Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Stranger at McDonald's


Red and blue tube slides curved around the ceiling like sinuous snakes, and clubbed green helicopter blades whirled overhead. Kids scrambled up slippery slides, crawled through plastic tunnels, and emerged grinning on the floor, hair standing tall with static electricity.

Two brown-eyed children with curly black hair stepped apprehensively closer to the indoor playset, their curiosity drawing them nearer. They craned short faces to the ceiling, watching my son's hands bob and wave from various corners of the labyrinth.

"They're afraid," said a woman's voice behind me. "He was born premature, only five months old. He just slipped out of his mama, my daughter. He had a lot of health problems," she told me, long black hair falling straight around her shoulders and down her back. "His mind is like a three year old's and he can't see very well. No depth perception, so he's afraid. What to us is only a few feet looks like it's very far away, so the tunnels scare him."

Her grandchildren sidled closer to the steps leading up, and then pleaded for their grandma to join them. She grinned and padded up the winding stairs on her hands and knees. Fearful wails and shuffling sounds marked their path through the right side of the playset. Concerned for them and wanting to help, my seven year old Daniel called out cheerful hello's, waved his hands, and sent comforting messages echoing down the round hallways and intersections.

When the fear had loomed too large for too long, the three of them wedged around and made their descent, the grandma laughing gently and encouraging her grandson through his tears.

"Good job!" I cheered her as she emerged. "That's brave of you to enter the tunnels. Were they claustrophobic?"

"I'm Jennifer," I continued once she was settled on the ground again and her kids were busy playing.

"Pam," she smiled.

She shared hard things, and we talked of alcoholism's grip and the sadness of watching loved ones spiral deeper into fear and darkness.

"The ache is gone," she said in response to a question I asked. "It used to hurt a lot, but now I just pray for her and care for her kids, knowing God loves her too."

We talked, Pam and I, in the McDonald's playland, as a Hmong dad and kids entered and ate ice cream cones by the window. Five children ran through, past, up, and inside, and we talked about God's deep love, his ability to bring transformation and hope, and then we stopped and prayed.

Our smiles, as we parted, shared a sense of community and camaraderie, this stranger at McDonald's and me.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Verse that Can Carve New Meaning into You and Me

It was like tearing up a Rembrandt. Okay, not a Rembrandt, but still.
Painted by Rembrandt van Rijn, photographed by flikr user freeparking, Creative Commons, cc license
With several flicking hand waves, her eraser eradicated half her drawing. The intricately-sketched figure of a woman was now gone.

"It's all right, Mom," she laughed. "I can do it again." Bending her head, she worked intently, her penciled hand flitting, shading, and bringing to life people on the page.

A verse from Romans has held my attention this week, tangling in with a line from a song. The verse is a familiar one, but the last two words have sketched in meaning for me in a way I've never seen before. The first section of the verse rings in recognizable cadence: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed..."

Suffering is a strong word that I won't lay claim to too quickly, but I insert "hard times, painful situations, hurts, losses, or struggles" into the verse for me and continue reading.

Those hard times are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed -- ah, yes, I'm familiar with this concept, I nodded. Growing up, I've been excited for heaven someday to see more of God's beauty and glory, looking forward to getting to know him more intimately, and seeing more clearly his plan and stories throughout creation's history. The glory of that over-arching plotline will be spectacular!

But the verse ended differently than I was used to seeing, and it halted me. Reading the last two words again and again, I saw "in us." The glory that will be revealed in us?

The song lyric that had caught my breath and tangled up into this verse unraveled: "There is healing in the pain." Healing doesn't need to wait until the pain is past. Healing happens in the hurt, during the pain.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," our Artist God inspired Paul to say about you and me. Yes, God's own glory and splendor can't be topped, but that he would say, "Your hard days and times, Jen, are not worth comparing to the beauty I am sculpting in you. There is healing in the pain. The beauty of me in you, of your spirit and will being shaped and molded into a work of art is worth it."

On the black leather couch downstairs, my daughter has already drafted another female form in grey lead. She was never worried with occasional erasures and re-writes because she had the final product in mind, and it was a work of art.

The woman on the page will be glorious art, to be revealed by the Artist in his time.

You are a work of art, my friend, and our Artist God gets all the credit. Pulling my Bible nearer and turning my heart and face to him, I'm trusting the process.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When They Think They See Us, But It's Not

 They thought it was us, but it wasn't. It was him.

In a land where warm fresh bread was just a morning's walk away -- the long crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside French baguettes-- and where buttery pain au chocolates "croissants" with inner chocolate streaks elicited moans every morning, everything was vivid. Our team of thirteen senior high students and adults savored the two weeks with our French friends. Partnering with a French church in northern France, we worked alongside them to reach out to and get to know the residents of Roubaix.

"Why are you here?" the shopkeepers and kebab sandwich vendors asked us, in warm wonder. "It's the poorest city in France," another one told us.

"We love Roubaix and the people of Roubaix," we told them. "God loves Roubaix and has given us his love for this city too."

Roubaix is a vibrant city full of Europeans, North African Algerians, Moroccans, Romano nomadic gypsies, and Middle Eastern peoples. Tall narrow rowhouses rub shoulder to shoulder down winding cobblestone sidewalks. Butcher shops display skinned lambs and chicken breasts; fruit venders corner the lanes, their apricots, peaches, and dusky purple grapes blushing out of slanted wooden crates. Bread shop boulangeries and patisserie pastry shops dot the avenues regularly, such a staple of a daily French person's life that they are more common than cathedrals and post offices combined.

We relished our time with old and new French friends, the two weeks passing entirely too quickly. They taught me about hospitality and generosity, their platters of chicken, garlic potatoes, and tuna fish appetizer salads brimming and spilling with food. They said our students' joy and love for God and one another encouraged them "like a breath of new life." I watched the ten American students run a three-day Bible Club for children, use mime sketches to share stories of God's plan from the Bible to rescue his creation from a broken world, and I smiled proudly at the hours of cheerful work the teens did again and again, often breaking into song while they worked. I saw the way they loved the kids around them, using broken French, English words, and lots of smiles. Love flowed out from them.

At the end of a beautiful evening at a friend's house, our host put his hand on his heart to thank us for coming. Overwhelmed by our host's gracious hospitality for us, we placed hands on our hearts and issued the grateful thanks right back. "No, no, it's our delight and joy to be here with you," we told them. "It's a pleasure to be with you," we said.

He demurred, touching his heart, and we saw it in his eyes. He thought it was us, but it wasn't.

He was seeing the beauty of Jesus in us, and it drew him.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pull Up a Chair With Me?

Sunlight slants sideways from the east -- left through rippled green maple leaves -- onto the black metal patio table, green canvas umbrella, and light-tufted flower plants of orange, red, and yellow. The feathery Celosia plumes are beautiful and I find my eyes drawn here often.

Cotton seeds circle and float in aimless patterns; the breeze is desultry, slight. A thumbnail-sized tan and grey moth flutters and lands on the glass deck door. A cotton seed entangles in a maple leaf's margins for a moment before it flips up and is free and gone.

I return to the Bible book of Romans, my second glass of cold sweet coffee halfway through and my green water bottle the same. Romans 8 continues from the last time I picked it up. Wow, that "the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you." That He would live in me is unfathomable sometimes.

You live in me, God? You "make your home with me"? You are Immanuel, "God with us." God who dwells, tents, lives with me, IN me. Thank you, God. You honor me with your presence.

"Yes, I found it! Zank you, God," chirps my youngest son. All six and a half years of him have just scrambled up from under the table where he found a missing Lego piece. This is the second time he has burst into thanking God for something this morning. I love it, and yet his next sentence unnerves me.

"I won! Zank you, God!" His "th's" are sometimes still "Z's" and I crack a sheepish smile at that and the fact that he has just thanked God for winning an Ipad game. I am grinning and yet wondering if a conversation is due now that God has been credited for an electronic game victory. No, I'll wait to see how the future unfolds. I'd rather he be growing and seeing gratitude in the things around him than not.

The verses in Romans continue, moving into a new thought, and I write out verses in my journal, underlining and interacting with the material. Faced with the God of the Universe's statements of residence and his connected thoughts, I am forced to take stock of my responses and actions. My pen scrambles and scrawls. Question marks top sentences, and yet my response flows back into gratitude as well.

That you live in me?! Wow. The wonder of that should never cease to amaze me.

An ethereal transparent sheath of cotton seed has snagged on a yellow tufted plant in my garden box. At times out of sight, at times undulating in the breeze,  it's all I notice now. Tremors on a still plant that dance and sway in the slight wind around it. The seed senses and responds to the air around it in a way the plant is too firmly rooted to the earth to do in kind. By the cotton seed's tremors and dance, however, I can see the air's constant currents.

It reminds me of the spirit dancing in me too.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Peach Pits, Magic Acts, and What Will Thrill You

I saw them this week, all lined up just waiting. Five dried peach pits, riddled with crevices and cracks, laying flat on the soil awash in potential and wonder.
Photo: Christopher Bowns, Creative Commons cc license
Daniel puts them there, this sweet little towheaded blonde six and a half year old. Since learning of gardening and plants, he now saves the seeds from any fruit he loves and plants them in my houseplants. Five dried peach pits line the surface of my indoor banana plant now.

His wonder and magic float even farther, though.

My dad was here a few weeks ago, using slight-of-hand to vanish nickels in an old fashioned linen handkerchief and magically pound spice jars through my dining room table. Daniel was entranced and reached his own hands up to test behind his ears and behind Grandpa's ears too for the missing coins. And my heart caught with delight to see my son's wonder and belief. Belief that anything was possible, and that coins could indeed materialize from behind ears and spice jars from within tables.

I slipped away this morning, just me and my smooth-rolling gel pen and other writing materials, intent on this summer's writing project. In a local Caribou Coffee, I laid out my pens and notebooks, sipped hot fresh coffee, and started scratching ink across page.
Photo: Frederik Rubensson, Creative Commons cc license
I have been reading dozens of books on writing and am convinced that the process and discipline of learning from others, of showing up to do the work, and of continued learning and revising can bring magical results. And so this morning at a sunny coffee-shop table, I warmed up, stared off into space for a while, marshaling my thoughts; and then, with grace-filled expectations for myself, I scribbled word after word, lining them up. Words, sentences, and scrawled near-unintelligible pages coiled side by side in spiral binding. My hand cramped, and I stopped for a chocolate croissant before jumping into another timed session of writing.

I believe in wonder. I believe in lining up the creviced peach pits, lining up for work with the tools ready, and jumping in. I don't know what passions or hobbies or goals you have waiting for you, but I understand the demands, the delays, the distractions.

You can do this. Show up. Do the work. And the wonder and magic will float through.

Line by line, awash in excitement; peach pit by creviced peach pit.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

When the Red and Blue Bring Greens and Golds

"Want to smell it?" he asks, stepping aside from the window.
Photo Artist: Jar (Away), Creative Commons, cc license
It's been raining for four hours, a misty, hard-to-see rain that flickers translucent in the air. Water soaks the grass, clusters and puddles atop crescent-shaped purple coral-bell leaves, and drips in steady rhythm from the canvas folded patio umbrella. Leaves hang heavy in saturation, and the backyard is awash in greens.

Daniel and I sniff the crisp air, inhaling the sweet rain scent.

Sixteen year old Morgan and I just returned from an afternoon of shopping. "I'm such a girl," Morgan laughed, excited about her shoes. In Memorial Day savings of fifty percent off at our favorite St. Paul thrift store, we took turns in the fitting rooms, waited in line for a chance to slip on capris, and scoped out a used Spiderman bicycle for Daniel.

I love the diversity of cultures and languages in that thrift store. We saw elementary-aged girls in long headscarves playing tag in the aisles, and listened to families strategize together in lovely lilting Spanish to find shoes size five-and-a-half. West African women chatted outside the dressing rooms in an accent that sounds like home to me, and Morgan and I stepped gently around a shy Hmong girl with two barrettes in her hair.

On a weekend that we remember wars past, and thank our service men and women for their courageous choice to defend and protect us, I see the beauty of that hard-won world. In a free land, people from all cultures and languages are protected and valued. We are better for having them, and it gives me glimpses of heaven.

Rain still falls and a wet cardinal somewhere chirps. Shimmering leaves drip jeweled orbs, and the array of greens is staggering.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

When Your Stakes Seem Higher

The stakes seemed higher. It's funny how that happened. Every week without a blogpost here raised the cost of words for me, and weighted each one heavier.
Photo: Martin O_ob, Creative Commons, cc license
Busyness first halted me, carrying me away from my desk and you. Days passed, weeks mounted, though, and suddenly fear crept in. I wanted the words to have beauty, to hold meaning, and to be worthy of your time. And that wrangled a finger hold around my throat. It choked my words inside me.

Simple images of grandpas and gardens, and two sons in the dirt. My dad, silver-haired, looking more and more like his dad, kneels on dew-dropped grass blades. "I forgot my knee pads," he murmurs, dipping an orange-handled shovel into a shallow channel.

We're building four raised garden beds again, in the new yard. His hair is starting to curl around the edges, "Like Uncle Kurt," my mom and I notice, and he is so much stronger since September's cancer surgeries and the ceremonial-eating of the only apple on the tree

My twenty-year old son is there for his strength and his love of the outdoors. He and his grandpa wield a borrowed yellow mallet, heavy enough to tip me over when I pass it unexpectedly at one point.

"Can I help? What can I hammer?" hopes six year old Daniel aloud.

"Hey, Daniel. Here's a spot you can hammer." John points to an upraised metal reebar tip and crouches beside his brother, and my mama heart sings.

A red cardinal crows birdeee birdeeee birdeee from the highest point of a silver balsam tree behind us, and the rising morning sun warms us. My nose runs from the cold air. A wind shakes cottonwood seeds down around us from the neighbor's tree.

"Ready for the next post, John?" my dad asks, and I snap out of reverie and jump green corduroy sneakers onto my pitch fork, preparing the soil before them.

Write what you know, right? I know about heavy squares of sod chopped and shaken to save any garden dirt; black-capped chicadees and cardinal soliloquies, and sons with grandpas wielding mallets. I know french-pressed coffee oils swirling atop hot mugs, and dirt under the nails despite three washings. I see hard-working loved ones, and smell rain-fresh brown dirt, sliced grass sod, and lilacs from the neighbor's front yard.

And the moment captured is enough. My job is to see and note.

For you? Is there anything that looms taller with each passing day? Step in, pull up the chair, take that first action. The fear will still be there, I confess, but the hidden joy that comes from doing what you were made to do will spring up and delight you. I promise.

How are you? I've missed you. Catch me up?