Backyard Anniversary

One year we spent five days hiking Acadia National Park in Maine.

Another year we kayaked around the San Juan Islands and ate freshly caught salmon at dockside restaurants.

Yet another year we bumped along a dirt road in a horse-drawn wagon to a tiny log cabin nestled amidst wildflowers beneath a looming Colorado peak. That evening I ate grilled bison for the first time.

This year we celebrated our anniversary in the backyard.

I'm over at Make a Difference to One today. Hop over to Ginny's place to find out how the backyard anniversary turned out...



When we bought our house here in Nebraska nine years ago, we bought a garden, too. Actually make that plural: we bought gardens. Not only was there the raised-bed vegetable garden in the back, there was also the perennial garden out front that ran the entire length of the front yard. Brad and I had never gardened before, but being outdoors people, we were anxious to try.

I may have mentioned here already that the first summer we moved in, Brad planted pumpkins in every one of the raised beds in the backyard. Nine beds full of pumpkins. When the previous owner came to pick up a few odds and ends from the garage, she leaned against the fence at the edge of the garden and gazed slack-jawed, clearly horrified that her pride and joy had morphed into Jack and the Beanstalk gone haywire in just a few short weeks.

Well, I didn’t do the front garden any favors either. That spring, as tender plants sprouted one after the other in the moist, cool dirt, I realized I couldn’t tell a perennial from a thistle. Creeping Charlie, phlox, invasive vines and Veronica, they all looked the same to me. So as I crouched in the garden, plucking and pruning, pulling and planting, I filled barrel after barrel with garden debris.

Later that summer I poured over photographs the previous owner had left with the house. Where was that gorgeous magenta plant towering in the back of the border garden? Why didn’t I see the plant with the lavender spikes sprouting between the fountain grass and the coneflower? Because I'd yanked and tossed them earlier that spring, assuming they were weeds, that’s why. I must have pulled and tossed dozens of new perennial shoots and wasted hundreds of dollars that first spring we owned our house.

As I listened to yesterday’s reading from Matthew 13:24-29 – the parable of the wheat and the weeds – I was reminded of that first disastrous gardening experience. It also occurred to me how grateful I am that God has a greener thumb than I, and isn’t nearly as particular about a weed-free garden. After all, as an unbeliever for more than 20 years, shouldn’t I have been plucked and tossed into the compost pile of the hopeless faithless? I was the girl who rolled her eyes when anyone mentioned their faith. I was the girl who snorted disdainfully when a friend advised that I, “Let go and let God.” I was the girl who nearly ran screaming from my neighbor when she kindly asked if she could pray for me.

God saw the eye rolls and heard the snorts. He witnessed my toxic weediness, the way I spread seeds of disdain, the way I cultivated my own selfishness instead of servitude. But did he don thick rubber gloves and boots and grab the Round-Up from the garage? Did he give up on me, despite that the fact that my faithless ways may have even tried to suffocate the beauty of those blossoming around me?

No. He didn’t. He was patient. He didn’t give up hope. He didn’t round me up and cast me aside to wither and rot. He waited. And, I believe, he finely tuned my life and circumstances so that when the time was right, I would sprout life and love.

Who would have ever thought this ugly weed would ever bloom beautiful? No one is more surprised than I. But God knew. He had faith. And now his roots in me grow deep.

What about you? Have you ever been the weed and been given chance after chance to bloom? Or have you ever wanted to give up on someone else, someone who seemed too weedy to be saved?


Boy Oh Boy

I cried when I first found out I was going to have a boy. I pretended I was crying for joy as I lay on the ultrasound table, the wand gliding over distended belly, grainy picture flickering on screen. But in actuality, I cried because I was disappointed. And scared. I didn't know what to do with a boy baby. I'd grown up with one sister. I was out of my comfort zone. The thought of a boy baby terrified me.

Today I have two boys, and I couldn't imagine it any other way. I think God knew. He observed how I styled my own hair – how I can't possibly manage barrettes or headbands or braids. And he knew I wouldn't be able to handle a girl, with striped tights and flouncy skirts and hair pretties. He gave me boys, knowing all I could muster were t-shirts and shorts and patting down bed-head with water and a comb.

It took me a long time to understand boys. They are different, you know. I expected quiet. Coloring books. Imaginary games with stuffed animals. Reading. Playing board games. Weebles.

What I got was noise: yelling and burping and other sundry emissions. And chase games. Plus some punching, a bit of tree climbing and lots of hose spraying.

What I got was a whole lot of action.

I'm still learning how to deal with all that energy.

That's why I loved Laura Lee Groves’ new book I'm Outnumbered. In fact, I wish I'd read it nine years ago, when I first stepped a tentative toe into parenting boys. Laura’s book would have better prepared me for the tornadic but delightful existence with boys, and it would have taught me how to better direct and embrace their endless energy.

I’m still glad to have read it, though – parenting boys, even school-aged boys, is a steep learning curve for me.

Laura is mom to four boys – four! Twice the number I mother. That alone earns my deep respect. She has a lot of experience in raising boys, and her book brims with practical, concrete advice gleaned from her own life and supported by prominent researchers.

Chapters are divided into general topics: sibling rivalry, intentional parenting, education, boy talk, media, and the like. And within these chapters she offers myriad ideas and solutions for parenting boys, from how to nurture boys physically and cultivate them socially, to how to talk about the school day and foster discernment when it comes to choosing everything from media to friends.

I also love the fact that she weaves dozens of Biblical quotes throughout the text, scripture that supports her ideas and suggestions for parenting boys. I love this Biblically based approach to parenting, and Laura is so skilled at finding just the right Proverb Psalm or Gospel passage to illustrate her point.

“He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” Laura advises through Proverbs 21:23, when she writes about managing anger.

“Encourage one another and build each other up,” she suggests through 1 Thessalonians 5:11, when she lists tips for modeling respect.

What I liked most about I'm Outnumbered is Laura's concrete approach. She offers constructive, real-life examples, probing questions and practical tips. I like that I can finish a chapter with three or four new strategies to try with my own boys.

Reading Laura Lee Groves' book also taught me an important lesson overall: yes, boys are different; yes, boys require different parenting strategies.

But different is good.

Intrigued? Laura has a comprehensive synopsis of each chapter in I’m Outnumbered on her blog.

And you can buy a copy of I’m Outnumbered yourself here.


Two Tomatoes

so much depends

two red

plump and round
ripening on the sill

Okay, so it's a shameless rip-off of Dr. Williams. But aren't they beautiful? And the moment I saw them lined up on the sunny sill, that poem sprang to mind.

They make me smile as I rinse dishes. I savor the anticipation of BLTs – lightly toasted sourdough, dollop of creamy mayo, crunch of Romaine, salty bacon fried crisp.

I must pick them on the sly. Noah eats them hot off the vine.

And if you saw the withered, sickly branches from whence they came, you'd be shocked. I'm not sure what's wrong with our tomato plants this year. The leaves have crisped brown and crinkled, and the plants shrivel toward the ground. Yet they continue to produce one delectable scarlet orb after another.

It shouldn't surprise me, really, that so much perfect beauty is born from rotten ugly.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17, King James]


Reading the Old Testament to an Inquisitive Five-Year-Old

Nearly every night Rowan begs me to tell him a bedtime story. "Honey, I'm just not a storyteller. I'm more of a snuggler," I tell him, which isn't entirely true. After all, I tell stories here nearly every day. But not the kind of stories Rowan wants to hear, fantastical tales of good guys and bad guys, drama, dragons and giants.

I think that's why the Bible appeals to him so much.

Rowan and I are reading the Old Testament together most nights before bed – a children's version of the Bible, which frankly is challenging enough for me.

Rowan is transfixed by the stories. Some nights he even chooses the Bible over Harry Potter [why I even give him the choice of the Bible or Harry Potter is probably fodder for another blog post altogether].

The trouble is, you can't read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, without it provoking 146 tricky questions. So every night we delve into Theology 101, Rowan and I.

He is particularly troubled by the story of the mothers in 1 Kings 3. "Why would the king cut the baby in half?" he asks, eyes wide. I explain the concept again and again: that King Solomon wasn't really going to take his sword and cut a living baby in two. He was merely trying to trick the truth out of the two women, in order to discern who was the true mother.

The next morning, though, I hear Rowan ask Brad the questions again as he hunches over his bowl of Rice Krispies. I think he remembers who has the theology degree in the house.

The story of Abraham and Isaac also poses a difficult question. "Would you kill me if God told you to?" Rowan asks, interrupting me just as Abraham suspends the knife over his son. I hesitate. "Probably not," I admit. "Abraham was very brave, and had a lot of faith in God to trust that his son would not be harmed. But I think I might be too afraid to have that much trust in God," I tell Rowan.

He seems relieved by my answer, even when I remind him that God isn't the kind of God who would really make me kill my own son.

"Why is God  so mean?" Rowan asks in the middle of some stories, like Job. "Why is God  so mad?" he inquires when we read stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and their exile in Babylon.

I try to explain.

"In the old, old days, before Jesus, people used to give God animals to show how much they appreciated him as a way to thank him and honor him," I tell Rowan. "But they kept disobeying God, and forgetting about him. And that made God mad and sad."

I tell Rowan that later God sends us his son, Jesus, and Jesus becomes all the animals wrapped into one gift when he dies on the cross, which is why we don't have to give God animals anymore.

I don't mention the bloody parts – the animal sacrifices and the burnt offerings. But then we read 1 Kings 18, the story where Elijah's sacrifice to God proves more powerful than King Ahab's sacrifice to the false god Baal, and I'm forced to explain the history of sacrifice to Rowan.

There's no avoiding the unsavory parts of the Bible, even in a children's version.

The Old Testament is teaching Rowan and me the hard truth about sin. But it's also illustrating why Jesus is such a necessary and bright light in our lives.

"We need Jesus," I tell Rowan. "We can't obey God all on our own; it's too hard. We make so many mistakes." Rowan nods. I think he understands.

Still, I'm relieved when I see we are close to completing the Old Testament readings. Matthew is on deck for tomorrow night. I will welcome Jesus with open arms.

We are considering the spiritual practice of parenting – what it means to prayerfully parent – with Ann Voskamp at Holy Experience this week. I wonder...does this flawed and sometimes laborious reading of the Old Testament with Rowan count as prayerful parenting? Have you ever read the Old Testament with a young child? What was your experience like?

holy experience


Walking and Drifting

Two years ago I bought a chaise lounge as a birthday gift to myself. I bought it to create a place of rest, a contemplation corner in the backyard. The trouble is, I can’t contemplate there. I try, but every fiber of my being objects.

First I notice the pavers look like a barn floor, garden debris and mowed grass blades and remnants from last night’s supper scattered beneath the metal table. How can I rest when carpenter ants scavenge brittle pizza crust? When a rainbow of moon sand from this afternoon’s play glitters across the cement, begging to be swept?

So I sweep. Return broom to garage. And I sit again.

Next I notice the empty suet cage swinging in the hot breeze. A chickadee flutters nearby, rustling in the crab apple, looking for dinner. I spring to my feet, open a package of sunflower suet and place it in the feeder. Inside I crumple the plastic wrapper, toss it in the trashcan, wash my hands. I return to the patio and sit again.

The lawn looks brown and crisp, burned around the edges from last week’s heat wave. I walk around the back corner of the house to flip the sprinkler switch, zone four. I return to the patio and sit again.

And so it goes. Up down, up down. Sit, sweep, putter, sit, spring.

Contemplation morphs into an aerobic workout.


One night last week I walked on the trail after dinner. We’d eaten at Red Robin, and I’d ordered the turkey burger with chipotle mayo. The thing was a monstrosity, and combined with a basket of steak fries, I left the restaurant feeling like the Queen Mary 2 chugging out the door.

Two hours later, a couple of turkey burger burps on the path were enough to tell me that running, my standard choice for a good calorie burn, was out of the question. I slowed to a brisk walk.

Cicadas pulsed, their prehistoric bodies hidden amongst leafy branches. The sound undulated like waves, ceasing abruptly then beginning again in unison, like they had a secret they didn’t want to share as I walked beneath walnut and linden trees.

Dragonflies swooped low then shot straight up, hovered motionless, then dove again, circling in wide arcs over the grassy field.

A telephone jangled in a nearby house, an old-fashioned ring, like the phone that used to hang on the kitchen wall, cord dangling in a knotty bunch, rotary dial holes in plastic disc a perfect fit for my index finger.

In chapter three of God in the Yard, L.L. Barkat suggests that if we have access to a natural space, we should go outside every day for a week, no matter what the weather. She suggests we bring a tarp or a blanket and lie down for at least 15 minutes, preferably for an hour.

“You’re not here to make something happen,” she writes. “You’re here to participate simply by sensing the world.”

I went outside, but I didn’t lie down. I walked instead.

And that’s when I realized: walking is a form of contemplation for me, a form of “drifting” as Barkat describes it in God in the Yard.

Walking allows my mind to rest and flow. The repetitive movement of limbs distracts the brain; while my body “accomplishes a task,” my mind is lulled into relaxation.

While running is too physically demanding for me to do anything other than lament and complain, walking is gentler. Walking allows my senses to open to my surroundings.

To smell the summery scent of mowed grass.

To hear the piercing cry of a soaring hawk.

To see thunderheads stacked high, purple like a bruise in the late evening sky.

I walked. Heel-roll-to-toe, heel-roll-to-toe, sneakers thumping concrete. My breath matched the cadence of step.

I heard the murmurs of God.

Where have you heard the murmurs of God lately?

Writing about place today with L.L. Barkat and friends at Seedlings in Stone...and Unwrapping Tuesday with Emily at Chatting at the Sky.


Lighting Lamps

For most of you who have been reading this blog for awhile, it probably goes without saying that I am a highly prepared person.

I never pulled an all-nighter in college. I didn’t have to; I wrote all my papers in advance of the deadline.

I make lists and lists of lists and feel distinct glee when I cross items off those to-do lists. Before I leave my office at the end of each workday, I make a list of priorities to be accomplished the following day, so I can hit the ground running when I come into work.

I’m always on time. In fact, I’m usually early. Because as my dad is fond of saying, “If you’re on time you’re late!”

I was raised in a military household; my dad was a sergeant major in the Army. Precision and preparedness were, and still are, my way of life.

A few summers ago I read Revelation for the first time as part of an intensive New Testament class I took at my church. I’ll never forget when one of my classmates announced in the middle of class that she was ready for the Second Coming of Jesus. She told us matter-of-factly that she looked forward to it.

“I’m ready,” she announced, rather without warning. “I’d like to see Jesus ride right into this world on his white horse with his sword dipped in blood. I’m ready to see who’s left standing.”

“No! No!” I blurted. “I’m not ready! I’m not prepared! I do not want to see Jesus ride into this classroom right now!”

My classmates chuckled nervously, but I spoke the truth.

I don’t know if I am ready to meet Jesus face to face. I don’t know if I’m prepared. I may be prepared for work tomorrow. I may be prepared for the next dinner party I host. But am I prepared for Jesus?

I think I may have my priorities mixed up.

Yesterday in church we read the parable of the bridesmaids, in Matthew 25:1-13. And I saw myself in the bridesmaids with the unlit lamps – the ones who had procrastinated and forgotten to fill their lamps with oil.

I’m not a procrastinator, but I am easily distracted by what I perceive to be the more important pursuits – my earthly pursuits.

Sure my lamp is lit some of the time. Sure my actions shine the light of Jesus, some of the time. But certainly not all the time.

My wick flutters out when I yell at Rowan to brush his teeth for the 43rd time in 15 minutes.

My wick sputters when I roll my eyes and mutter about the basket of laundry at Brad’s feet as he watches SportsCenter.

My wick grows dim when I gossip about a co-worker or an acquaintance.

My wick flickers out when I am envious of a friend’s accomplishments: a publication, a new writing gig.

So how do I reprioritize? How do I shift my attention from earthly pursuits to heavenly ones? How do I keep God’s light shining brightly?

  1. I read the Bible. Not every day – I’m not that disciplined – but as often as I can. God’s word keeps me grounded and reminds me of what my true priorities should be.
  2. I read spiritual literature. This summer I’ve read The Hole in Our Gospel, God in the Yard, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Chasing Superwoman and I’m Outnumbered – all of which offered unique approaches for melding spirituality into everyday life.
  3.  I pray. I ask God for patience and guidance in my daily life. I ask him for help in keeping his light shining brightly through me.
And I remember: no matter how many times my wick is extinguished, God lights it again and again and again. The Lamplighter never gives up on me.

Are you prepared for the Second Coming? How do you work at preparing to meet Jesus?


Slicin' and Dicin' with Kids

I used to love to cook. Back before we had kids, Brad and I would make dinner together. I found the slicing and dicing, methodical chopping and stirring, relaxing – a peaceful transition from the hectic workday into evening.

Brad was typically the head chef; I was the assistant. He kneaded fragrant rosemary focaccia; whipped eggs into stiff peaks; stirred  exotic sauces and crisp broccoli and peppers over the blue flame, sizzling rainbow in hot wok. I washed greens. Chopped carrots, sliced water chestnuts. We worked in quiet harmony to the rhythmic sound of knife on cutting board.

And then we had kids.

Almost overnight, cooking morphed into a chore squeezed between changing diapers and collecting strewn Legos. Before we even realized it, we were dining on frozen ravioli smothered in lukewarm spaghetti sauce straight from the jar. I found myself snacking on Gerber vegetable wagon wheels and apple puffs instead of fresh-from-the-oven Naan and roasted red pepper dip.

Thankfully, as our boys have grown from toddlers to youngsters, we’ve slowly returned to healthier cooking. Sure there are still nights when I call grilled cheese sandwiches and a can of Campbell’s tomato soup dinner, but more often than not, we cook from scratch. And increasingly, the boys help.

I won’t sugarcoat this. Having a five-year-old and a nine-year-old “help” in the kitchen isn’t always fun or easy, especially for this neat-freak mom. 

More potato peels land on the floor than in the sink.

After a cookie-baking session, the kitchen looks like it’s been targeted by a crop duster.

And there are times when I erupt in frustration, “Okay, everyone out, out of the kitchen! Go watch TV for crying out loud!” Yes, sometimes I insist that my children watch television.

But mostly I see the benefits through the haze of flour dust. Chronic multi-tasker that I am, I see cooking dinner with my kids as a way to accomplish a necessary task and spend quality time with them. Cooking together also introduces them to new foods. Noah loves mushrooms; Rowan eats hummus, artichokes and avocados.

Just this week Noah helped Brad and I make a creamy mushroom pasta for dinner. We let Noah use a knife to slice the baby Portobello’s, and he stood on the stepstool delicately slicing while I tried not to hover.

Brad fired up the burner, warmed the skillet, added olive oil and butter.

I chopped yellow pepper and grated fresh Parmesan cheese. Sliced Canary melon.

Rowan watched Sponge Bob Square Pants (hey, I never said it was perfect).

The scent of mushrooms, sizzling earth, filled the kitchen. Brad added a splash of balsamic vinegar, sharp and acrid, and my mouth watered. I sipped a glass of crisp, cool Chardonnay.

We cooked.

Creamy Mushroom Pasta

1 box fettuccine
1 package baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 yellow or red pepper, diced
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ Tbs. butter
Splash balsamic vinegar
15 oz. low-fat Ricotta cheese
Dash of sea salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese

[Note: this recipe is Brad’s creation from scratch – isn’t that cool? Anyway, after he ate the dish, he thought it need a little something more. We decided the addition of garlic – say 2 or 3 cloves, minced – and a splash of white wine would be good]

1. Cook fettuccine to al dente.

2. In large skillet over medium-high heat, sauté mushrooms in olive oil and butter. Add splash of balsamic vinegar. Stir for a few moments. Stir in Ricotta cheese. Add salt to taste and pepper.

3. Drain pasta and return to large pan. Add mushroom/Ricotta mixture. Plate servings. Add grated Parmesan cheese on top.

I served the pasta with a simple side salad and sliced Canary melon.

Linking up for the first time with Ann Kroeker's Food on Fridays. Yum!


Lessons from The Hole, Part 5: What's the Church Got to Do with It?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted about Richard Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel, but I’ve still thought about it quite a bit. I admit, I was rattled by Stearns’ opinions on the role of the church in the fight against global poverty. He tows a hard line and doesn’t shy away from making critical statements about the typical American church. Consider these words:

“When our churches become spiritual spas in which we retreat from the world, our salt loses its saltiness, and we are no longer able to impact culture” (page 180).

When I first read those lines I thought to myself, “Now wait a minute, Stearns. That’s not fair. My church is not a spa for crying out loud! And what’s wrong with a retreat anyway, a place for peace, a sanctuary for respite and spiritual rejuvenation? I need that!”

Yet when I look hard at my own church, I realize we can do more as a congregation. Southwood, I would guess, does better than a lot of churches in dedicating a decent percentage of its budget to missions, both local and global. I don’t know the numbers, but I can discern from the number of mission trips to Tanzania and Honduras, the increasing number of initiatives that benefit our sister churches in those countries, and by the number of local agencies we partner with that Southwood’s priorities are in the right place.

But can we do more? Absolutely. I don’t know what my church’s long-term plans are for global missions, but personally, I would like to see a larger percentage of the budget dedicated to Southwood’s missions overseas. And yes, I mean at the expense of other programs that might benefit me.

Stearns says this about a church’s balance between meeting internal and external needs:

“I’ve been in churches whose bulletins read like the table of contents for Psychology Today, listing programs and support groups for depression, anxiety, divorce recovery, bipolar disorders, and dieting, not to mention aerobics, Pilates, cooking classes, and Tae Kwon Do. It’s not that those churches shouldn’t minister to their own members, but there should be a balance between external and internal ministry.” (page 180).

The blame, of course, doesn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of the church leaders. They are simply giving members what they clamor for.

I’m no different.

I won’t pretend that I don’t want more adult education classes; more luncheons and occasions to connect with church acquaintances; more Sunday school opportunities for my kids (frankly, I’d love to see year-round Sunday school; summer Sundays with my kids squirming in the pew are getting a bit old); more speakers and programs that might pique my spiritual interest.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t occasionally looked at other churches around town and thought, “Why can’t Southwood have a program like that?” Or “How did that church get her for a speaker? Why doesn’t my church have a speaker series like that?”

The selfish part of me says more, more. The selfish part of me insists that my spiritual growth is more important than the nameless, faceless people in Africa and South America.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this book, it’s that it’s not all about me. I have enough. My family has enough. We have far more than enough, while so many millions have nothing.

This, of course, leads to the biggest question of all: not only what the church is going to do to address global poverty, but what am I doing to do?

Seriously. I’ve read the book. I’ve written five posts about it. I’ve thought about it. So now what?

Here comes the lame-brain answer: I don’t know, exactly. I do know thinking about global poverty isn’t nearly enough. I do know that I feel convicted to do something. But exactly what that something is…I’m not sure. I will tell you that I’ve been turning an idea or two around in my head these last few weeks, so I am working toward a something. And I will certainly let you know when I decide what that something is exactly, in case you care.

So for now, I’ll end this Lessons from The Hole series on this vague note:

Hear me now. Hold me to it. I will do something.


If you missed any of the previous Hole posts and would like to read them, click here.

And do stop by Jason’s website Connecting to Impact or Sarah’s blog Living Between the Lines. In two weeks (on September 1) they will launch a book club discussion of The Hole in Our Gospel, and they are giving away two free copies…so head over to register for a copy…and be sure to participate in the discussion. It’s going to be good – these two know how to lead a book group!


East of Eden

The sprinklers tick round, more than a dozen of them soaking chartreuse needles, droplets glistening like rhinestones. We dash, yelping, to avoid freezing, drenching spray. Duck beneath giant catalpa with dangling, string-bean pods, hide behind weeping mulberry and draping linden, secret caves of moist, cool shade.

August morning Eden – sun streaming, boys scampering, soft coo of morning dove from bald cypress wisps.

Smell of cedar rises moist and sweet from the woodchip path, warming beneath hot-already sun, and we follow trail to pine cathedral. Norway spruce spring sky-high, bristling boughs cascading like thick shawls off stately ladies’ shoulders.

The boys can’t help themselves, bounding hand over hand, sandal over sandal, scaling stick-straight limbs toward skylight. They perch, slender legs poised on narrow branches, fingers grasping sap-sticky bark. I click camera and call up warnings, bed of springy needles beneath my feet.

Noah rings out names of trees: American basswood, blue spruce, Japanese maple, paper birch.

Rowan clasps prehistoric cicada, its wings whirring, eyes bulging. He carries him gently between two fingers and calls it his "pet" as we stroll the arboretum. We gaze up high at queen cottonwood, leaves sizzling in the breeze like bacon in hot pan, majestic silver maple, quaking aspen, foliage fluttering like butterflies.

We live east of Eden on this fallen Earth. But as we soak in paradise on a quiet August morn, we glimpse the glory of what’s yet to come.

Where do you glimpse God's glory?

Ann Voskamp encourages us to write about what it means to prayerfully parent this week. For the boys and me, this often means we discover and revel in God's presence in nature [Photos from the Maxwell Aboretum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – yes, we have trees in Nebraska!].

holy experience


Patio Mornings

Summer ends tomorrow. The boys head back to school, and I can’t say I’m entirely sorry. Don’t get me wrong, summer was fun. We dipped toes into ocean; squeezed marshmallows between chocolate and grahams; captured fireflies in mason jars; grilled brats and burgers; picnicked and cannonballed; rode bikes; smelled roses; caught Monarchs.

But it’s time. The boys are restless, whining and pleading, “What can I do next? What are we going to do today? What fun thing is happening today?” And I’m tired, a hair edgy, prone to snapping, “Entertain yourself!” or “Figure it out!” when the whining escalates into high-pitched wheedling.

Still, this I will miss when quiet summer dawn gives way to school-morning haste: breakfast on the patio with Rowan, my early riser, as the sun glints like mica through sprinkler spray.

Early mornings are still, save the warbling of the house finch and the crisp chirp of chickadees at the suet. They are cooler, too, now that August sun mellows as September marches closer.

We pad from kitchen through dining room and sun room, out French doors, down concrete steps onto patio. It takes a few trips back and forth: coffee, toasted cinnamon raisin English muffins, sliced strawberries in glass-footed bowls, white grape juice, silverware and napkins. But it’s worth the extra effort.

To sit in pajamas, feet bare, hair bed-rumpled. To sip warm brew as neighborhood yawns and stretches. To watch sun slide above picket fence. To witness morning born with this boy, my early riser.

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day

Linking up with L.L. at Seedlings in Stone for "On, In and Around Mondays" and with Emily at Chatting at the Sky for "Tuesdays Unwrapped."


The Lipstick Cheater

I cheat. On our family budget, that is.

I’ve mentioned here before that Brad and I budget by the old-fashioned envelope system. We allot a certain amount of cash each month to five categories: Michelle’s Personal, Brad’s Personal, Family Fun, Date and Petty Cash. Brad and I each get $100 at the beginning of each month for our personal spending, which sounds like a lot, I know, until you factor in exactly what’s counted as “personal spending.”

For Brad, it’s golf. End of story. He spends nearly every dollar on golf, and during the winter months, he squirrels away his monthly allotment and builds up his summer golf fund.

I, on the other hand, spread my monthly $100 more thinly: dinner or outings with friends; clothes; purses; jewelry; shoes; makeup; magazines and books; Starbucks drive-thru; household trinkets not deemed necessary (i.e. holiday decorations, cute dish towels, embellished throw pillows, candles).

You can probably guess that for me, a place like Target is a war zone. Those automatic doors whoosh open, and I am accosted by a barrage of temptations, from the glitzy purse in Accessories to the Bronzed Raisin Cover Girl lip gloss over in Health and Beauty. Sometimes when we stop at Super Target on the way home from church (yes, Super Target is a mere stone’s throw from our church, a cruel irony), I don’t even go in. I sit in the car while the boys bounce off the seats like pin balls. I send Brad in alone, because I know if I go in, I won’t come out empty-handed.

By the end of the month, I often find myself in the hole. I “borrow” from next month’s allotment, so by the time the first day of the next month rolls around, I start with only $70 or $80, rather than the full $100. There have been months when my wallet’s been emptied by the first week of the month – vacations are especially challenging.

I’ve also perfected the fine art of justification. “Well I need something to mask that bacon smell, don’t I? I'll just pick up a couple of vanilla-scented candles…that’s a total necessity.” Or: “This book is for research, not pleasure…I don’t need to use my own money for research, do I?”

Yes, I did justify Eat, Pray, Love as memoir research.

See what I mean by cheating?

That’s why yesterday, when I heard these lines from Luke 16, I gulped hard:

“Unless you are faithful in small matters, you won’t be faithful in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with great responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” [Luke 16:10-11]

Oh boy.

Brad and I established this budget several years ago in order to become more fiscally responsible. Sure, I can cheat the system – how much damage can a tube of lipstick do, for instance, or a People magazine? Not much, dollar for dollar.

The damage is more significant, though, when you look at the bigger picture. In cheating on the family budget, even in small ways, I betray the trust of my husband and my family. They may not notice, they may not even care, but the fact is, my budget cheating is a betrayal, a breach of trust, nonetheless.

Small cheating leads to bigger cheating, too. I notice that when I’m less diligent about my personal spending, I’m less diligent about family spending as well. I’m more likely to justify more extravagant purchases for the kids, the home, the yard. Suddenly the patio chair cushions look faded and worn; I need vibrant new ones. Even my grocery bill inflates. Suddenly the $5 bottle of Yellowtail Chardonnay isn't good enough; I need the Ravenswood Chardonnay Vintner's Blend for $12.99. 

The line between need and want becomes blurred.

Habitual mini-cheats don’t satisfy; they just fuel the desire for more. And they make it easier to tell myself that I deserve such rewards.

A vigilant adherence to the budget we’ve established has a trickle-down effect: not only do I spend less of my own money, I also spend less money overall. The budget also keeps me focused on the bigger picture, on the fact that I don’t need everything I think I do. That there are more important things than a fresh shade of lipstick or a sea-breeze scented pillar candle.

Sure it’s only $100. But honoring the system is the difference between fruitlessly trying to serve two masters and honestly serving the One and only.

"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." [Luke 16:13]

What about you? Do you stick to a budget? Do you ever cheat? What do you think about the philosophy that if you cheat even a little, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities?


Banging the Bible

I'll never forget my first Bible class. When Pastor Sara suggested we all turn to Exodus, I panicked, flipping back and forth through my brand-new Bible. Deuteronomy, Samuel, Esther, Psalms, Matthew, Mark, Revelation ... where was Exodus?

It occurred to me that perhaps I'd bought a Bible without Exodus.

Finally, my classmate, noticing the frantic page-turning, leaned over and whispered kindly, "Dear, it's a little more toward the front, right after Genesis."

"Great," I thought to myself. "I'm doomed. I'm not even in the right Testament."

I'm writing about the Bible this month in my Journal Star column. Join me over there for the story...


Scent of Glaciers

My head throbs, clanging with a sinus infection I've left untreated for too long. But Noah begs to go for a bike ride and I finally agree, flinging leg over seat as eardrum pulses pain.


We pedal slowly up the street and down the bike bath toward the city rose garden. Noah wants to smell the roses. I can think of better things to do with a plugged nose, but why not? I can still drink in color, if not scent.

We prop our bikes next to Russian Sage and then plunge noses into smooth-as-skin petals, fragrance wafting as bees buzz drunk from bloom to bloom and dragonflies shimmer over fountain pool.

Color explodes in a pastel kaleidoscope – Dolly Parton brass, Laura Bush sherbet, Martha Washington cotton-candy pink.

A ruckus distracts us, and we glance up to see a chocolate Labrador bounding frisky and ungainly through the garden, his owner striding behind him, leash in hand. The man speaks to us, points two rows over, but I can’t make out what he says. Noah and I step closer toward him on the brick path, and he tells us we've missed the most delightfully fragrant rose of them all.

"Over there," the man points. "The Double Delight. I guarantee she'll knock your socks off."

We follow his directions, choose the fullest, broadest blossoms and push our faces deep into coral-tipped moon center. Noah smiles, pollen decorating his nose like golden snowflakes.

"He's right!" he agrees. "This one smells the very best of all!"

The man smiles, content, and trails after loping dog.

The scent intoxicates – I can smell it clearly, even through stuffed nose. This rose smells pure like a glacial stream. We drink deeply, sampling one Double Delight after the next.

We try other roses, but we come back to our favorite for one last draught before pedaling home. Noah chatters about scents of roses as bike wheels turn round. A mile from the rose garden I think I still smell pure sweetness hanging in the still air.  

Today's post is written in honor of the boy who encourages me to smell the roses. Happy birthday, dear Noah.

[The regularly scheduled Lessons from the Hole series will resume next Thursday. Birthdays must be celebrated, after all! ].


How Do I Love Thee?

He asks me the question, and I stop, startled.

" you love me more than God?"

I answer wrong. I know what I am supposed to say. I'm supposed to say no, that I don't love him, my flesh and blood son, more than God. That God comes first. That I love Him first before all else.

I know this intellectually. But I don't feel it in my heart.

I want to be honest with Rowan. I want to tell him the truth. So I do.

"Honey, I think I do love you more than God. But that's not right, and it's complicated. God comes first – you know that God comes first, right? I am trying to put God first, but sometimes it's hard."

"Mommy loves me more than God!" Rowan chants gleefully, interrupting my explanation and skipping across the room. "Mommy loves me more than God!"

I shush him, panicked. "Rowan! Don't announce it like that! Be quiet! Don't say that out loud!"

"Why not?" Rowan asks. "It's just love. Why can't I yell it?"

I don't tell him this, but I shush my son because I'm afraid. I'm afraid someone will hear my guilty admission. It sounds so wrong to hear Rowan chant like that, like he and God are engaged in a "she loves me, she loves me not" game.

I am guilty, ashamed that I have acknowledged this out loud, that I don't love God enough.

The trouble is, I don't know how to love God that way – in a big, deep, human way. I've written about this here before – that it seems I have a professional, rather than a personal relationship with God. And I don't know how to change that. I don't know how to love God from the depths of my heart, the way I love my own children. More than I love my own children.

Brad eases my troubled spirit when I tell him this story. He tells me it's okay, that in loving my boys I demonstrate my love for God, too. That I love Him through them.

But I don't know. That sounds like fuzzy logic to me.

A few days later as we drive to Walgreens, Rowan asks the question again: "Mommy, do you still love me more than God?"

I try a new approach in my answer. "You know, honey," I say. "I love God a little bit more, but that doesn't mean I don't love you and Noah huge amounts, too."

"What??!!" Rowan shrieks. "But you said! You said you loved me more than God!"

I roll up the car windows.

"I know I said that, honey," I explain. "But I'm trying to put God first. Plus, it's not exactly a competition, a love competition between you and God. So I don't know why you keep asking anyway."

"I like to be first," answers Rowan from the back seat.

"I know you like to be first, sweetie. I do, too," I admit. "But God makes everything possible, even me and you and all the love in the world, and that's why He comes first, even though I know it's hard."

Rowan is quiet, pouting. 

I have a feeling this conversation isn't over yet. Between Rowan and me...and between me and God.

"He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less." John 3:30

How do you put God first -- even ahead of your most precious loved ones?

Each week Ann Voskamp encourages us to think about a spiritual discipline. This week we write about the spiritual practice of parenting as part of her series Walk with Him Wednesday.
holy experience


Entitled to Grace

I find many of Jesus’ parables puzzling, but the one that has baffled me most in the past, the one I now realize is most illustrative of the concept of grace, is the story of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20: 1-16. 

In the parable, a landowner hires a group of workers in the early morning to labor for a denarius in his vineyard all day. Later in the morning, the landowner hires another group of workers, and then he does this three more times during the day: at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. When evening comes the landowner instructs his supervisor to pay all the workers their denarius, beginning with the group that was hired in the late afternoon, and ending with the group hired in the early morning. Not surprising, the workers who toiled in the vineyard for twelve hours are furious, bitter and resentful that their pay equals that of the slackers who labored only one hour.

And who do I relate to in this story? The bitter, exhausted workers who slaved all day in the hot sun for the same lousy pay as the laggards who sauntered in for a single hour of work, of course.

“What a rip-off!” I thought to myself the first two or three times I heard this parable in church.

I could not fathom why in the world a boss would be so foolish as to pay the same wage for a top-notch laborer who worked tirelessly, as he did for one who clearly abused the system. In my equal-pay-for-equal-work world, according to my corporate ladder work ethic, this made no sense.

Furthermore, I could not understand the landowner’s response to the disgruntled workers.

“'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius?’” asked the landowner. “’Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'”

All I could think when I heard this response was, “No! You absolutely do not have the right! This is not generosity! This is sheer stupidity!”

Now I realize this story is not, in fact, about sheer stupidity, but about grace.

It’s true that Jesus’ story does not make a bit of fiscal sense, but that’s the whole point. Grace does not make sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. Grace cannot be calculated or formulated, earned or even rewarded for a job well done. Grace is a gift, not a salary. And none of us, not even the disciples themselves, even comes close to earning salvation; all of us are granted salvation as the ultimate gift.

I can’t apply the “I’m entitled to” or the “I deserve” thought process to any part of my life, whether something as shallow as a material pursuit or as serious as my health or the well-being of my family, because it’s all grace. Life is grace. And when it comes to grace, the word deserve isn’t even part of the vocabulary.

All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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