Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Quick! Right Now Before the New Year...

This is it.

Turn on the Rocky theme song, pump up the hip-shaking Latin music, and crank it loud.

This is it.

Grab your coffee beans off the shelf, a filter, and grind up a strong pot. This is it, this is your day.

Who needs to wait until January 1st to start seizing each day fully? Each day is fresh, full, pregnant with potential, and this is it.

Twelve hours of daylight await you, and time is slipping away.

Take a quick shower, grab those jeans you love, and pour a smooth cup of hot coffee.

Forget about whatever failures you feel loom high from the year, the To-Do list with so many familiar items trailing along to each new page.

Today is fresh, new; the snow is untouched, and waiting for you. Grab today, pump the music high, and dig in.

What's one thing you want to tackle today while it is still 2013? What's one thing you want to jump full into today? 

This is it. Bring your coffee, turn the music loud, and dive in.

(I'd love to cheer you on, friend. What are you jumping in today with me? I have some writing and speaking projects I'm working on. Those in email can join the conversation here.)

Photo: Artist John Bramley, Rocky Balboa at The Washington Post.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Of Love Stories and a Political Coup d'Etat for Christmas

Artist Richard Heeks
I'm belting out love songs from the eighties and nineties, as I splash dish soap across the sink, and my hand still aches from the scribbling.

Earlier, I scrawled handwritten words across three pages of lined paper at the kitchen table, trying to sum up the greatest story. An account of a warrior king battling to rescue his people who have lost their land (and themselves) to enemy-control. A people who don't know who they are, paupered orphans of the king, unaware of their identity. Throughout history, the warrior king sends messages and gifts to his loved ones, revealing his heart and his affection for them, but it always ends the same.

They forget who they are. They forget who he is. And history repeats itself.

This warrior who doesn't wait to "meet me halfway across the sky," and who "makes this a new beginning of another life." *

This warrior who saw that messages and messengers weren't working, put aside royal robes to put on human skin and crown through to earth. 

"Let me tell you about my kingdom..." he said again and again. He spoke of good news, open to anyone, everyone who would come; and he said, "I have come to give you life!"

This Christmas, it's a love story of a passionate warrior king who has chased you through the ages, wooing you, battling for you, and who is on a mission to reclaim his earth.

The King has come.

Merry Christmas, friends. Have a wonderful holiday week with your family and friends. I will be taking next week off to enjoy family, but look forward to talking with you again on Monday, the 30th. 

What are you excited about doing this Christmas week? What do you love most about the Christmas story? (Those in email can click here to join the conversation, or you can always hit reply to that emailed post.)

(Linking up with Emily at Imperfect Prose too.) 

* Thanks to Kenny Logins' "Meet Me Halfway" song.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Is God Forced into It?

Mustached or hoodie-wrapped college guys with large gulp sodas fling male laughter loud across the kitchen table behind me. My husband and some guy friends study complicated game boards and maneuver dozens of wooden game tokens. Our Christmas tree blinks blue, red, yellow, skipping green because of a faulty bulb somewhere in the line.

Mens' voices murmur low behind me, clarifying rules, working out turn sequences cautiously since this is a new game. The handbook comes out often as they wonder about rule interpretations, but the camaraderie is evident, stable. Laughter is frequent, and their enjoyment in each other is obvious.

Pulling my Bible across my lap earlier today at work, some verses grabbed my attention, and I read them again and again, smiling in the silence.

"...The Lord takes delight in his people..." (Psalm 149:4a)

"The Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love." (Psalm 147:11)

We have a Creator God who delight in us, who likes us, enjoys us, savors us. He's not just forced into loving us because he's God; he actually likes us too.

I picture the way I feel about my kids, crouching low to snuggle my five year old, kissing his soft cheek; or the way I lean in to my tall man-child's shoulder now as we hug, he bending down to hug his small mom, both a son and a protective man at the same time. And my daughter, her willowy frame is taller than me, and we laugh and hug as near equals in size, and I breathe in the scent of her hair. I delight in them, savoring them, no matter the mood of the day. 

Our Artist God delights in you. The one who breathes stars, calling them out by name, knows your name too and he is delighted with you. 

You, God, "you open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing" (Psalm 145:16).

You are "righteous in all your ways, and loving towards all you have made.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them" (Psalm 145:17-19.

"The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love. 
The Lord is good to all,
he has compassion on all he has made" (Psalm 145:8,9).

Behind me, the table is crowded with male shoulders, elbows, and testosterone as the games heat up. Conversations and jokes dash diagonally as they take their turns. Whatever the result, whatever smack talk happens this week, they'll be back to play games again another day.

And their enjoyment in each other pales in comparison to how their Creator God feels about them.

 And how he feels about you and me. Smiling with you, friend. He delights in you. 

What have you been reading this week? (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.) 

Photo Credit #1: Chess, by PJM. 

Photo credit #2: Poker, Camp McKibbin, 1893, by PJM. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Calls Out Our Courage

Naked trees etch the darkness. Cold air seeps in, chilling my bare feet and hands, despite the heat on.

Courage falls flat some nights, and I pray hard, reading and re-reading every word typed or scrawled, weighing the terms, the message, the need, and hoping it shows my heart and nothing else.

In a blinking online text box, I hesitate and then respond, choosing each word carefully, prayerfully deleting and re-typing until it feels right. Is it? I can only speak to what I've seen, learned, experienced. I type tremulously, confessing my own brokenness, gushing wild about God's pursuing patient love, his tender transformations in my heart and life, and then hang quiet in the wonder of him. After anguished reading and re-reading it, I click "Enter."
Photo credit: Anders Klint
Naked trees etched the darkness. Cold air seeped in, chilling their bare feet and hands, despite the fire crackling beside them.

Courage fell flat some nights for them too, I imagine. Wrapped up for a chilly overnight, the men guarding the sheep that night in biblical Bethlehem probably started their night like any other night. After a terrifying encounter with angel army choirs, though, everything changed. They changed.

Nobody else in the Christmas story sees angels or miracles that night. Mary and Joesph had angel conversations in the past, but that was eight or nine months ago. In the quiet sleeping town of Bethlehem tonight, only the shepherds see angels.

Everyone else... they don't hear angel choruses, they don't cower from bright lights bouncing off Middle Eastern hills; they don't see miracles that night. Everyone else just gets to hear the shepherds talk, see the shepherds' responses.

Imagine the courage it took those sheep-wrangling men to wake up people at the inn, to peek in on sleeping guests, and then to spill the story to their hometown family and friends. 

"You'll never believe what we saw and heard tonight..."

It took courage to speak of wild otherworldly encounters; to share how they saw the Creator at work; and to risk ridicule, rejection, and rumors.

"And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them."

I have a brand new gift Bible that I have been writing in and working on since October to give to a dear one. I'm not sure how he'll respond, but I am convinced I need to do this. And yet, friends, I confess, my courage falls flat some days. But this? This is life! And so, with tremulous hope and praying, I'm going to write a note, and send it off.

Speaking only to what I've seen, learned, and experienced about God, I will share my brokenness, cry out joyfully about God's pursuing, patient love, and his tender transformations still at work. Hanging quiet in the wonder of him, I'll click "Print."

Join me this Christmas? Race away from the crackling fire and heated home, and bravely tell someone what you have seen and heard from the Creator of the world. Humbly, respectfully, tell your story. 

(Photo Credit: Anders Klint)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Romance: Tundra- and Grandma-style

 "I'll see you Wednesday," I called up the stairs to my co-worker, shutting the door behind me.

Crunching through powdery snow, I pulled my black French scarf higher across my cheeks and nose, shielding out the frigid air. Minnesota twilight looked blue silver, and neighborhood Christmas lights peeked out from snowy branches. Swinging my book bag to my shoulder, I shoved mismatched mittened hands into pockets deep, and turned the corner.

Idling in the driveway, steam rising from a still-cold car, my bearded husband waited for me. It stopped me in surprise, and I waved giddy to him behind the frosted windshield.

"You came and got me?!" I murmurred. "Thank you."

The walk home wouldn't have been far, but the near-zero degree temperatures have been making recluses of us all. I kissed him, cold and happy, and we drove home.

It's those little things, huh? Little things we say and do that make all the difference in relationships. Romance, Minnesota tundra-style.

I asked them one time, Nick and Betty, an older couple in our church, what their secret was to a long marriage. They spoke of simple things:

"I like to make her breakfast every morning, just simple stuff," he grinned. "She likes oatmeal and a glass of orange juice."

"She makes me pies," he smiled, wrinkles creasing up in crescents beside twinkling eyes. "She knows I love 'em, so she makes pies."

He shifted his feet then and set down his thick winter gloves. "I like to bring her flowers, just because. Not for any reason or for a birthday or anniversary -- that doesn't count," Nick asserted, shaking a finger at me, "just because."

Betty smiled shyly later, peering up at him through long eyelashes, a petite woman next to him. In church, they sat side by side, and stood together to sing. And today? I imagine Nick still made Betty breakfast, and I wonder what pie she's whipping up. Romance.

For you and me tonight? I'm reminding myself that it's the "simple stuff" that makes the difference in our relationships. Whether it's for siblings, parents, friends, kids, or spouses, take some time this week with me to focus on little ways to show love.
Now, excuse me. I need to gather ingredients for a chicken pot pie.

What little ways do you like to show love to people around you? (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.) 

(PS. My daughter took these photos. Didn't she do a nice job? :)) 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Transforming Homework Sessions into Home Memories

Wind chimes clang in the ten degree weather, and students everywhere unload textbooks and notebooks across kitchen tables, or toss heavy backpacks onto worn couches.
Artist Hilda Robinson, "Studying at the Table"
What transforms homework sessions into home memories? 

It's the x-factor, that unknown variable that finagles its way into each afternoon. Whether its mixed formulas in Algebra or seismology from Physical Science, there is always a potential for life to be shaken right up, huh?

Class homework seems to be an afterschool event in most families. How do we create happy family environments and memories while flipping pages, erasing problems gone wrong, and keeping everyone on task?

Cutting into gooey caramel-chocolate cupcakes, my teen daughter and I wrote out algebra problems side-by-side on the sunny kitchen table today. I sipped hot coffee and we looked together at the problems she had misunderstood earlier.

"Oh, I see it. I know what I did wrong," she exclaimed, circling a forgotten negative sign. We moved on to other problems, cracking jokes, getting drinks of water, and talking with others in the room.

After one too many interruptions, I became agitated and brusquely brought us back on track. "Okay, let's focus now," I said, sterner than I needed to.

"Mom, we're fine. It's okay. I'm working," assured Morgan.

I paused and remembered. Laughter, calm, and intentionality make the difference. We both visibly relaxed, sinking deeper into our chairs in the sunlight, working quietly on math problems together. Quiet saxophone music played from a corner of the kitchen.

Later Daniel and I read books together, noticing rhyming sounds, commenting on watercolor illustrations, and learning about bats and shadows. We made paper cut outs for shadows, and cast long pictures across the living room floor, before ducking into the bathroom with a flashlight too. Shadow bats, cats, and snowmen wavered in the light, dancing in his hands.

"See how any shadow picture needs the light?" I taught Daniel. "Without light there is no shadow. Where is the light source to make this shadow?"  

Those phrases suddenly seemed much deeper than simple preschool science. To cast a picture, there is always a light. There is always a light. Where is the light source? Without the light there is no image.

Hmm, I snapped off the red flashlight, and headed back to the kitchen. Peaceful saxophone music still played, Morgan gathered up her heavy science books, and I sought out children's videos about bats.

(Also linking up with Emily at Imperfect Prose.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

For After the Turkey and Stuffing...What's Seeking to Fill You Right Up?

 I admit it. The fear crept in.

In between the moist brined turkey slathered with cranberry jelly, the gravy-drizzled stuffing and the mashed potato mounds, the fear slipped in.

Earlier, on our way out the door to relatives and Thanksgiving feasts, two letters had arrived. The letters mapped out the region around our home, drafting new roads, and moving forward the construction of a giant twenty-four-hour shopping center down the street from us. The twelve acres of woodlands and wetlands would be razed, sections of our yard would be converted into roads and turn lanes, and semi-trucks would soon rumble deliveries all night long on the road outside our bedroom.

On the road to our relatives' house, we passed wind turbines, calculated wingspans, and grieved the probable loss of our home and yard. The fear slid in then, and I voiced aloud my concerns.
  • "It took us a year for our last house sell and to find this one." 
  • "We bought this one when it was foreclosed and at a lower price than they are now available."
  • "It's only a block from your work, and from our teens. What are the odds of finding another one like this again? And it's a perfect volleyball yard for youth group!" 
  • "We landscaped, built raised garden beds, planted strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries, mint, tulips, daffodils, purple aliums, and more. Those bulbs and plants don't come up again until next year, and I don't want to lose them. We brought in garden dirt, started a compost, and planted trees." 
My husband voiced reason and hope, "God has always taken care of us, Jen. He will again." We talked for awhile of possible moves, of real estate issues, and I let myself grieve too.

"This is my dream home and yard," I whispered later at the table. Mark squeezed my hand, and the moment passed as five small children crashed underfoot, cousins rolling and playing around us, and my father-in-law ground beans in his wooden mill for the next batch of coffee. New family arrived and we tumbled into afternoons of coffee, pecan pie, moist fruit cake tarts, and hours of games and conversations.

Photo Credit to Becky Pratts
Late at night in a silent house, the fear and grief crept in again. Tucking my pillow under long damp hair, I reminded myself of the cure. This cure, I've found, is to remind myself of my God. Remembering again God's heart and his history fills me with hope and trust for the future.

Yes, it took eleven months for our last house to sell and to find this one -- but it's perfect. Look at his heart and extravagant gifts in that? He can do it again, Jennifer. You have savored this home and yard this last year and a half. 

That night, and this week, God brings to my mind memory after memory of where he has shown us his heart: anonymous checks of money in our early years of marriage written precisely in the amount we needed for rare unexpected bills; or tiny five year old Morgan with her cancer scare and His peace that came as a relief after our tight chest moments, even before a final diagnosis; donated vehicles weeks before its predecessor died; God's chasing heart in our own foolish wayward moments; and through it all, His tender re-threading of beauty from our raveled bits.

I pick up my pen each day now, and write line after line in my Gratitude (Gifts) Journal. My pen scratches both the easy-to-list good gifts (hot coffee, tumbling snowflakes, a family who knows You, safe travels, family laughter around the table) and the hard gifts -- the ones that cause anxiety to reach tall, grappling with my heart: (possibly losing our home = a chance to trust you, God; the need to sell and buy a new house = a chance to watch you, God). Thank you for this home, for these eighteen months here, and for each day.

At work today, I watch snowflakes fall and tuck my legs under me, picking up my Bible and this Gifts journal. I remember promises about Who this God is, and Who he says he is. Snippets from my Bible time catch my attention, and I write them quickly across the page. "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope." "The Lord directs our path, our steps." "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life..." "...A patient man has great understanding." "A heart at peace gives life to the body... "...The prayer of the upright pleases him." "All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast." 

And my fear? It dissipates. Not in a Pollyanna-denial way, but by stepping back and reminding myself of who this God is, of what his heart is like, and by looking back at his history. 

The house issues are still there, and we prepare for two City Hall Meetings. But the fear? It dissipates.

What about you? What fears, stresses, or anxieties stalk you? Financial worries? Children's issues? Marriage struggles? Grab a pen and God's word with me, friends, and start writing out his gifts, will you? "Don't be afraid, you are worth more than sparrows..." "...The very hairs on your head are counted..." and "The Lord works everything out for his own ends." Even the tiny sparrows that are sold for pennies, he is aware of -- "not one of them is forgotten by God," he promises. And you? "You are worth more than sparrows."

What verses or truths do you grab when fear or anxieties creep in? (Those reading this in email can click here to join the conversation.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fishnet Stockings and Thanksgiving

Photo credit to Adam Croh, "Walking on the Snow"

I didn't see that she was crying.

It was the ripped fishnet stockings that grabbed my attention. The stumbling young girl in a black mini skirt navigated the slippery snowy sidewalk in heels. A large grapefruit-sized hole bared her right thigh to the freezing morning air.

It was odd to see anyone out this early on quiet city streets, much less beside two sprawling college campuses at seven am on Saturday.

She pulled her thin black sweater tight around her, swiping at her eyes. Then I saw the tears, the red face, and the tall messy bed-hair in back. Wearing no winter jacket and slipping on the icy sidewalk in her heels, she moaned a bit, and then wiped angrily at her face again.

A young girl with signs of possible violence and distress on a freezing winter morning? Something wasn't right.

I hurriedly pulled my car into a side alley, and approached her cautiously, gingerly, not wishing to scare her.

"Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?" I asked gently, speaking from several yards away in an effort to give her space.

"No, I'm fine," she muttered angrily.

"You don't look okay," I stated softly, respectfully. "Do you need help? Want a ride anywhere? Do you need to talk to the police?"

"No, I'm fine. It's not far. I'm just going over there," she pointed across a sports field to some buildings and walked on, clearly avoiding conversation.

Worried for her, I stood there helplessly as she strode across the street, and down the sidewalk out of sight. The cold air bit into me until I pulled out my keys and headed back to the car.

My heart and body shaking, I drove away, praying and aching for this mysterious young woman in ripped fishnet stockings.

Not every woman in distress is as obvious. Some of them mask it behind dull eyes, heavy make up, and tight t-shirts. Anti-human trafficking organizations report that more than 1.2 million children are trafficked each year, and that American rest areas, gas stations, and truck stops bristle with the forced prostitution.

You and me? We can help in surprisingly easy ways. 

This week, as you pack up your families and pies, please take a minute to click print, will you? With your printer and some black ink, you can help fight human trafficking.

Over the river, and through the woods? Print out some posters with the helpful anonymous tip-line and stop in a few road-side rest areas and gas stations, will you? Slipping into the bathroom stalls, tape up posters on as many bathroom doors as you can. 

Fishnet stockings, Thanksgiving green bean casseroles, and these chances to be a hero and save some underage teens (like this man did!). Rescue them? Give them a reason to be thankful too.

Want to read more about this? Check out: (or just click print with me?)
- "Calls in the Dark"
- "Cookies, Milkshakes and Hero Truck Drivers"
- "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"
- "Turkey Travelers: Heroes in Disguise"
- "How to Save a Girl Over Breakfast"
- "Of Brothels and Cameras" 

Thank you, friends. I am so thankful for you, for these chances to get to know you through your blogs or comments, or to have you peek into my heart, and for us to get to chase after God together. Happy Thanksgiving from me to you.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hey, You! (Yes, You... The Word is Out)

 A light powder of snow dusts the deck, reflecting white in the darkness, and cars from the six pm rush-hour whirr by on the road outside. Vivaldi violins and strings crescendo suddenly from the internet radio here, and muffled bath noises pinpoint my five year old's position.

Hey you, friend? Yes, YOU. 

(Smiling over here in a snowy dark Minnesota twilight.)

Can we pull back the shutters and the curtains of our lives for a few minutes here tonight? I encounter so many women who are feeling alone, lonely, and on the fringe. Or we are women who wrestle with hard things and don't know where to show them.

Caught up in the rush of children's lives, or caring for the needs of older relatives and parents, there seems to be little time for deep talks and growing friendships some days. Surrounded by people whose lives are full, or whose lives seem polished on the outside, how do you break conversation flows with these empty heart holes?

So, today.... tonight, let's let it start here. None of us have perfect houses, perfect marriages, perfect kids, perfect sinless lives.We are all human, approachable, and messy; and yet the God of the Universe knows our names and loves us lavishly.

Vivaldi plays in flawless formation in front of me, but chaos scatters the floor behind me. Plastic soldiers, rubber bands, Star Wars cards and figures, merge with torn cardboard pieces of a deep fryer box, remnants of a five year old's imagination. Several supper plates with leftover rice and sweet and sour chicken still lay sticky on my table, and a crumpled washcloth balls up next to the sink.

You and I, we probably both have a couple piles of papers that need to be sorted, and our laundry rooms -- well, let's not even go there.

But in the rooms with the piles, the sticky, and the scattered, beauty still resides. It's in the vase of cattails on the table, arching majestically, calling out slices of summer; and in the sweet faced preschooler whispering pretend conversations with stuffed animals from his room.

I open my front door, and pull you in. Up my stairs, into the kitchen with supper's remnants still scattered, and into the dining room. Look past the rice pot to the gleaming world map below it, will you? and let's slide the plates to the side as we plunge into conversations about where you have been and where you dream to go.

"Decaf coffee or tea? I have both. Tea?" I grab my own mug, still warm from my orange zinger and sip, while we wait for yours to heat.

Slipping onto my L-shaped cream couch, beneath the chocolate wall and the stretch of windows, we can push the remote controls to the floor, and you can curl up under the green blanket.

"The hard part of today?" I'll embarrassingly, shyly, and in honoring-vagueness, confess of an angry tirade, crabby phone conversations, and a mad heart that crossed metaphorical arms.

"The good parts of today?" I'll share of God softening my heart, and teaching me over the hours to look for good, to choose joy, gentleness, softness, and humility. I'll tell you of hopeful homecomings, apologetic hugs, and happy make ups. I'll laugh with you over jokes with my ninth grade daughter as we worked on Algebra I issues, and I'll show you the cotton-ball snowmen crafts I made this afternoon with Daniel.

How about you? 

I'd love to get to know you more, friend. When you get a moment this week, will you grab a hot drink, click here, and tell me more about yourself?

What are you drinking? What does the room you are sitting in look like? What is the hard? What is the good in your life right now?

Smiling at you from a snow-dusted Minnesota suburb in deepening twilight. Vivaldi plays, toys remain strewn, and I'm going to make another cup of tea. Join me?

(linking up with the Imperfect Prose community too.)

(Photo credit)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What a Middle Eastern Man Would Tell You

She smiles to herself as she scrolls pages on her laptop, a Mona Lisa mystery, this stranger in a coffee shop. Black- and green-garbed coffee baristas tamp espresso grounds and make machines hum and hiss. They hand me a tall dark roast coffee and a warmed-up chocolate croissant.

Condensation beads on the windowsill beside me, as cars queue up in the drive-through outside. Sun-tipped bushes bow in the breeze beside a gleaming pebbled walkway, aglow in the morning sun. Creamy yellow and blue sky stacks low and birds on a wire suddenly swoop dangerously down to perch on a highway divider.

Jazzy piano fills the coffee shop inside and I ease off my sweater in the warmth. Small square tabletops gleam a cocoa-wood and invite me to write and read.

"Lord, I come to you, let my heart be changed, renewed," I hum silently, my prayer as I start reading God's word. My Bible bookmark is a tiny yellow post-it note with fragments from Psalm 119 on it:

- "...Teach me your decrees..." (vs. 12)
- "...I will not neglect your word..." (vs. 16)
- "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law..." (vs.18).

My eyes trace the fading pencil marks, reading it as a silent prayer each time I open the Bible here. Open my eyes so I can see wonderful things in your word. 

And he does.

I read of the God-Man who climbs into a docked fishing boat on a cool Middle Eastern morning so that more people can see and hear him as the crowds push in close. I see the long-haired Jewish God-Man amaze fishermen, peasants, and Roman government nobles, inviting them to changed lives and wild new adventures.

I see a crusty-skin, pale, flaky finger- and toe-amputee with a contagious skin disease and eroding facial features fall face-down in the street. Labeled incurable, infectious, unclean, and undesirable, he was socially exiled. Seeing the God-Man in his region, this hopeless man ventures dangerously into the city, pushes through the crowds, and falls on his face.

"Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean," he begs.

I stop reading and remember my silent prayer: "Lord, I come to you, let [me] be changed, renewed." 

Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean."

Song credit to Hillsong, The Power of your Love.
Photo credit: #1: Dohuk, by Bo Lovschall.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Cosmic Wager: A Dare Thrown Across the Galaxies

 And that's the cosmic wager. A dare thrown across the galaxies, between two ethereal spirit beings. Like dice in a cup, the stakes are set, and humanity tumbles into the bowl. With swift inhales, the invisible spirit world leans in for a better angle.

Before this, the parameters were set. Striding into God's throne room, the devil laughed off God's invitation to see his human friend, Job.

"He just loves you, God, because his life is good. Take it all away, though, and he'd curse you to your face" was the wager.

And poor Job. He gets to be a token human to answer this cosmic wager. Will Job only thank God for the good things, the easy things? Or will he still trust God's heart when all of life falls apart?

I was wrong before, by accident. Well, incomplete, maybe...

In an earlier post about "How Do I Thank God For That?" we wrestled with the hard things, you and I. We accurately explained I Thessalonians 5:18 which says "IN everything give thanks" but I forgot about a verse in Ephesians...
His teeth glint red from the light of the tiny black palm recorder shoved against his mouth. Thumbing the record button, my son growls and chirps phrase after phrase into the plastic device, then grins at the playback feature. Garbled and staticky, his words ring out each time. There's a sense of satisfaction in that for him, this five year old, to have his story spoken aloud. He giggles and whispers more.
I finished a new book today, a slim blue memoir fresh off the shelves from a Minnesota author. I was curious to read her work. Addie Zierman writes vulnerably of a teen journey of faith, of aching loneliness and depression, and of disappointments in the church community. I respected her candor and wished that we had had the chance to meet then, in those twists and turns she wrote of. The youth pastor's wife heart in me tore for the adolescent version of her and wanted to take her out for coffee. I took note too of how to compassionately reach out to teens and young people in similar circumstances. Zierman writes at the end of her book, "So I began to write about all of it...and, in the writing, I found structure... I saw connections I hadn't seen before..."
Two years ago I started scrawling out thankfulness lists in a gratitude journal, counting gifts from God-- both the easy good gifts, and the hard gifts, in which I remember that God is big enough to use even this, and that his heart can be trusted. My list soon spiraled inconsistently into any writing surface: my journals, here on this blog, and in the Gratitude Notebook itself.

Last week, I pulled out Ann Voskamp's book One Thousand Gifts again, reading it anew, wanting to learn and relearn the habits of finding joy in the everyday life, of seeing even more intimately God's heart and love for the people he made. Ann dares us "to live fully right where you are" and to know that joy is always possible.

I've lost that daily practice of naming gifts and lost my original Gratitude Notebook, so today I grabbed pen and paper, and started a new list. In her arguments for retraining the mind in this way to stop, see, and name the gift, Voskamp compiles quotes from:

- the apostle Paul where he twice says, "I have learned how to be content...  I have learned the secret of living in every situation..." (Philippians 4:11-12).

-Erasmus who said, "A habit is overcome by habit" and

-Writer Annie Dillard who wrote, "Seeing is, of course, very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it. It is ... 'not merely unnoticed, but...unseen'... I have to say the words, describe what I'm seeing...If I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present" (Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, 127, quoting Dillard).
Words are powerful. They shape our perceptions, our memories, our identities. I choose how to see and frame my day, my family, my life, by how I stop, notice, and summarize my feelings, and by my response to the things around me.

Like five year old Daniel who is emboldened and authenticated by hearing his words repeated back to himself; like Zierman who found greater structure and connections in her life from the perspective of seeing it written out; and from my renewed challenge to see all of life as a gift from God, I'm writing it line by line.

Because what I missed last time? What I forgot, was this cosmic wager and this command in Ephesians: "Always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20). FOR everything, not just IN everything. This is new territory to me, a truth I forget all the time, and work to re-learn.

Today is my chance to get ready for this cosmic wager, to train my mind to see, to note, to respond in trust. So I scrawl out thanks across the pages, thanking God for:
-sun splashing across my children's faces as they study
-hot coffee in my favorite mug
-a stable job
-9th grade science experiments at the stove with Morgan
-orchid buds swelling pregnant with life
-cars that run
- a warm house in Minnesota November

May writing out these words, these gifts, give me new perspective and train my heart to see His.

(Linking with Imperfect Prose.)

Revised: I've wrestled with this blog post throughout the night and throughout today again. My blithe easy gifts above seem incomplete and naive without addressing the hard gifts too. Hard things in our lives, and in our family's and friend's lives, like cancer, young deaths, hard marriage seasons, addictions, relationship issues, and more. And through them, I have become convinced of my God's loving hand, even while not understanding everything he allows to happen. And for that, I am stepping tremulously into thanking Him in everything, and learning to trust Him in trying to thank Him for everything. But, please extend grace, friends, as I still learn this? Maybe we can together walk this journey.

Photo credit: Creative Commons; Christmasstockimages.com 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Through Glass-Panes, Army Fatigues, and Deepening Twilight

He arrives with a familiar ta-da-da-ta-dah tapping on the door, and there's no mistaking that capped man through the glass door.

My dad steps inside, his dark cap matching his black chaplain jacket.

"Dad, hi! Come on in." I jump down the stairs, kick stray shoes off to the side, and hug him. "The house is trashed, sorry," I warn.

At the top of the stairs, three or four muddy plastic bags bulge with dirty canna bulbs I unearthed last night, still waiting further instructions from my sister. Clean laundry stacks in piles by person and mounds unfinished by the couch. Dishes lay jumbled by the sink.

Dad shrugs it off, and starts unloading a paper bag of items onto the kitchen table.

"Coffee? It's just brewing," I ask, nodding to the gurgling black machine in the corner. "Want a piece of pumpkin pie?" The pie sits on the counter, a decadent breakfast treat for us all, and needing to be eaten since it's a day or two old.

"No, I've just got a minute..." he unwraps old photos from my grandma's home, decides upon a cup of coffee after all, and we chat about oil changes, garden bulbs, and graduate classes. After hugs again to the family, he clicks his coffee mug lid in place, and heads out the door.

Clearing breakfast dishes, I pour myself another cup of coffee and slip onto facebook in between grammar edits with Morgan's school. Creamy black and tan photographs of round-cheeked young men in Navy and Army uniforms grace my friends' and family's newsfeeds. Across cyber space, we marvel together at the sacrifice of these men in uniform. Saluting them in memory, Americans around the nation commemorate Veteran's Day. These men and women --dads, sons, nephews, daughters, and grandpas alike-- stood tall and battled hard for each other and for our freedoms.
Hours later, as twilight sinks, and the temperature creeps lower, I pull my black French scarf around my face as I walk home from work and hunch my shoulders against the cold. Minnesota has fallen into the twenties this week, and the rapid descent into a November winter still takes me by surprise.

A black-coated figure rounds the corner ahead. A moment or so later, I recognize my husband, hands plunged into pockets deep, his hood pulled high against the chill. I wave a mittened hand, and we finish our approach in silence.

"You came to walk me home," I blurt in girlish delight. "That's romantic, thank you." We are learning new ways to speak love, my man and I. Some days, it's easy, other days, it's fumbling.

We kiss, and then the talk turns to harder things. The words slip out in unison with our steps, and the cold air sucks my breath away. I put foot in front of other, and pull my scarf up higher.

These men in my life, they shape the way I see my God. 

An Abba enters unannounced, and my delight is marred only by the worry that he'll see the mess, the unfinished products. He doesn't scold or press. Undeterred, he uncovers glimpses of beauty from my past: moments captured in time, freezing them in frames. "Remember these times of beauty and relationship?" is the unspoken question. "Remember this gift here and here?" as frame after frame are gently unwrapped.

The grandpas, uncles, service men and women fight for us, fight against unseen armies, ushering in a freedom and safety that I am thankful to call my life. My Savior battled an ancient foe too, with weathered wood and iron still scarring him.

And coming towards me down the road is a figure I didn't recognize at first in the distance and twilight. He's never been far, though, and now we walk the rest of the way together, shoulders hunched against the darkening cold.

(Counting, always counting gifts, with the gentle Ann Voskamp...)

Hi friend. I'm glad you are here, thankful for you. Who in your life helps you see aspects of God's character? (Those viewing this in email can click here to join the conversation.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

How Do You Live Without Regrets?

 "Jen, do whatever it takes to rearrange your schedule and make it happen. It may well be your last chance."

The email finds me late one night, as insomnia stalks me. Curled up in the corner near an outlet, I'm reading emails after midnight. Blue light from the ipad casts a blinding glow across my corner, throwing shadows into the sleeping house.

She's right, of course, my sister. It's been four years since I've seen my grandma, and she was just transferred to a retirement home.
The next morning, I made my case to my husband; he kindly agreed, and we set in motion the long line of phone calls, cancellations, and work schedule changes. Six days later, I kissed my family goodbye, grabbed my backpack and drove to my parents' home for the carpooling road trip to Florida.

In two long days of driving, we passed corn fields, farmlands, barren strips with windmills, and bobbing carpets of pink cosmos blossoms. State lines ushered in rising temperatures, cotton fields, pecan orchards, and finally, sloping palm trees.

 My grandma is 86 years old, and has raised six strong, hard-working children who love their families. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren span the country, while our matriarch sits quietly on a black fold-up walker in her new center's tropical backyard. Air plants coiled sinewy vines beside Spanish moss and draped off trees, while tiny lizards skittered nearby. I watched my parents and aunts and uncles swap stories and share family news with my grandma, and I lapsed quiet, the stories washing over me.

The days passed quickly, coffee cups filled and refilled, and we gathered for one of Grandma's favorite meals: liver and onions. Later at a picnic in the park, and around family tables, I was thrilled to spend time with my cousins and their families, my aunts and uncles, and to get to know them more.

We wandered at the sponge docks, poked into shell shops, and marveled at this town that boasts its identity as a Little Greece, second only in size to actual Greece for its Greek population numbers. Throaty dark-haired gals shouted out bargain deals of gyros and baklava, and we headed into one of the bistros for a hearty Mediterranean meal.

All too soon, it was time to leave. We packed up the car, carefully placed in our bags of shells, and headed cross-country to the midwest. The temperatures fell with each state, and we added layers as we drove. By Minnesota, we raced the brooding snowstorm home, beating it by a few hours.

The next morning's snowfall blanketed yellow leaves, masked my footsteps, and washed away my time in Florida like waves on the sand.

Pinks and yellows strata the horizon tonight, as the sun sinks low. Meat sizzles and sears behind me, and dishes clatter.

Is there anyone you need to call or go see? My sister's right. Do whatever it takes to arrange your schedule to make it happen.

Because, me? I almost missed it. When this trip was first offered to me on short notice, I turned it down twice, not thinking I could pull off a week's notice of cancellations and schedule changes. I almost missed it, would have missed this chance to reconnect with relatives, to meet new ones and to hug and see my grandma. My sister's right. 

Anyone you need to call? Pick up the phone, or grab a pen and paper, and don't let this day pass without saying the words you would want them to hear...

(Found this helpful or encouraging? Please feel free to forward, or share, this article on to anyone.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Secret Lives of Teens

They scare me sometimes, I confess. Or they have in the past.

The tough-looking ones who are angry and sad at the world, bristling for a fight. Bored teens milling at store entrances, or jostling each other on the side of the road.Or the teen girls on the cutting edge of fashion, as I am suddenly aware of my thrift store bargains.

My mom is a petite woman with dark swirled hair and blue eyes in a lovely Irish combo. Walking out of her yard to a commotion recently, she saw several inner city teens look up guiltily from where they had been throwing rocks and kicking over garbage cans in the alley. Stepping near, she chose a disarming gentleness, pausing to greet them, look them deep in the eyes, and asking how they were doing. They stopped, flustered.

"I wanted to diffuse the situation, and let them know someone cared," she told me later.

She knows a secret. Because the truth is: everyone is a bit terrified. Not of teens (well, maybe that too some days) but of what they see in themselves, and the questions about whether they are loved and loveable, or beautiful, or man enough, or valuable.

When we stop and get that answered for ourselves about who we are -- who Jesus says we are, and who he says He is-- then we can inhale strength, and turn to answer that question in another's eyes.

Because they are all asking it. The teens in front of the grocery store and on the city bus, and the ones who live next door to you. That sullen macho mask? It just hides the questions they are all asking. The questions we are familiar with too.

This weekend I had the opportunity to spend three days with 65 teens and adults in a camp setting. I saw them interacting in ways that delighted and amazed me. They tied on red and black aprons and ran tray-loads of dirty dishes through industrial-sized dishwashers. I saw them tie on orange-striped aprons and sweep floors, wash down tables, help prepare meals, and scrub pasta-encrusted pots. In between gagaball games and polar bear plunges, I watched teens reach out to special needs children and shyer new people on the fringe and pull them in to join the groups of happy conversations. I heard teens cry as they broke down and shared stories of God talking to them through Bible verses and worship songs, and I observed nearby friends lean in for comforting hugs.

The teens around you? They can change the world. They just need to know who they are. Only Jesus can completely answer their questions, but we get to gently disarm the teens and adults we encounter with our words, lives, and humble care.

And watch them transform this world then!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where Do You Hide Out A Storm?

On a long windy gray pier in Duluth, tourists wrap overcoats tight and pace the length, peering down steep embankments to the treacherous water below. White freshwater gulls dive and parry for bread scraps, sounding like a coastal town. Giant oil and iron ships pass under the lift-bridge, while stern metal signs warn pedestrians to stay far from the churning waters and the slick shear sides of the canal.

My in-laws lived in Duluth for decades in an old blue and white wooden house perched precariously on a steep hill, overlooking Lake Superior. Above the mantel in their living room, a magnificent framed photograph in greens, greys and blacks caught everyone's attention upon entering the home. In the tiny center of a storm-swept pier, where galing winds and waves crashed against a lighthouse, a small figure slipped quickly behind the protection of a strong door. Giant waves had already engulfed the pier's length, and raged menacingly against the lighthouse. Built to withstand any storm, the lighthouse was a stronghold, a protected fortress.

Mark and I have heard of two deaths this week, and stood crying next to a mom and dad our age whose thirteen year old son lay in the coffin behind them. Hugging thin shoulders, we spoke just a few words, and let silence hang in somber honor of the loss. At the coffin, his mom found herself running her fingers through her son's ringlets and wavy hair.

"He always had the best hair," she laughed and cried.

The intimacy of that act shook me, and has stuck with me the longest.

"That's what I would be doing too," I whispered ragged to my husband. "I can't imagine the agony of having to close the lid on my son and not see him for a while."

We have been aching with and praying for our friends this week.

The image of a stalwart lighthouse built to withstand the fiercest storms comes to my mind tonight. In my women's Bible study this morning, we learned that the Hebrew word for "strength," maoz, means a safe haven, refuge, protective fortress, stronghold. 

So tonight I'm praying for God's strength to be that fortress, that safe haven; to be a place where my friends-- and all of us--can hide out from the crashing storms that threaten to swallow us.
Photo credit #1: Jerry Bielicki.
Photo credit #2: LakesnWoods.com Duluth Gallery

(Feel free to check out this past post about similar topics, entitled: Life and Death Intertwined.)

How can I pray for you this weekend, friend? We're heading out on a youth group retreat this weekend, if you want to pray for us. Or join me in praying for our friends who are mourning their son. Thank you. 

(Linking with Emily.)  

Monday, October 21, 2013

How Not to Bomb Your Own Bonding Family Moment

How do you carve out time for family, without it ending messy and broken?

It was one of those mornings.

We had planned all weekend to spend some family time carving pumpkins. Saturday's cold rain stole our motivation to purchase pumpkins. Sunday raced by with a bevy of teen friends over: guys playing games downstairs, and teen girls griddling panini sandwiches and heading out on shopping runs. We pushed off the pumpkin carving until a later time.

This morning was it-- our last chance to carve pumpkin faces as a family before John headed back to college. Now in the crunch of homework, class deadlines, and approaching work shifts, time was quickly disappearing. My husband and I exchanged words. Mine were fairly cross. We tried again, apologizing softly.

"I want to disagree correctly," I said wistfully. He agreed, and we started over.

He drove away to buy five pumpkins, and I finished reading science with Morgan. On his return, we pitched in to help carry pumpkins up the stairs, and plopped them laughingly into the bathtub. Joking, the five of us chose our pumpkins, washed off any mud, and carried them to the table.

Peace and warm laughter descended on the scene then. Morgan put on worship music in the background. We dried damp pumpkins, stared critically at the bulbous squash, imagined faces, and set to carving.

"Can I cut off the top of your pumpkin for you?" my man offered protectively. His gesture touched me, and I gushed romantically. Our kids grinned and rolled their eyes. Condensation washed black marker faces off the littlest one's pumpkin, and he wrote it on again. We gathered pumpkin guts in one large bowl, and the seeds in two others. Then I raced away to work, and my kids returned to schoolwork.

"Can we put fire in them?" my five year old asked me tonight, as I put away groceries and lined up supper. The pumpkins waited calmly for us on the table.

"Yes, let's do it!" I agreed, scrounging for candles and a grill lighter. We lugged the heavy pumpkins downstairs, set them on the front steps, and fought the wind to illuminate them.

And those pumpkins? They had looked nice on the table all afternoon, creatively carved, but it wasn't until the fire had been lit in them that they really shone.

And me? I can pull myself together and look okay some days, but it's not until I fan God's flame inside me that I really shine. He's the one that looks good. 

I love hearing from you. What helps or hinders your family times together? What do you do to protect those times? (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.) 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hungry for the Best Day Ever?

 Flaky pastry crumbs tumble off orange-vested autumn color. He eats with a surprising blend of seriousness and gusto. Focused on the apple turnover, he nibbles and chews. Focused on him, I snap photos and realize how this wild love for my son melts me inside.

At the apple orchard, we purchase tickets for a wagon ride, pose for photos next to giant plastic apples and wooden pumpkins, and clamber onto a tractor wagon ride through the orchard. Glimpses of blue lakes, green-algaed ponds, and rows of Harelson, Cortland, Macintosh, and Honeycrisp apple trees lurch gently beside us on the wagon, and I see his face again, serious, steady, a pensive happiness.

Climbing into the car this afternoon before we had even left the driveway, though, he was ready for joy. "This is the best day ever!" he exclaimed. This phrase of his: "The best day ever!" comes up every day.

Pulling up to the kitchen table and seeing spaghetti makes him cry, "This is the best day ever!" Hearing that his college-age brother is coming home for the weekend elicits it --"This is the best day ever!" ("You can pray," he tells John at supper that night, giving him the honor of praying for our family meal)

After small things even: time snuggling on the couch, Lego battles, or even longer conversations, Daniel grins, hugs us, and exclaims, "This is the best day ever." Sighing happily, he kisses us and then ambles off.

How do you live life so free and joyful? On sunny wagon rides in orchards dripping with apples, joy comes easily to me. Or while eating my share of the fluffy frosted apple turnover and watching him eat somberly, the joy is there too.

But to keep that sense of wonder in the kitchen full of dirty dishes or amidst the petty family squabbles? It's a choice, I'm sure of it. A decision to see the good, to grab delight in simple pleasures, and to exclaim it loudly, "This is a great day!" 

Thankful for tangy fresh apple cider, for flaky popovers that leave me hungry for more, for sunshine and warmth on rainy fall weeks, for warm homes after rush hour, for a car that runs, for hot sudsy water to wash dishes, for family and friends, for God's gentle love and patience with us all, for sweet five year old sons, and for the wonder of science and seeds on this homeschooling day, I practice and learn.

Hungry for the best day ever? Take lessons with me from a sweet-cheeked five-year old and take joy seriously. Look, see, count, and thank our God.

(Linking with Emily at Imperfect Prose too.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

What's in the Way of Your Beauty?

It wasn't so much that I saw beauty then, but I was clearing the way for it.

That's the way, isn't it? I sat cross-legged in the chilly grass and dug my hands into the matted brown weeds. Several grass heads slid easily into my hands, but the roots remained firmly in place.

The flower bed had been stunning this spring. Crimson, magenta, and lemony tulips bobbed in the breeze, and a few clumsy dopple-headed violet aliums stood high in the back. Throughout the summer, the spring bulbs browned and withered, but white shasta daisies and purple coral bells frilled in their place. Since September, though, -- late-August really-- my husband had noticed that it was mostly the weeds that stood tall now.

"Um, Jen, we've been mowing around your weed bed lately," he laughed wryly. "Can you fix that?"

I meant to, and even pulled out the largest, most prominent weeds, but I didn't have time to tackle the dirt itself. It sat, and the bed grew tangled. September and October were busy until this last week. Other projects grabbed my energy and focus, and the flower bed fell to my October To-Do list.

"Right after the retreats," I told myself.

Yesterday was the day. I grabbed my shovel, hoe and trowel, and headed outside. Up close, the matted bed was worse than I remembered. Tiny roots had grown large, snaking deep around healthy plants, dwarfing them, and stealing their nutrients. The weeds were thick and well-established. My hands alone weren't enough to pry them out. Grabbing my pitchfork, I sank my weight into the ground, getting deep into the soil, where the roots clung the hardest.

So often, our inner lives can sink into disarray too, huh? Putting off the heavy tasks of processing, working through, and getting to the deep roots of an issue or sin, we can simply focus on the most pressing tasks at hand. Saying "I'll think about that later," or "I'll tackle that issue when life gets calmer," we instead allow some weeds to gain strong footings, sinking roots deep.

With cold weary hands in the dirt yesterday, the irony was not lost on me either, and I tugged fiercely at spindly brown plants while asking God to tug out the ugly in me too. We both worked hard.

My front flower bed? The soil is now soft, ready. The weeds are gone. Current purple coral bells once again have unhindered room to develop, and space is cleared for new growth. Check back next spring, will you? There is life hiding right under the surface.

It wasn't so much that I saw beauty then, but I was clearing the way for it.

(And counting, always counting gifts with Ann.)

Art credit to Daniel Rozin, Wooden Mirror.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How Do I Thank God for THAT?

 I pour myself another cup of coffee and hear a semi truck's rumbling exhales on the road outside. A friend's question has been tumbling through my head this last week and a half.

"I know I can thank God for even the hard things in my life -- and with hindsight now, I can see where he's brought beauty in those things -- but in my child's life?" she types. " To thank him for abuse in her life? How do I do that? Am I supposed to?"

The question hangs in cyberspace as I read it, ponder it, and then walk away to give it the thought it deserves. In the busy two weeks that follow, it tickles my brain.

At two women's retreats, I join other lovely speakers to talk on the theme of "Chased by Grace." In my sessions on Nehemiah, we walk through hope-infused stories of a refugeed people standing up from the rubble in their lives, strapping on swords, and rousing to "Fight for your brothers, your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives, and your homes."   "...And our God is fighting for us!" Nehemiah yells. Again and again in that historical account from the 400s BC, we see God's huge hand bringing beauty from rubble. An expert Architect, he rebuilds the ruins of a city and the ruins of peoples' lives. And he did it in such a way that the enemies and surrounding nations realized that "this work had been done with the help of our God." 

Back home from the retreats, a blonde-haired friend and I text about an upcoming informational breakfast against human trafficking. In addition to going, we decide to sponsor a table, rallying more people to fight against human trafficking and to rescue women and teens. (Want to join us? Nov. 2 in Minneapolis. It's free! Let me know.) We talk details and I slip my red phone back into the wooden bowl on the counter. Thinking of young girls and guys trapped in sexual slavery sinks sadness into me. Even that, God? What does it look like to give thanks in everything?

Curled up on the couch with my Bible and study materials, I come across the familiar verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 ("...in everything, give thanks...") and suddenly a grammar preposition changes everything. It didn't say "FOR everything, give thanks" but "IN everything" -- like through everything, in all circumstances, not for all circumstances.

This freedom, then, to not have to say thank you for abuse on children, for cancer in healthy cells, for poverty around the world-- for whatever hard things wait for you back home.

This injunction, this invitation, to-- in all circumstances-- still thank God: 
-that he is big enough to handle even this
-that he can be trusted to rebuild this ruin and bring beauty from even this
-that he has a track record of restoring and redeeming the broken fallout of other humans' bad choices. 

This tremulous release of opening hands to say, Okay, even in this, even in this, somehow...

-That even in our dark moments, in our hurt and pain, we can cry out like David in the Psalms, "Lord, slay the wicked!" and you get even that, God.

-That you are the Perfect Judge before whom we must all stand one day and give an account for every word and deed.

And that you are in the business of restoring lives, rescuing the widows and the orphans, and you call us to "Stand up and fight (alongside you)." Fight for your brothers, your sisters, your sons and daughters, your husbands/wives, your nieces and nephews, your grand-kids, and neighbors. "Our God will fight for us!" 

And, in this, I can give thanks and unclench my hands.

I love hearing from you. What hard things can you list in the "even this..." pile? (Those getting this via email can click here to join the conversation.)

(Linking with Emily.)

Photo credit. 

 Note: Perpetrators still need to be reported, processed, punished; survivors still need to be believed, rescued, counseled. For a helpful poignant book on surviving abuse, I appreciated Mary DeMuth's book "Thin Places."

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Walking Dead and You and Me

Tangy sweet and sour sauce simmers and floats fragrant on the air. Mark is making supper tonight as I catch up on emails and computer work. Five-year old Daniel battles plastic robots behind me while picking up tan chess pieces. Morgan tiptoes up for snacks before being shooed away with the reassurance that supper will be done shortly. A golden sun sinks low on the horizon to my right, illuminating a banana palm's tiny branches and multiple cobwebs on the stand beside me.

My suitcase and backpack slump in a corner, still packed from this weekend's second women's retreat. Since yesterday afternoon, I have been enjoying family after my four-day absence and telling stories of God's goodness.

In my Bible today, I read the story of a man who lived in the tombs. Like a scene from the Walking Dead or any horror film, this desperate man with demonic strength, harmed himself and others so much that the townspeople banished him outside the city. Living in caves where the dead were buried, he screamed, moaned, and cut himself.

When Jesus arrived in the area, the evil spirits in this broken man recognized the Creator of the world instantly. "What do you want with us?" they spewed, cowering and pleading. Authoritatively and fueled by compassion, Jesus ordered the demons out of the man. They left dramatically.

When the townspeople heard what had happened, they rushed up the hill to see. Before them was the familiar ghoulish man they were used to seeing, except that now he stood there, sober, in his right mind, and cleanly dressed. The difference was dramatic and obvious.

Despite this wild miracle, though, the townspeople were afraid of Jesus and urged him to leave town. Politely, Jesus complied. As Jesus was leaving, the formerly demon-possessed man chased after him. "Take me with you," he asked.

"Go home to your family," Jesus replied, "and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you."

For some of us, we have family and friends who aren't interested in interacting with the God of the Universe yet. But they are watching us, watching you. You and I, we get to show the difference that Jesus has made in our lives.

Pray that God would change us daily, making us look more and more like him. Then, we are to "Go home and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you."

The townspeople had the Creator of the Universe in their town, on their farmland. They weren't interested in him or his message. 

But when the broken, messed up man from the tombs walked back into town and started talking, it grabbed everyone's attention. Even people from the ten nearby cities were riveted. And the result? "All the people were amazed."

Photo Credit: Brandt Maxwell, from April 2010, of www.geographylists.com.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


The tops and corners of the trees where the sun's gaze lingered longest turned crimson and trembled in the breeze. My five year old and I walked hand in hand down the pebbled path into the woods, our shadows stretching long against the browning cattails beside us. He scampered on ahead then, whacking branches with his grey stick. I pursued him down the path, keeping him in sight, protective even in the calm woods.

"When you want, we can fight bad guys," he offered graciously, thinking of imaginary sword battles. I thanked him and we broke off the path into a wooded clearing of downed trees. Green moss crept across darkening logs that sank imperceptibly into the ground.

Finding a flat perch several feet off the ground with a branch backrest, I sat back, breathed in the clean earthy scent, and swung my feet. Daniel clambered over dead branches and hacked hollow at old logs, and I felt peace settle over me. An October blue sky peeped from behind the leafy canopy overhead, aspens and maples rustled all around us, and the sun poured golden puddles onto crisp brown leaves. My eyes found silent beauty everywhere and I named them aloud, thanking God.

Coming off a four-day women's retreat at Camp Lebanon, filled with innumerable opportunities to meet, get to know, worship with and pray with women from across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota, I have been seeing God's hand all weekend. Speaking alongside Cynthia Ruchti, Kristen Spielman,Sarah Lein, and Jean Erbst, we dug into God's word and encouraged each other to see God's grace that chases --pursues-- every one of us.

After a weekend of worship and wonderful women, I arrived home Sunday, counting God's gifts and eager to see family. My family and I've cuddled, hugged, and lingered long these past days, soaking up time together before this next weekend's second retreat. (Pray for this weekend, will you? Join us in praying God's blessings on this new group of women and for us presenters that God would speak through us, for his glory.)

And our God--your loving Creator? He walks the pebbled path with you, pursuing you, chasing after you with his goodness and love every day, alert even in the seeming calm of the woods.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The French Were Wrong

Two blonde veterinarian students review for a large exam at the coffee table to my left. Tucking their hair into long pony tails, they discuss bovine disorders and throw out rhino-something terms that leave me in the dust.

Nestled into a corner beside me, a slender woman with short silver hair and a teal parka rustles papers about World War II nurse rosters, and I glimpse attendance sheets and columns of names. My curiosity mounts and I try to restrain myself.

In the hair salon yesterday, I sat under a black plastic shawl as the stylist cut my hair. The beautiful Lebanese-American with a striking nose and tempestuous black curls tied behind a yellow bow told me stories of a five-year old her, moving into a step-mom's home who "never wanted kids."

I blinked back tears, too embarrassed to cry at Great Clips, while my stylist matter-of-factly said, "I just tried to be gone a lot. I watched the people at my friends' houses to see how relationships should be."

I bit down tears, and opened up too, saying how thankful I am for God's gentle love for us and work on me. We talked of our families and hopes and I remarked on her compassion and involvement in her sisters' lives.

A day later, and she still comes to mind. I smile and think of her resilience, and pray for her.

Growing up as a young American in West Africa and France, I soaked up those cultures. Returning to the United States twenty years ago, I still find myself a product of those rich cultures and experiences. One French social law that slips into my actions some days says to not engage in extended conversations with strangers, since it may trivialize or cheapen the concept of friendship. (Can you see why the French are mistakenly perceived as aloof or cold sometimes to foreigners?) The French themselves don't mind breaking this rule now, though, and I remind myself to also.

Stop and see the people around you today, friend. The coffee barista with the Austrian accent, the college students with their upcoming exams, the tired mom in the checkout lane who may visibly relax at the comment of how cute her toddler is, and your lovely hair stylist with untamed curls.

Stop. See them. Smile into their eyes, and receive the gift of meeting them. 

Linking with Ann, I count gifts of people today at A Holy Experience