Monday, August 18, 2014

The First Time I Ever Prayed THAT Before Vacation

His long toes and foot stretched out slowly from the backseat of the car to settle on my armrest.

"Is this okay, Mom?" John asked. Reflected in my sun-visor, his broad shoulders spilled past his third of the backseat, brushing against my daughter's. His leg slid up to the front seat's armrest, flexing out stiffness.

"No problem, John." I kissed the top of his foot.

The five of us bounced across the western half of the United States in our blue Oldsmobile on an eleven-day road trip to see relatives in Washington state. We passed crumbling wooden barns whose caving in was silent and imperceptible. Grasses and trees grew tangled through vacant windows and floorboards and, in a blink, the scene was gone. Wind turbines stood tall on hilltops, capturing the air around them in precise, non-hurried arms. Silver oil rigs bent low, faces to the soil, bobbing and drinking greedily. My daughter snapped photographs out the window of North Dakota's green foothills and up its winding caramel and navy-colored badlands. Placards boasted "the world's largest buffalo" and red and green rivers snaked among the bison.

Montana's disproportionate horizon screamed for attention. In a rancher's world with rattlesnakes and miles of brown sandy land between towns, the sky took center stage. Five-sixths of the world was sky, a massive blue ocean of air where wispy cirrus clouds curled and sketched before hiding away behind stony ranges. Clumped white cumulus clouds came next, throwing grey shadows onto the land around us. The highway carved through and over, around and under. My daughter snapped and clicked the camera feature of her dad's phone.

"Isn't there a silent option for the camera?" wondered my son, as his sister leaned across all angles of the car to capture the beauty she saw.

In Idaho and Washington, my six year old noticed his ears. "There's something wrong with my ears," he said.

"Oh, that's called popping. It's because we're driving up the mountains. Pretend you are swallowing food, or drink lots of water. It will help," I advised, swiveling to look over my left shoulder at him.
"Daniel, isn't God cool to make mountains? Wow, he's a good artist." We nodded together, my six year old and I, and the phrase appeared often in his meal and bedtime prayers that week. He thanked God for mountains and oceans, memories of splashing waves soon his most poignant.

Wet fog and mist clung to the bottom of ever-growing mountains, and we swallowed and gasped at the beauty.

We arrived eventually, of course, at my aunt and uncle's home, pulling into their yellow dirt driveway and crunching pebbles with our tires. Fresh peaches grew from their tree in the backyard, and the Yakima sun poured desert heat onto us as we hugged and exclaimed, getting re-acquainted again. The wooden screen door clapped shut behind us as we lugged suitcases and backpacks into the cool interior, and our voices disappeared inside.

And the prayer I uttered before leaving on this trip? The prayer I whispered on winding roads, and after late-nights... God, please make us delightful to each other and a delight to be around. Help us be kind, patient, and humble. Help us reflect you, your love filling us and coming out from us. 

Our Artist God coated mountains in greens, tans, and silvery blues, directed ocean tides, and granted that small prayer too. We pulled into our Minnesota driveway, eleven days later, after sixteen- and twelve-hour days of driving, still liking each other and thankful for the trip.

Hello, friends. I have missed you, and this time here with you. Thank you for your patience as I have been packing boxes, preparing for a move, and racing across country on a road-trip. 

How has your August been going? What adventures or savored moments are you collecting and holding onto carefully? Have you ever prayed any odd prayers before trips? 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Slowing Summer Down & Speeding Up What Matters

Photo: Ron Doke, Creative Commons, cc license

Photo: Dennis Larsen, Creative Commons, cc license
Throaty Bryan Adams'-style singing drifts over from the church nearby. Flashy classic, sport, and muscle cars line up in rows, hoods propped open, motors gleaming at an annual summer car show. Live music streams past the aroma of grilled hot dogs, steaming metal in the sun, and aerosol spray cans.

"Soo, I sorta did my hair," my nineteen year old son texts me in droll nonchalance. I grin and ask for photos, already picturing red, green and blue dye on a temporary spiked hairdo from last year's car show.

My husband straps on sandals and holds the door open for our six year old. The door blows shut behind them as they walk to church too.

I'm grabbing my green water bottle and jumping into time with you, friends. The counter behind me is lined with half-done dishes, crimson watermelon slices in a bag, and last night's coffee press.

Can you smell the campfire? Wood smoke still emanates from my skin, hair, and clothing. Pony tails hang down my shoulders to rest on my chest, and can you feel it here with me? This slipping away of summer?

Thirty of us teens and adults piled up bikes in a friend's driveway and dropped sleeping bags in the yard for yesterday's Bike and Camp youth event. Bike riding, backyard volleyball, and cooking over a fire brings people together. Tin foil-wrapped packets of potatoes, carrots, and onions smoldered beside ground hamburger, and night fell before we pulled out the marshmallows and chocolate.

"Lord, give me a great love for these teens and for these people in my life," I asked him at one point, slipping quiet under a variegated green maple.

He does, and we all show love in different ways. Whether extrovert or introvert, no matter our personality styles, we slide into familiar ways of relating to the people around us. Some friends love the people around them by scraping eggs on a heavy skillet over smoking fires. Others shake dice in a cup game for hours, bluffing with a smirk; or start up dozens of conversations.

On top of blue trampolines while bouncing and ducking, or on wooden picnic benches beside the blueberry crumble bars, these one on one times with others are what God uses most often to grow deeper love within me for people. I love those chances to see into people's eyes, to hear their stories, and to get beyond the noise and busyness into greater depth.

Sunshine filters through fern-like branches outside now, and my husband and youngest son have returned. Noise commences. Highway hums whine into the distance, dissipating quickly, and a cardinal trills nearby.

Summer slips by, and our moments with the people in our lives flit by too. Grab today with me?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Kindle Instant Intimacy and Passion with the One You Love

Photo: Philip Edmondson, Creative Commons, cc license
He catches me in the bottom stairwell, pulling me close.

And we all have this, the need to be seen, pursued.

He wraps his arms around my waist, drawing me to him, and I lean against his brown t-shirt, resting on his chest and shoulders, breathing in deeply.

"I should go," I murmur after a moment, hearing voices and feet running around on the floor above us.

His arms hold me still, and we linger.

He will be gone soon with plans until late at night, I realize, and so I put aside my To-Do List, my sense of obligation to the people upstairs, and my rushing.

There is no other place I need to be right now, and why step away from this? 

We stand in a silent stairwell, hugging and kissing, while noises clatter on upstairs. In a moment or two life continues, and we smile and step away, joining the conversations and commotion upstairs.

Romance and intimacy can be kindled in glances, in stolen kisses, in lingered hugs good bye. I can easily forget and think that passion requires grand gestures or weekends away at bed and breakfast nooks. While date nights are valuable to every marriage, the smaller, day to day moments are really what create closeness and bonding.

Want to kindle a flame in your relationship? Stop what you're doing the next time your spouse enters the room, stride over to him or her, and hug for an extended period of time. You know that moment when we normally assume a hug is over and we pull away? Resist. Stay longer, lean against them, and breathe in their scent.

He was right, my man.

Linger, breathe, and feel the melting start.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why Community is Worth It and Why You and I Need It

Photo: Young Rok Chang, Creative Commons, cc license
Cris-crossed pale skin marked out where the young girl's swimsuit straps normally lay. Tiny caramel-colored shoulders and back hunched shivering inside the church in a black funeral dress. The summer tan on that small girl several rows up from me just bellowed out the contrast of this sudden funeral. Friday attendees slid quietly into wooden pews, and a row of us lined up in solidarity. Community in that moment looked like singing along to worship songs that spoke of heaven and that clung to the promise that God never lets go "through the calm and through the storm." Community was wiping tears, hugging tightly, and grinning over stories of potbellied baby pigs and tractors, before going back for seconds on the delicious green jello dessert and the home-made sweet pickle slices.

Sunday morning, peeking out across the church audience during a song, I spied two former youth group girls from years ago. Connecting after the church service, we hugged, smiled, and tried to cram several months' or years' worth of information into a morning conversation. Community was remembering stories, names, details, and being thrilled to see each other again. We laughed and wished for more time, and a coffee date still needs to be planned.

Sunday night I watched women of all ages compete in blind-folded diapering contests on two mannequin babies at a baby shower. Gentle, white-haired Marilyn groaned good-naturedly and tried to get out of the second-round of competition by diapering slowly. The younger and older women around us shrieked laughter to see this surprise streak of rebellion in her. Marie and I raced valiantly, but Marie won by a split second. Bible study women from the last year, accustomed to digging in deep to the Bible and to each others' lives, arranged lemon bars and marshmallow brownie bite desserts on their laps as Melissa balanced Gail's bifocals on her nose and held the Bible out at arm's length to read her devotional. Community was women laughing together, passing wrapped baby gifts, and nodding in agreement as Melissa read of God's perfect love that is strong enough to kick out fear, and of this God-King who chases us and loves us, no matter where we go. 

"I've never been in a church where I felt so much like I belonged, as I do here," she said, the young pregnant mom, curly hair winding around her freckled face. We nodded, glad that she felt welcomed and safe in our church, but we saw too that this was a bigger thing. Women in this Bible study came from several different churches so Alicia's feelings pointed to something greater.

Community. We need it, we desire it, and, I'm learning, it's something we have to fight for, and invest in. Can I confess to you that many days my extrovert-introvert mixed personality needs to be reminded to step outside and to invest in people? Some days the allure of a quiet book, a television series, or the valid tasks that need to be done around me pull harder than choosing people. And while we all need down time, the truth is we all need community too.

Because the truth is, I am a better person for having known Julie and Nellie, Mihaela, Marie, Marilyn, Becky, and so many more. I learn from them and from their stories, and we have the privilege of being in various communities together.

And you? You have potential for community all around you. The neighbor across the street, the young mom who sits three rows up from you in church, or the somber-faced guy at the gym playing basketball each week, and the older widow you know. You are missing out, and I don't want you to, and they are missing out on not having known you yet.

So, put down the book with me, and turn off Netflix too, please? Can we encourage each other today to step outside and engage? The loss is too great not to. You are a better you, with them around you, and I am a better me because of them around me. 

Besides, you can't imagine the hilarity of seeing women battle it out in blindfolds and diapers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How to Never Have to Prove Yourself Again

Photo: Leigh Righton, Creative Commons, cc license
I'm sipping French pressed coffee and munching on red licorice, a breakfast of champions. In my ear a computer customer service agent talks me through steps to establish my identity for an annual renewal program. It's convoluted and frightening, the blue screens circling endlessly, dead-ending on the same screen each time.

And what is it about proving our identities that lands us in this same cycle? I see it in marriages, in sibling-parent relationships, and in boyfriend-girlfriend cycles. Too often we fall into loops of behavior or relating to each other that dead ends, bringing us back to the same blue ending. 

And I see it often, how we use words and facial expressions to send messages, but how frequently they are decoded wrongly and misunderstood. It can cause laughter, or raised eyebrows, raised voices, hurt, and frustration. Do you see it too?

I see it in my home sometimes also, sadly, and we're working on that. My man and I are carving our way through this new season. Choosing daily to try gentle tones, respectful voices, and affirming yet assertive communication, it is harder than it would seem, and we crash miserably in some conversations.

Sunday, while splashing dishes in the sink and planning our day, words sliced and cut in ignorance. We stood, recoiling, wondering how to retrace, recapture, restore. Water slid from the faucet and all was quiet. Fiery minds struggled for words, God's spirit whispered balm to both of us, and we raced through memory rooms for any psychological tools we could find.

A timed departure halted further forays, and we retreated, replaying sentences in our minds, striving to say them better, flushed faces still hot.

The temptation in that moment was to turn inward, replaying the hurt, and rekindling the fire. My battle (perhaps yours too, friend?) is to stop, remember who I really am, and to respond. Because my identity doesn't need to be fought for, proven, or carved out. It has been established, created, and sculpted by a Master Artist. I simply need to remember it, and live clothed in it.

Several hour later, my man and I sidled close in the kitchen, toes touching across the linoleum. Strapping on psychology tools and the Creator's guidance, we spoke again, expressing ourselves, re-stating some things, extending apologies and gentle grace.

And the cycle stopped, the blue screen disappeared, and life was well again, at least in real life.

(My computer problems still exist. Aiye! Pray?) 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What You May Not Know You're Telling Us

Photo: Chad Cooper, Creative Commons, cc license
Photo: Yen-Cheng Li, Creative Commons, cc license
When I peered out last night, they caught me by surprise. Standing crowded together, they stared to the right, fascinated by something in the west. I laughed and wondered what I was missing; and how did they know to all turn and watch?

In the jumbled garden beds, a crowd of sunflowers stands tall in a jungle of weeds. Strays from last year's structured vegetable gardens, the sunflowers are not yet fully grown. Their flowered faces are small, more like sleepy full-lashed cyclops, and last night they stood in silent vigil after a setting sun.

I laughed yesterday at the sight of them. This morning, I stepped out to study them again. In perfect precision, they had changed during the night, and now they all faced east. Heavy-lidded tiny eyes following the light. Yesterday, peering into evening's twilight, they remained still, staring at where they had last seen the sun's face. Waiting, quiet in the night, they stood. Until this morning, and how do they know? These stray wild flowers on a cloudy grey morning, how do they see the sun's face when I have yet to? How do they know to turn to the light, to turn to the place where they know they'll see his face? How do they know to wait? 

And I see that in you, and in other dear friends, this ability to follow the Light. I see you, standing... some in meticulously-ordered sites and the watching for the sun is easy, ordered, expected. You know where he'll appear because he did yesterday and the day before, and you stand and you wait, knowing the light will come. Other friends, we've talked, and you share it raw and honest over coffee cups or cyber space that the waiting is hard, this life is jumbled, disordered, and not as structured as you had planned. The days are cloudy, and you don't quite see his face yet, but you remember where you saw him last and so you stare and wait, convinced that since you saw him here last, this is where you'll wait, watching, until you see him again.

The sunflowers amaze and delight me, moving me to laughter and joy on a day with both grey thunderous rain and splashing sunlight. I watch the way they follow him, the way they follow the light despite the changing weather. Their faces keep time with the movements of the sun and their eyes never waver, following his light.

I see it in you, friends, in the times we've talked. And for others of you whom I'm still getting to know, I can sense it. That others see this in you too. How your face hovers waiting, and how your very being turns towards Him, and points me in His direction too. You point us to His light, my friends.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friendships that Linger over Lunch & Whisper in the Darkness

I pulled in behind her grey minivan, Shari stepping out from the driver's seat, arranging tin foil across a tiny platter of chocolate-dipped cookies.

"I didn't want to be the first one here," she laughed, and we walked up the driveway together.

Hugging our hostess, we stepped into two hours of conversation, camaraderie, and community. History piled high behind us as we poured countless glasses of raspberry iced tea and passed around a plate of sliced cucumbers, green peppers, and rich red tomatoes beside a ranch dipping sauce. 

Stretching across the rectangular wooden table, the five of us served each other from the bowl of Italian pasta salad and held out photographs of recent trips and a friend's baby grand-daughter. New parent eyes gleamed dewy in the close up photo of a young mom and dad with a pink-faced newborn. At the table, we lingered long at that photo, tracing their sweet faces and knowing that feeling of treasuring love.

My blonde-haired friend gracefully gathered plates around us as conversations ebbed and flowed, while our hostess brought out brownies.

"I have this coffee drink," she smiled, bring out a carton of cold sweetened mocha. We swirled the drink before pouring, sipping, and exclaiming.

We cheered each others' successes, sheepishly admitted areas we were working on, and laughed in safe affection. All too soon, it was time to go. I gathered my bag, hugged my friends, and slipped out early for an obligation.

Last night, something woke me and I lay in the dark. My mind whirred and clicked, gaining momentum, planning To Do lists, before it sidled over to tease and tangle out the quiet worries. "What if...?" and possibilities loomed.

God whispered silent in the night, cuing me to bedrock. I agreed, nodding quiet and taking a deep breath.

How did that verse go? I wondered. Something like, I will not concern myself with things too lofty for me to understand...but I have stilled and quieted my soul...

Other verses slipped in, old favorites, and I said them to myself, lying motionless on the bed, I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Wriggling my toes against the sheets, I gently stretched my legs, careful not to wake Mark. Breathing in and out, I spoke truth to myself.

And today as I pull my Bible close, those verses ring loudly again to me and leap off the page, repetitious truth that constructs a base for me. And suddenly I see the full context of those verses,

I do not concern myself with great matters or things too lofty for me to understand
But I have calmed and quieted myself;
I am like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child I am content (Psalm 131:1b-2).

The last verse in a section I was studying clinched it, " their shepherd and carry them forever (Psalm 28:9b).

Our times with dear friends are gifts, and God's whispers in the dark are gifts, both from a God who carries us, calms us, and quiets us, like an infant in its parent's arms.