Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Surprising Thing about God's Christmas List

Nutmeg-flecked eggnog rises in sweet slow-moving waves to my tongue. I smile with closed-lips and mull it around my mouth. On this last day of December, our Christmas tree still sparkles red, green, orange, pink, despite olive green rigor mortis setting in.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Anne, Creative Commons, cc license
You probably saw glimpses of it this Christmas too? The delight that breaks across faces in smiles and gleeful laughter. It hovered in my eight year old's eyes this first year that he remembers choosing and giving gifts of battered candy bars from his Halloween stash.

"Dad will like this candy, right?" he had asked earlier, with pensive eyebrows raised, wrapping paper poised.

"Dad'll love anything you give to him, bud," I assured him.

And then on Christmas morning, Daniel and his brother passed out the presents, reading Daniel's handwritten recipients.

"Mmmm, thank you, Daniel," Mark grinned to him, and Daniel sighed happily.

This week, a grey charcoal plastic bag arrived by mail. Twenty-one year old John snatched it up eagerly after work.

"Morgan! Come see your present," he yelled to his sister downstairs.

Squeals and shrieks followed. Morgan bounced up steps and stood with arms out, wearing a t-shirt specially ordered for her. "They're my favorite characters," she said, pointing them out to us.

And this desire to study loved ones, to wonder about and seek out gifts that will please them and be for their joy is what captures me this week, because I saw it in God too. 

The words caught me as I traced finger across Bible pages and smooth-rolling gel pen across my journal. Words in the Bible book of Hebrews describe the Godhead pausing to study his people, reflecting on the best gifts to give them, and then moving with joy and delight.

The image stopped me, and my pen stalled as well. Could it be? Did God stop and reflect when choosing gifts for us in the same way that we wrestled and reflected on the presents we wanted to give loved ones around us?

I re-read it, seeing the words, "distributed according to his will." Will: having to do with desire, having an opinion, reflected in something you wish, rather than not wish; connected with "This is what I choose, want, decide, desire." According to his will, the Holy Spirit looked at us, knew us, and chose what presents to give us -- for our delight and his glory. 

I underlined it and pulled my journal nearer to reflect on it and talk with my God. "You are alive and active, God-Spirit, and you willed, desired, wanted to, had opinions about which gifts you gave me. Thank you! Help me continue to hone and use them for your glory, for others' good, and in humble joy each time." 

God has thought about you and deliberately chosen gifts for you. As 2017 strides in, join me in remembering and reflecting on what this means for you and me, will you?

And the delight that crosses his face every time we enjoy our gifts, it must be brilliant! 

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Finding Joy When You're Fighting to Stay Afloat

Photo Credit: Carolyn Pinke
He's singing and the echoes bounce off shower walls, YMCA tiles, and slip under door number three to us in the family locker room outside. Daniel's happiness slides out and over, a cacophony of joy in a bathroom of strangers. The door cracks and he appears, hair wet swirls on his forehead and standing tall in the back. His face is flushed from hot water after a cold swim lesson, and he slips small toes into grey camouflage snowboots, humming cheerfully.

"I was thinking about God," he tells me, shifting his balled up red towel and damp swimsuit to me as he plunges arms into bunched up blue jacket sleeves. "He's the king of kings, God of gods. He made everything --galaxies!"

"He is! He's so cool. The one true God, huh?" I open the door of the locker room and we head past the basketball court where Daniel peers through glass walls to see if his friend is there. "How were front scoops?" I ask, knowing this was a hard swim technique we had prayed about just an hour earlier.

He grins wide and talks, adjusting his jeans waist as he walks, and skipping occasionally.

I grin. "Yay, thank you, God. He helped you. He's always listening and helping us through things, huh? You worked hard and persevered too. I'm proud of you, bud."

Holding hands, we walk across a dark parking lot, alert for red taillights.

"Whooo, it's cold," he shudders, pulling his hood up, and we drive home looking at the Christmas lights and talking.

Happy December, friend. Wherever you are today, know that your Abba God sees you, hears you, and knows your thoughts. Talk to him and watch him join you in those lanes, swirling you through the face-in-the-water-front-scoops of your own stories. You are loved and delighted in. Then burst into ricocheting praise to him in whatever shower stall or room you're in.

Smiling and learning about God from a wet-headed eight year old, I remain,

your sister and friend, Jennifer. What are you learning and reading about lately?

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

God is Not a Cosmic Chastity Belt

Tiny ice balls pelt the windshield and bounce off the car. Sidewalks and roads glisten slick. Three-to-four inches of heavy snow loom in grey clouds overhead, and evening traffic snakes red along the highways and frontage roads. Sirens and ricocheting blue lights careen down dark streets.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Paola Kizette Cimenti, Creative Commons cc license
In this last post in our series, Let's Talk about Sex, I turn words inward towards my former twenty-year old self and to all my single friends, no matter their ages. All this talk of snow reminds me of the confused messages I've heard -- and sometimes accidentally implied in youth lessons. God is not a cosmic chastity belt. He is not a frowning father shaking his head, trying to keep his kids'  bodies snow-pure, as if sex or sexuality shocked him. God is not scandalized and disgusted by sex. Rather he is the inventor of nerves and neurons, of sensations and senses. He holds the patent on pleasure and neural pathways, on endorphins and oxytocin baths.

God's guidelines on sex are not archaic restrictions to stop our fun. Rather his desire is for our good, and his boundaries are for our safety. Throughout history, God has been the hero stepping in to say, "Enough!" at each new horrific warping of sexuality that the evil one and a cruel world wrought: Child-sex trafficking -- not okay. Incest or abuse, not okay. Destitute men or women forced into a lifestyle of prostitution -- not their fault and God advocates for their rescues. Single moms or dads raising kids on their own -- God cares for them and knows how hard they work. His perfect plan is a shared load, raising children in community. Spouses divorced cruelly, unfairly, for no reason, left as paupers with no financial or social support in society -- God calls foul and sets up parameters for their protection and care.

In my twenties, I wrestled with forgiving myself for physical forays and failures, and I see that in many of my teens' or former teens' eyes now. Girls across restaurant tables who have said, "I'm afraid they'll look at me differently now they know I've had sex." 

"No!," I urge. "God's love is unconditional, and he is so forgiving. Everyone wrestles with sin at times. No one is perfect. If you've had a chance to ask God to forgive you, it's gone. God says, 'he is faithful to forgive and to cleanse us from any unrighteousness.' You can start fresh right now, a new day, a new start, saying, 'God, from now on, I wanna try to do things your way.' God's love is so big."

With the teens and twenty-somethings in my life, we talk about how hard the physical can be. We talk about how God's ways of saying, 'Not yet. Just wait until marriage' are for our good. We pull out the statistics on co-habiting and how it drastically increases one's odds of divorce. Looking around at the prevalence of divorce and eroded marriages around us, I reason, if we really love this guy/girl, let's give this relationship the best odds and chances we can, right? We talk as well about how much this choosing to delay sexual play until marriage is about growing habits of self-control for later in life too, not just now. There will be weekend business trips for you or your spouse someday. As you practice being able to walk away from temptation now, you are building that habit for later in life. With the large number of affairs happening around us, don't we owe this to ourselves, to practice this habit and build it in each other?

My worry with the snow analogies, with junior high abstinence pledge cards, and with the hyper-focus on technical virginity, is the danger that we'll miss the bigger picture. Yes, I want to honor God with my sexual choices before and after marriage. Yes, God talks about saving sex for marriage. Indeed he talks bluntly and cheerfully about a wide range of sex topics impacting single and married people. He does this not because he is uptight and shocked, but because he created, invented, and made sex. As the inventor of it and us, he knows how it best works, and what brings the most joy and benefit.

God is not your cosmic chastity belt. Instead, he holds the instruction manual and keys to a fabulous invention he patented. In our desire to protect young people from the pains and fall-out associated with sex outside of marriage, and after generations of muddled, awkward, inadequate "birds and bees" conversations, we have left them thinking sex was dirty or something to be ashamed of. And dozens of newly-weds have since wrestled with the fallout of changing their attitudes of "Sex-No!" to "Sex Now."

It's complicated, yeah? I agree, but the good news is that we can start over. Look deep and see all that God has to say about sex and marriage. The Bible drips with it. In marriage, sex is a delightful gift. So to my single friends trying to live out their Jesus-life convictions, it's not "Sex -- No!" It's "Sex, Not Yet..." and I'm cheering you on from the side and available to talk anytime.

(If you missed the first, second, and third article in this series, Let's Talk about Sex, feel free to click on the links and join us.)

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Unearthing Thanks (and a special Audio for You)

Can you see them? The condensation-dripping plastic ziplock bags hanging from the clean dishes rack. And I'm not sure if it's just the frugal missionary kid in me that still washes plastic bags, or the trying-to-go-more-green-girl in me who is sad about too many plastic bags floating in the oceans, but nonetheless, three bags hang drying in the rack beside the Thanksgiving pies.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends! I am thankful for you, thankful for these places online where we get to exchange emails, exchange blog posts, and where we get to rekindle flames in our walk with God, in our marriage and family, and in our spheres of influence.

I am thankful for a warm house where the smell of pumpkin and pecan pies wafts buttery and with scents of freshly-ground cloves, cinnamon, and drizzled vanilla extract. I am thankful for tall grown children, climbing the stairs happy after a rare chance to sleep in, and for a slender eight year old  who chirps cheerful welcomes to his older siblings. I am thankful for fresh ground coffee in a scuffed up french press cylinder still oily from yesterday's brew.

From my pie-smelling home (with baked-on unknown browns on my stove top) and drippy plastic re-used bags, know that I bid you a warm Happy Thanksgiving. You are loved and delighted in. You are seen and heard. Your voice and story matters, and the Creator of the world is right beside you.

Feel free to grin along with my husband and I... We were honored to give a Thanksgiving sermon at our church this last Sunday, sitting together on stage, and digging into some of the surprising statistics and benefits of becoming people of gratitude, and seeing where God's ways bring the greatest joy. (Click here to listen online. Sorry, without visuals you are missing a cute photo of Mark as a six year old, and of me as a fifteen year old holding a pet monkey.)

(Next week, we'll finish the last post in this series of Let's Talk about Sex.)

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Chicken and the Egg in a Bedroom of Silk Sheets

I've seen the chill creep right up through a marriage -- seen it in others and watched it frost up my own. I know firsthand the battle to restore romance, one choice at a time. And while experts are right that hostility shrinks up desire, experts also point out this powerful hope: any relationship can be transformed as both people work at it.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Mercedes Dayonara, Creative Commons, cc license
Restoring romance, chiseling off the chinked walls that creep in, and softening our hearts one moment at a time can bring amazing hope and change. Rekindling instant romance with the one you love starts with smaller steps than I thought possible. With our gritty grace-filled words, re-focused attitudes, and softened hearts, we can melt angry hurt and restore intimacy.

...I like science.

And you grin to hear me say this in a post about marriage, but there is some neurological chemistry that has changed how I view sex. For many women, sex is something we are interested in once we feel connected to our man. (And the days' harried pace needs to be beaten back with some conversation, eye contact, cuddling, and a helpful hand around the house from our handsome men.) For many married men, however, sex is the solace, the conduit, and the very act that rekindles connection and intimacy with their wives. It's the chicken and the egg dilemma, except in a bedroom with silk sheets.

And the science behind What Sex Unlocks in Marriage is fascinating. This neurological chemistry floods oxytocin through a man's brain, instantly re-bonding him and connecting him more devotedly to his wife and family. Gary Thomas, in his article, The Power of Pure Passion, unpacks this further.

So, grab your man. Have him splash on that cologne, and go disappear into your room.

Our God is a clever and playful inventor, isn't he?

(This is the third post in a series on Let's Talk about Sex. The first two are: The Lie that Will Ruin Your Sex Life, and Of Sex and Cheesecake.)

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Lie that'll Ruin Your Sex Life

(This is the second post in the series, Let's Talk about Sex. The first is here.)
Photo Credit: Flickr user Milena Mihaylova, 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."  

or

"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 devoted multiple sections in the Bible to talk openly about issues surrounding sex, giving guidelines for its best use, and 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 fulfillment 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? Found this helpful? Please feel free to forward any of these posts onto friends or family, or to share them on facebook.

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Revised and reprinted from the archives in 2014. 
 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Of Sex and Cheesecake

He mentioned it casually while he was lacing up his shoes on a red hallway rug, and I can't remember how it came up.

"Why doesn't the Church talk more about sex, Mom?"

My twenty-one year old had to leave for work so our conversation was short.

"Well, your dad and I do, and our church does, but apparently not enough, if you're not hearing it. You're right: it needs to be talked about more."

He's not alone in thinking that. Running into women when I speak, or in quiet conversations across loveseats, I hear it. "We need safe places to talk about sex and to hear a Christian perspective." 
Photo Credit: Flickr user Capture the Uncapturable, Creative Commons cc license
So, to my twenty- and thirty-something friends -- actually to all of us, older and younger-- can I apologize? And let's jump in, shall we? This is the first in a series on Let's Talk about Sex.

To answer briefly for now, may I say that sex is fabulous? It's so fun, and it grows and improves with time. It's a great invention by God.

But I think it's like cheesecake. We married ones remember that -- if you're single in your twenties and thirties-- you're probably trying to avoid sex until marriage. So our talking about sex too much right now feels like eating cheesecake in front of someone on a diet. And we understand firsthand usually the fallout of sexual activity outside of marriage-- often we're still unpacking our baggage from years earlier.

But in our desire to not awaken further hunger in you, we have just muted our voice. Our recent silence has done you a disservice. Lest you wonder or doubted, God made sex and he talks about it. It was his idea and he called it very good! Sex is a gift in marriage.

Like any good thing in our melting world, however, we've warped sex, distressed it, and twisted it, and our baggage builds up through the years. Cycles of hurt and misinformation coil throughout generations of families until sex becomes a topic people are afraid to talk about, don't know how to talk about, and think they can't talk about at church. We're mistaken.

Indeed, God talks bluntly, unblushingly, and often about sex in the Bible, and he calls it undefiled and good. But that's for another post.

Bottomline: God invented sex. He made us, and he has plans and guidelines for you to have a fabulous sex life.

Can we talk more next week?  (Feel free to share, forward, or post this.)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

For When You Don't Feel Like You Fit and You Just Want to See the Cover

A cement mixer rumbles and churns on white-washed sidewalk. Grey rivulets swirl silver along the gutter. I step off the sidewalk, afraid of falling stone, and sidle beside trucks and cars parked out from the two-story metal scaffolding and men in hard hats, until I reach Spyhouse Coffee's entrance.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Neil Moralee, Creative Commons cc license
Photo Credit: Flickr user Adelie F. Annabel, Creative Commons cc license
A hot Honduran coffee scalds my tongue and condenses droplets beneath a plastic lid.

He had said it to me and you this weekend in a wooden chapel filled with four hundred squirelly middle schoolers and their coffee-toting leaders. Flashing photos on the screen of his little seventh grader self, and displaying an email from his seventh grade teacher who had found him just recently, youth speaker Cesar Castillejos spoke to you and me as he spoke to my teens too.
God will use everything in your life to make you who you are. Cesar spoke of growing up Filipino with a Latino name in a white suburban American school. He spoke of not feeling like he belonged; of divorce; of senior year basketball captainhood ruined by underage alcohol at a party; of a lifelong love of words; and of his seventh grade-heart's hope to help kids see their value and potential.

"Oftentimes we see the puzzle pieces of our lives, and we just want God to show us the cover," he said.

"I was praying for you," his seventh grade teacher told him in that recent email, and Cesar looks back with new eyes at his middle school and high school years.

God sees your puzzle pieces, my friend. He is shaping and molding all the circumstances and experiences in your life -- even the hard ones. He is crafting, cutting, and creating your passions, heart cry, and skills. Weaving in invisible people who pray for you and invest in you, God is at work. 

"Now, I get to speak to and teach teens, and preach at a church on Sunday nights, and do some writing too," Cesar said, smiling wide, and his heart for teens to hear the truth that they're valued and loved by the Creator of the world has been obvious in each chapel session all weekend.

God clicked Cesar's puzzle pieces into place throughout his life, creating beauty and purpose, and he is clicking your pieces into order too. 
At Spyhouse, I sip my Honduran coffee and notice the walls. "You changed the art," I crowed to the barista handing me change.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Clint McMahon, Creative Commons cc license
"Yeah, we do that every month or two," she said as I dropped my change into the blue jar.

Through double-wide open doors, warm October seventies air flows in, unscreened. Two coffee house employees grin and waddle past, hefting a large barrel container of flowers between them. Setting it on the sidewalk, they mark the boundary of their sidewalk terrace, while the cement mixer churns half a block away.

Spyhouse's street signage is not back up yet on the bare-faced stone building where mortar waits to be chinked, but progress is being made. Bare brown bricks stand two-stories tall with gaps for next week's mortar, and beauty remains.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This is When It Strikes You Most

In the whispering crack of my door opening, I wake and feel him tiptoe near.

"Mom?" he asks and I know.

"I'll be right there."
Photo Credit: Flickr user Daniel Gies, Creative Commons, cc license
He pads away, hands out to navigate the dark room and hallway. I hear his door open and shut across the corridor. Wrapping myself in my blue African cloth, I maneuver the bed, the laundry pile, and into my eight year old's room.

"What's up, bud?" I crouch and sit down beside his low bed.

"My cousin, Ben, you know?"

I nod sleepily.

"My cousin, Ben, and me, we were at Grandma and Grandpa's house in their yard, and there was a big snake -- a black cobra. And he got Ben!"

I rest my hand on Daniel's chest. His heart, still fluttering and hammering against bone and skin, bounces under my palm.

"I'm sorry, bud. Dreams can be scary." Smoothing his hair, I stroke his cheek and feel his breathing slow. "Should we talk to God?"

He nods vigorously in the dark.

"Want me to, or you?"

"I will," he says and he starts immediately. "God, I'm scared. Will you help me? Will you help me not be scared? Thanks.

"Mom? Will you sing a song?" he asks, a quiet voice rising up from the blue and pink Piglet pillow in the dark.

"Sure," and I wrack my brain to be awake, to find helpful words and this is when it strikes you most. Need to know What you Know that you Know? Ask a sleepy brain to spout truth. What bubbles up is what you have become convinced of, what has become ingrained in your bones, what pounds in fluttered rhythm with your heart. A verse come, its reference forgotten but its truth burnished in dark bedroom from constant use. "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." The words ring out, the refuge is clear, and I say it again, then move into the next.

"I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, oh God, are with me. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you, oh God, are with me, Psalm 4:8, Psalm 4:8, Psalm 4:8." And even the reference is part of the song lyrics we made up years ago in an effort to imprint these truths in our hearts, in our beings.

There were two other songs we sang, childlike and simple, yet with truths that have become bedrock and bone to us. "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, he's so good to us. He gives good things, he gives good things, he gives good things, he's so good to us." We end with "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so; little ones to him belong, we are weak but he is strong." 

"Thanks, Mom," he murmurs and I can hear the peace in his voice, the thick tiredness creeping in. I kiss his face, trail my fingers on his quiet chest, and pull the door shut behind me.

Slipping beneath my blanket, I lie awake. The minutes stretch to hours in this new forty-something season. My brain flips topics and writes To Do Lists, making mental notes for morning. I think of the college applications my daughter has been doing (some colleges looming distant); remember this week's presidential debates; ponder futures, and I feel my own heart start to flutter faster.

And like my son, I whisper to the God of the world, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you... I will lie down and sleep in peace for you, oh God, are with me." A story and passage teases my mind from earlier and I vow to look it up. Today over coffee, I page to find it and smile in recognition. An ancient world leader in crisis speaks it out and his words are timeless: "[God], we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you." 

And those truths settle deep beneath our ribs, bubbling up when bidden and shaping who we are.

Hi friend. What truths or foundational verses bubble up inside you? I love to learn and hear from others. 

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Monday, September 12, 2016

How Your Voice Translates Across Chords and Courtyards

Twenty of us scraped chairs on shiny wooden floors then settled legs still. My paper plate sagged with food: a tangy key lime cheesecake slice with frothy whipped cream lay next to a smooth plain cheesecake piece topped with blueberry crisp. Sweet corn and pepper cowboy caviar salsa slid juices across the plate and soaked deliciously into smoky cheese and cured salami wedges.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Ken Dodds, Creative commons cc license
The musician, Dan Rumsey, snapped his harmonica into the angular metal mouth bracket around his neck, picked up one of his guitars, and stole us away. In husky rhythm and blues stanzas, Dan sketched scenes for us. Moments from the "First Day of First Grade" brought chuckles as audience-members remembered freshly-shaved pencils and awkward first moments in school lunchrooms. Each song was an impressionistic capture of a moment or feeling in time: sitting on front porch steps in quiet twilight; the inhaled scent of his daughter's childhood blanket and the sudden hum of a basement furnace; and a purple-infused Minneapolis skyline when the city came together to mourn a Minnesota-based musician's death.

In a few words and phrases, Dan painted fragments frozen in time, and the artist side of me was refreshed, encouraged, renewed.

Sitting in a downtown Minneapolis coffeeshop a day or two after the house concert, I am surrounded by art. Students from nearby Minneapolis College of Art and Design wander in and out of the trendy coffeeshop, their artistic natures flaring through bulging school bags, slim computer cases, and in their clothing, hair, and tattoos. Giant green oxidized metal sculptures lay heads sideways in the front lawn of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, peering out at traffic, and God's masterful ivy crawls living canvas up brick buildings.

Whatever your Art, my friend, know that it matters. Whether through words, paint, lyrics, charcoal sketch, computer code, a job exquisitely-done, the mood of a home, a landscaped yard, or the fragrance of a bubbling broth, your artistic expression is needed.

You bring beauty, captured moments, imbued emotions, and re-purposed memories from the past. Through your art, we get to breathe in, feel it, and experience what you've seen. It conjures up memories and experiences from our own lives that make us say, "Ah! You too?" "Me too!" and humans connect across continents, cultures, and constructs of time. 

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Woman in the Woods

Like an M. Night Shyamalan film, the title emerges: The Woman in the Woods.
Photo Credit: Flckr user Nick Kenrick, Creative Commons cc license
At her wooden desk layered with papers and folders, Morgan studies criss-crossed characters of Mandarin Chinese. In isolated pieces called radicals, she sees the term for female, and other radicals multiply to take one tree to multiple trees. A female in the forest, the girl in the trees, the woman in the woods -- and the pictures are clear. The intriguing part, however, is that those are the radicals for the word avarice or greed.

This is Morgan's first assignment for her college Mandarin Chinese class: tackle two Chinese words by studying the interwoven intricate word pictures formed by radicals. And the beauty of an ancient script from hundreds of years ago brings new meaning to seemingly-simple words. 

Her first word boat depicted an eight-mouth (i.e. eight person) floating vessel. Morgan's professor gave the students a clue, pointing to an even older ancient text, the biblical book of Genesis. Where in ancient history and oral accounts do we first hear of a boat? How many people were on-board? Verses about Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives, waver into mind's eye. Boat equals an eight-person vessel. Hidden deep within Chinese characters? Wow.

Finishing up her homework, now at word two, Morgan dissects radicals and wonders about a woman among the trees. How does that show an insatiable greed, a hunger for more, and a dissatisfaction for what she has? A woman among the trees, dissatisfied and wanting more, is the symbol in Chinese for avarice/greed. The realization suddenly jolts into place for me. (The professor's hint of Genesis helps too).

Word origins from early time point to a gnawing lie that rumbles hungry in all of us some days. It's not just for an ancient civilization woman in the trees, but for any man or woman in suburban homes, on city streets, at coffee shop counters. Whenever we stop seeing all the good gifts around us and start wondering if God is holding out on us, we're in peril of a dangerous greed.

Because the thing is: Eve was surrounded by a lavish, lush garden of delights. She had access to all the trees --thousands of them-- except one.

I've been struck all week by this ancient image captured in Hebrew accounts and in Chinese characters. I'm training myself to see and remember all the good things in my life, because we can so easily become the woman in the woods.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

When You Find Yourself Red-Faced and Hot at the Woodfire

In between sticky smores, sandy swimsuits, and splashes in the crisp Mississippi River headwaters, it washed off: the weight of everyday life. Hamburger hobo stews wrapped in tin foil oozed steaming carrot and potato juices. We smelled of wood fires and mosquito repellent.
Hiking through bogs on wooden boardwalks, slapping mosquitoes, hypothesizing which "leaves of three" to avoid, we explored an Old Timer's cabin, whose round planks stacked four or five broad  pine trunks tall. Piling twelve-cousins onto a stool, the dusty sweaty kids laughed and made faces at the camera. I snapped furiously, trying to capture each smile and smirk.
After the 1930s cabin, half of us took a new winding curved route back to our cars. The path narrowed quickly, filled with slippery boulders and wet dirt in the shade, and crossed by garishly-twisted and snapped trees, felled in the storm a week earlier. Giant red and white pine trees trailed the ground, their splintered white insides gaping and exposed.

"This seems much longer than a mile," we panted, "Is it two?" We wondered if we had gotten lost on alternate hike paths. Eight year old Daniel and his short-legged five year old cousin huffed and panted alongside us, their small legs trekking a longer trail in proportion to us.
"You can do it! We're getting closer," I cheered them on. Swooped up into his dad's arms, my nephew laughed and gurgled as he bounced on his dad's shoulders. My brother-in-law put foot in front of the other and plodded on, his son's legs sticking out from his left shoulder, arms extended on the right.

Four adults and two children, we hiked in hot sunshine, passed ferns, carnivorous pitcher plants, and towering pines. A blue lake sheened in the heat just out of reach through the trees, and then we were at the end. In the parking lot, our small group grinned wearily, gulped cold water from a metal park spigot, and rejoined our extended family.

The week passed in beautiful rhythms. Loons warbled in the night, raccoons rustled and grunted as we lay in sleeping bags nearby,  and we tip-toed shy feet to bathroom breaks in the night, hoping to avoid bears. Early mornings brought hot coffee, scuffed muddy knees, and boy snacks by the dozen.

And somewhere in between the bonding and the kissing over the board games, words sliced fast. The fights are never about anything important, are they, these husband and wife disagreements? There were two ideas of how to cook chicken shish-kebabs, and multiple ways of expressing it. We bombed that. He said, she said, and then both of us were red-faced and hot at the wood fire.

Later in a patch of grass off to the side, we offered quiet apologies, explanations, defensive hurt feelings and hopes, but angry words splashed warm again. Walking away to wind down, we finished supper, speaking civilly to each other, but knowing that more effort was needed.

Behind a zippered tent, I prayed with my eight year old and pulled his sleeping bag and blankets high. "I love you, bud," I murmured close to his soft forehead, breathing in his scent and kissing him. We talked for a few minutes more and then I pulled out my Bible and scooted to a far corner of the tent to read silently nearby as he started to fall asleep.

My bookmark saved where I had left off, and I resumed reading with a shake of my head. "Very funny, God."

"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of God dwell in you richly... (Colossians 3:15,16a)."

I could feel my heart softening and my breathing deepening. Unzipping the tent and slipping out, Mark and I found each other and talked, faces closer, apologizing, choosing soft tones, and starting over each time. We grinned and kissed again.

And I love that about marriage. Sometime it's like addictive smores over a woodfire and other times it's like a muggy hike through the woods that feels longer than you expected. At those times, our God can swoop down, whisk us up, and carry us until we get our second wind.


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Monday, August 8, 2016

Grab Your Ugly Socks!

With a clatter and a crash, the phone slipped off the treadmill dashboard, careened off the moving belt, and skidded to a stop in the carpet behind me.

I glanced left and right. Lithe joggers ran in precise form, their arms knowing how to cycle in smooth arcs, not flailing wildly like mine.
Photo Credit: Flickr user, E'Lisa Campbell, Creative Commons cc license
Grinning and red-faced, I jumped my feet up to straddle both sides of the still-moving treadmill, scooted backwards and retrieved my music player/husband's old cell phone. From a stair-stepping machine a row back, Mark arched an eyebrow at me and smirked.

Plugging headphones back in, I straddled the swiftly-moving treadmill belt again, gathered my courage, caught the gait, and jumped back into the jog. Staring at a smudge on the wall ahead of me, I breathed in four-four time, bouncing legs in rhythm to Superchick's rocky Beauty from Pain album.

I'm five weeks into jogging again and I'm loving the satisfaction and joy of meeting a goal. I've learned that I need a plan, and I need to make it as easy as I can to choose well. A black cloth bag hangs on a hook behind our bedroom door with an easy-to-grab work out t-shirt and comfy black shorts to run in. Crumpled green and red ankle socks wait in teal and coral tennis shoes on a handy shelf, and my headphones lay on our dresser. Mark and I have chosen days we work out, and we're trying to stick to them.

Panting and huffing, I watched the odometer click to a number I was waiting for. Hitting the cool-down button, I slowed my pace, heart racing, sweat dripping. Grabbing a sanitary towelette to wipe down the YMCA machine afterwards, I was stopped by an older gentleman.

"You're getting an early start. Are those Christmas socks?" he asked, smiling at my green and red socks.

I laughed and blushed. "Um, yes, Christmas bears, but they're comfortable ankle socks," I grinned back.

It helps to have a plan, I'm learning. So whether you're working towards fitness goals, writing word counts, business dreams, or end of summer plans, make it easy for yourself to say yes, and to feel joy in that moment. For me that looks like carving out mornings to write, setting aside afternoons to study for upcoming speaking sessions, and choosing times to grab my ugly socks and run!

What goals are you chipping away at? What helps you feel good about victories along the way? (Those reading this in email, can click here to join the conversation.)

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Monday, August 1, 2016

When Grief Stalks

Cinnamon coffeecake plunges high up my plastic fork while brown sugar topping flakes and tumbles from the top. Espresso grinders whir loud then fade to the music from overhead speakers. Three inch pink baby shoes glide by in a black stroller; purple sippy handles peak from a stroller's corner. Wooden coffeehouse chairs scrape and clunk hollow, and I sip my hot refilled coffee from blue cardboard.
On a morning of Monday's clean laundry piled high and an upcoming evening church softball game, we received word of a tragic car accident. A former youth group student and his family of five were killed in a multiple car pile-up involving a semi-truck. His family's faces still grin happy in the missionary magnet on my fridge, just a month away from their departure to a new life in Japan.

My cell phone's text message blinked the news, and it was too awful to believe or to speak aloud.

"What?" Mark kept asking me in my gaped silence, "What?!"

Our shock and grief looked like crying in Mark's arms, my tears and nose running and wiped on his shirt unconsciously while we prayed. Grief looked like numb silence and staring slack-jawed out the window.


"What are you looking at?" Daniel wants to know, peering out the window too.

"Just thinking about our friends, bud," I murmur, and we both fall silent.

Earlier, concerned by our tears and unsure how to respond, Daniel had fled the room. Following him, I found him burrowing under his blankets in the dark room.

"We can be sad together. It's okay to cry and to ask God hard questions."

My words falter and fall short today. Typing a short message to my friends to mourn their son and his family, I tell them that we ache and cry with them.

Community is shared grief, shared silences, shared tears. And God's chest is big enough for those hot tears and raw words too.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

When You Just Want to DO Something!

He's leaning over the table, mouth open in concentration. Two stacks of soft white socks brush his elbow as he reaches over them.

"Look!" he exclaims, proudly wriggling the toilet paper roll down into the gallon ziplock bag. Two water bottles stand erect beside it.

He pauses and I slide two folded pieces of paper down inside the bags with our picture smiling out through the plastic.

"Did you get the oatmeal?" I ask.

"OH!" and there is a rustle of cardboard and brown paper.

"Strawberry-flavored," I read aloud. "Nice."

He rolls two white socks up in eight year old concentration and places them inside the bag. I press out the air and seal it shut, before grabbing another.

In a month of riots and unrest, police officers and political conventions, there are summer storms that are brewing. Newscasters predict record high temperatures for much of the United States this week, and humanitarian organizations send out emails about severe dehydration concerns for the elderly and the homeless.

And we just wanted to do something tangible, something constructive, to help people around us.

In fumbling words, I wrote:

Hi, I realize that this bag is simple. 
We don't have a ton either right now, but we wanted to share some of what we have to help, even if it's just a little. 
So, on these hot summer days, we wanted you to have clean water to drink. We wanted you to have a pair of new warm socks. We included a packet of instant oatmeal for rainy days, hoping that you could grab some free hot water and a spoon and cup from any fast food place, and we are praying that it is a hearty snack some day right when you need it. The toilet paper is because I know what it's like to appreciate bath tissue from my days living overseas. 
We know that homelessness is complicated and wide-spread, and that this small bag isn't much, but we wanted you to know that we are thinking about you, that you are not forgotten, and that we have prayed over this bag and for you. 
We wanted you to know that God sees you, he loves you, and he is near to the broken-hearted. In the attached paper here are some sentences from the Bible that have been vital to me. I pray they are helpful for you as well.
Warmly and respectfully, 
Jennifer and Mark
Daniel and I rolled socks, slid in oatmeal packets, stood up water bottles, squished in a roll of toilet paper, and slipped notes into twelve bags. Twelve bags seemed so small and yet so exciting as they sat on our cherrywood dining table.

"Mark, want to come pray with us for the people who will get these bags?" I asked him, as Daniel hopped on one leg beside me and jumped onto the chair.

Softly, warmly, we talked to God about the strangers whose names he already knew and we thanked him for the chance to help.

If you, or your friends or family, want to assemble similar bags, please feel free to use our ideas too. We were inspired by our church's Vacation Bible school project, although we chose our own items to include. Or share with us other fun ways you've enjoyed reaching out in love and kindness. Those in email can click here to join the conversation.

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Friday, July 8, 2016

In the Muggy Nights after a Month of Headlines

I remember it, how the air was hot even though it was September 2007 and how Mark had crossed the stage, his shoulders carrying the pain.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Mick Baker Rooster, Creative Commons, cc license
Photo Credit: Flickr user David, Creative Commons, cc license
His voice softer than normal, he had smiled at the forty or fifty students in the darkened worship sanctuary and said, "Well, we had planned to tell you exciting news tonight--"

Several junior high girls squealed in excitement, missing the qualifier.

"-- about being pregnant, but Jen and I miscarried yesterday. We're sad and grieving but we know that God is still good."

The teens had gasped, sighed, and moved instantly to crowd around us. Not trusting my voice, I had simply nodded and bit back tears. The students and youth leaders engulfed us, putting hot hands on our shoulders, backs, arms, and heads.

Their words spilled out on a sticky muggy September night, and my sadness spilled down and over. They spoke words of grief aloud to us, and to our God, and they hugged us tight.

Today, in this week of muggy days where sadness leaks out for so many names, that image flashes back to me. Because the most comforting thing about that night in 2007 was how they came alongside to simply cry with us and to honor that little one's life.

In our world with so much violence and grieving and death today, can we just come alongside in the muggy nights to say: we cry with you. We ache with you.

Your loved ones' names matter. Their lives mattered. 

We ache and grieve with you. We moan in surprise and pain at each new headline, and we say your names from Florida, Iraq, Saudi Arabia,  Louisiana, Minnesota Texas, Syria, and more.

Your names matter. Your lives mattered, and we ache with you and sit in respectful crying sadness with you in the dark muggy nights.


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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of Fish, and Friends, and Fresh-Cut Grass: Freezing Summer Fast

Can you hear it?

Burring and whirring hums drone a scratchy constant as our backyard neighbor mows. The sound and fragrance are comforting and peaceful, one of summer's iconic pleasures. Tracing the contours of his yard, my neighbor's lawnmower rumbles and roars, releasing the sweet green scent of sliced grass. My sprinkler arcs languidly across the back yard, soaking gardens and flower beds, staining the soil and mulch a rich ebony.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Pearl Pirie, Creative Commons, cc license
On the couch, my green backpack still carries two towels, a dilapidated pair of black and white swim goggles, and Daniel's folded brown camouflage swim trunks. They smell like chlorine from last week's swim class, and we look forward to tonight's session. Crumpled kids' papers from last week's church Vacation Bible School program line his room, I know too.

"Summer is a-third over," Mark teased me this weekend, arcing an eyebrow at me.

"No, don't say that! It's just three weeks in," I said, revising and constructing my perspective.

In a season that flies by, I'm trying to freeze time, savor every moment, and live fully present.
At a graduation party this last Sunday, we sprawled on lush grass in groups, balanced bratwursts on our laps, and branched into conversations with the people around us. That Thursday morning in the hallway outside a church sanctuary where one hundred-seventy children and volunteers performed hand motions to lively worship songs, I curled up knees and leaned my head close to hear her.

"Jennifer, you have to meet Tonya," they had said, and now here we were.

Bending close to hear and reminisce, we talked about towns in West Africa, and the beauty and strength of the Liberian people, and of the atrocities of the Liberian civil war. An hour flew by, and then we exchanged business cards and hugs in the parking lot outside.
At home today, crimson cherries mound in a glass ramekin and Daniel samples a new snack: water-packed sardines.

"Mmm, I love it!"

We pause to examine a tiny fish spinal cord under the microscope, and summer marches on.

Hi friend, what has your first third of the summer been like so far? 

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

An Apology to my Twenty- and Thirty-Year Old Friends

They said it over half-price appetizers, and the taste of it went all salty in my mouth.

They spoke of feeling less than, less equal, less valuable, and pushed aside as women in the church.
Photo Credit: Flickr User, trawets1, Creative Commons, cc license
We reached across each other to taste a half-price miniature pizza, oozing white garlic sauce, chicken, and green avocados. We reached across each other to taste another's sweet barbecue chicken wings, a friend's quesadilla, and my wild rice chicken soup. We reached into each other's lives to see from another side of the table.

I dipped my bread into white rice soup and asked questions and listened.

My friends in their twenties and thirties answered. They spoke of disappointment in the church and of not feeling the freedom to ask penetrating questions of life, theology, current events, and hot topics.

An older friend at the table beside me who loves these younger friends as fiercely as I do nodded her head, and we listened and apologized for the times when our generation had gotten it wrong, or explained it poorly to them.

Girls, Jesus doesn't see women as less than. He made you strong, beautiful, compassionate, and independent. He calls you masterpieces, works of art, and he placed skills, talents, and gifts inside you on purpose to use. Wherever Jesus went in the Bible he broke stereotypes and was revolutionary, elevating women's statuses in that culture.

In New Testament Bible times, women weren't seen as reliable witnesses and their word didn't count as fully as a man's. Yet, where did Jesus first appear after his death and resurrection? To women. He saw them as valuable, reliable, equal witnesses.

In New Testament writings by Paul, Timothy, and others, women are constantly credited, named and publicly thanked throughout the ancient letters. The women were invaluable in the ministries, working alongside the male believers and even helping to finance things.

My voice trailed off, and I returned to listening for a bit.

We talked for hours, laughing, tearing up, sharing deep heart things, and loving each moment of it. These women teach me about life and relationships, and they love the people in their lives with a fierce, self-sacrificing love that humbles and floors me. 

At the end of one conversation, it hits me, and all credit goes to my peer. She said it and the words have split me through each time.

"Jesus doesn't respond how we think he will. Jesus doesn't treat us like other God-followers do, or have done." 

In looking at the Bible account of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, we see a women who is desperate, broke, and considered unclean, shut out from the community and the church by her quarantine status, accustomed to being shunned and set aside. Alone, miserable and desperate, she approaches Jesus and touches his robe. She is hoping for an invisible healing in the crowd because if anyone recognizes her as a bleeding woman, she will be jeered, scolded, and punished for getting close enough to contaminate them.

Robe touched. Healed instantly. Called out to come forward. Fearful terror constricts but she replies, and Jesus uses a word that only appears here once.

"Daughter..." he said intimately, and he heals her, commending her courageous faith, and publicly pronouncing her healed and clean. Restored to community, she had first been restored to the God who made her, loves her, and delights in her.


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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Your Cartoon Pig Card

Over a crunchy Asian salad of Napa cabbage, green lettuces, red peppers, and sugar snap peas drizzled in a fresh cilantro dressing, she handed me the card.

Grinning and arching an eyebrow at me, she waited, her wavy brown hair tucked behind an ear.
(Scanned card. Design courtesy of cards by Sunrisegreetings.com)
Inside the envelope, a white card featured pink cartoon pigs winched between red metal c-clamps. The caption inside read: "If you're happy and you know it, clamp your hams."

I laughed and smiled across the table at her.

"I would have been disappointed if you hadn't laughed," Marie said, knowing my quirky habit of laughing uncontrollably at some jokes.

Indeed as I read it aloud to other friends at the gathering, and then to each family member at home later that week, the joke grew funnier and funnier to me.

The card sits near my desk now and still makes me grin, the singsong nature of the words reverberating in my head as I read it.

What I love best about the card, though, is that my friend knows me. Knowing I like to laugh and that a joke may just push me into silent convulsing laughter, she bought it and thought of me.

This weekend I am traveling to a women's retreat where I am honored to be the keynote speaker. Their theme for the weekend is Pursued and Loved: God's Heart for You. In this last month as I have been reading and re-reading my notes for the sessions and digging into God's word, I am encountering a God who says he sees me and he hears me. Indeed he is the God who sets up extraordinary word pictures throughout time to point to his never-stopping, never-giving-up love for us.

So whether or not you have a friend who sends you pig cards, know that you are chased by the God of the Universe who loves you fiercely, un-endingly, and unconditionally. 

Pray for us this weekend, will you, friend? Thank you. :)

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Monday, May 23, 2016

When Prayer Looks Like Soup

Sitting beside my squirrelly seven year old, I helped him sound out long-vowel words and watched the clock, the seconds flying past. At eight-thirty in the morning, I was at the kitchen sink, swirling yesterday's coffee grounds out of the French press and into my compost bucket. Time spun and circled down the garbage disposal with the last of the fine coffee crumbs afterwards.
Photo Credit: Flikr User Frinthy, Creative Commons cc license
At nine, I called, leaving a message for her, stammering and saying in soft words that I was thinking about her and praying. The line rang long before the machine picked up. Ominous words had hung in the air all weekend, and this morning's appointment would bring answers.

Prayer looked like silent vigil at the sink, poured and slurped freshly-made coffee at the table, and wrangling in a first grader's attention again and again.

"Okay, with the long vowel o, what comes at the end of this word?" I'm waiting for him to draw a silent e, this quiet letter at the end of all his words today. The silent vowel sits quietly at the termination of each noun, directing, changing the sounds, and creating new words from the shy short vowel words who hem and haw and twist toes bare-naked in words surrounded by consonants.

Daniel draws graphite pencil down and around, and I sip more coffee, trying to trace out patience across my life too.

I check email throughout the morning and afternoon, awaiting word and praying for her and her family. Medical diagnoses can change so much, huh?

My parents due in an hour, I slip outside, down the deck steps, to a raised garden bed in the backyard. Surrounded by gaunt bony tomato plants from last year, shriveled and awaiting tomorrow's garden clean-out, I kneel next to the three surprises this spring. Three kale plants survived a Midwestern winter and curl purple leaves to the sky. I slice scissors across emerald and violet stems and then retrieve the fallen leaves from sandy soil.

Upstairs I submerge the vivid kale leaves in a chipped blue porcelain pot and run cold water high. Brown russet potatoes feel dense, earthy in my hands. I wash, rub them, and slide my green-handled knife deep into them. Drawing long the blade, lifting, slicing, repeating, I trace lines across them and into the white plastic cutting board.

Resting in God's presence and speaking out my love for him looks like this today, I've decided.  Trusting in his ability to bring beauty from crumbling soil, from gouged purple life, and from gashed earthy spheres, I rip apart raw Italian sausage, and pour in newly-chopped onions.

The aroma of browning sausage and onions seeps fragrant into me. Shaking out dried oregano, I watch the green flecks speckle into the jumbled meat and onions. Red pepper flakes tumble crimson. Stirring with my brown wooden spoon, I swirl silent praise and prayer, inhaling deep into this Pneuma Holy Spirit who describes himself like Breath.

I pour out the water that had immersed the kale. Droplets radiate light and life off purple-green stems and curling leaves.

I still don't know what news my friend has received, and I whisper her name to our God. Silent prayer and praising rises like steam from my simmering soup, an incense of sausage, kale and potato soup rising up before our Artist God, who is Enough. 


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