Monday, November 24, 2014

A Backward's Glance that Will Change Your Trajectory

Miniscule snowflakes drift by sleepily today, while burly college men sprawl around our cherry wood kitchen table with my husband.

Photo: Gabriela, Creative Commons, cc license
Raucous laughter breaks out as they tease each other about the board game in front of them, and I grin quiet and shift more comfortably on my desk behind them. Scouring digital photos from last year, I select a few, inserting them into this year's Christmas letter. The photos trail beside tales, and I can't help but see it.

It's laced throughout the document, and I hear it again and again. And the words just flow it out, this truth that I know but it takes a year's worth of telling to see it so plainly. In a paragraph on page one, it's there in Times New Roman font, "We are overwhelmed by God's gracious care for us and his extravagant kindness." And somehow it's in a paragraph about demolition and destruction, and yet he amazes me with his kind care.

On page two, the line weaves throughout paragraphs about seizures and cancer but once again the lines speak a truth I had known but the seeing it in black and white still takes me by surprise. Because the audacious truth of joy and seeing God's constant love is that the circumstances might surprise us. It's there, and I can't lie. The words reflect and recite it back to me, and nodding, I agree. "That incident reminded us how precious Daniel is to us and gave us an opportunity to experience God's palpable kind love and presence in our lives as we walked the days and weeks that followed."

And those truths that we can know in our heads really do come bursting from our hearts in the hospital rooms, outside the surgical ward, and in the MRI waiting rooms. Because the truth is "While it was an emotional time for our family, we were amazed at the innumerable ways we saw God's kind gifts to us throughout the nine-day hospital stay and the weeks before and after."

Taking a break from revising the family Christmas letter, I joined my daughter in making beef lo mein for supper. College boys had trickled in and out until there was just one left, playing games at the table with my husband on his day off. This former youth group man is now in his thirties and today is his birthday. Six year old Daniel and I frosted the cake, twirling spoons with white frosting across a yellow cake.

"Can I do the sprinkles?" Daniel asked eagerly. He pinched them up a few at a time, concentrating to drop them precisely where he wanted them on the vanilla frosting. Soon, we sang Happy Birthday and gave Brandon his card. Daniel was so excited that he jumped into a version of the song early, and we hurried to catch up to him, starting a second refrain. And our love for this thirty-two year old former teen in our youth program wells up inside us, jumping off the page of our homemade black and white card.

But this love? It pales next to the love that our God has for Brandon, for us, and for you. This kind love and palpable presence leaps off the page to me this year, reading back over our family's news for the Christmas letter. And I never would have guessed that a year with words like seizure, house relocation, house demolition, and cancer could hold so much joy, and uncontainable stories of God's kindness, but it does.

And may I tell you? For we know, brothers and sisters that you are dearly loved by God, and that he has chosen you. In this Thanksgiving week of finding and giving thanks, even a cursory glance backwards will show you trails and tales of God at work in your life. You are dearly, unconditionally, loved.

(Yes, yes, you too.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

For When You Wonder if You're Seen

Photo: Cedric Lange, Creative Commons cc license
Purple and orange cream sliced the horizon in layers as twilight sank into cold winter night. I scrawled a few lines in my journal during a work lull Monday night, before clocking out for the day. Twining the black scarf around me in layers and zipping my red jacket up high, I crunched through swirling snow.

A duo of pecking fights Sunday night had left us hollow and discouraged. My heart was tired from them. Sunday night's family supper had quickly soured, and the intended bonding time wasn't. We spent the evening in different corners of the house.

Monday morning we kissed stiffly and chose to hug, trying to start fresh but still fearful of communication minefields. In my journal late Monday afternoon, I wrestled and asked hard questions.

Because what we all really want in a relationship is to be seen and found interesting. We long to be sought after. And those needs? Your needs, my needs, our men's needs? They are valid and real. And the truth is, our loves have sought us out and found us interesting. There have been times of great connection and there will be again. But in the moment, the unresolved tensions or the lack of quality time together can bring out the lonely and the missing in a heart. 

I crunched through a layer of shattered snow, skidding slightly on the ice below, praying and resolving. Asking God to help me start fresh tonight, asking his help to speak kindly, to respectfully build up, to listen better, and to see my man's heart behind his choices or words, I sucked in cold air and shoved my hands deeper into silky pockets. Rush-hour cars crackled by, and the sky turned pink and violet. Almost unconsciously, I straightened my torso, threw my shoulders back, and took deep full breaths through my nose. A hope-filled peace settled in.

Several blocks later, I stepped over a pine threshold onto a red swirled rug and walked upstairs. My husband smiled and came over. We kissed, lingering.

"Let's go out tonight," he suggested, holding me close. "Let's go right now."

We hugged longer, smiling, before I raced off to gather a few supper items for the kids. Fifteen minutes later we drove on a dark Monday night, eager for this chance to re-connect, to truly see each other, and to be seen. We talked for hours, holding hands across a booth counter still oily from drippy hamburgers, laughing and seeking each other out. Happy peace settled in.

May I encourage you today that our God sees your heart? He knows that occasional lonely and missing ache, and he longs to fill it in tangible, good-for-you ways. The God, whose very nature breathes in rhythm from within a three-in-one trinity relationship, knows you and loves you. He is at work in me and in you, bringing hope and intimacy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Burying Our Inner Critic and Censor

"The footprint of the house looks small for all the living we did here," I remarked to John, staring down into an excavated basement cavern.

Photo Credit: Terinea IT Support, Creative Commons, cc license
"I was thinking the same thing," he said, kicking a clod of dirt careening below. Mounds of soil flecked with green shingle bits slumped nearby. My mint patch grew hale and green, unchecked by the demolition.

Daniel stomped around the perimeter, stopping to smash occasional dirt chunks or peer cautiously into the hole. Just a few days ago, when first seeing the destroyed house, he gaped in surprise with all of us. Speeding by it after the intersection light flickered green, my daughter had snapped grainy cell phone photos, and we had all craned our heads to follow the pile of house as it passed through each window. Cars lined up behind us in the turn lane so we could only stare through the twilight as the pile slipped out of sight.

"I'm too sad to cry," Daniel pronounced solemnly as we turned up Fraizier Street and away from the scene of our former home.

Having only left there three months ago, we still smiled nostalgically each time we drove past it. Quipping, "There's our old house," we'd let our eyes trace possessively the hills, four pine trees, drying sunflowers in the garden, and familiar yellow and green siding and trim.

Sunday afternoon, Daniel, John, and I were there in daylight to study the scene and say goodbye.

"Hey, I recognize that rock," John grinned as I stooped to retrieve a blue boulder from where it used to prop up the ribbed gutter behind the garage.

"I'm getting it. It's ours," I declared.

After greeting our neighbors briefly, my boys headed to the car. Darting from the vehicle suddenly, I raced to my patch of mint, still growing strong. "I need to harvest some before the snow comes tomorrow."

John shook his head and ducked his tall frame into the car.

Sweet crisp spearmint crushed in my hands as I tore it off bushes I had planted two years ago. Tall gangly stalks bounced and bobbed in the movement and the autumn wind. Yellow dust scattered.

Climbing into the car, laughing sheepishly yet oddly defiant, I dumped the mint leaves onto notebook paper in the front seat and fastened my seat belt. John put the car into reverse as he backed out of the driveway. "That's right. I had forgotten how hard this driveway was," he said, looking both ways at fast-incoming traffic. We paused.

"Look at all the gopher mounds," he laughed, shaking his head, remembering my battles.

I quietly said goodbye as we drove west on Ball Road: goodbye to the invisible yellow house, to the two yellow maples out front, the four pine trees standing guard in the west, and the dried sunflowers hanging drooped heads low in the back.

"It doesn't feel like our house anymore," six year old Daniel said. "It feels like death."

And we pulled onto Lexington Avenue and drove south. Leaning in to smell my mint, I blew unconsciously at the dust coating the leaves. Scattering instantly across the car, making John cough, dust from our house floated in the air.
My six year old's words held power and strength this week. In freedom, he sieved through his emotions, naming them as they bubbled up, and releasing them aloud. Knowing that goodbyes to people, places, and seasons is vital --and dangerous when squashed-- I am listening as he speaks and affirming his feelings. Nodding my head, I let him know that it is okay to hold both grief and joy, both nostalgia and excitement, gratitude and goodbyes. Resisting the urge to censor, educate, or reframe his feelings or expressions, I free him to put words to his emotions.

Dancing in the sunlight, yellow dust particles swirled near the car vents, with the sweet smell of mint mixing in.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Weighted Moments That May Be Passing You (& Me) By


"Will you cut my mouth?" he asks, holding out a butter knife towards his pumpkin.

We're gathered around the kitchen table, five pumpkins and five people. Slimy seeds with dangling orange pumpkins strings are being slung into a glass bowl for later, and we pass the stencil blades and tiny plastic saws around between us.

My six year old son and I brainstorm the expression he wants his pumpkin face to have, and I slice and cut features for him. Swingy jazz music plays in the background, dirty dishes stack high on one of the counters, and everything has stopped for an hour or so as we slip into family time.

"This year for Christmas, can we decorate lots of cookies?" my daughter asks, staring intently at her pumpkin face as she carves.

"Sure." We talk more of customs, and it intrigues me to know more about which holiday traditions and times together have been meaningful for them. John stretches out across the couch by now, all of us done with our pumpkins except Morgan who is painstakingly following an idea she found online.  After some thought, John brings up simple moments from his childhood, walks in preschool years, times alone with special loved ones, and it hits me.

Most of our special family moments aren't the huge scripted ones. They are the small cumulative times that build each year: an hour here dicing out pumpkin faces; a squeezed in afternoon there spreading red frosting onto chunky gingerbread men; but mostly, it's the happy moments around the dinner table before someone has to leave, or the ordinary evenings at home with a family game or movie.

I can see it now, how often my nineteen year old likes to linger in the kitchen as I wash dishes or cook supper, pulling his long legs up onto the counter or into my small desk chair, while we talk about the day before he rushes off to work. Those moments hold weighted value now tonight as I see them for what they are: precious, and building a foundation of family memories.

"Mom, is it time to light the candles now?" Daniel asks, all six years of him brimming in excitement.

(And it's not about Halloween, because we're careful about those themes, yet are thankful for times to connect with and meet our neighbors.) It's about the excitement of doing something as a family, building a memory each time we gather together. Today, it was with pumpkins, and faces, and autumn leaves. And the memories captured here are precious.

What are some things you enjoy doing with your family or friends?


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meeting Him Between the Lines

"What do you see?" I ask her, holding out two hands like an amateur photographer, framing a scene out the bedroom window.

Photo: Stephen Wong, Creative Commons, cc license
She flops closer on the bed, scooting up on her elbows and begins to stare through the window, out across the front lawn, and into the neighbor's yard across the street.

"Notice what you see. What's still? What's moving? What colors do you see? What do you hear? How does it make you feel?..." I trail off, picking up my pen to scratch words across my sheet as well.

One fourth a tree in yellow leaves flutter. 
rest is bare, crumpled. 

Pumpkin-colored crimson tree in full-splendor
backdrops my last yellow leaves
carpeting the neighbor's lawn;
a reclining scarecrow in a brown wicker chair.

The wind blows hard from the left,
leaves strain to hold on
Yellow maples flutter right.
Daniel yells in sudden angry crisis from outside my bedroom door...

Poetry in World Literature side-steps on while I comfort a sad six year old. Later, he leans on tip toe from his wooden kitchen chair to break egg shells and slide gooey bananas into our scuffed white mixer. Tactile pressure explodes and shatters white shell fragments across the counter while he practices with egg pieces in the compost.

"...Two, three," we count the flour cups, and he pours a grain dust avalanche into the bowl. We mash, mix, and stir, before pouring lumpy batter into metal muffin tins. Banana bread muffins scent an autumn kitchen, while red leaves in the backyard fly sideways in the wind.

For devotions this week, I am enjoying the ancient poetic verses from the Bible book of Proverbs. Inspired by God, several Near Eastern kings captured wisdom into brief captions, like bite-sized lessons to mull over. After an initial reading through of Proverbs chapter 12, I knew I needed more time with it. Grabbing a smooth-rolling black pen and my journal, I wrote sentence by sentence, leaving room and time to pause and write prayer responses back to the Writer God Behind the Words. 

Working my way through the chapter, I interacted with Him in each line.

..."The plans of the righteous are just, 
but the advice of the wicked is deceitful." 

Lord, you call me righteous through Jesus' blood. Are my plans your plans? Am I following your heart and desires? Help me to be so in tune with your spirit that my plans are yours, automatically just. Help my advice not be wicked or deceitful.

"The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, 
but the speech of the upright rescues them." 

Abba, may my words and my heart not be wicked. May they not be out for another's blood, or pain, or wounds. May my speech rescue myself and others. May I be upright in your sight. 

Hours after the banana bread, the World Literature, and four loads of dishes, this idea comes to mind again, and I pull out my journal and Bible to study them some more.

"...A fool shows his annoyance at first, 
but a prudent man overlooks an insult." 

Whew, yep, I'm the first one so often, God. Help me, forgive me. You used the word 'prudent' here instead of 'wise'. Prudent has a longer term outlook, right? Wise, cautious, long-term-focus for better results? Help me overlook insults and use long-term judgment.

And while I'm safe at a desk eating a banana muffin for the moment, I know how easily I fall into the first category instead of the latter. There is more wisdom in this chapter that I need to mine. 

Photo: Ryan Guill, Creative Commons, cc license
Grab a muffin with me, and your Bible and journal? Where are you reading? Want to write back prayers to the Writer God Behind the Words, and have him draft and shape us into living poetry?

Monday, October 20, 2014

When Our Lives Don't Fit the Pretty Analogies

I imagine you're heard the rock and sand analogy too? It's the story we hear from self-help books and spiritual retreats about ordering our lives and prioritizing what's really important. And the way it goes is this: a woman is handed five or six stone boulders and a pile of sand.
Photo: Ted Scodras, Creative Commons, cc license
The rocks represent important pieces or roles in her life: her marriage, kids, spirituality, sense of community, and the list goes on. The sand is everything else that trickles in to take up a day: laundry, dishes, meals, soccer-trips, grocery-runs, etc. Pouring the sand into a glass bowl first, she puzzles and struggles to slide all five or six prioritized life boulders in so they'll fit into her already very-full life. Half-full of sand, the boulders cannot all fit into the bowl.

Then, in a flipped upside order, the solution is displayed for us to see. Dumping out the failed attempts, the bowl starts empty, clean. Placing in first the prioritized boulders, a woman's life is ordered, it would seem. All rocks nestle neatly in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the sand that is to sift in, sloshing into hollow crevices and holes, around the important rock roles.

I've used this analogy and explained this, but it's falling short for me today. The truth is, our boulders are big and take up a lot of space some days. Is anyone else feeling that way? The older my kids get, the larger their boulders seem some nights. Forming a tenth-grade daughter, raising a college-age man, and introducing a kindergartener to letters and phonics seem more than a day's worth of boulders and it wakes me up some nights, when insomnia tiptoes in. My building-a-marriage rock is special and vital to me too, and it swells to fill the whole bowl some days.

A six year old Spiderman-masked-boy dances and sings beside me as I type, his boulder knocking and tumbling against my glass bowl, knocking out others, spitting sand to the side.

I'm figuring something out, friends, about the bowl and the rocks and the flying-out sand... I don't think our lives can be boiled down perfectly to fit into these glass bowls. I'm learning to take turns juggling each boulder, focusing time on each aspect of my life that has deep value.

Yes, the sand still fits, and yes, it comes in last. But those boulders? I'm still not fitting them all in smoothly each day to my satisfaction. Instead, I'm pausing and giving each its moment in my hand.

A red-bandit six-year old runs in to ask for help reaching his plastic silver sword high above the kitchen cupboards. Pushing the keyboard aside, I stretch for his sword, and then stare full into his brown eyes. We smile, talk, and I know his rock needs more time. Soon.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I disappeared into our room. Locking the doors, we pulled the curtains, turned on the fan, and snuggled in for time together. For a lazy hour or two, it was just him and me. Time trailed and twisted timid toe shyly as we ignored the world and turned inward for a while.

My daughter and I worked on her Biology and World Geography homework together this morning as sunshine spilled into the kitchen and I sipped hot coffee before work. We planned a future shopping date while adjusting microscope lenses, and the time passed too quickly.

How do we order our days and weeks, pouring the necessary time and energy into our kids' lives, into our marriages, and into the things that really matter to us? How do we live without regrets in a week that is frantic and paced?

 My boulders? Your boulders? They may not fit easily into glass bowl analogies or into daily check-lists, but -- with intentionality and God's help-- we can keep them central in the busyness of life.

They may just not all be in the bowl at the same time, and that's okay.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What I Never Expected to See in My Daughter's Homework Today

"I'll let you hold the broom, Mom," she smirked as we strode across the parking lot. A deep white bucket in one hand, I crossed the blacktop, balancing a long-handled home-made ladle in the other. Tenth grade Morgan stepped primly beside me, laughing and pretending to ignore me.
Photo: Bill Benzon, Creative Commons cc license
We exchanged smiles, and hoisted our items for a better grip. She carried her biology notebook, a mechanical pencil, and a plastic box of colored pencils. I watched the plastic soup ladle we had taped to the end of the kitchen broom bounce at every dip in the dirt path.

"This'll be fun," I convinced her, cocking my eyebrows at her.

Disappearing down a side path by the library, behind the community gardens, and into the woods, we slipped into a sunlit forest.

"I remember this path from when I was younger," Morgan noticed. "It seems so much smaller now. It's about the same for you, though, I bet, since you're still short," she quipped, smiling at me.

Several minutes later we rounded the corner to our spot. Straddling the sandy path was a small green algae pond, cattails dipping in the breeze.

Starting a two-week-long biology micro-organisms experiment, we labeled glass jars, and splashed in water from the deepest layer of the pond. Seaweed and green slime dangled from the black handle and slopped into our jars. After collecting all the water, Morgan and I arranged plastic bags on the wet path to sit on while she annotated her specimens.

Cirrus clouds raced by overhead. Yellow aspen leaves quaked and shimmered. Tiny willows leaned low. Flecks of green plant growth floated on quiet swamp water, and I closed my eyes in the warm autumn sunshine. A distant dog barked, and Morgan's colored pencils clanked for a moment in between hues.

The experiment? We are to feed four jars of invisible life, letting them grow in tin-foiled darkness, and observe them under a microscope after three to five days. The jars sloshed as we walked back to the car, green algae and black muck floating on top. Invisible potential simmers just under the surface. Not knowing what's growing there, we'll wait and see.

The last four weeks have raced by in a blur of hospital days for my dad's cancer surgery and the resulting recovery period, youth group retreats, school, and a lovely women's retreat, amid the unpacking from our move. What I have loved seeing, though, is the life that rises to the surface from murky waters below. Despite fears of major surgeries and sobering statistics, our family saw God's sweet kindnesses every day. Sipping coffee from styrofoam cups in waiting rooms that grew familiar, we recorded moment after moment of God's kind gifts to us, and it moved us. Life that simmered up from the darkness.

Typing here in quiet twilight, I can still see Morgan's teasing eyes and raised eyebrows as she joked and walked confidently through the trees. And it brings me to silent gratitude. Our God who molds sons and daughters, who sculpts moms and dads, parenting us all, has made a daughter and it is beautiful to see. Life has simmered up from the surface below, and I can but stand and watch.

Our God is growing things invisibly deep inside of us. He is at work in our kids, our families, our marriages, ourselves.