Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Of Sex and Cheesecake

He mentioned it casually while he was lacing up his shoes on a red hallway rug, and I can't remember how it came up.

"Why doesn't the Church talk more about sex, Mom?"

My twenty-one year old had to leave for work so our conversation was short.

"Well, your dad and I do, and our church does, but apparently not enough, if you're not hearing it. You're right: it needs to be talked about more."

He's not alone in thinking that. Running into women when I speak, or in quiet conversations across loveseats, I hear it. "We need safe places to talk about sex and to hear a Christian perspective." 
Photo Credit: Flickr user Capture the Uncapturable, Creative Commons cc license
So, to my twenty- and thirty-something friends -- actually to all of us, older and younger-- can I apologize? And let's jump in, shall we? This is the first in a series on Let's Talk about Sex.

To answer briefly for now, may I say that sex is fabulous? It's so fun, and it grows and improves with time. It's a great invention by God.

But I think it's like cheesecake. We married ones remember that -- if you're single in your twenties and thirties-- you're probably trying to avoid sex until marriage. So our talking about sex too much right now feels like eating cheesecake in front of someone on a diet. And we understand firsthand usually the fallout of sexual activity outside of marriage-- often we're still unpacking our baggage from years earlier.

But in our desire to not awaken further hunger in you, we have just muted our voice. Our recent silence has done you a disservice. Lest you wonder or doubted, God made sex and he talks about it. It was his idea and he called it very good! Sex is a gift in marriage.

Like any good thing in our melting world, however, we've warped sex, distressed it, and twisted it, and our baggage builds up through the years. Cycles of hurt and misinformation coil throughout generations of families until sex becomes a topic people are afraid to talk about, don't know how to talk about, and think they can't talk about at church. We're mistaken.

Indeed, God talks bluntly, unblushingly, and often about sex in the Bible, and he calls it undefiled and good. But that's for another post.

Bottomline: God invented sex. He made us, and he has plans and guidelines for you to have a fabulous sex life.

Can we talk more next week?  (Feel free to share, forward, or post this.)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

For When You Don't Feel Like You Fit and You Just Want to See the Cover

A cement mixer rumbles and churns on white-washed sidewalk. Grey rivulets swirl silver along the gutter. I step off the sidewalk, afraid of falling stone, and sidle beside trucks and cars parked out from the two-story metal scaffolding and men in hard hats, until I reach Spyhouse Coffee's entrance.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Neil Moralee, Creative Commons cc license
Photo Credit: Flickr user Adelie F. Annabel, Creative Commons cc license
A hot Honduran coffee scalds my tongue and condenses droplets beneath a plastic lid.

He had said it to me and you this weekend in a wooden chapel filled with four hundred squirelly middle schoolers and their coffee-toting leaders. Flashing photos on the screen of his little seventh grader self, and displaying an email from his seventh grade teacher who had found him just recently, youth speaker Cesar Castillejos spoke to you and me as he spoke to my teens too.
God will use everything in your life to make you who you are. Cesar spoke of growing up Filipino with a Latino name in a white suburban American school. He spoke of not feeling like he belonged; of divorce; of senior year basketball captainhood ruined by underage alcohol at a party; of a lifelong love of words; and of his seventh grade-heart's hope to help kids see their value and potential.

"Oftentimes we see the puzzle pieces of our lives, and we just want God to show us the cover," he said.

"I was praying for you," his seventh grade teacher told him in that recent email, and Cesar looks back with new eyes at his middle school and high school years.

God sees your puzzle pieces, my friend. He is shaping and molding all the circumstances and experiences in your life -- even the hard ones. He is crafting, cutting, and creating your passions, heart cry, and skills. Weaving in invisible people who pray for you and invest in you, God is at work. 

"Now, I get to speak to and teach teens, and preach at a church on Sunday nights, and do some writing too," Cesar said, smiling wide, and his heart for teens to hear the truth that they're valued and loved by the Creator of the world has been obvious in each chapel session all weekend.

God clicked Cesar's puzzle pieces into place throughout his life, creating beauty and purpose, and he is clicking your pieces into order too. 
At Spyhouse, I sip my Honduran coffee and notice the walls. "You changed the art," I crowed to the barista handing me change.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Clint McMahon, Creative Commons cc license
"Yeah, we do that every month or two," she said as I dropped my change into the blue jar.

Through double-wide open doors, warm October seventies air flows in, unscreened. Two coffee house employees grin and waddle past, hefting a large barrel container of flowers between them. Setting it on the sidewalk, they mark the boundary of their sidewalk terrace, while the cement mixer churns half a block away.

Spyhouse's street signage is not back up yet on the bare-faced stone building where mortar waits to be chinked, but progress is being made. Bare brown bricks stand two-stories tall with gaps for next week's mortar, and beauty remains.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This is When It Strikes You Most

In the whispering crack of my door opening, I wake and feel him tiptoe near.

"Mom?" he asks and I know.

"I'll be right there."
Photo Credit: Flickr user Daniel Gies, Creative Commons, cc license
He pads away, hands out to navigate the dark room and hallway. I hear his door open and shut across the corridor. Wrapping myself in my blue African cloth, I maneuver the bed, the laundry pile, and into my eight year old's room.

"What's up, bud?" I crouch and sit down beside his low bed.

"My cousin, Ben, you know?"

I nod sleepily.

"My cousin, Ben, and me, we were at Grandma and Grandpa's house in their yard, and there was a big snake -- a black cobra. And he got Ben!"

I rest my hand on Daniel's chest. His heart, still fluttering and hammering against bone and skin, bounces under my palm.

"I'm sorry, bud. Dreams can be scary." Smoothing his hair, I stroke his cheek and feel his breathing slow. "Should we talk to God?"

He nods vigorously in the dark.

"Want me to, or you?"

"I will," he says and he starts immediately. "God, I'm scared. Will you help me? Will you help me not be scared? Thanks.

"Mom? Will you sing a song?" he asks, a quiet voice rising up from the blue and pink Piglet pillow in the dark.

"Sure," and I wrack my brain to be awake, to find helpful words and this is when it strikes you most. Need to know What you Know that you Know? Ask a sleepy brain to spout truth. What bubbles up is what you have become convinced of, what has become ingrained in your bones, what pounds in fluttered rhythm with your heart. A verse come, its reference forgotten but its truth burnished in dark bedroom from constant use. "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." The words ring out, the refuge is clear, and I say it again, then move into the next.

"I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, oh God, are with me. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, oh God, are with me, Psalm 4:8, Psalm 4:8, Psalm 4:8." And even the reference is part of the song lyrics we made up years ago in an effort to imprint these truths in our hearts, in our beings.

There were two other songs we sang, childlike and simple, yet with truths that have become bedrock and bone to us. "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, he's so good to us. He gives good things, he gives good things, he gives good things, he's so good to us." We end with "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so; little ones to him belong, we are weak but he is strong." 

"Thanks, Mom," he murmurs and I can hear the peace in his voice, the thick tiredness creeping in. I kiss his face, trail my fingers on his quiet chest, and pull the door shut behind me.

Slipping beneath my blanket, I lie awake. The minutes stretch to hours in this new forty-something season. My brain flips topics and writes To Do Lists, making mental notes for morning. I think of the college applications my daughter has been doing (some colleges looming distant); remember this week's presidential debates; ponder futures, and I feel my own heart start to flutter faster.

And like my son, I whisper to the God of the world, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you... I will lie down and sleep in peace for you, oh God, are with me." A story and passage teases my mind from earlier and I vow to look it up. Today over coffee, I page to find it and smile in recognition. An ancient world leader in crisis speaks it out and his words are timeless: "[God], we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you." 

And those truths settle deep beneath our ribs, bubbling up when bidden and shaping who we are.

Hi friend. What truths or foundational verses bubble up inside you? I love to learn and hear from others. 

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Monday, September 12, 2016

How Your Voice Translates Across Chords and Courtyards

Twenty of us scraped chairs on shiny wooden floors then settled legs still. My paper plate sagged with food: a tangy key lime cheesecake slice with frothy whipped cream lay next to a smooth plain cheesecake piece topped with blueberry crisp. Sweet corn and pepper cowboy caviar salsa slid juices across the plate and soaked deliciously into smoky cheese and cured salami wedges.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Ken Dodds, Creative commons cc license
The musician, Dan Rumsey, snapped his harmonica into the angular metal mouth bracket around his neck, picked up one of his guitars, and stole us away. In husky rhythm and blues stanzas, Dan sketched scenes for us. Moments from the "First Day of First Grade" brought chuckles as audience-members remembered freshly-shaved pencils and awkward first moments in school lunchrooms. Each song was an impressionistic capture of a moment or feeling in time: sitting on front porch steps in quiet twilight; the inhaled scent of his daughter's childhood blanket and the sudden hum of a basement furnace; and a purple-infused Minneapolis skyline when the city came together to mourn a Minnesota-based musician's death.

In a few words and phrases, Dan painted fragments frozen in time, and the artist side of me was refreshed, encouraged, renewed.

Sitting in a downtown Minneapolis coffeeshop a day or two after the house concert, I am surrounded by art. Students from nearby Minneapolis College of Art and Design wander in and out of the trendy coffeeshop, their artistic natures flaring through bulging school bags, slim computer cases, and in their clothing, hair, and tattoos. Giant green oxidized metal sculptures lay heads sideways in the front lawn of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, peering out at traffic, and God's masterful ivy crawls living canvas up brick buildings.

Whatever your Art, my friend, know that it matters. Whether through words, paint, lyrics, charcoal sketch, computer code, a job exquisitely-done, the mood of a home, a landscaped yard, or the fragrance of a bubbling broth, your artistic expression is needed.

You bring beauty, captured moments, imbued emotions, and re-purposed memories from the past. Through your art, we get to breathe in, feel it, and experience what you've seen. It conjures up memories and experiences from our own lives that make us say, "Ah! You too?" "Me too!" and humans connect across continents, cultures, and constructs of time. 

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Woman in the Woods

Like an M. Night Shyamalan film, the title emerges: The Woman in the Woods.
Photo Credit: Flckr user Nick Kenrick, Creative Commons cc license
At her wooden desk layered with papers and folders, Morgan studies criss-crossed characters of Mandarin Chinese. In isolated pieces called radicals, she sees the term for female, and other radicals multiply to take one tree to multiple trees. A female in the forest, the girl in the trees, the woman in the woods -- and the pictures are clear. The intriguing part, however, is that those are the radicals for the word avarice or greed.

This is Morgan's first assignment for her college Mandarin Chinese class: tackle two Chinese words by studying the interwoven intricate word pictures formed by radicals. And the beauty of an ancient script from hundreds of years ago brings new meaning to seemingly-simple words. 

Her first word boat depicted an eight-mouth (i.e. eight person) floating vessel. Morgan's professor gave the students a clue, pointing to an even older ancient text, the biblical book of Genesis. Where in ancient history and oral accounts do we first hear of a boat? How many people were on-board? Verses about Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives, waver into mind's eye. Boat equals an eight-person vessel. Hidden deep within Chinese characters? Wow.

Finishing up her homework, now at word two, Morgan dissects radicals and wonders about a woman among the trees. How does that show an insatiable greed, a hunger for more, and a dissatisfaction for what she has? A woman among the trees, dissatisfied and wanting more, is the symbol in Chinese for avarice/greed. The realization suddenly jolts into place for me. (The professor's hint of Genesis helps too).

Word origins from early time point to a gnawing lie that rumbles hungry in all of us some days. It's not just for an ancient civilization woman in the trees, but for any man or woman in suburban homes, on city streets, at coffee shop counters. Whenever we stop seeing all the good gifts around us and start wondering if God is holding out on us, we're in peril of a dangerous greed.

Because the thing is: Eve was surrounded by a lavish, lush garden of delights. She had access to all the trees --thousands of them-- except one.

I've been struck all week by this ancient image captured in Hebrew accounts and in Chinese characters. I'm training myself to see and remember all the good things in my life, because we can so easily become the woman in the woods.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

When You Find Yourself Red-Faced and Hot at the Woodfire

In between sticky smores, sandy swimsuits, and splashes in the crisp Mississippi River headwaters, it washed off: the weight of everyday life. Hamburger hobo stews wrapped in tin foil oozed steaming carrot and potato juices. We smelled of wood fires and mosquito repellent.
Hiking through bogs on wooden boardwalks, slapping mosquitoes, hypothesizing which "leaves of three" to avoid, we explored an Old Timer's cabin, whose round planks stacked four or five broad  pine trunks tall. Piling twelve-cousins onto a stool, the dusty sweaty kids laughed and made faces at the camera. I snapped furiously, trying to capture each smile and smirk.
After the 1930s cabin, half of us took a new winding curved route back to our cars. The path narrowed quickly, filled with slippery boulders and wet dirt in the shade, and crossed by garishly-twisted and snapped trees, felled in the storm a week earlier. Giant red and white pine trees trailed the ground, their splintered white insides gaping and exposed.

"This seems much longer than a mile," we panted, "Is it two?" We wondered if we had gotten lost on alternate hike paths. Eight year old Daniel and his short-legged five year old cousin huffed and panted alongside us, their small legs trekking a longer trail in proportion to us.
"You can do it! We're getting closer," I cheered them on. Swooped up into his dad's arms, my nephew laughed and gurgled as he bounced on his dad's shoulders. My brother-in-law put foot in front of the other and plodded on, his son's legs sticking out from his left shoulder, arms extended on the right.

Four adults and two children, we hiked in hot sunshine, passed ferns, carnivorous pitcher plants, and towering pines. A blue lake sheened in the heat just out of reach through the trees, and then we were at the end. In the parking lot, our small group grinned wearily, gulped cold water from a metal park spigot, and rejoined our extended family.

The week passed in beautiful rhythms. Loons warbled in the night, raccoons rustled and grunted as we lay in sleeping bags nearby,  and we tip-toed shy feet to bathroom breaks in the night, hoping to avoid bears. Early mornings brought hot coffee, scuffed muddy knees, and boy snacks by the dozen.

And somewhere in between the bonding and the kissing over the board games, words sliced fast. The fights are never about anything important, are they, these husband and wife disagreements? There were two ideas of how to cook chicken shish-kebabs, and multiple ways of expressing it. We bombed that. He said, she said, and then both of us were red-faced and hot at the wood fire.

Later in a patch of grass off to the side, we offered quiet apologies, explanations, defensive hurt feelings and hopes, but angry words splashed warm again. Walking away to wind down, we finished supper, speaking civilly to each other, but knowing that more effort was needed.

Behind a zippered tent, I prayed with my eight year old and pulled his sleeping bag and blankets high. "I love you, bud," I murmured close to his soft forehead, breathing in his scent and kissing him. We talked for a few minutes more and then I pulled out my Bible and scooted to a far corner of the tent to read silently nearby as he started to fall asleep.

My bookmark saved where I had left off, and I resumed reading with a shake of my head. "Very funny, God."

"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of God dwell in you richly... (Colossians 3:15,16a)."

I could feel my heart softening and my breathing deepening. Unzipping the tent and slipping out, Mark and I found each other and talked, faces closer, apologizing, choosing soft tones, and starting over each time. We grinned and kissed again.

And I love that about marriage. Sometime it's like addictive smores over a woodfire and other times it's like a muggy hike through the woods that feels longer than you expected. At those times, our God can swoop down, whisk us up, and carry us until we get our second wind.

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Grab Your Ugly Socks!

With a clatter and a crash, the phone slipped off the treadmill dashboard, careened off the moving belt, and skidded to a stop in the carpet behind me.

I glanced left and right. Lithe joggers ran in precise form, their arms knowing how to cycle in smooth arcs, not flailing wildly like mine.
Photo Credit: Flickr user, E'Lisa Campbell, Creative Commons cc license
Grinning and red-faced, I jumped my feet up to straddle both sides of the still-moving treadmill, scooted backwards and retrieved my music player/husband's old cell phone. From a stair-stepping machine a row back, Mark arched an eyebrow at me and smirked.

Plugging headphones back in, I straddled the swiftly-moving treadmill belt again, gathered my courage, caught the gait, and jumped back into the jog. Staring at a smudge on the wall ahead of me, I breathed in four-four time, bouncing legs in rhythm to Superchick's rocky Beauty from Pain album.

I'm five weeks into jogging again and I'm loving the satisfaction and joy of meeting a goal. I've learned that I need a plan, and I need to make it as easy as I can to choose well. A black cloth bag hangs on a hook behind our bedroom door with an easy-to-grab work out t-shirt and comfy black shorts to run in. Crumpled green and red ankle socks wait in teal and coral tennis shoes on a handy shelf, and my headphones lay on our dresser. Mark and I have chosen days we work out, and we're trying to stick to them.

Panting and huffing, I watched the odometer click to a number I was waiting for. Hitting the cool-down button, I slowed my pace, heart racing, sweat dripping. Grabbing a sanitary towelette to wipe down the YMCA machine afterwards, I was stopped by an older gentleman.

"You're getting an early start. Are those Christmas socks?" he asked, smiling at my green and red socks.

I laughed and blushed. "Um, yes, Christmas bears, but they're comfortable ankle socks," I grinned back.

It helps to have a plan, I'm learning. So whether you're working towards fitness goals, writing word counts, business dreams, or end of summer plans, make it easy for yourself to say yes, and to feel joy in that moment. For me that looks like carving out mornings to write, setting aside afternoons to study for upcoming speaking sessions, and choosing times to grab my ugly socks and run!

What goals are you chipping away at? What helps you feel good about victories along the way? (Those reading this in email, can click here to join the conversation.)

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