Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On their First Days Back to School

Photo: cx33000, Flickr user, Creative Commons cc license
An imperceptible noise wakes me and I turn. Red digital numbers gleam 6:44 am and I am grateful, Thanks for waking me up, God. I slip quietly out of bed, wanting to hug and pray for John on his first day back to school.

Yellow kitchen light washes streaks across a dark living room carpet, and I can hear John around the corner.

"Hi," I grin sleepily and hug him, my eyes still creased against the brightness. Tall, broad-shouldered, my twenty year old is packing a lunch. Bagging baby carrots, a ham and wheat sandwich, and looking around for chips, he already has a plastic container of yesterday's fried rice.

"I'll be at school all day today," he says, closing the bread bag.

"There are apples," I murmur.

While he is gathering his lunch, I pray aloud for him, asking God to give him safety in rush hour roads, energy and excitement for his college classes, connections with his professors, and a good year of learning. He stops and smiles, "Mmm, thanks, Mom."

We hug and move to the front stairway entry where he loads his backpack.

"Oh hey, here is a red notebook for you!" I scramble away for a moment, returning with a simple single subject notebook, a traditional gift for my kids each year when they used to journal often. "It's your favorite color."

"Thanks," he grins, flipping it open. "Um..." and he shows me. An assembly error has stapled all the pages upside down. We laugh, and John grabs his bag.

"Have a great day," I say, sitting small on the steps above him. "I'm proud of you for getting up early for your classes, for getting a lunch, and being so organized. You got this! You can do this."

"Thanks, Mom," he says, and he opens his heart up more on his way out the door, and I am so thankful for this morning of seeing him off.

Thanks, God, for waking me up. What a gift.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Embarrassed Confession as a Neighbor


We've moved twice in three years, which is not normal for us. In both homes, we set down roots, spread our plants and dreams across the yards, and planted fruit bushes that require longevity.

In our last house, a square two-story yellow home fronted by purple maples, four pine trees in a row, and bursting raised garden beds, we enjoyed getting to know our Vietnamese neighbors beside us. Sniffing and salivating from the scent of deep-fried egg rolls coming from their garage, we brought over fresh baked cookies and flower bouquets of pink zinnias and orange sunflowers from our yard. They reciprocated with a plate of egg rolls and a sweet brown sauce. We swapped stories, consulted google translate at times for hard Vietnamese-English terms, and sank happy into their friendly warm smiles. 

Three years later now, that yellow house has been demolished and the green yard is trampled by parked bull-dozers, yellow cranes, and heavy machinery as the city widens roads and adds a water run-off pond there for the large store moving in across the road. 

Several blocks away in our new neighborhood, we have been here almost a year. We're still getting to know our neighbors, swapping bird seed recipes, and gratefully learning how to get rid of crabgrass. We cheered on the neighbors to the right of us as they re-sided their home, and we watched in prayerful concern as the family behind us chopped down a towering cedar pine tree by themselves, sawing it in chunks and dragging pieces down by rope. We prayed, peered out the windows, and wished we could be more helpful.

When we first moved here last August, we printed out our names, address, and a family photograph to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood, leaving those slips of paper in the screen doors of the families nearest us. We walked from door to door, introducing ourselves, and working to memorize their names.

Two weeks ago, though, we failed as neighbors. I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you.

It was the National Night Out, an evening celebrated around the nation when neighborhoods gather to connect with each other. A grey house two doors down from us stapled flyers on telephone poles earlier that week to announce their home as host. They mentioned root beer floats and lawn games. That Tuesday morning we found a taped notice on our door inviting us to come that night from 6:30 - 8:30 pm.

It was the week of our "stay-local vacation," and that night our family had scheduled a special ice cream outing as soon as my eldest got off work. We pulled away before the National Night Out party started, but hoped to be back in time after our ice cream family date.

Can I tell you something I haven't told my parents yet? (Yes, they were part of their city's national night out.) We, um, chickened out.

Driving back from Nelson's ice cream shop, feeling sticky and full, with sweet still creased between our lips, we rolled our car past the National Night Out party and were surprised to see fifty or sixty people mounded across the lawn. The size of the crowd, the sheer numbers of new names to learn, and our sticky hands, shirts, and lips brought a shy introverted feeling to all of us. We waved sheepishly as we passed and then crackled up our driveway, pulling as close to the garage and front door as we could, hoping to be out of sight from the party.

"Do you think it would be terrible if we didn't go?" we wondered aloud.

"Shhh, quick, get inside." And we slipped indoors.

Can I justify it by telling you we were with people all Friday, Sunday, and Monday, hosting several events here? It's true. Does it help to know that?

Yeah, I know. I grin and roll my eyes too. I'm thankful that God laughs and loves us. And I look forward to ongoing opportunities to get to know my neighbors.

(Um, Mom, Dad?...)

Friday, August 14, 2015

When Conflicts Creep in Between Christians...

I love that he accounted for conflict.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
My french press Mahogany beans coffee was chilling in the fridge, and the sweetened condensed milk can's metal edges were already cool. I was heading out the door in thirty minutes for a women and kids weekly Park Play-date. I needed to scrounge up an easy lunch for us, but my mind was still on some verses from earlier.

I love that God anticipated the normal ins and outs of relationships. He knew that misunderstandings, grey areas, and disagreements would spring up between people and he wrote that into his book for us.

I've been working my way through the Bible book of Romans, and in Romans chapter 15 this week, I found three tools God gave to help in conflict situations. Now everyone's context is different. For that group of Jesus-following friends, there were some disagreements about foods and days of the week. Who should eat what? What was allowed? What should be outlawed? And we can so easily slap labels on ourselves and others, huh?

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and conflict can slide into any friendship or relationship. Sitting on a rock in my flower garden as I read this chapter, two repeated words caught my attention. "Endurance" and "Encouragement" are mentioned in verse four and again in verse five.

After citing the conflicting issues the Italian Roman church friends were having then, God gave Paul three pieces of advice to help resolve their disagreements. First, he pointed to the example of Jesus's death on the cross. Jesus put the needs of others above his own, even dying for his created ones. So, one aspect of working through disagreements and conflict is to carefully weigh the other person's feelings, thoughts, and desires, being willing to put their needs above my own.

Next, God pointed to the Bible-- not only as our source for truth, answers, and wisdom-- but also in the context of solving relational issues. "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (vs.4). Last, the next sentence highlights another resource for defusing conflicts: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus..."(vs. 5).

Do you have a place in your life where you need endurance?  Do you have relationships where you need encouragement? God specializes in that. For any complicated friendships, church relationships, family dynamics, or co-worker situation, isn't it exciting that we have a God who gives endurance and encouragement? I had never thought of God that way before. This God who gives endurance and encouragement.

In addition to being that source for us, God adds that our aim is glorifying God by our unity among Jesus-following people. Verse Five ends with:  "...So that, with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

When we let divisions, discouragements, and disunity crumble and cluster high between us, we get stuck in pain and isolation. And the world sees disjointed Christians. Stepping in, God can bring beauty and hope. He loves to give endurance, encouragement, and his tools to unify us in our relationships.

It was time to race out to the park. Pouring chilled coffee and sweetened condensed milk into a mug and grabbing an odd assortment of food, my son and I headed for the park. No specific conflicts loomed large overhead that day, but I found it changing how I prayed for people, for my family and friends, and for my own heart. To the God who gives endurance and encouragement, and practical advice for conflict situations.

I'd love to pray with you this week, if you have something going on in your life. Let me know in the comments below or by email.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How To Hold Summer Long

"Have you checked yours yet, Mom?" he asks from downstairs, laughing as I am struck temporarily deaf by the dishwasher's hums below me and do not reply.

"Oh! I thought you were talking to Dad," I bumble and grin. "Yes, I walk out each morning and eat the reddest tomatoes!" I exclaim. "I'll have more today," and my delight and glee is evident.

John is searching for his socks, gathering items for his work day, and talking about tomatoes. Golf ball-size red ones, nubby-naveled yellow pear tomatoes, and ruby grape-sized cherry tomatoes mound and glimmer crimson from a plastic bowl in his hands.

We each have portions in the four garden beds where Derby and Early Contender bush beans stand in tight rows, dangling long velcro green beans in the shade of their leaves. Zuchinni leaves furrow in wide elephant ears and orange flowers trumpet new growth beneath. Nasturtiums peel out in pinks, yellows, and corals, while gladiola flowers stretch upwards, knobby buds hinting. Pea pod plants curl in withered browns and creams, announcing summer's end.

In between the high school class roster, the first grade book-ordering, and an offer to help college boy buy textbooks online, summer glows a dull red. Tangled day-lilies mass and jumble in the flower bed, and the first purple aster opened last night, winking eyes at a single crimson maple leaf in a verdant tree. And the summer can slip away from us so silently.

I brew cold water ice tea in a scuffed Tupperware pitcher this morning, while water boils to pour over Bulgar wheat for a fresh tomato and mint tabbouleh salad. Two kinds of mint herbs teem and wrinkle vibrant flavor from a container pot beside the purple cone-flowers, and how does summer pass so quickly? I snip, wash, and twist the leaves to release oils, and dunk them full into the sweet southern tea.

We're staying local this vacation week, looking for creative ways to make memories and cherish family moments. Tuesday, we licked salty popcorn off our fingertips in a dark movie matinee, watching our seven year old giggle at yellow cartoon minions. That evening when our eldest got off work, we poured out mini crepes for supper, and then poured all five of us into the car for an ice cream outing.

Twenty minutes away at a legendary St. Paul ice creamery, we sidled and stood on one foot, faces pressed against the cool glass window, trying to decide between salted caramel, maple nut praline, Superman blue, and cotton candy. The creamery's smallest size still towered high, scoops of ice cream spilling out and over until the employees simply up-ended each cup into a wide brimmed plastic bowl. We sat, sticky-fingered on a sticky pink- and blue-dripped table outside Snelling Avenue as city cars slid by.
"Don't lick the table!" three of us cried out in slow-motion too late, as my youngest followed his rainbow-colored ice cream to the picnic table top.

By eight-fifteen that night, we were full. Sweetness still in the creases of our lips, on our tongues, and rolling out in satisfied groans from us, we leaned back in the car seats and loosened our seatbelts slightly. Sunshine slanted long and low across the city streets, the whirring highway, and the curving suburban lanes home.

Summer tastes like hot tomatoes, green bean earthiness, and salted caramel ice cream on my lips. August mounts, climbs, and spirals up the numbers, ticking to the end, as hot green days linger. Have you checked yours yet? These days that pass in sun-dripped light.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Stranger at McDonald's

Red and blue tube slides curved around the ceiling like sinuous snakes, and clubbed green helicopter blades whirled overhead. Kids scrambled up slippery slides, crawled through plastic tunnels, and emerged grinning on the floor, hair standing tall with static electricity.

Two brown-eyed children with curly black hair stepped apprehensively closer to the indoor playset, their curiosity drawing them nearer. They craned short faces to the ceiling, watching my son's hands bob and wave from various corners of the labyrinth.

"They're afraid," said a woman's voice behind me. "He was born premature, only five months old. He just slipped out of his mama, my daughter. He had a lot of health problems," she told me, long black hair falling straight around her shoulders and down her back. "His mind is like a three year old's and he can't see very well. No depth perception, so he's afraid. What to us is only a few feet looks like it's very far away, so the tunnels scare him."

Her grandchildren sidled closer to the steps leading up, and then pleaded for their grandma to join them. She grinned and padded up the winding stairs on her hands and knees. Fearful wails and shuffling sounds marked their path through the right side of the playset. Concerned for them and wanting to help, my seven year old Daniel called out cheerful hello's, waved his hands, and sent comforting messages echoing down the round hallways and intersections.

When the fear had loomed too large for too long, the three of them wedged around and made their descent, the grandma laughing gently and encouraging her grandson through his tears.

"Good job!" I cheered her as she emerged. "That's brave of you to enter the tunnels. Were they claustrophobic?"

"I'm Jennifer," I continued once she was settled on the ground again and her kids were busy playing.

"Pam," she smiled.

She shared hard things, and we talked of alcoholism's grip and the sadness of watching loved ones spiral deeper into fear and darkness.

"The ache is gone," she said in response to a question I asked. "It used to hurt a lot, but now I just pray for her and care for her kids, knowing God loves her too."

We talked, Pam and I, in the McDonald's playland, as a Hmong dad and kids entered and ate ice cream cones by the window. Five children ran through, past, up, and inside, and we talked about God's deep love, his ability to bring transformation and hope, and then we stopped and prayed.

Our smiles, as we parted, shared a sense of community and camaraderie, this stranger at McDonald's and me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Verse that Can Carve New Meaning into You and Me

It was like tearing up a Rembrandt. Okay, not a Rembrandt, but still.
Painted by Rembrandt van Rijn, photographed by flikr user freeparking, Creative Commons, cc license
With several flicking hand waves, her eraser eradicated half her drawing. The intricately-sketched figure of a woman was now gone.

"It's all right, Mom," she laughed. "I can do it again." Bending her head, she worked intently, her penciled hand flitting, shading, and bringing to life people on the page.

A verse from Romans has held my attention this week, tangling in with a line from a song. The verse is a familiar one, but the last two words have sketched in meaning for me in a way I've never seen before. The first section of the verse rings in recognizable cadence: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed..."

Suffering is a strong word that I won't lay claim to too quickly, but I insert "hard times, painful situations, hurts, losses, or struggles" into the verse for me and continue reading.

Those hard times are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed -- ah, yes, I'm familiar with this concept, I nodded. Growing up, I've been excited for heaven someday to see more of God's beauty and glory, looking forward to getting to know him more intimately, and seeing more clearly his plan and stories throughout creation's history. The glory of that over-arching plotline will be spectacular!

But the verse ended differently than I was used to seeing, and it halted me. Reading the last two words again and again, I saw "in us." The glory that will be revealed in us?

The song lyric that had caught my breath and tangled up into this verse unraveled: "There is healing in the pain." Healing doesn't need to wait until the pain is past. Healing happens in the hurt, during the pain.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," our Artist God inspired Paul to say about you and me. Yes, God's own glory and splendor can't be topped, but that he would say, "Your hard days and times, Jen, are not worth comparing to the beauty I am sculpting in you. There is healing in the pain. The beauty of me in you, of your spirit and will being shaped and molded into a work of art is worth it."

On the black leather couch downstairs, my daughter has already drafted another female form in grey lead. She was never worried with occasional erasures and re-writes because she had the final product in mind, and it was a work of art.

The woman on the page will be glorious art, to be revealed by the Artist in his time.

You are a work of art, my friend, and our Artist God gets all the credit. Pulling my Bible nearer and turning my heart and face to him, I'm trusting the process.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When They Think They See Us, But It's Not

 They thought it was us, but it wasn't. It was him.

In a land where warm fresh bread was just a morning's walk away -- the long crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside French baguettes-- and where buttery pain au chocolates "croissants" with inner chocolate streaks elicited moans every morning, everything was vivid. Our team of thirteen senior high students and adults savored the two weeks with our French friends. Partnering with a French church in northern France, we worked alongside them to reach out to and get to know the residents of Roubaix.

"Why are you here?" the shopkeepers and kebab sandwich vendors asked us, in warm wonder. "It's the poorest city in France," another one told us.

"We love Roubaix and the people of Roubaix," we told them. "God loves Roubaix and has given us his love for this city too."

Roubaix is a vibrant city full of Europeans, North African Algerians, Moroccans, Romano nomadic gypsies, and Middle Eastern peoples. Tall narrow rowhouses rub shoulder to shoulder down winding cobblestone sidewalks. Butcher shops display skinned lambs and chicken breasts; fruit venders corner the lanes, their apricots, peaches, and dusky purple grapes blushing out of slanted wooden crates. Bread shop boulangeries and patisserie pastry shops dot the avenues regularly, such a staple of a daily French person's life that they are more common than cathedrals and post offices combined.

We relished our time with old and new French friends, the two weeks passing entirely too quickly. They taught me about hospitality and generosity, their platters of chicken, garlic potatoes, and tuna fish appetizer salads brimming and spilling with food. They said our students' joy and love for God and one another encouraged them "like a breath of new life." I watched the ten American students run a three-day Bible Club for children, use mime sketches to share stories of God's plan from the Bible to rescue his creation from a broken world, and I smiled proudly at the hours of cheerful work the teens did again and again, often breaking into song while they worked. I saw the way they loved the kids around them, using broken French, English words, and lots of smiles. Love flowed out from them.

At the end of a beautiful evening at a friend's house, our host put his hand on his heart to thank us for coming. Overwhelmed by our host's gracious hospitality for us, we placed hands on our hearts and issued the grateful thanks right back. "No, no, it's our delight and joy to be here with you," we told them. "It's a pleasure to be with you," we said.

He demurred, touching his heart, and we saw it in his eyes. He thought it was us, but it wasn't.

He was seeing the beauty of Jesus in us, and it drew him.