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.)