Whitewashed

My number one design trick is paint – white paint, to be specific. Often Brad will come home from work and find a piece of furniture suddenly morphed white – “Oh, the coffee table…you painted it,” he'll observe. Over the years he’s gotten used to this.

I’ve wanted to paint these bedroom dresses for years now. I found them in my grandparents’ basement; my grandfather stored tools in them – rough files, ragged saws, hammers, nails, screwdrivers. They were pretty beat up, but I could see in a glance they had good bones: solid, heavy as all get-up, lovely scrolling on the drawers.




We hauled them out to Nebraska when we moved, and they have served as my bedroom set for the last nine years, all the while their nicked, scuffed, hulking presence a reminder of work to do…someday.

Someday finally came a few weekends ago, when Rowan and I donned our ratty, painty clothes, grabbed brushes and rollers and trays and lifted the can lid to gleaming white.

The project took all day. All. Day. In my enthusiasm I hadn’t considered the dark finish when I embarked on the refurbishing, hadn’t considered it would take four coats to cover every drawer – all 10 of them – and every surface of both dressers.





That’s just like me, by the way – to start a project gung-ho, only to find two coats in that my back aches, and my roller-arm feels weak and I've stepped into the paint tray and left white footprints all over the driveway.

Later, after the dressers had dried and Brad and I had grunted them back upstairs to the bedroom, I stood back to admire my handiwork. The detailing on the drawers popped in the creamy white. The finish shone beneath lamp’s glow.

But when I opened the drawers to place my shorts and shirts and socks back inside, I noticed the grime. Gritty dust had settled between cracks and crevices during the sanding. A tangled, grey cobweb fluttered beneath the back leg.

The ugly, stained interior was a harsh contrast to the gleaming white.

“Is this what I do in my own life, too?” I wondered, as I rubbed a damp towel along the bottoms and into the corners of each drawer.

Whitewash nicks and scuffs? Hide flaws? Sand grime and dirt to filmy dust and blow it away? Coat my surface with slick white, while inside stays ugly, dingy brown?



I think, yes. Sometimes this is exactly what I do.

What’s silly is that sometimes I even whitewash the self I present to God. I pray my polite prayers; I do my good deeds; I read my Bible passages. But do I trust him enough to present the layers beneath that shiny exterior? Do I allow him to see the real me, with the gritty, cobwebbed corners, the dark underbelly? Or do I coat myself pretty and pretend, even to him, that I am clean?

He sees it all anyway, of course.

I guess what I am learning – and learning the hard way – is that the exterior isn’t nearly enough. It’s fine to start there, but I can’t be satisfied with outward acts of faith – the volunteer work; the participation in worship; the bible study group.

No, the process must stretch beyond mere acts, beyond the scraping of the surface, into the dark recesses and dingy corners of my own self. It’s not a place I want to spend much time – it’s ugly in there – cold, dark, filthy rotten. Yet the dark insides are part of who I am, too.

I’d say it’s about time I grab a dust rag and pull open the drawers.



Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
You teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 51: 6-10
What about you? Are you preoccupied with exterior acts? Or do you ask God to work on your gritty insides, too?




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Miracle Worker


I wanted a miracle. Something dramatic and definitive, an experience so obvious I would have no doubt – hardly even a choice – but to believe. I yearned for an experience so life-altering that it would cement my faith forever.

I wanted the road-to-Damascus moment, like the instant Paul was knocked breathless to his knees in the middle of a dusty road, literally blinded by the startling voice of God.

Or the Augustine-in-the-garden moment, when he heard the chanting voices of children reciting a Bible verse and in a heartbeat dedicated the remainder of his life to serving God.

Frankly, I would have been satisfied with a Bob Dylan conversion. "How in the world can Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan for crying out loud, believe in God and I can't?" I would wonder during my disbelieving decades.

What I got was something markedly different. Find out what over at the Lincoln Journal Star...this month I'm writing about miracles...

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Bittersweet


I think sometimes it's the little things in grief that make the heart skip a beat. The milestone occasions – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries – one feels the sting of loss there for sure. But in some ways, it's an expected hole. You step into Thanksgiving or Christmas knowing you step into a gaping abyss, bracing yourself for it, willing yourself to smile, to find joy and thanks.

But it's the unexpected moments that sear my heart and steal my breath.

I place the kettle on the burner, reach into tea canister and pluck fragrant Darjeeling with the purple tag – the tea I bought special when she visited.

Darjeeling was her favorite. She drank two cups each morning, carefully squeezing and then setting the used bag on a tiny plate, saving it to reuse for her second cup later in the morning.


There are just three purple-tagged bags left in my kitchen canister, mixed with the Lipton and the ginger-green. I remember sitting with her on the screened porch, feet tucked beneath floral cushions. I watched chickadees swoop between birches. She did the crossword. We sipped tea.

The boys beg to decorate the house for fall. I haul out Rubbermaid containers packed full of plastic pumpkins, garish leaves, light-up ghosts. A grocery bag sits knotted on top, in it tangled bittersweet, brittle, looping vines and flaming berries bursting from papery husks.

She always stopped to pick me a bag full by the roadside on her way to visit Hilma.




I lay the bittersweet gently on foyer table and mirror shelf, careful.

I hum Silent Night under my breath as I sit on the patio. I don't know why the song springs to mind in early October. But I think of Jon and Janice, standing in the pew of the tiny yellow church in Big Pine Key, hand on hand as we sing the solemn Christmas hymn that Eve.

Sleep in Heavenly peace.

Sleep in Heavenly peace.

I hum and remember.

Bittersweet.


"The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace." Romans 15:13

tuesdays unwrapped at cats

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The Siesta


Does it ever feel to you like Jesus is sleeping on the job? Slacking off? Perhaps not doing everything possible in his power?

I admit, I’ve wondered this in recent days and weeks as we walk the wilderness of grief.

“What could possibly be the point of this suffering?” I asked as my mother-in-law lingered on the edge of death. How could there possibly be any reason for this – her emaciated body, her labored breathing, the minute-by-agonizing minute of her dying?

Yesterday, on the drive home from Minnesota – two days after Janice’s memorial service – I read Matthew 8:23-27: the story of how Jesus calms a violent storm. In the passage, as the boat pitches and the waves crash over the bow, the disciples panic, yelling in fear and begging Jesus for help.

But yet “Jesus was sleeping.”

“What nerve!” I think to myself as I read those lines. How nice for him, tucking in for a siesta while the disciples white-knuckle the oars and glimpse their lives flash before their eyes.

“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” the disciples implore as they shake him awake.

“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” asks Jesus, and then rebukes the wind and the waves into calm stillness.

I ponder these four short verses as we motor past the golden Iowa cornfields on our journey home. And I realize, staring at windmills out the window, that they contain an explicit message for me.

In this passage Jesus tells me that he is in full control, regardless of what it may look like, or how it may appear to my untrusting eye. Jesus sees the big picture when I, blinded by grief or anger or fear, can’t see at all.

The big picture is so murky and unclear when you are up to your eyeballs in horror, grief, suffering, illness, fear and death. Right now I struggle to see beyond the moment – beyond the hour or day, beyond the week or month. Right now I am the panicked disciple, blind to the big picture and terrified of the furious storm.

But yet in those very moments of darkness comes faith.

“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” says Hebrews.

…certain of what we do not see.

I can’t see the big picture right this instant. I can’t answer the questions that continue to rattle – the ones about suffering and agony, dying and grief. I may never discover those answers while I exist on this Earth.

But I am comforted to know that God is in control, that he is not, in fact, asleep on the job – even when it looks that way to my blind eye. 

I have faith that he will calm the furious storm and grant peace in our lives again.

What about you? Have you ever weathered a period in your life when it felt like Jesus may have hunkered down for a nap? How did you keep the faith?
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Be Gentle

I stop short in the driveway and stand staring. It all looks so normal, so everyday, I think to myself, observing the potted impatiens she planted in front of the garage, the Windexed windows, the kitchen light glowing inside.

Who would know what goes on behind that front door, between those brick walls? Who would guess there is grieving and sickness, tears and joy mingled bittersweet?

I watch the grandkids play tag, climb the river birch tree. They yell and laugh, scream and fall in piles on the grass.

A neighbor drives by, slows, points to my husband’s uncle’s car – a 50s Chevrolet convertible parked in the driveway – gives me a thumb’s up. He approves of the car.

But he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that I don’t care a bit about that car, about its funky tail fins and genuine red leather interior. He doesn’t know that I don’t even see it.

...I am guest posting over at Make A Difference to One today – will you meet me over there for the rest of this story?

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Truth Be Told


My friend Kathleen left me a voicemail message a few days ago. She mentioned this blog – how inspiring it is and how impressed she is that I embrace so many small moments of everyday life.

Isn’t that lovely?

Well, I have to say...it's a bunch of bunk. Not what she said – that was indeed lovely...I mean the impression she has of my life.

I called Kathleen back to apologize.

"Believe me," I told her, "for every glimpsed Monarch and golden ray and for every jaunt through billowing prairie grass, there are the other moments."

The times I rant at my kids like a caged lemur and tear the house apart to uncover the missing backpack six minutes before the school bell blares. Those moments. The ones I don't write about.

Truly. For every glimpse of beauty you get here, there are a half dozen more moments of pure bedlam that never make it to the page. Just because I don’t always write about them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

When I launched this blog a year ago I vowed to be real – to chronicle the highs and lows of living faith in the everyday. To catalogue the glitter and the grit.

But yet I find I sometimes whitewash real life so that it mirrors the sheen of perfection I think I see in other Christian bloggers’ lives.

Just recently I emailed Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience to thank her for this post – the one in which she portrays the older siblings fighting and the little one pouting and the teenager sulking and chaos erupting in all corners of her idyllic farmhouse.

That post was a reality check for me.

You see, I tend to place Ann and other bloggers high on a pedestal, the perfect Christian pedestal – the one where the family never forgets to pray before supper, and no one belches loudly and falls off his chair twice in ten minutes in a fit of dinnertime giggles, and the kids hug and share, and the mom doesn’t screech like a blue jay and the dad folds laundry while he watches SportsCenter.

In the email I admitted to Ann that I once bellowed at my kids, “I bet Ann Voskamp’s kids don’t act this way!”

Of course, Noah and Rowan just looked at me dumbfounded, clearly wondering, “Who in the world is Ann Voskamp and why are we talking about her kids?” And then I laughed, because I realized that Ann Voskamp’s kids probably do act that way. At least occasionally. And Ann's probably had a screechy blue jay moment or two herself. 

So let’s set the record straight, just in case I’ve misled you like I misled my friend Kathleen.

Sure I see beauty. Sure I sometimes stroll slowly and breathe deeply and hunt for bugs with the kids and listen for the forlorn call of the hooting owl in the backyard oak tree.

But more often I run around breathless and maniacal. I yell too much and snap too quickly. I urge my kids to “hurry up” at least 46 times every single day. And I most certainly miss more than I see.

That’s the honest truth.

What about you? Do you whitewash your story? Or do you tell it like it is, grit and glory enmeshed?

Linking my imperfect story with Emily over here:

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Wheeling Meals

I load the meals into the back of the mini-van, heavy case of 15 hot entrees in tins, plastic cooler of 15 paper lunch bags folded over milk cartons and sandwiches. Maps spread out on the front seat, CD jangling, we set off.

Len in apartment 31 sits poised in his wheelchair at the table – knife, fork, spoon, napkin and plate spread neatly on a placemat in front of him. He accepts Rowan’s drawing gratefully and points at paintings on the walls and stacked on the floor.

“I’m a portrait artist,” he tells the boys, and we admire the oil painting of a bullfighter in golden costume, flapping scarlet cloth.

One floor up Norma gives the boys a tour of her apartment. We chat about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Noah admires the wreath of plastic autumnal leaves hanging on her front door.

“Thank you for taking the time to talk,” she tells us, closing the door quietly as we walk toward the elevator.

“Did you sign it?” asks Ethyl, about Rowan’s tree picture. When he shakes his head no, she laughs and tells him she would remember who drew it anyway. “How could I forget the boy with that red, red hair?” she asks.

“Why are we doing this?” asks Noah grumpily from the back seat.

He isn't happy with the smell – pungent odor of cooked broccoli wafting from the back. When he complains of feeling gaggy, I roll down all the windows, damp, cold air diminishing the stench. I crank the heat full-blast to counter the Nebraska chill and pass back the box of tictacs.

"Here," I tell him. "Suck on a tictac. Maybe the mint will help."

Noah takes one from the box and presses another beneath his nose during the two hours we drive from house to house.

“We’re doing this because it’s God’s work,” I tell Noah, just a hair snippily. “We’re doing this because God loves when we help other people. Didn’t you see how happy Norma was to show you the pictures of her grandkids? Didn’t you see how excited Ethyl was to take Rowan’s tree drawing?”

When we ring Bev’s doorbell I see the light bulb flicker on and off, on and off. Bev is deaf. I ring and ring, peer through the rectangular glass pane of her front door. I can see her slumped in her easy chair, rumpled afghan slung across shoulders, chin to chest.

She is asleep. I hope she is asleep.

A TV tray piled high with pill bottles and Kleenex and magazines is balanced at her side, oxygen tank propped against the chair. The television is on.

I ring and ring again. Bev doesn't stir.

“We’ll have to come back after we finish our route,” I tell the boys when we climb back into the van. “Maybe she’ll be awake in 20 minutes or so.”

“What? Come back?” Noah bellows. “No! I don’t want to come all the way back. I want to be done and go home.”

I shift the van into park and turn around to face him in the backseat.

“Listen,” I tell him. “Bev has no one. Why do you think she gets meals delivered on Saturday? Do you think she would get meals delivered if she had someone to cook her lunch and dinner like you do?”

Noah is quiet.

“It just smells yucky in here,” he says. “And I’m tired.”

“I know, honey. I know,” I tell him. “But sometimes we have to suffer a little bit to help people who suffer a lot.”

I shift the car into drive and look into the rear view mirror as I pull away from the curb. Noah stares out the window, tictac pressed to his nose.

I don’t know if he gets it. We’ll see in six weeks when we drive the route again.

* * *
Ann Voskamp at Holy Experience asks us to write about the spiritual practice of seeing: how do we have eyes that truly see?

How do you train your eyes to see?



holy experience

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49 Weeks

It's been a mere three weeks since I launched the Shop-Not Project.

So can I take a moment to ask why no one reminded me that fall is NOT the best time for a shopping hiatus?

Cozy sweaters. Lush scarves. Autumnal shades of plum and burgundy and charcoal grey. Funky tights. Velvet pants. Skinny belts. Cardigans.

Need I say more?

Nor did it help that the day after my very first Shop-Not post, my sister called to chat. "Guess what I just did?" she squealed into the phone. Spent a boatload of money at Banana Republic, my most favorite store ever, that's what.

In her defense, she's a college professor and needs to look, well, professional. But still. Did I need to hear all the details about the pants and sweaters and shoes and purses?

"Didn't you read my post yesterday?" I demanded. "Why are you doing this to me? This is just plain mean!" Turns out, she hadn't read the post.

So here's a glimpse of what I've learned so far, in three weeks of not shopping with 49 more weeks staring me straight in the eye (but who's counting?):
  • Do not, I repeat, do not purchase the 58-pound, 600-page (no lie!) Fall issue of In Style magazine.
  • Do treat clothes and shoes with care. The favorite green Bermuda shorts with the salad dressing stain on the back pocket (how I got salad dressing on the back pocket is perhaps a topic for another post) that I casually tossed into the washer and then into the dryer? Ruined with permanently set stains. Not looking forward to wearing those all next summer.
  • Do tune out insensitive comments, like the one Noah uttered last week when he got wind of my Shop-Not Project. "But Mommy, you love to shop," he observed. "And you're going to look so raggedy if you don't buy anything for a whole year!" (he may be right; note stained shorts comment above). Hmmm, raggedy – now that's a look I haven't done yet.
  • Do invest in quality versus quantity. The Payless stilettos with the unglued soles are clearly not going to last until the end of next August.
  • Do not spend time with super stylish sister-in-law for four consecutive days a mere three days after launching Shop-Not.
Suffice to say, I suspect the Shop-Not Project will be a bit of a challenge for me. And so far, the benefits are slim to none. Except for the fact that I have not spent a dime (except on quality dark chocolate...might this be a bad omen of what's yet to come?) in three weeks. That's something, yes?

Besides the monetary savings, reading the Psalms last week reminded me why I launched the Shop-Not Project in the first place: to reprioritize, find balance and learn to live with enough.

Do not be overawed when a man grows rich,
when the splendor of his house increases;
for he will take nothing with him when he dies,
his splendor will not descend with him.
Though while he lived he counted himself blessed –
and men praise you when you prosper –
he will join the generation of his fathers,
who will never see the light of life.
A man who has riches without understanding
is like the beasts that perish.
Psalm 49: 16-20


All psalms aside though, stay tuned...the reality is, Shop-Not may be a rough, raggedy road.

Read more of the Shop-Not Chronicles here.

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She Shined


During one Minnesota snow storm a few years ago my in-laws’ neighbors ventured outdoors, camera in hand, to snap a photo of a rare sight: Jon, my father-in-law, snow-blowing the driveway.

You see, my mother-in-law Janice took care of things like that. She took care of everything – and everyone – and she did it with seeming ease. She fixed appliances, changed the furnace filter, painted walls, snow-blowed the driveway, mowed the lawn, trimmed shrubs, planted flowers, sewed curtains, cooked a mean pot of sloppy Joes, baked an apple pie from scratch with the flakiest crust you could ever imagine, raised two of the kindness men I know and doted on her husband and grandchildren. Oh, and she was an artist, too.

One day a few years ago I launched my “Janice Campaign” – an attempt to emulate my mother-in-law’s domestic prowess and learn to do things myself without always having to ask Brad for help.

I lasted 24 hours. I think it was a broken light bulb still in the fixture that did me in – I couldn’t fathom how to remove it. Brad called Janice, and she suggested we squeeze a raw potato over the jagged shards and twist the broken bulb off that way. It worked. Of course it did.

The thing is, Janice didn’t perceive these chores to be a burden, like I so often do. She embraced them as part of her role as mother, homemaker and wife. She served her family willingly, joyfully and gracefully. Without complaint.

In the 17 years I knew her, I never heard Janice complain. Not about chores, not about the suffering she endured through five years of cancer and chemotherapy. Never once did I hear her utter a bitter or resentful or self-pitying comment. Never once did she bemoan her lot in life, the fact that her time would surely be cut short by the ravages of the disease. Never once did I hear her ask, “Why me?”

“How ya feeling today?” I’d inquire, and her response was always the same: “Oh just fine, pretty good. How are you? What’s happening with the kids?” Given the opportunity, I’d launch into a litany of complaints about fatigue or my frenetic schedule or the cold I had. And I’d only realize it later, after I’d hung up the phone: that I'd been consoled for my runny nose by a woman who had cancer.

The thing was, she sympathized; Janice truly sympathized. She didn’t offer empty consolation or think to herself, “I can’t believe her nerve, complaining about a silly cold.” I know she didn’t think that. Because Janice wasn’t that way. Janice truly cared about others, about our supposed suffering, about how we were feeling. She always, always sacrificed her own needs for those around her. No matter what her circumstances.

I couldn’t have asked for a better, kinder, more loving, generous, life-giving mother-in-law. Her love and generosity, her spirit, lifted me up for 17 years and will continue to do so every day for the rest of my life.

Janice Johnson was, in a word, graceful. And I am blessed that her light shone directly on me.

Janice Mae Johnson
March 21, 1941 - September 18, 2010

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

Painting of Caribbean boats by Janice Johnson, 1998.

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Sustenance


They come bearing food: homemade meatballs in fragrant sauce and spaghetti in a colander, still hot from the pot; buttery garlic bread, fresh greens. They walk down the sidewalk, pot holders and bowls in hand, and set dinner on our kitchen counter and dining room table.

And then we pray. And eat. And laugh. And pass plates. We are comforted. Embraced.

They invite us over for enchiladas and lemonade on the back patio, treat us to ice cream cones. We pet their cats and dogs and throw balls across the yard and laugh at face-licks and big paws. 

These neighbors, these friends who nourish us with food and love, support and companionship, they sustain me. They lift me up when all I want to do is crawl under the covers and suggest to the kids that they eat yogurt for dinner.

These friends and family who mail cards, leave voicemail messages, send emails, post Facebook notes, make dinner, pray prayers, give gifts, they are the face of God shining hope and love on the boys and me, as we miss Brad and worry and weep.


"Do you think Dad be home in weeks or months or decades?" asks Noah. And he's serious, because this time without their dad the fun one, the one who weaves fantastical stories and chases them across dewy grass and tickles rib cages and doughy thighs until they collapse in glee this time feels long to them.

It feels long to me, too, as I wait for the update calls, the reports. As I wait for that call, the one where he tells me she is gone.

Brad (along with his brother and father) is doing the hard work the bedside-sitting, the hand-holding, the bandage-changing. Fielding phone calls and managing visitors and consulting with hospice nurses. I'm just pinch-hitting, simply walking through the daily routine, tending, keeping the listing ship upright.

Waiting.

And in that waiting, in the midst of dullness and hand-wringing fret, friends and loved ones rally. They bring comfort in kind words, prayers, sweet gifts, hot meals and cool ice cream. 

And I am grateful for the sustenance.


"For where two or three come together in my name,
there am I with them."
Matthew 18:20

Photos: Cards of comfort and encouragement and necklace a gift from dear friends. I wear it every day.

Linking up with The Rusted Chain for Fingerprint Friday.

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Flowers on the Sill


I cut fresh flowers with garden shears and place them here and there around the house, determined to salvage the last petals of summer before they drift wrinkled and limp to dry grass.

Delicate autumn clematis, downy snow heaped on picket fence. Magenta coneflower, two blossoms remaining, resolute amidst prickly seed heads. Fountain grass feathers, bowing low in cool North breeze, tickling forearms as I carry them bunched in my fist through the back door. Heavy golden rod and lavender aster like sweater buttons, nestled next to browning phlox, crinkled-crisp primrose.

These flowers, the last of summer's bounty – tucked into robin's egg blue vase on bedroom dresser, draped from wedding Waterford on dining room table, balanced on window sill and kitchen counter and living room mantle – they are my way, I think, of capturing a bit of beauty and joy as the sun sets and the darkness of winter draws closer.



They are my small way of containing life and love, vigor and sunshine, blooming beauty even as valley darkness descends.

Rowan harvests seeds from drooping sunflower. He plucks smooth shells from tired, decaying flesh, piles them on the garden pavers – a treat for the chickadees, he says – and drops them one by one into a Tupperware, to save for later, a snack while he watches TV.




He holds the seeds in one hand, and as I snap the camera I think of new from old, life from death, glory from grit. And I know that this hard time is one of turning, that life and love and goodness grow and bloom, from wreckage and rot and sorrow and tears.

And even from death itself. 





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Envelope for Africa

“We have a small kitchen,” he observes, sitting on the counter, dangling feet casting shadows in the flickering candlelight.

“Actually, we don’t,” I answer. “Not really. Not compared to most people in the world.”

But when I say it, when I tell Noah this, I know in my heart he’s heard me say the same. I’ve complained about a too-small kitchen, a too-small house before. He’s heard those words spill bitter from my own mouth.

“Let’s take a look at this,” I suggest to Noah later that night, leading him toward the computer. Together we read Ann Voskamp’s post about meeting her adopted daughter, the Guatemalan girl her family sponsors through Compassion.

Noah stands next to me in his Walle pajamas as I scroll through Ann’s photos, noting the family’s tiny, squalid kitchen; the bed squeezed into the room with corrugated tin walls; the row of worn stuffed animals on the shelf; the laundry strung outdoors in the drizzle and draped across the cramped bedroom.

“What do you think about that kitchen?” I ask Noah, pointing to cinder block walls and cement floor and dingy sink and tumbling plastic plates and ramshackle cupboard with no doors.

“It doesn’t look very nice,” he admits, his eyes still glued to the computer screen.

“Why aren’t there any windows?” he wonders. “And what’s that blue stuff for?” he inquires about the plastic tarp pulled loosely over gaps between tin, flimsy shield against wind and rain.

“How would you like to share a bedroom with six other people?” I ask him.

“I definitely wouldn’t want to share my room with Rowan,” he says quietly, grinning. 

Noah and I talk for a long time about what we have, compared to what others have not. We talk about our home here in Nebraska – our newly remodeled kitchen with the six-burner gas stove and the stainless steel fridge; our two bathrooms; our goosefeather pillows; our backyard patio with the striped umbrella and cozy seat cushions and potted plants.

We also talk about Noah’s money, the dollar bills spilling from his wallet that’s crammed into the back of his dresser drawer.

He brings down his wallet from upstairs, and we sort his cash into three equal piles on the desk: one for spending, one for saving, one for giving. I ask Noah what he might like to use his giving pile to support.

“I’d like to give it to our Africa girls,” he says, referring to Mary Christian and Neema, the two Tanzanian orphans we sponsor through our church.

I hand him a plain white business envelope, and together we go upstairs to his bedroom. Noah sits on the edge of the bed, presses the creases from ten one-dollar bills and slips them into the envelope. I write on the front, “Noah’s Sisters in Africa."

Noah places the envelope into his dresser drawer and slides it shut with a smile.

Ann Voskamp has written the most compelling series of posts I think I have ever read about her trip with Compassion International to Guatemala. And she asks us this week what we are doing for the least of these.


holy experience

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This Is How I Bake a Cake


Grocery shop for cake ingredients with young urchins (ur, offspring).

Drive home. Unpack groceries.

Begin to mix ingredients for cake.

Realize cocoa is missing from cabinet.

Send Noah and Rowan scampering barefoot up the sidewalk to Karna’s to borrow two tablespoons of cocoa.

Noah and Rowan return empty-handed.

Send Noah and Rowan next door to Marge’s to borrow two tablespoons of cocoa. 

Noah and Rowan return empty-handed.

Toss kids in car, still barefoot, and drive to neighborhood mart.

Purchase can of cocoa marked up 40%.

Drive home.

Mix cake ingredients as Rowan bangs on every pan strewn across kitchen floor.

Place two cake pans in oven.

Begin to put ingredients away.

Notice baking powder.

Notice baking powder is still unopened.

Curse quietly.

Open oven, remove cake pans.

Pour batter back into bowl.

Measure two teaspoons baking powder and mix into batter.

Pour batter back into dirty cake pans. Clean edges of cake pans with paper towel.

Place pans back into oven.

Reset timer.

Pick up head – which has popped off, hit the ceiling, and rolled across the kitchen floor – and place it squarely back on neck.

* * *

I emailed a description of this cake-making project to my husband in Minnesota. I thought, as he cared for his mom, that he might need a good laugh. And me in the kitchen, especially baking, is always fodder for a good laugh.

Brad is the cake-baker around here. I suppose I didn't need to tell you that at this point.

And just so you know, this cake-making extravaganza was for the Halloween party Noah planned for the three of us Saturday afternoon.

Yes, it is September. Yes, it is 80 degrees outside. Yes, we bobbed for apples, ate spiderweb cake, danced to the Monster Mash and drew pictures of Jack O Lanterns.

And no, my head did not pop off again.

* * *

Doesn't the cake look pretty? Good thing, because it tasted terrible. Brad's cousin, when I served her a slice Saturday evening, politely asked if it was a health food cake. With two sticks of butter in the batter and one in the frosting, I'd have to say no, it was definitively not health food. All dry and crumbly it did taste like a health food cake though. Luckily the kids didn't care.

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Fundamentalists and Liberals Unite...Well, Sort Of


On Saturday night Brad’s cousins stopped by en route from Minnesota to Colorado to stay a night with the boys and me. Seaneen and Michelle had visited Janice, Brad’s mom, in Minneapolis over the weekend, and were making the long trek home. Nebraska is the perfect resting place in-between.

The three of us sat in the living room, crickets creaking through open windows, night air cool, and talked late into the night. It was good to share stories about Janice – it’s healing, this process of  suffering and celebrating aloud in communion with loved ones.

After a while the talk turned to religion, specifically Old Testament laws and gay people in the Christian church. I know, nothing like touching a hot-button topic with my husband’s cousins, two women I barely know. Add to that the fact that one of Brad’s cousins describes herself as a fundamentalist Christian and the other a passionate liberal, and that I fall somewhere in the middle (okay, maybe a hair further to the left). It made for an interesting debate.

What I appreciated, though, was that although the three of us disagreed on virtually everything, the discussion was courteous and respectful. No one leapt onto a soapbox and lambasted the other for her convictions. No one’s words were self-righteous or demeaning. It was simply an interesting, respectful conversation.

Maybe that’s simply a product of the fact that the cousins and I haven’t known each other a long time and don’t know each other well. But I don’t know. I think it might be about something more.

You see, the one thing the three of us did agree on was Jesus’ words in the Gospels:

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.' The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these. (Mark 12: 30-31)

The three of us talked about these specific commandments on Saturday night. And on Sunday morning, when I opened my worship program to read the lesson for the day, it was those exact words I read again.

Christians can read and interpret the nuances of the Bible in a thousand different ways. We can disagree over a thousand various words and phrases. But two basic commandments have the power to transcend all conflict.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Isn’t it really that simple?

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Signs

I'm thinking about signs lately, God signs. I admit, I've always been a skeptic when it comes to signs from God. I'd often hear people mention signs and miracles and I'd roll my eyes and harrumph to myself about coincidence and fluke and living in the real world.

My sister-in-law Vanessa and I talked long about signs this weekend. She lost her father – Tom, with the hearty laugh and love of Texas home cooking – just a few weeks ago. Vanessa told me the details of her dad's passing and the signs of God's presence she experienced, from the double rainbow arched over her parents' house the afternoon of her dad’s death, to the "God bless" written in dust on the back of a truck and the "I am here" emblazoned on a tee shirt passing by.

I believe Vanessa. Her stories give me hope. But yet I wonder. Where are my signs? Where's my double rainbow? The tee shirt slogan? The song lyrics? The message from God? I could use one right now. I’m asking God for signs, to feel his presence and hope and love as we walk through my mother-in-law's illness. But truthfully, Heaven’s lips are zipped.

It helps to know I'm not alone in this. I read about 105 psalms this weekend – a psalm-reading binge, if you will. Frankly, a girl can page through lot of psalms in a seven-hour drive from Lincoln to Minneapolis, let me tell you.

The praise psalms are lovely, but it was the bitter laments I was drawn to this weekend. The words that begged to be heard. The angry words. The lonely sighs. The gut-wrenching pleas.

“Hear, O Lord, and answer me…”

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

“Hear, O Lord, my righteous plead; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer…”

As I sat on Vanessa's back deck and watched Noah and Rowan and my niece and nephew inflate balloons and send them spiraling off the top of the jungle gym, I thought about the last time I made the drive home from Minnesota to Nebraska, just a few short weeks ago, following my mother-in-law's surgery. I'd felt hopeless then, too – angry about needless suffering and grief-stricken over the days I knew were soon to come. The days that are here now, heavy and long and slow.

As I had maneuvered through Des Moines highway traffic toward the I-80 exit on that drive home, I caught a billboard out of the corner of my eye.

“Someday you will die. And then you will find God,” it stated in bold white letters splashed across a black background, EKG flatline cutting a jarring line across the middle of the board.

I laughed as I recalled the billboard that had loomed over yellow dashes, weaving cars and hulking semis. Maybe I'd gotten a sign from God after all, I realized. It seems he knows me pretty well. Rainbows and tee shirt slogans aren't explicit enough for me.

Nothing short of a billboard will do.


“Send me a sign of your favor…”
Psalm 86:17

So tell me...have you ever received an explicit sign from God? How was it presented to you?

Linking up with Spiritual Sundays.

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Healing Sky

Life is tumultuous these days. I am weary, lugging my heavy heart through everyday minutiae. It’s easy to succumb, to roll up in a blanket on the couch and not get up; to flip channels through eye-glaze haze. To sigh and bemoan and lament as the walls press in.

Yet my mind and body crave air, wide spaces, big sky. So we go, the kids and I. We go to where the wind rushes thick and loud in our ears. Where our hair blows tangled. Where the sun sets hot and crickets leap startled and caterpillars munch milkweed into kaleidoscope designs.

We go to the grassy plains.




I press the pedal close to the floor as soon as the Capitol fades blurry in the rearview mirror and roll down the windows, wind whipping, boys laughing.

When we arrive the preserve is empty, save one photographer buried beneath camouflage tarp, mammoth lens protruding like a periscope from the folds.

We meander. Truthfully I trudge while the boys skip. But with each step, my body lightens. Breath evens. Limbs settle into rhythm.

The boys capture soldier beetles. The yellow bugs are easy prey, bumbling slowly in flight like tiny blimps, gathering in mossy brown center of sunflowers, lazy drunk on nectar. Whole families picnic in those petal-framed circles, and as the stalks pitch and bow in the wind, I imagine it must be a little like dining on the plunging pirate ship ride at the state fair.




At the top of the hill we stop and turn, facing west as the dry wind guests fierce and the sun slides low, pond glinting like mica.

“It looks like the land goes forever,” says Noah, and we talk about how this was the way Nebraska used to be, before acres of corn and soybeans, before grain elevators and downtowns and cul-de-sacs. When wagon wheels lurched over uneven ground toward promise and hope.


We walk.

Noah spots a stick bug, spindly twig delicate against waving grass.

Rowan finds a katydid, emerald treasure buried deep in goldenrod.

Cottonwood leaves dance and crickets sing loud and sunflower leaves rustle as the clouds light up in Monet display. Each moment is more spectacular than the next as the sun inches, spilling across shimmering field in God gold.






Rowan spots a monarch caterpillar, suspended upside down beneath the milkweed leaf like a circus acrobat in gaudy yellow stripes.

“He’s so soft! Oh Mommy, feel how soft,” he begs. And for once I do, I touch a bug, gently stroking with the tip of my index finger. It feels like a baby’s forearm, plump and powder-smooth.



It’s getting late. The sun falls beneath the field, the wind stills and the grasses sing louder with nighttime music, crickets’ steady song, gulping frogs, a splash of something beneath the algae pond water. I cajole the boys back to the van. Rowan lingers, leaping to catch a hawk moth between clasped hands, and I call him in from draping dusk.



We drive the back roads home, pebbles pinging off metal doors, dust billowing a Hansel Gretel path behind. I turn the van onto pavement toward glittering city. Out dust-streaked windows, scarlet sailors’ delight sky fades to grey.




“…the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Isaiah 6:3





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Images from Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, outside Lincoln, Nebraska, September 2010.

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All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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