Monday, December 21, 2015

Under Your Pile of Hats, I See It

Sitting side by side at the kitchen table, we are surrounded by slivers of blue, green, and black construction paper.
Photo of Neptune and moon Triton, NASA Solar System Exploration, Creative Commons cc license
"Here, this will be the volcano," I say, taping a grey three-dimensional cone onto a round blue sphere. "This is the ice lava. Wow, a volcano that erupts liquid nitrogen that freezes anything it touches! Can you imagine?!" and I act it out to Daniel as we attach tiny blue strips of paper to the inside of the volcano. "What a cool God!"

My seven year old grins at me, eyes wide, his haircut growing out in spiky tufts. He swings his legs excitedly under the table and picks up more paper.

"Mom, can we do some more?" he asks, his small red and black scissors poised in mid-cut.

Pausing for a moment, I waver. Because in the throes of efficiency, I had already switched hats. My Homework-Helper Mom hat was already off, my hand raised to don the Lunch-Coralling hat. Next up was Bill-Paying Mom, and Dish-Washing Mom. Homework-Helping-Mom was due again soon when 11th-grade Morgan and I would study Algebra 2.

(Don't ask about Dusting Hat. She hasn't been seen in weeks. Laundry-Folding-Mom works Saturdays, after Mark and the kids bring up toppling baskets of clean laundry. Who am I kidding? Laundry-Folding Mom just needs to tackle the growing mound of clean clothes that have been on the side couch all week, occasionally carried away and hidden in the bedroom when guests show up.)

My hats and To-Do lists are already lined up in my mind when Daniel asks it: "Mom, can we do this some more?"

Splashy colored paper, two scissors, and several glue sticks line the cherrywood kitchen table. South-facing window sunlight warms the dining room. Five flower buds swell slowly on the new green orchid branch.

"Sure, bud. That sounds nice," I say, sitting back down again. I pick up a scissors and start cutting.

"Did you know that Neptune has at least 27 moons? This icy-volcano is on the moon called Triton. Isn't God amazing?"

We pass glue sticks in silence and cut into green, blue, and red paper, the sunshine spreading warmth across my shoulders.

Our Creator God who invents ice-forming volcanic lava wears the hats of Creator, Father, Sustainer, Provider, Encourager, Savior, and Rescuer-King. In striking strength and beauty, he dons them all effortlessly.

I know you have a stack of hats, my friend. I see moms and dads who swipe on and off hats that read Provider, Meal-Maker, Child-Chauffeur, Band-Aid-Applier, Bedtime-Enforcer, Drink-Getting,  Bill-Paying, Present-Wrapper, and Homework-Helping mom or dad.

God leans in and pulls you into a deep hug. He sees you and delights in you. You are loved. You are enough in Him, and you are held and sustained by Him. Merry Christmas! We celebrate our Rescuing King wrapped in baby clothes.

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Of Oil Swirls and the Painter's Canvases

Remnants of Korean Steak Wraps spread sesame oil and soy sauce in brown swirls beside romaine lettuce leaves on two plates still on the table. Minced garlic and ginger hang fragrant in the air.
Photo: Megan Myers, Creative Commons cc license
My husband's voice slips out from seven year old Daniel's bedroom, reading a bedtime story aloud. Daniel sniffs and coughs, reaching for his handkerchief, a re-purposed cloth napkin.

"Mom, what makes colds go away fast?" he asked wearily a few minutes ago. 

"Sleep, buddy. Lots of sleep. Let's have you go to bed early, okay?"

He's brushing his teeth now, and a sentence from my daughter's AP Drawing class has been running through my mind this evening.

"Create an entrance to the picture for the eyes to travel to the subject," states her Art Principles handout. "The eye should travel in a circuit from the subject to the secondary subjects before leaving the painting. Do not place an obstacle in the picture which prevents the eye from going beyond it." 

And it's funny to have an art concept speak wisdom into my life, but I can sense a deeper truth from it in relation to my walk with God. This concept that I want the observer's eye to scroll right to the subject is something that reverberates truth in me. I desire for people glancing in my life to find their eyes directed to the beauty of Jesus. 

So, Morgan's art principle is on repeat in my brain, and I find myself reviewing all aspects of my life. In my attitudes, am I pointing viewers to the beauty and transformative power of my God? In my stories and the words that I choose to describe my life, my marriage, my family, and my sin struggles, am I pointing to God's restorative grace and his unstoppable love?

Just like a painter or a sculptor chooses what to paint, where to highlight, and what to bring the eye to, I choose how I perceive and receive my world and attitudes. This color-swirled, majestic canvas of our lives is a gift and masterpiece still being finished by the Master Artist. I desire to have each curving Van Gogh-like flourish draw the eyes to our Artist God.

It reminds me of a verse I've been thinking about this week from my Bible reading in 2 Corinthians chapter 6. Paul is writing a letter to some believers and he says, "We put no stumbling block in anyone's path so that our ministry will not be discredited."

It reminds me of the art principle about placing no obstacle in the picture which prevents the eye from moving on. Then Paul racks up a seventeen-item list about all the ways he and his co-workers are striving to make right choices, but he ends with this thought: "We have spoken freely to you and opened wide our hearts to you."

And I think this is the way we draw the viewer's eyes to the Subject each time. We speak freely, striving honestly to have clean hands but admitting when we've stumbled, and we point always to the beautiful work of the Artist God in us. He gets all the credit. 

And we open wide our hearts to you. Thank you, friend, for this online or email friendship, for this pointing to the Artist God together. I appreciate you and would love to get to know you more.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

One Fraction of a Moment is All We Get to Decide...

And you can say what you want, but it all comes down to one split second....

One fraction of a moment is all you get to decide. Speak or not? Respond harshly or not? Rise up defensively or seek reconciliation? Click or don't click?
Photo: David Melchor Diaz, Creative Commons, cc license
Despite our values, our faith, our hard-fought-for beliefs, it can all boil down to one split second. Do I obey God here or not?

This week our house has been a hill of skirmishes. Battles bloodied, hearts gashed, words tearing.

In between the beautiful and warm moments have been the heart-aching, sharp-tongued ones too. How can our hearts and mouths encompass so much emotion?

In several relationships, we've been scrambling up hills, muddy-kneed, chiseled-hearted to fight anew for us, for each other. Each inch of victory is chosen, prayed for, and battled towards with deliberately-soft hearts, humble spirits, and apologies-in-hand. "I'm sorry."

"Me too."

"Can we start over?"

And lost ground is gained one word at a time. 

It all comes down to a split second. One fraction of a moment is all we get to decide.

Do I obey here or not?

After several days of choosing wrongly, this afternoon when the moment came, I paused, weighed my options, wavered, and then obeyed.

Joy came. I walked away, turned on rocking music, and the joy of obedience crashed in hard.


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Monday, November 16, 2015

Your Bold Audacious Hope

"I wonder if he's still here," I told Morgan as we ducked our heads low, dodging rainfall across the parking lot. Inside Dunn Brothers, an espresso machine hissed and whirred, while baristas tamp-tamped old coffee grounds from metal filters.
Photo: Petteri Sulonen, Creative Commons, cc license
"No, he's gone," I noticed, seeing someone else at the table where my dad and I had sat twenty minutes earlier. "We had such a nice time," I exclaimed as Morgan carried her blueberry muffin upstairs to the loft. "I like my dad."

Spreading books and notebooks across our customary round table in the corner, Morgan filled in rows of boxes with Chinese characters for the words: mom, dad, brother, and sister. I sat in thought for a moment.

My dad and I are similar: loving foreign cultures, languages, coffee, and learning. He had slid a bag of Turkish coffee across the table to me earlier, knowing my cache was gone.

 "Thanks, Dad. What do I owe you?"

"No, it's my gift to you."

"Are you sure? I can pay you back."

"No, no, it's my gift," he said, and our talk turned to other matters.

An hour and a half later as I left to pick up Morgan from her class, my dad had sat back down at our booth in conversation with the Spanish gentleman beside him. They were discussing the man's Portuguese language book there on the table and talking about cities in Brazil.

Indoors again now with Morgan, I cup hands around my tall refill of Colombian dark roast coffee, shivering from the damp walk in through the rain. Morgan and I tear off chunky sugar-topped bites of her blueberry muffin, and I pull my Bible near. Silence slips in and God's word sinks verses deep into my heart and mind. Paul's writing to the Corinthian church describes the new way of doing life through a ministry of the Spirit of God. This new life through Jesus gives humans a restored relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

"Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold."

"...And we.... are being transformed into [God's] likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

"Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."

As you and I spend time with our Heavenly Dad, he is transforming us to look like him. And in these ministries he has gifted us with --  be it your marriage, your family, your job, your writing, speaking, teaching, your Art, your passion, your ministry-- you can be very bold! Have hope and do not lose heart.

"Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."

The espresso machine whirs and hisses again, and the sky is grey and cool. But you? You're looking more and more like your Dad. Be bold. 


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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coaxing Friendship Between Siblings

There were days when I wasn't sure of it myself: this brave notion we were telling them.

"It's true," I had insisted. "Friends may come and go, but family is always there. Brothers and sisters can be really close friends."

They had stood there scowling. He was mad that she had crumbled his Lego creations by mistake, and she was hurt that he had laughed at her.

"MOM! John told me to be quiet!"

"MOM! Morgan is bugging me. Tell her to go away."

The battles raged. Pink tutu-ed Morgan had stomped her foot, sticking out a hip with all the attitude a skinny six-year old can muster, and John had rolled his brown eyes in droll ten-year old nonchalance.

Once, in a story that has become legend at our house, Morgan had thrown her tiny five-year old arms backwards, lowered her head in charging rhino-fashion, and barrelled across the room to tackle her big brother. Snaking out a long arm, John had held her off with laughing glee.

I had felt my patience slipping down to hide among the Legos on the floor.

"Hey, you guys can being really close friends someday, but we've got to work on this now..." my voice had trailed off. Mediation took time, and each person had wanted to explain their side.

Besides lots of prayer, and this repeated refrain of someday you can be really close friends, there is one other thing I'm so glad we got into the habit of doing as a family. And it started unexpectedly as newlywed marriage advice.

"No matter how mad you are right now, tell me five things you like about him," my newly-married friends and I would badger each other in those early years. Sputtering and sighing, my female friends and I would hem and haw, before softening and speaking aloud several things we loved about our men.

Overwhelmed one day during a sibling battle between my two children, surrounded by Lego blocks, stuffed animal bears, and Barbies in various stages of disrobing, I had tried it on my kids.

"John, Morgan, some day you two are going to be really close friends. John, you're going to want Morgan's advice on girls, on relationships, and maybe on fashion. Morgan, you're going to want John's perspective on guys, on relationships and life, and you will want his big brother input. So before we leave this conversation: John, what are three things you like about your sister? Morgan, what are three things you like about your brother?"

Their eyes had flashed fiercely at me, their eyebrows declaring to the neighborhood the ridiculousness of my notion. Stuck, though, they had paused, grumbled for a moment, and then quietly reflected.

"Morgan, I like how you..." John's voice had been gruff but soft, and I had watched Morgan's shoulders relax as her brother had spoken aloud the good he saw in her. She had followed, in a small high-pitched voice. "John, I like..." and I had seen the anger melt from my son.

They flounced away to their separate rooms that day, still slightly angry, but the bluster had faded. I had thanked God, prayed hard for them, and looked forward to the days ahead.
And now eleven years later, I am so proud of them. John is a towering twenty-year old, and Morgan is a willowy sixteen years old. Purposefully looking for ways to connect with each other, they head out for ice cream some afternoons, play computer games together, and stay up late into the night laughing and talking. They are close friends, dear to each others' heart, and thankful for the other person's input into their lives, friends, and heart issues.

We still sometimes hear angry roars downstairs, but they are short-lived. John and Morgan know how to apologize and how to work for reconciliation. And that truth? We're convinced of it, and I thank my God for how he can weave friendship between siblings.
I wish I could remember who to thank for the idea of having kids do that too.

As my youngest son watches his older siblings now, it gets to start anew. What has helped you and your siblings build closeness? What have you found helps your kids build closeness in their siblings? 

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Your Bedouin Invitation

There are suitcases straddling the couch and sleeping bags coiled beside them.
Photo: Charles Roffey, Creative Commons, cc license
Photo: Kashfi Halford, Creative Commons, cc license
"Do you think it'll be cold?" I ask, grabbing a blue plaid shirt. There are replies from across the house. "We can always layer more, I guess."
Phone calls come and go from teens, parents, leaders, and the camp speaker as Mark and I finish a board game with Daniel and take turns packing.

Sixty-six of us are driving three hours northwest of here this weekend for a youth group fall retreat. There is a van crammed with food, a bus filled to capacity with students eleven to nineteen years old, several other vehicles, and a slew of cheerful leaders looking forward to connecting with our teens. I can't wait.

In a lull of packing and details, I grab my Bible and journal and curl up beside the kitchen table. In between the cell texts and checklists, I want to meet with God. I'm reminded of a story in the Old Testament during the ancient time of Moses and the Israelites. The nomadic group of two million former slaves were fleeing their old life in Egypt and encountering the God of their ancestors, who was wooing them in Red Sea crossings, food from the sky, glowing firewalls, and other miracles.

The Jewish desert tribes were learning about their Creator, and remembering how to worship and follow him. At the edge of the campground, Moses did something fascinating. Setting up a tent, he called it the Tent of Meeting, saying that anyone wanting to talk with God could enter.

What grabs my attention today is that the text doesn't tell us if people went into the tent. I imagine -- I hope-- they did, but it doesn't tell us. I know that on other days, the desert Jewish bedouins pleaded with Moses, "YOU go inquire of God," and they hung back.  

My prayer this weekend is that we would meet with the God of the world in life-changing ways.  I know that we can create the setting and make the plans, but encountering God is something that happens when we are willing to step in.

Like the Bedouin outside the desert Tent of Meeting, Lord, I want to step into intentional times of meeting with you, of worshiping you, of getting to know you, and of hearing from you. I want that for myself, for my teens and leaders at camp, and for my online sisters and brothers here too. 

And at the kitchen table with my Bible, journal, and pen, it can start now. I confess that all too often I see the invitation and yet walk away, assuming I'll come back later. Not today. Right now, I'm stepping in, choosing quiet, and slipping into the tent. Join me?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shoved and Elbowed by God

Photo: Raul Lierberwirth, Creative Commons, cc license
Drying my hands on my pants, I stepped around the corner. Sitting outside the church sanctuary on hallway benches, a young couple leaned close. Smiling and bending down to hug them, I talked briefly, already hearing the first song playing.
Photo: Theen Moy, Creative Commons, cc license
My friend's eyes were tired, her answers perfunctory although warm, and I saw her young husband stroke her arm. I touched their shoulders again in love, raved about how cute their round-faced baby was, and strode away.

Seven-year old Daniel skipped beside me, gripping his Sunday School papers, while we shook the ushers' hands and stepped into the dimly-lit worship center. It was crowded but we found three seats, knowing Mark would join us shortly. Pushing my hair back, I stood and joined the singing.

"Go back," I felt God say.

"Now? I just got here. Leave worship?"

"Go back. Go now," God shoved me mentally.

"Daniel, I'll be right back. Stay here, okay?" I could see my friend Daisy just two chairs away and knew Mark would be there any minute.

"Okay, Mom," Daniel said, his forty-nine inches so short in the dark room.

In the hallway, her husband was alone as I approached.

"Is she in the bathroom?" I guessed, heading that way.

"No, she went out to the car."

I spun around and bounced downstairs. He called out the car make and model but Honda-something was unfamiliar to me anyway. I walked the parking aisles, looking for a head in a car.

"Lord, help," I asked.

Three passes later, I found her and knocked on the car window, crawling inside. Her eyes were red and she swiped a sweatshirt hand across her cute freckled cheeks.

"Hi, God loves you so much, do you know that? He told me to come back. He knew," I said softly.

We talked and opened up our lives together. Worship in the parking lot looked like praying, raw talks, and reminding ourselves of God's heart.

Thanks, God, that you are perceptive and tender, and that you are good at nudging me hard some days.
 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

In between the Doorbell and the Cheetah Print

"Mark, would you mind carrying the heavy basket of laundry to the bedroom, please?"
It seemed counter-productive to lug away the pile of unfolded clean clothes without finishing them, but I knew that people would be arriving shortly and I wanted the crumpled jeans, rumpled shirts, cheetah print underwear out of the living room.

Stacking mismatched mugs and clanking glasses, I put away the clean dishes and started another load. Slippery salmon-smelling plates clattered as I slid the bottom drawer back into the machine and poured in soft detergent soap. I lit a candle, flung wide the windows, and quickly swept the wood plank floor.

Borrowed books and paper piles lined my desk, covered the dining room cut-out windowsill, and stood tall in several corners of the room. I grinned and nodded. Lego warriors, gold ninjas, and minuscule plastic swords lined the wide living room window mantle, and sunshine stroked yellow light onto long green plantain-leafed houseplants.

"I'm not going to have the house perfectly clean," I told Mark. "On purpose. I want people to feel welcomed and safe, at ease in a lived-in home. I know too many people who have been afraid to invite people over because they thought their homes needed to be perfect. I want to break that image."

Shoes still rampaged and queued up in messy rows in the mud room. Curls of dust glowed in the edges of some stairs, but I pulled up sultry jazz saxophone music and ran faucet water up to the silvery tea kettle's brim.

Calling three newer women at our church and three longer-established women from the church, I left quick texts or breezy messages about a casual spontaneous coffee time at my house. And I had no agenda except to create a place for women to connect, to feel safe, and to build relationships.

This spontaneous adventure in open-door living is special to me, because I've seen life unfold over bulging couches, from within green metal patio chairs, and atop flimsy cotton picnic cloths flung across deep green grass. The beauty of relationships and conversations that bud, unfurl, and spread wide delights me, and satisfies holes and hungers deep inside others' lives too. 

While I would still prefer to have the pink panties and the toppling piles of socks put away before you arrive, I am freeing myself to rest on the days when they are not. It's not perfectly clean, but you are perfectly welcome.

The doorbell rang this afternoon, and I threw open the door. Wind whistled and whined, barreling past the house in a flurry of red and yellow leaves. I poured hot coffee while my new friend swirled and stirred cocoa powder.

Welcome. You are loved. You are enough. You are delighted in by our Abba Dad God. Sighing, I sank into the peace and grace as deeply as my guest did.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What the Engagement Books Never Tell You

Our words hung in the air, awkward and heavy. With anger and hurt on both sides, there was no easy fix.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
"I have to go. Morgan needs to get to class."

The drive is quiet, somber; a respectful honor in the silence.

Beside a sunny library window, I text words of apology and await his. I journal and rant for several pages before asking God to soften me, to soften my husband, and to bring peace. Help me, God, to choose my words, to use them well, to seek appropriate times for deeper discussions, and to do them honoringly? Erase my anger and his.

We bought a new bed several years ago, my husband and I. Constructed with a layer of memory-foam on top, the bed is designed to conform to your body, offering optimum support. Two years later, we see now that the mattress tells a story of who sleeps where. Here is his side, here is mine, and in between a raised ridge where weight and time don't dwell there as long.

He pulls me near in these cool autumn nights, and in the still-dark mornings, into this middle ground on the bed. And I grin and nestle closer, feeling his chest strong against my back. We move in sleepy familiarity into the spoon-cuddle mode. He moves forward, pulling me next to him, and I wriggle backwards, dipping under his chin. While I pull my long hair high on the pillow, he slides the edge of the pillowcase across my neck, hiding any ticklish hairs, and we sigh. Our breathing slows, matches inhalation lengths, exhaling together.

And perhaps this is how a marriage lasts long? Pushing down any walls that creep between us, asking God's help to soften our hearts, and curling up in syncopated breathing.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Those Life Adventures You're Excited For -- Guess Who's In the Wings?

Fifty cents for a refill of the house coffee after hugging Amy and Tasha goodbye and I'm back at Coffee Talk. Sitting at an outside round glass-topped table on the front porch, the table trembles as I write and the 9:20 am sun is just cresting a tall pine tree to my left. Cars, trucks, and Harley Davidson motorcycles rumble and roar their way past, and inside the coffee shop, tourists and locals mingle and shake out newspapers.
When we bought our coffee earlier, a pink-shirted blonde-haired woman left her companion at a table and slipped behind the counter, washing her hands.

"Are you sure it's okay with you?" she asked the white-haired barista-owner as he handed Tasha her mocha.

"Sure," he said, and she cashed Tasha's ten dollars, handing back change. They bantered more as I handed over my twenty and ordered a tall house coffee.

"Helping on your day off?" I asked.

"No, I'm his sister," she smiled. "I just step over from my table when it looks like he can use a hand."

Back at my table alone now for a leisurely devotion time, I scribble in warm sunshine, steadying the table with my left hand. A light breeze flips my Bible pages, and a vivid yellow Daytona car parked on the road behind me contrasts beautifully with the tall white steeple behind it. Six blackbirds -- no, ten-- soar and arc in the clear blue sky above the steepled cross.

A ripple of peace and renewal loosens my shoulders and tickles my neck. A night of tenting and wood smoke fire beneath a forest of yellow trees, and dozens of timed group photos beside the fast-flowing glassy brown St. Croix River has blanketed rest deep within me. I can feel it in my long breaths, deep sighs, and sunshine-warmed shoulders and back as I work.
Thank you, God, for your beauty! For miles of curving roads in the Wisconsin Interstate State Park campground, for tall grey bluffs and craggy cliff faces, and for spongy green moss against a backdrop of brown and yellow leaves. Thank you for red-tufted mushrooms caps and rope-harnessed lithe rock climbers who make me want to exercise too.

Thank you for close friends to struggle to start campfires with, and to sip cool drinks around glowing embers deep into the night, our stomachs full of tinfoil-roasted chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, and peppers. Thank you for sticky marshmallows right before bed and sleepy conversations until 11:30 when we could no longer fight tiredness. Thank you for cozy sleeping bags, and more padded mats each year for our forty-one-year old bodies, and for a deep night's sleep inside a green and orange tent; for clear stars in a dark night, a full white moon; and the desultory drops of dew from the trees this morning and crackling chipmunks in the brush.
Thank you for your word open to 1 Corinthians 12, and the sun on my face, warm enough for a t-shirt in late September. "Now about spiritual gifts..." you begin, and you talk about giving us talents, skills, passions. "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good."

Thank you that you are a God who steps in, saying, "Let's work side by side. You don't mind, do you?" And we get to stand shoulder to shoulder in life's adventures.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Beating Burn-Out and Burning Long

It floods and crashes, this wall of raindrops thundering and crescendo-ing around us. This is the second sheet of water this afternoon, long roaring showers that drift in my open windows, batter the leaves, and rush in tiny tsunamis down the side of the road.
Photo: DeShaun Craddock, Creative Commons, cc license
Water soaks into the green lawn, and pools in puddles, reminding me of where I need to extend my gutters. And I breathe it in, this heady scent of rain, soil, and wet leaves.

It's been a dry month. Tomato plants are yellow bones with drooping withered fruits. Today's rains soak deep into the ground and run racing in channels down the streets.

Back in the kitchen, I scrub hardened egg off saucers, rub dried tea stains off mugs, and catch a glimpse of the flickering candle on the counter. Green mounded edges curve towards the light on a candle that needs to be glowing for several hours. For best results, keep candle burning for six hours at a time, the label says, and I've seen it. How the hardened candle needs to be in the light, next to the fire, and kept simmering there for best results. How it's the heat and the light over time that burns the candle for the longest use and most even life. Otherwise, the label explains, the candle will burn unevenly and flare hotter deep within, but leaving the outside cold and unaffected. Soon, the candle would be burnt out inside, with the exterior useless, no longer able to reach the flame.

And it reminds me of me. Because any task can be worship, and my desire is to meditate long on God's word --his light and heat -- to stay soft, useful, moldable. The verse that's been flickering through my heart this week has become a mantra the last few days. I whisper it to myself on tired mornings, speak it out as prayer in bleak moments, and singsong it as joyful song.

"The Lord gives strength to his people; he blesses his people with peace." I've seen that this week, and asked him for that, sinking deep into its truth. Our Creator God spills out barrels and gallons of his strength and sends crashing waves of his peace despite storms.

I can still see the rain outside my kitchen window. It's simmered to a warm mist, and the world is washed by it. My green candle burns long, its edges curving inward. I dry my hands and, with even pressure, gently slide the top wax towards the heat. It glimmers and glows, and it feels like worship.
Photo: Michelle Muirhead, Creative Commons, cc license


Friday, September 18, 2015

Creating a Home in Life's Chaos

Standing in line on a Minneapolis street in 2006, we started crying. Wiping tears off our cheeks, we laughed self-consciously.

"It doesn't feel right to be here without Mom, Dad and Jeremy, huh?" I said. My sister nodded.
Photo: Carolyn Pinke
Fifteen years earlier in war-torn West Africa, our family of five lived in a green concrete house. Under towering mango and papaya trees, our corrugated zinc roof roared raindrop music in the daily tropical storms. Red dirt circled our house, clung to our feet, and spiraled off military jeep tires as they passed. Militia and rebel groups increased on both sides and BBC radio broadcasted growing concerns. Soon atrocities and the American embassy required our evacuation to neighboring Ivory Coast.
Photo: Carolyn Pinke
By kerosene lantern light, my mom poured rattling popcorn kernels into a metal pan. Dad shuffled plastic cassette tapes beside our battery-powered stereo, clicking one into play. Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn's guitar thrums and throaty voice swelled into familiar verses and choruses. Hot popcorn sizzled and exploded, a salty nut smell hitting my senses...

Follow me over to Emily's site for the rest of the story, please? 

I'm honored to be guest-posting there during the release of her newest book, Making it Home: Finding my Way to Peace, Identity, and Purpose. Her writing and heart are beautiful.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Korean Octopus, and You, and Me

"Whoa, octopus! Let's get some."

He's peering in past a frosted glass window to a ten-inch package of purple tentacled octopus legs coiled tightly, their suction cups pointed out at us. In an international Asian grocery store with green tea popsicles and dried mango slices, I love that seven year old Daniel is brave and eager to try new things.
Photo: J. Griffin Stewart, Creative Commons, cc license
"We'll see," I murmur, "I don't know how to cook them yet."

Twenty minutes later in the deli section, we see it, and my husband and I grin to each other. "Daniel, remember how you wanted to eat octopus? They have it here. We'll get some!"

He cheers and skips happily as we edge closer to the counter. Soon we are crowded around a small square table, the three of us sharing a monstrous bowl of soup and nibbling steaming octopus dumplings. He slurps beside us, wrestling with his chop sticks on the miles of ramen noodles, and the beauty of this moment etches itself onto my heart. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and our European blend of German, English, Irish, and Czech whirl and pass in this busy, jumping restaurant, a gorgeous mix of cultures and languages. And I love that I can sip spicy Japanese soup, sample Korean octopus dumplings, and pass tall elegant veiled Somali women on the sidewalk outside.

We finish our meal, wipe up our spills, and carry the dishes to a back corner. Paying for the groceries, we drag a metal cart holding our fifty pound bag of rice to the car, and turn towards home. In the car, the Minneapolis skyline dips and whirs past, and the beauty of cultures reminds me of heaven.

Daniel surprised me recently. Sitting on the couch beside me, he said, "I have a Korean friend."

"Yeah, you do," I agreed, thinking of his cousin and several friends from church. "That's cool, huh?"

"I'm a little Korean too," he stated matter-of-factly.

"Really?" I asked, curious to see where this was going, looking at my son's summer-highlighted caramel hair, brown eyes, and peach face.

"Yeah, I have the shirt."

And I laughed to remember that his cousin and his friends had all received the same soccer jersey he had from a recent missions trip. And apparently having identical shirts from overseas makes him Korean.

I hugged him and thought about heaven where the Bible says we will have people from every language and people group around the Creator's throne, and I can't wait. You and me? We're part of an international family. It is beautiful, vibrant, and requires action some days too. 


I have the shirt.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Call on Line Two

It started last Monday night, but I didn't have the courage to say anything until Tuesday. Well, Wednesday, honestly, if you count non-husband people. Because I whispered it to him Tuesday morning, the shy awkward news about an embarrassing uncomfortable pain.
Photo: Flavia, Flickr user
And you don't want to know. Just nod and murmur comforting noises and we'll leave it at that. Tuesday I grabbed my cell phone and money and headed to the store for medicine. Then I grimaced, moaned, and tried not to aggravate it.

By Wednesday, the pain was worse and I wrestled courage with both hands and stumbled over the words with my children and on the phone to my mom.

"Oh, by the time you're my age, you won't be embarrassed about anything," she laughed and clucked sympathetically. She discussed home remedies, and I listened and nodded. 

"I've decided to pray," I blurted out. "There are so many people with chronic pain or who are suffering more seriously than this." I could picture friends whose relatives were in hospice and ones who lived with daily pain. "I've been using the pangs as reminders to pray," I stopped, then added with a sad laugh. "I've prayed a lot today."

And I did. In between flinches and hobbled walking sessions, I gritted teeth and thanked God that this pain was rare for me, bringing names to my lips of friends, families, and people I knew in pain. Although my ailment was trivial in comparison, I rested in the truth that our Abba Dad God looked with sympathy and love on each of us.
Photo: Deb Nystrom, Flickr user
Photo: Matt 0983, Flickr user
On Friday, my mom, sister, and I walked through the Minnesota State Fair, sniffing buttery corn on the cob, crispy chocolate chip cookies, braised turkey legs, and deep fried pronto pups. I wriggled toes in twinges of discomfort and thanked God for the people I saw and whose names rolled through my mind. "Thanks for these reminders to pray. Thank you that it's getting better too," I grinned at God.

My cell phone vibrated and rang, and Mark's first words flattened my chest. Terse quick sentences, then I raised eyes to my worried sister and mom.

"Daniel may have just had a seizure. I have to go." State Fair traffic flooded and ebbed around us, and my heart hammered, flushing cheeks red.

"Can we pray for you?" my sister asked, wondering if I had a minute. Leaning three heads in close, my mom and sister wrapped arms around me and I fought to follow their words. They talked to the God of the world and I remembered to breathe.

And this chance we have to say another's name aloud to the One who knows us intimately and has never stopped thinking of us is priceless, and it circles happily, unfazed. It's me who forgets in the moment to moment... about God, about friends and families in need, and I need reminders to pray, reminders to think of others, and it's a privilege to stride into God's throne room with a friend's name on our lips. "God?" and he nods, smiling, never at a loss.

Daniel is feeling fine now. (My silly ailments are improved too.) And I type, breathe, grate zucchini, put away clean dishes, and brainstorm supper, whispering names of friends and family who are in pain, thankful that our God has never forgotten. 
 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On their First Days Back to School

Photo: cx33000, Flickr user, Creative Commons cc license
An imperceptible noise wakes me and I turn. Red digital numbers gleam 6:44 am and I am grateful, Thanks for waking me up, God. I slip quietly out of bed, wanting to hug and pray for John on his first day back to school.

Yellow kitchen light washes streaks across a dark living room carpet, and I can hear John around the corner.

"Hi," I grin sleepily and hug him, my eyes still creased against the brightness. Tall, broad-shouldered, my twenty year old is packing a lunch. Bagging baby carrots, a ham and wheat sandwich, and looking around for chips, he already has a plastic container of yesterday's fried rice.

"I'll be at school all day today," he says, closing the bread bag.

"There are apples," I murmur.

While he is gathering his lunch, I pray aloud for him, asking God to give him safety in rush hour roads, energy and excitement for his college classes, connections with his professors, and a good year of learning. He stops and smiles, "Mmm, thanks, Mom."

We hug and move to the front stairway entry where he loads his backpack.

"Oh hey, here is a red notebook for you!" I scramble away for a moment, returning with a simple single subject notebook, a traditional gift for my kids each year when they used to journal often. "It's your favorite color."

"Thanks," he grins, flipping it open. "Um..." and he shows me. An assembly error has stapled all the pages upside down. We laugh, and John grabs his bag.

"Have a great day," I say, sitting small on the steps above him. "I'm proud of you for getting up early for your classes, for getting a lunch, and being so organized. You got this! You can do this."

"Thanks, Mom," he says, and he opens his heart up more on his way out the door, and I am so thankful for this morning of seeing him off.

Thanks, God, for waking me up. What a gift.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Embarrassed Confession as a Neighbor

 

We've moved twice in three years, which is not normal for us. In both homes, we set down roots, spread our plants and dreams across the yards, and planted fruit bushes that require longevity.

In our last house, a square two-story yellow home fronted by purple maples, four pine trees in a row, and bursting raised garden beds, we enjoyed getting to know our Vietnamese neighbors beside us. Sniffing and salivating from the scent of deep-fried egg rolls coming from their garage, we brought over fresh baked cookies and flower bouquets of pink zinnias and orange sunflowers from our yard. They reciprocated with a plate of egg rolls and a sweet brown sauce. We swapped stories, consulted google translate at times for hard Vietnamese-English terms, and sank happy into their friendly warm smiles. 

Three years later now, that yellow house has been demolished and the green yard is trampled by parked bull-dozers, yellow cranes, and heavy machinery as the city widens roads and adds a water run-off pond there for the large store moving in across the road. 

Several blocks away in our new neighborhood, we have been here almost a year. We're still getting to know our neighbors, swapping bird seed recipes, and gratefully learning how to get rid of crabgrass. We cheered on the neighbors to the right of us as they re-sided their home, and we watched in prayerful concern as the family behind us chopped down a towering cedar pine tree by themselves, sawing it in chunks and dragging pieces down by rope. We prayed, peered out the windows, and wished we could be more helpful.

When we first moved here last August, we printed out our names, address, and a family photograph to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood, leaving those slips of paper in the screen doors of the families nearest us. We walked from door to door, introducing ourselves, and working to memorize their names.

Two weeks ago, though, we failed as neighbors. I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you.

It was the National Night Out, an evening celebrated around the nation when neighborhoods gather to connect with each other. A grey house two doors down from us stapled flyers on telephone poles earlier that week to announce their home as host. They mentioned root beer floats and lawn games. That Tuesday morning we found a taped notice on our door inviting us to come that night from 6:30 - 8:30 pm.

It was the week of our "stay-local vacation," and that night our family had scheduled a special ice cream outing as soon as my eldest got off work. We pulled away before the National Night Out party started, but hoped to be back in time after our ice cream family date.

Can I tell you something I haven't told my parents yet? (Yes, they were part of their city's national night out.) We, um, chickened out.

Driving back from Nelson's ice cream shop, feeling sticky and full, with sweet still creased between our lips, we rolled our car past the National Night Out party and were surprised to see fifty or sixty people mounded across the lawn. The size of the crowd, the sheer numbers of new names to learn, and our sticky hands, shirts, and lips brought a shy introverted feeling to all of us. We waved sheepishly as we passed and then crackled up our driveway, pulling as close to the garage and front door as we could, hoping to be out of sight from the party.

"Do you think it would be terrible if we didn't go?" we wondered aloud.

"Shhh, quick, get inside." And we slipped indoors.

Can I justify it by telling you we were with people all Friday, Sunday, and Monday, hosting several events here? It's true. Does it help to know that?

Yeah, I know. I grin and roll my eyes too. I'm thankful that God laughs and loves us. And I look forward to ongoing opportunities to get to know my neighbors.

(Um, Mom, Dad?...)

Friday, August 14, 2015

When Conflicts Creep in Between Christians...

I love that he accounted for conflict.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
My french press Mahogany beans coffee was chilling in the fridge, and the sweetened condensed milk can's metal edges were already cool. I was heading out the door in thirty minutes for a women and kids weekly Park Play-date. I needed to scrounge up an easy lunch for us, but my mind was still on some verses from earlier.

I love that God anticipated the normal ins and outs of relationships. He knew that misunderstandings, grey areas, and disagreements would spring up between people and he wrote that into his book for us.

I've been working my way through the Bible book of Romans, and in Romans chapter 15 this week, I found three tools God gave to help in conflict situations. Now everyone's context is different. For that group of Jesus-following friends, there were some disagreements about foods and days of the week. Who should eat what? What was allowed? What should be outlawed? And we can so easily slap labels on ourselves and others, huh?

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and conflict can slide into any friendship or relationship. Sitting on a rock in my flower garden as I read this chapter, two repeated words caught my attention. "Endurance" and "Encouragement" are mentioned in verse four and again in verse five.

After citing the conflicting issues the Italian Roman church friends were having then, God gave Paul three pieces of advice to help resolve their disagreements. First, he pointed to the example of Jesus's death on the cross. Jesus put the needs of others above his own, even dying for his created ones. So, one aspect of working through disagreements and conflict is to carefully weigh the other person's feelings, thoughts, and desires, being willing to put their needs above my own.

Next, God pointed to the Bible-- not only as our source for truth, answers, and wisdom-- but also in the context of solving relational issues. "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (vs.4). Last, the next sentence highlights another resource for defusing conflicts: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus..."(vs. 5).

Do you have a place in your life where you need endurance?  Do you have relationships where you need encouragement? God specializes in that. For any complicated friendships, church relationships, family dynamics, or co-worker situation, isn't it exciting that we have a God who gives endurance and encouragement? I had never thought of God that way before. This God who gives endurance and encouragement.

In addition to being that source for us, God adds that our aim is glorifying God by our unity among Jesus-following people. Verse Five ends with:  "...So that, with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

When we let divisions, discouragements, and disunity crumble and cluster high between us, we get stuck in pain and isolation. And the world sees disjointed Christians. Stepping in, God can bring beauty and hope. He loves to give endurance, encouragement, and his tools to unify us in our relationships.

It was time to race out to the park. Pouring chilled coffee and sweetened condensed milk into a mug and grabbing an odd assortment of food, my son and I headed for the park. No specific conflicts loomed large overhead that day, but I found it changing how I prayed for people, for my family and friends, and for my own heart. To the God who gives endurance and encouragement, and practical advice for conflict situations.

I'd love to pray with you this week, if you have something going on in your life. Let me know in the comments below or by email.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How To Hold Summer Long


"Have you checked yours yet, Mom?" he asks from downstairs, laughing as I am struck temporarily deaf by the dishwasher's hums below me and do not reply.

"Oh! I thought you were talking to Dad," I bumble and grin. "Yes, I walk out each morning and eat the reddest tomatoes!" I exclaim. "I'll have more today," and my delight and glee is evident.

John is searching for his socks, gathering items for his work day, and talking about tomatoes. Golf ball-size red ones, nubby-naveled yellow pear tomatoes, and ruby grape-sized cherry tomatoes mound and glimmer crimson from a plastic bowl in his hands.

We each have portions in the four garden beds where Derby and Early Contender bush beans stand in tight rows, dangling long velcro green beans in the shade of their leaves. Zuchinni leaves furrow in wide elephant ears and orange flowers trumpet new growth beneath. Nasturtiums peel out in pinks, yellows, and corals, while gladiola flowers stretch upwards, knobby buds hinting. Pea pod plants curl in withered browns and creams, announcing summer's end.

In between the high school class roster, the first grade book-ordering, and an offer to help college boy buy textbooks online, summer glows a dull red. Tangled day-lilies mass and jumble in the flower bed, and the first purple aster opened last night, winking eyes at a single crimson maple leaf in a verdant tree. And the summer can slip away from us so silently.

I brew cold water ice tea in a scuffed Tupperware pitcher this morning, while water boils to pour over Bulgar wheat for a fresh tomato and mint tabbouleh salad. Two kinds of mint herbs teem and wrinkle vibrant flavor from a container pot beside the purple cone-flowers, and how does summer pass so quickly? I snip, wash, and twist the leaves to release oils, and dunk them full into the sweet southern tea.

We're staying local this vacation week, looking for creative ways to make memories and cherish family moments. Tuesday, we licked salty popcorn off our fingertips in a dark movie matinee, watching our seven year old giggle at yellow cartoon minions. That evening when our eldest got off work, we poured out mini crepes for supper, and then poured all five of us into the car for an ice cream outing.

Twenty minutes away at a legendary St. Paul ice creamery, we sidled and stood on one foot, faces pressed against the cool glass window, trying to decide between salted caramel, maple nut praline, Superman blue, and cotton candy. The creamery's smallest size still towered high, scoops of ice cream spilling out and over until the employees simply up-ended each cup into a wide brimmed plastic bowl. We sat, sticky-fingered on a sticky pink- and blue-dripped table outside Snelling Avenue as city cars slid by.
"Don't lick the table!" three of us cried out in slow-motion too late, as my youngest followed his rainbow-colored ice cream to the picnic table top.

By eight-fifteen that night, we were full. Sweetness still in the creases of our lips, on our tongues, and rolling out in satisfied groans from us, we leaned back in the car seats and loosened our seatbelts slightly. Sunshine slanted long and low across the city streets, the whirring highway, and the curving suburban lanes home.

Summer tastes like hot tomatoes, green bean earthiness, and salted caramel ice cream on my lips. August mounts, climbs, and spirals up the numbers, ticking to the end, as hot green days linger. Have you checked yours yet? These days that pass in sun-dripped light.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Stranger at McDonald's


Red and blue tube slides curved around the ceiling like sinuous snakes, and clubbed green helicopter blades whirled overhead. Kids scrambled up slippery slides, crawled through plastic tunnels, and emerged grinning on the floor, hair standing tall with static electricity.

Two brown-eyed children with curly black hair stepped apprehensively closer to the indoor playset, their curiosity drawing them nearer. They craned short faces to the ceiling, watching my son's hands bob and wave from various corners of the labyrinth.

"They're afraid," said a woman's voice behind me. "He was born premature, only five months old. He just slipped out of his mama, my daughter. He had a lot of health problems," she told me, long black hair falling straight around her shoulders and down her back. "His mind is like a three year old's and he can't see very well. No depth perception, so he's afraid. What to us is only a few feet looks like it's very far away, so the tunnels scare him."

Her grandchildren sidled closer to the steps leading up, and then pleaded for their grandma to join them. She grinned and padded up the winding stairs on her hands and knees. Fearful wails and shuffling sounds marked their path through the right side of the playset. Concerned for them and wanting to help, my seven year old Daniel called out cheerful hello's, waved his hands, and sent comforting messages echoing down the round hallways and intersections.

When the fear had loomed too large for too long, the three of them wedged around and made their descent, the grandma laughing gently and encouraging her grandson through his tears.

"Good job!" I cheered her as she emerged. "That's brave of you to enter the tunnels. Were they claustrophobic?"

"I'm Jennifer," I continued once she was settled on the ground again and her kids were busy playing.

"Pam," she smiled.

She shared hard things, and we talked of alcoholism's grip and the sadness of watching loved ones spiral deeper into fear and darkness.

"The ache is gone," she said in response to a question I asked. "It used to hurt a lot, but now I just pray for her and care for her kids, knowing God loves her too."

We talked, Pam and I, in the McDonald's playland, as a Hmong dad and kids entered and ate ice cream cones by the window. Five children ran through, past, up, and inside, and we talked about God's deep love, his ability to bring transformation and hope, and then we stopped and prayed.

Our smiles, as we parted, shared a sense of community and camaraderie, this stranger at McDonald's and me.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Verse that Can Carve New Meaning into You and Me

It was like tearing up a Rembrandt. Okay, not a Rembrandt, but still.
Painted by Rembrandt van Rijn, photographed by flikr user freeparking, Creative Commons, cc license
With several flicking hand waves, her eraser eradicated half her drawing. The intricately-sketched figure of a woman was now gone.

"It's all right, Mom," she laughed. "I can do it again." Bending her head, she worked intently, her penciled hand flitting, shading, and bringing to life people on the page.

A verse from Romans has held my attention this week, tangling in with a line from a song. The verse is a familiar one, but the last two words have sketched in meaning for me in a way I've never seen before. The first section of the verse rings in recognizable cadence: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed..."

Suffering is a strong word that I won't lay claim to too quickly, but I insert "hard times, painful situations, hurts, losses, or struggles" into the verse for me and continue reading.

Those hard times are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed -- ah, yes, I'm familiar with this concept, I nodded. Growing up, I've been excited for heaven someday to see more of God's beauty and glory, looking forward to getting to know him more intimately, and seeing more clearly his plan and stories throughout creation's history. The glory of that over-arching plotline will be spectacular!

But the verse ended differently than I was used to seeing, and it halted me. Reading the last two words again and again, I saw "in us." The glory that will be revealed in us?

The song lyric that had caught my breath and tangled up into this verse unraveled: "There is healing in the pain." Healing doesn't need to wait until the pain is past. Healing happens in the hurt, during the pain.

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," our Artist God inspired Paul to say about you and me. Yes, God's own glory and splendor can't be topped, but that he would say, "Your hard days and times, Jen, are not worth comparing to the beauty I am sculpting in you. There is healing in the pain. The beauty of me in you, of your spirit and will being shaped and molded into a work of art is worth it."

On the black leather couch downstairs, my daughter has already drafted another female form in grey lead. She was never worried with occasional erasures and re-writes because she had the final product in mind, and it was a work of art.

The woman on the page will be glorious art, to be revealed by the Artist in his time.

You are a work of art, my friend, and our Artist God gets all the credit. Pulling my Bible nearer and turning my heart and face to him, I'm trusting the process.