Sometimes there can be magic hidden within the most unlikely of places.
Take tree burls, for instance (or burrs, to our British friends).
These rounded, knotty growths found on tree trunks can seem very ugly.
Burls form when the tree is under some kind of stress, causing bud growth cells to develop in an abnormal way. Such stressors might include bacteria, viruses, fungi, insect infestations, or wounds. A burl is visible evidence of how the tree is dealing with these attacks.
They look rather like tumours, and mar the otherwise regular pattern of the bark.
Surely there’s nothing good about burls?
But there is.
Their unsightly exterior hides magnificence.
Few people know that inside these contorted and gnarled outgrowths is concealed something wonderful. The wood that burls yield is unusual and highly figured, making it valued and sought after by woodworkers and artists.
This unique wood is prized for its beauty and rarity, and is often used for veneers or inlays in fine furniture, trim or panelling inside luxury cars, and for household objects like bowls or pens, which become works of art.
Do you have a few “burls” in your life? Some knotty problems that have grown into a tangled mess?
Wonder if God could ever bring something good out of them?
If you’re a gardener, you know that when you plant seeds in the ground, you can expect results.
Not every seed will germinate, but a great many will. So you need to make preparations beforehand.
For instance, if you’ve planted seeds of climbing plants, you’ll need to provide something for them to cling to as they grow upward. Even if your pea or bean seeds haven’t germinated yet, you still might prepare some trellises or stakes for their eventual growth.
You wouldn’t think of not getting ready for the emergence of your seedlings and adult plants, would you? You have faith that they’re on the way.
Isn’t it funny, then, that when we pray and ask God for things, we often don’t really expect we’ll see any results?
While going for a walk recently at a track in my neighbourhood, I noticed something that hadn’t been there before.
There was now a second path parallel to the old gravel track circling the playing fields. This new footpath had been beaten into the grass over the summer and fall by people wanting to jog while still physically distancing from those on the main path.
It got me thinking how events in our lives often make us forge a new path.
For just about all of us, the coronavirus has diverted our life path onto an unexpected detour. Some of us may have experienced a job loss or had our health impacted. All of us have had our daily routines disrupted and our plans upended.
We’re having to travel a new path, one we’ve never taken before.
But the good news is that God knows which way we should go, and will lead us in the right direction.
Have you ever tried a recipe you secretly doubted would work out?
They’re often the ones with the word “magic” in the recipe title, and they seem to promise the impossible.
The “Magic Chocolate Pudding Cake” below is a good example. The recipe instructs you to press a firm batter into a baking pan, and then pour flavoured boiling water on top of it. It claims this will magically transform into cake and sauce during the baking process.
You may be a bit dubious about this, however. The batter seems too solid and unyielding, impenetrable to the liquid atop it. You don’t see how this “magical” transformation will ever happen.
As you put the baking pan in the oven, you may think, “This will never work out. This will be another culinary disaster my family will tease me about for years to come, like the time I tried to cook a Thanksgiving turkey but forgot to turn the oven on.”
But lo and behold, the recipe does succeed after all! The two differing natures of the mixture are indeed transformed into something new and delicious, and your family thinks you’re a genius in the kitchen.
Unlikely transformations can still happen in our lives, too.
A chickadee may have a bird-brain, but it can actually be pretty smart.
Especially if it lives in a harsh climate.
What does climate have to do with bird intelligence? As it turns out, more than you’d expect.
Biologists have discovered that chickadees living in the mountains or in northern latitudes, where the weather is more severe, were smarter than their peers living more comfortably down below.
Chickadees from harsher habitats had superior spatial memories and problem-solving abilities than those living in gentler climes. They were better at finding stored caches of food and at figuring out how to access a worm treat that scientists had cleverly tucked into a glass tube.
The harsh environment makes their brains work a bit harder.
Is there a lesson for humans in the example of the chickadees?
Yes, but it isn’t to move to a more wintry climate (take it from a Canadian who’s done her share of shovelling snow—it hasn’t made me smarter!).
The takeaway here is that there can be unseen benefits to the challenges we face.
I think that’s true: you put seeds in the ground in spring, hoping most will germinate and grow into a plant. If you’re lucky, you might see hints of growth in a few days, but often it can be weeks before a little green head pokes its way out of the soil.
If planting seeds takes faith, then I think it takes a special kind of faith to plant bulbs in the fall.
In the fall, you know the days are getting shorter and colder. The leaves are dropping from the trees, and tender plants are beginning to die from early frosts. You know that snow will soon blanket the garden to the depth of a couple feet. You’re heading into a barren season.
The precious tulip, daffodil or hyacinth bulbs that you’ve just planted will disappear from your view for many months. You’ll have no indication that they’re all right, let alone any guarantee that they’ll eventually bloom. They may fall prey to rabbits, squirrels or deer. Who knows what will happen to them?
And yet you still go ahead and plant fall bulbs, trusting that they’ll survive the frigid winter and bloom later in spring.
Some things in our lives take special faith to trust for, too, don’t they?
I’ll bet many of you grew up watching the televised cooking shows of Julia Child, “The French Chef.” If not, you’re probably familiar with her name.
Credited with popularizing French cuisine for an American audience, this six-foot, two-inch dynamo was always a hoot to watch. You not only learned a great deal about cooking from Julia, but you were also entertained with zingers like these:
“A party without a cake is just a meeting.”
“I think every woman should have a blowtorch.”
“Cooking is like love—it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”
“I just hate health food!”
But the Julia Child quotation that has stayed with me is this:
“Always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need.”
Why does this phrase resonate with me? Because with faith, as with cooking, the size of our “container” can be a limiting factor.
There are a lot of things in this world that are contagious. Certain viruses and diseases come to mind, as do laughter and yawning.
There have even been cases of contagious dancing, such as the “dance epidemic” of 1518 in Strasbourg.
But did you know that fear is also contagious?
A friend of mine was telling me how she organized a backyard sleepover in a tent for her daughter and some friends a few years ago. The children were assured that the parents would be with them in the tent all night long.
The kids were excited about this adventure, and all seemed to go well at first. Eventually, however, one little girl became afraid of the dark. It didn’t take long for another girl to become fearful as well. Pretty soon the whole thing had to be called off, despite the parents’ promises that they wouldn’t leave the children outside alone in the dark.
The other kids had “caught” the fearful attitude of the first child.
Scripture recognizes how destructive fear can be when it contaminates a whole group.
In baking, as in life, it’s important to let off some steam every so often.
When you’re baking a pie, the recipe will usually instruct you to make some slashes or holes in the top crust before putting the pie in the oven. This isn’t just to make a pretty design, although some people do get very creative and make decorative cut-outs of hearts or dots, or even create a latticework effect in the crust.
The real purpose of these openings is to let the steam escape. If there’s no outlet for the steam building up under the crust, the filling will burst through and spill out. Your pie will end up looking like an unsightly mess.
Sometimes we need to let off a bit of steam, too. We get frustrated or angry at the circumstances in our lives, and need to “vent” our feelings.
David certainly did his share of venting in the Psalms. He let loose with some very raw emotions, crying out to God to intervene in his situation.
Surprisingly, God seemed okay with David’s outbursts. In fact, David was the only person in Scripture whom God called “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22).
I believe David’s example can give us a key to how to vent appropriately without letting our emotions explode all over, making a mess of our lives and leaving us bitter.
Once the worst of this pandemic is over, psychologists warn that many of us may suffer from post-traumatic stress for some time to come. Some of us will have lost a job, seen our business close down for good, suffered isolation and loneliness, or may have even lost a loved one during the COVID-19 crisis.
But is PTSD a given in these circumstances? Is there different outcome that can occur, an unexpected benefit that may arise out of these difficult times?
Psychologists say yes: there’s such a thing as post-traumatic growth. It’s been found in survivors of war, cancer, and natural disasters. Some people emerge from a crisis with increased spirituality, a greater sense of personal strength, new priorities and closer relationships with others. What could have broken them actually made them better.
This phenomenon reminds me a bit of “sea glass.” Sea glass, or beach glass, found washed up on shores, starts out as merely cast-aside pieces of broken glass. Perhaps they’ve been tossed overboard from a ship, or thrown into the sea from land along with other garbage.
These shards of glass endure years of being buffeted against the stones of the sea bottom. It seems like they’re being dashed about mercilessly by the relentless action of the waves. Surely no good could come of this?