Monday, March 31, 2014

What Your Names Say About You

Both photo credits to Stephanie Conrad, Flickr. Thank you for the treat of these photos!

It was the summer of a deep golden tan from hours at the blue chipped tile pool. A hundred years earlier, a homesick Brit had crafted a stone castle in America that perfectly matched his homeland. There was a tall curved ivy-wrapped clock tower, with hands that chimed away the hours too quickly. Two-story squash courts and an old carriage house stood across the circle from the full-blown castle, a three-story edifice that captured my imagination. There were two ramparted turrets, with balconies facing out, and two giant fireplaces that you could walk inside. Musty basements caverned wide and unending, with one or two rooms we called "dungeons." Were there bars on those windows? I can no longer remember.

Waist-high stone walls chased the driveway all the way down a long curving hill, and a massive blue globe adorned the entrance. Tucked away in the forest, sunken mossy garden structures crumbled into stone boulders and sank into the undergrowth. I used to hitch myself on top the pebbly foundations, and carefully walk, balancing one foot in front of the other, pacing through the forgotten city and reciting poetry to myself.

It was the summer of late-night hide and seek games, all-day volleyball on the grass before jumping into the pool, and hours with teen friends my age who lived on this castle hill too. We built bonfires, drank gallons of ice tea from the community dining hall between the two fireplaces, and hiked early morning treks into wooded glens.

A spring twilight here in the present bleeds rose across the sky, and tangerine streaks smudge the horizon, trailing navy and the image throws me back to this high school summer oasis. I can picture the turreted castle, the clock tower, and summer days that stretched deliciously long.

I was Jeni then, petite brunette with sun-bleached orange highlights from a Sun-In spray gone wrong. Time passed, and my name changed to Jen. College and my twenties swirled and blurred. Later, copying my sister and cousin who were choosing more professional monikers, I picked up my full name, shyly trying it out and tasting it on my lips as I said it to new acquaintances: Jennifer.

There are still people who know me as Jeni/Jenny, Jen, and Jennifer, and I'm still that person. The names we use tap into shared histories, don't they? I'm sure you can think of one or two names that people have for you, pet names that speak of a shared story, or shared timelines.

In my Bible reading this week, I've been mulling over watching Jesus pray. Eavesdropping into his private conversations in the upper room, I peek into how he prays for himself, how he prays for his close eleven friends/teammates, and how he prays for future people who will love him.

I've been curious to see what he would ask, what he would say... and I discovered something new tonight. In John 17 verses 11 and 25, Jesus brings up two new names of God that appear nowhere else in the New Testament, study notes say. Intrigued? I was too.

What names of God the Father would he use? What new names did he choose as he was baring his heart to the Father before going to his death in the next scenes?

"Holy Father" and "Righteous Father."

Wow. Our names for each other-- and for God-- show our history with them.

(And counting gifts with Ann at A Holy Experience, thankful for his names.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Standing Up My Turkish Date

This is it, the moment I've been excited about all day.

Dinner is cleared away, homeschooling is in a lull, and my family is occupied.

I've thought about him, talked about him, and glanced at him throughout the day, but our times were always brief.

To set a relaxed tone, I boil water in my tarnished round teakettle, and pour it over decaf coffee grounds. Four minutes after the rolling boil, ripples of sultry Turkish coffee and cardamom mirror the light and waft fragrant in the air.

Balancing my Bible and journal precariously on the narrow wooden desk and the adjacent couch arm, I meet with God. "Lord, I need you. I want you. Please meet with me here in your word, teach me. Make your word come alive to me."

My bookmark opens to John 17. It's the section with Jesus's longest recorded prayer, and the chapter is divided into three sections: "Jesus Prays for Himself," "Jesus Prays for his Disciples," and "Jesus Prays for All Believers." And questions spring up already in my mind, wondering what it looks like to have the God-Man pray for himself. What will he ask? What is important to him and what's on his heart?

Before I get much further, though, the interruptions come. Family members ask questions, a teen has homework problems, my sopping-wet preschooler needs a bucket for his bath, needs help locating a toy before the water swirls away, and needs help getting out of the bath.

Maneuvering Lego piles, I assist a frantic five year old find a toy. I wrap him in a fluffy red towel ("My favorite!" he exclaims, smiling at the color) and I kiss his swirled dark hair, water still clinging to my lips.

High school homework questions beckon now, and I'll need to lean in close as we study writing compositions together, checking for errors and correcting sentence structure. Bedtimes and teeth-brushing loom too.

So, John 17 and Jesus's prayer for himself, and for you and me? My Bible waits on the edge of the couch, and I must wait as well.

(Photo credit: Marviikad, Creative Commons, cc licensing)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When Spring and Life Falter

It's not that they lied.

It's just that we see the calendar's blatant announcement of spring and then step curiously outside to shiver in a chilly thirteen degrees. Snow flurries fly diagonally to the right, falling softly for hours. Crystal diadems stack an inch high. An hour later, the snow stops. Blue skies and sunshine light up melting snow. Crystalline diadems dissipate.

At the kitchen table, my daughter and I solve second degree algebra equations, and turn pages in her physical science textbook. My preschooler wriggles excitedly on his stool at the computer desk, watching his character scroll through a two-dimensional world. And his world looks flat from here, but he knows the whole game. Dodging dangers, jumping cliffs, and traipsing into caverns, he locates the treasures. And when dangers or troubles overtake him, he confidently starts again.

We saw him this afternoon, the chubby fleece rabbit, hiding under the tall firs. He'd been scarce all winter. A robin flitted onto a bone bare branch today too, forerunner of a silent spring.

And Midwestern Americans everywhere peer optimistically out windows and hover at open doorways, light jackets in hand, wondering. New life lingers, latent below the surface, and winter melts away.

And your words, they come to my mind... "Lord, where else would we go? You hold the words of life!" And the world teems with it.

Can't see the spring, the new life, in your world? Are you dodging dangers, jumping cliffs, and stumbling through dark caverns in a two-dimensional world? Our God knows this life game and confidently navigates it for us. "Lord, where else would we go? You hold the words of life."

Hi friend. What have you been reading, learning, or thinking about this week?

(Those in email --of which there are nearly 400 of you!-- can click here to join the conversation. Feel free to forward this.)

*Photo Credit: Evan Long, Creative Commons, cc license

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"You Only Need to Resist for a Little Bit"

Photo Credit: Slagheap, Creative Commons, cc
  "You only need to resist for a little bit," a friend said recently. "Delay, hold off. Resist the temptation for that instant gratification, and often that's all it takes. The temptation dissipates."

He's wise, and there was something battle-scarred and proven in that open declaration.

It rang true to me, and I found myself nodding. It's true, isn't it? Whether it's a thought pattern I'm wrestling with, or the lie that This _____ will fill that need, or anything else we battle with, we recognize where it starts. Training ourselves in battle-worthy rigors to resist, to stop and stare straight into the face of the Bold Claim, arms us. Asking myself, Will this truly be harmless? Will this really fill that longing? Will this food/this act/this conversation/this Thing truly solve my needs?

Because we all have those whispers that come to us unbidden. Whether it's a lie we believe about ourselves, an attitude we convince ourselves is justified, a food craving, or a dangerous compromise that seems inconsequential at first... we all have those whispers that shiver up the spine.

It came to my mind this week. His statement that grabbed me then. "You only need to resist for a while. Delay, hold it off. Resist the temptation and often that's all it takes to disappear," he said with a wry shake of his head, the skirmishes still fresh in his mind.

And while you wait, while you breathe and hold on tight, wrap your mind with truth, please? I'm guessing you know the truths our Ally and Protector is whispering to you already, but if you need reminders, feel free to browse some here with me.

- "Is God Forced Into It?"
- "Chased"
- "Why You Are Never Too Old"
- "He Surprised Me"
- "Tacos, Rescues, and Lovers"
- "How to Melt an Angry Heart"
- "Five Seconds Away from Joy, Better Health, and Peace of Mind" 
- "You Had Me at Avocados" 

This is some of the truth I'm wrapping my mind in this week. What are you? I'd love to hear and learn from you too, friend. (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lie that Will Ruin Your Sex Life

Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes, Creative Commons, cc license
You've crept up to me quiet and said it in hushed voices. In conference hallways, outside workshop doors, or pulling me aside at retreats and MOPS groups, you've swiped hair back from your face, and bravely opened up.

"I know the stereotype is that men want sex more than women, but it's the opposite with us. He's not interested in sex any more. I'm the one always asking."  


"We haven't had sex in months, and I know it's important to guys, but I'm never in the mood. What should we do?"

And women --you with your eyes down, your face flushed, and your voice quiet and worried --I've loved your honesty, and you are not alone. I am so proud of you for voicing what is a concern to lots of people. In your courage, you stood up and broke the power of the lie.

And the lie that will ruin your sex life is this: "Nothing will change. It's no use talking about it."

Because the truth is far from this. Experts in the field assure married couples everywhere that sex can just keep getting better and better. Redbook magazine shocked themselves several years ago after compiling content from surveyed couples and individuals. Working from a non-biblical worldview, they gathered information from a variety of people's sex lives, and what they found surprised them. Married monogamous couples rated the highest in mutually-satisfying sex lives, with the most active sex lives, including the most frequent orgasms, and the highest-reported satisfaction in males and females.

And this shouldn't surprise us since sex was God's idea. He created it and us, and called it good. He sculpted male and female bodies beautifully, and purposely entwined nerve bundles and sensory organs that would trigger pleasure. Our Creator even made sure to devote multiple parts in the Bible to talk openly about the issues surrounding sex, giving guidelines for its best use, desiring for it to be a gift, not a weapon or tool to cause damage. We have a God who talks bluntly and unblushingly about sexual intimacy.

Dr. Willard Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage, states: "Since men and women differ so greatly in the way they come to enjoy sex, no wonder we find so much sexual incompatibility in marriage. The key of communication unlocks the doors of ignorance and opens up to each couple the opportunity for sexual compatibility" (Harley, 52).

Because in truth, "...any marriage can have that sizzle!" affirms Harley, from the vantage point of years of counseling couples. His book then delves into some of the complexities of sexual intimacy that can be resolved with communication.

For example, "Men experience sexual arousal and climax with relative ease. Precisely the opposite is true for the majority of women," states Harley. "...My counseling experience has shown me that even sexually active women usually enter marriage having rarely experienced arousal or climax..."

"Husbands often enter marriage assuming their wives have far more sexual sophistication than they have. Because they don't want to appear naive or lacking in sexual prowess, some wives don't level with their husbands. Instead they act as though they truly experience sexual arousal or climax, when in fact they do not.... Many otherwise compatible couples fail to find sexual fulfilment due to their own ignorance or deception."

"As the bottom line, many husbands do without sex or exist on a very limited diet (in their opinion). The husband blames the wife, of course, but the real culprit is sexual incompatibility, which needs to be overcome through the efforts of both partners, not just the woman" (Harley, 52).

Dr. Ed Wheat, author of a great sex and marriage book entitled, Love Life for Every Married Couple: How to Fall in Love and Stay in Love spends several chapters pinpointing and solving various complexities in couples' sex lives. Addressing issues of past sexual abuse, flagging libido or desire, effective foreplay, the role that emotional issues play in a couple's physical life, and more, Wheat outlines the biological, psychological and physiological circuits of our desire, arousal, and climax stages. At each stage, he illuminates possible weak areas that would hinder the process, and then offers solutions for each break in the circuit. Wheat's book even raises awareness of which medicines may accidentally be affecting one's libido, and how to change that.

Feeling uncomfortable with all this talk of sex? You are not alone. Lots of people clam up at the topic of sex. But the truth is, "Any marriage can have that sizzle!" And my desire for you is a passionate married sex life, with confidence and sensitivity to each other.

Thoughts? Have any marriage or sex books that you've appreciated?

(Did you see the earlier post: What Sex Unlocks in Marriage? Found this helpful? Please feel free to forward any of these posts onto friends or family, or to share them on facebook.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What a Warrior in a Wine Cave Would Tell You

It was easier last week. Easier when the screen displayed five or six options, to breathe in blithely and say that we were trusting God for our new home.

It's always easier to feel relaxed in trusting God when the cars in the driveway start, when the bank accounts have wider margins between the credit and the debit boxes, or when the houses For Sale line up nicely into the categories we like.

Once the For Sale signs start lowering, and the pretty homes with the open layouts disappear, I'm required to really stand up and figure out what I'm holding on to. Am I trusting God for our next home only when the weekly emails state that there are eight or nine feasible options?

And that is the real question, isn't it? Glib answers crash quickly when the easy options fall off the table. If my stance of peaceful trust is only secure on clear blue days with no hint of storms, then my peace is less about Him, and more about me. My sense of self-sufficiency, my bank accounts, my cars that start... In other words, it's about life looking easy anyway.

The real test, the real test comes when it doesn't look like I can do it on my own, when there are only three houses on the list with enough bedrooms for us, and time shows that they seem to disappear quickly.

"But, where's the challenge in that, Jen?" he whispers to me. And I'm reminded of a warrior's cave musings from the Bible book of Judges. Among vintage wines, oozing grapes, and purple puddles on the ground, God approached a young Jewish warrior, hiding in a wine-press cave. Describing to the man the battles he was about to wield and win with God's help, God affirmed one key truth.

"You are going to know that I was the One who did this, not you, and not your nation. It's by my power that you're going to win these skirmishes."

In fact, God whittled down Gideon's fledgling army to a mere 300 men against 135,000 enemies. Statistically, calculates my husband, this meant that every one Jewish warrior would have to fight 450 men on his own, and survive to battle on. Not very good odds.

But our Warrior God, who loves to write thrilling stories into world history, loved that these odds would point to only one conclusion: God had done this himself. This wasn't the work of any Spartan-esque army. This was God showing off.

"Where's the trust, Jen, if it looks easy? What trust is needed if your options lie wide open? Trust me now, as the email screen of available houses shrinks, and your papers are tied up in City Hall meetings, and spring approaches. Do you trust me now?"

And this God-- who has walked us through cancer-scares on our little girl when she was five years old, and who found us this home, and who has always taken care of us --watches me, cocks an eyebrow, and asks, "Will you trust me now? Want to really up the stakes?"

What about you? Where do you say you are trusting God, but it has really just been because it's been easy to do on your own? In your marriage, with your dreams and future, in your finances, or with your kids? Our God loves us, and enjoys building our faith in him. Is he cocking an eyebrow at you too today?

(Photo Credit to Steve Snodgrass, Creative Commons, Cc license)

...Linking with Emily at Imperfect Prose.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Making Spring Break Work for Every Family, on Every Budget

Photo courtesy of Hasitha Tudagalle, Creative Commons, cc license
From downstairs come the happy hum of voices and the tinkle of Legos being fingered and raked through. My college-age son is home on spring break and my younger two children are thrilled to see him. In between frequent outings with friends, he is nonetheless being intentional about time with his siblings. John and five year old Daniel build Lego castles, line up archery figurine battles, and talk long over red, blue, and yellow plastic bricks.

My high school daughter plans homework sessions around her big brother's work schedule, choosing to take her spring break this week too while he is home. They go on an ice cream date, talk for hours downstairs, and shriek with laughter far into the night.

Today we lingered in the kitchen and dining room, my man-son hopping up to sit on the counter, sprawling huge across my cupboards as I sipped coffee and turned pages in my Bible. At the table, my lanky daughter spread out her art pads and pencils, holding up a white eraser to show her little brother. Daniel pulled out his watercolor paints and some scratch paper, while I rounded up water in a plastic bowl. I clicked on Vivaldi's Summer, and we stopped to stare out the deck window at the melting snow, the blue sky, and a swooping black bird that perched on a pine across the yard. Time slowed, and we breathed in deeply. Rest and calm sank into us, and our shoulders dropped comfortably. Chairs scraped, and violins crescendo-ed as conversation resumed.

My husband and I are enjoying this day off work today too, and are savoring this time as a family. In between various side tasks, we stop to cuddle, closing our eyes, and leaning in for a long hug. Later on this week, there are plans for family games, some computer network gaming, and other casual pursuits. And for my husband and I, life resumes its normal work and carpool schedule tomorrow.

But in between, our family is planning to savor each moment together. Whether it is just curling up on the couch to watch a mystery together, or learning how to cook a new Asian noodle dinner, or playing eight rounds of Uno, we plan to slow the clock, to breathe in deeply, and let that rest and calm sink in.

Spring breaks don't need to be expensive or long. While summery beaches are always appealing to me, some years a break from school and normal life can be crafted just as simply by choosing to intentionally slow down one's pace. What speaks calm to you? What brings family togetherness? Choosing to sleep in late, to linger over coffee, and to lean into family moments can bring long-term renewal and peace on any budget. Plus they can be savored much more than just one week a year!

What does a relaxing day at home look like for you? (I love hearing from you. Those in email can click here to join the conversation.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Do You Feel It Calling You?

Artist Thomas Rousing, Creative Commons, cc licensing
Can you remember it? The first time someone pointed it out to you or the first-time you noticed that feeling in your chest?

It might have been the way you caught that football pass while diving into the grass, or after they caught you belting out a song when you thought you were alone. It might have come in a teacher's scrawl at the bottom of a writing assignment, words that said, "You have talent. Keep going."

Was it about your drawing skills, or your speed in math, or how you are able to hold captive the attention of twenty children's eyes in elementary school and Sunday School?

Whether someone else noticed it yet or not, there is something you do that brings you joy. There is something you do that grabs your attention, gives you a little lift, and makes you want to strive all the more.

Famous Olympic runner Eric Liddell once said, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."

What is it for you that brings you joy, that calls you out to pursue further? For me, words and teaching grab my heart. I love learning new things, and then turning those concepts over and over in my mind, wrestling with how to best capture and describe them, linking them with other ideas. I love most of all learning about our Creator God, seeing his heart for his world and the transformative work he does. His artistic sculpting of people's lives and history amazes and delights me.

This weekend I get to join talented women like Angie Smith, Dee Brestin, Susie Larsen, and many more from across the nation to speak at the Set Apart Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. These are women who love God and are passionate about using their words to share God's wild chasing love for his creation. And for me, I am honored to speak alongside them. When I get to talk about God, it feels like worship to my King.

If you are near the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and wish to join us, feel free to click here for any last-minute tickets. Join thousands of women from across the Midwest to get to know this God of hope, our Artist God. Feel free to come see me too. I would love to meet you and talk more. I am sharing "The Seven Needs of a Husband" in sessions A and B, on both Friday and Saturday.

What is it that brings you joy? What do you do that excites you? Would you join me this week in saying, "This thing, God? I'm doing it for you. It's worship to you."

I'd love to hear what yours is.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Want to Build Creativity, Boost Your Immune System, and Be More Alert?

Photo Credit, Berknot, Creative Commons, cc

It revved once, and then even the electricity turned off with a sad muted click, and the car sat silent in a frigid fourteen degrees below zero Sunday morning driveway. Yanking a lever under the left side of the dashboard, I jumped out of the car, pulling my mittens higher.

Facing the front of the car, I peered for several long minutes, then squatted down to stare closer. Sliding my hands along the smooth edge, I crouched lower for a better look, tapping on the car, reaching for levers, and slipping my hand inside.

Nothing seemed to be working, and I shivered in the cold morning air, stamping on the icy driveway to stay warm, knowing the answer was there, and should be obvious. I fingered around the car, tapping various connectors, and sliding metal wires and levers, before I was successful.

And that was just to pop the hood!

(Yes, this is the part where I dissolve into peals of laughter at my car ineptness but convinced of my own hilarity.) I know. My friends and family shake their heads in silent humor at me too.

My husband's mother used to sing this verse to him when he was a child. It still comes to his mind at times, and he'll break into a husky hum, "A cheerful heart does good like a medicine, but a mournful spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Charlie Chaplin once said, "A day without laughter is a day wasted."

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of laughter: lowering blood pressure, improving memory retention, reducing stress hormones, exercising the abdomen, defending against respiratory illness and drastically improving your immune system, while raising creativity and alertness. 

I don't know what your weekend was like or how this week has started out for you, my friend. Some days it can be hard to find the humorous, I know. I'd love to listen, pray with you, or look for ways to laugh with you.

 I love hearing from you and getting to know you more. (Those in email can click here to join the conversation.)