Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Neighbors and Breaking a 7-Year Record

“Aren’t they going to think you’re weird, Jen?” he asks. “Traditionally, people bring food to the new neighbors, not vice versa. Won’t they feel obligated to reciprocate?” 

“I don’t know. I think it’ll be nice," I reply, "and I want to share these cookies with them. My parents do things like that in their neighborhood.” My parents live in the inner city and are intentional about connecting with their neighbors. Bringing cookies, working in their own yards and in the community gardens, teaching families how to grow vegetables for the first time, prayer-walking past strip clubs, drug houses, and talking with prostitutes, or encouraging neighbor kids to get their GEDs, my parents are loving people each day, in each encounter. 

Armed with a family photo complete with name captions and a message introducing ourselves as the new owners of the yellow house on the corner, I ambled down my own suburban/industrial road. 

At one house, a woman in jean shorts pulled weeds from around a landscaped tree, surrounded by a lush green lawn. “Your grass is lovely,” I called out. She turned and I introduced myself. 

“I’ve lived here for seven years and you’re the first person who has ever introduced themselves to me,” she said. We spoke of former neighborhoods and swat teams, and our children and purple coneflowers. Shaking hands and speaking of bonfires some summer night, we parted ways. 

I met more neighbors, handing chocolate chip and butterscotch cookies to a cautious slender-faced woman behind a screen door, and to a pony-tailed mom heading out. Seeing people’s faces change from skepticism born of too many telemarketers and door salesmen, to relieved surprise and slivers of pleased warmth delights me every time. 

At home right after, my family of five gathers around a scratched cherry-wood table from my husband’s youth, passing salad dressings for crunchy lettuce and tomatoes, or shredded cheese for baked potatoes. In between bites, conversations, and pepper passes, I remember a couple I do not know, have never met. Their tiny son fights for life in a hospital room, a “failure to thrive.” Forks paused, I ask my family if we can pray for these people we do not know in person, but whom the blogworld has brought to life. Suddenly fearing tears, I ask my husband to pray. Five heads bow, toddler son joins in, swirling tomatoes on the side, as my husband prays for this family-- who is in our family because, in Jesus, we are family. 

After supper, I head outside again, grab my tiny metal spade and pry weeds from the asphalt driveway. Sprawled on the ground, I dig like a child at the beach, heave hard, and wipe dirt across my forehead. Grabbing another weed, I grin at the sight I must make when cars pass, with legs slightly spread, braced for better leverage.

And this is how neighbors work, I muse. Neighbors near and neighbors far, even across invisible internet waves, humbly, on the ground, pulling weeds, admitting failures and gnarled issues, working openly to make things right. Warm welcomes mixed with cookie morsels or family prayers, and then right back onto the ground we go, humbly pulling weeds, sprawled out like a child with a shovel. 

Amber and Seth, we join you in praying for your Titus. 

Friends here, my reader friends, I appreciate you so much. Thank you that we can do life together online or in person, pulling weeds, opening up about life, and sharing desserts together too. I think of you all tonight and am thankful for you. Thanks for your comments throughout the years, for your open lives, and for your encouraging presence here, where we can learn and grow together. For those joining us via email, feel free to click here to join the discussion. I appreciate you all. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Of Prayers and Spiderman: And Why We Need Heroes

It takes a midnight nightmare to let you know what verses you have on active file. 

Trying to comfort a frightened four year old, yet still maintain that last vestige of sleep cover, I started reciting the songs and verses that came without thought. “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are his, the rivers are his; the stars are his handiwork too. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.”

“I will lie down and sleep in peace, Oh Lord, for you alone will keep me perfectly safe.” Psalm 4:8 passed my lips multiple times – a standard at our house when rocking children during midnight terrors. Apparently I need to learn more verses against fear. 

He grabbed tight, pressing tear-stained cheeks close to mine, when I suggested going back to bed. “No!” So we snuggled closer and I whispered the songs that come without thinking, that spring forth. “God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, he’s so good to us. He gives good things, he gives good things, he gives good things, he’s so good to us.” 

Eyes closed, half asleep, I kissed his cheek, crooning “Jesus Loves me” against sweaty hair that was already starting to cool, and lifted him to his bed. Pulling the blankets up to his chin, I whispered, “Jesus is so big and strong, Daniel. He loves you and takes care of you. Who told the wind and storm to stop that day in the boat? Whose friends said, 'Wow, even the wind and waves obey him!'? You can talk to Jesus anytime, Daniel.” 

My son grabbed his blanket and new red Spiderman figurine close and started whispering. Tiptoeing out of the room, I was suddenly not certain who Daniel was praying to at that moment. 
 It went from learning about spiders to a Spiderman craze.  One minute the little girl from nursery with chunky Spiderman rain boots was an anomaly to him, and the next minute he knew Spiderman’s name, asked for him at Target and hugged him fiercely throughout the day. 

But at mealtimes, at wounds or sad moments and in joy, my little boy knows who to talk to. He begs to pray at each meal, and complains when it’s someone else’s turn. “Jesus, thank you that…” and his list goes long. At those times, Spiderman lays dormant in corners across the house. I don’t mind when later, he and Daniel run through the house, chasing imaginary bad guys, and escaping down the slide. 

There is something in us that cries out for heroes, champions, warriors. In our world of human trafficking, poverty, injustice, hurt and dysfunction, we want to know that the bad guys will be caught, that justice will prevail, and little ones protected. And I love that our Judge, Warrior, and Hero wrangles compassion and second-, third-, fourth-chances, in a mind-boggling dance with justice. All are called to account, all are loved, all stand before their Judge. 

I’m pondering Spiderman, superheroes, and champions tonight. 

My dad hooked me on on a new tv series about police forces who negotiate and talk down armed intruders.  Throwing themselves into danger, they sacrifice their lives and safety nightly. 

I watch my preschooler race around the yard, fighting bad guys and speaking in warrior language, yet he cuddles close and tenderly kisses my face. “I save you, Mom. I save you,” he reassures me. “Me and Jesus fight bad guys.” 

And Spiderman now too. 

Because we all need reminders, I think, of the battles going on, and of our roles to stand tall, to come alongside, to offer radical love, to defend the cause of the fatherless and the widows, to point to our Creator’s lavished love and plan, and to his Son

Who were some of your favorite heroes as a kid? What are ways that your children have spoken up about roles they see themselves playing in today's world?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Five Seconds Away From Joy, Better Health, and Peace of Mind

"Mom, can you come get me?"

Cocoa paint congealed in my orange plastic tray today, as my seventeen year old son's sick voice continued huskily. "My fever is higher again and I just wanna be home."

"Oh bud, why don't you sleep there tonight and I'll come get you first thing tomorrow morning?"

It was late afternoon, with rush hour starting soon, and his camp was a three hour's drive away. Plus my new trim paint brush dripped freshly-loaded paint, and splashes were already beginning to harden on the wall.

He waited quiet on the phone, breathing hard, and my husband motioned me to go from the background. "Really?" he asked then weakly and the mom in me caved.

"Okay, I'll come get you, bud. That's fine. I'll leave in twenty minutes, okay?"

Interestingly, both my sons struck fevers on the same day – 133 miles apart from each other. Saturday morning, my youngest woke us up at five am, padding in on hot little legs, whimpering. His heart thumped madly in his tiny chest, and we cuddled on the couch as the sun rose. Later that day, while I was on my way to urgent care with flushed little Daniel, we got the call that John, our oldest son, was feverish and ill at camp as well.

Red-cheeked, limp, and vacant-eyed, four year old Daniel slumped against his car-seat Saturday. I maneuvered corners, and scanned the directions. "We're almost there, okay, buddy? How are you doing?"

"Me doing well, Mom," he stated weakly, lapsing into silence. Minutes later, a tiny voice from the back seat broke the quiet. Straining to hear what he was saying, I was amazed to hear him singing, "oh my soul...,” a worship song that he knew.

An elusive magazine article, that has slipped my brain, promised better health and peace of mind to me this week, all through the power of singing. (When I find it, I'll link it here, okay? Sorry.) 

Today, after washing cocoa paint from my fingers, I grabbed the keys and headed out. Can I admit to you, though, that I was crabby and begrudging the delay in painting? Rain hit halfway through the trip, and my broken windshield wipers flopped oddly, smacking rubber against the top of my car and along the passenger side, smearing my vision as I drove. I grumbled. My paper directions and the roads didn't coincide. I grumbled, stopped for directions, pulled into some u-turns, and grumbled again.

He talked to me, then, my Maker; he sent seas of sunflowers to line my highways, and jump-start my sense of humor. I cracked jokes to myself, grinning madly at them, apologizing to him, and choosing joy. Turning on Christian radio, I started to sing along.

At the camp, my car crept along curving, crackling dirt roads. Tracking him down, I found my tall, lanky seventeen year old son in a temporary sick bay, looking gaunt and weak. We loaded him up, hugged the summer staff good bye, and headed home, a three hour trip.

"Mom, I was a little bit angry at God," he admitted ten minutes onto the highway. "I didn't want to be sick anymore, so I decided to sing. I knew that praising and cursing couldn't come out of the same mouth-- not that I was cursing, Mom -- but I chose praise. I couldn't really sing; I didn't have much of a voice." He shared also of playing the guitar and dripping sweat.

"My voice was kind of squeaky," he laughed, trailing off weakly, and he stared slack-jawed out the front.
I smiled in silence for a few miles, until I turned on the radio. A worship song slid through the car. Suddenly I heard raspy whispering beside me. 

…Your grace has found me just as I am,
Empty handed but alive in your hands.
Singing Majesty, Majesty.
Forever I am changed by Your love,
In the presence of Your Majesty…

Humbled, I listened. In their fevers and illness, my sons had consistently chosen gentleness and worship. In raspy voices with shaky breaths, on their own in empty cars with me, they taught me lessons on choosing joy, choosing worship. 

I grinned, thankful for them, and so slow in learning this lesson that God had to show it to me multiple times, I joined in. 

 …‘Cuz what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?...

Mile after mile, we sang. 

Worship his holy name
Sing like never before
Oh my soul
I worship your holy name…

It was fitting that this one should come on. Oh my soul, worship his holy name. 

Want joy? Need a jolt of energy and well-being? You are five seconds away from it. 

What have you been singing this week? What is your go-to worship song lately? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Of Friendships and Peanut Butter

She was the friend who invited me over for peanut butter and jelly one day.

Juggling our kids in the hallway after Thursday morning Bible study, she spontaneously invited my kids and I, and several other moms and kids, over for a spontaneous let's-scrounge-up-and-share-whatever-food-is-available-lunch. Over peanut butter and grape jelly, we smoothed toddlers' faces, nursed babies, and poured endless tin cups of milk and water. Her dining room and kitchen were deliciously lived in, and she welcomed us into her life and home, teaching me mounds about true hospitality. Moms and kids were welcomed, safe; crumbs were allowed; and our conversations flowed long that afternoon.

Today she drove here under gloomy clouds, pulling a trailer behind her. Despite an ominous sky, the websites cheerily announced a scant ten percent chance of precipitation. Two daughters piled out, clambering up my steps, and racing comfortably into the house. My youngest ones were happy for companionship too.

We poured hot coffee, pulling wooden chairs close to talk over kids and toys. Peering out the windows we worried about rain.

"Will your bookshelves be okay? Do you have tarps?"

The last of our belongings were coming home today, if the thunderstorms would hold off long enough. Grey skies suddenly split and the rain smashed loud against the deck and house.

"Do you have a bit of leeway?" I wondered. "Can we wait ten minutes to see if it clears?" We checked storm radar websites, guessing at the duration.

Fifteen minutes later, in a lull, we dashed across the yard to her truck. Soaking wet, we clinked seatbelts and turned on the vents. "Everything we do together becomes an adventure," she laughed.

Two hours later, I hugged her, and she drove away. Raindrops were evaporating off my bookshelves, but they were safely home.

During some time in God's word last week, I came across an NIV study note that grabbed my attention. Being a language lover, the Latin interpretation of a word struck me. Did you know that "companion" means "with bread"? Your friends and family, the people you do life with, that come "with bread" -- cum panis --those are your companions.

Who are your "with bread" people? Which of the people in your life take time to do life together, to invite you over for coffee or peanut butter sandwiches, or who linger to talk long?

It makes me ponder where am I doing life "with bread" as well? Who am I being intentional about doing life with?

It takes time. It takes effort, but it's worth it. So, this week, this summer, pause with me... Don't worry about the state of your home, and look at the people around you. Who can you invite over for peanut butter and grape jelly? Where can you drive a trailer, or invite kids over for an afternoon, and do life "cum panis," as companions?

Had you heard this interpretation before? How are you intentional about building companions? Who is someone who has embodied this to you?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rigor Mortis and Finding Your Place

The wind blows hard, swaying the towering greens, and awkwardly dancing the brown pine that’s in rigor mortis. Summer falls hot and heavy. From behind air-conditioned windows, I contemplate projects, dropping landscaping down to the bottom of the list. Paint trays stack in the laundry room, awaiting creamy Canyon Cloud.
My daughter sits slack-jawed and glassy-eyed on the couch near me, waiting for health to come. A summer cold and bouts with mono have left several of us weak and slow-moving. Quiet seeps deep into our home, our bones, and health returns with naps and time.

I have been quiet in groups the last few days -- months, really. Rediscovering my place and role in a shifting time, learning to trust and invest anew. Thoughtful quiet and listening is good for me. I talk to my Abba, and gently step. 

In the distance, traffic whirs subtly; cars pass in near silence; and gauzy cotton fluffs sail past the window. The wind blows hard, silent movement out the window. 

He who forms the mountains,
Creates the wind,
And reveals his thoughts to man…”

The wind blows hard. My Abba whispers and I listen quiet, feeling like the pine in rigor mortis, awkward and stiff.

Joining with Ann, I thank the Mountain-Former, Wind-Creator, High-Place-Treader-of-the-Earth for: wind, sun, summer’s heavy heat, growing health, and quiet wind-blown revealed thoughts.

The random winners of last post’s books are: Allison and Denise. Please email me with your mailing addresses so I can send out these books! Enjoy. 

What do you see out your window? What is God speaking quiet to you this week?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Parenting Mistake We all Make and Need to Stop (Plus a Giveaway)

 We all do it. 

We think we’re protecting them. We think it’s for their benefit.

But we’ve all done it at some time, and it happens most often with toddlers or preschoolers. 

The setting is different for everyone, but it comes up. In the lull of a terse conversation, a child pipes in. Depending on their language abilities, the words vary, but the meaning is the same. Written across their brow, stamped into their eyes, and tilted into their head slant is the same question. “What’s wrong?” 

They heard it in our voices, or saw it in our eyes. Causes vary:  a stressful work situation, a financial tightness, or a brief marriage spat. 

Right then, we face a choice. 

Ten years ago, I responded differently than I do today. A friend of mine revolutionized the way I answer that question.

Ten years ago, I would have gently changed the conversation, or brushed aside my toddler’s questions with a slight “It’s nothing. We’re fine”-kind of answer. I so easily wanted to err on the side of protecting them from troubles or disagreements.

My friend Anne, a counselor in the mental health field for over twenty years, a licensed social worker with a masters in educational counseling and a certified Crisis Intervention Specialist quietly taught me differently one day as we worked together nearby. 

Children are so intuitive and observant. They sense when mom or dad are tense, angry or upset. But when we dismiss their worries, it discredits their inner gut feeling that something isn’t right. Anne went on to explain that while our motives are pure in wanting to keep their minds free of concerns, we end up doing our children a disservice because they learn to not trust their gut feelings that speak up announcing tension, troubles, or potentially dangerous situations. 

Building confident, perceptive children starts with acknowledging what they are sensing and can’t put into words yet. 

Your choice? My choice? In that moment when huge brown eyes are staring up at you, under furrowed brows… pause, get down to eye level, and affirm what they sensed.

“Yes, Daddy and I are thinking about something right now. You’re right.” 

Kiss them, smooth back that hair, and then say, “But it’ll be okay. And God is good. Thanks, my sweet.” 

Anne has written a poignant hardcover children’s book giving parents and caregivers tips to help children process their emotions. Through beautiful watercolor illustrations and a compelling story, families walk through a child’s hurt, disappointment and grief to a repaired relationship. 

I’d love to give away two copies of this book! There are several ways to win. In the comments below, tell me your thoughts (or disagreements) on this post above, or share a piece of parenting advice you've received and your impressions of it -- both good or bad.

Here's how:
1.) Post your answer in the comments below to get your name in the hat.
2.) Optional: Answer this question on your blog also with a link to my blog there for another chance to win.
3.) Optional: After commenting with your answer here, click Share to Facebook to post this site with your comment on your facebook wall too.

Three ways to earn your name in the hat for the books. Let me know what you do in the comments section below so I can get your name listed as many times as possible. I'll post the winner on Monday.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Keeping the Peace on Family Road Trips

Warm transparent lake water lapped over my shoulders, smelling of summer and snails. Sand slipped up my toes. Family camp at Camp Jim looked like red lifeguards on floating docks, life-jacketed preschoolers squealing from yellow water slides, Bible songs and stories ringing within wooden chapels, and families holding hands to pray around cafeteria tables.

Our family just arrived home from five days in northern MN, where we met the great staff and volunteers of Camp Jim, and ate meals, swam, and studied God’s word alongside families from throughout MN and Iowa. Mark was the keynote speaker, and I was thrilled to speak with the women on two occasions also.

Three thousand fifty-two mosquito bites later, we drove home, crammed into a muggy vehicle beside fast-food cartons and a new hognose snake. As the sweat beaded up and traffic slowed to a one-lane crawl, we determined to stay kind and patient with each other. Knowing how easy it would be to end the trip crabby with each other, we made concentrated efforts to avoid that.

“Shhh, only the four year old is allowed to have verbal meltdowns,” we declared. “We can do this. We can use God’s help and strength to be patient with each other.”

We told jokes, laughing at our inane humor. The quips mounted and built on each other, mingling jokes in a way that was funny only to our sweaty, tired family of five. “If a zebra laid an egg…”

We played the alphabet game. We dozed off, and accidentally released the snake in the car. It didn’t get far. We worked at more jokes, and danced along to music, wiping sweat from our foreheads.

Eventually familiar sights raced by our windows, and we pulled into our driveway. “We’re home!” Bulging suitcases and sleeping bags ascended the stairs, mail slipped around my fingers, and the phone blinked at us.

Thank you, Abba, for a great week at family camp, and for speaking through us. Thanks for helping us get home cheerfully and kindly too. What a joy to laugh together.

Hi you, sorry for my absence the last five days. What have you been up to? What fun road-trip strategies does your family have?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Sneezes, Chocolate, and Counting Gifts

Sneezes chase her into the house, the garage door shutting softer than her achoos. Sleepover energy-drains and allergies have left her red-eyed and dragging. She slinks away to her pink room, with my suggestion for a nap trailing after her. 

A weekend of painting, plumbing, and home repairs has left our home shining and our bodies sapped, but we are thankful. Thankful for parents who spend several vacation days with us to brush, roll, weed, wipe, re-screen, shelve, and repair. Thankful to him...

Linking with Ann today, I count His gifts: 

-the sunflower seedlings and butterflied-morning-glory plants who escaped the ravenous rabbit
-a cool home on 99 degree days
-chocolate paint spread by mother and daughter-in-law while laughing and grinning
-family men sweating and assembling white metal shelving together, penciling lines, and watching yellow bubbles bob balance
-preschool kisses in Perry the Platypus-inspired dashes
-neighbor visits and the aroma of deliciously simmering Vietnamese cooking wafting by
-plunging hands in dirt to move and transplant an indoor older than my children
-phone calls from camp from my life-guarding son. “I found a hognose snake, Mom! They’re rare. Can we keep him?”
-the book of Amos opening wide, and the Author’s promise elsewhere to “open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”

Hello! What have your last three days been like?