Monday, October 20, 2014

When Our Lives Don't Fit the Pretty Analogies

I imagine you're heard the rock and sand analogy too? It's the story we hear from self-help books and spiritual retreats about ordering our lives and prioritizing what's really important. And the way it goes is this: a woman is handed five or six stone boulders and a pile of sand.
Photo: Ted Scodras, Creative Commons, cc license
The rocks represent important pieces or roles in her life: her marriage, kids, spirituality, sense of community, and the list goes on. The sand is everything else that trickles in to take up a day: laundry, dishes, meals, soccer-trips, grocery-runs, etc. Pouring the sand into a glass bowl first, she puzzles and struggles to slide all five or six prioritized life boulders in so they'll fit into her already very-full life. Half-full of sand, the boulders cannot all fit into the bowl.

Then, in a flipped upside order, the solution is displayed for us to see. Dumping out the failed attempts, the bowl starts empty, clean. Placing in first the prioritized boulders, a woman's life is ordered, it would seem. All rocks nestle neatly in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the sand that is to sift in, sloshing into hollow crevices and holes, around the important rock roles.

I've used this analogy and explained this, but it's falling short for me today. The truth is, our boulders are big and take up a lot of space some days. Is anyone else feeling that way? The older my kids get, the larger their boulders seem some nights. Forming a tenth-grade daughter, raising a college-age man, and introducing a kindergartener to letters and phonics seem more than a day's worth of boulders and it wakes me up some nights, when insomnia tiptoes in. My building-a-marriage rock is special and vital to me too, and it swells to fill the whole bowl some days.

A six year old Spiderman-masked-boy dances and sings beside me as I type, his boulder knocking and tumbling against my glass bowl, knocking out others, spitting sand to the side.

I'm figuring something out, friends, about the bowl and the rocks and the flying-out sand... I don't think our lives can be boiled down perfectly to fit into these glass bowls. I'm learning to take turns juggling each boulder, focusing time on each aspect of my life that has deep value.

Yes, the sand still fits, and yes, it comes in last. But those boulders? I'm still not fitting them all in smoothly each day to my satisfaction. Instead, I'm pausing and giving each its moment in my hand.

A red-bandit six-year old runs in to ask for help reaching his plastic silver sword high above the kitchen cupboards. Pushing the keyboard aside, I stretch for his sword, and then stare full into his brown eyes. We smile, talk, and I know his rock needs more time. Soon.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I disappeared into our room. Locking the doors, we pulled the curtains, turned on the fan, and snuggled in for time together. For a lazy hour or two, it was just him and me. Time trailed and twisted timid toe shyly as we ignored the world and turned inward for a while.

My daughter and I worked on her Biology and World Geography homework together this morning as sunshine spilled into the kitchen and I sipped hot coffee before work. We planned a future shopping date while adjusting microscope lenses, and the time passed too quickly.

How do we order our days and weeks, pouring the necessary time and energy into our kids' lives, into our marriages, and into the things that really matter to us? How do we live without regrets in a week that is frantic and paced?

 My boulders? Your boulders? They may not fit easily into glass bowl analogies or into daily check-lists, but -- with intentionality and God's help-- we can keep them central in the busyness of life.

They may just not all be in the bowl at the same time, and that's okay.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What I Never Expected to See in My Daughter's Homework Today

"I'll let you hold the broom, Mom," she smirked as we strode across the parking lot. A deep white bucket in one hand, I crossed the blacktop, balancing a long-handled home-made ladle in the other. Tenth grade Morgan stepped primly beside me, laughing and pretending to ignore me.
Photo: Bill Benzon, Creative Commons cc license
We exchanged smiles, and hoisted our items for a better grip. She carried her biology notebook, a mechanical pencil, and a plastic box of colored pencils. I watched the plastic soup ladle we had taped to the end of the kitchen broom bounce at every dip in the dirt path.

"This'll be fun," I convinced her, cocking my eyebrows at her.

Disappearing down a side path by the library, behind the community gardens, and into the woods, we slipped into a sunlit forest.

"I remember this path from when I was younger," Morgan noticed. "It seems so much smaller now. It's about the same for you, though, I bet, since you're still short," she quipped, smiling at me.

Several minutes later we rounded the corner to our spot. Straddling the sandy path was a small green algae pond, cattails dipping in the breeze.

Starting a two-week-long biology micro-organisms experiment, we labeled glass jars, and splashed in water from the deepest layer of the pond. Seaweed and green slime dangled from the black handle and slopped into our jars. After collecting all the water, Morgan and I arranged plastic bags on the wet path to sit on while she annotated her specimens.

Cirrus clouds raced by overhead. Yellow aspen leaves quaked and shimmered. Tiny willows leaned low. Flecks of green plant growth floated on quiet swamp water, and I closed my eyes in the warm autumn sunshine. A distant dog barked, and Morgan's colored pencils clanked for a moment in between hues.

The experiment? We are to feed four jars of invisible life, letting them grow in tin-foiled darkness, and observe them under a microscope after three to five days. The jars sloshed as we walked back to the car, green algae and black muck floating on top. Invisible potential simmers just under the surface. Not knowing what's growing there, we'll wait and see.

The last four weeks have raced by in a blur of hospital days for my dad's cancer surgery and the resulting recovery period, youth group retreats, school, and a lovely women's retreat, amid the unpacking from our move. What I have loved seeing, though, is the life that rises to the surface from murky waters below. Despite fears of major surgeries and sobering statistics, our family saw God's sweet kindnesses every day. Sipping coffee from styrofoam cups in waiting rooms that grew familiar, we recorded moment after moment of God's kind gifts to us, and it moved us. Life that simmered up from the darkness.

Typing here in quiet twilight, I can still see Morgan's teasing eyes and raised eyebrows as she joked and walked confidently through the trees. And it brings me to silent gratitude. Our God who molds sons and daughters, who sculpts moms and dads, parenting us all, has made a daughter and it is beautiful to see. Life has simmered up from the surface below, and I can but stand and watch.

Our God is growing things invisibly deep inside of us. He is at work in our kids, our families, our marriages, ourselves.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When We Stop Seeing the Tape

Coffee and the morning sunshine rush my senses, illuminate the laminated map on my kitchen table, and highlight a few of last night's crumbs. I've been soaking in the words from the Biblical book of Nehemiah these last few months, returning to them again and again as I review for this weekend's women's retreat.
Photo: Chris Devers, Creative Commons, cc license
Yesterday I zipped up my youngest son's jacket and we drove to my sister's house. Working on an overwhelming list of home projects, she was lining up helpers all week. In between minor Lego squabbles between cousins, we prepped her kitchen for painting. Tearing green painter's tape into strips, I carefully hid wooden counter tops from the oncoming paint.

And it's made me smile, remembering my own strips of blue painter's tape that gathered dust on my kitchen counters for over a year. Because sometimes if we leave the tape there long enough, the project gets forgotten. Soon enough, the blue tape strips receded out of my attention and I rarely saw them. I wiped up crumbs from the toaster near the blue tape. I screwed back in an electric wall socket plate above one blue strip. Occasionally, the tape grabbed my attention and I muttered, "Oh, I need to finish painting this!" Yet, days passed, and other projects crept in. When we moved out of that house last month, I finally tore the blue tape off the counters, that corner still unpainted.

In the book of Nehemiah, he is surrounded by people who have stopped seeing the tape. Accustomed to broken home lives, broken communities, broken cities and relationships, they assume that this is the way it is. This must just be how life is. And they stand in the rubble.

We can do that too. After several years or several decades, we tend to evaluate the broken and hurting situations around us as "This is just the way life is" or "That's just the way things are between us." I hear us, friends, saying things like, "He's always been this way, Jen" or "We've been battling this all our lives," or "This is just who I am." And we stand in the rubble.

Nehemiah is an amazing true account of a man whom God called to stand up from the rubble, to stand up in the rubble, and to fight. Fight for your husbands, your wives, your sons, daughters, grandkids, friends, family, and communities. Then Nehemiah delivered the zinger: Don't be afraid. Our God is fighting for us!

Hi friends. I have missed meeting you here like this. You may be a silent reader from email, or from rss feed, or from other places online, but I appreciate these times of sitting down face to face across our computer screens. I bring myself here to you, sipping coffee, opening up, and whispering quietly here with you. Thank you for listening in, and for going on this God-adventure together.

The rubble in your own life... do you see it? Look for the dusty blue painter's tape in the far corners. See it? Let's tackle it together, in our own lives, in our kids' lives, in our deepest selves. God has been gently pointing out those areas in my life too, and I nod. The most exciting thing? The rubble doesn't need to stay that way! Our God is fighting for us.

(If you live near the St. Cloud, MN area and are interested in attending the "Living Life on Purpose" women's retreat, please contact Avon Community Church right away. I don't know if they still have room for registrations, but you are welcome to try. I love meeting you all. Pray with us for God to do amazing things this weekend, will you too?) 

Monday, September 22, 2014

What Blocks You from Living Full and Regret-Free

"Should we tell them what the meat is?" she asked me and I could hear the smile in her voice over the phone.

"No, let's wait until later in the meal," I decided. "They'll be more open to it."

The next day we scavenged chairs from all corners of my house and seated seven of us around the scratched cherry wood kitchen table. We prayed, then took turns scooping steaming rice onto our plates. Mom reached for our dishes and carefully ladled a savory meat sauce over the rice, pressing her spoon lower into the pot for more gravy. Garlic and herbs slow-cooked the meat into fall-off-the-bone tenderness, and we asked for seconds, extracting occasional tiny bones from our food.

"It's good!" my husband and kids agreed. "What is it?" Knowing my family, they were open to any news.

"Squirrel. Dad has five of them in the freezer," Mom said, and my family nodded their heads in little surprise.

"Those squirrels stole almost every apple off my tree," Dad said. "I'm down to just one apple left.  I've killed seven squirrels so far," he said, adjusting to a more comfortable position in the chair and smoothing out his napkin.

 I saw my parents again this weekend, my mom cutting my dad's hair. Him with a towel around his shoulders, silvery hair combed straight above his ears and my mom leaning in.

"Don't move," she warned, stretching the blades wide.

I leaned back against their cushioned kitchen chairs, watching them. Outside curved glass windows, my parents' backyard was a haven of landscaped flowers, ferns, and birds at the feeder. An occasional squirrel raced across the fence near the apple tree bobbing in the breeze, its lone apple bundled in a guarded plastic bag.

Finished with Dad's haircut, Mom wiped up slivers of glinting hair from the table and carefully folded the towel off Dad's shoulders, trapping loose hairs inside.

"Let's eat that apple now!" she decided suddenly. "Let's not wait until frost. Dad should eat his apple now..." she trailed off, and we finished the sentence in our minds.

I swallowed back misting tears and grabbed my video camera.

"...This is the first apple from our tree," my mom stated, giving the date and more information. My video-record light blinked red until she ended, and the wind blew sun-tossed leaves across the yard. Autumn's reds and yellows rained on us, then danced across the lawn. 

And I know you have this too... moments that need to be captured and savored, moments that need to be frozen in time. Because whether you have parents who are ill, kindergartners stepping freshly off the yellow bus each day, or taller loved ones walking into the front entryway each night with their briefcases, purses, or heavy backpacks, we all have moments that are slipping away. 

And our challenge? Our mission is to embrace them, to see them, and to fully step in. Step away from whatever you're working on and look deeply into the eyes of the ones you're with. See them, lean in to inhale their scent, and hug them tightly. Fully present in each moment, I want to look up from facebook, put aside my To Do list, and forget the busy. I want to savor and seize each moment.

Is there anyone you need to call? Any conversations you need to have? Someone you need to pause and truly see? Because the truth is, we all have the same moments, the same chances, the same twenty-four hours. And I don't want any regrets.

Say what needs to be said, my friends. Stop and savor life, and the ones around you. Live life fully, deeply, and in the splendored colors of fall. Don't wait.

Crimson and yellow climb up the trees around me, ricocheting off the blue sky. September's heat burns brilliantly, while autumn slips in quiet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What We Are Drawn To in Uncertain Times

"There's something about a man or woman who has loved God for a long time that is peaceful," she said aloud.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
We were stabbing forks into slippery red cherry tomatoes and coaxing precarious bites of spinach salad into our mouths in the hospital cafeteria.

She told me again. "My friend Art, he just commented on how peaceful it was to be around older people who had walked with God for a long time. 'There is a peace about them, a gentleness that just shines out from them. You want to be near them,' he told me. He enjoys spending time with my parents," my mom said, wiping her mouth.

She smiled, and lifted a fork with green olives and grated carrots from the salad into her mouth. I tried, and failed, to get crumbled goat cheese onto my fork.

Her bite finished, my mom spoke again. "He's right. I watch my mom and dad together. He holds her hand, helping her down hallways now, and patiently explains each time she forgets and asks a question again. There IS a peace and gentle kindness about them." She paused and chose another bite, pushing food around her plate unconsciously.

I watched her. This black-haired, blue-eyed Irish mom of mine who just returned from seeing her parents on the west coast, arriving straight from the airport to the hospital here where her husband awaited scary prognoses. And I saw it in her.

Mixed in with the uncertainty and the risk of painful loss was a peace that came from years of walking with her Creator. This peace didn't negate the valid fears, but it simmered and rode the waves, a constant in all change.

In hospital room 4550, four shuttered windows revealed city lights turning on outside and reflecting off the rain. We rubbed our hands with the sanitizing foam found everywhere, and walked inside. My dad sat upright in bed, his navy-striped gown tied in the back, revealing the colorful tattoo on his shoulder.

"Hello, handsome man!" grinned my mom, rubbing his shoulder and bending over to brush back silvery hair from his forehead.

She sat down and pulled out her slim blue Bible, creased on the edges. Opening it, she read silently, smiling at parts. My dad and I had read from Luke together earlier. "I love the gospels," he told me. "They are my favorite parts of the Bible right now."

There is a Peace that flows from men and women who have walked with God for a long time. I see it, and it draws me nearer. He draws me nearer too, actually, this One whose name is peace.

So, it's pancreatic cancer, friends. It was caught early and is only stage one, but it's scary. Sometime in the next few days, my dad will undergo a serious surgery for this and I'll join them often in the hospital. Join us in prayer, will you, please? Thank you, friends.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hidden in You Beneath the Hubbub and Silence

Photo: Marian Beck, Creative Commons, cc license
Green nubby sedum buds have turned fuscia and pink lavender, these knobby plant-blossoms more akin to cauliflower than petals. They've announced autumn on hot summery days and it's only now that I see and believe them.

Cool September rains fell all morning and a crisp wind bends green maple leaves and tall silvery firs now, clanging into my metal wind-chimes on their way. One sliver of a far off maple turns brazen in orange brick hues, ahead of her time on a tree where all else flutters green in the breeze. The constant hiss of autumn wind and tinkling copper wind-chimes sink a school-time giddiness into me. I find myself staring out the window again and smile, sipping re-heated coffee.

This has been the week of rasping electric pencil sharpeners, and splatters of blue and red paints on the table, the wall, and the paper maps as we swish in the four oceans and seven continents in kindergarten flair. My youngest, Daniel, circles items in groups of twos or threes for his math, while my tenth grader meets geometry. Our eldest, John, buys his own backpack, lines up newly-purchased highlighters, and carpools rides to college for his sophomore year.

In the quiet now, I grab some space, reheat the coffee, and settle in to study and learn. There is a verse in Acts from several chapters ago that has been ringing and clamoring in my mind since. It starts with an unintentional joke, and I laugh quietly at Paul, and trace a smiley face in the margin. It's not his fault, poor Saul/Paul. He is bold, passionate, articulate. Life automatically gets riled up around him. In the early Christian church in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire's colonies, eddies of pulsing activity swirled and crashed around Paul. Wherever he went, action waves rippled out from him: miraculous healings, convincing persuasive arguments to crowds of people, and thousands deciding to follow the Jesus Way of life. Dangerous currents welled up around him too. Death threats from furious Jews and Jewish temple leaders resulted in a need to evacuate. Roman and Greek followers of Jesus sensed the rising tide, and hustled Paul off to his hometown of Tarsus, Spain. I picture this hot-blooded Latino Paul -- Pablo?-- arriving home and seeing God do amazing things in Spain as well.

What makes me smirk, though, and where I traced a smiley face penciled-in joke next to the verses is the next line, "Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace."

Peace. Quiet.

Sometimes, we judge the success of our ministries or churches, our dreams, families, or goals by the amount of excitement and activity generated by them, by the number of hits, the pages written, the accolades or recognition, or the number of leads.

And if so, then we may be lulled into thinking that nothing is happening or being accomplished during the quiet, or in the lulls. Does an absence of wild hubub mean an absence of movement?

I love the verse that comes next in the story. Paul, the well-known one, the accomplished orator, the passionate, things-get-done-when-he's-around-kind of guy is gone, and quiet has fallen. Into that calmness God states, "It [the church] was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit; it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord." 

The church had been growing in numbers earlier too, during Paul's time in the church. Now with him gone, in a time where life may look quiet and calm with little activity, stirring and pulsating still exist. Life is moving, growing, changing. Behind the scenes, steady and unchanging, the God of the Universe is working. He hasn't stopped or waned. 

Quietly, steadily, unceasingly, He works, weaves, and orchestrates. And his work? Here, it is to strengthen and encourage the Church. Invisible hands pull in strength, hope, joy, change, and transformations, and he braids them in behind the scenes.

Whatever God has made and placed you in that is of Him... he is working on invisibly. Your marriage, your children's lives, hearts, minds, and spirits... the God of the Universe who knows the stars by name is silently, unhaltingly, arranging details behind what we can see. 

Whatever God has made and placed in you in that is of Him... he is working on invisibly. Those dreams, goals, desires to do something? That secret hope to use your art for him, or to use your skills for him in that way? He sees those and is working tirelessly to strengthen and encourage those good things -- things that he was the one who dreamed up first anyway!

Your relationships with relatives, friends, neighbors, and the people you meet on the city bus? Your reactions and responses to people at work, in the grocery store, or in the carpool lane in the morning? Our attitudes when no one sees us? He is working behind the scenes to strengthen and encourage you (and me!) and to use what's in us for his glory.

The wind continues to blow long and hard outside my window, tossing the branches in wild array. Lulls come and go, and the trees still grow. Invisible, imperceptible, life tremors and pulses beneath the surface. They grow. And I love that our God says he is doing the very same in us, in our lives.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

You, With Your Foot in Two Worlds

 "So are you ready to let me go yet?" he asks, grinning with a soft cheekiness as he sits on the cement steps of his home.
Photo: Justin Spencer, Creative Commons, cc license
"No! I'm proposing surgery and insurance, and things like that," I reply, throwing back a glance at him, and rounding to my side of the car. "I love you, Dad," I say, slipping a silver key into my golden Saturn. Looking back for one last wave, I freeze the image of him in my mind, and pull away from the curb, racing home to put my six year old to bed.

I drive numbly, mechanically, replaying the sentence in my mind and counting the days until his next appointment.

A giant chalk white moon stands sentinel over the twilight sky. Full, ample, perfectly round, it hangs heavy in a blue-grey city evening. Tall apartment highrises, depression-era flour mills, and green-shuttered glass factories crouch on a Minneapolis city skyline. Trees chase the moon and, behind me, explosions of violet and tangerine encompass the sinking sun. Fiery orange and reds glare against green highway signs, obliterating mile markers and exits on the highway.

My dad has just returned from helping his uncle out of the hospital and back into a memory care unit. He helped Uncle Al settle back into the room, slide out of the wheelchair, and eat sliced peaches and a pumpkin pie cobbler. Together they maneuvered the remote control buttons of Al's new reclining chair before my dad left for home. Half an hour later, my uncle calls my dad, having forgotten about the day.

"Can I come see you tonight?" I had asked my dad, three hours ago. He agreed, and I hurried to throw a supper together for my family before racing out the door.

"Kah, kah," I knock in African fashion at their house. At the door, I see my mom's sandals and smile. "It makes me miss her to see her shoes," I yell out to my dad. She's gone temporarily, and we miss her already.

I slide a plastic carton of cherry tomatoes across the kitchen table, and slice up a crimson purple plum for us to share. He's already laid two plates, and set out tea cups. We drink green tea with roasted brown rice, and catch up from the week. All too soon, the hour is past and I need to race home to put my son to bed.

He says it then, the sentence that has lodged in my throat, in my mind, since. The sentence I have already been whispering to myself and to my husband in the dark of night. "Am I ready to lose my dad already?" NO.

And I know that you face this situation too, many of you. With a foot in both worlds, you care for older relatives and younger ones. You care for ailing grandparents, or older parents, and children of all ages. I hear you talk of it over coffee, at conferences, online, or through prayer chain emails.

I have watched my parents stand with feet planted in two worlds too, helping older and younger relatives and friends around them. And tonight I feel my own feet sliding tentatively wider, tip-toeing uncertainly into that larger world, and words fall short.

I followed that moon on the drive home, that impossibly large milk-white moon. Clarity and closeness etched its surface in stark relief, with edges and craters, and dark holes falling into a moon dry sea. In front of me was the moon, my car trailing an evening highway, curving into quiet darkness. Behind me orange, crimson, violet, and gray exploded across the night sky, curling crispy cirrus clouds up.

One lone trail of black smoke carved a jet stream through gold light, tracing an airplane's flight straight down. An erratic route for an airplane, it seemed, and I swerved slightly in my lane, craning my head backwards, pondering its downward trajectory. A police car shot by, sirens blaring, and the car in front of me forced my eyes to the road before me.

The mysterious black plume of smoke flamed white and gold in the sunset, and my road curved away.