Friday, March 20, 2020

Wood and Marble Spaces to Inhale in Deeply

The woman in front of us had coughed and squirmed, her face red as she tried to hold in quiet wheezes. Poor lady. I had wanted to tap her shoulder and assure her it was all right. This March 7th afternoon in Minneapolis basilica grandeur comes to my mind now, two weeks later.

Two weeks since then and the world has dramatically changed.

Two weeks ago, though, on March 7th, hundreds of us had crowded into St. Mary's Basilica for a free Minnesota Sinfonia concert, featuring world-renowned violinist Ilya Kaler. His renditions of Antonin Dvorak's Romance stirred our spirits, swirling through the giant marble-carved cathedral to hang majestic in the air.

An hour had passed in quiet peace and beauty. We listened in silent rapture. Attentive to each rise and fall of the instruments, caught up in the cascading crescendos and rivulets of song, we stopped only to applaud or to shift positions on the wooden benches polished by generations before us.

Celebrating my Mom's birthday that March 7th weekend, my Mom, sister, and I, and a friend of ours relished the symphony concert, then walked in crisp sunset down grand avenues in nearby St. Paul, where tall historical houses rose high against pink and grey sky. Bronze lions stalked an entryway and the moon tangled in a tree.


With newly-fledged precautions to reports of Corona Virus overseas, it still seemed so far off on that March 7th Saturday. We stood in line at Cafe Latte, ordering colorful salads, crusty mini baguettes, and tall luscious cheesecakes. Carefully washing our hands, using napkins to grab bread rolls and utensils seemed safe and ahead of our times, a "wise but early precaution," we wondered silently.
We had leaned in for the birthday photograph, our friend producing kazoos and pink birthday napkins from her purse. Blowing horn kazoos, we sang happy birthday to my Mom.

Two weeks later and the world has now drastically changed.

In between news headlines and aching prayer for people around the world, I grabbed my keys and kids. Daniel and my niece grabbed their sweatshirts and we headed to the wild.


We needed the beauty of lofty grandeur and the majestic sight of trees.

Driving to our favorite woods, we raced to the fallen tree.

"It's still here!" Daniel yelled excitedly, jumping into descriptive narrative to his cousin.

The silence and sound of trees sighing sank deeply into my psyche. Finding a warm log and a tree to lean against, I sat and closed my eyes. Oak trees rose regally. The winds ebbed and flowed. Leaves scuttled and whirred quiet percussion. Bird calls rang in cascading crescendos.





Time passed in quiet peace and beauty. In raptured silence I listened, attentive to each rise and fall of the instruments, caught up in the cascading crescendos and rivulets of song, stopping only to smile or shift positions on the wooden tree trunk.


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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Of Sicilians and Songs



Buried high inside a wooden cupboard, we find it.

"Alley" by Carl Campbell, Creative Commons cc license 

A dusty cardboard box with black marker states "Tapes for Car Trips."  And the music for our family's road trips stands shoulder to shoulder, encased in black plastic cassette tapes labeled with my Dad's handwriting. Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Dan Fogelberg and Bruce Cockburn. I'm not sure where all the Petra albums are, but here too are the Moody Blues and two cassettes marked simply, "Harmonica and Guitar, rock and blues."

Later in the day, Bruce Cockburn's husky Canadian vocals and fine guitar-playing swell through my kitchen, and the memories flood back, joy shining in.

Music is powerful.


We see it in tambourine-shaking Sicilians stepping out onto apartment balconies, stacked high to the sky. Cream-colored high rises stretch tall and the Italian men and women lean out, belt it loud, and call out new verses to each other. While quarantines fall tighter, death rates rise, and brave hospital staff around the world battle to save lives, we see beauty rise even higher.

Sicilians lean over balconies and sing to each other, keeping time with tambourines, accordions, and recording mobile phones.

I call over my husband, daughter, son and niece and hit replay on the short social media video clip of the Italians singing. Voices find their harmony, and I can see multiple instruments. Joyful, hope-filled tears rise to my eyes, and I hug my daughter. "It's happy tears," I explain to my son.

"There are videos of Chinese people shouting to each other from their homes too," Morgan says, her voice close to my ear as we all lean in to watch the clip again. "They're yelling encouragement to each other," she clarifies as my eyebrows raise.

"Where is it?" I ask and she shrugs.

"Online, you'll find it," she grins and heads downstairs.

And that's just it, huh?

As the headlines cycle, and the numbers rise, we battle it together. Together with Italy, Iran, China, and almost every other country, we can stand together.

We can stand up and lean out. We can look for ways to stand tall and to belt it out, these songs of solidarity and soul.

I hit print and watch a second sheet of paper head to our printer downstairs. "Hi, we're your neighbors at.... As Corona Virus heats up, we wanted you to know that we're here and we can try to help if you need it..."

I admit, I'm not quite sure how to do this. In a time of protective measures to guard those of lower immune systems, I don't think knocking on neighbors' doors may be the best step. So I'll pray and brainstorm how to get it to them.

For you and me today? God is big and good, and he walks beside us. He sings songs of love to his world, and I want to do that better too.

Singing beside you, my friend, and praying for the people battling hard things in our world today.


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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Of Cancers and Suicide and Where to Find Joy that Sustains


In noisy bustling houses, we've poured more coffee and settled in close.
Photo Credit: Ell Brown, Creative Commons cc license

In a sunken living room last night at a friend's house, I pushed my grey footstool closer and we talked of kids, of this last year, and of the future. Pulling photographs from her purse, she showed me her son's senior pictures. We pored through eight or nine of them. His tousled blond hair caught the sunlight, and we debated which shot best captured him. Our talk moved on and, in between hope for the future, we voiced the hard things too. She laughed and ran hands through her hair, fatigue written between her eyes. I nodded and stretched out toes, arching ankles in a physical therapy habit from a decade ago after a sprained ankle. Hours later, after jokes, games and countless trips to the snack table, a church party crowd of us cheered in the New Year. Glittery plastic and streamer-lined kuzuus shrilled as children danced and bounced around us in a cacophony of noise.




Earlier on Christmas Eve, we brewed more coffee, laughed at the short intervals between meals, and slid up chairs around the dining room table. My tall twenty-four year old son and my gentle dark-haired daughter-in-law joined us. Newly-twenty-one year old daughter Morgan flopped onto the black couch beside Kate, and the young women grinned and worked on their art alongside each other: Morgan with digital pen and Kate with a crochet hook and soft yarn. My blue-eyed Irish Mom, my husband and I, and our two sons sorted playing cards into suits and calculated. My youngest, eleven year old Daniel, vacillated freely between clasping soft new toys, assembling plastic building pieces, and joining us at the table for games.

I watch them, my growing kids, and my heart swells with love so much it hurts and thrills me. These four that we get to call ours now -- they bring such joy. We delight to spend time with them, we love that they like to hang out here, and we are always honored when they ask to talk.

And I hear it, in my suddenly choked up throat in Sunday singing this week, how the joy and sorrow can be intertwined so deeply. Who ever said that life was simple or easy? Joys don't negate sorrows. Joyful hearts don't preclude the hard things in life. Standing, mouthing worship lyrics this past Sunday, I spoke them to Abba God, because the hards were crashing in.

Faces and names rose up in my mind, my heart sad with them. An acquaintance's suicide on Christmas day, her present from me still unwrapped and ready; her texts still lit in my phone. We waited her arrival in vain. Another friend watches handfuls of her blonde hair fall out from chemotherapy, her small children and husband looking on. Other family friends watch brain cancer steal away their dad's personality, saying small goodbyes each day now, even though he is still there.

In the row at church, I swallowed and talked honest to God. Choosing to worship You doesn't mean that life is easy. Choosing to thank you and to see the joy doesn't mean that life is blissful and pain-free.

And at home with journal and Bible, I stretch toes, twist ankles in habit therapy, and write out your words too. Seeking you out, speaking out the hard, naming the many good, stating again and again that you are good, that your character and promises are enough, that you are faithful to sustain, to be There, to walk with us through the hard, to carry my friends through their pain and yuck and sorrow... this is my therapy to untighten the hard, to loosen the tough, to move into the pain.

Joy is still there too. I watch blankets of snow drop silence and beauty, coating trees in white wonder. Slim black-capped chickadees and charcoal dark-eyed juncos dive-bomb red cranberries in the snow on my deck. I write out your words, seek You, and lean into the habits you've been teaching me, reminding my heart. You are trustworthy, you are good, you are here, you walk with us. Your heart can be trusted and you sustain and fortress your people.

And it slips joy in.


Hey, is reading the Bible more consistently one of your New Year's resolutions? Join me Monday nights, starting Jan. 6th, as we dive into the New Testament in my Cover to Cover Bible study group. Registration closes this week, so sign up now. It is open to all, and Village Schools of the Bible offers financial aid too. 

Join me? I can't wait to dig into the fast-paced true accounts of Jesus' life and death here and to watch the exciting urgent action of the early church growing, fleeing Roman emperors, and building lives centered on the truths and joys that surmount everything. 

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Dear John MacArthur, You Chose Wrongly, my Brother

Dear John MacArthur,

You chose wrongly, my brother.

Your Two-Word answer should have been, "A sister."
Photo credit to Grace Church

I understand that maybe you answered impulsively, and that now, hopefully, you are regretting it.

I found your email address online, and I wanted to contact you directly. You are my brother in Jesus, and I think of you as someone who loves God and who loves his Words.

For us who have the honor of saturating ourselves in God's Words, though, our responsibilities are higher. A God-soaked life should radiate out of us into a love-saturated lifestyle, and a deep humility. 

When you derisively, dismissively, and dishonoringly said, "Go Home," in a word-association game about Beth Moore, you chose wrongly. Whatever your disagreements are theologically with another person, they do not lead to dishonoring, contempt-filled language. She is a sister in Jesus with whom you will spend eternity, across God's table.

At a ceremony honoring your fifty years as preaching pastor at a church called Grace, you displayed none. I am saddened, my brother, that this occasion that should have been marked with joy for you and your members is now framed in sad shame for the rest of us.

When Todd Friel set you up for this derisive comment, he embarrassed himself, and other Jesus-followers, and he shamed his title as a shepherd-pastor. When Phil Johnson called her narcissistic and claimed her teachings were self-focused, he was dishonoring to another brother or sister in Jesus, as well as incorrect.

You know that our God calls us to go directly to our brother or sister if we have a disagreement with them, not to name-call or attack them publicly. 

When nervous or complicit laughter broke out across your auditorium at the sight of three pastors dishonoring a fellow Jesus-follower, we shamed the name of Jesus. At a conference called Truth Matters, you did not honor the One Called Truth. Truth is a person, who calls us to live and walk in his Ways. Behind a website called "Grace to You," we have tripped and fallen and are not offering grace there this week.

Half of your constituents are women. Strong capable women, called Ezer Warrior Helpers by their God, the name he calls himself often in the Bible, meaning warrior, ally, comrade. Many other wise people have already answered back against your claims on women this week, though, here, here, and here.

That is not the aim of my letter to you, though. My brother, you chose wrongly. Your Two-Word answer should have been "a sister." 

Please speak up in humble gentle apology to the watching world. Our God watches. The world watches. Our words matter. Our attitudes lay naked, exposed, and our words carry power. As family in Jesus, we can always agree or disagree with each other, but our model is to do it in honoring, respectful ways, and to their faces.

I'm clicking "send" to this email to you, and Todd, and Phil, and praying hard.

Sincerely, respectfully,

Jennifer Dougan
a sister in this God-family around the world




Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dance Parties and the Dean

"Rhythm 'n' Blues Portraits" by Chiara Tovazzi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It was after the dance party.

After I had shown him black and white television footage of timeless classic dance songs, and I had danced wildly around the green carpeted living room. He had curled up in a black and white zebra blanket while I showed him The Token's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Beach Boys' "Surfing U.S.A." and The Temptations' "My Girl." He had grinned weakly, and bobbed a small foot occasionally. Queuing up grainy black and white video footage of the Beetles singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," we had watched and grinned at the screaming, star-struck girls in the crowd. I sang along and clicked the next song.

"This is Chubby Checkers teaching a popular dance back then called 'The Twist,'" I told him. Laughing and weaving, I had tried it out, spinning around in black exercise pants and a yellow college t-shirt.

Daniel had grinned, his face looking pale. On day two of feeling ill, he was weaker than yesterday, and nausea had added to his symptoms. Sore throat, chills, intermittent fevers, runny nose, and aching shaky legs... the last part sounds like the beginning of a fifties song, doesn't it? Poor guy.

This morning we cancelled an afternoon play date with a moved-away neighbor friend, and had settled in for a cozy rainy sick day. He laid around the house most of the day, my sweet eleven year old, moaning and faint. Coughs and weak sighs expressed his heart. I poured coffee and curled up beside him in comfort, running my fingers across his forehead, or curling the hair at the back of his head.

Mid-afternoon, the house was silent. Daniel slept in a blanket nest on the living room floor, and I sat quietly nearby, reading and studying. Scratching pen across paper, I wrote out portions of an ancient psalm from the Bible, its words filling me.

"Oh how I love your law! 
I meditate on it all day long," Psalm 119:97 had said.

Well, I want this, God, I had written it to him, writing the verses out again this time as prayers, saying, I want this to be me, I want this to be my attitude. The psalm continued, pointing out the source for wisdom, insight, and understanding, and I wrote each verse out in prayer and excitement.

And then a line caught me, and it swelled my heart. In tender love, God declared it boldly. In a world abounding in podcasts and experts and coaches for hire on every website, God tucked this truth into his word. "I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me," Psalm 119:102 said.

You yourself have taught me? God is the one teaching me? He is my teacher? And suddenly it seemed so intimate, so bold, so audacious and wild to think that I had access to the God of the World. Like a college dean who offered daily appointments for me, the image struck me in a new way. With my computer email inbox overflowing with experts clamoring for me to buy their courses, to sign up for their online lessons, to buy their latest books, we have a God -- the God-- who says he teaches me. He teaches you. The intimacy of it hasn't worn off yet. The God of the Universe is my teacher, and his heart is gentle, encouraging, and it helps me to not depart from his law, he says.

Half an hour later, my pen still scribbling in joyful journal prayer, Daniel stirred and woke up.

"Hey bud."

After the dance party and the simple supper that he was too weak to eat much of, we sat together on the green carpet floor. He was swirled in his zebra blanket, and we stared outside at the fast-flying clouds. The rain slowed. Grey clouds moved on, and the sun slipped in and out from behind the storm.

I traced his forehead and cocked my head, trying to remember any and every worship song I knew. I sang and sang, wanting Daniel to know his source of strength, this foundation of God's love that is never shaken, and this God who walks beside us always.

Running low on choruses, I picked up the refrain of "Jesus Loves Me," and he startled me. In a quiet whisper, Daniel sang along, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong." Daniel's tiny cheek moved as he sang from his spot on my lap, small mouth moving as his face lay half hidden on my leg. "Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so."

His voice trailed off, his eyes still shut, and he lay there quietly, waiting for the next song. I chose one he knew, and we both sang along.

In sickness, we can still sing. How I love your words, God, your presence, your truth. They teach us, give us wisdom, and help us make wise choices. They sustain us in the storms, and in the sickness we can still sing. 



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Sunday, September 29, 2019

"I Smell my Brother in the House"


I like how he said it. Right between math problems and sitting beside the open window, he said it.

"I smell John in the house. I smell my brother."

I stopped, smiled and took in a deep breath, wondering what my twenty-four year old smelled like to my eleven year old.

Familiar fragrances of french press coffee, wooden pencil and rubber eraser were all I detected, none of which epitomized John to me.

"Really? What does John smell like?" I asked.

Sun caught in Daniel's tousled blonde hair as he shrugged small shoulders. "I don't know." He looked up from his math page and glanced towards the stairway where John and others were playing games downstairs. "I smell John," he declared happily, pleased with the observation.



Recently he sat beside me in church, this tall lanky man-son. His wife not with him that day, he had wandered over to our row and joined me. Both of us smiled up at his Dad who was drumming in front. I grinned happy, hugged him, and picked up my book bag to slide further down the row, making room for him.

Partway through the singing, I heard it. His voice, grown up, fully his, lifted in worship to his God, and I teared up to hear my voice singing beside his. Eyes closed, arms raised, he sang out love to His Creator, and my mama heart swelled. I know of no greater joy than that my kids know You, God, I had whispered it quiet to my God. Tears welled and I blinked them away, before trusting my voice to sing again.


And our church has been studying it during the Sunday morning adult Bible study time over coffee each week. ... This idea of Loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then loving our neighbors (all of humanity) as ourselves. We've been wrestling with what does that really look like? How do we do that? And what are all the practical aspects that ripple out from there? We've barely touched the surface, I know.

Tonight I mull it over, Daniel's recollection of knowing his brother's scent, and my joy at singing beside my eldest son. This joy of knowing God, loving Him, should mark us so much that it radiates out from us, rippling out from us in voice and spirit, so that we are known and recognized by how it changes us. Our very essences, our heart, soul, mind and strength should be marked, changed, by knowing Him.

I'm still curious about that over here, and mulling it over, swishing it around in my head. What do people notice when they see me? How can I respond with love and respect to the people around me? Am I marked by a different fragrance?

Rain falls lightly tonight. Red and yellow celosia flowers tip and bow to the side, heavy with rain. Buckets and bowls scattered across my deck collect the rain and pool it. Night's twilight is fresh, clean, smelling like autumn rain.

And maybe that's the answer? What we take in is what we can reflect and refract out.

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Rockets, September, and How to Successfully Soar This Year

At first it just looked like an empty field.

Two dogs and a couple walked the corner of a barren soccer field. There were no rockets in sight. 

"Hmm, I thought it was here," I murmured to Daniel, checking my phone and the address again. "I'll call Mark to get Art's number." 

And then, just as the call was finishing, we saw them. Far in the distance to the right rippled a couple tent awnings, with some men and boys lined up. 

Daniel and I grabbed lawn chairs and water bottles and began the long hike. 

Grandpas, fathers, young men and boys crouched around tables, totes and truck beds. A towering spiny ridge of twelve metal spokes took center stage. Males lined up rockets in various sizes, colors, and shapes, sliding the rocket bodies down spindles, and attaching them to the electrical firing mechanisms.


Daniel joined them, walking up in pride and excitement, uncertain of how it all worked. New-acquaintance Mr. Neal graciously taught him how to thread the rocket down the take-off rod before attaching two metal clips to each fuse wire. 

That's where your power comes from, he taught us. The new rocket model motor, for all its fiery potential, was nothing without the spark. 

Daniel checked the connections and stepped back. 

"Range closed," the leader rang out, and the twelve or fifteen of us walked back behind the safety line. Mr. Neal moved behind the electrical control box, teaching Daniel how to arm and fire his rocket for when his turn came. 

One by one each rocket's name, creator and motor type was announced, before the launch sequence began. Five, four, three, two, one! 

Squealing whooshes and whizzes, rumbles and pops surprised us. We exclaimed and followed the flight paths of each rocket, losing them for a bit in the afternoon sunlight and blue sky. 

Achieving peak trajectory, they hung mid-air for a moment before hurtling towards earth. Free-falling rockets tumbled and dropped at fast rates as we watched and murmured, exclaiming or laughing at each one's story. Tiny parachutes burst out in oranges, yellows, pinks, or red, while other rockets tore in two and raced towards the ground, crashing hard. 

One by one down the line, rockets of all shapes and sizes had their turn. Most crackled and soared high, but several remained silent, motionless on the launch floor as the controller flicked their ignition buttons with no response.

Welp, connection error, the rocket controller concluded and moved on to other rockets. 

And I felt it, this truth from rocket falls and rocket launches. If I'm not connected to time in God's word, to the powerful life and joy and meaning that flows from him, then I'm just stuck silent on the launch pad. My only sizzle and life flows from the Creator of this rotating globe, and everything else is just a dressed-up rocket with no juice to go. 

And I've heard it, that Martin Luther used to say that he was too busy NOT to pray, indeed ordering his busiest days to schedule in extra time to pray. That has resonated strongly in me this week. Pouring coffee, grabbing journal, Bible and pen, I scratch To Do lists alongside writing out a Bible psalm each morning, and I feel it soak God's vitality and purpose deep in me. 

As September sidles up beside us, and the schedules shift, join me in this? Let's check to make sure our connections are clipped in. Are you linked to the Source? Getting juiced up? 

That's where our Power comes from, friend. 

May your times savoring God's presence bring you joy, life, and centered-focus in this busy season. May he be your soul's rest and renewal, your slowed-down moments, before you hurtle high. 

Smiling with you, cheering you on too, and praying for you, 

Jennifer 


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