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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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Your Cartoon Pig Card

Over a crunchy Asian salad of Napa cabbage, green lettuces, red peppers, and sugar snap peas drizzled in a fresh cilantro dressing, she handed me the card.

Grinning and arching an eyebrow at me, she waited, her wavy brown hair tucked behind an ear.
(Scanned card. Design courtesy of cards by Sunrisegreetings.com)
Inside the envelope, a white card featured pink cartoon pigs winched between red metal c-clamps. The caption inside read: "If you're happy and you know it, clamp your hams."

I laughed and smiled across the table at her.

"I would have been disappointed if you hadn't laughed," Marie said, knowing my quirky habit of laughing uncontrollably at some jokes.

Indeed as I read it aloud to other friends at the gathering, and then to each family member at home later that week, the joke grew funnier and funnier to me.

The card sits near my desk now and still makes me grin, the singsong nature of the words reverberating in my head as I read it.

What I love best about the card, though, is that my friend knows me. Knowing I like to laugh and that a joke may just push me into silent convulsing laughter, she bought it and thought of me.

This weekend I am traveling to a women's retreat where I am honored to be the keynote speaker. Their theme for the weekend is Pursued and Loved: God's Heart for You. In this last month as I have been reading and re-reading my notes for the sessions and digging into God's word, I am encountering a God who says he sees me and he hears me. Indeed he is the God who sets up extraordinary word pictures throughout time to point to his never-stopping, never-giving-up love for us.

So whether or not you have a friend who sends you pig cards, know that you are chased by the God of the Universe who loves you fiercely, un-endingly, and unconditionally. 

Pray for us this weekend, will you, friend? Thank you. :)

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Monday, May 23, 2016

When Prayer Looks Like Soup

Sitting beside my squirrelly seven year old, I helped him sound out long-vowel words and watched the clock, the seconds flying past. At eight-thirty in the morning, I was at the kitchen sink, swirling yesterday's coffee grounds out of the French press and into my compost bucket. Time spun and circled down the garbage disposal with the last of the fine coffee crumbs afterwards.
Photo Credit: Flikr User Frinthy, Creative Commons cc license
At nine, I called, leaving a message for her, stammering and saying in soft words that I was thinking about her and praying. The line rang long before the machine picked up. Ominous words had hung in the air all weekend, and this morning's appointment would bring answers.

Prayer looked like silent vigil at the sink, poured and slurped freshly-made coffee at the table, and wrangling in a first grader's attention again and again.

"Okay, with the long vowel o, what comes at the end of this word?" I'm waiting for him to draw a silent e, this quiet letter at the end of all his words today. The silent vowel sits quietly at the termination of each noun, directing, changing the sounds, and creating new words from the shy short vowel words who hem and haw and twist toes bare-naked in words surrounded by consonants.

Daniel draws graphite pencil down and around, and I sip more coffee, trying to trace out patience across my life too.

I check email throughout the morning and afternoon, awaiting word and praying for her and her family. Medical diagnoses can change so much, huh?

My parents due in an hour, I slip outside, down the deck steps, to a raised garden bed in the backyard. Surrounded by gaunt bony tomato plants from last year, shriveled and awaiting tomorrow's garden clean-out, I kneel next to the three surprises this spring. Three kale plants survived a Midwestern winter and curl purple leaves to the sky. I slice scissors across emerald and violet stems and then retrieve the fallen leaves from sandy soil.

Upstairs I submerge the vivid kale leaves in a chipped blue porcelain pot and run cold water high. Brown russet potatoes feel dense, earthy in my hands. I wash, rub them, and slide my green-handled knife deep into them. Drawing long the blade, lifting, slicing, repeating, I trace lines across them and into the white plastic cutting board.

Resting in God's presence and speaking out my love for him looks like this today, I've decided.  Trusting in his ability to bring beauty from crumbling soil, from gouged purple life, and from gashed earthy spheres, I rip apart raw Italian sausage, and pour in newly-chopped onions.

The aroma of browning sausage and onions seeps fragrant into me. Shaking out dried oregano, I watch the green flecks speckle into the jumbled meat and onions. Red pepper flakes tumble crimson. Stirring with my brown wooden spoon, I swirl silent praise and prayer, inhaling deep into this Pneuma Holy Spirit who describes himself like Breath.

I pour out the water that had immersed the kale. Droplets radiate light and life off purple-green stems and curling leaves.

I still don't know what news my friend has received, and I whisper her name to our God. Silent prayer and praising rises like steam from my simmering soup, an incense of sausage, kale and potato soup rising up before our Artist God, who is Enough. 


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Monday, May 9, 2016

What Your Beloved Wants to Tell You

"O M W," he texts me. It would have been cryptic and uncrackable if he hadn't just warned us. "I'll text you when I'm on my way," he had said, his eyes flashing excitement, hair freshly-cut, the ring safely tucked away.

"They're on their way," I called out to Mark, Daniel, and Morgan. Grabbing my camera, I dashed outside, bare feet trampling warm spring grass.

"Isn't it like a twenty minute bike ride, Mom?" Morgan asked.

"I don't mind." I wandered in my front yard, soaking in the seventy degree sunshine, stroking red tulip heads and brushing fingers through velvety hedge growth.
And then they were in view. John and Kate, cycling on the borrowed tandem bike, faces giddy and flushed with excitement, turned into our driveway. Kate's face was still red and tears slipped down. She grinned, shyly wiping them, and her diamond ring caught the light.

"Congratulations! Let's see the ring!" They giggled and stepped off the bike, standing arm in arm.
Mark, Morgan, Daniel and I took turns hugging our eldest son, John, and his new fiancee, Kate. I snapped photographs like a madwoman.

That night after the dozens of phone calls to the relatives, after our two new families merged for an impromptu family grill-out of hot dogs and watermelon, and after praying aloud on the back deck for the new couple, everyone went home, and an emotional happy silence fell on the house.

"Mom, do you know about Jewish weddings?" John asked, towering over me at the sink as I washed hands.

With neither family Jewish, his question surprised me. "Well, my grandpa performed a Jewish wedding for my cousin years ago..." I trailed off.

"Well, I've been learning about this somewhere. Did you know in some Jewish customs the bridegroom had to go to his father's house and prepare a home for his wife before he could marry her?"

Sudden word pictures sank in deep to me.

"We're like the bride," he said, and the beauty of it surged clearer to me.

Jesus's words in the biblical book of John chapter fourteen rang in sharper meaning for me suddenly. Jesus talked about the rooms in his Father's house, and about going there to prepare a place for us. "And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you" with me so that we can be together there, he said.

It strikes me that we're all the pretty, shiny red-cheeked fiancees, and our Beloved is coming soon.


(If you are near the Farmington area, you are welcome to check ticket-availability to join me at the Mother-Daughter luncheon at Bible Baptist Church this Saturday, May 14th. I'm looking forward to that time and sharing there with them.)