Friday, June 27, 2014

Friendships that Linger over Lunch & Whisper in the Darkness

I pulled in behind her grey minivan, Shari stepping out from the driver's seat, arranging tin foil across a tiny platter of chocolate-dipped cookies.

"I didn't want to be the first one here," she laughed, and we walked up the driveway together.

Hugging our hostess, we stepped into two hours of conversation, camaraderie, and community. History piled high behind us as we poured countless glasses of raspberry iced tea and passed around a plate of sliced cucumbers, green peppers, and rich red tomatoes beside a ranch dipping sauce. 

Stretching across the rectangular wooden table, the five of us served each other from the bowl of Italian pasta salad and held out photographs of recent trips and a friend's baby grand-daughter. New parent eyes gleamed dewy in the close up photo of a young mom and dad with a pink-faced newborn. At the table, we lingered long at that photo, tracing their sweet faces and knowing that feeling of treasuring love.

My blonde-haired friend gracefully gathered plates around us as conversations ebbed and flowed, while our hostess brought out brownies.

"I have this coffee drink," she smiled, bring out a carton of cold sweetened mocha. We swirled the drink before pouring, sipping, and exclaiming.

We cheered each others' successes, sheepishly admitted areas we were working on, and laughed in safe affection. All too soon, it was time to go. I gathered my bag, hugged my friends, and slipped out early for an obligation.

Last night, something woke me and I lay in the dark. My mind whirred and clicked, gaining momentum, planning To Do lists, before it sidled over to tease and tangle out the quiet worries. "What if...?" and possibilities loomed.

God whispered silent in the night, cuing me to bedrock. I agreed, nodding quiet and taking a deep breath.

How did that verse go? I wondered. Something like, I will not concern myself with things too lofty for me to understand...but I have stilled and quieted my soul...

Other verses slipped in, old favorites, and I said them to myself, lying motionless on the bed, I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Wriggling my toes against the sheets, I gently stretched my legs, careful not to wake Mark. Breathing in and out, I spoke truth to myself.

And today as I pull my Bible close, those verses ring loudly again to me and leap off the page, repetitious truth that constructs a base for me. And suddenly I see the full context of those verses,

I do not concern myself with great matters or things too lofty for me to understand
But I have calmed and quieted myself;
I am like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child I am content (Psalm 131:1b-2).

The last verse in a section I was studying clinched it, " their shepherd and carry them forever (Psalm 28:9b).

Our times with dear friends are gifts, and God's whispers in the dark are gifts, both from a God who carries us, calms us, and quiets us, like an infant in its parent's arms.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What Is It For You?

This post is part of the Atlas Girl Blog Tour which I am delighted to be a part of along with hundreds of other bloggers. To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE.
It still does it to me, the smell of popcorn. It reminds me of home.

Home wasn't a zip code, a particular house, or the number of years in a place for me. Those changed and there were many.

Rural American bullfrogs bellowed from the cowponds, and I climbed high into a green apple tree. Corn fields rippled for miles, tall honey-colored grasses swayed, and lawn mowers droned sleepy in the distance.

In another setting, mango trees swayed high above our cement block house, while tropical rains hammered and crashed on our metal zinc roofs in a way that still leaves me nostalgic. Rice bubbled over coal pot fires, and neighbors chopped sugar cane stalks, throwing a chunk to the monkey pet nearby.

You know it too. That smell, sight, or sound that reminds you of home. Because no matter what state or country we were in, my mom and dad made it home with a few simple touches. Scrounging up batteries or electricity, they slipped in some family-favorite musicians and suddenly music slid through the house. Familiar refrains from Bruce Cockburn, Kansas, Pink Floyd, Phil Keaggy, and Michael Card peeked around corners, explored new houses, and traipsed over our luggage to each of our family of five. Instantly, our shoulders relaxed and we stretched out our legs.

Mom popped popcorn, shaking kernels at the bottom of any large pot she found, fiercely holding down the lid, as corn rattled in the oil and exploded. She shook her hips and torso in an attempt to give every kernel a chance at the heat and oil; we watched my dad watch her and smile or steal up for a kiss.

And suddenly, we were home.

 My blogging friend, Emily T. Wierenga, award-winning journalist and author of 4 books, has released her first memoir, Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look. I was honored to read a sneak preview of the first two chapters before it was released, and now I am scarfing down my newly-arrived full-length copy of the book, and enjoying it. You can grab a copy here. All proceeds go to Lulu Tree in Africa. #Atlasgirl

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Where to Turn When Life Tumbles and Scrawls Red

Photo: StudioTempura, Creative Commons, cc license
It was the red crayon scribbled against his tiny head of summer blonde hair that got me.

I tried to make light of it. "Let's color purple on Morgan's head when we get home," I grinned conspiratorially to my five year old son, winking at him.

Red crayon marked in detailed measurements where the brain wave imaging scanners would be placed. Glenn, the electrode-attaching technician at the epilepsy center, picked up another long wire, detangling it from the rest, and affixed it with clear glue to my son's head.

"See this?" he asked Daniel, "This is gecko tape, made just like gecko toes, to stick to things without pulling hair afterwards." He laid a piece of light blue tape on the back of my son's hand, and spread its pair across an electrode.

Soon twenty-five wires rose spider-webbed and -orbed from my son's head. Daniel clutched a small brown bear, looking tiny on a long white hospital bed. His blue and black sweatshirt was a soothing blanket about his chest. I adjusted a pillow and lay down beside him for the hour-long test. Lights flashed, blinked, and strobed into his face. Soon, the lights went off, and he could curl up carefully and try to sleep.

"It is actually perfect if he falls asleep," Glenn said, tapping keys into his computer and telling me about his son, daughter, and this career. I listened, responded, and then we fell into silence as I snuggled up against my tiny young son. The medical technician watched the screen capture brain waves in irregular waves and frequencies, and I stared at my son's chest, rising in short breaths. Daniel slept, and my eyes caressed his cheek, his long eye lashes, and his pointed lips.

The seizure this Tuesday morning took us by surprise. Nothing like that had ever happened to him or us before, and I raced down the steps after him. He lay crumpled on the ground face-down, until I turned him over. Glassy-eyed and lock-jawed, with stiff arms, he stared past me eerily, and I called for help. Later as he came out of it, our chests grew tight as we searched the internet for similar symptoms, and called his doctor.

On the way to the EEG, Daniel and I talked alone in the car. He was examining the dry body of a dead bee we had found, as it tipped and slid across a random dirty plate we found on the car floor. We examined the fuzzy yellow and black body, while I warned him to steer clear of the stinger, and we talked about what a cool Creator our God is.

"Mom, why did God make bees to have stingers?" he asked as the freeway sped by.

"You know, bees only need stingers to defend themselves and their home," I mused aloud. "I bet when God first made them, they didn't need to have stingers. There wasn't any death or sickness or sad things then. The bees didn't need to defend themselves or their homes. It was only later, when Adam and Eve were tricked by the evil one, ate from that one tree, and brought sin into the world that things changed. I bet bees got their stingers after that," I said.

Daniel smiled and sighed happily. "I love God!" he exclaimed. We talked about how cool heaven is going to be one day, and the great thing that God loves us so much, and is right here with us.

"And you know what? God has cool plans for you to do while you're here," I stated.

The highway coiled around a castle-like cathedral, leaned against some museums and parking ramps, before pulling docilely into a pay lot. I pushed a button, grabbed my ticket, and we drove in.

That night friends and family called, and one or two set up meals. Our family of five hugged each other close, unwrapped ominous-looking bulky new medicines, and read instructions with tight-chests. Throughout that night and the next day, (and as we now await Friday's MRI), our Creator whispered a song in my head, ancient lyrics that spoke calm into my fearful mind.

"When I am afraid, I will trust in you" and "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, O God, are with me."

And the Creator of the bumble-bee has plans for my wee summer blonde one, and for us, and for you, my friend. His heart can be trusted.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Be Unstoppable

Photo: Eric Drost, Creative Commons, cc license
I don't remember them being at all the games, but they were at the home games. Me, jumping around in my red and white cheerleading skirt, or hidden away inside a red Cardinal bird mascot, cheering on the junior varsity basketball and football teams, and Mom and Dad in the stands. In small Midwest farming towns, middle school cheerleaders pulled double duty for both junior varsity boys' sports.

Lanky and gangly in girls' basketball shorts during other parts of the year, I guarded my side of the court, and tried to have my stubborn defensive skills make up for my petite frame. My parents joined the town in the stands while my siblings stood in line at the concession stand or joked with their friends. Throughout my short-lived 7th and 8th grade basketball career, I always felt my parents' love and support. Those memories sprang to mind today.

The call comes and it's been expected. It's a higher counter-offer than we'd hoped for from the seller, but oddly, it's okay. I woke up thinking about it last night, and my husband and I talked more this morning, knowing our range and determined to stick within it.

In my time reading the Bible this morning, I read stories of prison breaks, wild miracles, God at work, and the compelling lines from Acts chapters 4 and 5.

"For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."

"They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."

Then an angel ordered the men to "Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life."

What new life was this? A life of boldness, trust, peaceful calm and joy despite occasional circumstances that seemed against them. A life story of rescue, love, and a fullback hero. And the real kicker? They were on the winning team. Their Abba God Dad was the Coach, and he was unstoppable.

Side-liners and spectators weighed in,
        "If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.
         BUT if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men;
         you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

These verses grab me, and I underline the nearby phrases too. "They chose men known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom," including Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," "full of God's grace and power." And "no one could stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke."

And this is no longer really about houses for me, but about a lifestyle, a life focus of wanting to be used by God in bold ways. May I be so filled with Him that he floods from me.

Want to be unstoppable? Your God already is. Reach out, and let him pull you up into the fray and the adventure.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
Your dreams, passions, and goals? If they are of God, they'll be unstoppable. He made you and has plans beyond what you can imagine.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

While You Were Waiting

Photo: Moon Lee, Creative Commons, cc license
Collapsed and cubed cardboard boxes climb the downstairs couch, and scatter the floor. My gardens and landscape beds lie neglected, choked with broadleaf plantain weeds, skinny grasses, and surprise sunflowers from last year's blossoms. I don't how long we'll be here, so I decided not to plant anything this year.

I feel a little bit like Noah from the Bible, who started building the ark before he saw the rain. This week we start packing up for a move that hasn't happened yet. Labeling boxes for a new kitchen, living room, and bedrooms, we guess where they'll be and can't picture our new home yet. Paperwork that completes our house's impending sale is up in the air still, and we are hesitant to put an offer on a new house before they fully clear. So, we wait and trust, and wait and wonder.

It's an odd thing, this waiting game we all find ourselves in some days. We probably have different things we wait for and wonder about. Whether you are waiting for your kids' school to resume, or for a doctor's prognosis, a friend's call, a relationship to heal, or a job change, we all have moments to wait. What does this waiting season look like? What can it look like? It looks differently depending on the day for me.

I pull my Bible, gratitude notebook, and journal close this morning, with my french press coffee on the side. Starting with the gratitude gifts notebook, I scrawl simple things I see: #3750 summer, #3751 breeze with sweet scents, #3752 lazy white cotton seeds floating by, ...herbs growing in a bucket, hot fresh coffee, sleeping in this morning, worship floating through the house, last piece of strawberry rhubarb pie for breakfast. 

It's not until eleven counted gifts in that they start getting deeper: deep talks with a son, scary lessons learned, seeing my negative influence affect my daughter's choices too. Humility always follows thankfulness, doesn't it? Counting God's gracious gifts that stack and topple high never fails to help me suddenly see my own shadowy sins in the corner. Brought to the surface, they are carried to Him, confessed, and forgotten, though. God's kindness overflows.

My pen scratches beauty seen and captured: cotton puffs erroneously landing to try to live on my coffee cup and the quirky laughter that gives me; a friend buying a house that is nearby; and romantic thoughtfulness seen in my man. I stop and tap out a quick text to him, smiling quietly to myself at the table.

I write and count more: red-capped birds scavenging in my weedy garden; succulent jade plant thriving, a neglected garden meaning a summer of change, and suddenly the gratitude list turns personal, and I find myself actually talking to Him. Praying, trusting you, choosing to trust. Lessons of choosing to trust you, God, to believe you. Knowing you! 

The joy mounts, and I feel the peace settle in, relaxing my shoulders. I write more, realizing that it finally feels like talking to him face to face, no longer just an anonymous list. Knowing your heart, your hand, God. Waiting for your timing; heading off here now to encounter you in your word, I smile and get ready to zip open my ratty red Bible cover. That your word is active and alive; I keep seeing the gifts now for which to thank him: that YOU are active and alive! Lord, I want to meet with you, learn from you. 

And the waiting mood has changed again. Reminding myself of who he is, and of how he cares for his creation resets my mood. Thoughts shape feelings. Truth determines attitude. 

Grabbing the verse that has become a mantra lately, I'm going to heat my cold coffee and start packing books. Join me? "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope" (Psalm 130:5).

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Six Breakfasts"

 She met me in the church parking lot, long auburn hair pulled into a side -do.

"Beka! What fun to see you!" I hugged her tightly, delighted by the surprise of seeing her there. 

"Sam invited me, saying you might need help this summer," she twisted her nose ring, grinning. "I'm not sure yet if I can, but..." she trailed off, and I jumped in.

"We'd love to have you work with the teens with us this summer, but no pressure either."

We walked through two glass doors and into the cool interior. Teens gathered at the entrance, sprawled out across a carpeted bench and the floor, talking in knots. Guitar sounds, vocals, and drums came from upstairs as other teens prepared for worship. In the large dining room, teens joked and hung out, waiting for youth group to start.

"Want to scoop ice cream with me?" I asked Beka.

In between sticky servings of cookies and cream, chocolate fudge, and green mint ice cream, we greeted incoming students, motioned towards the spoons, and poured root beer around swirling vanilla mounds. Between conversations with teens and handing out styrofoam bowls of ice cream, I slid questions over to Beka, catching up on her last year of life.

"How long has it been since you graduated?" I asked, trying to get a picture of which students she might recognize from her own youth group days. "Samantha does choir at Centennial," I offered, as blonde Samantha came by. The girls chatted about a familiar choir teacher's fourth pregnancy.

"Almost four years," Beka replied a second later, as the line moved again.

"Four years?! Really?" My eyes were wide as I dished up drippy melting cookies and cream. "As our seventeen years here merge in our minds, I find myself thinking that all my teens know each other." 

"Is this normal chocolate?" a teen in short black hair asked. I agreed, yet pointed him to the chunkier chocolate option too. 

Spread out across the large room students clustered. Rising taller than the rest were five or six older broad-shouldered, college-grads and twenty-something youth leader volunteers too. Beka was the newest one considering joining-- some had already been helping for the last year or two. Mentoring younger students in worship-leading, in soundboard-operating, or by regular attendance and participation, these former students work alongside our long-term adult leaders to serve current students.

Glancing across the dining hall, my heart was happy. Youth ministry is the privilege that never ends. Round-cheeked 6th graders grow into lanky high schoolers, who soon sport woodsmen beards and pay college tuition. Weddings, babies, and school-age children swell the families of former students of ours throughout the years, and their jobs change and grow. We see the impact these former students are having on their worlds now, and it thrills us. 

"Six breakfasts" is what Youth Specialties speaker Tiger McLuen once told a roomful of youth workers. He went on to describe how an adult reached out to him during a spiritually-hard time after his first year of college. For six weeks, they met to talk over breakfast. "Those six breakfasts changed me," he told the somber room of youth pastors and volunteers last spring.

Youth ministry is a privilege that doesn't end. My husband and I are honored to get to know teens of all ages, and for opportunities to connect with them after their youth group years. Tonight, several former students will pull up into our driveway, and sprawl across our sagging couch to learn how to do youth ministries to the new generation of teens, and I will be smiling happy, I know. Older ones mentoring younger ones mentoring younger ones.

We are thankful for chances to offer hope and advice into any of our teens' lives, and we humbly recognize how much we learn and are encouraged by them too.

What about you? Whatever your vocation or volunteer options, who can you invite out for breakfast or coffee? It will be a privilege and joy for you too, my friend.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why I'm Praying For Your Church

Photo: OZinOH, Creative Commons, cc license
I keep thinking about him this week. He who had been so hurt and broken, and who had set the town on fire.

A day later and the city is still buzzing. This man whom they had grown so accustomed to seeing bent up and begging under the Gate Beautiful was now walking whole-limbed and limber throughout Jerusalem--leaping even--and saying God had done this.

Low-lying cirro-nimbus clouds fly past above the fence line and treetops, white wisps in a blue sky that bely a summer evening of 7:45 already. Verdant green canopies sway in an evening breeze. Silver dogwood underbelly leaves flash golden twilight, while my son mows trenches through knee-high grass and puffed dandelion heads. Wind chimes act as windsocks, blowing melody to the west. Deck shadows grow long and a blazing orange sun sits twenty degrees above the horizon.

Yesterday afternoon, sneakers thudding and walkman blasting, I ran past a church. The red blinking sign told me the days and times for youth programs and Sunday worship. And I smiled and prayed for that church, for the teens and families who streamed through their doors each week, and for their pastors. I prayed blessings on them: that God would use their ministries wildly. I prayed protection for them: for their pastors, ministries, leaders, volunteers, and attendees. I ran past sweating and smiling, praying for their church to grow in numbers and depth.
Photo: Neil Howard, Creative Commons, cc license
Because the business advertisers have it wrong. Churches aren't in competition with each other. Churches are not vying for most popular. 

Our jobs as people in the pews is to love God, to love and serve others, and to "never stop speaking about what we have seen and heard [God do]." Like Peter and John in the stirred-up city of Jerusalem with The Man Formerly Known as the Cripple following them around, jumping and jiving in his newly-healed legs.

We're not in competition as churches, we are in community and in common. And we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard God do.

So, I'm praying for your churches, as I pass them, think of them, or think of you. Will you pray for mine too? "Salvation is found in no one else" and we can't help speaking about our God!

(Linking too with gentle Ann in thanks.)