Friday, December 29, 2017

The Question that Dangles For Us Who Grieve in this Season

It was after her question at the hardware store. Trudging across broken pavement in biting snowy cold, we pushed hands in pockets deep, my arm through hers protectively.

Inside the red box store, she asked it --my mom wanting to know -- and it has reverberated inside the depths of me still.

"I want the kind that keeps burning even if one has burned out."
Photo Credit: Flickr user Rakka, Creative Commons cc license
She's holding a defective string of Christmas lights, but it feels like me. How do we keep burning even if part of us is gone?

At the customer service desk earlier, we had graciously handed back the cardboard box of twinkly lights, sliding the receipt beside it.

"Anything wrong with them?" a red-sweatered woman asked smiling.

"Nope, they're just the wrong ones. I want the lights that'll keep burning even if one bulb is dead."

Later in the parking lot, we walk arm in arm and I unlock her door first.

"Jennifer, I've realized that I need to let my friends know what I've been learning -- what God has been teaching me in these hard times. God has been teaching Dad and I so much about suffering..." she trails off, her voice breaking slightly.

Dad is gone, and Mom has been sobbing in the loving closeness of her God as she walks through the grief of losing her husband.

Her friends are veiled elegant North African women, emigrated to Minneapolis. My mom learns the lilting beauty of their language and helps them navigate English grammar and vocabulary. They eat sambosas and saffron-flavored rice, and speak often of husbands, children, and aging parents faraway.

"I get to tell them of the hope we have in Jesus and of the confidence we have that Bruce will be in heaven with God."  Mom spoke excitedly of the Christmas presents she was gathering for her international friends, and she carefully chose cards to accompany them.

At home later, Mark and I uncoil our own long strands of lights and assemble them end to end. Wrapping the tree in strands of red, blue, green, and yellow, all the wiry lights culminate into one outlet plug. Electric current courses and the lights shine on.

Verses of Bible truth grab me this Christmas break as we march wise men to a starry stable and gather shepherds near, their sheep already fallen over. I pour eggnog and grind another portion of French Press coffee beans. In crowded rooms here and there, we pass gingerbread men and Belgium chocolate truffles, talking loudly as nieces and nephews race with toys underfoot.

And my mom, sister, and I plug into our Source again and again, drawing strength and constancy from God. As the tears come, and we count it out -- two months now since Dad died-- we play his songs, and laughing-cry as we scroll through old photographs.

This intermingled grief with joy is a sharper chapter for me now, a newly-formed reality. As the question bubbles up: "How do I keep burning even when part of me has burnt out?" I sense the answer.

Pulling out pen and paper, I reflect further. I trace the words and underline "In Him" and the lights keep burning -- through no strength of their own.

"We wait in hope for the Lord; 
He is our help and shield. 
In Him our hearts rejoice for we trust in his Holy Name. 
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you." Psalm 32:20-22.

Merry Christmas, you. May this New Year bring you an even deeper sense of God's rich love for you and his delight in you. May you rest in his presence. What have you been reflecting on this month?

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

On the Dark Nights When You are Counting Days and Remembering

It is three weeks ago today that I last talked with my Dad, last heard him speak back. That day blurs into that night, and then it was Friday 2:08 am and he was gone.
My sister, mom, and I had tracked the evening hours on a paper chart, slipping in soluble morphine and attavan pills between Dad's drying lips, moistening them with a little blue sponge.

"Dad, can I give you some more medicine?" I had asked respectfully, as the hours passed and his sleepiness mounted. His words lessened, and his moments of lucidity stretched further apart.

Pain rippled across his face, and I gripped his hand. "The morphine will help, Dad. It should kick in really soon."

Friends had driven on dark country roads after rush-hour traffic to stop in and greet him. Dad recognized them and opened his eyes briefly. They stood tall and uncertain beside his bed, searching for a special hymn's lyrics on their phone before starting in, their voices strong and speaking truth.

"God sent his son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives."

My dad heard and moved his head, faintly singing along, these truths he has built his life and joy on. My mom, sister, and I joined in, my voice cracking in emotion

"Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone." I swallowed, "...because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives."

Dad's two friends sang on, swiping tiny lyrics higher on a touch-screen phone, both men squinting to see in the dim lamp-lit room.

I stopped singing as I saw Dad wince and reach towards his neck and shoulder, then fumble in his side pocket where the meds usually were. Checking the clock, I saw we were close. "Here, Dad. It's time for your next dose."

His friends finished the song, and we stepped out to give them privacy as they said good-bye. Nurses had said my Dad was in his last days, and the minutes drizzled away.

In dignity and strength, my Dad lived. In dignity and strength, my Dad died.

We have seen God's sweet kindnesses taking care of us each day. We have felt the tangible love of friends and family near and far, who have dropped off meals, mailed cards, helped in countless ways, and walked beside us.

We stood tall at Dad's funerals, so proud to be associated with him, nodding and smiling in joyful pride at the stories friends and colleagues told of him. I gripped podiums tight and spoke in tremulous pride, shuffling papers and describing African night skies. Three special songs rippled out harmonies that explained my Mom and Dad.

I'm finding that grief looks like efficient hours of phone calls and business letters as we confirm the death of a dad.

Grief looks like driving in silence and twice pulling into the driveway with the gas light blinking orange. It looks like staring numbly, moving slowly, and blankly wondering what project I was in the middle of.

Grief feels heavy, makes me exhausted at three pm, and leaves me ready for bed at nine-thirty. Grief for me looks like tears and sobs the first week and a half, and an inexplicable feeling of being "too sad to cry" this week. Time stretches long, and has it only been three weeks? Yet it feels so long since I've talked to my Dad.

"This is the first class I've taught that I didn't talk about with my Dad," I told Mark Monday night as I drove away to teach my college-level Village Schools of the Bible Cover to Cover Bible Survey class. Grief slid down my shoulders to my back. I pictured talks on the back porch with my Dad, and our love for God's word.

My mom and I had a girls' sleepover last night at my parents' house, both of us pulling our Bibles closer. She spoke out verses from Romans chapter five about God gently, beautifully, wielding sorrow to craft beauty and character in us. I scrawled G2 pens fast across notebook paper and talked about the tender love of God who longs to walk beside his people, helping them know him intimately.

I spoke it aloud three weeks ago today, (Thursday morning, October 26th), sitting cross-legged on my Dad's bed, hugging him in a period of his pain, and breathing out any words that were truth and that would offer hope for both of us.

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. 
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 
The precepts of the Lord are perfect, giving joy to the heart. 
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. 
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. 
The ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous. 
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. 
They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb..." 

We had studied them together earlier that autumn, and now they were the only truth I could grab while he was in pain. I alternated between singing songs to him, praying for him, speaking God's words, and hugging him, or rubbing his back.

In between two dear friends leaving, two pastors arriving, a phone call to hospice triage, and several of us there, I wrapped my arms around my Dad gently, his body so frail and easily broken at the end. I kissed his whiskery face, told him I loved him, and grabbed the only truths I knew.

And I grab them now, and know that God's heart can be trusted.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

When You Feel Like You're Just Hanging On

It had been hanging by a thread for a while.

Silver filament too flimsy for such a pendulous weight. Mark had even warned me.

"Jen, are you sure this chain is strong enough?"

"It's fine," I said, sliding the round silver Courage pendant onto the silver chain.

This morning in the dark hours before full wakefulness, I had flipped and turned. Thoughts of our upcoming Vow Renewal flashed happy in my mind and I mentally made a list: tea light candles, a miniature amplifier to boost volume in my parents' backyard.

Wide awake but trying not to be, I had switched to my stomach, stretching chest smooth and tall against the bed, and swinging right hand under my neck to sweep long hair up across the pillow.

And then just like that, my courage had fallen off and slipped away.

Mark stirred beside me.

"Mark, my necklace broke!"

"Oh no," he murmured, voice husky and drowsy.

My courage had slipped away and fallen from sight, and the irony is not lost on me. My sweet silver-haired Dad on hospice has recently been coughing and breathing in shallower breaths, and thoughts of him inhaling and exhaling, and looking all grey and ashen are never far from my mind this week.

And did he lose weight in his face since I saw him two days ago? His temples gape empty and I pressed my fingers in them wonderingly yesterday, gently caressing his stubbly face.

"Je t'aime, Papa," I had murmured then, brushing my fingers across his cheek and short hair, and leaning in for another hug.

I had kissed my mom goodbye as well, and driven home in a daze in evening rush hour. The sun sank orange and crimson behind Interstate 35, cars moving in stop and go patterns. A crashed car stacked up the left lane for miles, and a caravan of cars snaked careful through crushed glass and I prayed heavy for the people and police on the side on the road as I passed.

And then this morning in dark pale light, I swiped hair aside and tore the last filament of Courage from my neck. I find myself reaching unconsciously up to slide my finger in the silver ring's center, ready to brush fingertips across the burnished edges and fading Courage font, and then stop when my neck is naked.

And perhaps it's best this reminder now of where my courage lies. It's not in a faded pendulous pendant on too flimsy filament.

And I hear it in my mind, and scramble to find the full verse and reference. "For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are committed to him," and I grab it and trace the empty neck, and for today, this is enough.

Welcome! I've missed being here with you. Sorry. My Monday night college-level class that I'm teaching takes up much of my time, besides loving being a mom, wife, home schooling mom, and daughter to my dear family members. I think of you though, and am glad to be popping back in here today to greet you. How are you? How can I pray for you this week? (Feel free to comment here.) 

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Transfused Strength, Vitality, and an Unshakable Force for All Your Rough Roads Ahead

It was right past the homeless man with the guitar, and I loved that he was jiving and rocking along to the music. Our homeless gifts bags slid around on the floor at my feet, and I can't remember if we were able to give him one that day or if the intersection light turned green and we had to swing away, a long line of cars behind pressing us to move.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Hal Dick, Creative Commons cc license
The orange square sign announced it. Black words on tangerine background stating the truth that has already been shaking my world. Rough Road Ahead, and you can see it coming, know that it's coming, but there's still nothing like crossing the smooth-sailing calm traverse you've been on to bump into the rock and gravel of the rough road ahead.

And we can see that sign ahead, and know it's coming, even in the midst of our service to others, and loving service to family.

The secret that I've seen, may I spill it to you? Because I've been watching and spying and seeing it ripple out. The secret that I've seen reverberate, rippling out peace, beauty, calm despite unrest, and joy wrapped in deep pain, has been rooted in this.

I've seen it scrawled on paper across kitchen tables, beside the coffee mugs and bobbing purple orchid blooms. I've heard it in soft voices from across round church tables, and in quiet homes with stuffed couches and armchairs. I've seen grown men crying in handsome dignity and seen it written across their faces.

The power and strength to traverse any rough road ahead is written in ancient ink from the Word-God himself. This word that gives light to the eyes, joy to the heart, makes wise the simple, revives the soul and renews us daily is an unstoppable force and available to us all.

I've seen God's words in the Bible transfuse strength and comfort as a woman traces the well-worn pages with silk-skin fingertips after hours of yard-work and a life poured out for others. I've spied out weary-worn men and women who rise in unnoticed silence and grab fiercely to the Rock that sustains them and gives them truth, and again and again I see them grab onto God's word.

It is active, alive, vibrant, life-changing, sustaining, and transformational.

I have been immersing myself in the Bible's pages especially this summer as I prepare to teach with Village School of the Bible's Cover to Cover immersive Bible survey classes this year.

There is still time to join us! I'll be teaching Mondays from 6:45 to 8:45 pm at Living Faith Church in Blaine/Circle Pines, Minnesota, starting August 21st. (If you live anywhere near the Twin Cities suburbs, you are welcome to join us. Feel free to invite family and friends.)

Register by calling Trish at VSB at 952-540-9460 or email:   Cost is $129 and scholarships are available. You are welcome to even just visit the first night and see what you think. 

Here is a testimonial from a mom and her daughter who went through the study together.
Join me?

Want to hear a powerful sermon by my Dad, Bruce Pinke, sharing the Six Truths he's learning through suffering as he is dying from stage IV cancer? It is encouraging, beautiful, and God-honoring. Listen here.

If you are not receiving my posts yet by email, welcome. Simply enter your email address in the box under my bio in the top right of the page. Don't miss a post and be part of any special invitations too!

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Joy and Peace That Bubbles Up and Pours Over

In relaxing melody, water tumbles in endless waterfalls in the fountain below me. A green and orange recycling truck rumbles buhBUM buh,  buhBUM buh as it stops by our house. Glass knocks against glass. He drives a house or two away. BuhBUM buh, buhBUM buh and then silence with a hum as he exits our neighborhood.

My Bible pages flicker in a momentary breeze and a cardinal whirs Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur. Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur, ending with a trilled tl tl tl tl tl tl. Sunlight wavers torn paper bookmark across the Psalms and chapter sixty-six starts my day with wisdom from the ancients and the Creator of the world.

"Shout with joy to God, all the earth!
Sing the glory of his name; 
make known his praise glorious! 

Say to God, 'How awesome are your deeds. 
So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you, they sing praise to your name.'"

The cardinal sings non-stop in my neighbor's tree. Bree? Bree? Chur-chur-chur. Bree? Bree? Chur-chur-chur ... tchee-tchee-tchee-tchee.
Blue skies, lazy white clouds, my waterfall pouring incessant beauty, and two recycle trucks hum and rattle, beeping in distant rounds.

And I feel it from bare toes curled on weathered deck planks to my relaxed shoulders in the shade, how this pausing to see and say wholeheartedly, "God, you are good! I announce it, proclaim it, stop to truly see and say it: You are good. How awesome are your deeds." -- how it floods me in quiet peace, contentment, beauty, the joy soaking in. Breathing in deep and slow; my muscles are relaxed.
Life and light radiate, pulsing in green and yellow beauty. Water trickles, the cardinal says it again and again. Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur, tl, tl, tl, tl, and I announce it in kind.

"Say to you, God, how awesome are your deeds! Sing with joy to you, God, all the earth. Sing the glory of his name."

How wise of our Creator to know that in this stopping of the frenetic pace of life to see him and his artistry, to savor it, receive it, bask in it, and then proclaim it in grateful thanks -- that this way of life leads to the greatest joys and a contented peace of mind.

Scientists agree, calling it a grateful way of life, citing it here and here, but our God initiated it simply: "Say to God, How awesome are your deeds. Shout with joy to God!"

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

How Flashes Deep Within the Atom Reflect the Life We're Hungry For

I've been mulling it over -- this line I saw recently and can't remember where. 

Mulling it over while dragging sprinkler hoses across hot grass lawns, while driving kids to appointments and swim lessons, and every time I curl up beside family and friends while stretching summer long. Iced coffee cubes crash against condensed glass, dripping summer's heat across bare legs. 

"How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." 

And the audacity of it lingers in my brain this week. In moments and days that crash by, dripping lost to the ground, this claim that we can choose, can order, can decide to step fully into each moment and to control how we live our lives is brash, bold. 
Photo credit: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, Creative Commons cc license
I love it, and the science of atoms flashes to my mind. In a textbook years ago, I read about the wild, intricate behaviors of protons, neutrons, and electrons within an atom. 

Inside the nucleus is a flurry of activity where protons and neutrons exchange tiny particles called pions in a frenzy of energy. Electromagnetically, like charges repel each other. Protons, as positively-charged aspects of the atom, should repel each other, like same-sided magnets do. Yet, mysteriously, they don't. 

Bewildered scientists wondered for years why the protons' positive charges didn't repel each other and explode. They knew there must be a strong force holding everything together, but didn't know what. Experiments and observations hinted at the existence of this strong force, but not much was known until the 1930s and 40s, when scientists confirmed the existence and nature of this strong force, the strongest force in creation. 

Do you know what thrills me about this force? 

This strongest force in creation, this strong force that overrules normal magnetism and is stronger than gravity... this strong force in science reminds me of the Three-in-One God. Protons and neutrons are huddled so closely in the nucleus of the atom because they are giving of themselves. 

Taking part of themselves to manufacture pion particles, they give sacrificially to each other. Over and over they break off part of themselves and give to the other. In what reminds me of sacrificial love, there is a frenzy of breaking and making and giving and receiving, and breaking and making and receiving. Pions flash as gifts that last for a brief instant, then are gone. 

Giving of themselves to each other, they are wrapped intricately close. This -- the strongest force in the world-- is woven so tightly that all other natural laws of magnetism, poles, and gravity are broken, and in the center of the atom, unseen by the world, protons and neutrons give of themselves and hand off themselves as endlessly-given gifts to each other. And it's the strongest force in science. 

Want to live the life you're hungry for? This strong force, this endless breaking and making and giving... 

Who knew it was modeled in pions deep within atoms? 

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(Adapted from an archived post of mine.) 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Of Baby's Breath, Wedding Lilies, Burial Urns, and Daily Glimpses of God

It rains now. Silver staccato on burnished green leaves; the roads a wet black.

And it reminds me of those teens several weeks ago, screeching and huddling under a single umbrella. Their four adult-sized figures spilled out from under the protective rain cover, while Blake yelled good-naturedly,

"You're stealing my umbrella!" My daughter and three friends cuddled, huddled, and dashed across the food co-op's parking lot to my grey Hyundai, laughing and jumping over puddles. And you have to lean close to share one umbrella in the rain.

These last two months have been a happy maelstrom of planning, shopping, preparing for, and savored-moment-by-moment milestones. My son, my oldest, strode into a university hall in swirling black robe and flat square hat, in line with others to receive four year's worth of hard work in rolled parchment diploma. My view of him swam in teary ripples and I squeezed Mark's hand, my heart beating in joy and pride.

"We made him!" I exclaimed. "That's our son," and my husband's jaw muscles flinched in strong emotion too.

Three weeks later, my daughter strode in swirling crimson robe and flat square hat towards the stage to graduate from high school. I blinked back happy tears, squeezed Mark's hand again, and smiled giddy through proud joyful shimmers that blocked my view.

"I'm so proud of you," I whispered in her ear as we hugged on-stage, handed her diploma to her, and then walked to opposite ends of the stage.

In between, the days filled fast with ...

  • ...Morgan's graduation party errands. "Three hundred cups? What do you think? How many cups do people go through on hot days?" and I estimated how many gallons of lemonade to make.
  • ...John's wedding errands and decisions. My husband cleared his throat, "So, after the ring bearer and the flower girl enter the room, we'll have the ushers close the doors. When the kids get to the stage and are seated, Melanie will change the music to Canon in D. Danielle will rise, and, Kate, you can enter with your Dad whenever you are ready."
  • ...And slipped in between white wedding lilies, and dotted baby's breath in stone jar centerpieces for Morgan's graduation party, my Dad and I planned his funerals and telephoned crematoriums. We talked of death certificates, estimating how many copies we would need, and asked about medical examiners. 
Then, hanging up the phones, my dad and I rejoined Mom on their back patio and listened to the birds, the tinkling water fountain, and the wind in the trees overhead. My Mom, sister, Dad and I carved out frequent times together, not wanting to miss a moment. We fished by the Mississippi River, took prodigious video recordings of Mom and Dad together, attended outside concerts at parks, and sat long in contented silences too. 
On June 10th, my firstborn dimpled and bit lips in emotional joy, clenching his jaw just like his dad in overwhelming delight at watching his bride enter the church sanctuary. All eyes on the bride, my eyes were on him. The groom's breath-taking anticipation flushed him tall on toes, shoulders back, jaw flexing, eyes red, and mouth ever-biting and swallowing in disbelief and proud joy. 
I turned at last to beam at my beautiful new daughter-in-law and to watch my son and my new daughter step onto the carpeted stage. Beside my pastor-husband, they spoke tremulous words of promise, and joy cracked their voices. We wiped happy tears, my parents and parents-in-law beside me in the front right pew, and I savored every single second, thanking God for these moments together, and for every single day. 
And you and me today? We can see glimpses of this gorgeous Creator God everywhere we look... 
  • Him holding the umbrella in life's storms saying, "Scooch in to stay dry" and laughing as we run together in the rain. 
  • We see this God in proud parent moments of squeezed hands and leaning in to say, "We are so proud of you!" 
  • I see him in savored family moments and in the gift of each time together. 
  • And we can see our Groom God as he watches in delight and jaw-clenching joy. 
 I've missed you. Thanks for peeking in. How are you? Catch me up in the comments below?