Thursday, March 23, 2017

What Cowlicks and Warriors Would Tell You about Living Well

The fir tree has a cowlick. Spouting out from conical symmetry is a two-foot-long branch, and I want to snip it each time I see it, but it's twenty feet up and in my neighbor's yard. The branch points north to my neighbor's front yard where at night Orion the Warrior is tangled in a tree.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Erica Franck, Creative Commons cc license
One month into my Dad's stage IV terminal cancer diagnosis, and I find myself scrolling websites, scrawling notes at doctors' appointments, and counting calendar months. Chest tight some mornings, I pull my Bible closer while Daniel sits beside me untangling addition problems, and I wonder about subtractions.

Yesterday we took a break from math and phonics to refill bird feeders. Charcoal-colored sunflower seeds spilled dusty from the bag, whooshing against my fingers on cold metal frame. I sliced old juicy oranges into halves for the orioles. Crushed citrus a fragrance on my skin. Daniel and I placed vivid orange slices between lines of drizzled seeds on the deck railing, then slipped back inside to watch the birds come. Black-capped chickadees soared tremulously close, skittish but hopeful.

And I remember it, recounting the ways that God has tenderly laid bread crumb trails of hope and wonder for me this spring, long before I even knew I would need them. I line them up in my mind, and shake my head in gentle wonder. He is so good. In January, I stepped out and chose my very first Word of the Year --Brave --thinking I meant it to be moving more boldly into my writing and speaking ministries. God knew of Dad's impending cancer, though, and kindly tucked the word inside me. Earlier, in November Mark and I co-taught a sermon at our church, stating that joyful thanks-giving is always possible, even in the darkest nights. We mentioned our daughter's young cancer scare when she was five years old, and other crises over the years. Meanwhile my Dad's cancer grew in silence. The breadcrumbs continue in my mind, and I see it clearly, God's loving trail for me.

Pulling my Bible nearer, I pause to answer Daniel's math question before sinking deeper into God's words. "I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand," his book tells me, and I lean into that.

"Mom, I listened to Grandpa's song a lot yesterday," my tall twenty-one year old said quietly to me. Jeremy Camp's song "Reckless" has become my dad's mantra these months. He air drums away to it, nodding his head.

"Can we play it again?" my Dad says softly. "I'm not afraid to die. I know where I'm going," he smiles. Jeremy Camp sings about wanting to love and live recklessly, boldly, because of Jesus's love for us.

"I want to die well," my Dad says, thinking of a Henri Nouwen quote. He and Mom have been sharing their stories of God's rescues and passionate love all the more boldly now to the people they meet.

Outside my window, I can see it, the fir tree with a cowlick. Beyond the Warrior Orion hangs the Big Dipper constellation.

"If you're ever lost and need to find north," my Dad had taught me, "follow the mouth of the Big Dipper. It will pour out into the North Star."

And now it changes how I see the cowlick. It's directing me to a poured out life that always points me home.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Living Two-Handed and Two-Faced

"Where's the video on college dorms?" she asked.

We clicked computer screens until the welcome week college video started playing. Smiling faces toured the university campus, music pulsed, and Morgan and I watched footage of dorm room move-ins and bunk bed assembly. Joy welled in me, and I thumped her back.

"I'm so excited for you!"

"Me too!"

Her long ponytail trailed her back and we sat in chairs pulled close to my desk. Music throbbed and the short film ended. We laughed to see that we were both wiping away excited tears.
Photo Credit: Flickr user COD Newsroom, Creative Commons, cc license

"I think it's the video," she stated.

"Well, I'm just so happy for you," I exclaimed.

She stood up, her enrollment deposit paid, the move-in date now written on our calendar. Bouncing downstairs, she was gone and the kitchen was silent.

I've been learning this week the dual truth that joy and grief can be simultaneous. Nine days ago, sad family news stopped my world. Since then we have walked numbly to doctors' offices, pens scrawling notes in solemn vigil. We have scrolled medical websites, estimated timelines, and stared silently into space.

And he said it once, a wise friend of ours, "We rejoice with those who rejoice and we mourn with those who mourn, and sometimes we do it back to back."

I am learning this week what it is to hold grief in one hand while navigating life with the other. In wanting to live transparently, I have been sharing our family news in occasional prayer emails and to friends in person, crying against their shoulders. But I also see the need to interact and to be present with sensitivity to a variety of settings. At Wednesday night youth group, junior high teens bounced energy as we played zany games of Pictionary Telephone and Four on a Couch. Their joy was evident and legitimate. Seeing their sweet faces that are so loved by God and us, I looked deep into their eyes and chose to be present, to be there, to be playful with them.

And we can hold grief and zany laughter in one body. I am learning this surreal and complicated reality: that joy and grief can co-habitate and that I hold them in honest hands before me.

I can mourn. I can rejoice. And I'm trying to honestly, transparently, let myself hold them in two hands, in two faces, back to back.
Photo Credit: Flickr user johnjodeery, Creative Commons, cc license

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Watching You

I've watched you.

You smoothing tablecloths across MOPS tables with your kids latched on to a leg or perched on your right hip. You carrying egg bakes in one hand and round-faced, red-cheeked toddlers in the other, welcoming new moms with warm smiles.
Photo Credit:Flickr user Elvis Kennedy, under permission of Creative Commons cc license

I've watched you in church hallways, in doctor's offices, in YMCA lobbies, and in homes full of loved ones. You as you stare deep into the fridge and whip up a meal from what's there for your hungry crew. You who trade words in gentle authoritative reply to your growing willowy kids' attitude. You who smooth small foreheads and care for older parents, who help with homework, and who tame a wild home.

Sleeting ice balls pelt the dark bedroom windows one morning this week, waking us before six a.m. slumber pulled us under again.

Snow flakes fall silently later as Daniel and I sound out phonics and read stories of dogs and bugs and logs. All week, we've slipped across frozen boot-treads in the ice that look like trilobites in the driveway.

After the joy of meeting moms at Waconia MOPS January 27th, at Sauk Rapids Moms-Next on February 2nd, Woodbury Lutheran Church MOPS on February 6th, and Salem Covenant Church MOPS Friday, I relished times at home with my family too.

Daniel sniffed. Blowing his nose into a white and blue handkerchief, he pulled the math book closer. At the sunny cherrywood table, I stretched legs out and sipped hot coffee.

Oily pots stacked high in the sink behind me. Yellow curried bowls stood in cock-eyed slant, resting one on top the other, shifting dangerously atop four plates. A metal cookie sheet took up most of the counter, and silverware splayed out greasy. Whew. Life can pile up so quickly, huh?

I turned my back on the kitchen, though, lifted coffee to my lips again and rubbed Daniel's tiny shoulders.

"It's nice to be back by you, bud. I'm glad to be home."

Mom, dads, grandmas, grandpas, friends? Your presence matters.

I know the dishes and laundry are piling up. (Don't even ask about the black swimsuit bottoms that doubled as underwear this week. The skinny black bows bulged under each jean hip pocket.)

For now, snuggle in. Take a moment longer, listen a few minutes more to the complicated Lego story  by the breathless boy beside you. Stop all else. Lean in. Savor.

When the snow stopped, school was done and Daniel was playing in another room. Clearing the sink, I lifted the metal faucet and hot water swirled in steaming. Bubbles shone iridescent. Music pulsed behind me, and I scrubbed, wiped, and restored order to my counters and kitchen.

Beef stew bubbled nearby, carrots and onions tumbling past celery. Turning it to simmer, I stole up behind my man and wrapped arms around his neck. Heads touching, we stood quiet, his face warm against mine.

"Thank you, God, for these people in my life, for moments to pause and see. Thank you for the beauty of watching people in all seasons of life lift and love, smooth and savor, bend and bring order." 

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oops, God.


Groggily walking through the kitchen, I buttered three toasts, drizzled honey, and cored apples, quartering them.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Amanda Slater, Creative Commons cc license

Strapping one blonde-haired nephew into his blue high chair, I watched the two older boys climb into their chairs, cheerfully talking. Hot toast crumbled and steamed on small white saucers, while an oatmeal stewed warm in a bowl nearby.

"Okay, let's pray," I grinned at the boys as seven a.m. darkness still hid the deck outside.

"God, thank you for this morning, for breakfast, for _____, _____, and _____," I said, naming the boys while running my hand affectionately across the two necks closest to me.

"Thank you that you hear us when we call and that you make us stout and brave-hearted," I continued, remembering a verse from yesterday. "Amen."

Conversation resumed and boys hummed happy, chewing and moving in their seats as they ate.

"Oh!"

My prayer's words suddenly hit me.

"That's not right. You make me bold and stout-hearted! Not stout. Thanks, God. You know what I mean," and I grinned at God in the dark. 

Join me in sleepy prayers, sticky tables, and real life.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

What Marbles and Ice Slip Significant into our Lives Tonight

"Every year I take one out," he says.

He describes a glass jar of marbles that hulks on a corner of his desk. He is professional, efficient, an accomplished businessman, and his words have stuck in my brain ever since.

"I set up the jar, estimated how many years an average person lives, and now every January, I take one marble out."
Photo credit: Flickr user Sally, Creative Commons, cc license

Marbles catch the light and diminish slowly in the jar on his desk, and his meaning sinks in.

"I wanted to remember how fast life flies by and to make sure to live fully."

His exact words are fuzzy to me now, but the image still reverberates.

Weeks, months, years trickle through our fingers and leave only memories. Our children's heads race closer to our foreheads and then flash by. Ankles flash pink skin cold in winter growth spurts, and I peek into my garage for the purple plastic bin of Daniel's next size clothes. Morgan brings home a brand new college identity card, grinning cheeky at her row of color-coordinated gel pens and bulging pack of binders.

We carve calendar dates for two graduations this spring, and both John and Morgan step into their last semesters. They each organize their rooms and start packing. Morgan dreams of college dorm-room decor and spies out small sets of kitchenware. John boxes up childhood mementos, making room for another carton of wedding supplies, and brainstorms apartments for the summer.

And your children too, are stretching taller by the week, their shoes and jeans shrinking by the month, and how do you slow down time?

Our marbles diminish so subtly, so silently, that I look and am surprised to do the math and see where I am today. You too?

Our words matter. Our minutes are priceless. As cells stretch, divide, and stretch again, the loved ones in our life grow taller, older, and seasons flash by. 

Snow melts here in Minnesota today. Last week's arctic chill now slips grated snow through my black metal patio table, shredding ice into stalactites below.

I crunch out to my compost bin this afternoon before supper, scowling at the rabbit tracks, and trying to halt their entry into my yard. I'm comfortable without a winter jacket and the snow crunches and melts underfoot.

The cold had seemed so impenetrable and now snow shrinks by the hour. Tomorrow and Thursday are supposed to be warm as well.

And the snow disappears from my deck.

"Mom, will you play a game with me?" Daniel asks, his tousled hair still standing up in the back despite each day's water.

"Sure, bud. Let's play."

Throughout the night, I sneak down to hug my two oldest kids who are cramming homework.

"I love you so much." The words fall naturally as I reach up to hug them, leaning my head against their chins.

Take a marble with me, my friends. The snow has melted even more since supper and I don't want to miss a moment.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

When Alarms Sound and You Want to Be Brave

Under a torn moon in a black sky, I push my cart. Groceries rattle against rustling paper bags.

I've been wondering this for several days now. How do we live bravely? That's my word for the year: Brave. While I don't think of myself as a fearful person, I'm realizing how often stories of great courage and realized-dreams involve pressing in and pressing further. In book after book I've read, inventions, breakthroughs, deep wilderness survival, and big accomplishments all have this choice: the decision to persevere, to keep going, to step out in trembling boldness. This belief that bold perseverance and dogged hard work can bring incredible results is exciting, transformative.

So I scribbled pen across lined paper, choosing my very first Word of the Year: Brave. I am challenging myself to step up, to take courageous steps, and to choose self-discipline bravely in the moments when I'd rather settle for easy. 
Photo Credit: Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar, Creative Commons cc license

Walking under a torn moon in a black sky, I muse quiet and push my cart, assembling words in my brain.

Wood-smoke from chimneys and charbroiled burgers scent the zero degree night. Fumbling with my fragmented car key fob, I'm hoping it'll work after I dissected it in the supermarket to figure out which round battery it uses. Dark headlights stay unlit and the car remains locked, no matter how many times I press the unlock button on the small black fob. Holding breath nervously, I use my key to unlock the door, knowing the car alarm may sound.   It does.

Loud shrills accompany my flashing headlights now, rebellious and brash. Sliding into the car, I shuffle papers in the glovebox and pull out the vehicle's owner manual. In slippery black and white striped mittens, I'm paging madly through the booklet, searching the index for words like "alarm," "disarm," and "security." The owner's manual slips and slides in my mittened hands until I sigh and whip off my right glove, still balancing the manual on my frosty car.

Forty-five minutes later, after phone calls home, random conversations with strangers in cold twilight, and warming up in Mark's rumbling gold Saturn beside me, we figured it out and arrived home. Carrying fragile frozen paper bags upstairs, we put groceries away, and marveled at the fierce cold that had set in against green pepper produce, chilled milk, and deep into our skin.

Thank you, God, for cars that run; for Mark being able to repair the key fob under warm grocery store lights; for heated vehicles; for groceries to put away; for supper on a cold night; and for steaming hot baths that erase a sunk-in cold.

Where was the brave? I'm not sure. Persevering in negative two degrees, talking to strangers, and choosing to find thanks, maybe? May I start right here with you tonight? Laugh with me about my key fob dissections and pealing car alarms. I'll open further and tell you that yesterday, I set off the smoke alarms at home while making pancakes. The worst part? This happens every time I make pancakes! I know.

And maybe Courage is to sit up and share our stories, whatever they may be today. I created a simple black and white chart for myself for the year. In each small box I am jotting a word or two to remember ways I chose brave self-discipline when I'd rather have settled for easy. I am happy to share this simple chart with you too. Feel free to download and share this chart with others.

What about you? Do you choose Words of the Year, or New Year's Resolutions? Have any special January traditions? 

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Surprising Thing about God's Christmas List

Nutmeg-flecked eggnog rises in sweet slow-moving waves to my tongue. I smile with closed-lips and mull it around my mouth. On this last day of December, our Christmas tree still sparkles red, green, orange, pink, despite olive green rigor mortis setting in.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Anne, Creative Commons, cc license
You probably saw glimpses of it this Christmas too? The delight that breaks across faces in smiles and gleeful laughter. It hovered in my eight year old's eyes this first year that he remembers choosing and giving gifts of battered candy bars from his Halloween stash.

"Dad will like this candy, right?" he had asked earlier, with pensive eyebrows raised, wrapping paper poised.

"Dad'll love anything you give to him, bud," I assured him.

And then on Christmas morning, Daniel and his brother passed out the presents, reading Daniel's handwritten recipients.

"Mmmm, thank you, Daniel," Mark grinned to him, and Daniel sighed happily.

This week, a grey charcoal plastic bag arrived by mail. Twenty-one year old John snatched it up eagerly after work.

"Morgan! Come see your present," he yelled to his sister downstairs.

Squeals and shrieks followed. Morgan bounced up steps and stood with arms out, wearing a t-shirt specially ordered for her. "They're my favorite characters," she said, pointing them out to us.

And this desire to study loved ones, to wonder about and seek out gifts that will please them and be for their joy is what captures me this week, because I saw it in God too. 

The words caught me as I traced finger across Bible pages and smooth-rolling gel pen across my journal. Words in the Bible book of Hebrews describe the Godhead pausing to study his people, reflecting on the best gifts to give them, and then moving with joy and delight.

The image stopped me, and my pen stalled as well. Could it be? Did God stop and reflect when choosing gifts for us in the same way that we wrestled and reflected on the presents we wanted to give loved ones around us?

I re-read it, seeing the words, "distributed according to his will." Will: having to do with desire, having an opinion, reflected in something you wish, rather than not wish; connected with "This is what I choose, want, decide, desire." According to his will, the Holy Spirit looked at us, knew us, and chose what presents to give us -- for our delight and his glory. 

I underlined it and pulled my journal nearer to reflect on it and talk with my God. "You are alive and active, God-Spirit, and you willed, desired, wanted to, had opinions about which gifts you gave me. Thank you! Help me continue to hone and use them for your glory, for others' good, and in humble joy each time." 

God has thought about you and deliberately chosen gifts for you. As 2017 strides in, join me in remembering and reflecting on what this means for you and me, will you?

And the delight that crosses his face every time we enjoy our gifts, it must be brilliant! 

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