Thursday, December 8, 2016

Finding Joy When You're Fighting to Stay Afloat

Photo Credit: Carolyn Pinke
He's singing and the echoes bounce off shower walls, YMCA tiles, and slip under door number three to us in the family locker room outside. Daniel's happiness slides out and over, a cacophony of joy in a bathroom of strangers. The door cracks and he appears, hair wet swirls on his forehead and standing tall in the back. His face is flushed from hot water after a cold swim lesson, and he slips small toes into grey camouflage snowboots, humming cheerfully.

"I was thinking about God," he tells me, shifting his balled up red towel and damp swimsuit to me as he plunges arms into bunched up blue jacket sleeves. "He's the king of kings, God of gods. He made everything --galaxies!"

"He is! He's so cool. The one true God, huh?" I open the door of the locker room and we head past the basketball court where Daniel peers through glass walls to see if his friend is there. "How were front scoops?" I ask, knowing this was a hard swim technique we had prayed about just an hour earlier.

He grins wide and talks, adjusting his jeans waist as he walks, and skipping occasionally.

I grin. "Yay, thank you, God. He helped you. He's always listening and helping us through things, huh? You worked hard and persevered too. I'm proud of you, bud."

Holding hands, we walk across a dark parking lot, alert for red taillights.

"Whooo, it's cold," he shudders, pulling his hood up, and we drive home looking at the Christmas lights and talking.

Happy December, friend. Wherever you are today, know that your Abba God sees you, hears you, and knows your thoughts. Talk to him and watch him join you in those lanes, swirling you through the face-in-the-water-front-scoops of your own stories. You are loved and delighted in. Then burst into ricocheting praise to him in whatever shower stall or room you're in.

Smiling and learning about God from a wet-headed eight year old, I remain,

your sister and friend, Jennifer. What are you learning and reading about lately?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

God is Not a Cosmic Chastity Belt

Tiny ice balls pelt the windshield and bounce off the car. Sidewalks and roads glisten slick. Three-to-four inches of heavy snow loom in grey clouds overhead, and evening traffic snakes red along the highways and frontage roads. Sirens and ricocheting blue lights careen down dark streets.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Paola Kizette Cimenti, Creative Commons cc license
In this last post in our series, Let's Talk about Sex, I turn words inward towards my former twenty-year old self and to all my single friends, no matter their ages. All this talk of snow reminds me of the confused messages I've heard -- and sometimes accidentally implied in youth lessons. God is not a cosmic chastity belt. He is not a frowning father shaking his head, trying to keep his kids'  bodies snow-pure, as if sex or sexuality shocked him. God is not scandalized and disgusted by sex. Rather he is the inventor of nerves and neurons, of sensations and senses. He holds the patent on pleasure and neural pathways, on endorphins and oxytocin baths.

God's guidelines on sex are not archaic restrictions to stop our fun. Rather his desire is for our good, and his boundaries are for our safety. Throughout history, God has been the hero stepping in to say, "Enough!" at each new horrific warping of sexuality that the evil one and a cruel world wrought: Child-sex trafficking -- not okay. Incest or abuse, not okay. Destitute men or women forced into a lifestyle of prostitution -- not their fault and God advocates for their rescues. Single moms or dads raising kids on their own -- God cares for them and knows how hard they work. His perfect plan is a shared load, raising children in community. Spouses divorced cruelly, unfairly, for no reason, left as paupers with no financial or social support in society -- God calls foul and sets up parameters for their protection and care.

In my twenties, I wrestled with forgiving myself for physical forays and failures, and I see that in many of my teens' or former teens' eyes now. Girls across restaurant tables who have said, "I'm afraid they'll look at me differently now they know I've had sex." 

"No!," I urge. "God's love is unconditional, and he is so forgiving. Everyone wrestles with sin at times. No one is perfect. If you've had a chance to ask God to forgive you, it's gone. God says, 'he is faithful to forgive and to cleanse us from any unrighteousness.' You can start fresh right now, a new day, a new start, saying, 'God, from now on, I wanna try to do things your way.' God's love is so big."

With the teens and twenty-somethings in my life, we talk about how hard the physical can be. We talk about how God's ways of saying, 'Not yet. Just wait until marriage' are for our good. We pull out the statistics on co-habiting and how it drastically increases one's odds of divorce. Looking around at the prevalence of divorce and eroded marriages around us, I reason, if we really love this guy/girl, let's give this relationship the best odds and chances we can, right? We talk as well about how much this choosing to delay sexual play until marriage is about growing habits of self-control for later in life too, not just now. There will be weekend business trips for you or your spouse someday. As you practice being able to walk away from temptation now, you are building that habit for later in life. With the large number of affairs happening around us, don't we owe this to ourselves, to practice this habit and build it in each other?

My worry with the snow analogies, with junior high abstinence pledge cards, and with the hyper-focus on technical virginity, is the danger that we'll miss the bigger picture. Yes, I want to honor God with my sexual choices before and after marriage. Yes, God talks about saving sex for marriage. Indeed he talks bluntly and cheerfully about a wide range of sex topics impacting single and married people. He does this not because he is uptight and shocked, but because he created, invented, and made sex. As the inventor of it and us, he knows how it best works, and what brings the most joy and benefit.

God is not your cosmic chastity belt. Instead, he holds the instruction manual and keys to a fabulous invention he patented. In our desire to protect young people from the pains and fall-out associated with sex outside of marriage, and after generations of muddled, awkward, inadequate "birds and bees" conversations, we have left them thinking sex was dirty or something to be ashamed of. And dozens of newly-weds have since wrestled with the fallout of changing their attitudes of "Sex-No!" to "Sex Now."

It's complicated, yeah? I agree, but the good news is that we can start over. Look deep and see all that God has to say about sex and marriage. The Bible drips with it. In marriage, sex is a delightful gift. So to my single friends trying to live out their Jesus-life convictions, it's not "Sex -- No!" It's "Sex, Not Yet..." and I'm cheering you on from the side and available to talk anytime.

(If you missed the first, second, and third article in this series, Let's Talk about Sex, feel free to click on the links and join us.)

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Unearthing Thanks (and a special Audio for You)

Can you see them? The condensation-dripping plastic ziplock bags hanging from the clean dishes rack. And I'm not sure if it's just the frugal missionary kid in me that still washes plastic bags, or the trying-to-go-more-green-girl in me who is sad about too many plastic bags floating in the oceans, but nonetheless, three bags hang drying in the rack beside the Thanksgiving pies.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends! I am thankful for you, thankful for these places online where we get to exchange emails, exchange blog posts, and where we get to rekindle flames in our walk with God, in our marriage and family, and in our spheres of influence.

I am thankful for a warm house where the smell of pumpkin and pecan pies wafts buttery and with scents of freshly-ground cloves, cinnamon, and drizzled vanilla extract. I am thankful for tall grown children, climbing the stairs happy after a rare chance to sleep in, and for a slender eight year old  who chirps cheerful welcomes to his older siblings. I am thankful for fresh ground coffee in a scuffed up french press cylinder still oily from yesterday's brew.

From my pie-smelling home (with baked-on unknown browns on my stove top) and drippy plastic re-used bags, know that I bid you a warm Happy Thanksgiving. You are loved and delighted in. You are seen and heard. Your voice and story matters, and the Creator of the world is right beside you.

Feel free to grin along with my husband and I... We were honored to give a Thanksgiving sermon at our church this last Sunday, sitting together on stage, and digging into some of the surprising statistics and benefits of becoming people of gratitude, and seeing where God's ways bring the greatest joy. (Click here to listen online. Sorry, without visuals you are missing a cute photo of Mark as a six year old, and of me as a fifteen year old holding a pet monkey.)

(Next week, we'll finish the last post in this series of Let's Talk about Sex.)

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Chicken and the Egg in a Bedroom of Silk Sheets

I've seen the chill creep right up through a marriage -- seen it in others and watched it frost up my own. I know firsthand the battle to restore romance, one choice at a time. And while experts are right that hostility shrinks up desire, experts also point out this powerful hope: any relationship can be transformed as both people work at it.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Mercedes Dayonara, Creative Commons, cc license
Restoring romance, chiseling off the chinked walls that creep in, and softening our hearts one moment at a time can bring amazing hope and change. Rekindling instant romance with the one you love starts with smaller steps than I thought possible. With our gritty grace-filled words, re-focused attitudes, and softened hearts, we can melt angry hurt and restore intimacy.

...I like science.

And you grin to hear me say this in a post about marriage, but there is some neurological chemistry that has changed how I view sex. For many women, sex is something we are interested in once we feel connected to our man. (And the days' harried pace needs to be beaten back with some conversation, eye contact, cuddling, and a helpful hand around the house from our handsome men.) For many married men, however, sex is the solace, the conduit, and the very act that rekindles connection and intimacy with their wives. It's the chicken and the egg dilemma, except in a bedroom with silk sheets.

And the science behind What Sex Unlocks in Marriage is fascinating. This neurological chemistry floods oxytocin through a man's brain, instantly re-bonding him and connecting him more devotedly to his wife and family. Gary Thomas, in his article, The Power of Pure Passion, unpacks this further.

So, grab your man. Have him splash on that cologne, and go disappear into your room.

Our God is a clever and playful inventor, isn't he?

(This is the third post in a series on Let's Talk about Sex. The first two are: The Lie that Will Ruin Your Sex Life, and Of Sex and Cheesecake.)

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Lie that'll Ruin Your Sex Life

(This is the second post in the series, Let's Talk about Sex. The first is here.)
Photo Credit: Flickr user Milena Mihaylova, Creative Commons cc license
You've crept up to me quiet and said it in hushed voices. In conference hallways, outside workshop doors, or pulling me aside at retreats and MOPS groups, you've swiped hair back from your face, and bravely opened up.

"I know the stereotype is that men want sex more than women, but it's the opposite with us. He's not interested in sex any more. I'm the one always asking."  


"We haven't had sex in months, and I know it's important to guys, but I'm never in the mood. What should we do?"

And women --you with your eyes down, your face flushed, and your voice quiet and worried --I've loved your honesty, and you are not alone. I am so proud of you for voicing what is a concern to lots of people. In your courage, you stood up and broke the power of the lie.

And the lie that will ruin your sex life is this: "Nothing will change. It's no use talking about it."

Because the truth is far from this. Experts in the field assure married couples everywhere that sex can just keep getting better and better. Redbook magazine shocked themselves several years ago after compiling content from surveyed couples and individuals. Working from a non-biblical worldview, they gathered information from a variety of people's sex lives, and what they found surprised them. >> Married monogamous couples rated the highest in mutually-satisfying sex lives, with the most active sex lives, including the most frequent orgasms, and the highest-reported satisfaction in males and females.

And this shouldn't surprise us since sex was God's idea. He created it and us, and called it good. He sculpted male and female bodies beautifully, and purposely entwined nerve bundles and sensory organs that would trigger pleasure. Our Creator even devoted multiple sections in the Bible to talk openly about issues surrounding sex, giving guidelines for its best use, and desiring for it to be a gift, not a weapon or tool to cause damage. We have a God who talks bluntly and unblushingly about sexual intimacy.

Dr. Willard Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage, states: "Since men and women differ so greatly in the way they come to enjoy sex, no wonder we find so much sexual incompatibility in marriage. The key of communication unlocks the doors of ignorance and opens up to each couple the opportunity for sexual compatibility" (Harley, 52).

Because in truth, "...any marriage can have that sizzle!" affirms Harley, from the vantage point of years of counseling couples. His book then delves into some of the complexities of sexual intimacy that can be resolved with communication. For example,
 "Men experience sexual arousal and climax with relative ease. Precisely the opposite is true for the majority of women," states Harley. "...My counseling experience has shown me that even sexually-active women usually enter marriage having rarely experienced arousal or climax..."

"Husbands often enter marriage assuming their wives have far more sexual sophistication than they have. Because they don't want to appear naive or lacking in sexual prowess, some wives don't level with their husbands. Instead they act as though they truly experience sexual arousal or climax, when in fact they do not.... Many otherwise compatible couples fail to find sexual fulfillment due to their own ignorance or deception."

"As the bottom line, many husbands do without sex or exist on a very limited diet (in their opinion). The husband blames the wife, of course, but the real culprit is sexual incompatibility, which needs to be overcome through the efforts of both partners, not just the woman" (Harley, 52).
Dr. Ed Wheat, author of a great sex and marriage book entitled, Love Life for Every Married Couple: How to Fall in Love and Stay in Love spends several chapters pinpointing and solving various complexities in couples' sex lives. Addressing issues of past sexual abuse, flagging libido or desire, effective foreplay, the role that emotional issues play in a couple's physical life, and more, Wheat outlines the biological, psychological and physiological circuits of our desire, arousal, and climax stages. At each stage, he illuminates possible weak areas that would hinder the process, and then offers solutions for each break in the circuit. Wheat's book even raises awareness of which medicines may accidentally be affecting one's libido, and how to change that.

Feeling uncomfortable with all this talk of sex? You are not alone. Lots of people clam up at the topic of sex. But the truth is, "Any marriage can have that sizzle!" And my desire for you is a passionate married sex life, with confidence and sensitivity to each other.

Thoughts? Have any marriage or sex books that you've appreciated? Found this helpful? Please feel free to forward any of these posts onto friends or family, or to share them on facebook.

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Revised and reprinted from the archives in 2014. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Of Sex and Cheesecake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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