Hi. Remember Me?

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I haven’t blogged in three months.

I’m not proud of this.

The last time you heard from me I had sore legs from hiking and was reading really good books in the mountains of Colorado. That was one wonderfully restorative vacation and I needed every second of it. I read the last post I wrote on August 1st, and thought about how much has happened in the past three months. It was a good thing I took advantage of the hikes, the books, the family time, the quiet, because I came home and the whirlwind began. I decided to stop talking, step back, and listen. You can learn a lot in the silence, and in many ways listening was also restorative. It brought me to a place of realizing that I know very little, and control even less.

I don’t really know the best way to condense the last three months, but here’s at least what I think I’ve learned:

1) If your 17 year-old cat has become skin and bones and is limping around the house howling, she is trying to tell you that her time on earth is done and she would like for you to help her cross over to the other side. Our old cat Mattie died about six weeks after we returned from Colorado. Honestly, we’re not cat people and she’s the only one we’ll probably every own (please, Lord), but we had grown fond of her presence, if for no other reason that she stubbornly maintained her place as the senior pet and she didn’t take any crap from the dogs. I liked her grit and tenacity. When it was time to go, she let us know, but we were dense and mostly irritated with her crankiness so we didn’t take the hint. I won’t go into the details, but things got messy with her bowel functions, which was the catalyst for realizing that her nine lives were up. So Kyle and Colin loaded her up and took her to the cat doc and they did that thing they do. I still miss her.

2) When the college graduate comes home to live because he doesn’t have a job, it’s not the end of the world. I always pictured this as a kind of depressing scenario, filled with tension and someone feeling a sense of failure. But now I know better. He’s been under our roof for a reason, and the truth is I don’t know how we would have made it through the last three months without him living in our house. And while we’ll all be thrilled when he is able to get the job and the funds to be on his own, this will happen when it is supposed to happen, and I don’t wring my hands over it or wonder what people are thinking. He does his own laundry, likes leftovers (we eat a lot of these), plans movie nights, and helps in the family business. More about that later.

3) Change happens just when you least expect it, but always when God plans it. Kyle and I have had big job changes. We both find ourselves leading nonprofits – mine small and new, his large and established. We didn’t expect to be in these roles, but here we are. And I could give you a separate list of what we are learning in the midst of this journey, but the biggest lesson comes in the form of a boat, and a thread. Here it is: When the storm is raging and we’re not sure how things are going to turn out, we keep reminding ourselves that God is in the boat. And even if we know this in our heads, our hearts sometimes are just hanging on by a thread of faith. But that gets us to the next day where we just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I love journey stories, which is why I seem to write so often about loss, lessons, and God. That seems to be the recurring cycle for me on this journey. I experience loss, learn the lessons, and find God again in the midst of it.

So, I guess I’m done being silent. Thanks for hanging in there with me. It’s good to be back.

Years and Cheers: Hold Your Head High, 48

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Yesterday was my birthday and I spent an hour of it in the dentist’s chair. By choice. I’m not proud of myself for scheduling a dentist appointment on my birthday and so I’m overanalyzing why I would do this. It helped that my friend in Ghana, Isaac, sent me a  message yesterday morning with birthday greetings and a request to let him know all about my celebrations. I told him I was going to the dentist. He seemed disappointed. “But please get time to celebrate,” he said, and then informed me he would be waiting for celebration updates and pictures. The pressure was on.

So I had to ask myself, why would I so diminish the significance of the day I was born by agreeing to lay in the dentist’s chair and have my teeth cleaned? And to make it worse, I had nothing else planned for the day except work and then a dinner out (and although I appreciate dinner out, we do this at the end of the day). After all, it’s a birthDAY. I’m sorry to report that I did keep my dentist appointment because I wasn’t willing to pay the $50 charge for canceling in less than 24 hours, but I decided to take my friend’s advice and celebrate. In Ghana, birthdays are a reason to set aside the mundane and acknowledge that life is fragile, and that every day is a radical gift.

I promised my friend Isaac I would celebrate and take photos, so after my teeth were cleaned and polished I slid out of that dentist’s chair and proceeded to acknowledge that every day is a blessing, especially a birthday. I am 48 years old, which is a number that makes me cringe just a bit and might explain the ease with which I basically disregarded the day. I know very few people over the age of 21 who count down their birthday with exuberance. We might enjoy the dinner out, the gifts, and the cake someone brings to the office on our birthday, but other than that we don’t skip around shouting to everyone “Hey! I can’t wait for Tuesday because I’ll finally be 48!” But my friend’s words the morning of my birthday made me realize that scheduling a dentist appointment and not altering my work schedule did little to acknowledge the blessing of another year and the grace that has been shown me within that year. With polished teeth and a report of no cavities (pretty good for 48, right?), I grabbed the two people who were in closest proximity and told them we were celebrating. And we did. Lunch, a stroll through the Woody Guthrie Center, a walk around Guthrie Green, and I didn’t even check email on my phone. At this point, you’re probably making the spot-on observation that this is hardly kicking up my heels and really celebrating, but it was spontaneous and something that absolutely did not fit into my busy schedule. Which made it wonderfully celebratory.

I’m learning that with each passing year, I fit more comfortably into who I really am. I’ve stopped trying to please everyone or try on personas that make me more agreeable and tolerable. I’m trying to listen to the deepest places inside my soul. I’m learning to be comfortable with drifting just a bit, despite high expectations, my need for speed, and the feeling that I must fix the world. I haven’t conquered anything completely, but I agree with Anna Quindlen who says, “Control is a nice concept, little more.” Perhaps these are the things that should make each birthday a cause for celebration. I’m not getting better, just better at being okay with my limitations and imperfections. 

So thank you Isaac, for causing me to slow down and think just a bit about all the good vibes of a birthday, even one that marks 48 years on earth. I did take photos. And I did acknowledge the blessings of June 25, 2013. My birthday. Cheers!

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How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

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Alison and I watched CNN together the night of the Boston Marathon bombings and the night the suspect was captured. I know that family therapists and child psychologists would probably warn against exposing a 12-year-old to coverage of such a horrific event (especially CNN coverage), but I’ve learned to happily ignore the parenting experts. We did spend a little time snickering over Anderson Cooper’s choice of attire on Night #2, so it wasn’t all heavy-loaded. But the event was tragic and there was no way to spin it otherwise. So I didn’t try. I answered her questions as honestly as I could while we watched the events unfold. Over the past week she has been especially concerned about the young man who was taken into custody that evening. For some reason, she has focused on his injuries and how he is healing. She asks about this regularly and I am unsure what to say, so I tell her that he is in a prison hospital and that is all I know about his physical state. Yesterday, she wondered if he was scared in the boat. Her tenderness towards this individual seems out of place.

I read a post from someone a few days after the event. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to know his life’s history, his back-story, who his family is, where he went to school, or what he liked to do in his spare time. I don’t want to know what “cause”, if any, he was fighting for. I don’t want to know why he did it, or may have done it, or what possessed him to carry out his actions. I don’t want to know. Because that’s what he really wants. I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him what he wants.

I completely understand  and share in the anger that is felt toward this person. But when my daughter asks about him, I also understand where she is coming from. We have told her that every person is loved deeply by God whether they are the worst person in the world or the best person. We have quoted the verse “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then talked honestly about how near-to-impossible it is to do. But yet, we are asked to do it. We have told her that every person matters and that grace is not out of reach for anyone.

But what about terrorists? Shouldn’t we share the sentiment of the person who cheers the death of Osama Bin Laden or the person who says “I don’t want to know his name or see his face?” That seems fair, except that we are told that God cherishes his created ones so much that he knows the number of hairs on their head. This verse rolls off the tongue when we’re telling the loveable how loved they are, but it’s a little harder to comprehend when we’re talking about the unloveable. You might say to me at this point that if a relative or dear friend died at the hands of a terrorist I would feel differently. And you might be right. But according to what God says, I wouldn’t be entitled to feel differently.

So what do I tell my daughter when she expresses concern for a terrorist who perpetrated a senseless, cold-blooded killing? Do I tell her tell that we are not supposed to care about him and that it is permissible to spew hate for those who have carried out hateful actions? Do I allow her to cheer the death of those who caused death?

Here is one thing I tell my daughter about terrorists and tragedy: There is good in the world. There is also evil in the world. And God cares deeply about our response to both. 

We’ll never be able to love like God loves, but when tragedy is in front of us we have an opportunity to practice that kind of love if we will choose it. I keep going back to the prayer Jesus uttered before he died:  Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. It is beyond comprehension that he prayed this with his back shredded and nails in his hands and feet. I easily spout off these radically difficult verses and treat them as if they are platitudes. They are not. These are the very actions that show the world what God looks like. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And they are hard to live out, which is why most of us don’t do it. Does my daughter’s response of tenderness toward the perpetrator reflect the character of God? I can only answer with this:

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45. That’s what Jesus said, among many other mind-blowing things, when he was sitting on the side of a mountain talking to a crowd of people. So I’m going with that, even if most of the time I find it very difficult to do. When I talk to my daughter about terrorists and the tragedy in the world, I can find no better words to use than those of Jesus. Because I’m pretty sure he was talking to us as well.

Why I’m Ditching These Accessories

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So it’s come to this. I can’t imagine why a dog would allow herself to be so demeaned by a 12 year-old who claims to love her, however this is too good not to share.

But there is another reason I’m posting this photo. It may be a stretch, but it illustrates something I’ve been tossing around in a jumble of thoughts over the past couple of years. Those thoughts have slowly taken shape and led me to believe that I’ve spent too many decades of my life wearing a cupcake necklace and bow headband when I should have ditched the whole ensemble. Okay, hopefully you get the point. I’ve actually never worn these accessories, but I’ve worn others. Haven’t we all? I would blame this on my gender, the part of the country I live in, and my childhood churches, but this is not unique to female Evangelicals who live in the Bible belt. Those of us who fit into those categories, however, just might have a harder time believing that God could have a different ensemble for us to wear.

Here is a for instance:

In college, I majored in journalism and went on to work for our city newspaper as a desk reporter, and then features writer. I loved the world of journalism. I was a newspaper fanatic and still treat myself to the occasional print version of The New York Times on a Sunday afternoon. But back in the days when I worked for the newspaper, I almost never talked about my job with church friends because I didn’t want to have to defend myself as a part of the “liberal media.” So when I moved in those circles, I donned my cupcake necklace and my bow headband and pretended that I wasn’t passionate about things I was passionate about. And conversely, I pretended I was passionate about things I wasn’t passionate about because they seemed more “right” than being a newspaper reporter.

Another for instance:

I don’t like Women’s Conferences. There. I said it. And I should tell you that if you love them, I have no problem with that. There isn’t any principle involved, I just don’t care for them in the same way others don’t care for New Year’s Eve parties (not saying the same things go on at both events). I would just rather stay home. But, once again, I spent a decade donning that necklace and bow and going to some Women’s Conferences because there were a bunch of Godly women there and I thought that maybe if I went it would make me Godly too. It didn’t.

It’s interesting how we assume everyone in our spiritual circle likes the same things we like, or that they believe in the same things we believe in. We’ve come to expect that we’re all on the same page, and so those who aren’t either end up slinking away or donning the ensemble to keep the peace. There was an older gentlemen in the church I grew up in who would say, “Let’s just keep the main thing the main thing.” These days, however, it’s hard for many discern what the main thing is because we’ve taken so many things that don’t matter and made them paramount to being “people of faith.”

What if our circles consisted of variety and diversity? What if our churches were filled with people of differing passions, opinions, ideas, styles of clothing, likes and dislikes? Is it okay to turn up Mumford & Sons and turn off Casting Crowns? Can I admit that I care about the environment? What if I’d rather hear Rachel Held Evans than Beth Moore? Can I like some different things? Have some different opinions and persuasions and not feel like I have to wear the accessories that everyone else has on? Or will I just end up looking out of place without them? I hope not, because I’m in the process of ditching the accessories that don’t  fit me and am trusting that all of us who say we are following God will allow one another to do the same. I want to encourage the people around me to be who God has made them to be, even if that looks different. Even if it makes some of us uncomfortable. Let’s not force anyone to wear things that don’t fit them. Sometimes, as you can see from the photo, it just looks wrong.

Thoughts on a Hurricane

On our return trip from Ghana Sunday afternoon, I barely escaped New York’s JFK airport ahead of Sandy. Having just flown in from the other side of the world, I didn’t know there was a hurricane brewing. We heard about Sandy as soon as we hit the ground in NYC and we tried to process the possibility of such devastation: the crush of water leveling homes; the dangerous winds that could blow automobiles off the road; the hundreds of thousands who were going to be without power (it’s still 5 million without power as of today); the lives that might be lost. I arrived home on Sunday evening just in time to see the coverage on Sandy begin. While Alison and Kyle combed the neighborhood for candy last night, I sat in front of CNN and watched with disbelief. The terror of a natural disaster doesn’t respect the state, country, or continental lines that have been drawn by mere mortals. I witnessed people in distress and struggling to survive in Ghana, then came home to see it in my own country. I have taken note of the difference in reaction, however, between those who suffer disaster in places where disaster is prevalent, and those who suffer where comfort is the expectation and demand. The interviews with people who were walking in Manhattan – forced out of their cars and mass transit by a shutdown of roadway access – ring in my ears. “I’ve walked two hours,” said a UPS employee. “It’s been a marathon.” And while our President and his administration are being held in high regard for their quick response to the suffering, experts are speculating that if the power doesn’t come back on in short order, those affected might take their frustrations to the ballot box.

At this point, I could make an expected comparison between the resilience of those in developing countries where conditions force them to endure with little complaining, and the reaction of Americans to a hurricane disaster that affects them in such direct and painful ways. But that would be wrong. Those of us who live in relative comfort are blessed beyond what we can comprehend, and when disaster comes, we are rightfully shocked and talk openly about the pain of what we are experiencing. We make note of the fact that we are used to having access to basics like mass transit and electricity, and we watch in awe as rugged homes are washed away or reduced to rubble. I don’t blame the UPS employee for complaining about a two hour walk across the city. We are rightfully vocal about this hurricane and what it has done to our cities and communities.

But we also endure.

In the midst of all the coverage, what has drawn me in is not the ugliness of Sandy, but the beauty of people who may weep over what they have lost, yet also throw back their shoulders and vow to stay and rebuild. Neighbors and strangers cared for one another in selfless ways when they thought no one was watching. But those of us in the rest of the United States and around the world are watching. And what I see causes me to feel an even deeper sense of gratitude for this country I live in. Maybe it’s a result of being away from it – and all of its comforts and attributes – for ten days. If so, all the better. Sometimes we don’t realize the wonder of our blessings until we are absent from them for a time. I pray that each person who is suffering in the path of Sandy will have everything restored to them – from electricity to a roof over their head. Those who have lost loved ones will have the lingering question of “why?”, but I pray they will rebuild their lives and move forward with an even greater sense of how lovely and fleeting life is. These are easy prayers to pray from my home in the middle of the country where hurricanes don’t devastate. But I pray these prayers because I believe we are also a people of resilience and endurance, despite our First World comforts. We have learned to enjoy them, but we’re still strong when they have been ripped from our fingers.

So I return from Ghana and find myself on my knees for the people in my own country. Will you join me?

Ghana in October, Day Six : Wrapping Up in the Dark

It’s official: the SDA School Computer Lab is now up and running!

Otis and the other IT instructors know computers. They got everything set up quickly, but also realized that in addition to the computers, they would need a projector in order to teach the students effectively. There are over 400 children in the school and about 30-35 children in each classroom. It would be difficult to gather all the students in a class around the screens. So we immediately decided that the lab must have a projector. Peter took a trip to Kumasi with one of the IT teachers to purchase a projector. They returned with it Wednesday evening, and yesterday the IT teachers set it up in the lab. The students were crammed together looking into the windows and doorway to see the images projected on the wall. They were in awe.

We began to imagine all the creative ways the teachers will be able to use the computers: Internet tutorials, Powerpoint presentations, photo slideshows to accompany lessons. The teachers will do a great job of using the computers to open a new world of learning for the children at Ankaase SDA. I love the way generous friends in the U.S. have resourced this small lab in this not-so-small school, in this small village, in this beautiful country, on this huge continent. Your hearts have traveled a long distance to make life a little better for people you have never met.

This is what it looks like for those of us who have more  to resource those who have little. So many things are broken in this world. It doesn’t matter how they have gotten that way or who is responsible. We’ll never know all the reasons why, but we can be people who work for restoration. I want to be someone who believes that restoration is not only possible, but also necessary if we are to call ourselves followers of Christ. I want to have eyes that look for ways to join God in His restoration project. He is fixing what has been broken – in people, places, circumstances. Someday He will finally and completely restore all things, and until then I want to be a part of the every day work of restoration. In small and big ways, we can look around and find ways to make things better and to help change stories.

This morning I met with 17 women who are interested in becoming seamstress apprentices. I pray that we can help change the story for some of them, and to help bring restoration. There is a little something for everyone in this village: sponsoring children, resourcing a computer lab, partnering with a woman who wants to start her career and business. We had two experienced seamstress sew these wonderful bags that we’ll be selling to help fund these programs. This is the Ankaase bag.

The pattern was designed by my friend Steffani, who does this kind of thing on a big scale (she’s been a costume designer in Hollywood, and has written a book of pattern designs). We’re so blessed that she agreed to design this bag. Its incredible. Roomy, lots of pockets, and fabric straight from Ghana. The best part is that the two women who sewed each bag have an incredible story, which you will be hearing. Purchasing this bag also helps Hilda and Gifty.

This is my last post from Ghana. We leave early in the morning. The power has been out since yesterday afternoon and they say it may not come back on until Monday, so once again I’m typing furiously and racing my computer battery. So I will leave Ghana in the dark, but I pray that God has used us to shine a little of His light here. I know the people of Ankaase have done that for me. Their light shines bright.

This is my final goodbye from Ankaase, Ghana. Thank you all for the prayers and your open hearts. You have blessed us all.

Join Us on the Front Porch: We’re All Messed Up

I’m a rut girl when it comes to exercise, which means that I walk the exact same route at the same pace every morning. And many mornings, I see my neighbor – who is quite old – sitting on her front porch with a cup of coffee. Some mornings she is completely unresponsive to my waves and greetings and although I’m not sure why, I suspect she has some form of dementia. It’s not the kind of thing I would want to ask her on a good day, so I haven’t. I just wave and greet her and accept the days when she gives me a blank stare. This morning, however, she was all there and her response to my greeting was the most refreshingly honest thing I’d heard all day (granted, it was early).

“Good morning!” I shouted to her.

“Well good morning!” She replied.

“How are you today?”

And in the happiest sing-song voice she said, “I’m completely, terribly messed up. How are you?”

And there it was. The blessed truth about every single one of us summed up by my sweet neighbor from the comfort of her front porch over a cup of hot java.

A church friend of mine pointed out that our trite, chanted greeting of “How are you?” is almost never met with an honest reply. She finds it an offensive greeting and seethes inside when someone asks her this as they hurriedly swoosh by. “Like they really want to know,” my friend says through clenched teeth. But like the rest of us, she usually gives the proper reply of, “Fine. How are you?” It’s just easier, she says, because no one wants to know how we really are. And most of the time, church is the place where we would be most likely to give the trite chanted reply because it’s the last place we would confess our messiness.

But I would like to join my neighbor on the porch and confess that on most days, I’m completely, terribly messed up. Here’s proof: I just finished writing my column for Mia magazine about how to simplify relationships, specifically with our children. I dashed off over 700 words about how far I’ve come as a parent and how I have learned that we miss the blessings in parenting when we are busy trying to control how our children turn out. In other words, enjoy your children more and bark at them less. Be more amused and less annoyed. And then, I stood up from my computer and barked at my daughter for something ridiculous. She tried to diffuse the moment with some humor, and I was not amused.

I give myself grace about these things, but they do confirm the truth that when I act as if I’ve got it all together, it’s a big facade. My word for 2012 is Descend, which is supposed to remind me throughout the year to be humble and comfortable with my own imperfections. It also helps me give grace to others around me who are imperfect. Somehow, this makes it easier to accept grace from God and take a deep breath. I don’t have to pretend that I’m better than you, or her, or him. Or that I’m moving toward some sanctimonious place where God will finally be pleased with me. Nope. I’m happy to sit on the front porch with my neighbor and give an honest reply to your greeting:

I’m completely, terribly messed-up. And how are you?