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.