Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hidden in You Beneath the Hubbub and Silence

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

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

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

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

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

Peace. Quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

You, With Your Foot in Two Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Other Woman in my Marriage

Elbows deep in a crumpled cardboard box, sitting on the wooden floor in my kitchen, I hear him. Coming up behind me, he ropes his arms around me, and nuzzles my neck. His two day-old beard and mustache scratch my skin, raising a chill down my lower back.

Surrounded by moving boxes towering high and a To-Do list just as tall, I waver.

And this is me, I recognize. This task-driven, productivity-focused woman is the one who wakes up in the morning, sees the jobs at hand, and plunges in.

But an unpacked or immaculate home is nothing without passionate loving relationships inside. A crossed-off To-Do list for a cross family solves nothing. So I'm reminding myself to set aside the lists to concentrate on the loved ones in my life. Sometimes this means a card game over coffee with my six year old and Lego battles that extend across the couch, or longer conversations with my teens about social media dilemmas.

I confess that I'm bad at this some days. Crossed-off items and a clean kitchen seem more outwardly productive than built relationships over the long run. But the payoff of a swept floor versus a sweet family connection is incomparable.

Sitting beside a cavernous cardboard box filled with random kitchen items and the guts of a spilled-out telephone drawer, I hesitate.

"It can wait," I realize and stand.

My husband and I arrange a kids' video for our little one before disappearing behind a locked door. Pulling shut the curtains and turning on the fan, we step in, fully seeing each other, smiling and leaning in.

The other woman in my marriage-- this other personality side of me-- is the fun one, the passionate and people-person one. She is the balance to my driven half.

There is a verse I have been scribbling across scratch paper, taping to my walls, and scrawling across my journal this last year or so. It rings in lyric prayer to me, and it comes to mind this morning.

May the Lord make your love increase
and overflow for each other, 
and for everyone else, 
just as ours does for you. 

May he strengthen your hearts 
so that you will be blameless and holy
in the presence of our God and Father
when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones  (1 Thessalonians 3:12,13).

He is doing it, I see, this God-head whose very Being reflects an interwoven, inter-connected ability to wrangle work and relationships harmoniously. The God of the universe is working in me, in my marriage and family, rekindling flames, making our love increase and overflow. And He gets all the credit.

This same God sees you, sees your loved ones, and can do the unimaginable. Ready?

* Photo credit: Neal Sanche, Creative Commons, cc license.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Thing To Know on a Day (or Month) of Firsts

 Ahh, this feels good, sitting down to tap fingers on keys. There have been a variety of firsts these last few days.

First night to sleep in the new home on Thursday.

First shower in the new place -- nope, sorry, it wasn't Friday morning. I left grungy and ready for a morning of cleaning the old house and returning the Uhaul truck.

(Don't even ask about the toothbrush. You won't want to know. Apparently, toothbrushes and deodorant will be the items left behind at the old house when moving, in case you wanted to know.  ...Um, Friday evening, if you were wondering.)

First time I brewed coffee in this new house, after ransacking cupboards and boxes to find the beans, the grinder, and the glass French Press.

First sunrises, first sunsets. First time to fully watch where the sun traces shadows and light across the backyard, and calculating where we'll put the raised garden bed frames, still caked with black dirt from our last house's yard.

"Are you excited?" one of my youth group girls asked me, as I drove her to the other house to retrieve her green backpack.

"Well, we like this new house and are thankful to God for it, but we love the old house too. When we moved into the old house we thought we would be there for years, so we settled in, creating memories, dreaming of the future, making plans.

It's like stopping a book, halfway through," I grinned at Michael, glancing over at her as I shifted up in gears on the quiet road. A fellow book lover and artist, she gets this.

"Now I'm in a new book, and it's a great book, but it feels odd to have stopped reading the other book, only halfway through." Our two years in the other house felt like introductory chapters, with the plot just starting to pull together.

"This will be a great book too, I know," I said, smiling at Michael as we pulled into the driveway, "but we're feeling mixed emotions and some sadness too at saying goodbye."

Wednesday morning and afternoon, my parents and close friend Shari and I dug up raspberry, strawberry, and rhubarb plants from the old house. We hoisted out withered-looking ferns, white shasta daisies, and yellow-budded flowers. Fingering through moist soil, we combed and fretted out innocuous gnarled bulbs of tulips, crocuses, and tall purple alliums. Hauling buckets of dirt and plants into our vehicles, we drove them to the new house. Before any tables or couches saw the inside of the new house, we spent the day slicing into soil and grass, burying roots and fragile wisps of life, anticipating their future beauty.

Along the side of a grey metal shed now stand eight crinkly-leaved raspberry plants. Three rhubarb shrubs lean awkwardly nearby. Each day we soak their roots in water, knowing this stage is tremulous.

In our mind, though, we know what they look like full-grown. We have seen them in good health, resplendently red and green, giant leaves like elephant ears, crowded and abundant. We have seen these plants in their glory, rooted deep in the earth, watered and soaking in the Light, and we know what's coming.

The days pass, our excitement mounts as we settle into this new home, and the sun has just risen, arcing a few hours ago over the maple and fir trees to my left. Those raspberries and shasta daisies? Their leaves are unfurling in the Light, roots sinking lower.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

And It's In You Too...

Photo: Martin Beek, Creative Commons, cc license
Photo: Rodney Campbell, Creative Commons, cc license
Yellow, black, and white goldfinches flit and dart about the sunflowers. In the mad jungle of ragtag red, orange, and yellow sunflowers, a crowd of goldfinches has moved in. With circus precision, the finches hang upside down, bobbing on the gangly stalks, thrusting hungry beaks into the flower. Limbless, their beaks strip petals, tear away the center fluff, and burrow for each seed. In tireless one-by-one fashion they duck and pull, duck and pull. A tiger tangerine and black butterfly saunters past, catching my attention out the window, and the splashes of color and audacious life woo me.

In the last two weeks I am finding myself drawn into, walking alongside, and wrestling with several authors, as I read their books. In Micha Boyett's Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer, I imagined myself picking up a coffee mug and sidling into her San Francisco flat or standing with her on California playgrounds as she studied the essence of prayer and delved into Benedictine monk disciplines. Micha pondered intimacy with God, wondering how to best walk face-to-face with God through the laundry piles, dirty dishes, and toddler tantrums of a mother's life. She asks bare naked questions to the Creator about her worth and her desire to live a grand life for God, and what that ultimately looks like. Her discoveries ring with calm peace and freedom that move me into my next book.

Emily P. Freeman's book A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live is one I am only halfway through. She tiptoes into life's passions with gentle questions, finally stripping aside any excuses, apprehensions, or hesitations from the full life God wants us to live in him. This Artist God who created crackling fire and ice, who calls the stars out by name each night, and who spins galaxies in motion, holding all things together --This is the Artist God who designed us, who crafted and molded us in unique ways, and whose perfect plan is to see us experimenting with and using the skills and passions he placed in us for his glory. And the art that splashes out of us in a million little ways isn't really about us. It is his glory and beauty reflected, refracted, and ricocheting out of us, in a million darkness-shattering ways. Emily intrigues me, calling out gentle tears. She declares that art isn't only swirled paint on canvas, or words curling up a page -- although it can be-- art is whatever brings us most fully alive and what is screaming to come out of us, the image-bearers of the Artist God.

Emily whispers, "As a fellow image bearer, I want to whisper wake up words into your spirit, where your life is joined with God's. Wake up to the life of Christ within you and see how he wants to come out. Wake up to your unique calling and live out the truth of who Christ is and who you are in him. Uncover the art you were born to make. Release the art you were made to live" (Freeman, 36).

"...You were designed to reflect the glory of God" and you were "made in the image of God for a purpose" (Freeman, 36, 37).

Yellow and black goldfinches zip past my window, alighting on the caramel and crimson flowers. There are only two of them now, bold males in black capped heads who pause to see my movements in the glass above them. The flowers sway in silence for a moment. Their art drips from them, decadent colors on tiny plum-sized birds. God's extravagance seems almost wasteful, and yet it refreshes and inspires me. Our Cosmic Artist paints with limitless colors, creating in endless ways, urging us to follow suit.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The First Time I Ever Prayed THAT Before Vacation

His long toes and foot stretched out slowly from the backseat of the car to settle on my armrest.

"Is this okay, Mom?" John asked. Reflected in my sun-visor, his broad shoulders spilled past his third of the backseat, brushing against my daughter's. His leg slid up to the front seat's armrest, flexing out stiffness.

"No problem, John." I kissed the top of his foot.

The five of us bounced across the western half of the United States in our blue Oldsmobile on an eleven-day road trip to see relatives in Washington state. We passed crumbling wooden barns whose caving in was silent and imperceptible. Grasses and trees grew tangled through vacant windows and floorboards and, in a blink, the scene was gone. Wind turbines stood tall on hilltops, capturing the air around them in precise, non-hurried arms. Silver oil rigs bent low, faces to the soil, bobbing and drinking greedily. My daughter snapped photographs out the window of North Dakota's green foothills and up its winding caramel and navy-colored badlands. Placards boasted "the world's largest buffalo" and red and green rivers snaked among the bison.

Montana's disproportionate horizon screamed for attention. In a rancher's world with rattlesnakes and miles of brown sandy land between towns, the sky took center stage. Five-sixths of the world was sky, a massive blue ocean of air where wispy cirrus clouds curled and sketched before hiding away behind stony ranges. Clumped white cumulus clouds came next, throwing grey shadows onto the land around us. The highway carved through and over, around and under. My daughter snapped and clicked the camera feature of her dad's phone.

"Isn't there a silent option for the camera?" wondered my son, as his sister leaned across all angles of the car to capture the beauty she saw.

In Idaho and Washington, my six year old noticed his ears. "There's something wrong with my ears," he said.

"Oh, that's called popping. It's because we're driving up the mountains. Pretend you are swallowing food, or drink lots of water. It will help," I advised, swiveling to look over my left shoulder at him.
"Daniel, isn't God cool to make mountains? Wow, he's a good artist." We nodded together, my six year old and I, and the phrase appeared often in his meal and bedtime prayers that week. He thanked God for mountains and oceans, memories of splashing waves soon his most poignant.

Wet fog and mist clung to the bottom of ever-growing mountains, and we swallowed and gasped at the beauty.

We arrived eventually, of course, at my aunt and uncle's home, pulling into their yellow dirt driveway and crunching pebbles with our tires. Fresh peaches grew from their tree in the backyard, and the Yakima sun poured desert heat onto us as we hugged and exclaimed, getting re-acquainted again. The wooden screen door clapped shut behind us as we lugged suitcases and backpacks into the cool interior, and our voices disappeared inside.

And the prayer I uttered before leaving on this trip? The prayer I whispered on winding roads, and after late-nights... God, please make us delightful to each other and a delight to be around. Help us be kind, patient, and humble. Help us reflect you, your love filling us and coming out from us. 

Our Artist God coated mountains in greens, tans, and silvery blues, directed ocean tides, and granted that small prayer too. We pulled into our Minnesota driveway, eleven days later, after sixteen- and twelve-hour days of driving, still liking each other and thankful for the trip.

Hello, friends. I have missed you, and this time here with you. Thank you for your patience as I have been packing boxes, preparing for a move, and racing across country on a road-trip. 

How has your August been going? What adventures or savored moments are you collecting and holding onto carefully? Have you ever prayed any odd prayers before trips? 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Slowing Summer Down & Speeding Up What Matters

Photo: Ron Doke, Creative Commons, cc license

Photo: Dennis Larsen, Creative Commons, cc license
Throaty Bryan Adams'-style singing drifts over from the church nearby. Flashy classic, sport, and muscle cars line up in rows, hoods propped open, motors gleaming at an annual summer car show. Live music streams past the aroma of grilled hot dogs, steaming metal in the sun, and aerosol spray cans.

"Soo, I sorta did my hair," my nineteen year old son texts me in droll nonchalance. I grin and ask for photos, already picturing red, green and blue dye on a temporary spiked hairdo from last year's car show.

My husband straps on sandals and holds the door open for our six year old. The door blows shut behind them as they walk to church too.

I'm grabbing my green water bottle and jumping into time with you, friends. The counter behind me is lined with half-done dishes, crimson watermelon slices in a bag, and last night's coffee press.

Can you smell the campfire? Wood smoke still emanates from my skin, hair, and clothing. Pony tails hang down my shoulders to rest on my chest, and can you feel it here with me? This slipping away of summer?

Thirty of us teens and adults piled up bikes in a friend's driveway and dropped sleeping bags in the yard for yesterday's Bike and Camp youth event. Bike riding, backyard volleyball, and cooking over a fire brings people together. Tin foil-wrapped packets of potatoes, carrots, and onions smoldered beside ground hamburger, and night fell before we pulled out the marshmallows and chocolate.

"Lord, give me a great love for these teens and for these people in my life," I asked him at one point, slipping quiet under a variegated green maple.

He does, and we all show love in different ways. Whether extrovert or introvert, no matter our personality styles, we slide into familiar ways of relating to the people around us. Some friends love the people around them by scraping eggs on a heavy skillet over smoking fires. Others shake dice in a cup game for hours, bluffing with a smirk; or start up dozens of conversations.

On top of blue trampolines while bouncing and ducking, or on wooden picnic benches beside the blueberry crumble bars, these one on one times with others are what God uses most often to grow deeper love within me for people. I love those chances to see into people's eyes, to hear their stories, and to get beyond the noise and busyness into greater depth.

Sunshine filters through fern-like branches outside now, and my husband and youngest son have returned. Noise commences. Highway hums whine into the distance, dissipating quickly, and a cardinal trills nearby.

Summer slips by, and our moments with the people in our lives flit by too. Grab today with me?