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: 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 (" 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

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.