Friday, December 29, 2017

The Question that Dangles For Us Who Grieve in this Season

It was after her question at the hardware store. Trudging across broken pavement in biting snowy cold, we pushed hands in pockets deep, my arm through hers protectively.

Inside the red box store, she asked it --my mom wanting to know -- and it has reverberated inside the depths of me still.

"I want the kind that keeps burning even if one has burned out."
Photo Credit: Flickr user Rakka, Creative Commons cc license
She's holding a defective string of Christmas lights, but it feels like me. How do we keep burning even if part of us is gone?

At the customer service desk earlier, we had graciously handed back the cardboard box of twinkly lights, sliding the receipt beside it.

"Anything wrong with them?" a red-sweatered woman asked smiling.

"Nope, they're just the wrong ones. I want the lights that'll keep burning even if one bulb is dead."

Later in the parking lot, we walk arm in arm and I unlock her door first.

"Jennifer, I've realized that I need to let my friends know what I've been learning -- what God has been teaching me in these hard times. God has been teaching Dad and I so much about suffering..." she trails off, her voice breaking slightly.

Dad is gone, and Mom has been sobbing in the loving closeness of her God as she walks through the grief of losing her husband.

Her friends are veiled elegant North African women, emigrated to Minneapolis. My mom learns the lilting beauty of their language and helps them navigate English grammar and vocabulary. They eat sambosas and saffron-flavored rice, and speak often of husbands, children, and aging parents faraway.

"I get to tell them of the hope we have in Jesus and of the confidence we have that Bruce will be in heaven with God."  Mom spoke excitedly of the Christmas presents she was gathering for her international friends, and she carefully chose cards to accompany them.

At home later, Mark and I uncoil our own long strands of lights and assemble them end to end. Wrapping the tree in strands of red, blue, green, and yellow, all the wiry lights culminate into one outlet plug. Electric current courses and the lights shine on.

Verses of Bible truth grab me this Christmas break as we march wise men to a starry stable and gather shepherds near, their sheep already fallen over. I pour eggnog and grind another portion of French Press coffee beans. In crowded rooms here and there, we pass gingerbread men and Belgium chocolate truffles, talking loudly as nieces and nephews race with toys underfoot.

And my mom, sister, and I plug into our Source again and again, drawing strength and constancy from God. As the tears come, and we count it out -- two months now since Dad died-- we play his songs, and laughing-cry as we scroll through old photographs.

This intermingled grief with joy is a sharper chapter for me now, a newly-formed reality. As the question bubbles up: "How do I keep burning even when part of me has burnt out?" I sense the answer.

Pulling out pen and paper, I reflect further. I trace the words and underline "In Him" and the lights keep burning -- through no strength of their own.

"We wait in hope for the Lord; 
He is our help and shield. 
In Him our hearts rejoice for we trust in his Holy Name. 
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you." Psalm 32:20-22.

Merry Christmas, you. May this New Year bring you an even deeper sense of God's rich love for you and his delight in you. May you rest in his presence. What have you been reflecting on this month?

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

On the Dark Nights When You are Counting Days and Remembering

It is three weeks ago today that I last talked with my Dad, last heard him speak back. That day blurs into that night, and then it was Friday 2:08 am and he was gone.
My sister, mom, and I had tracked the evening hours on a paper chart, slipping in soluble morphine and attavan pills between Dad's drying lips, moistening them with a little blue sponge.

"Dad, can I give you some more medicine?" I had asked respectfully, as the hours passed and his sleepiness mounted. His words lessened, and his moments of lucidity stretched further apart.

Pain rippled across his face, and I gripped his hand. "The morphine will help, Dad. It should kick in really soon."

Friends had driven on dark country roads after rush-hour traffic to stop in and greet him. Dad recognized them and opened his eyes briefly. They stood tall and uncertain beside his bed, searching for a special hymn's lyrics on their phone before starting in, their voices strong and speaking truth.

"God sent his son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives."

My dad heard and moved his head, faintly singing along, these truths he has built his life and joy on. My mom, sister, and I joined in, my voice cracking in emotion

"Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone." I swallowed, "...because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives."

Dad's two friends sang on, swiping tiny lyrics higher on a touch-screen phone, both men squinting to see in the dim lamp-lit room.

I stopped singing as I saw Dad wince and reach towards his neck and shoulder, then fumble in his side pocket where the meds usually were. Checking the clock, I saw we were close. "Here, Dad. It's time for your next dose."

His friends finished the song, and we stepped out to give them privacy as they said good-bye. Nurses had said my Dad was in his last days, and the minutes drizzled away.

In dignity and strength, my Dad lived. In dignity and strength, my Dad died.

We have seen God's sweet kindnesses taking care of us each day. We have felt the tangible love of friends and family near and far, who have dropped off meals, mailed cards, helped in countless ways, and walked beside us.

We stood tall at Dad's funerals, so proud to be associated with him, nodding and smiling in joyful pride at the stories friends and colleagues told of him. I gripped podiums tight and spoke in tremulous pride, shuffling papers and describing African night skies. Three special songs rippled out harmonies that explained my Mom and Dad.

I'm finding that grief looks like efficient hours of phone calls and business letters as we confirm the death of a dad.

Grief looks like driving in silence and twice pulling into the driveway with the gas light blinking orange. It looks like staring numbly, moving slowly, and blankly wondering what project I was in the middle of.

Grief feels heavy, makes me exhausted at three pm, and leaves me ready for bed at nine-thirty. Grief for me looks like tears and sobs the first week and a half, and an inexplicable feeling of being "too sad to cry" this week. Time stretches long, and has it only been three weeks? Yet it feels so long since I've talked to my Dad.

"This is the first class I've taught that I didn't talk about with my Dad," I told Mark Monday night as I drove away to teach my college-level Village Schools of the Bible Cover to Cover Bible Survey class. Grief slid down my shoulders to my back. I pictured talks on the back porch with my Dad, and our love for God's word.

My mom and I had a girls' sleepover last night at my parents' house, both of us pulling our Bibles closer. She spoke out verses from Romans chapter five about God gently, beautifully, wielding sorrow to craft beauty and character in us. I scrawled G2 pens fast across notebook paper and talked about the tender love of God who longs to walk beside his people, helping them know him intimately.

I spoke it aloud three weeks ago today, (Thursday morning, October 26th), sitting cross-legged on my Dad's bed, hugging him in a period of his pain, and breathing out any words that were truth and that would offer hope for both of us.

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. 
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 
The precepts of the Lord are perfect, giving joy to the heart. 
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. 
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. 
The ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous. 
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold. 
They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb..." 

We had studied them together earlier that autumn, and now they were the only truth I could grab while he was in pain. I alternated between singing songs to him, praying for him, speaking God's words, and hugging him, or rubbing his back.

In between two dear friends leaving, two pastors arriving, a phone call to hospice triage, and several of us there, I wrapped my arms around my Dad gently, his body so frail and easily broken at the end. I kissed his whiskery face, told him I loved him, and grabbed the only truths I knew.

And I grab them now, and know that God's heart can be trusted.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

When You Feel Like You're Just Hanging On

It had been hanging by a thread for a while.

Silver filament too flimsy for such a pendulous weight. Mark had even warned me.

"Jen, are you sure this chain is strong enough?"

"It's fine," I said, sliding the round silver Courage pendant onto the silver chain.

This morning in the dark hours before full wakefulness, I had flipped and turned. Thoughts of our upcoming Vow Renewal flashed happy in my mind and I mentally made a list: tea light candles, a miniature amplifier to boost volume in my parents' backyard.

Wide awake but trying not to be, I had switched to my stomach, stretching chest smooth and tall against the bed, and swinging right hand under my neck to sweep long hair up across the pillow.

And then just like that, my courage had fallen off and slipped away.

Mark stirred beside me.

"Mark, my necklace broke!"

"Oh no," he murmured, voice husky and drowsy.

My courage had slipped away and fallen from sight, and the irony is not lost on me. My sweet silver-haired Dad on hospice has recently been coughing and breathing in shallower breaths, and thoughts of him inhaling and exhaling, and looking all grey and ashen are never far from my mind this week.

And did he lose weight in his face since I saw him two days ago? His temples gape empty and I pressed my fingers in them wonderingly yesterday, gently caressing his stubbly face.

"Je t'aime, Papa," I had murmured then, brushing my fingers across his cheek and short hair, and leaning in for another hug.

I had kissed my mom goodbye as well, and driven home in a daze in evening rush hour. The sun sank orange and crimson behind Interstate 35, cars moving in stop and go patterns. A crashed car stacked up the left lane for miles, and a caravan of cars snaked careful through crushed glass and I prayed heavy for the people and police on the side on the road as I passed.

And then this morning in dark pale light, I swiped hair aside and tore the last filament of Courage from my neck. I find myself reaching unconsciously up to slide my finger in the silver ring's center, ready to brush fingertips across the burnished edges and fading Courage font, and then stop when my neck is naked.

And perhaps it's best this reminder now of where my courage lies. It's not in a faded pendulous pendant on too flimsy filament.

And I hear it in my mind, and scramble to find the full verse and reference. "For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are committed to him," and I grab it and trace the empty neck, and for today, this is enough.

Welcome! I've missed being here with you. Sorry. My Monday night college-level class that I'm teaching takes up much of my time, besides loving being a mom, wife, home schooling mom, and daughter to my dear family members. I think of you though, and am glad to be popping back in here today to greet you. How are you? How can I pray for you this week? (Feel free to comment here.) 

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Transfused Strength, Vitality, and an Unshakable Force for All Your Rough Roads Ahead

It was right past the homeless man with the guitar, and I loved that he was jiving and rocking along to the music. Our homeless gifts bags slid around on the floor at my feet, and I can't remember if we were able to give him one that day or if the intersection light turned green and we had to swing away, a long line of cars behind pressing us to move.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Hal Dick, Creative Commons cc license
The orange square sign announced it. Black words on tangerine background stating the truth that has already been shaking my world. Rough Road Ahead, and you can see it coming, know that it's coming, but there's still nothing like crossing the smooth-sailing calm traverse you've been on to bump into the rock and gravel of the rough road ahead.

And we can see that sign ahead, and know it's coming, even in the midst of our service to others, and loving service to family.

The secret that I've seen, may I spill it to you? Because I've been watching and spying and seeing it ripple out. The secret that I've seen reverberate, rippling out peace, beauty, calm despite unrest, and joy wrapped in deep pain, has been rooted in this.

I've seen it scrawled on paper across kitchen tables, beside the coffee mugs and bobbing purple orchid blooms. I've heard it in soft voices from across round church tables, and in quiet homes with stuffed couches and armchairs. I've seen grown men crying in handsome dignity and seen it written across their faces.

The power and strength to traverse any rough road ahead is written in ancient ink from the Word-God himself. This word that gives light to the eyes, joy to the heart, makes wise the simple, revives the soul and renews us daily is an unstoppable force and available to us all.

I've seen God's words in the Bible transfuse strength and comfort as a woman traces the well-worn pages with silk-skin fingertips after hours of yard-work and a life poured out for others. I've spied out weary-worn men and women who rise in unnoticed silence and grab fiercely to the Rock that sustains them and gives them truth, and again and again I see them grab onto God's word.

It is active, alive, vibrant, life-changing, sustaining, and transformational.

I have been immersing myself in the Bible's pages especially this summer as I prepare to teach with Village School of the Bible's Cover to Cover immersive Bible survey classes this year.

There is still time to join us! I'll be teaching Mondays from 6:45 to 8:45 pm at Living Faith Church in Blaine/Circle Pines, Minnesota, starting August 21st. (If you live anywhere near the Twin Cities suburbs, you are welcome to join us. Feel free to invite family and friends.)

Register by calling Trish at VSB at 952-540-9460 or email:   Cost is $129 and scholarships are available. You are welcome to even just visit the first night and see what you think. 

Here is a testimonial from a mom and her daughter who went through the study together.
Join me?

Want to hear a powerful sermon by my Dad, Bruce Pinke, sharing the Six Truths he's learning through suffering as he is dying from stage IV cancer? It is encouraging, beautiful, and God-honoring. Listen here.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

A Joy and Peace That Bubbles Up and Pours Over

In relaxing melody, water tumbles in endless waterfalls in the fountain below me. A green and orange recycling truck rumbles buhBUM buh,  buhBUM buh as it stops by our house. Glass knocks against glass. He drives a house or two away. BuhBUM buh, buhBUM buh and then silence with a hum as he exits our neighborhood.

My Bible pages flicker in a momentary breeze and a cardinal whirs Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur. Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur, ending with a trilled tl tl tl tl tl tl. Sunlight wavers torn paper bookmark across the Psalms and chapter sixty-six starts my day with wisdom from the ancients and the Creator of the world.

"Shout with joy to God, all the earth!
Sing the glory of his name; 
make known his praise glorious! 

Say to God, 'How awesome are your deeds. 
So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you, they sing praise to your name.'"

The cardinal sings non-stop in my neighbor's tree. Bree? Bree? Chur-chur-chur. Bree? Bree? Chur-chur-chur ... tchee-tchee-tchee-tchee.
Blue skies, lazy white clouds, my waterfall pouring incessant beauty, and two recycle trucks hum and rattle, beeping in distant rounds.

And I feel it from bare toes curled on weathered deck planks to my relaxed shoulders in the shade, how this pausing to see and say wholeheartedly, "God, you are good! I announce it, proclaim it, stop to truly see and say it: You are good. How awesome are your deeds." -- how it floods me in quiet peace, contentment, beauty, the joy soaking in. Breathing in deep and slow; my muscles are relaxed.
Life and light radiate, pulsing in green and yellow beauty. Water trickles, the cardinal says it again and again. Bree? Bree? chur-chur-chur, tl, tl, tl, tl, and I announce it in kind.

"Say to you, God, how awesome are your deeds! Sing with joy to you, God, all the earth. Sing the glory of his name."

How wise of our Creator to know that in this stopping of the frenetic pace of life to see him and his artistry, to savor it, receive it, bask in it, and then proclaim it in grateful thanks -- that this way of life leads to the greatest joys and a contented peace of mind.

Scientists agree, calling it a grateful way of life, citing it here and here, but our God initiated it simply: "Say to God, How awesome are your deeds. Shout with joy to God!"

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

How Flashes Deep Within the Atom Reflect the Life We're Hungry For

I've been mulling it over -- this line I saw recently and can't remember where. 

Mulling it over while dragging sprinkler hoses across hot grass lawns, while driving kids to appointments and swim lessons, and every time I curl up beside family and friends while stretching summer long. Iced coffee cubes crash against condensed glass, dripping summer's heat across bare legs. 

"How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." 

And the audacity of it lingers in my brain this week. In moments and days that crash by, dripping lost to the ground, this claim that we can choose, can order, can decide to step fully into each moment and to control how we live our lives is brash, bold. 
Photo credit: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, Creative Commons cc license
I love it, and the science of atoms flashes to my mind. In a textbook years ago, I read about the wild, intricate behaviors of protons, neutrons, and electrons within an atom. 

Inside the nucleus is a flurry of activity where protons and neutrons exchange tiny particles called pions in a frenzy of energy. Electromagnetically, like charges repel each other. Protons, as positively-charged aspects of the atom, should repel each other, like same-sided magnets do. Yet, mysteriously, they don't. 

Bewildered scientists wondered for years why the protons' positive charges didn't repel each other and explode. They knew there must be a strong force holding everything together, but didn't know what. Experiments and observations hinted at the existence of this strong force, but not much was known until the 1930s and 40s, when scientists confirmed the existence and nature of this strong force, the strongest force in creation. 

Do you know what thrills me about this force? 

This strongest force in creation, this strong force that overrules normal magnetism and is stronger than gravity... this strong force in science reminds me of the Three-in-One God. Protons and neutrons are huddled so closely in the nucleus of the atom because they are giving of themselves. 

Taking part of themselves to manufacture pion particles, they give sacrificially to each other. Over and over they break off part of themselves and give to the other. In what reminds me of sacrificial love, there is a frenzy of breaking and making and giving and receiving, and breaking and making and receiving. Pions flash as gifts that last for a brief instant, then are gone. 

Giving of themselves to each other, they are wrapped intricately close. This -- the strongest force in the world-- is woven so tightly that all other natural laws of magnetism, poles, and gravity are broken, and in the center of the atom, unseen by the world, protons and neutrons give of themselves and hand off themselves as endlessly-given gifts to each other. And it's the strongest force in science. 

Want to live the life you're hungry for? This strong force, this endless breaking and making and giving... 

Who knew it was modeled in pions deep within atoms? 

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(Adapted from an archived post of mine.) 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Of Baby's Breath, Wedding Lilies, Burial Urns, and Daily Glimpses of God

It rains now. Silver staccato on burnished green leaves; the roads a wet black.

And it reminds me of those teens several weeks ago, screeching and huddling under a single umbrella. Their four adult-sized figures spilled out from under the protective rain cover, while Blake yelled good-naturedly,

"You're stealing my umbrella!" My daughter and three friends cuddled, huddled, and dashed across the food co-op's parking lot to my grey Hyundai, laughing and jumping over puddles. And you have to lean close to share one umbrella in the rain.

These last two months have been a happy maelstrom of planning, shopping, preparing for, and savored-moment-by-moment milestones. My son, my oldest, strode into a university hall in swirling black robe and flat square hat, in line with others to receive four year's worth of hard work in rolled parchment diploma. My view of him swam in teary ripples and I squeezed Mark's hand, my heart beating in joy and pride.

"We made him!" I exclaimed. "That's our son," and my husband's jaw muscles flinched in strong emotion too.

Three weeks later, my daughter strode in swirling crimson robe and flat square hat towards the stage to graduate from high school. I blinked back happy tears, squeezed Mark's hand again, and smiled giddy through proud joyful shimmers that blocked my view.

"I'm so proud of you," I whispered in her ear as we hugged on-stage, handed her diploma to her, and then walked to opposite ends of the stage.

In between, the days filled fast with ...

  • ...Morgan's graduation party errands. "Three hundred cups? What do you think? How many cups do people go through on hot days?" and I estimated how many gallons of lemonade to make.
  • ...John's wedding errands and decisions. My husband cleared his throat, "So, after the ring bearer and the flower girl enter the room, we'll have the ushers close the doors. When the kids get to the stage and are seated, Melanie will change the music to Canon in D. Danielle will rise, and, Kate, you can enter with your Dad whenever you are ready."
  • ...And slipped in between white wedding lilies, and dotted baby's breath in stone jar centerpieces for Morgan's graduation party, my Dad and I planned his funerals and telephoned crematoriums. We talked of death certificates, estimating how many copies we would need, and asked about medical examiners. 
Then, hanging up the phones, my dad and I rejoined Mom on their back patio and listened to the birds, the tinkling water fountain, and the wind in the trees overhead. My Mom, sister, Dad and I carved out frequent times together, not wanting to miss a moment. We fished by the Mississippi River, took prodigious video recordings of Mom and Dad together, attended outside concerts at parks, and sat long in contented silences too. 
On June 10th, my firstborn dimpled and bit lips in emotional joy, clenching his jaw just like his dad in overwhelming delight at watching his bride enter the church sanctuary. All eyes on the bride, my eyes were on him. The groom's breath-taking anticipation flushed him tall on toes, shoulders back, jaw flexing, eyes red, and mouth ever-biting and swallowing in disbelief and proud joy. 
I turned at last to beam at my beautiful new daughter-in-law and to watch my son and my new daughter step onto the carpeted stage. Beside my pastor-husband, they spoke tremulous words of promise, and joy cracked their voices. We wiped happy tears, my parents and parents-in-law beside me in the front right pew, and I savored every single second, thanking God for these moments together, and for every single day. 
And you and me today? We can see glimpses of this gorgeous Creator God everywhere we look... 
  • Him holding the umbrella in life's storms saying, "Scooch in to stay dry" and laughing as we run together in the rain. 
  • We see this God in proud parent moments of squeezed hands and leaning in to say, "We are so proud of you!" 
  • I see him in savored family moments and in the gift of each time together. 
  • And we can see our Groom God as he watches in delight and jaw-clenching joy. 
 I've missed you. Thanks for peeking in. How are you? Catch me up in the comments below? 

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Best Way to Radiate Beauty This Prom Season

We walked into the shop and both gasped. Crystal and glass chandeliers hung dotted throughout the store, and jewelry and scarves of every color clustered in carefully-coordinated corners. Morgan headed over to the white silver section of accessories, seeking a studded silver headband. Fake rhinestones sparkled against her dark hair.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Janine, Creative Commons, cc license
After selecting a headband, she considered earrings with an artist's eye. Dangling different pairs from her ears she solicited the sales associate's advice, wondering if something was too big or fancy.

"It's prom!" the associate laughed, "You're never too bedazzled."

The sales clerk pointed to various earrings and then let Morgan decide. My daughter held up oblong jeweled orbs and cascading light-catching pieces. The jewelry radiated and sparkled at her neck. And I could see it, how they caught and reflected the light, shining out brilliantly.

It reminded me of the words I had read this morning. Scrambling to corral my wriggly second grader and keep his mind on math problems then, I had pulled my Bible closer. Turning to some verses that my mom had mentioned recently, I had read them quietly to myself, letting their beauty soak in.

"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trust-worthy, making wise the simple." 

Who doesn't need that? I had thought as I had gently lassoed a boy's imagination back.

"Okay, focus in," I had murmured to my home-schooled son. "What is 27 plus 85?"

God's words continued and I had traced them with my eyes.

"The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes." 

There it was!

Back in the jewelry and accessories store with my tall daughter, we had browsed counters, looking for earrings to match her elegant thrift store prom dress. She fingered pairs of earrings and deliberated.

I saw it, though. That no matter which earrings she chose to dangle against her neck this weekend, that she already radiated light. God's words that she had selected and soaked in earlier already reflected out the light and beauty within her.

What's the best way to be radiant? Want to catch and reflect the light most beautifully? Join me in the best beauty regiment ever. Spend time in these ancient words that revive the soul, make wise the simple, give joy to the heart, and give light to the eyes.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Your Best Witness Protection Plan

"I've been part of two shop-lifting experiences," she told me this week, leaning across the coffee-shop table. Her blue eyes were wide in astonishment.

"You witnessed them?" I clarified for anyone eavesdropping.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Fourbyfourblazer, Creative Commons cc license
"Yes," she continued, telling me of brazen behavior by two bootlegging rogues.

"What did the store owners do? What did the police say?" My questions tumbled out.

"I just told them what I saw," she said, stopping to sip her peppermint tea. "We were glad the manager went out cautiously. What if the man had had a gun?"

We shook our heads.

At a recent women's weekend retreat I walked into a beautiful cedar-sided lodge. Silver-haired and white-haired grandmas chuckled, checked in, and carried their luggage into rooms stacked two-stories-high. Suddenly, an inexplicable shyness crept into me. What could my paltry forty-two year old frame try to teach wise grandmas?

"Just tell what you've seen. That's all I've ever asked you to do," I felt God whisper inside me.

Calm coiled and crept deep. My breathing lengthened. That's right, I smiled. This has never been about me, I reminded myself.

"God, this is for you," I spoke in audible soft words as I stepped across pine cone-strewn sand and under towering evergreens. The lake glimmered turquoise below the hill. I made up songs, singing them in breathy tunes, grinning crazy to myself.

"God, you're so good! Thank you...." I stammered in wooed, whipped love for him, naming his gifts and making up lyrics as I went, singing a love song for this God who weaves tri-color sunsets, stretches pine trees tall, and who tells me again and again, "Just say what you've seen."

In our comparing-prone world, we can forget it so fast, huh? I can. And then the truth comes crashing back. I am loved, delighted in, enough, sufficient in Jesus, and absolutely free. Loved unconditionally by the God of the universe, I am free. The weightlessness of that bubbles up tall most days, stretching my shoulders wide in joy. Later, and throughout that weekend, we got to pour over God's words together and watch him move and teach all of us. I was thrilled and thankful to be a part of that.

I saw it this Sunday morning and my giggles shook the bench. My husband glanced at me, and shook his head grinning. I pointed, and he smiled too, but my mirth was evidently greater. I sang and laughed, switching from one verse to another, giggling harder as I sang.

Because caught up in the joyful song, two little girls in the front row of church were tossing their baby dolls into the air. Blond plastic braids flying wide in the air, the dolls arched up, froze for a second and then curved earthward again. Their owners caught them, swung their legs in joy, and catapulted their dolls again.

The song* sang about freedom and joy and new life, and I felt a bit like soaring as well.

"Oh your grace so free 
Washes over me
You have made me new
Now life begins with you 
It's your endless love
Pouring down on us
You have made us new
Now life begins with you...

Free, free, forever we're free..."

Throwing dolls in the air seemed like a perfect response to me too. I giggled and kept singing, my face wide from smiling. Because our best witness protection plan is to rest safe in who we are in God, and to just say what we've seen.

* "Death Was Arrested" by Coker, Smith, Kersh, & Ballztglier. 

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

What Cowlicks and Warriors Would Tell You about Living Well

The fir tree has a cowlick. Spouting out from conical symmetry is a two-foot-long branch, and I want to snip it each time I see it, but it's twenty feet up and in my neighbor's yard. The branch points north to my neighbor's front yard where at night Orion the Warrior is tangled in a tree.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Erica Franck, Creative Commons cc license
One month into my Dad's stage IV terminal cancer diagnosis, and I find myself scrolling websites, scrawling notes at doctors' appointments, and counting calendar months. Chest tight some mornings, I pull my Bible closer while Daniel sits beside me untangling addition problems, and I wonder about subtractions.

Yesterday we took a break from math and phonics to refill bird feeders. Charcoal-colored sunflower seeds spilled dusty from the bag, whooshing against my fingers on cold metal frame. I sliced old juicy oranges into halves for the orioles. Crushed citrus a fragrance on my skin. Daniel and I placed vivid orange slices between lines of drizzled seeds on the deck railing, then slipped back inside to watch the birds come. Black-capped chickadees soared tremulously close, skittish but hopeful.

And I remember it, recounting the ways that God has tenderly laid bread crumb trails of hope and wonder for me this spring, long before I even knew I would need them. I line them up in my mind, and shake my head in gentle wonder. He is so good. In January, I stepped out and chose my very first Word of the Year --Brave --thinking I meant it to be moving more boldly into my writing and speaking ministries. God knew of Dad's impending cancer, though, and kindly tucked the word inside me. Earlier, in November Mark and I co-taught a sermon at our church, stating that joyful thanks-giving is always possible, even in the darkest nights. We mentioned our daughter's young cancer scare when she was five years old, and other crises over the years. Meanwhile my Dad's cancer grew in silence. The breadcrumbs continue in my mind, and I see it clearly, God's loving trail for me.

Pulling my Bible nearer, I pause to answer Daniel's math question before sinking deeper into God's words. "I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand," his book tells me, and I lean into that.

"Mom, I listened to Grandpa's song a lot yesterday," my tall twenty-one year old said quietly to me. Jeremy Camp's song "Reckless" has become my dad's mantra these months. He air drums away to it, nodding his head.

"Can we play it again?" my Dad says softly. "I'm not afraid to die. I know where I'm going," he smiles. Jeremy Camp sings about wanting to love and live recklessly, boldly, because of Jesus's love for us.

"I want to die well," my Dad says, thinking of a Henri Nouwen quote. He and Mom have been sharing their stories of God's rescues and passionate love all the more boldly now to the people they meet.

Outside my window, I can see it, the fir tree with a cowlick. Beyond the Warrior Orion hangs the Big Dipper constellation.

"If you're ever lost and need to find north," my Dad had taught me, "follow the mouth of the Big Dipper. It will pour out into the North Star."

And now it changes how I see the cowlick. It's directing me to a poured out life that always points me home.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Living Two-Handed and Two-Faced

"Where's the video on college dorms?" she asked.

We clicked computer screens until the welcome week college video started playing. Smiling faces toured the university campus, music pulsed, and Morgan and I watched footage of dorm room move-ins and bunk bed assembly. Joy welled in me, and I thumped her back.

"I'm so excited for you!"

"Me too!"

Her long ponytail trailed her back and we sat in chairs pulled close to my desk. Music throbbed and the short film ended. We laughed to see that we were both wiping away excited tears.
Photo Credit: Flickr user COD Newsroom, Creative Commons, cc license

"I think it's the video," she stated.

"Well, I'm just so happy for you," I exclaimed.

She stood up, her enrollment deposit paid, the move-in date now written on our calendar. Bouncing downstairs, she was gone and the kitchen was silent.

I've been learning this week the dual truth that joy and grief can be simultaneous. Nine days ago, sad family news stopped my world. Since then we have walked numbly to doctors' offices, pens scrawling notes in solemn vigil. We have scrolled medical websites, estimated timelines, and stared silently into space.

And he said it once, a wise friend of ours, "We rejoice with those who rejoice and we mourn with those who mourn, and sometimes we do it back to back."

I am learning this week what it is to hold grief in one hand while navigating life with the other. In wanting to live transparently, I have been sharing our family news in occasional prayer emails and to friends in person, crying against their shoulders. But I also see the need to interact and to be present with sensitivity to a variety of settings. At Wednesday night youth group, junior high teens bounced energy as we played zany games of Pictionary Telephone and Four on a Couch. Their joy was evident and legitimate. Seeing their sweet faces that are so loved by God and us, I looked deep into their eyes and chose to be present, to be there, to be playful with them.

And we can hold grief and zany laughter in one body. I am learning this surreal and complicated reality: that joy and grief can co-habitate and that I hold them in honest hands before me.

I can mourn. I can rejoice. And I'm trying to honestly, transparently, let myself hold them in two hands, in two faces, back to back.
Photo Credit: Flickr user johnjodeery, Creative Commons, cc license

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Watching You

I've watched you.

You smoothing tablecloths across MOPS tables with your kids latched on to a leg or perched on your right hip. You carrying egg bakes in one hand and round-faced, red-cheeked toddlers in the other, welcoming new moms with warm smiles.
Photo Credit:Flickr user Elvis Kennedy, under permission of Creative Commons cc license

I've watched you in church hallways, in doctor's offices, in YMCA lobbies, and in homes full of loved ones. You as you stare deep into the fridge and whip up a meal from what's there for your hungry crew. You who trade words in gentle authoritative reply to your growing willowy kids' attitude. You who smooth small foreheads and care for older parents, who help with homework, and who tame a wild home.

Sleeting ice balls pelt the dark bedroom windows one morning this week, waking us before six a.m. slumber pulled us under again.

Snow flakes fall silently later as Daniel and I sound out phonics and read stories of dogs and bugs and logs. All week, we've slipped across frozen boot-treads in the ice that look like trilobites in the driveway.

After the joy of meeting moms at Waconia MOPS January 27th, at Sauk Rapids Moms-Next on February 2nd, Woodbury Lutheran Church MOPS on February 6th, and Salem Covenant Church MOPS Friday, I relished times at home with my family too.

Daniel sniffed. Blowing his nose into a white and blue handkerchief, he pulled the math book closer. At the sunny cherrywood table, I stretched legs out and sipped hot coffee.

Oily pots stacked high in the sink behind me. Yellow curried bowls stood in cock-eyed slant, resting one on top the other, shifting dangerously atop four plates. A metal cookie sheet took up most of the counter, and silverware splayed out greasy. Whew. Life can pile up so quickly, huh?

I turned my back on the kitchen, though, lifted coffee to my lips again and rubbed Daniel's tiny shoulders.

"It's nice to be back by you, bud. I'm glad to be home."

Mom, dads, grandmas, grandpas, friends? Your presence matters.

I know the dishes and laundry are piling up. (Don't even ask about the black swimsuit bottoms that doubled as underwear this week. The skinny black bows bulged under each jean hip pocket.)

For now, snuggle in. Take a moment longer, listen a few minutes more to the complicated Lego story  by the breathless boy beside you. Stop all else. Lean in. Savor.

When the snow stopped, school was done and Daniel was playing in another room. Clearing the sink, I lifted the metal faucet and hot water swirled in steaming. Bubbles shone iridescent. Music pulsed behind me, and I scrubbed, wiped, and restored order to my counters and kitchen.

Beef stew bubbled nearby, carrots and onions tumbling past celery. Turning it to simmer, I stole up behind my man and wrapped arms around his neck. Heads touching, we stood quiet, his face warm against mine.

"Thank you, God, for these people in my life, for moments to pause and see. Thank you for the beauty of watching people in all seasons of life lift and love, smooth and savor, bend and bring order." 

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oops, God.

Groggily walking through the kitchen, I buttered three toasts, drizzled honey, and cored apples, quartering them.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Amanda Slater, Creative Commons cc license

Strapping one blonde-haired nephew into his blue high chair, I watched the two older boys climb into their chairs, cheerfully talking. Hot toast crumbled and steamed on small white saucers, while an oatmeal stewed warm in a bowl nearby.

"Okay, let's pray," I grinned at the boys as seven a.m. darkness still hid the deck outside.

"God, thank you for this morning, for breakfast, for _____, _____, and _____," I said, naming the boys while running my hand affectionately across the two necks closest to me.

"Thank you that you hear us when we call and that you make us stout and brave-hearted," I continued, remembering a verse from yesterday. "Amen."

Conversation resumed and boys hummed happy, chewing and moving in their seats as they ate.


My prayer's words suddenly hit me.

"That's not right. You make me bold and stout-hearted! Not stout. Thanks, God. You know what I mean," and I grinned at God in the dark. 

Join me in sleepy prayers, sticky tables, and real life.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

What Marbles and Ice Slip Significant into our Lives Tonight

"Every year I take one out," he says.

He describes a glass jar of marbles that hulks on a corner of his desk. He is professional, efficient, an accomplished businessman, and his words have stuck in my brain ever since.

"I set up the jar, estimated how many years an average person lives, and now every January, I take one marble out."
Photo credit: Flickr user Sally, Creative Commons, cc license

Marbles catch the light and diminish slowly in the jar on his desk, and his meaning sinks in.

"I wanted to remember how fast life flies by and to make sure to live fully."

His exact words are fuzzy to me now, but the image still reverberates.

Weeks, months, years trickle through our fingers and leave only memories. Our children's heads race closer to our foreheads and then flash by. Ankles flash pink skin cold in winter growth spurts, and I peek into my garage for the purple plastic bin of Daniel's next size clothes. Morgan brings home a brand new college identity card, grinning cheeky at her row of color-coordinated gel pens and bulging pack of binders.

We carve calendar dates for two graduations this spring, and both John and Morgan step into their last semesters. They each organize their rooms and start packing. Morgan dreams of college dorm-room decor and spies out small sets of kitchenware. John boxes up childhood mementos, making room for another carton of wedding supplies, and brainstorms apartments for the summer.

And your children too, are stretching taller by the week, their shoes and jeans shrinking by the month, and how do you slow down time?

Our marbles diminish so subtly, so silently, that I look and am surprised to do the math and see where I am today. You too?

Our words matter. Our minutes are priceless. As cells stretch, divide, and stretch again, the loved ones in our life grow taller, older, and seasons flash by. 

Snow melts here in Minnesota today. Last week's arctic chill now slips grated snow through my black metal patio table, shredding ice into stalactites below.

I crunch out to my compost bin this afternoon before supper, scowling at the rabbit tracks, and trying to halt their entry into my yard. I'm comfortable without a winter jacket and the snow crunches and melts underfoot.

The cold had seemed so impenetrable and now snow shrinks by the hour. Tomorrow and Thursday are supposed to be warm as well.

And the snow disappears from my deck.

"Mom, will you play a game with me?" Daniel asks, his tousled hair still standing up in the back despite each day's water.

"Sure, bud. Let's play."

Throughout the night, I sneak down to hug my two oldest kids who are cramming homework.

"I love you so much." The words fall naturally as I reach up to hug them, leaning my head against their chins.

Take a marble with me, my friends. The snow has melted even more since supper and I don't want to miss a moment.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

When Alarms Sound and You Want to Be Brave

Under a torn moon in a black sky, I push my cart. Groceries rattle against rustling paper bags.

I've been wondering this for several days now. How do we live bravely? That's my word for the year: Brave. While I don't think of myself as a fearful person, I'm realizing how often stories of great courage and realized-dreams involve pressing in and pressing further. In book after book I've read, inventions, breakthroughs, deep wilderness survival, and big accomplishments all have this choice: the decision to persevere, to keep going, to step out in trembling boldness. This belief that bold perseverance and dogged hard work can bring incredible results is exciting, transformative.

So I scribbled pen across lined paper, choosing my very first Word of the Year: Brave. I am challenging myself to step up, to take courageous steps, and to choose self-discipline bravely in the moments when I'd rather settle for easy. 
Photo Credit: Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar, Creative Commons cc license

Walking under a torn moon in a black sky, I muse quiet and push my cart, assembling words in my brain.

Wood-smoke from chimneys and charbroiled burgers scent the zero degree night. Fumbling with my fragmented car key fob, I'm hoping it'll work after I dissected it in the supermarket to figure out which round battery it uses. Dark headlights stay unlit and the car remains locked, no matter how many times I press the unlock button on the small black fob. Holding breath nervously, I use my key to unlock the door, knowing the car alarm may sound.   It does.

Loud shrills accompany my flashing headlights now, rebellious and brash. Sliding into the car, I shuffle papers in the glovebox and pull out the vehicle's owner manual. In slippery black and white striped mittens, I'm paging madly through the booklet, searching the index for words like "alarm," "disarm," and "security." The owner's manual slips and slides in my mittened hands until I sigh and whip off my right glove, still balancing the manual on my frosty car.

Forty-five minutes later, after phone calls home, random conversations with strangers in cold twilight, and warming up in Mark's rumbling gold Saturn beside me, we figured it out and arrived home. Carrying fragile frozen paper bags upstairs, we put groceries away, and marveled at the fierce cold that had set in against green pepper produce, chilled milk, and deep into our skin.

Thank you, God, for cars that run; for Mark being able to repair the key fob under warm grocery store lights; for heated vehicles; for groceries to put away; for supper on a cold night; and for steaming hot baths that erase a sunk-in cold.

Where was the brave? I'm not sure. Persevering in negative two degrees, talking to strangers, and choosing to find thanks, maybe? May I start right here with you tonight? Laugh with me about my key fob dissections and pealing car alarms. I'll open further and tell you that yesterday, I set off the smoke alarms at home while making pancakes. The worst part? This happens every time I make pancakes! I know.

And maybe Courage is to sit up and share our stories, whatever they may be today. I created a simple black and white chart for myself for the year. In each small box I am jotting a word or two to remember ways I chose brave self-discipline when I'd rather have settled for easy. I am happy to share this simple chart with you too. Feel free to download and share this chart with others.

What about you? Do you choose Words of the Year, or New Year's Resolutions? Have any special January traditions? 

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