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; 

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.)