Sunday, August 21, 2016

When You Find Yourself Red-Faced and Hot at the Woodfire

In between sticky smores, sandy swimsuits, and splashes in the crisp Mississippi River headwaters, it washed off: the weight of everyday life. Hamburger hobo stews wrapped in tin foil oozed steaming carrot and potato juices. We smelled of wood fires and mosquito repellent.
Hiking through bogs on wooden boardwalks, slapping mosquitoes, hypothesizing which "leaves of three" to avoid, we explored an Old Timer's cabin, whose round planks stacked four or five broad  pine trunks tall. Piling twelve-cousins onto a stool, the dusty sweaty kids laughed and made faces at the camera. I snapped furiously, trying to capture each smile and smirk.
After the 1930s cabin, half of us took a new winding curved route back to our cars. The path narrowed quickly, filled with slippery boulders and wet dirt in the shade, and crossed by garishly-twisted and snapped trees, felled in the storm a week earlier. Giant red and white pine trees trailed the ground, their splintered white insides gaping and exposed.

"This seems much longer than a mile," we panted, "Is it two?" We wondered if we had gotten lost on alternate hike paths. Eight year old Daniel and his short-legged five year old cousin huffed and panted alongside us, their small legs trekking a longer trail in proportion to us.
"You can do it! We're getting closer," I cheered them on. Swooped up into his dad's arms, my nephew laughed and gurgled as he bounced on his dad's shoulders. My brother-in-law put foot in front of the other and plodded on, his son's legs sticking out from his left shoulder, arms extended on the right.

Four adults and two children, we hiked in hot sunshine, passed ferns, carnivorous pitcher plants, and towering pines. A blue lake sheened in the heat just out of reach through the trees, and then we were at the end. In the parking lot, our small group grinned wearily, gulped cold water from a metal park spigot, and rejoined our extended family.

The week passed in beautiful rhythms. Loons warbled in the night, raccoons rustled and grunted as we lay in sleeping bags nearby,  and we tip-toed shy feet to bathroom breaks in the night, hoping to avoid bears. Early mornings brought hot coffee, scuffed muddy knees, and boy snacks by the dozen.

And somewhere in between the bonding and the kissing over the board games, words sliced fast. The fights are never about anything important, are they, these husband and wife disagreements? There were two ideas of how to cook chicken shish-kebabs, and multiple ways of expressing it. We bombed that. He said, she said, and then both of us were red-faced and hot at the wood fire.

Later in a patch of grass off to the side, we offered quiet apologies, explanations, defensive hurt feelings and hopes, but angry words splashed warm again. Walking away to wind down, we finished supper, speaking civilly to each other, but knowing that more effort was needed.

Behind a zippered tent, I prayed with my eight year old and pulled his sleeping bag and blankets high. "I love you, bud," I murmured close to his soft forehead, breathing in his scent and kissing him. We talked for a few minutes more and then I pulled out my Bible and scooted to a far corner of the tent to read silently nearby as he started to fall asleep.

My bookmark saved where I had left off, and I resumed reading with a shake of my head. "Very funny, God."

"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of God dwell in you richly... (Colossians 3:15,16a)."

I could feel my heart softening and my breathing deepening. Unzipping the tent and slipping out, Mark and I found each other and talked, faces closer, apologizing, choosing soft tones, and starting over each time. We grinned and kissed again.

And I love that about marriage. Sometime it's like addictive smores over a woodfire and other times it's like a muggy hike through the woods that feels longer than you expected. At those times, our God can swoop down, whisk us up, and carry us until we get our second wind.


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Monday, August 8, 2016

Grab Your Ugly Socks!

With a clatter and a crash, the phone slipped off the treadmill dashboard, careened off the moving belt, and skidded to a stop in the carpet behind me.

I glanced left and right. Lithe joggers ran in precise form, their arms knowing how to cycle in smooth arcs, not flailing wildly like mine.
Photo Credit: Flickr user, E'Lisa Campbell, Creative Commons cc license
Grinning and red-faced, I jumped my feet up to straddle both sides of the still-moving treadmill, scooted backwards and retrieved my music player/husband's old cell phone. From a stair-stepping machine a row back, Mark arched an eyebrow at me and smirked.

Plugging headphones back in, I straddled the swiftly-moving treadmill belt again, gathered my courage, caught the gait, and jumped back into the jog. Staring at a smudge on the wall ahead of me, I breathed in four-four time, bouncing legs in rhythm to Superchick's rocky Beauty from Pain album.

I'm five weeks into jogging again and I'm loving the satisfaction and joy of meeting a goal. I've learned that I need a plan, and I need to make it as easy as I can to choose well. A black cloth bag hangs on a hook behind our bedroom door with an easy-to-grab work out t-shirt and comfy black shorts to run in. Crumpled green and red ankle socks wait in teal and coral tennis shoes on a handy shelf, and my headphones lay on our dresser. Mark and I have chosen days we work out, and we're trying to stick to them.

Panting and huffing, I watched the odometer click to a number I was waiting for. Hitting the cool-down button, I slowed my pace, heart racing, sweat dripping. Grabbing a sanitary towelette to wipe down the YMCA machine afterwards, I was stopped by an older gentleman.

"You're getting an early start. Are those Christmas socks?" he asked, smiling at my green and red socks.

I laughed and blushed. "Um, yes, Christmas bears, but they're comfortable ankle socks," I grinned back.

It helps to have a plan, I'm learning. So whether you're working towards fitness goals, writing word counts, business dreams, or end of summer plans, make it easy for yourself to say yes, and to feel joy in that moment. For me that looks like carving out mornings to write, setting aside afternoons to study for upcoming speaking sessions, and choosing times to grab my ugly socks and run!

What goals are you chipping away at? What helps you feel good about victories along the way? (Those reading this in email, can click here to join the conversation.)

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Monday, August 1, 2016

When Grief Stalks

Cinnamon coffeecake plunges high up my plastic fork while brown sugar topping flakes and tumbles from the top. Espresso grinders whir loud then fade to the music from overhead speakers. Three inch pink baby shoes glide by in a black stroller; purple sippy handles peak from a stroller's corner. Wooden coffeehouse chairs scrape and clunk hollow, and I sip my hot refilled coffee from blue cardboard.
On a morning of Monday's clean laundry piled high and an upcoming evening church softball game, we received word of a tragic car accident. A former youth group student and his family of five were killed in a multiple car pile-up involving a semi-truck. His family's faces still grin happy in the missionary magnet on my fridge, just a month away from their departure to a new life in Japan.

My cell phone's text message blinked the news, and it was too awful to believe or to speak aloud.

"What?" Mark kept asking me in my gaped silence, "What?!"

Our shock and grief looked like crying in Mark's arms, my tears and nose running and wiped on his shirt unconsciously while we prayed. Grief looked like numb silence and staring slack-jawed out the window.


"What are you looking at?" Daniel wants to know, peering out the window too.

"Just thinking about our friends, bud," I murmur, and we both fall silent.

Earlier, concerned by our tears and unsure how to respond, Daniel had fled the room. Following him, I found him burrowing under his blankets in the dark room.

"We can be sad together. It's okay to cry and to ask God hard questions."

My words falter and fall short today. Typing a short message to my friends to mourn their son and his family, I tell them that we ache and cry with them.

Community is shared grief, shared silences, shared tears. And God's chest is big enough for those hot tears and raw words too.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

When You Just Want to DO Something!

He's leaning over the table, mouth open in concentration. Two stacks of soft white socks brush his elbow as he reaches over them.

"Look!" he exclaims, proudly wriggling the toilet paper roll down into the gallon ziplock bag. Two water bottles stand erect beside it.

He pauses and I slide two folded pieces of paper down inside the bags with our picture smiling out through the plastic.

"Did you get the oatmeal?" I ask.

"OH!" and there is a rustle of cardboard and brown paper.

"Strawberry-flavored," I read aloud. "Nice."

He rolls two white socks up in eight year old concentration and places them inside the bag. I press out the air and seal it shut, before grabbing another.

In a month of riots and unrest, police officers and political conventions, there are summer storms that are brewing. Newscasters predict record high temperatures for much of the United States this week, and humanitarian organizations send out emails about severe dehydration concerns for the elderly and the homeless.

And we just wanted to do something tangible, something constructive, to help people around us.

In fumbling words, I wrote:

Hi, I realize that this bag is simple. 
We don't have a ton either right now, but we wanted to share some of what we have to help, even if it's just a little. 
So, on these hot summer days, we wanted you to have clean water to drink. We wanted you to have a pair of new warm socks. We included a packet of instant oatmeal for rainy days, hoping that you could grab some free hot water and a spoon and cup from any fast food place, and we are praying that it is a hearty snack some day right when you need it. The toilet paper is because I know what it's like to appreciate bath tissue from my days living overseas. 
We know that homelessness is complicated and wide-spread, and that this small bag isn't much, but we wanted you to know that we are thinking about you, that you are not forgotten, and that we have prayed over this bag and for you. 
We wanted you to know that God sees you, he loves you, and he is near to the broken-hearted. In the attached paper here are some sentences from the Bible that have been vital to me. I pray they are helpful for you as well.
Warmly and respectfully, 
Jennifer and Mark
Daniel and I rolled socks, slid in oatmeal packets, stood up water bottles, squished in a roll of toilet paper, and slipped notes into twelve bags. Twelve bags seemed so small and yet so exciting as they sat on our cherrywood dining table.

"Mark, want to come pray with us for the people who will get these bags?" I asked him, as Daniel hopped on one leg beside me and jumped onto the chair.

Softly, warmly, we talked to God about the strangers whose names he already knew and we thanked him for the chance to help.

If you, or your friends or family, want to assemble similar bags, please feel free to use our ideas too. We were inspired by our church's Vacation Bible school project, although we chose our own items to include. Or share with us other fun ways you've enjoyed reaching out in love and kindness. Those in email can click here to join the conversation.

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Friday, July 8, 2016

In the Muggy Nights after a Month of Headlines

I remember it, how the air was hot even though it was September 2007 and how Mark had crossed the stage, his shoulders carrying the pain.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Mick Baker Rooster, Creative Commons, cc license
Photo Credit: Flickr user David, Creative Commons, cc license
His voice softer than normal, he had smiled at the forty or fifty students in the darkened worship sanctuary and said, "Well, we had planned to tell you exciting news tonight--"

Several junior high girls squealed in excitement, missing the qualifier.

"-- about being pregnant, but Jen and I miscarried yesterday. We're sad and grieving but we know that God is still good."

The teens had gasped, sighed, and moved instantly to crowd around us. Not trusting my voice, I had simply nodded and bit back tears. The students and youth leaders engulfed us, putting hot hands on our shoulders, backs, arms, and heads.

Their words spilled out on a sticky muggy September night, and my sadness spilled down and over. They spoke words of grief aloud to us, and to our God, and they hugged us tight.

Today, in this week of muggy days where sadness leaks out for so many names, that image flashes back to me. Because the most comforting thing about that night in 2007 was how they came alongside to simply cry with us and to honor that little one's life.

In our world with so much violence and grieving and death today, can we just come alongside in the muggy nights to say: we cry with you. We ache with you.

Your loved ones' names matter. Their lives mattered. 

We ache and grieve with you. We moan in surprise and pain at each new headline, and we say your names from Florida, Iraq, Saudi Arabia,  Louisiana, Minnesota Texas, Syria, and more.

Your names matter. Your lives mattered, and we ache with you and sit in respectful crying sadness with you in the dark muggy nights.


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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of Fish, and Friends, and Fresh-Cut Grass: Freezing Summer Fast

Can you hear it?

Burring and whirring hums drone a scratchy constant as our backyard neighbor mows. The sound and fragrance are comforting and peaceful, one of summer's iconic pleasures. Tracing the contours of his yard, my neighbor's lawnmower rumbles and roars, releasing the sweet green scent of sliced grass. My sprinkler arcs languidly across the back yard, soaking gardens and flower beds, staining the soil and mulch a rich ebony.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Pearl Pirie, Creative Commons, cc license
On the couch, my green backpack still carries two towels, a dilapidated pair of black and white swim goggles, and Daniel's folded brown camouflage swim trunks. They smell like chlorine from last week's swim class, and we look forward to tonight's session. Crumpled kids' papers from last week's church Vacation Bible School program line his room, I know too.

"Summer is a-third over," Mark teased me this weekend, arcing an eyebrow at me.

"No, don't say that! It's just three weeks in," I said, revising and constructing my perspective.

In a season that flies by, I'm trying to freeze time, savor every moment, and live fully present.
At a graduation party this last Sunday, we sprawled on lush grass in groups, balanced bratwursts on our laps, and branched into conversations with the people around us. That Thursday morning in the hallway outside a church sanctuary where one hundred-seventy children and volunteers performed hand motions to lively worship songs, I curled up knees and leaned my head close to hear her.

"Jennifer, you have to meet Tonya," they had said, and now here we were.

Bending close to hear and reminisce, we talked about towns in West Africa, and the beauty and strength of the Liberian people, and of the atrocities of the Liberian civil war. An hour flew by, and then we exchanged business cards and hugs in the parking lot outside.
At home today, crimson cherries mound in a glass ramekin and Daniel samples a new snack: water-packed sardines.

"Mmm, I love it!"

We pause to examine a tiny fish spinal cord under the microscope, and summer marches on.

Hi friend, what has your first third of the summer been like so far? 

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

An Apology to my Twenty- and Thirty-Year Old Friends

They said it over half-price appetizers, and the taste of it went all salty in my mouth.

They spoke of feeling less than, less equal, less valuable, and pushed aside as women in the church.
Photo Credit: Flickr User, trawets1, Creative Commons, cc license
We reached across each other to taste a half-price miniature pizza, oozing white garlic sauce, chicken, and green avocados. We reached across each other to taste another's sweet barbecue chicken wings, a friend's quesadilla, and my wild rice chicken soup. We reached into each other's lives to see from another side of the table.

I dipped my bread into white rice soup and asked questions and listened.

My friends in their twenties and thirties answered. They spoke of disappointment in the church and of not feeling the freedom to ask penetrating questions of life, theology, current events, and hot topics.

An older friend at the table beside me who loves these younger friends as fiercely as I do nodded her head, and we listened and apologized for the times when our generation had gotten it wrong, or explained it poorly to them.

Girls, Jesus doesn't see women as less than. He made you strong, beautiful, compassionate, and independent. He calls you masterpieces, works of art, and he placed skills, talents, and gifts inside you on purpose to use. Wherever Jesus went in the Bible he broke stereotypes and was revolutionary, elevating women's statuses in that culture.

In New Testament Bible times, women weren't seen as reliable witnesses and their word didn't count as fully as a man's. Yet, where did Jesus first appear after his death and resurrection? To women. He saw them as valuable, reliable, equal witnesses.

In New Testament writings by Paul, Timothy, and others, women are constantly credited, named and publicly thanked throughout the ancient letters. The women were invaluable in the ministries, working alongside the male believers and even helping to finance things.

My voice trailed off, and I returned to listening for a bit.

We talked for hours, laughing, tearing up, sharing deep heart things, and loving each moment of it. These women teach me about life and relationships, and they love the people in their lives with a fierce, self-sacrificing love that humbles and floors me. 

At the end of one conversation, it hits me, and all credit goes to my peer. She said it and the words have split me through each time.

"Jesus doesn't respond how we think he will. Jesus doesn't treat us like other God-followers do, or have done." 

In looking at the Bible account of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, we see a women who is desperate, broke, and considered unclean, shut out from the community and the church by her quarantine status, accustomed to being shunned and set aside. Alone, miserable and desperate, she approaches Jesus and touches his robe. She is hoping for an invisible healing in the crowd because if anyone recognizes her as a bleeding woman, she will be jeered, scolded, and punished for getting close enough to contaminate them.

Robe touched. Healed instantly. Called out to come forward. Fearful terror constricts but she replies, and Jesus uses a word that only appears here once.

"Daughter..." he said intimately, and he heals her, commending her courageous faith, and publicly pronouncing her healed and clean. Restored to community, she had first been restored to the God who made her, loves her, and delights in her.


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