Heart and Head

This Sunday we celebrated global missions at Southwood. Pastor Greg preached on Matthew 25: 31-46 – the scene in which Jesus, in his second coming, will separate the ones who will accompany him to Heaven from the ones who will not:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

Pastor Greg spoke at length about the importance of serving with your heart – that serving “the least of these” is more than simply checking off a good deed on your God to-do list.

Uh-oh. My ears perked up at this.

I think sometimes I approach serving as an “ought to” or a “have to” or a “should,” rather than a “want to.” I approach serving with my brain and my pen (for writing out the check), rather than with my heart.

Although our family sponsors two Tanzanian girls, Neema and Kantate, I admit, until recently I didn’t think about them all that much. Although their pictures hang on our fridge, and we receive a couple letters from them each year, I don’t really know Neema and Kantate. They live so far away; we’ve never met, never exchanged a greeting or an embrace. I’ve never heard the sound of their voices. They are not a part of me, a part of my family. They are not woven into my very fabric like my own children are. I don’t know what their greatest joys are, their deepest fears. I don’t know what they think about as they lie in bed at night. What their favorite color is.

There is a distance both physical and emotional.

I’ve begun to pray for Neema and Kantate just in the last couple of weeks. I don’t know why this has never occurred to me before (probably because I am terribly remiss about praying in general), and I feel guilty admitting it. Although we have sponsored them for two years, I had never actually prayed for them before.

So now I pray for Neema and Kantate every day. Simple prayers – “God, please protect them. Please keep them healthy. Please bring them joy. Please help them in their studies.” It helps me feel a little bit closer to them, a little bit more connected. It gives them a place in my life, a daily presence.

On Sunday we watched a video montage as part of Global Missions Sunday – snapshots of our Honduran and Tanzanian sisters and brothers and some of the Southwood volunteers among them. These photos did more for me in three minutes to deepen my connection to Neema and Kantate then two years of check-writing ever has.

On the screen I witnessed a young boy beaming, his eyes wide behind his first-ever pair of glasses.

A volunteer crew framing up the simple shelter that will become home to a widow and her young children.

Two young boys kicking a ball, pure exuberance evident in their sailing limbs and gleeful smiles.

And then one image in particular:

A group of uniformed students waiting to receive letters from their sponsors.

I leaned forward in the pew, craning to see if I could catch a glimpse of Neema or Kantate.
I didn’t. But that didn’t matter in the end. I saw them in those pictures. I caught a glimpse of their joy. I heard their voices. They slid into my heart.


I Love to Tell the Story

My father-in-law, Jon, is the quintessential storyteller. No matter what the topic or conversation, Jon always has a story to go along with it. Anyone who knows Jon has heard some of the same stories two, three, sometimes four times. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard it before; if Jon wants to tell the story, chances are, you’re going to hear it again.

No one loves Jon’s stories more than Noah and Rowan. From the moment he walks through the door, their constant refrain throughout the weekend is the same: “Papa! Papa! Tell us a story! Will you tell us a story? Pleeeeease tell us a story, Papa!” The man hardly has time to wrestle out of his jacket before the boys are guiding Jon into the wing chair and piling onto his lap.

Frankly, I don’t know how he does it, how he can garner the enthusiasm, never mind the creativity, to spin such yarns time and time again. Brad can do it, too. Over the years he’s crafted countless bedtime tales -- the epic battles between Mean Giant and Thunderbird alone spanned nearly two years.

Me? I’d prefer to scrape hard water deposits off the bathroom faucet with a toothpick, rather than spin a clever story at the tail-end of a 14-hour day. Nothing fills me with greater dread than hearing these plaintive words from Rowan at 8 p.m. as I'm nestling in next to him: “Mommy? Will you tell me a story? Pleeeeeeeeease??????” And let me tell you, that kid won’t take no for an answer. He’ll butter me up like a bagel hot from the toaster oven.

“Well, I don’t think so…not tonight, honey,” I’ll tell him. “You know, stories really aren’t Mommy’s thing. How ‘bout we sing a song instead?”

Yeah, right. Rowan’s not going to sing some silly song if he thinks he has a chance at a story. “Oh, Mommy. Your stories are the best,” he’ll tell me in his sweetest, cutest voice. “Your stories are better than Daddy’s!” And then he’ll laugh, because we both know this is a big fat lie.

Recently Rowan even used this blog as ammunition. When I told him the usual, “Sorry, honey, not tonight. Mommy doesn’t tell stories,” he responded. “Well… you write stories on the blod…tell me one of those stories.” The kid’s going to be a lawyer some day.

Anyway, as I was saying, Jon is a gifted storyteller, and I’ve come to appreciate that much more in the last month. I came across this photo a few days ago as it flashed by in the screensaver rotation. Brad took the picture this summer through our dining room window, capturing a glimpse I always took for granted.

At the end of August Jon had a cerebral hemorrhage. It was a dire situation, and for a while none of us was sure he would survive. He spent more than three weeks in the hospital, much of it in the ICU. And although he’s home now, and is expected to make a full recovery, rehabilitation is still ongoing.

Sadly, it often takes an event of this magnitude to shake us awake. And I under-appreciate more than most people; I need more shaking than most. I think I speed through much of my life on autopilot, bent on surviving another 17-hour day; driven to get it all done. I don’t often take the time to appreciate the gifts of those around me. I take them for granted, or worse, find them tiresome or annoying. I don’t take the time to absorb the complete person, to drink in what makes him or her special.

Seeing the photograph of Jon and Rowan relaxing in the summer sun, Rowan listening raptly to his grandfather’s story, was a telling reminder. I remember that day. I distinctly recall rushing around the kitchen, preparing lunch, setting the table, filling water glasses. I distinctly recall glancing out the dining room window at that garden scene. I distinctly recall not stopping, not even for one second, to appreciate that beautiful sight. In fact, I distinctly recall being just a hair irritated with Brad, who stopped right in the midst of my bustling to snap a picture from the dining room window.

I will no longer take Jon’s stories for granted. I’ll listen in, even if it’s a tale I’m hearing for the second or third time. I’ll listen with a fresh ear. I’ll stop whatever mundane task I’m bent on accomplishing to drink in the scene -- the picture of Noah and Rowan, snuggled in the wing chair on their grandfather’s lap, their eyes fixed on his face. I will be grateful to hear another Jon Johnson original yet again.

Read more everyday moments of appreciation on Tuesdays Unwrapped.


Superior God

I often look at this photograph. It’s one of six scenes of Lake Superior that hang in my office, directly across from my desk. Sometimes when I am entrenched in the day-to-day detritus of my job – the annual report, the impact fact sheet, the member magazine, the fundraising letters – I glance up and find myself gazing at this image. There’s something about water, even in a photograph, that’s mesmerizing.

Last night before turning the light off, I read a couple Psalms from The Message version of the Bible. I know, after just recently stating how much The Message bugs me, I find myself reading it more and more. I’m fickle that way.

As I read these lines from Psalm 8, I was reminded of those Lake Superior photographs that hang above my desk, reminded how God’s name does indeed echo, millions upon millions of times, around the world.
I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?

Yet we've so narrowly missed being gods,
bright with Eden's dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us lords of sheep and cattle,
even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
whales singing in the ocean deeps.

GOD, brilliant Lord,
your name echoes around the world.


Ode to Joy

I like to watch one man in particular in Southwood’s choir. I don’t know his name. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t even know what his individual voice sounds like, whether he’s a tenor, or an alto or a bass. All I know is that he loves to sing.

When this man sings, every fiber in his body sings with him. It’s obvious that his body is just bursting with song. He bobs, sways a little bit – there’s not much room up there behind the altar, but he does what he can. I can tell just by the shape of his mouth on the long notes that he’s just belting out the lyrics.

Watching this man sing in the choir on Sunday -- witnessing his passion, his energy, his pure joy – brings me joy. And his energy is contagious. When it’s the congregation’s turn to sing, I find myself belting out the lyrics, too, really going for those high notes (and believe me, my voice is of the quality where I should not be belting, but I do it anyway).

Choir Man reminds me: this is what it’s all about. Embracing life with gusto; finding your passion and running with it. Singing – in whatever way you choose to “sing” – your praises to God.


Sisters M & J

Today is my sister’s birthday. This post is in honor of her.

My sister Jeanine and I have always been close. Although we’ve had our “moments” along the way.

There was the time she dared me to put my hand “down there.” I was about six, she was four; we were supposedly playing in the basement. Jeanine commanded me to pull down my Holly Hobby underwear and put my hand, well, you know. Of course, being the older sister, I complied; I often followed my sister’s orders. In the meantime, she ran upstairs to rat me out. Suffice to say, my mother was not pleased with the Lolita-like sight that greeted her when she rounded the corner of the basement playroom.

Then there were the junior high and high school years. Jeanine would steal clothes out of my closet to wear to school. Infuriatingly, she always managed to look way better, way cooler and way funkier than I ever did wearing the exact same clothes. I’m the girl who could make fishnet stockings look preppy. Jeanine, on the other hand, always had (and still does) a unique style – a little bit edgy, a little bit different, one hundred percent cool.

All things considered though, Jeanine and I have always been remarkably close. Even now, with 1,500 miles separating us.

She calls from the road, her hour-long commute a time to connect. It’s not perfect. In the background Rowan whines about Wa Wa Wubbzy; it’s not his favorite show. The bell pepper sits on the counter, waiting to be diced. The table needs setting, the pasta needs draining. But I sit for five minutes, sometimes ten or fifteen as we talk about the riffraff of our day.

“I got nothing,” one of us will usually say. It’s sort of a joke, implying that life is status quo, nothing new, no big drama or developments. But that’s never entirely true. Jeanine’s one-year-old is mysteriously and annoyingly ready to start the day at 5 a.m. for the last three days. Should she let him cry himself back to sleep? Or drag her dead body out of bed at that ungodly hour? My turn – I’m worried about a class I’m going to teach this winter. Where do I begin with that?

And so it goes, back and forth, ebb and flow, give and take, for as long as we have. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Advice, camaraderie, complaints, encouragement, silliness. We eagerly take what we can get. It’s never enough. Yet more than enough.

Jeanine is one of the most open, accepting people I know. When I was in high school and using the word “gay” as an adjective (and, I’m ashamed now to admit, not as an adjective meaning “happy”), Jeanine was the one to point out that it wasn’t appropriate or kind. She was always light years ahead of the rest of us, politically correct not because she should be, but because she wanted to be, and long before that term was in vogue.

A couple of years ago, when I went all Jesus on her, she didn’t balk. She may have been slightly unnerved that her formerly irreligious sister had suddenly morphed into a Bible banger, but she didn’t let on. Instead she accepted, even engaged, my new and unfamiliar talk about “worship,” “church community” and “Bible study.” Never once did she judge or even imply an unwillingness to support me. Jeanine was behind me, one hundred percent.

She’s weathered innumerable crises with me. The “baby-won’t-stop-screaming-I-think-I-made-a-huge-mistake” crisis; the “I-have-no-friends-in-Nebraska-I’m-so-lonely” crisis; the “Oh-my-god-I’m-a-Nebraska-haus-fraus-is-this-all-there-is-to-my-life” crisis; the “if-my-husband-leaves-his-pile-of-dirty-underwear-on-the-bathroom-floor-one-more-time…” crisis; the “I’ve-been-rejected-by-another-agent-I-suck-why-did-I-write-this-stupid-book-anyway” crisis. You get the picture. No matter what, Jeanine is there, on the other end of the line, making me laugh with her caustic humor, buoying my broken ego.

I could go on and on. After all we have, as of today, 37 years of shared history. But let me say simply that I am grateful for my sister. Everyone should have a blessing this rich and wide and deep. Everyone should be so lucky to have a Jeanine. She is, in a word, the best.


A Saran Wrap Shield

This summer I read a book by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Actually, let me rephrase that. This summer I read one quarter of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I couldn’t get through it. Pastor Sara loaned me her copy when I inquired about a book that might shed some light on the concept of grace. I didn’t really get the “grace” idea in Paul’s sense of the word. I thought it was the prayer we muttered once or twice a year before ladling gravy over our drumsticks.

Before I completely abandoned Bonhoeffer though, I came across a couple nuggets of wisdom that really resonated with me. When I wasn’t nodding off (no offense, Deitrich), I realized the man seemed to have some insightful things to say. Like this:

Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.

I know. It’s a little bit of the “chicken or the egg?” philosophy. You may have to read it a couple of times before it starts to sink in. It sort of boggles the mind at first – one of those lines that sort of makes sense, or starts to make sense…and then doesn’t make any sense at all…and then brilliantly makes sense again. Or maybe that’s just me. But I think I get it. Sort of get it.

What Bonhoeffer is saying, I think, is that you have to take a step. You can’t just linger on the sidelines watching from a distance; you can’t just stand on the edge of the riverbank. You have to take a step. You have to get your feet wet. You can’t simply wait for faith to “happen” to you; you can’t just wait to stumble upon it one day. You have to work at it – or at least some of us do – in order to believe. You have to obey – decide to follow God – first, and then belief will follow.

It sort of runs contrary to how you assume the process would work. One would think you would have faith first, and then easily obey God. And maybe it works that way for some people. But not for me.

Later Bonhoeffer states his case more explicitly:

Do not say you have not got faith. You will not have it so long as you persist in disobedience and refuse to take the first step. When you are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call.

I think when we hear the word “obey” we automatically recoil. We think of obeying our parents when we were kids; obeying the law. The word “obey” sparks rebellion. When we hear the word “obey” we also might think boring. Stultifying. Suffocating. But for Bonhoeffer, obeying was the opposite. It was relinquishing control. Freedom from burden. Peace. Obeying as letting go, resting in the comforting thought that someone else, someone far more capable, is at the wheel.

Saying you don’t have faith is a cop-out, the easy road. Stagnating, refusing to take the first step, refusing to obey is the easy way out. It’s an excuse, a shield you’re using to protect yourself. I know. I chose the shield of un-belief for two decades. The irony is that I might as well have rolled myself in Saran wrap.

So think about it. Are you using inaction as a Saran wrap shield? Are you settling for the assumption that you just "don't have faith," that you "just don't believe? " Go ahead. Touch a toe into the water. Take that first step. Strip off the Saran Wrap. Obey to believe, and believe to obey.


Sand Dollar Shards and Other Tales

Recently Pastor Sara wrote about the topic of forgiveness on Southwood's blog, and it got me thinking about a couple incidents of forgiveness we've experienced in our household recently.

The other morning as I was shaving my legs my foot brushed Noah's tower of sand dollars he had left perched on the edge of the tub and sent them tumbling. Sand dollar shards scattered at my feet -- one of the largest in his prized collection had broken. As I bent down to pick up the pieces, my first instinct was to blame him. "What a stupid place to leave them," I thought angrily. "It's not my fault they broke; he's the one who left them on the side of the tub for crying out loud."

After I'd dried off and thrown on my clothes, though, I knew I had to tell Noah the truth. I knew I had to apologize. After all, I was the one who had broken one of his favorite possessions.

I approached him in the kitchen. "Noah, honey...um...I'm really sorry, honey," I said, holding out the shards in my palm, "I'm really sorry, but I accidently knocked over your sand dollars in the tub, and this big one broke. I'm sorry."

Noah looked at the broken pieces for a split second, looked up at me, and then, without another thought, said, "It's okay, Mommy. I still have other ones that aren't broken."


Now, compare this incident with another that had transpired a couple of days earlier. It was during the morning rush hour -- you know, the frenetic hour leading up to the school-day departure. Rowan and I were in the bathroom. While I was brushing on blush,  he was being his usual morning self, flailing around, jumping up and down like he was on an imaginary pogo stick, yelling at the top of his lungs and bouncing around the confined space like a superball.

At one point, in a moment of particularly frenzied energy, one of Rowan's limbs swiped a ceramic dish off the sink counter and sent it crashing to the floor, where it broke into a dozen or so pieces.

Now, I admit. This was a favorite dish. I had painted it with Noah at Paint Yourself Silly; it matched the colors of my bathroom perfectly. I often used it to hold my watch or jewelry as I washed my face or brushed my teeth. On the other hand, it's not like it was valuable or held hugely sentimental value. It's not like it was the Spode vase my best friend Andrea had given me for a wedding shower gift. It's not like it was Waterford crystal. It was just a $3.99 dish.

So, you're wondering, how did I react? Was I like Noah, quick to forgive? Ah no. I flipped out. "Rowan! Come on, give me a break!" I yelled. "Are you kidding me? How many times did I tell you to calm down? How many times did I tell you to leave Mommy alone while I was getting ready for work? Now look what happened! You were goofballing around and now look!"

I was not quick to forgive. I was not quick to overlook Rowan's flaws. Don't feel too badly, though. Rowan was not exactly contrite either. He looked at the dish, broken irreparably on the floor, and I swear I saw a twinkle in his eye. I don't know, maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I definitely did not see an inkling of remorse.

Anyway, the lesson of the day is that once again, Noah taught me compassion. As Pastor Sara said in her blog:

It all comes back to compassion. It seems to be an American trait to want to point the blame at someone else. But if we do that, an "I'm sorry" or an "I forgive you" is never even possible. As adults, one of the best things we can do for children is to admit we are wrong sometimes and ask for forgiveness. This shows far more compassion and grace than proving we were right in the first place ever could.

I eventually apologized to Rowan for reacting so harshly to his mistake. He didn't seem to care one way or the other; in fact, he looked genuinely puzzled, like he was having a hard time remembering the dish in the first place. But I did apologize. And I did forgive him for his goofbally ways. And maybe, somewhere in that little heart of his, Rowan forgave me for my overreactive tendencies. Or maybe not. To be honest, it's sort of hard to tell with that one.


Serving...or Self-Serving?

One would think that a person who devotes her life to writing about faith (okay "life" might be an overstatement; how about devotes 5-7 a.m., Monday through Saturday) would be a very spiritual person indeed. And to some degree, that's true. Or at least true in that I am far more spiritual now than I was during the atheist decades (I guess that would be a no-brainer). Writing about experiencing faith in the everyday really has opened my eyes to the many blessings and gifts that are woven into my ordinary existence.

But herein lies the problem. I am looking all the time. My eyes are wide open, my ears perked; I am primed to witness God. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Except that it can be highly distracting.

I've noticed recently that I am experiencing what I call WADD -- Worship Attention Deficit Disorder (read about the similarly related MADD -- Mothering Attention Deficit Disorder). I find that during church I have trouble quelling my mind. Thoughts, story ideas, details -- they all ricochet around in there like pebbles in a rock tumbler. And instead of focusing on God, instead of praying and worshipping, I'm thinking of how I can incorporate this idea, or that Bible line, or that piece from the pastor's sermon, into my writing on faith.

Instead of serving God, I'm serving myself.

It's easy to justify this kind of thinking. "Hey, I'm thinking about God; I'm writing about God...that counts, doesn't it?" And the line is so blurry, so undefined. When does thinking about faith moments in the everyday cross over into the realm of self-absorption? When does thinking about faith and God railroad into thinking about me?

It's a dangerous game, this blogging about faith. I recall falling into this trap once before, when I was studying God in the early weeks and months of my conversion. At that point I got lost in the books and the study groups and the classes; I got lost in knowing all about God, but forgot to know God himself.

It's so easy to get complacent. "What? I'm writing about God every morning at 5 a.m. What more do you want from me?" But when I catch my thoughts spinning like a pinball during church -- "Ooooh, I've got to remember that...I can use that in the blog." Or worse: "Shoot...I wish I had a pen" (yes, I have resorted to jotting notes on the sly in the margins of the bulletin, and then squirreling the bulletin away in the bottom of my purse. Again, it's so easy to justify: "Hey, I'm notetaking on God...it's not like I'm balancing the checkbook or, egads, writing out the offering check..." Okay, I admit, I've done that, too) -- when I find myself thinking and doing these things in church, it's time to have a heart-to-heart.

Michelle, we have a problem.

So I wrote about this yesterday on my friend Kim's blog, this sneaky, tricky devil-of-a-problem -- when serving God morphs into serving yourself. It sneaks right up on you; sometimes you don't even realize it's happening. And then bam, the realization: I'm doing it again.

Is it just me? Or has anyone else confronted this particularly hairy beast? Come on, 'fess up! Have you ever begun with the clean-hearted intention of serving God and ended up serving yourself instead? And don't you just hate it when that happens?


Unsung Servants

My good friend Kim Turnage encouraged me to start blogging. I resisted for a while, but finally gave in. She's very convincing that way!

Last week she guest blogged about how she related to the story of Ruth and Naomi, and today I'm guest blogging on "Kimmy Does Denver."

Pop over to Kim's site to read about serving God today (and find out what in the world it has to do with donut holes!).


Listening to Faith

Occasionally I get the opportunity to listen to a program called Speaking of Faith. It's on NPR, but I don't often get the chance to tune in to the broadcast (I think it airs Sundays at 7 a.m. here in Nebraska...right when we are in the midst of pre-church lunacy, throwing on the kids' clothes, gulping down coffee and whipping up Egos in the toaster oven -- no time for contemplative radio listening). Rather, I listen from my computer.

The first time I listened to Speaking of Faith was last winter. Brad walked into the office to find me stretched out on the floor, wrapped from head to toe in a blanket, my head on a pillow, a glass of Shiraz and a plate of cheese and crackers by my side. I looked like a mummy wrapped in fleece. "What in the world are you doing?" asked Brad, clearly puzzled by the scene. "Sssshhhhhh!" I'm listening to a program on mindfulness meditation...you're interrupting my zen!"

I love the variety of this program. So far I've listened to the above -mentioned piece, in which host Krista Tippett talked with meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn. That program was particularly blissful -- even the sound of his voice was meditative. In fact, I was so inspired I got his tome from the library (Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life) the next day. I got about halfway through before realizing Kabat-Zinn was more soothing in markedly smaller doses. Plus I figured that by the time I actually finished reading the book, I'd be about 80 and wouldn't have time to practice mindfulness anyway. So I returned the book to the library.

I've since listened to a show with Rabbi Sandy Sasso on the spirituality of parenting; a program on 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi; and this week, an interview with Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue called "The Inner Landscape of Beauty." They've all been phenomenal, but this week's program with O'Donohue was particularly mesmerizing. Maybe it was his lilting brogue, or his descriptions of the raw beauty of the coast of Ireland, his homeland, but I was transported to another realm. Sprawled out on the office floor, fleece pulled up to my chin, my mind and body loosened, relaxed, breathed.

There's something about radio that does that for me. I'm not a big TV person (except when Lost debuts each season). I find all the yakking and the yammering commercials for bifidus regularis and the like too much; it all sends me into sensory overload. But radio -- specifically public radio, and shows like Speaking of Faith -- allows me to focus, to absorb. Radio feeds my soul rather than draining it.

If you get the chance, check out Speaking of Faith online-- and listen to John O'Donohue read some of his poems. Krista Tippett closed the interview with one that he wrote for his mother, a blessing after the death of his father (below). Listening to this blessing in O'Donohue's melodic brogue was the perfect way to end a harried day. That is, until my husband made popcorn in the kitchen , the frenetic sounds of bursting kernels drowning out the last lines of the blessing and ruining my reverie. Ah well, even radio's not perfect.

John O'Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


The Very Best Neighbor

Occasionally I serve as a lay reader at the 8:30 service. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with reading in church. To be honest, it scares the life out of me. Public speaking isn't really my thing (which is ironic, given the fact that I am in public relations), so I get really, really nervous. The last time I gave a presentation at work to the board, the techie guy came up to me afterwards and exclaimed, "Wow! I've never seen you that nervous before!" Leave it to the techie guy to tell it like it is.

Suffice to say, the whole time I'm standing at the lectern in front of the church, I'm wondering if the congregation can see me shaking like a quaking aspen. My legs tremble so much the hem of my skirt vibrates.

There is a silver lining to church reading though. And that's the practice. In the week leading up to the reading, I practice the passage again and again. I keep the copy on the passenger seat of the car, and every time I hit a red light, I whip it out and read the passage aloud. This always unnerves the kids a bit. "What are you doing?" asks Noah suspiciously. Apparently they find the act of Mommy proclaiming the word of God in the mini-van a little bit freaky.

But in practicing, in reading the passage over and over more than a dozen times, the words have a chance to sink in, to resonate. I find myself thinking about them as I go through my day, turning phrases around in my mind, searching for meaning and a connection to my own life.

Often when I read the Bible I rush through the passages and don't allow any time for the meaning behind the language to really seep into my heart. I think I often approach my Bible study as I do most everything else in my life: as a chore to accomplish. Another item to check off my to-do list. Practicing my church reading forces me to dwell, to absorb, to focus on just a few lines, rather than an entire chapter or a whole book.

The last reading I did was John 1:14, the passage that begins, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

Except the version I was going to read on Sunday was from The Message. Are you familiar with The Message version of the Bible? It's a contemporary interpretation, sort of an "everyman" translation which takes the sometimes esoteric language of the Bible and translates it into the language of our times. To be honest, The Message usually bugs me. I guess I'm a traditionalist that way; The Message often sounds too slangy and street-talky for me.

So here's The Message version of John 1:14-18:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the
neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish. John pointed him out and called, 'This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.' We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving, this endless knowing and understanding — all this came through Jesus, the Messiah. No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.

So I admit, my very first thought when I read this version of John 1: 14-18 was, "This is dumb. 'Moved into the neighborhood?' What the heck does that mean?"

But then I read the passage over and over, at every red light in town for five days straight. And you know what? I got it. It got me thinking about instances in my life during the past three years when the word of God actually became real, tangible; when the word of God took up residence in my heart. When God actually popped up in my own neighborhood -- in my backyard, on my street, at work, amidst my family and friends. When I saw Jesus, God, with my own eyes.

Like my experience at the Haukebo Reunion church service each summer. Surrounded by family, amidst the whispering white pines, I feel the presence of God.

Or in the many instances in which my community, my dear friends and compassionate neighbors, have supported me in a dark time or brought me the joy of laughter. In those moments I feel the presence of God.

Or in the innumerable times my children have opened my eyes, pointing to God's presence in our own backyard.

So it's true. It turns out that The Message nailed it. The more I read that passage the more it rings true. God does live in my neighborhood. I do see Jesus every day. Sometimes I even see him plain as day.



I went for a bike ride last night after supper with Noah. This is a new activity for us. He's been off training wheels for a couple of years, but until now he was much too slow for us to ride together. Up until now I've occasionally jogged while he rode alongside, but that was really no fun, because generally running is much too laborious for me to find any enjoyment in it.

So last night we rode to Holmes Lake and back, a little
less than five miles round trip. And you know what the
best part was? It took us more than an hour. I rode slowly enough that I could appreciate my surroundings. And of course Noah was there to point out all the unique trees along the way. In fact at one point, after nearly rear-ending him a half-dozen times, I suggested that he might not want to slam on his brakes every time he glimpsed a ginko or a black walnut tree.

I like to ride my bike. But when I'm alone, it's a markedly different experience. I speed around town as fast as I can possibly pedal, whizzing by elderly couples walking hand-in-hand on the bike path. After all, I'm typically out there for one reason only: Must. Burn. Maximum. Calories. Must. Whittle. Butt. Biking for me isn't about appreciating the pattern of the mare's tail clouds wisping across the sky. It's not about admiring how the fluttering cottonwood leaves sound like sizzling bacon. Biking for me is about getting it done; checking it off my list. Calories burned? Check. Butt whittled? Check.

That's why riding with Noah last night was so refreshing. Our methodical pace forced me to slow down. To look around. To admire and appreciate. And when I did, I experienced so much in those five miles. The monarch dipping and swooping over our heads, seeming to ride an air current along with us. The dog named Lucy straining against her leash, clearly desperate to run alongside us. And of course the trees: honey locust, silver maple, cottonwood, black walnut, ginko, blue spruce, red cedar -- all were pointed out along the way.

"Only that day dawns to which you are awake," wrote Henry David Thoreau. Yesterday evening, on the bike path with Noah, my day dawned. Yesterday evening, at least for one hour, I was awake.

Note: I'm posting this as part of "Tuesdays Unwrapped" on the blog Chatting at the Sky. Check out more moments of gratefulness there.


Guest Post: Kim Turnage Reads Ruth

Today I'm doing something a little bit different. My friend Kim, who lives in Denver, is guest blogging about her interpretation of the Book of Ruth.

I met Kim about two years ago -- she and her husband Rick were the leaders of my small group -- and it wasn't long before I realized we had a lot in common. Kim is analytical; she's a questioner, like me! It was a relief to find a kindred spirit.

Kim, Rick and their three kids moved to Colorado last January. I wept like a fool at their farewell party at Southwood. I left there and went straight to the mall, where I had to engage in two hours of retail therapy in order to regain my composure.

Honestly, though, I miss Kim. A lot. Her departure left a hole in my life that won't be filled any time soon. Luckily we have all this social networking business to help keep us connected.

So here's Kim, writing about the Book of Ruth. You can read more of her insights on Kimmy Does Denver.

I love an "aha!" moment! And that's what I got when I read Ruth last week. I found myself in Naomi. I found myself in Ruth. Their story is my story.

It helps to understand the basics of the story as a framework for what I discovered, so here's the Cliff's Notes version for you.

Once upon a time there was a woman named Naomi who had two sons. First her husband died. Then her two sons died. A woman without a husband and without children to care for her was destitute in those days. As she packed up to go back to her homeland, she released her two daughters-in-law, entreating them to make a life for themselves. But one daughter-in-law, Ruth, wouldn't leave her side. Ruth and Naomi traveled back to Naomi's homeland, and Ruth went out to the the fields to try to make a living for the two. The first field she visits just happened to belong to Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law. One thing happened, and another, and Ruth and Boaz married, had children, and lived happily ever after. And so did Naomi.
I recently left behind friends-like-family, a great job, a great church, and my home of over 20 years. Why? Because I made this Ruth-like promise 19 years ago, not to my mother-in-law, but to my husband:

"Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!"
Life took him to Denver. So life took me to Denver. It wasn't that simple in the process. There was a lot of conversation and debate and crying. But, in the end, life took us to Denver.

And since we got here eight months ago, I've had more Naomi moments than I'd like to admit:
"Don't call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi? God certainly doesn't. The Strong One ruined me."
The blame bounces between God, my husband, myself. I've tasted bitterness. I've despaired. I've been the guest of honor at several pity parties hosted by...me. How will I make a new life? How will I find meaningful friendships? Will I ever again feel a sense of purpose in the way I spend my days....my life?

I wish I were as brave and as faithful as Ruth, not grousing or moping but deciding and taking action and believing in the kindness of others:
"I'm going to work; I'm going out to glean among the sheaves, following after some harvester who will treat me kindly."
Not "might" treat me kindly. "Will" treat me kindly.

The "will" has been true. In spite of my discomfort and floundering and flailing, I have found myself many times, like Ruth, on my knees, grateful for the kindnesses of new neighbors, other moms, people in my church, asking,

"How does this happen that you should pick me out and treat me so kindly—me, a foreigner? ... Such grace, such kindness—I don't deserve it. You've touched my heart, treated me like one of your own. And I don't even belong here!"
Like Ruth, I am blessed to be loved and cared for by a man who, like Boaz, seeks what is right above what is easy and loves me even (and especially) when I don't deserve it.

I left Lincoln like Naomi. Fearing I was leaving some of the best parts of my life behind me. I can't imagine losing a husband or losing my children like Naomi did, but I know now what it feels like to lose myself. Naomi's friends give me hope for what it will feel like to come out on the other side of that.

"Blessed be God! He didn't leave you without family to carry on your life. May this baby grow up to be famous in Israel! He'll make you young again! He'll take care of you in old age. And this daughter-in-law who has brought him into the world and loves you so much, why, she's worth more to you than seven sons!"
Naomi reminds me that my family is the best part of my life. And Ruth and Naomi help me live in hope that I will be able to say, in the end, Blessed be God! That I'll be able to someday feel that God has redeemed me through all this with a new life better than even seven of the old. Until that day comes, Ruth and Naomi give me hope.


J is for Jesus

Sunday School started again this past weekend, and I did a little leap of joy as I entered the sanctuary with just my husband, our kids happily tucked into their classrooms. I actually used the word "rejoicing" to describe my mood to a Southwood staff member, which is ironic, since a few minutes after that I discovered the day's worship theme would center around teaching our children about God.

I can't help it, though; I'm happiest when my children are in Sunday School, with someone else, someone much better equipped than I, teaching them about God. I'm happiest when I can sit in the pew next to my husband and drink in the worship service, undistracted and unburdened. In some ways I feel justified. I'm a late bloomer when it comes to faith; I need to focus to make up for lost time. I need to concentrate! My kids, on the other hand, have plenty of time to work out the kinks in their faith.

I figure we must be doing something right, Brad and I, because our kids are constantly talking about God. I don't remember doing this as a kid. I don't blame my parents; I just think it was more the culture of New England, and New England Catholicism at that, not to talk about religion and faith. Religion was compartmentalized, relegated to Saturday morning CCD, Saturday evening Mass, confession once a month and the occasional Holy Day of Obligation.

We didn't attend Vacation Bible School as kids; as far as I can remember, that concept was nearly non-existent in my town. I do recall seeing a rickety, plywood sign, the hand-painted letters announcing "Vacation Bible School: August 4-8," erected in front of the Baptist church. And I always felt really bad for those kids. "Vacation Bible School? What kind of cruel joke is that?" I'd think to myself as I rode my bike past. "Who's the yahoo who thought to combine the concepts of vacation and Bible together?" In my mind, Vacation Bible School was something that took place in the deep South, somewhere like Alabama. Certainly not in Massachusetts; certainly not in my hometown. And thankfully not in my church.

I remember being shocked the first summer we lived in Nebraska. Come June, it seemed every church in town had erected a sign advertising VBS. I was beginning to think the entire town of Lincoln had gone Pentecostal.

I have to say, it delights me to hear my kids weave God or Jesus into everyday conversation. A couple of months ago I bought a framed picture of the letter "J" and hung it on my kitchen wall (my last name doesn't begin with "J," but the other three family members' does, so I figured that was good enough. Purchasing and hanging a "D" and a "J" seemed a bit much). One morning, as Noah ate his Honey Nut Shredded Wheat at the counter, he noticed the picture and asked, "Hey, does that 'J' stand for Jesus?" Of course I then had to admit sheepishly, "Ah, well, no, not really. It's supposed to stand for Johnson...but Jesus is good, too!" I love the fact that Noah automatically associated the letter "J" with Jesus, an association that would never have occured to me when I was his age.

So at the end of this Sunday's service -- the service celebrating children which we celebrated without our children -- I noticed a line in the bulletin from Proverbs. Pastor Sara didn't mention it during her sermon, but it caught my eye:

Point your kids in the right direction -- when they're
old they won't be lost. (22:6, Message translation)
And that, I'm realizing, is what it's all about. I think sometimes I get caught up in worrying about whether or not I am saying the exact right thing, in the exact right way. I worry that I'm going to cause years of spiritual angst in my children; that I'm not well-equipped to answer their questions; that I'm going to say the wrong thing. But I think, in light of that line from Proverbs, that I might be being too hard on myself. Perhaps I don't have to have all the details nailed, the perfect answers. Perhaps it's as simple as pointing them in the right direction, giving them some tools and some light to see by. Doing the best I can, and knowing that it's really in God's capable hands.

That thought gives me some comfort. But just in case, I think I'll enroll my kids in VBS next summer.


God Wears Red

No, no, it's not what you're thinking. I'm not going to tell you I saw God at Memorial Stadium on Saturday just because the Huskers won. He wasn't wearing a corncob hat, and he didn't have a skull and crossbones emblazoned across his bare chest either.

It's fitting that I went to the game with my closest friends on September 12, eight years and one day after that unforgettable event. As we stood there in the stands, hands on our hearts, singing the Star Spangled Banner, I was remembering that day eight years ago.

Noah was four weeks and one day old on September 11, 2001. We had moved to Nebraska nine weeks prior, and as I stood in my living room and watched the towers crumble, rocking and shushing my screaming infant, I never felt so alone. I didn't know a soul in Nebraska. My entire family and all of my friends lived 1,500 miles away. I called my parents again and again that day, desperate to connect with their familiar, comforting voices. I left updates on Brad's voicemail at work throughout the day, needing to talk about what was happening, even if I was only talking to a machine.

Finally, at about 2 p.m. that afternoon, I opened the phone book, found the number of the hospital where Noah was born a month earlier, and dialed the number of the Community Resource Center.

"Hi. Uh, yeah. Um, I was wondering...I'm calling to see if maybe you know of some kind of mother's group in town, um, you know, a support group or something like that. Maybe a group of mothers who get together to talk, um, about stuff..." my voice trailed off. The woman who answered must have heard the desperation lacing my words, but she didn't let on. "I've got just the thing for ya, honey," she chirped brightly. "The Moms' Club. They meet every Wednesday morning at Southwood Lutheran."

I got off the phone, sat on the couch, held Noah and continued to watch the television. I didn't know it at the time, but my life had just been changed.

I met Jennifer, Janine, Katie and Viviana (pictured here) through the Moms' Club that first year. They, along with three or four other dear friends, have formed the foundation of my community here in Nebraska. I think I've mentioned before that when your family lives half a continent away, you are forced to rely more on friends than you might otherwise. I can't tell you the countless ways these women have supported me, how many times I've seen God in their faces and heard him in their words. Bubbling lasagna, garlic bread and tossed salad delivered to my door when we arrived home from the hospital with Rowan. A gazillion hours sipping Starbucks and dishing as our kids ran wild around the park. Margaritas and nachos when we just had to get out. We've celebrated life's joys and weathered its sorrows. Together with Viviana the day she was baptized; together with Katie the morning her infant niece was buried; standing by with me when both my brother-in-law and mother-in-law were diagnosed with cancer. We've kvetched about our husbands, shared advice on potty-training, laughed until our sides ached.

In his book Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen writes about an ancient Hasidic tale that asks, "How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?" In the story the rabbi answers his student, "When you look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother and sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us."

So on Saturday, as I sang the Star Spangled Banner and remembered September 11, I gave thanks for my community -- these strong, resourceful, compassionate, generous, inspiring women standing with me in Husker red. These women who helped bring dawn into my darkness.


Letters to Africa

This week I wrote two letters, one to Neema and one to Kantate. Neema and Kantate are the two young women in Tanzania that we sponsor through Southwood. Neema and Kantate are orphans; their parents died of AIDS. Our annual check pays for their room, board and secondary education.

A few times a year Southwood members travel to our sister church in Tanzania on mission trips. They bring over letters from the sponsors of the students, and sometimes return bearing letters for us. The first time I read one of Neema's letters it brought me to tears. "To my dear parents in America," the letter began. I read that line twice before it really sank in, and my eyes were blurring with tears before I was even halfway through.

The latest letter from Kantate noted that she'd had a hard year. She'd lost both her grandfather and her sister in the span of a month.

I'll tell you the truth; I really struggle when I write the letters to Neema and Kantate. What do I write about, I wonder. What do I say to these girls who have so little and have lost so much? What? That we had a terrific, fun-filled family vacation this summer, up at my in-laws' cabin perched on the shore of Lake Superior? That we are planning a jam-packed trip to Disney World this winter? That I'm worn out and irritated because my kid has a cold? That I'm feeling old and ugly because I haven't had my hair highlighted in four months?

I even labor over the photographs I choose to enclose with the letters. Noah blowing out eight candles on his homemade dinosaur cake? I doubt Neema or Kantate has ever had her very own birthday cake. A Christmas photo, the background littered with discarded wrapping paper and packages galore? Each photo seems wrong -- the excess seems so obvious, the privilege so rampant. The process of selecting photos is downright painful. And eye-opening.

I've always been a coveter. I envy. I resent what others have that I do not. "Do not covet your neighbor's goods" is probably the Commandment I break most often (yes, for the record, I've broken others).

Take my house, for example. This is what I inevitably say about my charming Tudor house when giving friends or neighbors a tour: “Well, it’s a little small, but you know, that’s okay. We use every part of our house; no space goes unused, and I like that.” This, of course, is complete baloney. This is what I say because it sounds good, very green and Earth friendly and Not-Big-House-Movement hip. What I truly feel, though, is remarkably different. I feel ripped off. While my friend has a master suite located fifty yards or so from her children’s rooms, I have a bedroom, a bedroom from which I can underhand toss a WebKinz from a reclining position on my bed and land it squarely on Noah’s braided rug across the hall. While my friend’s master suite includes a master bath the size of a double wide, my bathroom features a toothpaste homage to Jackson Pollack in the porcelain sink, Rub-A-Dub Draw in the Tub crayon ground into the grout and often a ream of toilet paper unrolled into a fluffy pile like a discarded petticoat at the base of the toilet. One day I walked into my bathroom – which you can probably guess by now, we share with our two boys – to find an entire package of Kotex extra long maxi pads with wings strewn about, each pad meticulously stripped of its adhesive and affixed to the tile, fixtures, toilet, sink and floor like some kind of post-modern art installation.

Suffice to say, writing the letters to Neema and Kantate is a wake-up call. So was reading the stories that Pastor Sara posted on Southwood's blog after returning from a trip to Tanzania. Writing the letters and reading Sara's stories reminds me (read another of Sara's Tanzania stories here -- they are really good!): I have plenty. I have far more than enough. I have.


God Talk

"Is God a boy or a girl?" Rowan asked me yesterday on our walk. "Here we go again," I thought. "More God questions lobbed at me while Mr. Divinity Degree is at work." I stumbled through my answer -- how do you explain to a four-year-old that God is neither man nor woman, or both man and woman, and way more than man and woman, without making God sound like a hermaphrodite or a eunuch?

Whatever convoluted answer I gave Rowan didn't seem to ruffle him, because he was already on to the next theology question. "What does God's voice sound like?" he asked, stooping to pick up an acorn. This one was easier. This one I could do. "Oh, I'm not really sure, honey. I haven't really heard God's voice yet, like the way I hear your voice, or Dad's voice, because I haven't seen God, you know, face-to-face, to sit down down and have a conversation with him. But someday maybe when I am in Heaven I'll be able to chat with God, and then I'll hear what his voice sounds like."

"I see God," Rowan answered. "Really?" I said, sort of intrigued as to where the conversation was going. "Where do you see God, honey; how do you see him?" Rowan stopped on the sidewalk for a second and looked up at me. "Because, Mommy," he replied, his tone world-weary and exasperated, like he was a little bit drained by having to explain theology, again, to Mom. "Because God is inside me."

Once again, my four-year-old got it before I did. I think I'm beginning to understand why I get all the God questions while Brad's at work.


Seven Minutes of Silence

I've launched a new campaign recently that I am calling "Seven Minutes of Silence."

It takes me about 12 or so minutes to drive to work (rough commute, I know). After I drop the kids off at school, the first thing I do is jump back into the minivan and turn on NPR to catch Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. Typically Keillor's folksy, wholesome humor is not my style -- truthfully, I find A Prairie Home Companion, with all its yodeling, and fiddlin' and rambling yarns, kind of annoying. But Writer's Almanac, this tiny slice of a show, is a different story.

The premise is simple: Keillor runs through the literary highlights of the day -- writers' birthdays and milestones and tidbits of trivia -- and then he reads a poem. This week it was one by Ted Kooser called "Splitting an Order" (listen to it here) that took my breath away.

So here's where the Seven Minutes of Silence comes in. In the past, after the conclusion of Writer's Almanac, I would click off the radio and automatically pick up the phone. And can you blame me, really? Those seven minutes are the only time I can call someone -- usually my mother or my sister -- to enjoy the luxury of an uninterrupted conversation. Honestly I think my home phone is embedded with a sophisticated homing device that sends out a signal to my children: "Mommy is on the phone...Mommy is on the phone...commence bad behavior." The signal sends them running in my direction, erupting with requests for beverages and snacks and urging them to unravel into full-scale meltdown mode.

Still, I have so few moments of actual silence that I figured it might be best to use them more wisely. So I turn off Writer's Almanac and drive the remaining seven minutes to work in silence. At first it made me uncomfortable. Even those mere seven minutes yawned ahead of me as I fought the urge to fill them with something "productive." I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, applied a second coat of lipstick in the rear view mirror, repositioned my bangs to camouflage the grey. But after a couple of weeks I settled into a rhythm, and I began to look forward to those seven minutes as a cocoon of peace nestled between the disparate chunks of my day.

I'm not going to tell you that I pray or converse with God or transcend during those few minutes -- the experience is not nearly that profound. Sometimes I say a quick prayer. More often I don't. More often I just sit. And drive. And look out the window. And try to notice something new on the same road I have driven four days a week, twice a day, for the last seven years. More often I just try to be still (well, as still as you can be while still driving).

So here's what I want to know: how do you use your seven minutes of silence? Really, I want to know. I'm eager to expand my silent horizons. Most of us have only a slice of time here and there -- are you using it to recharge in some way?


God at the Corn Dog Stand

I expected to find God at the state fair. I've been seeing him everywhere lately, so I figured why not on the tilt-a-whirl or in line at the corn dog stand? But it really didn't happen. Instead, what I did find was presence.

I was at the Nebraska State Fair with my kids, and I was there 100 percent. This doesn't seem like a big deal, I know, but sadly, for me, it is. I've written before about my Olympic-caliber multitasking, my ability to do two or three things at the same time. And don't get me wrong, multitasking is an ability; it's a talent that I'm mostly grateful I have. But the downside to it is that I just can't rest.

For starters, the moment my rear-end even grazes a soft surface, I am so overcome with exhaustion I instantly begin to doze off. This happens every night when we read books to the kids before bed. As were all snuggled in bed (well, three of us are snuggling -- one of us is jumping up and down on the bed in a fit of pre-bedtime lunacy...this would be Rowan, just in case you didn't know) reading Max the Taxi Dog, I succumb to a paralyzing stupor. Every night I think to myself, "This is it. I can't get out of bed. I'm not going to make it." Of course every night I also miraculously get a second-wind the minute the kids' heads hit their pillows. Funny how that works.

Anyway, I also have what I call MADD -- no, not the MADD you're familiar with -- this one is Mothering Attention Deficit Disorder. I have a really, really hard time focusing 100 percent of my attention on my kids; I'm just too distracted by "everything else" I have to do. It works like this: Noah will be detailing the subtle differences between a White Pine and a Red Cedar, and I'll be responding with phrases like, "Uh huh," and "Wow!" and "Really!" and "That's interesting" -- my set of standard replies. Meanwhile I'm dashing about the house -- stirring the spaghetti in the kitchen, throwing shoes into the basket by the door, sweeping up Play-Doh pieces that have hardened to the consistency of Ramen noodles, disposing the two-week-old shred of salami I discovered behind the couch -- while Noah trails behind me like a duckling.

Occasionally I'll utter an inappropriate standard response. Once when Noah was telling me a story I interjected "Yummy!" (strangely, one of my standard replies). He stopped suddenly and looked at me. "Why did you just say 'yummy!'?" he asked, accusingly, and I realized that I'd been caught, that my choice of replies did not in any way fit the conversation.

So you see, even though I was dreading it like the Swine Flu, going to the State Fair this weekend was actually a blessing. I had fun. Maybe that's because I had rock-bottom expectations; I'd procrastinated going all weekend, and had delayed it until the eleventh hour -- in the late afternoon on the last day that the fair is ever going to be in Lincoln. But I also think part of the reason I had such a good time was that I could focus on my kids, with no domestic distractions to detract from the experience. I was physically away from my house, that monstrous generator of never-ending chores, the wheel that never stops churning.

Brad met us about halfway through near the food stands. This is the man who spent four days in the ICU sitting next to his dad's bedside, and then drove seven hours from Minnesota to Nebraska, exited the highway, and drove directly to the state fair to meet his family (personally I would have driven directly to a masseuse...or to a glass of Chardonnay...but that's the difference between Brad and me). When the kids spotted Brad walking towards us on the Midway, it was a little bit like a scene from the Sound of Music. Except instead of a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, we had the "Hot Beef Sundae" (yes, this is real -- a revolting but yet mesmerizing sight) Turkey Drumstick and Funnel Cake stands.

Everyone hugged, and then we all got corn dogs and walked toward the "birthing pavilion," where the kids petted a week-old lamb. It was, in short, perfect -- 100 percent in-the-moment perfect.

Maybe God was at the state fair after all.
A Note: Jennifer, who blogs at http://www.studiojru.com/ posts "Glimpses" each week on her blog. Check it out! Here's what she says:
This is my weekly post I call... "A Glimpse". I want to share with you what I think of as 'a glimpse' of the splendor we have been blessed with, but often overlook.


Just Say Yes...Or at Least Maybe

"No" is my default answer. I've realized lately that I say "no" a lot, especially to my children, and sometimes when it's not entirely necessary. It seems that I've gotten into the habit of saying "no." And that habit, combined with my slightly rigid personality (okay, rigid like a set of taut violin strings), is not a good combination.

Sometimes the default "No!" is legit. "Mommy, can I have candy corn for breakfast?" Rowan asked yesterday morning. "Ah, gee, let me think about that for a minute. Hmmmm. No!"

"Mommy, can we start at the beginning and do everything all over again?" asked Noah last night as we were leaving the Nebraska State Fair, where they'd screamed down a towering slide on burlap bags, ingested corn dogs and sno cones and traipsed through manure-laden barns filled with bleating sheep and grunting heifers (by the way, at one point Rowan did a full-out, sprawled-body, face plant on the cow barn floor, and I just about threw up on the spot, visions of E-Coli and Salmonella and Bubonic Plague swirling through my head. Here's an idea -- why don't they install a hazmat shower in those barns for kids who trip over their own feet and land face-first in the manure pile?). They also witnessed a nail-biting high diver performance, petted the ginormous draft horse Buster, and glimpsed a sow giving birth to 499 piglets (ouch). So the answer to the question, "Can we do it all over again?" after four hours at the fair would be a resounding "No!"

But is the automatic default no always necessary? Maybe, just maybe, I could let my hair down with an emphatic "yes!" every now and then. "Mommy, can we stay outside five more minutes to watch the bats?" Sure, why not? What's five more minutes? "Mommy, can we have a Halloween party in September?" What the heck...yes! Is it really going to kill me to celebrate Halloween in September (for the record, it didn't).

So here's the question: is "no" your default answer, too? And let me pose an even dicier question: Is "no" your default when it comes to your faith?

As I'm trying to purge the default no from my interactions with my kids, I'm also trying to think twice before I blurt "no" to all things spiritual. Would it be so bad to mention God in everyday conversation (egads!)? Could I possibly try something new that might deepen my faith or enrich my experience with God? Sign up to be a lay reader in church? Join a small group study? Or, horrors, pray out loud in a group setting?

When I look back, I realize that every time I have squelched the default no, I've opened a new door, experienced something that has made a profound impact on my faith. Becoming a lay reader at Southwood, for example, has helped me look at and think about the Bible more closely. During the week before my assigned reading, I practice the passage over and over, mulling over each word and phrase and soaking up their meaning. Likewise, joining a small group study introduced me to a welcoming faith community, a place where I can voice my questions and fears and find comfort, hope and camaraderie. And launching this blog has opened avenues for numerous conversations about faith with people I might not have otherwise engaged: coworkers, neighbors, moms at school drop-off. Even praying aloud with my small group didn't kill me on the spot (although I was sort of hoping at the time that it would).

My point is, sometimes it's liberating to just say yes. Go ahead, try it. Let loose, get crazy, go wild...take a deep breath before you blurt the default "no!" and give "yes!" a try today. Or at the very least a resounding maybe.

Photo: Rowan, Mr. Bones and I at the Halloween Party, September 5, 2009.


Patience is Not My Particular Virtue

Rowan has a cold this week. Remember a few days ago when I wrote about whining? Well let's just say the whining has reach a crescendo. I'm trying to be patient, really I am. But it's so hard.

For starters, Brad is out of town, so I'm doing "one parent, two kids" parenting, as we call it around here. And then there's the fact that Rowan, the Man of Action, does not do well when he's sick. Let me give you an example. The other night, beginning at about 11 p.m., he cried every 11.5 minutes or so, for three straight hours. I kid you not. I burned more calories in a three-hour period (out of bed, back in bed...out of bed, back in bed) than I did in a week's worth of exercise. Finally I let him come to bed with me. And don't I know better by now? Don't I know after more than eight years of parenting that my children in bed with me is never a good solution? What? Did I think this would be it -- that this would be the time Rowan would drift serenely off to sleep in the arms of his nurturing mother? Didn't happen.

Here's how it went instead. After every
nose drip, approximately every 4.6 seconds, Rowan would wail, "I need a Kleeeeeeeenex!" In between nose blows, he would make a demand: "I need Lovey! I need more waaaaaater! I need my baby blanket! I need another stuffie!" Occasionally he would yowl in despair, "My nose hurts!!!!!" And implore plaintively, "Am I going to be sick forever?" And the clincher, at 1:45 a.m.: "My voice sounds funny! I don't like how my voice sounds! Is my voice going to stay this way forever? I don't want my voice to stay this way forever! Waaaaaaaaaa!"

This, of course, was the straw that broke my back. Mind you, I had been the picture of perfect patience for 2.75 hours in the middle of the night -- not my perferred hours for mothering. But when Rowan began lamenting the sound of his voice at 1:45 a.m., I lost it. "That's it!!!!" I whisper-seethed. "I'm done with you. This is ridiculous! This is so utterly ridiculous I can't stand it. I don't care how funny your voice sounds! It's a cold for crying out loud, a cold! Get over it!"

Compassionate, I know. And you know what Rowan's response was..."Well, you could go sleep in my bed; then you won't hear me." So I did. Yep. That's right. I took my pillow and stomped into Rowan's room, where I stayed for two hours until he woke me up asking, "Can we sleep together again now?" And then I went back to my room with him.

You know what the irony of this story is? When I have a cold, I act exactly the way Rowan does. I moan. I cry a little bit. I state emphatically that I'm going to die; that this time I will not make it for sure. I complain to everyone who will listen, even to my mother-in-law, Janice. You should know that Janice has endured cancer for the last four years, and unending chemotherapy treatments, and surgery, and all the horrors that go along with all that. And she does it without a single complaint, with a positive attitude and spirit and sheer resilience every day.

So I'll call Janice, and our conversation will go something like this: "Hey Janice, it's Michelle, how ya feeling?" Janice: "Oh, not bad, pretty good, ya, pretty good actually (imagine Minnesota accent). How are you?"

This is all I need to hear: an open invitation to complain. And I launch into it full-steam, not missing a single detail: I have the worst cold ever, my whole body aches, my head is throbbing, I have four meetings this week, I can't call in sick to work, I really don't know how I'm going to get through it. Yada, yada, yada. Janice, of course, is nothing short of 100 percent sympathetic. And she means it; she is completely genuine. She actually feels bad for me. The woman with the cancer is consoling the woman with the sniffles.

It never fails. Every time I get off the phone with Janice after one of these conversations, I feel like a complete idiot. A self-absorbed, pathetic headcase. You'd think these moments would teach me to be more compassionate, more sympathetic with my own kids when they are sick. But although I admire Janice and am truly in awe of her tenacity, as well as her depth of compassion and sacrifice, I can't seem to emulate it. And when I try, I last maybe three or four hours, and then I fall apart and resort to my peevish, impatient self.

I do keep trying though. Janice is my role model, and if she can maintain seemingly effortless good spirits, then the least I can do is to keep trying. I don't think I'll ever even come close to Janice, but she inspires me to keep striving, one Rowan cold at a time.

*Photo from Christmas 2007, when our entire family had colds. I captioned the photo: "Christmas 2007: what we really feel like."


Gossip Girl

Rowan said something the other day that made my husband and I laugh out loud, despite our best intentions.

It seems Rowan has entered the dreaded whining stage. When he's not SPEAKING IN ALL CAPS -- yelling at the top of his lungs in a "conversational" tone that makes me want to clamp my hands over my ears -- he is whining. Everything is spoken in a grating whine, from what he does or does not want for dinner -- "I tooooold youuuuuu, I don't liiiiiiiiiike carrots anymore" -- his face crumpled into a portrait of agony, to the command to head upstairs for bathtime -- "Noooooo, noooooo, I don't waaaaaaana have a baaaaaath, I waaaaaana watch Fraaaaaaanklin."

So the other night, Brad warned Rowan at dinnertime: "That's it. Enough whining. One more whine out of you, and you're upstairs in your room for the rest of dinner."

And how did Rowan respond to this threat? Thirty seconds later: "I don't waaaaaaana have miiiiiiilk. I don't even liiiiiiiiiiike milk," all furrowed brow and crinkled nose.

Brad spun around. Rowan knew immediately that he'd erred. "No! No, no, no, no, Daddy!" Rowan explained gravely. "That wasn't a whine. It just sounded like a whine."

We couldn't help it; we cracked up. Leave it to Rowan to put forth a finely nuanced argument like that.

It got me thinking, though. I do the same thing, not with whining (okay, with whining, too), but with a bad habit I indulge in rather regularly: gossipping.

Say someone drops the ball at work. Say that person misses a deadline; or publishes an ad with a gigantic typo in it; or just generally flubs. Here's what I do. "Oh my gosh," I whisper to Anita in hushed tones. "I'm not saying this to be catty, but you need to know that Jane missed the printing deadline. I'm not trying to blame anyone here, but I think you should know that the Annual Report is going to be late."

What am I doing? I'm gossipping under the guise of "you need to know this" and "I'm only telling you this because it affects the organization."

Oh, you clever girl.

So here's why I'm really telling Anita about Jane's flub.

1. Puffery. Jane's mistake makes me look better. Don't I feel better about myself knowing Jane is incompetent and unorganized? I'm all puffed up and feeling good.

2. Joy. Yes, I'm going to put it right out there: gossipping feels fun. The camaraderie, the bonding, the secrecy. Gossipping gives me a little juice in the middle of a dull day.

3. Justification. Because it's work-related, because, I tell myself, it could affect the organization in some way, I'm justified in telling Anita. This isn't gossipping, I convince myself, this is just doing my job. Gossipping feeds my self-righteousness.

This isn't gossipping...it just sounds like gossipping.

And that, as you've probably figured out by now, is complete baloney. It's gossipping, plain and simple. And I do it all the time. And worse, I do it under the auspices of "pertinent information." But no matter how I position it; no matter how finely nuanced my justification is, it's still gossipping.

The Bible has an awful lot to say about the gossiper. Proverbs, in particular, speaks about gossip directly:

"A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends." (Proverbs 16: 27-28)

Or as The Message version puts it:

Mean people spread gossip. Their words smart and burn. Troublemakers start fights; gossips break up friendships."

God clearly does not value gossipping.

It's funny how we humans have the uncanny ability to convince ourselves that we're not sinning, that it just seems like we're sinning.

Today I face the truth: it doesn't just seem like I'm gossipping. It doesn't just seem like I'm sinning.

I am.

All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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