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.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Just After Hitting "Send" to God

"Nalia, look!"

I called her over and we both stared into the rumpled earth.

"I planted these last year and they hid under the snow all winter."

"What are they?" she asked in ten year old curiosity, as my seven year old Daniel peeked over her shoulder too.
Photo Credit: Flickr User: See-Ming Lee, Creative Commons, cc license
"They're parsnips; kind of like a white carrot," I laughed. Plunging my fingers deeper into cold spring soil, I traced dirt away from the white round vegetables in the ground.

Feathery green plumes marked each veggie treasure. I tugged and gently loosened them one plant at a time, before ripping them out of the ground. Black dirt crumbled and tumbled from the round tubulars and I laughed to see food and life burst from underground.

Because the truth was I had forgotten about them. Twelve months ago I had eagerly torn open the paper packet of seeds and stared in dismay at its contents.

"They're so tiny!"

Round brown flakes swirled and mounded inside the seed packet. Pouring a handful into my palm then, I had been afraid the seeds would blow away in a May breeze or be snatched up by cardinals and sparrows. Poking tiny finger holds into cool soil up to my knuckles, I slid one or two lightweight seeds inside, hoping at least several would grow.

Like a Bermuda Triangle in my garden, that corner of raised beds stayed stubbornly bare that spring, while Queen Ann sugar snap peas, Early Contender bush beans, and the butterfly-seedling life force of morning glory flowers had sashayed out of the ground.

In early summer, tall fern-like plants had stood up and crowded that corner of the garden, bowing heads conspiratorially, and I had hoped parsnips were fattening underground. Summer had swelled, crescendoed, and abated. Autumn's trees had dropped reds and yellows that crumpled into browns and tangled in the parsnip greens.

"Parsnips are better after several frosts," I told Mark as we peered out the living room windows in November and December. Snows fell.

This week, the soil warmed and ready, my red tulips bobbing in the breeze, I walked barefoot to my garden and tugged curiously on a parsnip's green top. Wiggling, prying, I pulled up a plump white parsnip.

"Nalia, come see!"

A small mountain of white parsnips mound up on my patio table now, the rain washing them nicely for me. And the parsnips suddenly remind me of my prayers.

Like tiny tremulous seeds I shake out and hold in small hands, they feel so paltry to the task. I plant them and wait, and time seems to slow some days. There are days when I wonder what will grow to fill that space. And as I wait, wonder, and trust the Grower's instructions, seasons pass. 

Life unfolds beneath the surface. In the dark, treasures swell and mature. In the time I've forgotten them, God hasn't. They are sweetening, ripening, growing better by the day. It's in the frost that kills and in winter's long nights that the parsnips grow the sweetest.

After winter's thaw, petite purple crocuses and grape-like hyacinth clusters mark the passing time. Greenery emerges new life from the parsnips corner and I'm suddenly reminded of prayers and plantings from a year ago.

Crouching to my knees, I dig and pull, finding the treasures God has been growing all along.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pheasant-Hunting with a Pen & Author in Turkey

Stabbing in the black plastic fork, I pulled it back. Speared green spinach leaves, tangy apple squares, and salty slivers of Swiss cheese dangled haphazardly for a moment. Self-consciously helping a few stray spinach stems back into my mouth, I pulled the Bible closer with my other hand.
Photo Credit: Flickr User K. Hurley, Creative Commons cc license
Paul, one of the authors of the Bible, had penned words from ancient Turkey. Their poetic beauty and powerful life-changing truths grabbed me, yet I found myself stopping to read and re-read them.

Do Bible sections trip you up sometimes too? Paul's long sentences drip with parenthetical clauses and commas. I find myself tracking subject-verb trails like a pheasant hunter or an editor with a red pen. As the words-lover in me grows and stretches taller each year, I discover that my method of studying and learning has changed too.

Armed with pens, colored pencils, and endless notebooks, I've learned that writing out Paul's sentences and diagramming them reveals new beauty and understanding to me. Dissecting his subjects, verbs, prepositions, and clauses, I suddenly see his passages flood with clearer meaning. Patterns and repeated words pop out. Joy pours in. The words hum with intensity, and my eyes trace and re-trace the lines. "Wow, look at this!" I point to friends and family nearby.

Today I diagrammed four verses from the book named after the Turkish city of Ephesus. Sentences by a Roman Jew, imbued with the Creator's Spirit, sizzled excitement and truth to my European-American heart. Grab your plate and join me?

I pray that out of his glorious riches
he may strengthen you with power
through his Spirit in your inner being, 
so that
Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. 

And I pray that you, 
being rooted and established in love,
may have power
together with all the saints, 
to grasp
          How WIDE
          and LONG
          and HIGH
          and DEEP
is the love of Christ,

and to know
this love that surpasses knowledge 
--that you may be filled
to the measure
of all the fullness of God.                              (Ephesians 3:16-19)

What have you been snagging for quick easy lunches? And where have you been reading lately? (Those in email can click here to join the conversations.)

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Where is He Intersecting Your Lines With Others?

He's here again -- the Japanese Grandpa. I don't know him but I see him regularly at my library coffee shop.

A black jacket hood pulled low covers half his face and hides his distinguished silver and charcoal hair today, but I can still see his thin grey mustache and beard. A narrow cheekbone rests on his right shoulder and his chest rises and falls in deep peaceful sleep. He has been curled up in a black leather arm chair beside a tall tropical banana tree since I arrived two hours ago. His six plastic grocery bags are lined neatly on the two corralled chairs beside him, and I find myself drawn to him.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Gullevek, Creative Commons cc license
He intrigues me. I am curious about this dignified elderly man since I saw him deftly eating a breadstick with chopsticks at a round metal patio table last fall. Every few weeks I see him and we seem to share a similar Monday schedule.

This is the second time I've seen him napping, though, and his restful vulnerability stirs respect, honor, and a slight protective feeling in me for him. Last time he had suddenly awoke, looked at his watch, and stood up. Trying several combinations of bags, he had adjusted their contents and transferred weight from one hand to another until he was satisfied.

A young businessman and I had watched him that day on the edge of our chairs, both wanting to jump in with offers to help. I had hesitated, not sure if help would seem dishonoring. In the lull, the young entrepreneur had stepped in.

"Excuse me, can I help you carry those somewhere?" he asked.

The Japanese Grandpa had been surprised, raising his eyebrows to hear it again, clarified. After the second time, he had shook his head politely, graciously refusing aid. Grasping three bags in each hand, he stood, stowing a kindle-like device in a folded-up pocket in the fleece shirt under his jacket.  Weaving sideways through crowded coffee tables, he had descended out of sight down the stairs.

Was he a shop owner awaiting the bus? Was this a grocery run? Was he homeless? I wondered.

I watch him sleeping here again now, and the questions cycle in my mind. I pray silent blessings on him and wonder about starting a conversation.

God knows my Japanese Grandpa's name even if I don't yet, and he knows how many silver charcoal hairs are under his hood. My Creator is crazy about his gentleman and a sudden glimpse of God's love for this man chokes me.

Who are the people weaving their storylines through yours? God knows their plots and he loves them fiercely. I'm reminding myself to slow down, to see them, and to step into their stories as possible, even if it's just silent prayer vigils for the strangers I pass on the street or see across the room from me. Where is God intersecting stories near you?

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Monday, March 21, 2016

A Mission that Will Self-Destruct in Ten, Nine, Eight...

My daughter and her friend spread watercolor pigments, paint brushes, drawing pencils, and textured feathery paper across our dining room table.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Mike Wallis, Creative Commons cc license
"Mom, can you click on the Nutcracker Pandora station?" she asks, just a few bars into a Vivaldi song. Tchaikovsky must feel more inspirational to her tonight. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies wafts through the room, and conversation caves into reflective brushstrokes.

I open my computer screen and turn to words, my preferred mode of art. And these words have been running through my head all week since seeing them buried in an ancient Old Testament Bible book.

In that history, God has pulled a prophet (these men and women who have been chosen to speak God's messages) into a heart-wrenching assignment. The mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to experience God's heart on a gut-level intimacy. 

Hosea took the mission and stepped knowingly into the pain, but I cannot imagine that lessened the agony. His mission? Marry an unfaithful woman, knowing that she'll keep running away from you. Woo her again and again. Don't give up on her, even when she chooses other men, and falls into a life of prostitution.

Throughout the years, Hosea pursues her, speaking tenderly to her, and welcoming her home. "Stop this other life. Leave these men." 

Eventually, his wife, Gomer, has become enslaved. Bringing money, Hosea pays the price to free her from the debt and lovingly brings her home.

Stringing words together in fluent poetry, God delivers the punchline: This is how humans treat me. This is how my creation responds to me. But, more importantly, this is how I feel about them.  "Therefore I will now allure her. I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her," a deep-voiced God says about his people, his world. 

Turning to Hosea, God explains. My people should return to me. My love for them is unending. His cue, and the phrase that has been running through my mind all week, is this:

               "Take words and return,"

I find that powerful.

Have any rifted relationships? With people? With God? Take words with you and return. Say sorry. God promises: I will heal you and love you freely.

Besides... his love has been chasing you already. Through the streets, through your stories, and through your storms, he has been following, saying, I will lead her and speak tenderly. I will allure her with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love. 

Take words and return.

My daughter and her friend have picked up the brushes, turned off the music, and left the room. God's art, however, swirls and eddies on in vibrant color.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What is it For You?

Mondays are my favorite days.
Photo Credit: Marie Coleman, Creative Commons cc license
Dropping Morgan off at an academy, I pull away from the curb and head to a nearby public library. Two stories of a book lover's dream are encased in floor-to-ceiling glass windows. World-origin coffee beans bulge in burlap bags on the floor beside the coffee shop's entrance, and just entering the whirring room makes me inhale and smile.

With a medium-sized Burundi dark roast coffee and my bag of notebooks, pens, and notes, I get to study for hours. These last few weeks, in between writing sessions, I have been flipping through Old Testament and New Testament Bible pages, combing through commentaries, and pulling out related resources. I have eight speaking/teaching sessions coming up, and preparing for them, teaching them, and praying for those events fill me with joyful delight. Digging deep into God's word and looking to illustrate His truths in relevant, exciting, and applicable ways fills me with excitement, and I discover that I'm the one who is learning these truths anew each time. Our Artist God's words are like that, coiling up active and vibrant at every mention.

Packing up my journal, Bible, notes, and papers partway through the morning, I pause to pick up Morgan on her study hall. We return to the library, find a quiet table and study again, lapsing into silence as we both scrape pen against lined paper. An hour later, she is back in class, and I'm alone again on a rickety table, turning pages, grabbing my pen, and asking God for wisdom as I sink deep into study.

I don't know about you, but I'm sure you have things that make you come alive. What passions, dreams, or life-goals simmer beneath your day-to-day life? God sculpted and made you unique, placing skills, talents, and his giftings inside you. You were made on purpose, and the world needs you. When and where can you slip away to hone those? What stirs inside you?

And worship needn't always look like piano, drums, and vocalists -- although I love those times too. Worship can look like pen-smudged hands whipping fast across a page, grinning maniacally at God's goodness; or a horticulturist's muddy knees as she lifts weary eyes up to her Artist God in thanks; and a daddy's third trip into a plaintive toddler's bedroom, fifteen minutes past bedtime. Worship looks like a caregiver's gentle patience; your work on repeated loads of laundry; your scrambling to fix a nutritious supper at five-thirty pm; or sleepy prayers in the dark of night. Worship can be daring to write out that story God has been whispering to you to write; and worship can be taking your turn in infant nursery on an early Daylight Saving's Sunday.

Take a deep breath. Ask God to confirm what's bubbling up inside you even now, and then step out. I promise it'll bring a rush of joy.

Hi! As my Speaking Bureau and I plan this next 2016-2017 year of speaking and teaching engagements, please let me know if I can save a date for you and your church, MOPS group, women's event, retreat, conference, or camp. I love getting to know women, and would love to rekindle a flame in your walk with God, in your marriage and family, and in your sphere of influence. Check availability by emailing, or peek through my speaking topics and testimonials here.