Saturday, November 3, 2018

Our Bold Dares

It's audacious and daring actually. What is it about this bold act that says it'll ever work?

We push fingers into dark soil, scooping out vaults. Then with brazen hands we press small brown bulbs into the earth and claim they'll rise again.

Burying them, covering them, we smooth the ground and walk away, with nary a trace of them left.

It feels like a swindlers trick, a money scam, and yet every few years I peruse bags, choose colors, and plop money down.
On a sunny day this month, I kneeled onto damp green grass. Red leaves swirled and dropped. Yellow maple trees shivered and shook in the breeze. Autumn afternoon sun scattered brilliantly across a shocking blue sky. And the beauty caught me. I stopped and snapped photos.

It relaxes me, this time of plunging hands into earth, smelling the loam and dirt. I scooped and filled, scooped and filled. Planting bulbs in October reminded me of my Dad's death, the one year anniversary of it came and went October 27th.

While heaven's hello is still far off, I know the results of pressing violet, fuchsia, and yellow tulip bulbs into the ground, along with tall bobbing purple alium heads. I've seen them. Can't deny them. I look forward to seeing them each year, and have been bowled over by the gorgeous beauty that springs from them.

Bold, brave, audacious flowers erupt each year from dark empty-looking dirt. I've seen it. I know it to be true.

And so I peruse bags, choose colors, and pick up my dusty trowel. It looks different at the end. The splendorous results are nothing like the simple bulbs I handle now, and I know it to be true. Life will come. This is not the end.

Several days later, my husband and I clear off the kitchen table, and plop heavy pumpkins on it. Six squat orange squash await faces. I pile knives and carving tools around them, and scatter empty bowls around for the seeds and pumpkin pieces that'll follow.

"Mom, when are they here?" Daniel asks impatiently, popping his head in the door.

"Soon, buddy! Want to climb a tree?"

He dashes out, eager for his big brother, sister-in-law, and sister to arrive.

For hours into the night, six of us smiled giddy at our pumpkins, imagining their faces, picturing who they would be. We carved and cut, deliberated and decorated. Deep dish pizza slices dripped juices and oil onto small plates. Tangy lime papaya cubes glistened as we popped them in our mouths.

Pumpkin seeds waited and dried, spread across metal trays. Sometimes the good things are now, sometimes we have to wait.

But the bold dares? The audacious hopes? They seem less daring as the evidence piles up, as each year's experiences and gifts stack before me.

Our God's gifts are constant, tender, daily as the sun. His presence is there. He walks beside us. Some gifts are now. Some gifts we await.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

On Summer Nights When Adults Are Tempted to Play Hooky Too

September's twilight creeps green and orange in chill night air. Yellow and pink zinnia flowers stand tall beside rosy sedum.

Smoky woodfires scented the end of a kids' park play date, and now children's voices chirp loudly from trees. They leap, waving sticks, leaning close to growl make-believe battles.

My son races inside to grab a late supper. "Can I take my food outside, Mom?" he asks, wisping blonde hair cut close. "My friends have eaten already."

"Sure, buddy. Careful, this part of the plate is hot." I set his saucer on the front stoop, and watch him balance lemonade and cheesy enchiladas.

Summer has surrendered and fall has flown in! Sharpened pencils, notebooks, and mounding schoolbooks stack precarious in one corner of the dining room table.

And even though I'm the teacher, I admit it. I'm tempted to play hooky. Summer swim dates at the YMCA pool, gardening pleasures, and a slower pace still call me. As a mom and teacher, I'd love to hide away the schoolbooks and schedules, linger long over morning coffee tomorrow, and walk barefoot through wet grass to the swing instead.
Photo Credit: Flickr user John Benson, Creative Commons cc license

You too?

But instead, I'll get an early night's sleep, brew a tall French press coffee, and pull up chairs with my fourth grader tomorrow.

My tall nineteen year old daughter is back in college; grown-man-son and his wife have graduated college and now both work full-days nearby. Youngest son scales trees and joins me most days at the table for fourth grade now, and my husband and I are trying to model this grown up life. Soaking in Jesus, thanking him for life and joys each day, we strive to be brave and watchful and responsible.

Being an adult is much like jogging, I'm learning. Both require the hard work of showing up and laughing at the effort needed some days. For me there is lots of self-talk, mixed with thanking God for breath, life, and his presence.

Crickets in dark sky and black tree branches announce nightfall. The front door squeaks as Daniel comes in, closing up for the night. Grabbing last minute second-suppers, he readies for bed.

I vaguely remember truth from yesterday and stand to riffle through stacked books on the table to find it. Then, there, I see it. Scrawled black gel pen copy words from God's ancient book: "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." And I'm still learning what that means, but it helps me greet September, and school days, and the coming year with fresh eyes.

Join me? What are you learning and thinking about this month?

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Don't Blink. Don't Miss a Moment of the Joy!

Basketballs ricocheted off concrete and clanged against blue chain link.

I plucked green grass and bent it methodically in fours, snapping after each bend.

"Are you okay?" I had asked her. "Your eyes look sad."
She laughed wryly, surprised, and we started talking more. Four of us sat on a blue blanket, legs outstretched or tucked up under us, and we spoke of our families. She shared for a while. We offered ideas, and then we chose prayer. Praying in rusty French, I walked with my sisters to our Heavenly Dad.

This was the day of the phone not working, I remember. Accompanying one of my American students back to the Paris airport for an earlier departure to the United States, I had then traveled back across France alone by train, metro, and bus to join French and Belgian friends in a park in northern France.

My borrowed Belgian phone refused to connect. An automated French message told me that part of my phone's number needed to be registered. Plus there was the complication of using a Belgian phone to call a French number, and therefore the phone number would alter slightly.

"Okay, drop the 32, add a zero..." I mused aloud, "or if calling France, drop the 33, and add a zero?"

Flitting back and forth across the French-Belgian border and calling friends with both numbers, I tapped again and again into my borrowed phone, with no results.

Gathering my courage and my French, I approached friendly-looking French and Belgian strangers again and again that day. On sidewalks in Lille beside soaring tall white train stations, and on crowded city buses in Belgium, I was entranced time and again by the graciousness of strangers. Beautiful moments of connecting over phone issues led to kind conversations, warm smiles, and the chance for me to thank them and to shower God's blessing on them.

Reunited with my friends by the basketball court later, I thanked God for the fun adventures and the people I had been gifted to meet that day, and settled down onto the blue blanket. Conversation ebbed and flowed around us and our love for each other grew.

And that's what it was, I noticed... a love for each person I had seen or met. A surreal beauty of striding through any city, any country, any street, and seeing the thousands of people around me, knowing that God knows them each by name, that he is enamored with them, that he delights in them and loves them fiercely. And I? I got a chance to see them, to walk by them, to pray for them and love them joyfully, yet with only a fraction of what his love for them is.

Weeks later, back in the United States, this feeling remains. Choosing to stop and truly see people, to try to love them, pray for them, and ask God for rich blessings on them is a joy and a privilege. 

I smile at strangers in my grocery store, start up conversations with the cashier, and savor long the talks with friends at Minnesota parks too.
And on a Sunday night in Minneapolis, I join my Mom for the honor of a Somali wedding party. Glamorous, beautifully-robed women in glittering veils and jewelry surrounded us. They were breath-taking and gracious. Our hostess, the mother of the bride, welcomed us, motioning us over to a a table better suited to view the dancing circle.

Drumbeats led the dancing and chanted blessings. Lilting Arabic tongue trills amplified the excitement, and women rushed in to swirl veils around their heads, over the griot's microphoned head, and back into the dancing circle again. Taking turns, pairs or trios of women rushed into the circle, danced and stamped out their blessings, whirling and twirling in sparkly, iridescent beauty. My mom and I stood and clapped along, our faces creased in warm joy at the honor of being invited to share this celebration, and full of our Creator's love for these new global sisters.

Can you see it too? The beauty and joyful honor in being able to meet and smile and to be Love to the people around you? We have the joyful gift of being able to see and to savor the gorgeous beauty of God's people all around us. Each moment, each conversation, is a gift.

Happy summer, friend. I have missed being here with you. How is your summer? What have been highs and lows for you? Feel free to comment below and I would be honored to cheer with you over the good and to cry and pray with you over the hard parts. (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.) 

I'm excited to start up my 2018-2019 speaking and teaching season again. Many of us have been talking already as we set up opportunities for me to come teach at your church, retreat, homeschool co-op, MOMS group and more. Feel free to email my Speaking Board and I to check availability for your group's next event and to save your date on my calendar. 

If you are interested in joining me for the Cover to Cover Bible survey class where we read through the whole Bible in a year and get college-level Bible learning, there are still some spots left. Simply register through Village Schools of the Bible here

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Leaning Close to Speak of Betrayal

Night falls in blue twilight and my neighbor's white blossoms glimmer green in the dusk.

My son's small feet patter back to his room, and a distant car whirs.

The pointer finger on my right hand rubs across a smooth right thumb, but it's all wrong.

I've been betrayed by my body.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Melusina Parkin, Creative Commons cc license

Late last autumn as frost carved up night windows, I had hurried to disconnect hoses and black tubing from the water fountain pump. Sprawled across cold grass in deepening twilight last October, my hands had plunged into icy water. I had swiveled slimy connectors and prayed I was doing it right.

"Which one had Dad said to leave in and which one unscrewed and came out for the winter?" I had mused aloud. Tears fell, and my voice cracked as I had wrestled with the dual truth that he had survived cancer until this cold night, but that it was unlikely he would be there next spring when I re-installed the pump.

That's when it happened! Smashing cold numb fingers in the shed door, my right thumbnail had throbbed and turned red, then plum, and then a bruised purple.

I had raced in to call Dad, proud of myself for remembering how to detangle his subpump from my water fountain, thankful he was still alive after last spring's diagnosis of fast-acting terminal cancer.

Then the gash, the swollen thumb, and the bruise that followed me for months.

That night I had called Dad -- him still alive then-- and we had talked of pumps, and winterizing yards and fountains, and he had stopped because the cancer pain and nausea had crept higher. But his voice was soft and he had told me he loved me, and we ended each conversation that way.

Several weeks later, Dad died.

My blackened bruised thumb throbbed along with my heart. Right forefinger rubbed sore thumb, and the pain felt appropriate. The thumb was a link to my dad and the night I had taken the pump out, the night he was still here when we didn't think he would have been. The thumb was a link to my dad.

Snow fell the night he died, and winter piled on white.

Months passed. My bruised nail lost its hue of mourning, and I resented that. Right forefinger rubbed rugged nail, though, and the invisible gash indicated the gape in me, in all of us, as we moved into life without my dad.

A gouged nail moved up my thumb, marking time, and we counted months without him.

April 27th marked six months without my Dad, and my thumb quit playing. The gouge was gone.

A perfect half moon cuticle and unblemished thumb nail stared back at me. Right forefinger rubs smooth, amnesic nail, and my heart resents it.

And most of the time, my life looks normal too: silly banter around a kitchen table, homework that piles high, college kids, and married kids, and a third grader yank open the fridge and I grin and realize I need to go grocery-shopping again.

But in the moments in between, in the silence that slips in, my finger rubs the thumb nail. My body has betrayed me, and I know that grief stands ready beside me. My God stands there too, though, and his heart can be trusted.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Our Best Spring Forward Beauty Truth

He perched on the black armchair, hanging off the right edge. His blonde head hung upside down, arms trailing the cream carpet.

"...and then I fought the boss..." Daniel's words rippled on, describing video game adventures and I tried to pay attention.
Photo Credit: Flikr user T. Papadopoulos, Creative Commons cc license

Pinching lips shut and trying not to breathe, I shoveled and cleaned an odorous area of our laundry room. Pets were an affectionate part of life, with one Downside.

"Mom?" Daniel's words broke in.

"You're beautiful," he said.

I stopped and glanced out through the laundry room doorway to where he was dangling off the armchair. He dimpled and held up three round fingers in the "I love you" hand signal.

Love flashed through me.

"Thank you!" I replied, surprised and touched.

I reflected ruefully on my black yoga pants, whisked-up-hair-do for around the house errands, and my wise-beyond-his-years son.

He saw the truth deep that I had missed.

True beauty glows best behind gentle loving hearts, behind hands that serve, and lives that breathe kindness.

Washing my hands later at the sink, I thought back over my day. I had been grumpy that morning, getting breakfast and helping family members into their days. It wasn't until I had slowed down and talked to my God, that my heart had dropped its cantor.

Choosing to stop and savor, to linger in love, I had changed my attitude.

And from his upside-down perch, my son had watched it reverse my heart and home. 

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Friday, December 29, 2017

The Question that Dangles For Us Who Grieve in this Season

It was after her question at the hardware store. Trudging across broken pavement in biting snowy cold, we pushed hands in pockets deep, my arm through hers protectively.

Inside the red box store, she asked it --my mom wanting to know -- and it has reverberated inside the depths of me still.

"I want the kind that keeps burning even if one has burned out."
Photo Credit: Flickr user Rakka, Creative Commons cc license
She's holding a defective string of Christmas lights, but it feels like me. How do we keep burning even if part of us is gone?

At the customer service desk earlier, we had graciously handed back the cardboard box of twinkly lights, sliding the receipt beside it.

"Anything wrong with them?" a red-sweatered woman asked smiling.

"Nope, they're just the wrong ones. I want the lights that'll keep burning even if one bulb is dead."

Later in the parking lot, we walk arm in arm and I unlock her door first.

"Jennifer, I've realized that I need to let my friends know what I've been learning -- what God has been teaching me in these hard times. God has been teaching Dad and I so much about suffering..." she trails off, her voice breaking slightly.

Dad is gone, and Mom has been sobbing in the loving closeness of her God as she walks through the grief of losing her husband.

Her friends are veiled elegant North African women, emigrated to Minneapolis. My mom learns the lilting beauty of their language and helps them navigate English grammar and vocabulary. They eat sambosas and saffron-flavored rice, and speak often of husbands, children, and aging parents faraway.

"I get to tell them of the hope we have in Jesus and of the confidence we have that Bruce will be in heaven with God."  Mom spoke excitedly of the Christmas presents she was gathering for her international friends, and she carefully chose cards to accompany them.

At home later, Mark and I uncoil our own long strands of lights and assemble them end to end. Wrapping the tree in strands of red, blue, green, and yellow, all the wiry lights culminate into one outlet plug. Electric current courses and the lights shine on.

Verses of Bible truth grab me this Christmas break as we march wise men to a starry stable and gather shepherds near, their sheep already fallen over. I pour eggnog and grind another portion of French Press coffee beans. In crowded rooms here and there, we pass gingerbread men and Belgium chocolate truffles, talking loudly as nieces and nephews race with toys underfoot.

And my mom, sister, and I plug into our Source again and again, drawing strength and constancy from God. As the tears come, and we count it out -- two months now since Dad died-- we play his songs, and laughing-cry as we scroll through old photographs.

This intermingled grief with joy is a sharper chapter for me now, a newly-formed reality. As the question bubbles up: "How do I keep burning even when part of me has burnt out?" I sense the answer.

Pulling out pen and paper, I reflect further. I trace the words and underline "In Him" and the lights keep burning -- through no strength of their own.

"We wait in hope for the Lord; 
He is our help and shield. 
In Him our hearts rejoice for we trust in his Holy Name. 
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you." Psalm 32:20-22.

Merry Christmas, you. May this New Year bring you an even deeper sense of God's rich love for you and his delight in you. May you rest in his presence. What have you been reflecting on this month?

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

On the Dark Nights When You are Counting Days and Remembering

It is three weeks ago today that I last talked with my Dad, last heard him speak back. That day blurs into that night, and then it was Friday 2:08 am and he was gone.
My sister, mom, and I had tracked the evening hours on a paper chart, slipping in soluble morphine and attavan pills between Dad's drying lips, moistening them with a little blue sponge.

"Dad, can I give you some more medicine?" I had asked respectfully, as the hours passed and his sleepiness mounted. His words lessened, and his moments of lucidity stretched further apart.

Pain rippled across his face, and I gripped his hand. "The morphine will help, Dad. It should kick in really soon."

Friends had driven on dark country roads after rush-hour traffic to stop in and greet him. Dad recognized them and opened his eyes briefly. They stood tall and uncertain beside his bed, searching for a special hymn's lyrics on their phone before starting in, their voices strong and speaking truth.

"God sent his son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives."

My dad heard and moved his head, faintly singing along, these truths he has built his life and joy on. My mom, sister, and I joined in, my voice cracking in emotion

"Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone." I swallowed, "...because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives."

Dad's two friends sang on, swiping tiny lyrics higher on a touch-screen phone, both men squinting to see in the dim lamp-lit room.

I stopped singing as I saw Dad wince and reach towards his neck and shoulder, then fumble in his side pocket where the meds usually were. Checking the clock, I saw we were close. "Here, Dad. It's time for your next dose."

His friends finished the song, and we stepped out to give them privacy as they said good-bye. Nurses had said my Dad was in his last days, and the minutes drizzled away.

In dignity and strength, my Dad lived. In dignity and strength, my Dad died.

We have seen God's sweet kindnesses taking care of us each day. We have felt the tangible love of friends and family near and far, who have dropped off meals, mailed cards, helped in countless ways, and walked beside us.

We stood tall at Dad's funerals, so proud to be associated with him, nodding and smiling in joyful pride at the stories friends and colleagues told of him. I gripped podiums tight and spoke in tremulous pride, shuffling papers and describing African night skies. Three special songs rippled out harmonies that explained my Mom and Dad.

I'm finding that grief looks like efficient hours of phone calls and business letters as we confirm the death of a dad.

Grief looks like driving in silence and twice pulling into the driveway with the gas light blinking orange. It looks like staring numbly, moving slowly, and blankly wondering what project I was in the middle of.

Grief feels heavy, makes me exhausted at three pm, and leaves me ready for bed at nine-thirty. Grief for me looks like tears and sobs the first week and a half, and an inexplicable feeling of being "too sad to cry" this week. Time stretches long, and has it only been three weeks? Yet it feels so long since I've talked to my Dad.

"This is the first class I've taught that I didn't talk about with my Dad," I told Mark Monday night as I drove away to teach my college-level Village Schools of the Bible Cover to Cover Bible Survey class. Grief slid down my shoulders to my back. I pictured talks on the back porch with my Dad, and our love for God's word.

My mom and I had a girls' sleepover last night at my parents' house, both of us pulling our Bibles closer. She spoke out verses from Romans chapter five about God gently, beautifully, wielding sorrow to craft beauty and character in us. I scrawled G2 pens fast across notebook paper and talked about the tender love of God who longs to walk beside his people, helping them know him intimately.

I spoke it aloud three weeks ago today, (Thursday morning, October 26th), sitting cross-legged on my Dad's bed, hugging him in a period of his pain, and breathing out any words that were truth and that would offer hope for both of us.

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. 
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 
The precepts of the Lord are perfect, giving joy to the heart. 
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. 
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. 
The ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous. 
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. 
They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb..." 

We had studied them together earlier that autumn, and now they were the only truth I could grab while he was in pain. I alternated between singing songs to him, praying for him, speaking God's words, and hugging him, or rubbing his back.

In between two dear friends leaving, two pastors arriving, a phone call to hospice triage, and several of us there, I wrapped my arms around my Dad gently, his body so frail and easily broken at the end. I kissed his whiskery face, told him I loved him, and grabbed the only truths I knew.

And I grab them now, and know that God's heart can be trusted.

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