Narrow is the gate

But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,
and only a few find it.

~ MATTHEW 7:14 NIV

     I used to think this sounded very elitist. Only the special, only the chosen, only the few get to come to God. I’ve read that what it means is that few will choose it, even though it’s open to all. But I think there’s a whole lot more to learn in this verse.
     Think about it. Why don’t people want to enter the gate? It’s not dark and scary, overgrown with weeds and vines that choke out the light, like a haunted house. Then again, I don’t think the gate is wide and sparkly and light, eternally propped open, with colorful flags, a vast open space and a castle beyond it, like DisneyWorld. No, it’s sized just right. For one person. One life, one soul, one decision at a time. Sometimes people call themselves Christians because they go to church, or they own more than one Bible, or they try to do the right things, or they’re not atheists so they must be Christians by default. In some circles, it’s become the popular thing to do. Wear a t-shirt, hang an inspirational plaque on your wall, and people will identify you as “one of them.” Some feel like they must be Christians because their parents went to church, or they go to hang out with their friends. But here’s the thing: God calls us as individuals. It doesn’t matter what our families do. It doesn’t matter if we had preachers in our lineage in generations past. It doesn’t matter if we come from a line of Buddhists and Muslims and atheists. God calls us, one by one. He speaks to us, one at a time. Individually. Personally. He woos you — yes, you. He made you, just the way you are. He gave you talents and opinions and experiences that are unlike anyone else’s. And He will not call you like He called someone else. But if you listen, He will call. He waits, just on the other side of that gate. He stands, arms open wide, confident and expectant. He doesn’t want you to walk through just because your spouse or friend does. That’s why the gate is not wide. It’s wide enough, though, wide enough for you. Sized so that you can freely walk through, as soon as you are ready. It’s not scary, and there’s no fanfare. It’s private, just you and He. You and the Lord. Don’t wait. Don’t think you don’t belong or you’re not welcome. Don’t be afraid. He loves you, and He’s there on the other side, waiting for you to say Yes, Lord. I want you, too. All you have to do is walk towards Him. Enter that gate. You’ll be amazed by what waits on the other side.

God enters by a private door into every individual.
~ RALPH WALDO EMERSON

I write in my books

This essay was published as a devotion through Internet Cafe Devotions. Click here to read it :-).

Lola: The Memoir

Published in Sasee Magazine, Sept. 2011

Heads turn. The plate glass windows lining the buildings reflect flashes of turquoise and pink and waving flags. Teens whistle, laugh, and shout, craning their necks for a better look. I’m not the one getting the attention, though. All eyes are on Lola. Subtlety is not her style. Kids are drawn to her, but older women roll their eyes. There was a time, not long ago, when I agreed with them, but experience has deepened my wisdom and now I understand: There’s something special about Lola.

Humble beginnings
Living many hours from sandy shorelines, my friends and I longed to bring the beach to Indiana. Or maybe it was a midlife crisis. Either way, we needed a convertible. So, my husband, Tim, the fix-it man, set about making it happen. The ’89 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight was faded, worn and past her prime, but she ran, and she was cheap. Four of us each chipped in a hundred bucks, and Tim brought her home to do his magic.

Many hours, plugs, and wires later, after wrestling with a Sawz-all and a dead blow hammer, Tim unveiled our new convertible. (Maybe “convertible” is the wrong word, since it doesn’t actually convert; it’s simply a car with no top.) With the addition of a giant pink swimming noodle glued around the sharp, rough metal edge of the windshield for protection, we set to work. Using nothing but spray paint and paint tape, I turned the lower sides of the car into a grainy, sandy beach and transformed the grimy white metal with metallic blue spray paint. Against this watery, shimmery sky, I added a couple of palm trees in back and a swirly, spirally sun across the hood.

Peggy and Tammy hot-glued felt flowers around the rear-view mirror and pink fur to the dash. We strung garlands of blue silk hyacinths around the windshield and back seat, intertwining strands of plastic bananas and pineapples. Silk leis and sandal air fresheners dangled from the mirror, bath mats covered the floor, and striped beach towels became seat covers. A fake grass skirt undulated from the rear bumper and a beach umbrella stuck up proudly – if wobbly – from the center of the open car.
At heart, she was still the same, but a transformation this radical required a flashy, exotic stage name. The words of the song clinched it: Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair and her dress cut down to there….”

Where Lola’s back window had been, a rear brake light begged to be used as a stage. Using Liquid Nails, we placed a dashboard hula girl there where she danced for onlookers until the day we hit 50 on the highway and she flipped her spring, bouncing and flopping and contorting. As we envisioned her taking that inevitable final leap, in all her ceramic glory, through the windshield of some stunned onlooker unlucky enough to be following us, we sadly relegated her to the glove box. No longer our showy mascot, at least she could still be part of our adventures.

Accessories are everything
A friend asked us to enter Lola in a small car show he was having. Her beauty was less exquisite and more, well, internal. So we set to work accessorizing. Thanks to our friends, Lola had a sunny antenna ball from Hawaii, a spiral windsock, a magnetic clipboard that exclaimed “Aloha!” from the dash, and – the pièce de resistance – a 10” carved coconut monkey hood ornament. We sprayed the wheels hot pink and hot-glued hundreds of shells along the top of the back seat, filling the gap vacated by the kamikaze hula girl with a giant rubber pineapple. A silk parrot and boogie board on the trunk completed the look, and we high-fived and admired our outrageous handiwork, secretly hoping not to be asked to be seen with her in public.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful
It was time to deliver Lola to the car show. I’d been worrying about how the serious restorers and collectors would react to Lola, because, well, she was not very serious. At the small city park, balloons bounced in the wind and our friend hunkered in the shade playing oldies on scratchy loudspeakers. Lola preened between the vintage, gleaming, radiant, airbrushed machines; a washed-up hooker among aristocratic gentlemen from old money. I was as embarrassed for her as if her dress had been tucked into the back of her pantyhose. Parked jauntily in a corner, with her colorful rear end facing the crowd, Lola was surrounded immediately by giggling kids. The owners of the “real” cars stayed in their lawn chairs shaded by sun umbrellas, mumbling to their wives, waiting before casually (and disdainfully) walking close enough to get a better look. Once we’d registered, I left.

Later that day, I heard a ruckus and ran out front. There she was, in all her kitschy glory – a beauty queen at the end of the runway blowing kisses to her fans. Lola had been named Best of Show, an award determined by the popular vote. (Men muttered that kids stuffed the ballot box, and we’d better not cross railroad tracks in “that thing,” “that car-that-isn’t-a-real-car,” because it is sure to fold in half.) Peggy was honking the horn, with her kids triumphantly hoisting the massive, garish trophy. I hopped in and we drove around town, rejoicing with the kind of exhilaration one feels for an underdog who becomes the unlikely champion.

More than meets the eye
If Lola were a woman, she’d have a great big beehive hairdo, even bigger cleavage, long nails with jewels on them, and leopard print tights. Pretty in the right light (or at closing time), she’d wear red stiletto heels and a great sense of humor. Her kindness, sprouting from first-hand knowledge of being judged by appearances, would keep people near. If she were a house, she’d be a broken-down double-wide, freshly painted pink and parked in an upscale neighborhood, with lots of symmetrically matched candleholders and fake plants hanging on the walls. And if she were a monument, she’d represent the sustaining power of friendship and community and fun. She’s just like my friends Tammy, Peggy and Glenna – a whole lot of fun, just a little bit silly, and real, solid, spirited, and true.

(And maybe just a little bit saucy.)

Don't let your but get in the way

Any mother who has ever had whiny kids has learned to hate the word "but." It seems to be the instant response to any request or command I make. Me: You need to pick up your dirty socks. My kids: But I can't! I have to do my homework! Five minutes later, I'll remind them to do their homework. But I can't. I have to pick up my dirty socks!

Unfortunately, this attitude sticks with many of us, even as adults.

Try these on for size:
I know I should serve God…
…but Sunday's my only day to sleep in. I work all week long and need a break.
…but I don't have time. My to-do list is a mile long.
…but I don't feel like it. I’ve had a bad week.
…but what will everyone think of me? It’s not cool to be a Christian.
…but I don't want to read my Bible — I’m more interested in the new People magazine that came in the mail today.
…but I can't afford it — tithes are too much, and we need new tires and gas prices keep going up.
…but He doesn't need my help. He's God. What do I have to offer that he can’t do for himself? God can handle things on his own.
…but somebody else can do it. They’ll be better at it than I am.
…but I just don't feel like it. I don't feel like being social, putting on decent clothes, curling my hair and having to smile at people.

It's true; I don't always feel like it. I’m not qualified. And it’s not always easy. With all I've been through lately, I could probably get away with using that as an excuse. However, I need to stop letting my but get in the way. Our pastor first preached this to us years ago, and it was so catchy that we made t-shirts with that emblazoned on them. This morning, though, I started thinking about my but again. Yes, I've gained weight over the years and I'm not the size I want to be. That butt gets in the way of wearing a size 12. But the other but is so much more problematic. We need to remove that negative word from our vocabularies, unless we pair it with another, very powerful word: but God.

I may be tired, but God never sleeps. I may be weak, but God is strong. I may not feel like getting up and getting ready, but God was able to carry his cross and suffer, so this is nothing compared to that. I may not know the right thing to do, but God always does. I may not know what to pray, but God intercedes for us. I may not have enough energy or motivation, I may have many failings, I may simply be in a bad mood, and maybe I am going through genuine tragedies in my own life. All that may be true, but this is more true: God is still God. He is still worthy. He is still powerful. He is still mighty, and benevolent, and filled with grace and forgiveness. I may not want to do my part sometimes, but God is always, always worth the effort. Man fails, man flees, and man destroys, but God delivers, God protects, and God restores. He rewards my sacrifices. No more buts, no more flimsy excuses. From now on, I’ll continue to remember the phrase I can trust: but God.

Marking it up

 Important disclaimer: I am fully aware of the fact that I am, have always been, and likely will always be a geek.

I couldn’t wait for college. All the usual reasons — getting away from the small town I lived in and my parents and all the people who thought they had a right to know my business. But it wasn’t just about running away — it was about running to. To new friends, new knowledge, and new experiences. Oh, and also because I’d heard you could write in your books.

Until then, writing in books had always been forbidden, probably because the books didn’t belong to me. I rented from the school, borrowed from the library. Everything had to be taken care of. In college, though, I got to buy my own textbooks. Some of them were used, already filled with other people’s notes, and some were immaculate. I bought the pristine ones and then, somewhat giddily, filled them with my own marks. Highlights in multiple hues. Notes in the margins, stars, arrows, circles. It wasn’t just because I was an art major and liked to draw in pretty colors. It was because it was a way of interacting with the material, a way to remember it, come to understand it, to acknowledge and process what was important. A way to make it mine. I liked being able to flip through and, at a glance, see what mattered. I could remember that, even if I didn’t remember all the specific details, I put a big green asterisk right next to the paragraph, so I could skim through and — voila! — find what I needed.

I’m the same way with my Bible. Yes, of course it is a holy book, worthy of respect. But don’t be mistaken and think, just because my favorite copy is dog-eared, somewhat crumpled and covered in marks going every which way in the margins, that it shows less-than-proper respect. Au contraire! I can hardly read any book, especially the Good Book, without a pen in my hand anymore. If something touches me, I mark it. If something isn’t clear, I question it. If something reminds me of or refers me to something else, I circle it, draw arrows to connect the sections. If something I read speaks to my current situation, I date it. If someone else teaches me something about it, I put their name next to my notes. By doing all these things, I’m attempting to imprint the ideas into my soul. I’m hoping to become physically involved, not remain aloof and separate. I’m hoping to wrestle with it, as David did. I’m hoping to be consumed by it, changed by it, inspired by it, touched by it. I’m hoping to make it mine.       

Life lessons learned in the candy drawer

(Essay appeared in The Paper of Montgomery County's Montgomery Memories, July 2011)

I would only risk the adventure when no one else was around. "Mah" (my grandmother) would be getting her hair set, and “Dot” (so dubbed by my toddler self) would be napping. The lessons start before I even get into the drawer. Take time to take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Work hard, and then let your body recover.

The drawer was on the end, next to the fridge. The kitchen was always spotless, with its stainless steel appliances, way-cool wall oven I coveted even before I cooked, and percolating coffee pot, disassembled to dry before being put back into service gurgling up the next pot. The windows butting up to the yellow Formica countertops opened to birdfeeders, which were kept stocked year-round. Appreciate nature, and take care of it. On the plaque in the corner, a folk art man labored with an axe and then propped his feet up by the fire between the words “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” Never shy away from hard work.

No one was around; it was time. I’d ease open the drawer, wide and shallow, on its well-oiled track. Still, it made a soft clicking noise as the wheels turned. Rarely was there any chocolate or “good” stuff. Instead, there were packets of Chiclets, smooth and shiny pieces of gum that slid out of their envelopes to click lightly and coolly against my teeth. There might be a lemon drop, or a butterscotch drop, or a Starburst. Or, on a really lucky day, maybe even a chocolate after-dinner mint brought home from a restaurant. (Waste not, want not.) All the candies were small — not my favorites, but serviceable in a pinch — individual, portion-controlled items with a rather limited selection. This says to me that it’s OK to indulge once in a while, but in a controlled way. Set limits. All things in moderation. It was much easier to find bowls of grapefruit and orange slices, or cut-glass trays of celery and carrot sticks, than it was to find sweets. These foods are the things our bodies need. No fast food sacks balled up in the trash, just home-cooked meats and veggies and big glasses of milk. Even the desserts tended to be fruit pies and lemon bars. Forget processed foods. Eat right, and when you need a little bit of something sweet, have just that: a little bit.

Next, I’d shuffle through the coupons. My grandparents worked hard, invested wisely, and lived frugally. They had money, so I could never understand why on earth they kept coupons for 10 cents off a roll of paper towels. She didn’t need 10 cents. Why bother? But my questions tell you as much about me as about my grandparents. I don’t have an inherent understanding of saving, living responsibly, and not taking anything for granted. Frugality is something I have to work at, but — after living through the Depression and starting their lives together with nothing — they understood the value of money. They worked hard for it and did not waste it. If they spent money on something, it either had educational value, philanthropic value, or practical value. They knew at their cores the importance of being a good steward of all that the Lord had given, and they lived that way daily.

Next, matches. They had a little trash burner, walls of concrete block with chicken wire on front. Every day Mah would go through the house and empty the decorative trash containers. One bin in the kitchen was reserved for cans and bottles, and everything that could be reused, was. Another container was for biodegradable trash (whatever couldn’t be fed to the dogs), which was put out in a compost pile near the garden to enrich the soil in which they grew vegetables. Paper grocery bags were stacked neatly behind the refuse containers, ready to be used to transport dried flowers (also from the garden) or protect the driveway from the fresh paint being applied to a table (take care of what you have). And plastic bags — bread bags that had been washed and dried — hung from the door to the trash closet.

But all the other trash was taken out of the house and burned. Daily. They inherently understood that everything has a use. When it can be reused, it should be. Some things need to be kept separate from others. And we need to regularly purge what we don’t need or what isn’t good for us — get it out of the house, out of our lives, and eliminate it once and for all.

In the left-hand corner of the drawer was a mess of twist ties. Every loaf of bread my grandma bought contributed another spindly piece of paper-covered wire to the tangled pile in the drawer. When something needed to remain closed, she made sure it did, and she tied it tightly. (The same held true for gossip, and secrets.) She remained prepared for any eventuality, making use of anything at her disposal. And she knew to be responsible with even the smallest of details.

And, last, its festive silvery wrapper spiraling out of control, was the always-present partial roll of Wint-o-Green Lifesavers. In other words, when you find something that works, you should stick with it. Don’t change for the sake of change. You may think Lifesavers would fall into the candy category, but I hold them separate for one reason. These mints were not there to satisfy a sweet tooth. They’re functional, and tried and true, and they’re there because you can never, ever go wrong with fresh breath. So with fresh breath and a lot of love, I send mental kisses to my grandparents, who are alive no longer, the wonderful couple who managed to enrich my life immeasurably simply by leaving the candy drawer unguarded.

A parent's legacy


In honor of my mom, who passed from this life to the next on Tuesday, July 5th, I'm reprinting an essay I wrote for her in October of 2008. Family photo from Christmas 2009. On couch, L to R: Bobby, me, Tim, Mom, Dad. On floor: Katie, Anna, Reilly, Kerry, Doug, and Luke (in front).

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine…

(from Mercy Me’s “I Can Only Imagine”)

In my mind, envisioning heaven is not the hard part. The hardest part, I suspect, when thinking about dying, is leaving behind those you love. Feeling like you might be missing out on their lives. And thinking maybe you didn’t make enough of a difference, that maybe you won’t be missed after all. Maybe you aren’t necessary.

Since Mom was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of her legacy. What will remain when she’s not physically here. I can’t ease her fears, erase her sadness, or give a good reason why this had to happen to her. But I can promise her this: no matter what happens, her presence in my life will never be diminished. Do I want her here forever? Absolutely. But even when she is not, I will know what she thinks about things and what she would tell me to do. I will continue to want to buy her quirky gifts that are just perfect, that no one else would appreciate the way she does. And I will continue to enjoy the houseful of peculiar objects she’s given me over the years, knowing better than anyone else what I would love and what pleasure I get from things others would think are strange. I will cook from the recipes she wrote down for me when I went to college – and when I don’t, I’ll remember all the times I tried to avoid letting her know we were going out to eat yet again when we really should have been saving our money and watching our waistlines. I will see her reactions in my own reactions to situations. I will laugh, knowing what she would find funny, wishing I could call and tell her. I will notice the things in this world that are unjust, the people she would want to take under her wing and help in her own unique, thoughtful ways, and I will want to pick up where she left off. My kids will talk about her, just as they talk about my grandfather, who died before they were born. He’s not here, but he left a legacy of love and education and they admire him tremendously. They know him, even though they didn’t get to meet him.

A couple years ago, when my friend Nancy lost her dad, I wrote this to her: “You will always be your father’s daughter, and you can still give thanks for that every day of your life. He helped make you who you are, and because of that, he will never be gone. I’m glad to know you and to know a little of your dad through you.” Until the moment I wrote that, I hadn’t known that to be true. But it is. As long as I live, people will see my mother. Most women vehemently deny that they are anything like their mothers, but we know every one of the ways in which we are (even if we won’t admit it to our husbands). I never thought I'd say this, but I’m one of the lucky ones who can be proud of those things.

When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth, He didn’t want to suffer, but He knew there would be comfort for those He left behind. He knew He would always live inside the hearts of those who remained, both in those who walked beside Him on those dusty roads and those who would not be born for 2,000 years. He’s not gone, nor is He forgotten. We don’t see His physical body, but He remains visible (or should) through all of His children, all those who allow His wonderful traits to show in their lives. As long as we are present, all those around us will see and remember our Lord — seeing a little bit of Him in the way we talk, the things that make us smile, our mannerisms, our expressions, the way we love each other. They can know Him, because they know us.

I know that nothing will be the same without my mom here, and I’m hoping and praying for many, many more months with her. My heart is already broken — but our several-times-daily phone calls and spontaneous lunches and shopping trips are currently holding it together. But when that day comes, when my mom is face to face with the One who will remove all her sorrow and pain and sadness, when she is basking in the light, overcome with joy, not remembering that she had doubts about what it would be like, no longer caring about the questions she always thought she’d ask, experiencing an intensity of sweetness exponentially greater than the most amazing moments we’ve had with God here on this earth… on that day I will stand proud, holding onto the things she has made me, holding on to the parts of her that I want the world to continue to see… praying that God will shine through me, but knowing that when He does, He will also let those parts that are her remain. With Him, in Him, and in me. A part of me, forevermore.

Friend

Friends — what would we do without them? Thank God for those people who love us, take care of us, have fun with us, laugh with us (and cry with us). But we all have some “friends” who have proven not to be true. Some are people who simply aren’t as close as they once were, maybe put in our lives out of convenience or proximity or common circumstances for a time. Some have betrayed and wounded us. There are many good friends out there, yet as much as the good ones enrich our lives, other friends have also brought drama and frustration and pain. Friends come and friends go, and if we’re very lucky, we have a handful of people who stay in our lives for a long, long time.

But listen to this. A single word leapt off the page at me as I read Matthew 26: 49-51. Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

How amazing is this? How did I miss this oh-so-important word every other time  I read this? As Judas was in the process of actively betraying Jesus in the Garden, as he was offering him to the guards for money, Jesus referred to Judas as friend. He didn’t call him by name. He didn’t call him traitor or betrayor, although He would have been justified to do so. In spite of what Judas did, Jesus called him friend. It doesn’t matter that we are not perfect. We don’t have to have done all the right things. All that matters is that He is Who He is and that His heart is full of love. He is a Friend like no other, a Friend that sticketh closer than a brother. Our relationship with Jesus little to do with the state of our hearts, and everything to do with the state of His heart. This friendship is not dependent on our actions or motives, nor is it destroyed by betrayal; it’s all about His love for us.

Next time you feel alone, next time you want someone to talk to, remember this amazing truth: You are a friend of God.

A sticky mess

One morning, Bobby wanted waffles. I didn’t. It was early, and I was tired, and I hadn’t had my coffee yet. I didn’t feel like hauling out the waffle maker and snapping in the plates for it and then having to clean up afterwards. But I also didn’t feel like trying to fight it, either, so I plugged in the waffle maker and mixed up the batter.

While my coffee brewed and the waffle slowly cooked, I let myself imagine the end result. Golden brown, steaming, beautiful squares of perfectly-cooked batter. Real butter, glistening, sticky-sweet syrup. Mmm. This sounded pretty good after all.

Until we opened the waffle maker. Oh. Not at all what we’d hoped for. Instead of a nice, neat square with a pretty little pattern, it was a mess. Parts of it stuck. Parts of it didn’t. It peeled in half, some clinging to the top, some stretching between the two plates. Ragged fragments, mutilated pieces of something that was supposed to be so good and simple and yummy. I grabbed a narrow rubber spatula and started the painstaking task of peeling the waffle off the Teflon surface. Little strips, long peely pieces, kind of like when you peel dried Elmer’s glue off an old messy bottle or when your shoulders peel after a sunburn. I finally finished and looked at the pile of scraps in disgust, prepared to throw them out.

Before I could, Bobby poured syrup over the whole heaping mess and carried the plate into the other room to eat. He didn’t care how it looked. It still tasted good to him.

You know, sometimes it gets discouraging serving God. We have this idea of what we should be and what He has in store for us, and we visualize ourselves fulfilling all those dreams and presenting ourselves and our accomplishments to Him, complete, with beauty and glory and righteousness. But in reality, we fail. We forget to pray, we neglect to study, we lower our standards. We mess up, and sometimes we don’t know why. We’re left, then, with something broken, ugly and so much less than it ought to be. In our disgust, we pull away and hide, thinking the effort was wasted, assuming God won’t be interested in us like this. What we have to realize is that, compared with the holy perfection that is our God, nothing we have to offer will ever measure up. All we have is a pile of debris. We need to try again, learn from others, improve through practice — but we don’t have to wait for perfection before we bring it before Him. Offer your efforts to God now, anyhow, no matter how messy or substandard or flawed. He will accept whatever you will give Him if you offer it out of love. He might even pour syrup all over it, and declare that it is good. What is certain is that He will redeem, and with His touch, the end result will be so much better. Delicious and delectable, all you’d imagined right from the start.

A Godly buffet

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke
and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. ~ 2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)


When my husband and I were in New Orleans, we went to a famous diner for breakfast. Long, low marble counters wrapped around a center area where the waiter took orders, poured coffee and washed dishes. A bunch of people sat down at about the same time as we did. The waiter went from person to person, taking orders, and then stood in the middle, hands behind his back, nothing in front of him, and called out the orders to the chef from memory. He had the lingo down (things like high and dry, drag it through the garden, two dots and a dash). As he shouted out the orders, the chef went to work without hesitation, filling his giant stainless steel grill with handfuls of bacon, sausage, ham and veggies. Then, over the entire surface, he poured egg mixture until the entire grill was one solid mass of steaming food. With his spatula, he cut the eggs into rectangles, folded them up, and flipped them onto plates. He filled plate after plate with a perfectly cooked, exactly right, hot, fresh, custom omelet. The server dealt them out to the customers like a card dealer at a poker table, quick and efficient. And then we ate. Oh, how we ate. Delicious food, and all the better because of how it was prepared.

As I ate, I watched the chef. He was surrounded with stainless steel containers of ingredients, perfectly prepped and waiting to be used. Crispy bacon strips piled high; golden stacks of toast towering, ready for a single swipe of melted butter to be quickly applied with a wide brush; tubs of onions and peppers and mushrooms, clean and chopped. It was all there, ready to go. When the chef knew what was needed, he was able to deliver almost immediately because of the work that had been done before.

Although the food was good and the experience interesting, what I learned that morning was more about Christianity. We need to be prepared. You never know when someone is going to need prayer; when a friend will collapse in front of you, desperate for encouragement or advice; when you’ll be faced with a health diagnosis or a lawsuit or unexpected bills or a broken relationship. This is why we need to be in the Word regularly, to write God’s wisdom on our hearts. This is why we need to pray, so we are already in His presence and don’t have to waste time returning to Him. This is why we should study and prepare and practice, so that all the tools we need, for anything we face, are all right within our reach. Ready to go.

Fragments...

I glance up and see Jesus. Standing there, unaware of anyone else, my friend Peg has her head bowed and hands extended, showing me what I’ve never seen before: Jesus as a reachable, touchable God. He leans towards her, his forehead gently resting against hers, tenderly holding her hands. Quiet, private, personal. The intimacy makes me gasp. I might hold out my hands, too, if I thought he would hold me back.


**

She had never looked more beautiful. Glenna stood at the altar, eyes closed, oblivious to those around her, swaying gently to the soft worship music being played. She slowly raised her hand as a single tear meandered down her smooth, soft cheek. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t look away, even after she finished praying, so she answered the question I wasn’t sure how to form. Jesus was right there, she said, so she lifted her hand and laid it on his face, a gentle, gentle caress.

**

The intensity around the table eases with our laughter. A group of women, gathered for a Bible study, are telling their stories. Joanie, a quiet woman whose countenance reflects His light, puts into words what I’ve never been able to. I’ve struggled with Christian-ese — talking about my walk, being saved, all the phrases that seem trite and off-putting. She looks up, smiling, and says it pure and simple. “That’s when I fell in love with Jesus.”

**

Maybe he just doesn’t love me that much, I think. Sandee, a woman from my church, testified about feeling, for just that moment, like she was God’s favorite. Part of me was shocked by her arrogance and confidence; the rest of me was devastated by my lack of understanding.

I go home, thinking. I want that. But how do I finally commit, once and for all? How do I find more? No more doubts. Will he let me get closer? Will he reveal himself? I am yours, Lord, in every thought, every deed. I only want to know the truth. I only want what’s real. Show me firsthand. The atmosphere is charged, electric, the weight of it on my chest forcing shallow breaths. Show me, Lord. Show me how to yield my will. Show me how to take that next step closer to you. You’ll have to do it because I feel ridiculous and incompetent. My faith is so weak. But you are strong, God. You are righteous, and holy, and kind. You are a healer, full of mercy and grace. You are my light, and my strength, and my salvation. Thank you, Lord, for the amazing things you’ve done. For your gifts. For showing me how real you are. If you never did a single other thing, I still couldn’t thank you enough. I can’t believe you love me this much. I can’t believe I’m your favorite, even if it’s just for this moment.

**

Fragments merge, parts and angles and colors and details becoming an artful mosaic, individual lives combining to show a God greater than all the pieces. Up close, I see lives of authenticity, moments of faith, women who teach and lead and encourage. But when I pull back, just slightly, to get a better view, to blur my eyes and see what I can see, I see so much more. I see power and holiness. Patterns and combinations come together, connected and inspired, in ways beyond my imagining. So far beyond. And connecting it all, my God. This God connects lives, connects hearts, draws them together, perfectly placing those who are needed, cementing them together with his unbreakable, unbendable love.

Is it time, Lord, I whisper, only a little afraid. I want to be ready, ready for this next step, ready to be part of the new montage only he can fully imagine. Am I? I don’t know. I falter, realizing again what I already know: his mosaic is not one made of square, smooth tiles. No, this is jagged, broken pottery. Pieces that don’t match. Hearts that hurt. Dreams that must be abandoned. Sharp, splintered edges. Failings, doubts, flaws of character and pride and perseverance. But it’s all his.  A L L   H I S .   And he reminds me that, in his creation, even the most damaged piece of mosaic tile is lovingly placed by a gentle hand and a creative eye.

I submit this post as an entry for a scholarship for She Speaks, a conference for women who long to tell his stories. Because here’s the thing: the complete masterpiece can be overwhelming, flooding our senses and emotions, almost too much to grasp. But the pieces? That’s something we can understand. One at a time. And as I witness these lives, as I struggle to capture their essence through my words, I’m offering a part of myself in each of their pieces, too, not just my own. The Spirit of the Lord rises up, recognizing itself in another, forming a permanent bond. These moments of connection, these glimpses into the artist, are shining fragments of glory and radiance. Oh, how his glory shines, even in the tiniest piece, the smallest life, the barest glimmer of hope. I close my eyes, daring to imagine.

**

This conference, She Speaks, is about women connecting the hearts of women to the heart of our Father God. The scholarship is offered by Ann Voskamp, a woman whose words have soothed and delighted my soul, strengthening my own connection with the heart of God.

She Speaks

She speaks, because he gave her a voice.
She writes, because he has equipped her and empowered her.
She struggles, because he has made her human.
She endures, because he is beside her.
I watch. I experience. I immerse myself in the depths. And then, only when the silt has settled to the bottom, and light shines through the clear water, I write. I write so that others can experience. So others can see what I see, what I was so privileged to glimpse. It is in the telling that I finally understand. Writing becomes knowing for me. Writing is how I connect to the God who loves me, who saved me, who has been so kind and gracious to me.
And today, when a friend sent me a link to a scholarship announcement for She Speaks, that same Spirit rose up inside of me. Tears brimmed, words of praise bubbled forth. You know how sometimes you just know? You know that you know that you know? I belong there. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I may not make it this year, and that's OK. As I read through the blogs of those who are applying, I’m humbled by the stories, the faith, the devotion. I can’t predict what will happen, but I just know that it matters. It’s important. It is time to take what I know, what I have done, what I have written, and move forward. For him, with him. Oh, always with him. Because then, and only then, will my words matter. Then, and only then, will I have experienced something worthy of the telling.
So, Lord, I write this to you, though I link to the contest. Have your way. If not me, then touch someone else with this miraculous opportunity. And rise up in every one of these women, rise up and SHINE FORTH in their words. Written, spoken, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the words are yours, not ours. And that when you show us what to do with them, we listen.
**
Though I hadn’t heard of the She Speaks conference before today, I’m so excited about it I can hardly speak. (Typing, however, is another story.) I’m familiar with Proverbs 31 Ministries and Lysa TerKeurst, though, and I’m confident that the conference will live up to the words of praise and enthusiasm I’ve been reading all day today. The conference offers three tracks — for speakers, for writers, and for women’s ministry leaders. There are numerous sessions, opportunities to meet with editors and publishers — and many other women placed on a path similar to mine, also seeking fulfillment of the dreams God has placed within them. I’ve attended several writing conferences, but never one focused on faith and how to communicate that. I don't presume to think I am worthy of this scholarship, but I have felt overwhelmed by the presence of God and the joy that bubbles up in me as I have learned and written about this, so I humbly throw in my hat... and prepare to cast my crown to the Lord in praise and adoration. Because he is worthy of all that, and more... no matter what.

Shaped by the world

Sometimes winter in Indiana can be surprisingly pretty, and sometimes it’s drab and dreary. The other day it was a little of both. The ground was muddy brown and rutted and trampled from a winter of snow, but the trees were still outlined majestically against a bright blue sky, their charcoal branches tracing patterns that moved gently in the breeze. Even without the leaves, it was easy to see which trees would have been beautiful. So I was driving along, marveling at the delicate and complex shapes, when I noticed a row of three large trees beside the road. It looked like a T-Rex had taken a giant bite out of the top of each one. Maybe a quarter of the tree remained, just the bottom and the outer branches, barely enough to indicate the circular shape the tree would be if it had been whole. In an effort to keep the branches from interfering with the telephone wires that passed through the trees, someone had cut a giant chunk right out of the middle, forever changing the shape the tree was intended to be.

Made me think about our spiritual lives. Even if our intentions are good, our actions can have a lasting effect — a defining effect. We’re told to be in this world but not of it, but that’s not an easy line to walk. So once in a while, you might get a little close to the other side of the line. What’s the harm? You can go someplace you shouldn’t be — just for a little bit. Or, although you usually tell the truth, this time it’s easier to tell a lie and avoid the consequences. Or maybe you flirt with a coworker, just enough to counteract the hurt feelings from something your spouse said to you that morning. Or you say you’ll pray for someone, and then you forget. You know you should read the Bible, but your favorite show comes on in ten minutes so you’ll do it tomorrow. You hate gossip, but if what you heard is true, so-and-so really ought to know. You try to walk that line, giving the world just a little chunk of your spirit, trying to remain true to who you are and who you are called to be — but fully aware that you’re not perfect. You slip up. It’s no big deal. We all do.

Most of the time, it works out OK. But every once in a while, the world takes more than you expected, a little more than you were willing to give in the first place. And then, because of the scars left from cutting out that hole, the new growth that you hoped would hide the mistake actually forms around it, and it grows larger and more noticeable. Before you know it, you are defined by something you didn’t really want in the first place. You are shaped by something that God didn’t put there. Next time a situation threatens to take a chunk out of you, don’t hold your breath and hope for the best; call out for the Master Gardener to bend you and shape you just the way you were supposed to be. You’ll be amazed at the way he’ll help you grow.

True worship

Hands dripping, I reached for a paper towel, then stopped, surprised. How refreshing! This wasn’t one of those blowers that practically lifts the building off the ground, the ones that sound like a jet plane accelerating down a runway, scaring kids and adults alike. And it wasn’t one of those with the big silver button that weakly emits lukewarm air in which you rub and turn your hands for a minute before you give up and wipe them dry on your jeans. Nor was it the big plastic box with a sensor that only works about half the time, eliciting contortions and frantic waving and requiring you to team up with strangers to try to outsmart it, only to finally be presented with a paper towel about half the size of what you needed in the first place. (The good news is it takes so long to get that kind to work that, by the time you give up, your hands have very nearly dried on their own.) Nor was it a catawampus, skewed, rusted, broken, or hanging-from-one-screw paper towel dispenser. No, I was looking at the most humble, pure, old-fashioned thing: a shiny white metal box with a nondescript crank handle on the side. With minimal effort, the towel rolled out, smoothly, as long or as short as I wanted. The roll was even full. I smiled fondly at the neat, immaculate form dutifully hanging on the wall, doing its simple job very well. Exactly what was needed, at exactly the right time, with just the right amount of effort and result.

I attended a meeting recently at which a man opened with prayer and then asked us to join him in singing a worship song. There were eight of us in the room, and the others were all people whose faith guides their lives. The song was beautiful; it brought goosebumps to my arms and tears to my eyes. The harmony was inspired, the song anointed, the emotions genuine, the mood intimate and lovely. The scene was more intensely spiritual than anything else I’ve experienced in a long time, including church services with hundreds of people. Don’t get me wrong; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those services. I love them. They’ve been very good, and the speakers have been anointed, and I’ve felt God there, too. But there was just something special about this moment. It was pared down to the basics. It was real, genuine, true. No complicated music, no special clothes required, no distractions or interruptions or schedules or plans. Nothing but us and our God. Nothing else was needed.

The very fact that it caught me off guard tells me I’ve put my relationship with God on the back burner. These moments are available to us all the time. No iPod required with just the right music downloaded; no best-selling self-help books needed; no choir or worship leader necessary. Just you. And Him. Pure and simple and so, so good. Maybe, at least for me, it’s time to remember what it’s all about. To go back to the basics, to return to what is simple — and what, without fail, always works.

Two articles posted on Yahoo Contributor Network

They appeared on here first, or possibly earlier drafts of them, but you can read about wading boots and Christian-ese here, too:

Wading in Sin
Speaking a New Language

Finding Him

A 6-word memoir written by a member of my writing group last night really touched me.
Found his voice in others' lives.

He's a writer and editor, and I think he meant that he expresses himself, his 'voice,' in the way he writes about others. It's a beautiful way to put that. I loved it, though, because how I interpret the same line is that I've found His (with a capital H) voice in other people's lives, in the way they live, in the things they say, in what they do. He reveals Himself in so many ways.

Since I've been writing so little, I'm going to open this up to any readers I might still have. Your turn! How have you found God in other people? How has He spoken to you through others? What experiences that you've witnessed have shown Him to you most clearly? Where/when/how do you see Him? Or anything else you want to tell me. Please, please, leave a comment. I'm serious about wanting to know.

What if Jesus Meant All That Stuff?

I just saw this article posted on Facebook and wish I'd written it so I'm posting it here. It's by a man named Shane Claiborne and I have no idea where it was published originally so I beg forgiveness if I'm reproducing without permission...



To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn's Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn't quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don't know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, "God is not a monster." Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, "I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ." A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That's the ugly stuff. And that's why I begin by saying that I'm sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it's that you can have great answers and still be mean... and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it... it was because "God so loved the world." That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven... but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our "Gospel" is the message that Jesus came "not [for] the healthy... but the sick." And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God's Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven." On earth.

One of Jesus' most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan... you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I'm sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine... but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David... at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: "The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you." And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about "dirty theology" — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man's eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay "out there" but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, "Nothing good could come." It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society's rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors... a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, "I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you." If those of us who believe in God do not believe God's grace is big enough to save the whole world... well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,
Shane