Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Of Cancers and Suicide and Where to Find Joy that Sustains


In noisy bustling houses, we've poured more coffee and settled in close.
Photo Credit: Ell Brown, Creative Commons cc license

In a sunken living room last night at a friend's house, I pushed my grey footstool closer and we talked of kids, of this last year, and of the future. Pulling photographs from her purse, she showed me her son's senior pictures. We pored through eight or nine of them. His tousled blond hair caught the sunlight, and we debated which shot best captured him. Our talk moved on and, in between hope for the future, we voiced the hard things too. She laughed and ran hands through her hair, fatigue written between her eyes. I nodded and stretched out toes, arching ankles in a physical therapy habit from a decade ago after a sprained ankle. Hours later, after jokes, games and countless trips to the snack table, a church party crowd of us cheered in the New Year. Glittery plastic and streamer-lined kuzuus shrilled as children danced and bounced around us in a cacophony of noise.




Earlier on Christmas Eve, we brewed more coffee, laughed at the short intervals between meals, and slid up chairs around the dining room table. My tall twenty-four year old son and my gentle dark-haired daughter-in-law joined us. Newly-twenty-one year old daughter Morgan flopped onto the black couch beside Kate, and the young women grinned and worked on their art alongside each other: Morgan with digital pen and Kate with a crochet hook and soft yarn. My blue-eyed Irish Mom, my husband and I, and our two sons sorted playing cards into suits and calculated. My youngest, eleven year old Daniel, vacillated freely between clasping soft new toys, assembling plastic building pieces, and joining us at the table for games.

I watch them, my growing kids, and my heart swells with love so much it hurts and thrills me. These four that we get to call ours now -- they bring such joy. We delight to spend time with them, we love that they like to hang out here, and we are always honored when they ask to talk.

And I hear it, in my suddenly choked up throat in Sunday singing this week, how the joy and sorrow can be intertwined so deeply. Who ever said that life was simple or easy? Joys don't negate sorrows. Joyful hearts don't preclude the hard things in life. Standing, mouthing worship lyrics this past Sunday, I spoke them to Abba God, because the hards were crashing in.

Faces and names rose up in my mind, my heart sad with them. An acquaintance's suicide on Christmas day, her present from me still unwrapped and ready; her texts still lit in my phone. We waited her arrival in vain. Another friend watches handfuls of her blonde hair fall out from chemotherapy, her small children and husband looking on. Other family friends watch brain cancer steal away their dad's personality, saying small goodbyes each day now, even though he is still there.

In the row at church, I swallowed and talked honest to God. Choosing to worship You doesn't mean that life is easy. Choosing to thank you and to see the joy doesn't mean that life is blissful and pain-free.

And at home with journal and Bible, I stretch toes, twist ankles in habit therapy, and write out your words too. Seeking you out, speaking out the hard, naming the many good, stating again and again that you are good, that your character and promises are enough, that you are faithful to sustain, to be There, to walk with us through the hard, to carry my friends through their pain and yuck and sorrow... this is my therapy to untighten the hard, to loosen the tough, to move into the pain.

Joy is still there too. I watch blankets of snow drop silence and beauty, coating trees in white wonder. Slim black-capped chickadees and charcoal dark-eyed juncos dive-bomb red cranberries in the snow on my deck. I write out your words, seek You, and lean into the habits you've been teaching me, reminding my heart. You are trustworthy, you are good, you are here, you walk with us. Your heart can be trusted and you sustain and fortress your people.

And it slips joy in.


Hey, is reading the Bible more consistently one of your New Year's resolutions? Join me Monday nights, starting Jan. 6th, as we dive into the New Testament in my Cover to Cover Bible study group. Registration closes this week, so sign up now. It is open to all, and Village Schools of the Bible offers financial aid too. 

Join me? I can't wait to dig into the fast-paced true accounts of Jesus' life and death here and to watch the exciting urgent action of the early church growing, fleeing Roman emperors, and building lives centered on the truths and joys that surmount everything. 

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

Friday, October 25, 2019

Dear John MacArthur, You Chose Wrongly, my Brother

Dear John MacArthur,

You chose wrongly, my brother.

Your Two-Word answer should have been, "A sister."
Photo credit to Grace Church

I understand that maybe you answered impulsively, and that now, hopefully, you are regretting it.

I found your email address online, and I wanted to contact you directly. You are my brother in Jesus, and I think of you as someone who loves God and who loves his Words.

For us who have the honor of saturating ourselves in God's Words, though, our responsibilities are higher. A God-soaked life should radiate out of us into a love-saturated lifestyle, and a deep humility. 

When you derisively, dismissively, and dishonoringly said, "Go Home," in a word-association game about Beth Moore, you chose wrongly. Whatever your disagreements are theologically with another person, they do not lead to dishonoring, contempt-filled language. She is a sister in Jesus with whom you will spend eternity, across God's table.

At a ceremony honoring your fifty years as preaching pastor at a church called Grace, you displayed none. I am saddened, my brother, that this occasion that should have been marked with joy for you and your members is now framed in sad shame for the rest of us.

When Todd Friel set you up for this derisive comment, he embarrassed himself, and other Jesus-followers, and he shamed his title as a shepherd-pastor. When Phil Johnson called her narcissistic and claimed her teachings were self-focused, he was dishonoring to another brother or sister in Jesus, as well as incorrect.

You know that our God calls us to go directly to our brother or sister if we have a disagreement with them, not to name-call or attack them publicly. 

When nervous or complicit laughter broke out across your auditorium at the sight of three pastors dishonoring a fellow Jesus-follower, we shamed the name of Jesus. At a conference called Truth Matters, you did not honor the One Called Truth. Truth is a person, who calls us to live and walk in his Ways. Behind a website called "Grace to You," we have tripped and fallen and are not offering grace there this week.

Half of your constituents are women. Strong capable women, called Ezer Warrior Helpers by their God, the name he calls himself often in the Bible, meaning warrior, ally, comrade. Many other wise people have already answered back against your claims on women this week, though, here, here, and here.

That is not the aim of my letter to you, though. My brother, you chose wrongly. Your Two-Word answer should have been "a sister." 

Please speak up in humble gentle apology to the watching world. Our God watches. The world watches. Our words matter. Our attitudes lay naked, exposed, and our words carry power. As family in Jesus, we can always agree or disagree with each other, but our model is to do it in honoring, respectful ways, and to their faces.

I'm clicking "send" to this email to you, and Todd, and Phil, and praying hard.

Sincerely, respectfully,

Jennifer Dougan
a sister in this God-family around the world




Saturday, October 5, 2019

Dance Parties and the Dean

"Rhythm 'n' Blues Portraits" by Chiara Tovazzi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It was after the dance party.

After I had shown him black and white television footage of timeless classic dance songs, and I had danced wildly around the green carpeted living room. He had curled up in a black and white zebra blanket while I showed him The Token's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Beach Boys' "Surfing U.S.A." and The Temptations' "My Girl." He had grinned weakly, and bobbed a small foot occasionally. Queuing up grainy black and white video footage of the Beetles singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," we had watched and grinned at the screaming, star-struck girls in the crowd. I sang along and clicked the next song.

"This is Chubby Checkers teaching a popular dance back then called 'The Twist,'" I told him. Laughing and weaving, I had tried it out, spinning around in black exercise pants and a yellow college t-shirt.

Daniel had grinned, his face looking pale. On day two of feeling ill, he was weaker than yesterday, and nausea had added to his symptoms. Sore throat, chills, intermittent fevers, runny nose, and aching shaky legs... the last part sounds like the beginning of a fifties song, doesn't it? Poor guy.

This morning we cancelled an afternoon play date with a moved-away neighbor friend, and had settled in for a cozy rainy sick day. He laid around the house most of the day, my sweet eleven year old, moaning and faint. Coughs and weak sighs expressed his heart. I poured coffee and curled up beside him in comfort, running my fingers across his forehead, or curling the hair at the back of his head.

Mid-afternoon, the house was silent. Daniel slept in a blanket nest on the living room floor, and I sat quietly nearby, reading and studying. Scratching pen across paper, I wrote out portions of an ancient psalm from the Bible, its words filling me.

"Oh how I love your law! 
I meditate on it all day long," Psalm 119:97 had said.

Well, I want this, God, I had written it to him, writing the verses out again this time as prayers, saying, I want this to be me, I want this to be my attitude. The psalm continued, pointing out the source for wisdom, insight, and understanding, and I wrote each verse out in prayer and excitement.

And then a line caught me, and it swelled my heart. In tender love, God declared it boldly. In a world abounding in podcasts and experts and coaches for hire on every website, God tucked this truth into his word. "I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me," Psalm 119:102 said.

You yourself have taught me? God is the one teaching me? He is my teacher? And suddenly it seemed so intimate, so bold, so audacious and wild to think that I had access to the God of the World. Like a college dean who offered daily appointments for me, the image struck me in a new way. With my computer email inbox overflowing with experts clamoring for me to buy their courses, to sign up for their online lessons, to buy their latest books, we have a God -- the God-- who says he teaches me. He teaches you. The intimacy of it hasn't worn off yet. The God of the Universe is my teacher, and his heart is gentle, encouraging, and it helps me to not depart from his law, he says.

Half an hour later, my pen still scribbling in joyful journal prayer, Daniel stirred and woke up.

"Hey bud."

After the dance party and the simple supper that he was too weak to eat much of, we sat together on the green carpet floor. He was swirled in his zebra blanket, and we stared outside at the fast-flying clouds. The rain slowed. Grey clouds moved on, and the sun slipped in and out from behind the storm.

I traced his forehead and cocked my head, trying to remember any and every worship song I knew. I sang and sang, wanting Daniel to know his source of strength, this foundation of God's love that is never shaken, and this God who walks beside us always.

Running low on choruses, I picked up the refrain of "Jesus Loves Me," and he startled me. In a quiet whisper, Daniel sang along, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong." Daniel's tiny cheek moved as he sang from his spot on my lap, small mouth moving as his face lay half hidden on my leg. "Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so."

His voice trailed off, his eyes still shut, and he lay there quietly, waiting for the next song. I chose one he knew, and we both sang along.

In sickness, we can still sing. How I love your words, God, your presence, your truth. They teach us, give us wisdom, and help us make wise choices. They sustain us in the storms, and in the sickness we can still sing. 



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Sunday, September 29, 2019

"I Smell my Brother in the House"


I like how he said it. Right between math problems and sitting beside the open window, he said it.

"I smell John in the house. I smell my brother."

I stopped, smiled and took in a deep breath, wondering what my twenty-four year old smelled like to my eleven year old.

Familiar fragrances of french press coffee, wooden pencil and rubber eraser were all I detected, none of which epitomized John to me.

"Really? What does John smell like?" I asked.

Sun caught in Daniel's tousled blonde hair as he shrugged small shoulders. "I don't know." He looked up from his math page and glanced towards the stairway where John and others were playing games downstairs. "I smell John," he declared happily, pleased with the observation.



Recently he sat beside me in church, this tall lanky man-son. His wife not with him that day, he had wandered over to our row and joined me. Both of us smiled up at his Dad who was drumming in front. I grinned happy, hugged him, and picked up my book bag to slide further down the row, making room for him.

Partway through the singing, I heard it. His voice, grown up, fully his, lifted in worship to his God, and I teared up to hear my voice singing beside his. Eyes closed, arms raised, he sang out love to His Creator, and my mama heart swelled. I know of no greater joy than that my kids know You, God, I had whispered it quiet to my God. Tears welled and I blinked them away, before trusting my voice to sing again.


And our church has been studying it during the Sunday morning adult Bible study time over coffee each week. ... This idea of Loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then loving our neighbors (all of humanity) as ourselves. We've been wrestling with what does that really look like? How do we do that? And what are all the practical aspects that ripple out from there? We've barely touched the surface, I know.

Tonight I mull it over, Daniel's recollection of knowing his brother's scent, and my joy at singing beside my eldest son. This joy of knowing God, loving Him, should mark us so much that it radiates out from us, rippling out from us in voice and spirit, so that we are known and recognized by how it changes us. Our very essences, our heart, soul, mind and strength should be marked, changed, by knowing Him.

I'm still curious about that over here, and mulling it over, swishing it around in my head. What do people notice when they see me? How can I respond with love and respect to the people around me? Am I marked by a different fragrance?

Rain falls lightly tonight. Red and yellow celosia flowers tip and bow to the side, heavy with rain. Buckets and bowls scattered across my deck collect the rain and pool it. Night's twilight is fresh, clean, smelling like autumn rain.

And maybe that's the answer? What we take in is what we can reflect and refract out.

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Rockets, September, and How to Successfully Soar This Year

At first it just looked like an empty field.

Two dogs and a couple walked the corner of a barren soccer field. There were no rockets in sight. 

"Hmm, I thought it was here," I murmured to Daniel, checking my phone and the address again. "I'll call Mark to get Art's number." 

And then, just as the call was finishing, we saw them. Far in the distance to the right rippled a couple tent awnings, with some men and boys lined up. 

Daniel and I grabbed lawn chairs and water bottles and began the long hike. 

Grandpas, fathers, young men and boys crouched around tables, totes and truck beds. A towering spiny ridge of twelve metal spokes took center stage. Males lined up rockets in various sizes, colors, and shapes, sliding the rocket bodies down spindles, and attaching them to the electrical firing mechanisms.


Daniel joined them, walking up in pride and excitement, uncertain of how it all worked. New-acquaintance Mr. Neal graciously taught him how to thread the rocket down the take-off rod before attaching two metal clips to each fuse wire. 

That's where your power comes from, he taught us. The new rocket model motor, for all its fiery potential, was nothing without the spark. 

Daniel checked the connections and stepped back. 

"Range closed," the leader rang out, and the twelve or fifteen of us walked back behind the safety line. Mr. Neal moved behind the electrical control box, teaching Daniel how to arm and fire his rocket for when his turn came. 

One by one each rocket's name, creator and motor type was announced, before the launch sequence began. Five, four, three, two, one! 

Squealing whooshes and whizzes, rumbles and pops surprised us. We exclaimed and followed the flight paths of each rocket, losing them for a bit in the afternoon sunlight and blue sky. 

Achieving peak trajectory, they hung mid-air for a moment before hurtling towards earth. Free-falling rockets tumbled and dropped at fast rates as we watched and murmured, exclaiming or laughing at each one's story. Tiny parachutes burst out in oranges, yellows, pinks, or red, while other rockets tore in two and raced towards the ground, crashing hard. 

One by one down the line, rockets of all shapes and sizes had their turn. Most crackled and soared high, but several remained silent, motionless on the launch floor as the controller flicked their ignition buttons with no response.

Welp, connection error, the rocket controller concluded and moved on to other rockets. 

And I felt it, this truth from rocket falls and rocket launches. If I'm not connected to time in God's word, to the powerful life and joy and meaning that flows from him, then I'm just stuck silent on the launch pad. My only sizzle and life flows from the Creator of this rotating globe, and everything else is just a dressed-up rocket with no juice to go. 

And I've heard it, that Martin Luther used to say that he was too busy NOT to pray, indeed ordering his busiest days to schedule in extra time to pray. That has resonated strongly in me this week. Pouring coffee, grabbing journal, Bible and pen, I scratch To Do lists alongside writing out a Bible psalm each morning, and I feel it soak God's vitality and purpose deep in me. 

As September sidles up beside us, and the schedules shift, join me in this? Let's check to make sure our connections are clipped in. Are you linked to the Source? Getting juiced up? 

That's where our Power comes from, friend. 

May your times savoring God's presence bring you joy, life, and centered-focus in this busy season. May he be your soul's rest and renewal, your slowed-down moments, before you hurtle high. 

Smiling with you, cheering you on too, and praying for you, 

Jennifer 


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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Signs We Wish We'd Made (& A Great Way to Go Deeper this Year)

Sandy summer shoes scuffed behind me. A hallway-away a locker clanged shut and echoed across tiled floors. On the right a faculty bathroom was available and I slipped in, closing the door behind me. I stared at the signs and then laughed, thankful for its warnings.

And isn't that the truth? In addition to wanting to successfully secure some privacy in a bustling public hallway, can you relate to this warning in other areas of your life? "This doesn't work." "Use this."

Those tape scrawls have stuck in my head since, making me laugh and shake my head. Because I can think of so many times when I wish I had had those messages taped into my life too. "This doesn't work, Jen." This will cause you heartache, or unnecessary stress. "This doesn't work, Jen. Use this instead."

We are counting summer's days and trying to savor every moment. You too? Recently my husband, son and I drove to an outdoor concert in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the days leading up to that night, I had raved to my eleven-year old son how much fun we would have and what a treat it would be to unzip our red picnic backpack and lay out a feast on a blanket. Hours before leaving, however, we couldn't find the special backpack anywhere. Daniel and I upended closets and emptied every shelf we could think of. I had vague memories of loaning it out to someone, but couldn't remember who, and suddenly my blonde-haired Daniel wasn't the only disappointed one. When I couldn't find the green blanket either, I started to unravel.

And while I know this says volumes about my closet-organizing skills, it also says more about my heart. Why was I letting minor details of a backpack and blanket upend the joy of this special family evening? God grinned and whispered calm and gentle grace to my heart.

I stepped over the piles of overturned blankets and sleeping bags (those became the next day's challenge and victory!) and stepped into peace. Joy isn't bound by possessions, but by being God's.


We carried our picnic in plastic and cloth bags, and it tasted just as good. Folding chairs and a fuzzy brown blanket completed our supplies and we hopped in the car, headed to the city skyline and a night away together.







In a few weeks, I start my third year of teaching Village School of the Bible's Cover to Cover Bible survey class. Registration is happening now. If you'd like to jump into studying the Bible with me this year, I'd love to have you join us. We'll read the whole Bible in a year, have great group discussions, and build a close community of people who are being transformed by God's word day by day. (Feel free to watch Steve's story of his encounters in this class.)

If you, like me, need reminders some days of "This doesn't work. Use this," you are safe and welcome here. For those reading from emails or blogs, I'd love to have you comment here and tell me what God has been teaching you lately.

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

God Speaks Russian

We stood, seven people in a circle, holding hands at the top of our stairs. Chic bobbed hair Svetlana, gentle-eyed Sergei, blue-eyed Marco, and I, with our kids interspersed beside us: soft-spoken family clown Daniel with his deep compassionate heart, and sweet blonde Nadia and Julia, with their big smiles and husky Russian accents. We prayed in English and they prayed in Russian, for loved ones we had been thinking about, for our families, and for ministries and our interactions with people. Russian words tumbled and lilted melodiously from their lips and we listened in quiet wonder. At amen, we broke up and took turns giving strong hugs good bye to this family that Mark had met twenty years earlier, but that Daniel and I had just met ten days ago.

In a week over daily coffee and in between their schedules away, our families opened up our lives. Pointing to the world map on our table, we exchanged stories, spoke of kids and histories, and discovered how much our beliefs pointed us to a common home in Jesus. Compatriots in Jesus, and co-wanderers on this earth, we soon felt like brothers and sisters.

Sveta stirred and bubbled up healthy brown kasha cereal several mornings. Mark flipped cheesy omelets and broiled savory gouda cheeseburgers outside on the grill. And in between the strawberry kale salads and the frequent French Press coffee, our families opened up our hearts.

"I'm going to miss them, Mom," Daniel said tearfully as he crawled into his lofted bed.

"Me too." I kissed his forehead. "Wasn't it cool to hear them praying? God speaks Russian."

Daniel grinned, eyes wide as he considered that, and his world widened.

At swim lessons at the YMCA this week, I slid onto a bench near Daniel's swim lane. Two women in long dresses and head veils smiled at me, eyes glancing shyly away.

"As salaam alaikum," I greeted them. Peace to you.

In a loud humid pool room, we leaned heads closer and smiled, pointing to which kids were ours. With hands, words, and facial expressions, we shared how many kids we had and their ages. Our eyes flashed warmth and we agreed that kids were a treasure, a gift from God. In a bustling room, our kids came and went, small bodies dripping with chlorine water. Droplets beaded and glistened on wet curls and glowing faces.

And just like that, it was time to go. Nodding heads in honoring kindness, we walked away.

I love that our God speaks Arabic too.

As we strive to love God and to love others, our lives become fluent in speaking welcome in any language. I want that for me, and I want that for you too, my friend. And I firmly believe this: a pulled-wide life, a pulled-wide heart, is the best way to see Jesus and his joy-filled life.


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