friends in your life that you not only remember with fondness but wish you could connect again. Reach out – call – inquire. Rekindle that deep friendship that was so important to you at one time in your life. Share old times, the concerns of today and laugh over old stories.

Distance, different paths, and life circumstances may take us in different directions. But for those who are true friends, neither time nor distance can shake the friendship we share.

Thank You, God, For My Kids!

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What?! Thank you for runny noses, staying up all night, cereal dumped on the floor, clothes strewn everywhere, muddy feet, muddy floors, dogs and cats and garter snakes?

Yes, even with sleepless nights, worried nights, “No’s”, stomping feet and even, “I hate you’s,” there is nothing like my kids.

Through thick and thin, I love them. They are God’s special blessings to me. And especially now that I am older, I appreciate them even more and the wonderful memories of raising them to be strong adults.

drawings on refrigerator

I loved the finger paintings and stick figure drawings I displayed on the refrigerator door, prompting a smile each time the door was opened and closed.

The wiggly garter snake thrust at me with great excitement exclaiming, “Look what I found, Mom. Can I keep him?” as I struggled not to show my unreasonable fear of snakes and somehow not stifle the excitement of discovery by keeping the intruder outside.

Grubby fingers clutching bunches of ragged and frazzled wildflowers, and with eyes brimming with love, saying, “For you, Mommy,” will forever be burned in my memory.

One of my most treasured pieces of jewelry is a necklace fashioned by my daughter in 5th grade. I still wear it.

And one of my fondest memories is when she planned a surprise birthday party for me when she was in high school and with the help of Dad arranged everything – even cooking the meal.

She continues to create wonderful scenarios of life through photography and her painting while efficiently and competently running her home and professional life. Thank you, daughter – you are a treasure.

As a kid, my oldest son loved to create new, complicated board games. With Dungeons and Dragons as inspiration, he wrote and self-published game magazines. He still has a love for creating new games.

Life wasn’t always easy for him. His own struggles have given him a sensitivity and understanding of others which were reflected in the classroom when he was a teacher. He motivated and inspired his students to be the best they could be.

My youngest is no longer with us. But the joy he brought to everyone in the family cannot be put into words and continues to bring a smile to our faces as we remember his humor and mischievousness, his tenacity and outlook on life.

In spite of a physical handicap, there was little he couldn’t do. He started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil and his incredible art covers the walls of my home. Your creative ability amazed everyone, son. What a blessing you were to all of us.

Often we are quick to remember only the not-so-pleasant memories of time-outs, rules and consequences, misunderstandings, and those infamous teen years. Long colicky nights as babies, sibling rivalry, sneaking out, and less-than-desirable friends.

Yet it was precisely in those times where I learned patience, understanding and appreciation. And then I remember spaghetti-covered faces, childhood theater productions for the neighborhood and rotten eggs in mailboxes at Halloween. And I chuckle.

As a parent, I struggled with the enormity of raising such wonderful but diverse children.

There were many unknowns that I had no preparation for. But with every step along the way, I gave all my love, my hope, my sincerity and prayers as I shared my love of God and the principles and values needed to live a mature and responsible adult life.

I hope my children will forgive my mistakes, struggles and bungling. I hope I have given them the tools needed to meet their life challenges and that the best of it can be passed on through the generations of children and grandchildren.

Kids – they may be a challenge – but oh, what a blessing.

How to Turn Challenges Into Advantages

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At a women’s retreat, I asked, “Who has experienced stress in the past week?”

All hands went up. I then asked how they knew they were stressed. Their comments ranged from “constantly feeling overwhelmed” to “exhausted.”

They were unable to get everything done that was expected of them and there was little time left for pleasure or relaxation. They felt there was never enough time, there was too much to do, and they were constantly required to learn something new.

As I jotted their responses on the white board, I was reminded again of just how many demands are placed on us every day and the heavy toll it can have on our lives.

A thousand scenarios contribute to the challenges we face and the stress those challenges can create.

Our minds keep racing as our “to do” list gets longer and longer. We run out the door in the morning, grabbing a bagel or sweet roll to eat along the way and return in the evening, dragging. As we drop our keys on the kitchen counter, we look around at the mess left from the morning and wonder where to begin. Our stomach hurts and we grab a cookie. And as it melts in our mouth, we realize we have been snacking on sweets of some kind all day.

When we finally get a moment to sit down, we zone out on TV, Facebook, or some kind of internet game before we fall into bed. Our neck and shoulders hurt, acid reflux starts, and we wonder if we will be able to go to sleep and/or stay asleep.

Perhaps you are challenged, as I am, with the world of technology.

Although it allows me to manage a website, publish blog posts and podcast episodes, and do other functions, the language of computers and technology continue to frustrate me. When given very concise step-by-step instructions, I can maintain some semblance of functioning. But when something goes wrong or I need to learn something new, I quickly feel a sense of anxiety and time pressure to complete my projects.

While technology allows us to do things we never imagined, it can also increase our workload as we struggle to learn and apply it. We are not only required to work faster and smarter but to improve the quality and quantity of output, and we struggle to keep pace.

It feels as though the learning curve gets steeper and steeper. The harder we try, the more tension we experience and the more difficult it becomes to stay focused. As the cycle goes round and round, we find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted.

With little time to think through our options, we become disorganized and make quick decisions without proper consideration, resulting in more and more mistakes. Accidents waiting to happen seem to be lurking around every corner.

We begin to make excuses, and blame others for everything that is going wrong. We no longer take the time to call our friends, send thank-you notes, check in on a friend who has been sick, or play with our kids or grandkids. There just isn’t enough time.

And at the end of the day, we feel like a violin string that has been stretched so taut that if we breathe it will break.

When our day begins and ends with a never-ending stream of things we “have to do” and “must do” to survive, it is time to stop and take a very serious time-out.

First, write down what you are doing all day long.

  • What has been scheduled?
  • What has not been scheduled?
  • What can you eliminate?
  • What wasted time can become more productive?
  • What unrealistic expectations have you put on yourself?
  • How do those expectations keep you from finishing the everyday tasks you face?
  • If you started to put some structure to your day, how would that help you accomplish more and free up some time?

We can’t slow the world down.

But we can get off the merry-go-round that simply spins us around and around, out of control. We can take back our life. It doesn’t mean we won’t be required to learn new skills, work more effectively and efficiently. It doesn’t mean we will find all the answers. But we can become more skilled at problem-solving and managing our time.

We can schedule in some serious down times. In the process, we become more proactive instead of reactive, and become empowered to take charge.

The Difficult Choices I Need to Make

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There are days I don’t want to get out of bed or go to work or face another day of caregiving.

I don’t feel like being kind to my neighbors or overlooking minor irritations.

I don’t want to know I can choose to forgive or be responsible for how I react to others. It is much easier to blame.

I’m tired of working through all my problems. I don’t want to make the tough choices required of me.

And yet, would I really want to give up the freedom I have to make those difficult choices of getting up, forgiving, and working through tough problems?

I may feel like doing the opposite, but I know I wouldn’t be happy just doing what I feel like in the moment. Every day, I am blessed that I can make tough choices, difficult though they may be.

We want to avoid things that are unpleasant. Yet that is part of life. Knowing that the decisions I make can have either a positive or negative outcome encourages me to look carefully at how I make those decisions.

Here are some choices that impact our lives.

We choose our attitudes and responses to any life situation.

  • Bitterness or gratitude
  • Resentment or extending grace
  • Negative comparisons or personal self-worth
  • Anger or reconciliation
  • Anxiety and fear or faith and promise
  • Belief in God or being my own god
  • Integrity, honesty, generosity or self-centeredness, greed, “what’s in it for me” attitude

We choose our mindsets and patterns of behavior.

  • What I can do vs what I can’t do
  • Focus on finding solutions or remaining helpless
  • Acceptance of events and moving forward or resisting and remaining stuck
  • Personal responsibility vs the blame game
  • Forgiveness vs revenge
  • Assessing options and taking a risk vs remaining in panic, fear and worry
  • Focus on similarities and agreement vs division and differences
  • Grieving our losses, our past and letting go of traumatic events vs remaining stuck

We choose our lifestyle.

  • Letting go of old scripts and toxic messages
  • Self-discipline and regulation instead of whatever feels good in the moment
  • Principles and values vs whatever the current culture dictates
  • Long term goals vs immediate gratification
  • Developing good friendships, mentors, and safe environments

What choices are you facing today?

What attitudes would empower you? What core values and beliefs will help you through the tough spots?

Reflect, define, let go of what doesn’t work and be blessed.

Reach Out and Keep Going

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Life can change in the blink of an eye; one minute you are living life to the fullest and the next you are faced with some catastrophe. Whether it is the loss of a job or a loved one who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you hear yourself cry out, Please God, No.

Whatever the situation, whether you have just received some earth-shattering news or you have simply reached a point where everything in life lacks purpose or meaning, it is a place where you recognize as never before your shortcomings and reach out to God for guidance and strength, and friends for support and encouragement.

Many times throughout our lifetime, we will encounter unforeseen tragedies or catastrophes. We will feel overwhelmed with indecision.

One such time for me was the death of my husband. Everything changed and I was faced with making some tough choices that involved radical changes. During that time as I struggled, I began to journal. My journaling led to more serious writing that soon became a new way of life, creating a new focus and meaningful purpose.

It was not easy, however.

As a new writer, I felt I was entering a land of giants, a world of talented and gifted people who seemed to have it all together, while I struggled to put down on paper my thoughts and ideas within the parameters of correct English and sentence construction.

The path to publication seemed even more onerous, trudging through sand, over rocks and raging rivers with obstacles huge and intimidating. This land of writing and publication was already inhabited by men and women successful in their trade. How could I hope to compete?

I asked, “God, is this really what I am supposed to be doing?”

It is scary to venture out from what was familiar into unknown territory. But I have discovered that God doesn’t turn us in a new direction without giving us the tools we need to accomplish new undertakings. And He continues to guide and mentor us along the way.

When I felt compelled to write and share my story of the loss of my husband, I questioned whether anyone would want to hear my sad tale. And it was with fear and trepidation that I had it published. Later, others shared with me how helpful my story had been as they went through similar situations.

God called me to change directions from counseling and teaching to writing and speaking. I believe He has a specific purpose in mind when He calls each of us, whether to share our stories through print, or speaking, or service of some kind. Our experiences remind others they are not alone in their suffering and struggle. It tells them they can make it.

As we listen to God’s nudging, we are given opportunities to learn and grow into any new calling.

He gave me critique groups to help become more proficient in the writing industry. As I developed an association with other writers, I reached out to others to give them support and encouragement.

When I get overwhelmed with becoming a serious writer, I am reminded of the journeys of young musicians and athletes. It takes hours of practice and discipline before they can run that race or play with the orchestra. It takes determination, passion, and the guidance of teachers during those long hours of commitment.

As I establish the work and dedication to develop this new skill and calling, I reach out and grab the hand of other writers who struggle with similar anxieties, questions, fears of rejection and meaningful purpose to offer support. They, in turn, give back encouragement, support, and constructive analysis of my work.

No matter what you are called to do, reach out to others; develop a support system.

Encourage one another. Validate what they are going through and inspire them to keep going. Share knowledge.

Lay your anxieties, fears, and uncertainties at your Lord’s feet. He will give you strength and courage. Together, you move forward in faith in God and enter the land of giants and possibilities.

Letting Go of Unwanted Stress

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“When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder,

my words became day long groans – the pressure never let up;

all the juices of my life dried up. . .”

—Psalm 32

Years ago, as part of a design team developing a ten-week program for individuals living with chronic illness and pain, I produced and recorded my first relaxation audio recording for Kaiser Permanente.

Relaxation Audio - Marlene Anderson | Focuswithmarlene.comI produced a second one some years later with an Emmy-nominated friend who composed the background music for it.

My Relaxation audio is available here.

As you listen and follow the instructions, you will focus on the process of breathing. You will tighten different muscle groups, breathe deeply, and then release the tension as you breathe out.

When practiced each day for at least 30 days, you will become aware of where you hold your tension and will learn how to quickly release that tension.

These methods are well-established by the medical community from research in the field of biofeedback and body-brain physiology.

How Stress is Created

Releasing tension accumulated in our bodies is only part of the letting-go process. Letting go begins with an examination of irrational beliefs and rigid thinking processes that create tension.

Most of our stress is created by the habits we have of worry, anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, etc. When we take time to examine those stressful habits, our relaxation exercises will be even more successful.

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself relaxing more and more. As you breathe in and out, you release tension stored in your muscles. As you continue to relax, visualize your stress flowing away. You are letting go.

Let go…

  • Of the need to be right.
  • Of resentment – it leads to entitlement and grievances.
  • Of fear – fear is only protective if you are in physical danger.
  • Of the need to be perfect – we can never be perfect – it is a journey of transformation throughout our lifetime.
  • Of comparisons – it keeps you from developing your unique talents and skills.
  • Of the belief that you have no worth or are unimportant. God does not make junk.
  • Of your anger – anger has a purpose, and we need to listen to it and then take appropriate action. However, hanging on to anger only relieves us of our responsibility to take appropriate action when needed.
  • Of always minimizing accomplishments – humility can become a source of pride.
  • Of focusing on your failure – start focusing on your successes instead.
  • Of have-tos, shoulds and oughts and start making purposeful choices instead.

Now imagine you are an eagle soaring high in the sky. With wings outspread, you are catching the currents and thermal updrafts that take you beyond your troubles.

As you soar, put your faith and trust in God.

His word will sustain you. He will never let you crash, and He will never leave you. He cares about you personally, your needs and your happiness. He always shows you a way through, around or over.

He strengthens your wings when you need to fly.

He sharpens your brain when you need to think and make good decisions.

And He provides the thermal updrafts to soar above your problems. The more I let go and soar, the more freedom and energy I have.

What Turns Normal Stress into Distress

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Every day we get up, go to work, make meals, clean our houses, and try to unwind at the end of the day.  We are adjusting to whatever demands are put on us.

When properly channeled, stress provides the energy and adaptability to live happy, energetic, and productive lives.

Each person responds to life differently.

What one person sees as overwhelming energizes another. Personality traits and our genetic predisposition play a role in how we perceive and respond to circumstances. But that does not mean we are locked into only one way of responding to life’s challenges.

When we recognize and understand what creates a negative stress response for us, we can alter our approach and put that stress to work for us instead of against us.

We were designed to deal with all kinds of challenges.

Things in our environment can become stressful: a hot day, irritating noise, pollution, kids that won’t behave, ongoing conflict in our marriage, work that never gets done, etc.

Physical impairments, chronic illness and pain can all put additional demands on our stress system.

Yet, we see people with disabilities often handling their problems more effectively than us who may be more physically strong and capable. What makes the difference?

Someone I knew had severe food allergies, but it never stopped her from attending social events. She just brought her own food. Most of the time people weren’t even aware of it. She never made a big deal of it.

I know people who have lost limbs, or were born without arms and legs, who have lived happy and productive lives. We see soldiers who have returned from the battlefield with missing limbs who are out there doing impossible feats, even participating in races. They have acknowledged and accepted those additional stressors, adjusted and live productive lives.

My son was born without the muscles to hold up his head, yet he learned to walk, run and play in a brace, had surgeries, performed in school plays, traveled overseas, and made a living with his artistic talents. He never lost his sense of humor or the twinkle in his eye.

There will be times when the stressors are overwhelming.

The more stressful life events a person experiences at any one time, the more stress they will experience. But we do not have to stay in that spot forever. Stress can become cumulative and the demand to adjust and adapt becomes greater. But even then, we can find constructive ways to deal with it.

What makes the difference between destructive stress and stress we meet as a challenge is how we respond.

When we remain overloaded and fatigued for longer and longer periods of time, without the ability to recuperate, we will begin to show signs of distress, both internally and externally.

When we continue to worry for longer and longer periods of time, focusing on everything that could or is going wrong, we set ourselves up for anxiety. We no longer look for productive ways to adapt but remain constantly geared up without a place to put that energy.

Recognize your stress signals.

Listen to your body. Is it telling you to take a break and rest? Are you able to go to sleep and sleep through the night?

Listen to your feelings. When we experience fewer moments of enjoyment, relaxation, and fun, we find ourselves feeling more depressed, fearful and anxious.

Listen to your spirit. Apathy, cynicism, and loss of meaning for life are all symptoms of stress overload. Cynicism is one of the highest risks for stress-related health problems.

Look at your relationships. When conflicts are the norm, check out your attitude, expectations, assumptions, rigid rules and listening skills.

As we become aware of the things that create unwanted stress in our lives, we can learn methods and skills to change them.


Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comMy book, Make Stress Work for You! 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it into a Positive Force, contains information on how to recognize your stressors so you can change your responses.

Get the ebook, audio recordings, study guide, and four bonus resources for only $19.99.

Understanding the Benefits of Stress

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Properly channeled, stress enables us to live happy, energetic, productive lives. It enables us to meet dangers and defend ourselves.

We live in stressful times, constantly bombarded with change and the need to go faster and faster while still maintaining a high level of productivity. As more and more demands are put on us, worry and anxiety become the norm.

But along with unexpected tragedies, adversities, losses, and unwanted changes, we can enjoy times of incredible joy and happiness. We can make stress work for us.

Stress Without DistressI became interested in the subject of stress years ago when studying the effects high stress can have on our lives. One of the books in my study was written by Hans Selye, MD, professor, research scientist and author of Stress without Distress.

He spent a lifetime researching and explaining the body’s physiological response to stress. He wrote, “Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to the demands placed upon it.”

In other words, it enables us to adapt to any new situation, whether it is cheering our favorite football team, responding to a threat, or completing tasks. It is how we are able to respond to life.

However, when that stress response is activated without a place to productively use that energy, it begins to work against us, becoming distress.

Other researchers in that time period also worked on the science of how our body adapts to the demands placed on it. I had the good fortune to attend many professional educational workshops on this same topic.

There will always be ups and downs and difficult times that require careful thought, planning and flexibility to meet our challenges. If we use our normal stress energy on endless worrying, anxiety and fear, we soon become exhausted and our ability to be proactive and productive becomes diminished.

Can we live without stress?

No, and we don’t want to. We need stress to live. It allows the body to function. It allows us to accomplish things.

We could liken ourselves to that of a well-maintained car engine. As long as it is taken care of, it will run effectively and smoothly for a long, long time. But when neglected or not taken care of, that engine will begin to break down.

How we respond to life’s difficulties makes a difference. When our focus is on problem-solving and creating plans of action, it is using that stress energy effectively.

In its truest sense, stress means energy.

Our body is constantly adapting. If we couldn’t adapt, we wouldn’t be unable to go to work, have families, make goals and do all the things we do every day. It is stress that allows us to adjust to whatever is happening, whether cheering at a football game or responding to a threat. It is our ability to respond to life – mentally, emotionally, socially and physically.

We are born with a certain amount of adaptive ability to use throughout our lifetime. When it is used up, we don’t get any more.

It is estimated that up to seventy-five percent of doctor’s visits can be attributed to high and prolonged levels of stress.

When used positively, however, we can live long and productive lives. Stress is not something to be avoided – but to be harnessed.

Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comIn the upcoming weeks, I will share more on how to use this adaptive ability work to help you live a productive life.

My book, Make Stress Work for You! 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it into a Positive Force, contains information on how to recognize your stressors so you can change your responses.

Get the ebook, audio recordings, study guide, and four bonus resources for only $19.99.

Living Life to the Fullest

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In the quiet of a cave, God spoke to Elijah; in the stillness of the night, He came to Samuel.

It is in those quiet moments when God expands our awareness to live life to its fullest. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest?

Living life is a journey.

It is the time we have at our disposal every day. It is the clouds and grey skies as well as the moments of sunshine, beauty, and harmony. Every day we meld it all together for good.

It’s waging war while searching for peace.

If we spent all our time thinking about the future, we would miss today. If we dwelt on the past, we would remain frozen in time, stuck in the ruts of yesterday.

Life gives us opportunity – each day – each hour – each minute – to choose how we respond to whatever we are facing.

We decide what we will do with what we have been given. Sometimes we need to yell and scream and rail against the unfairness of it all.

“Why me?!” isn’t just a cry of self-pity, but a wounded spirit trying to understand and reconcile life’s indiscriminate offering.

But then we move on. Life is where we take the pieces that are broken and with God’s help, create a new picture, using them to construct a large collage of what we can accomplish.

“When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions. Wait for hope to appear. Don’t run from troubles. Take it full-face. The ‘worst’ is never the worst.”

—Lamentations 3:28-30, The Message

We are a montage of good and evil and our challenge is to seek the good and let go of the evil; let go of the desire to return hate with hate, revenge, and retribution instead of forgiveness and understanding.

What is life? It is our existence.

Within that state of being, we have the opportunity to live life to capacity, to go beyond disappointments, and seek those moments of grace and wisdom and clarity.

How often we pray and then forget to apply the life tools we are given? Only remember to pray again when things go wrong, and we are up against a brick wall.

If our focus is only on tasks needed to be accomplished, life will pass us by, and we will miss the pleasures and struggles that inspire and energize.

woman praying on knees

I have discovered I need to come to God every day – sometimes every minute – to find the strength and courage I need to live through tough times. It is where I find resolve and motivation and truth. It is where my goals are clarified.

As I listen, I not only discover answers to my questions, but hear the questions God asks of me.

“God’s characteristic way of working is in quietness and through prayer… if we are conditioned to respond to noise and size, we will miss God’s word and action.”

—Introduction to Nahum, The Message

Life is an ongoing journey.

It is not just a set of rules to obey; yet we cannot live without guidelines. Without directives, we will constantly be trying to find the best way to live.

It’s not an “either/or.” It’s a blend, a balance, of what we ought to do and avoid doing. Even with carefully constructed roadmaps, life intervenes, and plans need to be altered.

It is a wilderness – a world of discovery and unexpected joys and devastating tragedies. We experience both exhilarating moments and naked and brutal truths that are revealed and gain valuable lessons from all of them.

The Phantom Ship

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Daylight was rapidly fading and night closing in as our sailboat glided through the calm waters along the upper reaches of the Columbia River, hurrying to reach a safe port before nightfall.

It seemed an eternity since we began our journey – crossing the wide and sometimes treacherous Columbia River bar from the ocean. We crossed at full tide and the water was smooth as glass in the waning afternoon. We considered stopping for the night, but the waters were broad, and it would take time to find a place to berth or anchor overnight.

We knew there was a tiny cove near the headwaters of the river as it began winding its way inland, and there was still daylight. Traveling at seven knots, it took more time than anticipated to get around that first bend into the river proper and nightfall was plummeting fast.

Although the river was very wide, we were careful to remain in the narrow channel. The expansive headwaters of the river teases sailors into believing that the river is as deep as it was wide. But charts reveal just how shallow it is outside the defined channel. Venturing outside those perimeters guarantees you will be grounded in mud in a matter of seconds.

As we rounded a familiar bend, we were confident we had beat the receding daylight and would reach the entrance to a tiny cove where we could possibly anchor for the night.

The shadows deepened as protruding rock blocked the receding sun and daylight hastened to bed. We pushed our boat to its maximum, as our eyes adjusted again and again to the receding light of day that seemed to grow darker faster and faster.

We were now hemmed in by projecting precipices on one side and stagnant pooling water on the other. Our search for the entrance to that tiny cove took on a heightened urgency as darkness descended and our eyes were at their maximum ability to adjust.

There. Is that the entrance?

We cautiously approached the shoreline, knowing the entrance opening was narrow and would be hidden by shrubby trees extending over the water.

Yes, there it is.

sailboat in cove on columbia river at dusk

My husband expertly navigated our 30-foot sailboat through the entrance. The cove was smaller than anticipated and we debated whether to continue down river to a port with docks instead of anchoring there for the night. We slowly nudged the bow of our boat out the second entrance of this cubbyhole hideaway as we considered our options.

I scanned the river, my eyes probing the deepening twilight, that twilight where sky met earth and melted together; where defining lines of sea and land became blurred and space was measured by a light blinking in the distance.

But how far that distance was in feet or even miles was difficult to determine. Landmarks faded into nothingness and lights were identified by the beams they cast on the water.

The charts showed where the buoys were in the water and the lighted channel markers on land threw beams of light that, when aligned, would show exactly where we were on the water. They became definitive roadmap markers.

As my eyes made that strategic adjustment from daylight to the netherworld of twilight and onto the black of night where landmarks could only be determined by these strategically placed lights, I noticed lights high in the air. As I peered into the deepening gloom, it seemed those lights were moving – they were not anchored onto land or onto a buoy – they were moving.

We were idling in that entrance until we had definitive bearings before edging into the channel. Like ghosts in the sky, the glimmers of lights definitely were moving. But they were so high – what could it be?

And then, like a phantom emerging from the depths we saw it – a huge ocean tanker. It had shed its load in Portland and was making its way back to sea.

cargo ship on Columbia River at dusk

We were used to seeing tankers loaded with heavy cargo sinking their bulk low in the water. But when relieved of their heavy loads of lumber, steel, cars and whatever else they took from one continent to another, they rode high in the water.

It glided past us, its engines so quiet, we didn’t hear the motors until it had passed. We watched quietly and thanked God we had found that opening in the wall of foliage, as the ship consumed the entire river channel. We watched as it maneuvered the bend in the river and knew it would soon be crossing the Columbia bar on its way out to the ocean.

After letting out our breaths we considered again: should we drop anchor, or should we push on?

Just as a map helps identify highways and rest stops and gives a picture of towns and places in-between, the charts designed for navigation give similar information.

Not only does a chart show where the channel is that would be invisible if it weren’t for the placement of buoys that help define this invisible corridor through the water; it also gives depth of water and shows submerged rocks and sandbars adjoining the dredged waterway.

As we did a quick study of the charts, we saw that if we proceeded down river, there would soon be sufficient depth of water on both sides of the channel to safely maneuver out of the channel to let another boat pass.

We knew the identifying lights of boats: sailboats, motorboats and yes, even huge ships. We were tired – we wanted to tie securely to a dock and not just throw out an anchor.

We made our decision – we would push forward.

After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, we found a marina with docks. We tied up for the night and collapsed.

But I will forever remember the phantom in the night – that huge ship, silently bearing down on us. It was a reminder that whether in daylight or nighttime navigation, remaining alert is imperative.

You don’t take anything for granted. You don’t rely just on a GPS but keep charts and binoculars handy at all times.

And so it is with life. We need to be prepared for the unexpected – the phantom ghost ships that suddenly appear in our path.

Sometimes we assume there are safe coves waiting around the corner and sometimes we think the territory we are headed into is safe.

Define your pathway; define the road markers; prepare for the darkening sky of night and learn how to read beams of light by night.