Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Weighted Moments That May Be Passing You (& Me) By


"Will you cut my mouth?" he asks, holding out a butter knife towards his pumpkin.

We're gathered around the kitchen table, five pumpkins and five people. Slimy seeds with dangling orange pumpkins strings are being slung into a glass bowl for later, and we pass the stencil blades and tiny plastic saws around between us.

My six year old son and I brainstorm the expression he wants his pumpkin face to have, and I slice and cut features for him. Swingy jazz music plays in the background, dirty dishes stack high on one of the counters, and everything has stopped for an hour or so as we slip into family time.

"This year for Christmas, can we decorate lots of cookies?" my daughter asks, staring intently at her pumpkin face as she carves.

"Sure." We talk more of customs, and it intrigues me to know more about which holiday traditions and times together have been meaningful for them. John stretches out across the couch by now, all of us done with our pumpkins except Morgan who is painstakingly following an idea she found online.  After some thought, John brings up simple moments from his childhood, walks in preschool years, times alone with special loved ones, and it hits me.

Most of our special family moments aren't the huge scripted ones. They are the small cumulative times that build each year: an hour here dicing out pumpkin faces; a squeezed in afternoon there spreading red frosting onto chunky gingerbread men; but mostly, it's the happy moments around the dinner table before someone has to leave, or the ordinary evenings at home with a family game or movie.

I can see it now, how often my nineteen year old likes to linger in the kitchen as I wash dishes or cook supper, pulling his long legs up onto the counter or into my small desk chair, while we talk about the day before he rushes off to work. Those moments hold weighted value now tonight as I see them for what they are: precious, and building a foundation of family memories.

"Mom, is it time to light the candles now?" Daniel asks, all six years of him brimming in excitement.

(And it's not about Halloween, because we're careful about those themes, yet are thankful for times to connect with and meet our neighbors.) It's about the excitement of doing something as a family, building a memory each time we gather together. Today, it was with pumpkins, and faces, and autumn leaves. And the memories captured here are precious.

What are some things you enjoy doing with your family or friends?


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meeting Him Between the Lines

"What do you see?" I ask her, holding out two hands like an amateur photographer, framing a scene out the bedroom window.

Photo: Stephen Wong, Creative Commons, cc license
She flops closer on the bed, scooting up on her elbows and begins to stare through the window, out across the front lawn, and into the neighbor's yard across the street.

"Notice what you see. What's still? What's moving? What colors do you see? What do you hear? How does it make you feel?..." I trail off, picking up my pen to scratch words across my sheet as well.

One fourth a tree in yellow leaves flutter. 
rest is bare, crumpled. 

Pumpkin-colored crimson tree in full-splendor
backdrops my last yellow leaves
carpeting the neighbor's lawn;
a reclining scarecrow in a brown wicker chair.

The wind blows hard from the left,
leaves strain to hold on
Yellow maples flutter right.
Daniel yells in sudden angry crisis from outside my bedroom door...

Poetry in World Literature side-steps on while I comfort a sad six year old. Later, he leans on tip toe from his wooden kitchen chair to break egg shells and slide gooey bananas into our scuffed white mixer. Tactile pressure explodes and shatters white shell fragments across the counter while he practices with egg pieces in the compost.

"...Two, three," we count the flour cups, and he pours a grain dust avalanche into the bowl. We mash, mix, and stir, before pouring lumpy batter into metal muffin tins. Banana bread muffins scent an autumn kitchen, while red leaves in the backyard fly sideways in the wind.

For devotions this week, I am enjoying the ancient poetic verses from the Bible book of Proverbs. Inspired by God, several Near Eastern kings captured wisdom into brief captions, like bite-sized lessons to mull over. After an initial reading through of Proverbs chapter 12, I knew I needed more time with it. Grabbing a smooth-rolling black pen and my journal, I wrote sentence by sentence, leaving room and time to pause and write prayer responses back to the Writer God Behind the Words. 

Working my way through the chapter, I interacted with Him in each line.

..."The plans of the righteous are just, 
but the advice of the wicked is deceitful." 

Lord, you call me righteous through Jesus' blood. Are my plans your plans? Am I following your heart and desires? Help me to be so in tune with your spirit that my plans are yours, automatically just. Help my advice not be wicked or deceitful.

"The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, 
but the speech of the upright rescues them." 

Abba, may my words and my heart not be wicked. May they not be out for another's blood, or pain, or wounds. May my speech rescue myself and others. May I be upright in your sight. 

Hours after the banana bread, the World Literature, and four loads of dishes, this idea comes to mind again, and I pull out my journal and Bible to study them some more.

"...A fool shows his annoyance at first, 
but a prudent man overlooks an insult." 

Whew, yep, I'm the first one so often, God. Help me, forgive me. You used the word 'prudent' here instead of 'wise'. Prudent has a longer term outlook, right? Wise, cautious, long-term-focus for better results? Help me overlook insults and use long-term judgment.

And while I'm safe at a desk eating a banana muffin for the moment, I know how easily I fall into the first category instead of the latter. There is more wisdom in this chapter that I need to mine. 

Photo: Ryan Guill, Creative Commons, cc license
Grab a muffin with me, and your Bible and journal? Where are you reading? Want to write back prayers to the Writer God Behind the Words, and have him draft and shape us into living poetry?

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.