Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Messy Christmas Wish

We're moving before Christmas.

The idea of moving across country is daunting for anyone. How do you take 16 years of living and place it into four storage cubes? How do you tackle the list of to-dos, like cancelling utilities, switching insurance policies and disconnecting cable (when they make you say "no" five times before honoring your request)?

How do you reduce ten boxes of precious school mementos to a "reasonable" three? How do you negotiate the purchase of another house while living hundreds of miles away? How do you fit in goodbyes to friends and neighbors?

The planner in me is overwhelmed. I've taken on all kinds of jobs, big jobs, intimidating jobs, but this one...this one is huge.

And then, I realized what the timing meant for me and for my family. We were scheduled to close on our house just before Christmas. That meant no going to the Christmas tree farm to cut down our tree. That meant no live evergreen wreath on the front door. No putting out the nativity set with its little bag of hay and trying, again, to find the baby Jesus.

Cards are unsent. Lights are unhung. Ornaments are still boxed. Gifts are not bought.

My heart is homesick for Christmas.

But as I sat in my little puddle of being sorry for me, I had a thought. Actually, my Christmas is a lot like the first one.

Mary and Joseph were moving for Christmas. They were traveling too - of course not with a mother-in-law, teenage daughter, 35-pound dog, in a Kia Soul. They were riding a donkey and walking; Mary with her pregnancy almost to term. They were headed cross country with no hotel room waiting on the other end.

I am sure that their lives felt completely unsettled. Mary had announced her pregnancy out of wedlock. Joseph had stood by her, but they must have had moments of awkwardness and tension. After all, they were newlyweds, parents-to-be, still getting to know one another. I'm sure they were worried about the future.

Christmas for them was about where they needed to go and what they needed to do. They were living with the expectation of the birth of their baby, this Child who would change the world. Christmas had nothing at all to do with carols and trees and ornaments. It had nothing to do with my still unopened, ten Rubbermaid containers of decorations.

So, this year, I'll have that kind of Christmas. I'll have the one in my heart that knows and believes and hopes and perseveres. I'll hug my family close. I'll dream and sing and love and celebrate the birth of my Savior.

I'll pray for a family I know whose dad just entered intense chemo. I'll pray for my friend whose daughter is leaving for the mission field.

I'll hum along to the man playing, "O Holy Night" on his trumpet in the subway station.

I'll appreciate my neighbor's Christmas lights and turn the television to "White Christmas" while I pack.

I'll refuse my gloom, put aside my Martha Stewart expectations of what this holiday should be, and celebrate this strange and  unsettling Christmas on the road.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

White Roses and Paper Cranes: Symbols of Beauty and the Horror Within

Walking down the cobblestone streets of Salem, Mass., I was both intrigued and a bit spooked. In every other window, witch paraphernalia was displayed – ouija boards, spell candles, black cats. The Salem Witch Museum is in an old church with the glass windows lit in red. It is dusk and the perfect setting for my visit.

Turning a corner, we walked by a historic home, graveyard and a group of tourists being led by a man dressed vaguely as a pilgrim. My friend tells me to look down. I see a row of stones, engraved with words in capital letters. Some of the stones are cracked. Yellow leaves obscure parts of the text. But I see phrases: “I am innocent” . . . She tells me these are the last words of the men and women hanged after being accused of witchcraft. It takes my breath away.

When I look up, I notice a small courtyard – again surrounded by a stone wall. There are small stone platforms jutting out of the wall – about 20 of them – encircling the courtyard. I thought they were benches, then noticed that on each one is a single white rose.

These too represent those who died, accused of being witches. One after another, silently, I walk by and read their names, the date of their death, and their method of execution: “hanged,” “pressed.” 

Some names I recognize from literature, many I do not. I want to run my finger along the words. I long to whisper a silent apology and offer a prayer, but the night has grown chilly and it is getting darker.

In only one other place have I encountered such sadness, such a clear representation of our unfathomable human ability to harm one another.

My husband, daughter, and I traveled to Okinawa, Japan, in 2007. I was supervising a trip with my college students. They were filming a video to promote a Christian school. Our trip was fascinating and we soaked in the Japanese culture, eating sushi, collecting coral and seashells, walking through rice fields and carefully avoiding slithering Habu.

On one of the first outings, our hosts took us to the World War II Peace Museum. Row after row of headstones engraved with the names of the American and Japanese soldiers who lost their lives. The monuments stretched on past our vision. We walked through a museum containing mementos from both the Japanese and the American soldiers. The museum was a visual plea for peace.

But perhaps the most overwhelming moment for me was our next stop at the Himeyuri Peace Museum, a cave where 17 Japanese nurses and 194 school girls hid under orders to never surrender. Knowing they would soon die, they left letters, speaking of their sorrow to part with the men and families left behind. Of the more than 200 women, only 5 survived. They were young, so young.

Outside the caves was a tree, covered with multi-colored paper cranes. One thousand cranes, they say, grants one wish. Visitors bring these every day as a memorial to these young nurses and there are thousands of them – so many that they weigh down the tree and make it look vibrant and alive in an other-worldly way. Pink, green, turquoise, red, yellow, orange. In another pile were yellow flowers, stacks of them.

Intensely alive and a way for those who are living to touch the past and say, “We will never forget.”

It is hard to believe we are capable of these things. We don’t want to be. We visit sites and cry and feel the pit in our stomach that people can inflict such pain on others.

And so I walk away from that Salem memorial – the memory of a faded white rose in my mind and heart.

Were they witches? Were they evil?

Or were we?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Renee Zellweger, Orual, and Me

Renee Zellweger’s face was all over the internet this week. She had plastic surgery that took away her signature chubby cheeks and ruddy complexion. She is still attractive. The only problem is that she no longer looks like the actress who charmed us in Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jone’s Diary. She is too perfect. We liked the old-version of Rene, flaws and all.

I remember having a similar reaction when Jennifer Grey had a nose job following her roles in Ferris Bueller and Dirty Dancing. Her new nose was lovely – but she no longer looked like the same woman. I would stare at her photo and think, “Really!? Wow. What a difference a nose can make!” It was almost like the original Jennifer had disappeared, replaced by this new version without her distinctive personality.

As much as I am shocked at the tendency of the rich and famous to erase their flaws, I admit I have a few that I would not mind erasing as well. For many years, I battled with being much too thin. I wasn’t the good kind of skinny, but the kind that made clothes drape awkwardly on me, the kind that meant I also was flat chested with knobby knees.

If I was rich, would I have fixed that flaw? Perhaps. My angst about my own personal appearance was all consuming in my early teens. I hated the way I looked and was certain that everybody else focused on my flaws as well. Now, as I approach the end of my 40's, I’m in a constant battle with graying hair. Thank goodness for Clairol.

All of us, and perhaps women in particular, are plagued by self-awareness, self-doubt, even self-hatred. We get consumed by the one thing that is wrong with our physical appearance, whether it is the belly that refuses to get flat or the ears that stick out at an odd angle. We worry that this is what is holding us back – as if this one feature could prevent relationships from developing or block our prospects of fame and fortune.

It is all too easy to hate how we look.

It is even easier to equate who we are, our identity, with our physical appearance. Is there more to us than meets the eye?

In C.S. Lewis’s gorgeous (and lesser-known) novel, Till We Have Faces, a princess named Orual is consumed by her own ugliness. She realizes from a young age that her sister is the good looking one. She is the smart one, but she is also hideous.

When she is young, her father taunts her and holds her face to a mirror – “Who would want this?” he mocks. And, she agrees. Orual eventually goes to great lengths to hide her face, eventually wearing a veil to block others from seeing what she really looks like.

But, Lewis suggests this need for transformation goes much further.

What Orual discovers in the novel, after a great deal of soul searching, is that surface ugliness is the least of her problems. As she fixates on the need to transform the physical, she neglects to realize that her soul is in need of a greater makeover.

Yes, she needs transformation, but the knife must go deeper. Orual is jealous and manipulative. She ruins those she loves in order to get her own way. She is ugly, indeed, but not just in the way she thought.

At the conclusion of Lewis’s novel, Orual is an old woman. On judgement day, she stands, naked, before the gods, and they reveal not just her ugly face, but the depravity of her soul.

Surely, this is as bad as it gets. To be revealed, warts and blemishes for all to see. But, in revealing herself and finally owning who she is – completely – a miraculous thing happens. Orual is made whole again. And, she discovers (much to her shock) that her vulnerability before the gods has left her beautiful, inside and out.

Transformation, Lewis suggests, is not purely physical. It cannot stay at the surface. As Orual learns, identity goes far deeper than our outward appearance.

So, we can change our nose. We can add size to our breasts. Yet even these changes will not ultimately satisfy our longings for perfection. We live with a residual dissatisfaction that goes much deeper. Our fixation on the physical, hints at our spiritual hunger. Perhaps we struggle to adjust and improve what lies on the surface because we fear going deeper.

When we know God and allow ourselves to be exposed, unveiled, naked, before Him, only then will we be truly transformed. From glory to glory, He's changing us indeed - not merely erasing our physical flaws, but digging deep, perfecting our true identity to reflect His image.

"And we all who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:18

Friday, October 3, 2014

Farmville, Faith, and Fallen Sheep

A few years ago, McDonald’s created a promotional game targeted toward the reported millions of Americans who were playing the Facebook game FarmVille.

The press release said, “Our mission is to connect the world through games by offering consumers meaningful experiences that enhance their game play. Tens of millions of people play FarmVille daily and this unique campaign with McDonald’s…further strengthens our commitment to delivering high quality in-game brand experiences.”

Now, I must stop here and admit something.

I was one of those millions. I once owned a farm on FarmVille.

It started innocently enough. I was checking Facebook, and an update appeared on my wall. One of my friends had just expanded his farm.

“What is that?” my daughter asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just a game some people play where you own a virtual farm.”

“I want a farm,” she said. “Do it!”

We made the fatal click.

It started with a little patch of virtual land. I could buy pretend seeds, plant them, and harvest them. Innocent enough, right? Even biblical, really — the Bible says a lot about seeds.

Then, I found out that I could expand my farm. Seek new territory. Acquire a barn and fences and trees and goats and even a hot air balloon.

Again: nothing wrong with expansion. Look at the Bible. The Israelites expanded into the Promised Land — bigger and better. Abraham went to a far off place to become the father of many nations. And all with God’s blessing! This was fun! I liked it!

My farm grew to an impressive state. I had at least 100 fruit trees and many cows. In fact, I had so many animals that I had to corral them into fences and buildings. I had to buy a seeder to plant my newly expanded fields and a harvester to keep up with the bounty of crops.

In the meantime, I was being charitable. I was even helping friends.

I was also winning. FarmVille lets you know how you are doing. I was ahead of many of my friends. I would visit their so-called “farms” — they were pitiful. Little single plots of land with wilted crops.

And I was jealous of some. A married couple I know had taken over FarmVille. Their farms were amazing and impressive. Nicely arranged. Beautiful barns. Multiple machines. In fact, once I visited their farms, my own seemed insignificant.

Then something terrible happened. My farm got completely out of control.

 In the midst of one mad milking
and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself:
Have I lost my mind? 

I had so many cows to milk. I had so many sheep to shear.  I had so many crops to seed and plant and harvest that I could not keep up. Things started dying. My crops were turning brown and wilting before I could reach them. I could not keep up this frantic pace.

I was getting physically stressed by FarmVille — by my virtual farm.

I knew this was crazy. In the midst of one mad milking and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself: have I lost my mind?  Am I really worrying about a virtual farm that does not even exist? Do I need this stress in my life? I am a busy woman — I work full time. I am a mother. I have a long commute. I don’t have time to be a pretend farmer!

I knew I needed to stop.

Stopping was easier than I imagined. With one simple touch of a button, my farm disappeared. And with it, went my stress. I couldn’t believe how easy it was just to end the madness, just to walk away.

In keeping with the farming metaphor, I think of Isaiah 53:6. The text says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  I had indeed gone astray. This was not my intent when I built my farm. It was supposed to be fun! It was just some little silly thing to do with my daughter. How had it gotten out of control?  The New Living Translation says, “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.”

My experience with FarmVille has a parallel with my own life. My life can, at times, be much like that game. It can easily get out of control. Like Isaiah so clearly states, I leave God’s path and follow my own.  Leaving the path is not really a conscious decision. It starts with many, many good things.

I am success-driven. I like to be recognized for doing a good job. But personal ambition can have a bad result when I accept a position or responsibility I do not want, simply because it brings me prestige or honor or money. I leave God’s path when I become secretly jealous of a colleague who gets recognition. I leave when I consider an opportunity that would not suit me, simply because it would mean I am successful.

Although I try to be content, I tend to want more. More stuff. More out of life. More money. When will we, like Solomon, recognize the vanity of this never-ending cycle of life? This mistake is common. We are not alone in our chasing after the wind.

The McDonald’s rep says that tens of millions of Americans play this game. Tens of millions! Why?  I think it is because FarmVille reflects our dominant culture. We want to do more, to be more, than what we are or, even, more than what is best for us.  We encourage our kids in this direction, too. 

Children today lead incredibly busy lives. They are participating in so many good things — but have we gone overboard? They are asked to join clubs. To play sports. To prioritize academic achievement.

As adults, we want to be the head of the PTA, in charge of that church committee, a leader in our workplace. And with each responsibility we add, our frantic life spins a bit faster.  This pursuit of success can easily spin out of control.  These successful lives we pursue can get so busy, so overwhelming, that individual experiences lose their meaning. In our effort to build our bigger and better farms, we forget about the pleasure of growing one plant. God calls us to put an end to this madness. He wants us to be counterculture.

I readily admit it. I tend to be one of those sheep. But there are ,moments in my life when I have felt the call to stop and question everything. How do we hit delete when the game of life gets out of control?

It starts with a prayer for help. We need help to stop the cycle. We need help to make changes to our busy, crazy lifestyles. We need help to renew our minds and our hearts. We must recognize that no matter what our title, no matter how great our achievements, we are merely sheep, and we are in desperate need of a Shepherd.

- Originally published in Catapult magazine - 1 Sept. 2011. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

In the Waiting Room - My GUEST POST on This Odd House

My friend and colleague, Kelli Worrall, has a beautiful blog titled This Odd House. It is a little bit about their beautiful Craftsman style home, but more about the people who live within it. Kelli tells the story of how they adopted their two children. She tells about growing up with parents suffering with disabilities. She writes about life and brokenness and hope with heartbreaking honesty. 

This month, I have the joy of guesting on her blog. She is hosting a series about "waiting." The topic struck home because I am in that place. I am waiting and trying, desperately, to be patient.

Lately, it feels like my life has been all about waiting.
Our house has been up for sale for 90-plus days. We are waiting, hoping, praying for a buyer.
About five years ago, we started to talk about moving from Indiana to Florida. The move could bring us closer to my husband’s brother and to my mom and her husband who had recently adopted the “snowbird” lifestyle. The decision made practical sense in many ways.
Living near family would be helpful for us since my husband’s mom, who lives with us, is 86. While she is in good mental and physical health, we have been more worried about leaving her alone when we travel.
Plus, the fact that the weather in Chicago has been earning polar nicknames cemented our decision. How wonderful would it be to not have to wear a winter coat that looks like a sleeping bag? Or, to throw out our snow shovels and thermal gloves? Or, to go on outside walks all summer long.
So we made plans.
I prayed every morning as I drove to work. “Please God, if this is the right thing, make it happen. Please let me get the right job. Please let the move transition smoothly and care for all the details in a way that YOU think it should happen.”
For a while things moved smoothly ahead. While I did not get the jobs I applied to, I found that my current employer would let me work remotely in a new position. We sold my husband’s classic car, a boat, and a camper. We fixed up the house, downsized and put it on the market. We were steadily moving forward.
And then, everything seemed to stop. No sale. No offers.

Here's the rest of my blog- and be sure to read more from Kelli on This Odd House.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Secret to Being a Nerd

Certain activities belonged to “nerds” – and wanna-be-cool high schoolers avoided them like the plague.

I was in the Marching Band – nerd heaven. Plus, I was skinny, wore braces, earned excellent grades, was hopeless at sports, and refused to break rules. Card-carrying nerd, for sure.

But, as an insider nerd, I knew a secret. We were not all the same type of nerds. Even within marching band, people were not all one variety. Louise was a hard-core determined flute/piccolo player who wanted to gain a spot in a professional symphony. Smart and determined, she simply seemed focused. Our trumpet player was also a jazz aficionado. Brian wanted to look and sound like Chuck Mangione, so he was often seen sporting a fedora and carrying his flugel horn.

At Thornwood High School, the theatre people were on the verge of nerd-dom, but some managed to be deemed socially acceptable. Certainly the Mathletes or Dungeons & Dragons Club were card-carrying members.

The word “nerd” was not used until the 1950s. The first use, of all places, was in a Dr. Seuss book. Although, the concept of a person who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream has always been present. For years, that one person who stood out has been called an “oddball,” a “geek,” “square,” or “drip.”

Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future, nerds are often portrayed as extremely intelligent, socially awkward, and oddly dressed. The stereotype developed of a nerd with taped, horn-rimmed glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors. In the 1980s movie, Revenge of the Nerds, these stereotypical nerds decided they’d had enough and took on the popular crowd.

For most of us, high school was a highly-pressurized time to fit in. From what my daughter says, it still is today. That is why stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are incredibly successful. “Blend. Blend. Blend,” they seductively whisper. “Wear our perfume. Flash our label. Maybe then you can avoid nerd-dom.” Anyone who avoids sports – a nerd. The girls who don’t want to be cheerleaders – nerds. The labels can be oppressive.

But, as Whil Wheaton (newly-crowned King of the Nerds) said to a crowd at Comic-con. Being a nerd just means following what you are interested in. 

Actually, we are all (even those sporting a jersey or cheerleading skirt) unique. Some of us just keep it more under wraps. We may want to know everything there is to know about [fill in the blank]. For me, it was vintage fashion and books. I loved reading and authors and traveling and times of the past. Nerdy? Probably.

Even at age 16, I knew I would rather wear a 1940s gabardine jacket, than anything I can buy at the mall. Unusual? Certainly. But, as I grew older and moved on from high school to college to graduate school, I realized that the nerd label gradually disappeared. Suddenly, I was smart, determined, one-of-a-kind.

At the end of an episode from the animated series Freakazoid, they explain that nerds have huge potential:

..most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.

If you still have any doubt, look what nerds have achieved. Ivy League colleges are filled with card-carrying nerds. They have revolutionized, invented, dreamed, and succeeded. Bill Gates – the world’s most accomplished nerd – changed the world with his inventions. John Greene – whose novels fly off the shelves and movie made millions – is a self-proclaimed nerd.

When you get older, I can assure you that the nerd label slips gradually away. As you earn your degrees, leave behind lockers and backpacks, you find out that you are delightfully quirky, unusual, determined, focused, and (gasp!) often, extraordinarily gifted and smart.

My daughter is at a convention this weekend filled with teenagers who are slightly, well – okay – hugely, obsessed with anime and comics. To an outsider, to other high schoolers, they may all seem like nerds. But I know their secret. Beneath the crazy costumes (that took hours and hours of dedicated work to create), this hotel is filled with interesting, quirky, young people who aren’t afraid to swim against the stream.

That takes guts and courage. These “nerds” will go far.

Long live the wonderful, unique people who are labeled as “nerds” in school. May they fly their freak flag proudly, refuse to conform, and ever shine.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

In junior high, my daughter was given career aptitude tests. They declared she would make a great pharmacist, an idea that repelled her. She wanted to be a fashion designer, an artist, not someone who studied medicine for years and then worked behind a counter distributing pills.

At the Bible college where I teach, students are pushed to declare a major. They enroll as a Sports Ministry major or a Pastoral Studies major with an Intercultural Studies emphasis. Their career choices are interwoven with their Christian calling which adds even more pressure to the choice. Some students arrive their freshmen year with career goals oddly defined: I am called to work with orphans in Romania.

Really!? How do you know?

My own life’s ambitions have rolled out like a tattered carpet littered with failed dreams. I wanted to be a Bible translator in the 7th grade. Yes, I know it is an odd career choice in junior high. But, I admired a missionary woman who had come to speak at our Baptist church. She was a bit bookish (like me) and loved Jesus (like me), so I figured I could quietly follow in her leather, sandal-clad footsteps. Years later, after claiming my first “C” in a phonetics class, I realized that dream would probably never come to fruition.

I was focused on news journalism throughout college, until I landed a part-time job at a daily paper in Normal, Illinois. I was thrilled by the bustling newsroom and grumpy editors. I proudly took my place at the copyediting station, typed in headlines, and corrected poor comma usage. My heart beat quickly when I earned my first actual assignment and took the paper’s car down to Springfield. As I bounded up the state capitol steps toward my first press meeting, I felt like a real reporter.

Certainly, I had grown up.

But my dream spiraled downward from there. After a few months at the paper, I realized I would never be a dedicated journalist. Rather than thrilling me, the atmosphere of the newspaper office exhausted me. I found the minute by minute news spewing from the AP wire more than a bit depressing. Every few seconds I was reminded that houses were burning, kids were missing, and people died. The cyclical nature of news and the crazed dedication of those true journalists who loved to live at the office quickly sealed my fate. I would never be a journalist – and that was my major.

Since then, my career has taken an odd and unexpected path. I became a teacher reluctantly. I entered public relations because of an unexpected job opportunity. I started fundraising writing because I found I was good at it. I wrote a book – something I had secretly dreamed – but never thought would come true. All of these odd parts have come together in a way I never expected. I can only conclude it was God-ordained. I never would have imagined it and it certainly never appeared in a career-finder chart.

To my daughter and to all of those feeling the pressure of deciding what to be, I offer this bit of advice:

1)      Hold your plans loosely. Know that any dreams or ideas of what you will be or should be may very well change. Life has a way of interrupting or even rerouting those dreams. When I became a mother, I switched to full-time teaching. It fit that lifestyle, and I enjoyed it. Since then, my job has shifted again. And, I expect it will in the future. I know very, very few people who are today what they thought they would be in college or especially high school. It is fine to plan, but know that your dreams may shift, doors may close, plans may change. You may find that what you end up with is better than what you expected.

2)      Expect rough patches. After I graduated, I was floundering. I took a job without benefits. It was a new position, and I didn’t have a desk. I carried my stack of papers and belongings from vacant desk to vacant desk. I was living at home because I couldn’t afford rent. I was depressed. As I made endless copies and sealed hundreds of envelopes, I felt like all my work and ambition had gone down the toilet. That happens. It is part of life. Keep going. Trust that this is the long haul, not a short sprint. Hang in there and keep your eyes open for the next opportunity.

3)      Know what you love. Rather than deciding on a job, consider what you love to do, what you are good at. I wanted to love journalism, but I finally realized that I never really liked being on the staff of a paper. I liked the idea of being a reporter more than the actual job. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time or lifestyle to achieve that dream. My inclination toward journalism was not completely wrong. I did love writing. I like interviewing and telling stories. I like interpersonal interaction with others. Look at what you are drawn to and let that influence your choices.

4)      Don’t be surprised when some of your dreams fail. Failing dreams does not make you a failure. It may mean that they were never the right dreams in the first place. Our big grand vision is what gets us off the couch and sends us on a journey. But, we can also expect that our ambitions may change as we grow and mature. Very few boys grow up to be a race car driver or fireman. Very few girls are now ballerinas or princesses. We don’t realistically expect those childhood dreams to come true. But, dreaming in itself is not bad. It is shaping our vision.

5)      Be realistic. Think practically about the lifestyle associated with the careers you are considering. If you want to be a journalist (as I did), but you aren’t willing to work long hours or move to a new city to pursue your dream, it might not be the best choice for you. Trying to shoehorn your personality into a job that doesn’t match it will be a painful learning experience.

6)      Keep striving. If you really want something, don’t give up. This is especially true for artistic careers. It is not easy to become a writer or a musician. It takes time. It takes years of doing jobs, sometimes unpaid or on the side, before you can actually spend quality time pursuing your true calling. Your career dream may not be lucrative. That’s okay. You will do it anyway.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that a career builder test would never have predicted my path. Only God knew, and I am thankful for His hand that guided me in ways I never expected.
For years, Psalm 32:8 was my favorite verses: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go, I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”

God knows you better than anyone else. He has His loving eye on you. His ways are not our ways. His path is best. Trust in that. Move ahead. Do what you love. Enjoy each stage of your life without focusing on what you never achieved.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sorting Stuff and Those Copper-Coated Baby Shoes

The blue storage tub that was pushed way to the back of our cement-floored "sump pump" crawl space. It is hard to get back there, and a bit musty, so I don't venture very often. But, we are trying to sort through our piles of stuff in preparation for a move. It is time to get serious...

We have been in our current home, in northwest Indiana, for almost 20 years. It is amazing how quickly that time has passed. As I tackle the monumental sort and salvage task, I am learning a great deal about my sentimental, pack rat tendencies.

In this particular bin, I discovered yet one more box of baby things. My "baby" is now 16 years old, almost 17. I found a little pair of shoes, a tiny red sweatshirt with "Door County" embroidered on it. A slightly stained t-shirt from our trip to Cape Cod when my daughter was only six months old. There is the padded Bible and her mini, board version of Good Night Moon. In the same box was a copper-clad pair of shoes turned bookends that belonged to my husband.

All choked up and sentimental by this unexpected trip down memory lane, I showed the slightly stained bib to my daughter. She wrinkled her nose. "Eeeewwww. Why didn't you throw that away?"

Honestly, I don't really know!

It is amazing how much stuff we can acquire without even trying. Was it only 20-something years ago that Milt and I, newly married, struggled to furnish the rooms of our new house? Today, we have boxes of things that we haven't looked at in years. We have more than 100 VHS tapes - some personal, many movies we love and haven't yet acquired on DVD. I have piles of cookbooks that are no longer as necessary, thanks to the Internet. We have at least 30, yes 30, gallon cans of semi-used-up paint in every color and shade. Pastel mint green, taupe, multiple shades of ivory, a horrible, vivid blue I'd rather forget.

So I sort, and sort, and sort some more.

I make rash, vengeful decisions. I grit my teeth and put those copper-shoe bookends into a plastic giveaway bag. Then, feeling a bit nostalgic and guilty, I snatch them back out again. Poor things, all neglected. What will the people in the thrift store think that some heartless mother donated her own child's baby shoes? No, they must go. Soon I find myself entering crazy zone with no ability to discern what should stay and what must go.

For those of you who are now worried, know that I am okay. I've come out of the other side. Deep breaths. Lots of sighs. Some photos snapped. The giveaway pile is growing. I realize that this is how those scary hoarders begin, so I've had a garage sale and called the donation center. 30 boxes and bags piled up to go in the garage.

Maybe I'll add the copper shoes to the mix.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Here is the Church: What My Children's Church Pastor Taught Me

When I was in grade school, a young couple, Rich and Cheri, were hired to pastor the youth at our little First Baptist Church. They were students at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, and in exchange for housing, they served part-time at our church.

As a part of their job, they would hold a children's church service every Sunday morning in our slightly mildewed church basement. I don't remember if we were dismissed from the adult service entirely or were sent down just before the sermon, I do remember that we loved it.

The group of about 30 kids, kindergarten to 6th grade, would rush down the linoleum steps as quickly as we could to take our place in the rows of metal folding chairs. They were arranged like a mini-sanctuary with a wobbly wooden podium front and center, the upright piano pushed to the right. We were squirmy and energetic, a hum of nervous energy in ruffled bobby socks and clip-on neckties.

Cheri would get us started with the singing. We had plenty of audience participation songs "Stop! and let me tell you" was one of our favorites. Volunteers would hold up the cardboard STOP and GO signs as we sang along to the peppy tune. Sometimes I would try to accompany the group with my limited piano skills, stopping and starting as I hit the wrong notes.

As kids, we were encouraged to participate in all parts of the service. We sang solos, played piano or our new school instrument, and passed the offering plate. Rich would give us a mini-sermon. Cheri would help us memorize a Bible verse - wiping away words on a blackboard as we tried to remember the disappearing sentence. We would have "sword drills", struggling to find the location of Bible verses in our King James Bibles. If we won a contest, we would "fish" for prizes behind a blue sheet with an actual pole. They were imaginative and fun, but it was still in the style of church.

Our favorite part was at the end of the service when they revealed who had been sitting in the "quiet chair." They had selected one seat in the "audience"...if you had been in that seat AND had also been quiet and well-behaved, you received a beautifully-wrapped present. If not, well....I don't remember that part.

Rich and Cheri inspired us because they took us seriously and helped us learn to "do" church. They taught us that we were the church, we didn't just attend it. We were a part of it, included. They modeled Christ to me, even at a young age.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Rich on the phone. I am in my late 40s, and Rich and Cheri now have grown children and grandchildren. I work at a Bible college, the same college from where they graduated, and they were just about ready to head back to the mission field. They have served in the Philippines and now are teaching and leading the church in the Ukraine. Rich is teaching the local church about the role of missions. He said some of the pastors are learning about evangelizing outside of their home country for the first time. Cheri has hosted the first-ever women's conferences in the Ukraine, spreading over the borders into neighboring countries. Women are hungry for that encouragement and the fellowship of other Christian leaders.

They are serving God and returning to the Ukraine, even during a time of fighting and persecution. They realize that their task this year won't be easy.

As I listened to that same calm voice that had spoken of God and the church to me so many years ago, I was profoundly thankful. I am glad God sent Rich and Cheri into my life at such a young age. I am glad they took the time to invest in children who grew up to care about Jesus and taught me that the church is so much more than just a building. I am glad He has honored their lives of service and that they are still serving God so well today.

I want to be like them when I grow up.

They truly represent Church to me.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fannie Farmer and Victorian Cooking: A Book Giveaway!

I picked up this fabulous book, Fannie's Last Supper by Chris Kimball, and decided to host a book giveaway so you can love it too! If you are a foodie, a Downton Abbey fan, or just someone curious about what it was like to live in Victorian Boston, you are in for a treat (or, rather, a 12-course extravagant meal).

Chris Kimball is a chef and magazine editor and owner of a Victorian era home in Boston. After researching the Boston Cooking School and Fannie Farmer, he decided to undertake the creation of a meal that perfectly replicated the common foods, cooking methods and style of turn-of-the-century urban America.

He had help, of course, but cooked a beautiful meal on a wood-burning iron stove in a steaming hot kitchen - so hot that the chef's pants melted onto her legs. I thought this entire book was fascinating - and (for the truly adventurous) it includes recipes.

They made a mock turtle soup which involved making stock from a calf's head. Calf's hooves were boiled to create gelatin (a bit disgusting) but the product is gorgeous.

Apparently formal Victorian meals involved as many as 12 courses served in two hours or less. As many as 131 pieces of silverware were used for each person for each meal. The silver covered dishes we see in formal settings were useful as Victorian diners did not want any smells coming from the kitchen. Because of this, the kitchen was set far back from the dining room and food needed to be carried down long drafty hallways...thus the covered dishes.

You will enjoy his careful research and the trials and tribulations of recreating the past. They filmed this as a television special. Also interesting is the study of Fannie Farmer herself, who was a rather practical version of Julia Child - a woman who knew how to cook, teach, and market herself.

As a faithful watcher of Downton Abbey, I found this book often making me think about those formal dinners at Downton. I know you will love it.

To enter to win - just leave a comment! I will choose one person and send you the book!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Can You Wear a Pompadour to Church? Review of Adventures in Churchland

I can't believe I missed this book when it was first published! Adventures in Churchland tells the story of rockabilly drummer Dan Kimball and his search for Jesus through the harrowing world of the evangelical church.

They were not prepared for him with his Doc Martens (and flashy yellow stitching) or his slicked back, 50s-pompadour style hair. He was even less prepared for evangelical worship songs that sound like Celine Dion and Christmas pageants where men wore bed sheets as costumes.

I found myself chuckling and nodding out loud - and wincing more than once - as I read his account of an "outsider" approaching the church with honest questions.

Dan has it right. It's not about what we think church "should" look like. It's about Jesus.

He finds his way in through an 83-year-old man in London who gives him a cup of Ovaltine and invites him to meet the real Jesus.

This is a book about Jesus and church and finding your way home. It is a book about the need to shed our preconceptions of what church is and what church-goers should look like. It is a book that speaks truth in a way that is easy to hear.

As someone who was raised in the church and loves the rockabilly scene, I adored this book. I want all my friends, believers or not, to read it. The foreword is written by rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. There is a chapter about the faith story of Johnny Cash.

It challenges those of us inside, those dyed-in-the-wool churchgoers, to step outside of our comfort zone and make sure that not all of their friends are Christians. We are too isolated. We lack relevance. We need to be in the world, but not of it. Amen!

If you haven't read it, please do so. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Selling Your House Without Losing Your Mind

This summer, our pool has decided it would prefer to be a lovely shade of green.

Despite my best efforts, the pH-level has been bouncing all over the place. The bleach is often ineffective. It wouldn't be so bad, but we are trying to sell our house. Nobody wants to buy a home with a Kermit the frog, pea-green pool.

My husband and I have been working like crazy to keep our home ship-shape. Now I'm not the neat-freak type, so (normally) I am quite happy if my house has only a light layer of dust. This summer, however, we have had to make it look like we live in a model home. Not easy with a dog, a teenager and an elderly mother-in-law.

At our last showing, we spent an hour running around the house like crazy people - dusting, cleaning, and spritzing air freshener. I even plucked a few orange Tiger lilies and threw them in a cut-glass vase on the coffee table.

The buyer walked in, took one look, and left in 3 minutes.Three minutes! He didn't walk through the house, look at the backyard or go downstairs. He probably didn't even notice the lilies!

Can I say, "Aaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhh!!!!!????"

In the early spring, we bustled around completing our unfinished home projects. We "neutralized" our house as much as we could, and then put it up for sale by owner. After a period of time, we gave in and listed with a Realtor. Now, we are in the hardest part of all: waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more.

Unfortunately, the buyers who have looked at our home don't fit the type who will probably buy it. Our house is a family home with swimming pool, nearby park and elementary school. One couple was older - and didn't like stairs. One was a single woman who didn't want maintenance. One buyer said my retro furniture made the house look old (she did not appreciate our vintage style). Sigh.

Through this process, I've come to a firm conclusion: Selling your home can make even the sanest people crazy.

So if you are considering a home sale in the near future, here's a few suggestions:

1) Get rid of any smells. Stock up on Febreeze. Use a Borox/water solution to wipe down baseboards and basement walls. Clean the pet cage. Get rid of old boxes and stored clothing. Walk around your house sniffing the air like an Irish Setter. Be persistent.

2) Declutter. Throw out half of your possessions - just kidding - but a at least get rid of a good portion of them. That old fish tank you've been saving in case you ever decide to raise tropical fish? Time to ditch it. Get rid of the threadbare afghan, the half-empty boxes of stale cereal. Toss, toss, toss. Call the local thrift store and delight them with the bounty of your excess.

3) Neutralize. For us, that meant bidding farewell to my ever-so-creative, Mary-Engelbreit-inspired kitchen floor. It was a lovely red/yellow/green varied pattern. Now it is a very, every-person appealing patter of beige and lighter beige. My super-cool 1950's vintage curtains? Replaced with a lovely pair of tan drapes. Sigh. It looks like we're living in Pleasantville: all grey and beige and normal.

4) De-personalize. Pack away the photos of your family. Take your personal info off the fridge. Make it look like a very pleasant hotel with no sign of the previous inhabitant. Well, as much as possible. We left our teen and mother-in-law's rooms alone. But, the main areas are cleared of our gorgeous, smiling faces.

5) Take a break. You need some days to kick up your feet and heels and relax. This is stressful! Be kind to your spouse. Try not to overdo each home showing (easier said than done). Allow yourself to have time to just be - go out to dinner, watch a movie, barbeque, take a walk. Remember that your sanity is key to surviving this long process.

6) Be patient - and try very hard not to take rejection personally. One site said that every review of your home will be negative until someone makes an offer. So true. Read the reviews of home buyers, but take each comment with a grain of salt. They may have a hint of truth in them - but they aren't objective. These home buyers have something very specific in mind - and it just might not be your home.

Most of all, keep your ultimate goal firmly in mind. Remembering why you are going through this time of insanity will ensure that you keep a smidgen of self-respect during the coming months.

Best of luck to you, my friend. We are in this together.

Your house is beautiful.

You are beautiful.

Monday, July 7, 2014

When Expectations Don't Fit

In my guest blogger series, I've asked some of my favorite bloggers to discuss one of the questions found at the end of my book, When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give UpToday's question is about Emma Dryer. 

Women of Emma Dryer's day were expected to marry and devote their life to household work. What are the social expectations for women today? Are they different for Christian women? How has your life conformed to or gone against the expectations of society or the church?

Enjoy this essay from my friend, Connie Mann. Connie and I first met in college. Now, she is a boat captain and fellow writer! Also, be sure to pick up a copy of her fiction novel, Angel Falls, an exotic adventure set in Brazil!

I’ve spent a good bit of my life feeling like I escaped the island of misfit toys. As a little girl, I dressed the cat in my doll clothes and climbed the neighbor’s tree so I could read, uninterrupted. I wore my hair boy-short, but was mortified when the elementary school principal once called me, “young man.”

I’ve never been a girly-girl. I’ve always loved pink, but if it comes with ruffles or lace, no thank you. I choose clothes based on comfort, not fashion. I don’t polish my fingernails, because they’ll be chipped by noon. Toenails? Yes, those get polish.

I come from a family of crafters, but my creative ability showed up in stories, not samplers. I still have half-completed cross-stitch pictures from when I was twelve. Much to my family’s disappointment, while my female relations glued and painted and sewed, I snuck off to an obscure corner with a novel or a notebook, hoping no one would notice.

A while back, I got a captain’s license from the USCG. It took almost a year to get that credential and I absolutely love my job. But more than once when I’ve told someone what I do, the response has been, “You? You’re a boat captain?” Followed by gales of laughter.

I write books and blogs, but I get a little antsy if I haven’t been outside or around people on any given day. Though I love to entertain, I clean my house when I finally realize the cleaning fairies STILL haven’t shown up. I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. Baking, not so much.

When it’s my week to bring dessert for our small group, things get a little stressful. For years, I brought grocery store macaroni salad to potlucks. I had a system: bring a pretty bowl and spoon with you and make the swap in the parking lot. (I may not be girly, but I am resourceful.)

I can poke fun at my quirks because I’ve finally gotten comfortable in my own skin. I wasted years worrying about what I should and shouldn’t do, what kind of woman I was ‘supposed’ to be. I finally realized that God made me, me. He gave me different gifts and talents from the ones He gave you. He gave me a heart to encourage others and there is no greater compliment than when people say they feel comfortable and welcome when they come to our home.

I think there are far less ‘shoulds’ in God’s mind than we impose on ourselves. It’s time to let go of who we think we ‘should’ be and celebrate who God made us to be. Let’s thank Him for our strengths and abilities and for equipping us exactly for the roles He needs us to play. You are exactly who you are ‘supposed’ to be.

Connie Mann is the author of Angel Falls, a romantic suspense, and she blogs at As a USCG-licensed boat captain, she gets to take local school children on Florida’s Silver River and show some of them their very first alligator. When she’s not writing, she’s usually out on the water or exploring new places with her family. Visit her online at

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Rockabilly Christian Life

Photo by the fabulous Jill Obermaier.

Milt and I have been slightly obsessed with all things 50s for the past few years. Well, in all honesty, my vintage obsession goes back a bit further. Here, in this article for Christianity Today's blog Her.meneutics, I share why my love for the past links to my faith.


My rockabilly friends hoard 1950s-era fiberglass lampshades and Formica-topped tables. They drive clunky, chrome-trimmed, gas-guzzling cars that have no seatbelts and sometimes leave them stranded on long trips. The guys sport gabardine suits and greased-back pompadours. The gals carry '50s Lucite purses and wear full-skirted dresses with armfuls of bangles. They swing their dance partners to thumping music played by tattooed upright bass players.
Walking into these events, a retro dance or hot rod car show, it feels like traveling back in time. These 21st-century folks live and breathe the culture of the 1950s. Yet again, in our seemingly endless cycles of American nostalgia, everything old is new again.
Click here to read the rest of . . . "My Rockabilly Christian Life"

Monday, June 30, 2014

When Hospitality Hurts: Perfection and Frozen Pot Pies

In my guest blogger series, I've asked some of my favorite bloggers to discuss one of the questions found at the end of my book, When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up. Today's question is about Sarah Dunn Clarke. Thank you to these fellow writers for participating! Enjoy this essay from my colleague, friend, writer and fellow antiques enthusiast, Kelli Worrall. 

Sarah Dunn Clarke was struck by God speaking to her, asking, “What are you doing to decorate your heavenly home?” In our culture, it is not uncommon for women to become obsessed with home d├ęcor and cooking. We exchange recipes and crafting ideas on Pinterest and other social media sites. How might our domestic obsessions limit our impact for God? Or can we use them for Him?

I made my foray into the world of interior design when I was about four. My mom opened wide the wallpaper book, and I picked a pattern for my room. Pink and blue Holly Hobby dolls for three walls. A coordinating stripe for the fourth. I chose a blue carpet remnant to cover the floor and complete the effect. I was hooked.
          My taste, of course, has evolved over the years.
          In junior high, I persuaded my mom to buy gold plaid furniture for the family room. It was the 80s. Then I discovered a kerosene lamp and some framed photos of our ancestors in the attic. I placed the lamp on a secretary desk. Hung the pictures above it on the wall. And fell in love with all things antique.
          In my 20s, I lived in a tiny, quirky upstairs apartment in a dilapidated house. It had “character.” Especially after I rag finished the walls. Painted a checkerboard on the floor. Hung baskets and plants and flea market finds everywhere. And splurged on a vintage armoire.
          When my husband Peter and I married, we bought a spacious Victorian condo with high ceilings and large windows and wood floors. We furnished her with an elegant pair of sofas, facing each other in front of the fireplace. And a dining room set acquired from (none other than) fellow antique enthusiast, Jamie Janosz.
          Now we live in a 1920s Craftsman home. Slowly we have replaced our more Victorian things with simple, clean-lined pieces befitting our Arts and Crafts abode. And now I also have a never-ending list of plans and projects and potential purchases—in my head and on paper—taped to the inside of a cupboard door—that will bring her up to a Pinterest-worthy place. (Actually, we did put her on the market last year, so there are already some pictures of her here.)
          You could say that decorating is in my DNA.  That’s the positive way to look at it.
          But I admit. It can also be a problem.
          When my delight in beauty morphs into an obsession with perfection.
          When I hold my husband to my same impossible standard. And nag him about what is not necessary. 
          When a day at home with my kids becomes more about controlling their clutter than cultivating in them creativity and compassion and a Christ-centered life.
          When I spend a frantic Friday preparing to host a church small group. When I feel put out and pressured. Rather than utterly blessed. When I let it become more about what they think of me. Rather than what God thinks of them.
          When I forget that hospitality is much more about our hearts than our home. And I forget that it should hurt. It should require sacrifice and humility. Of course it should.  
          A few months ago Peter proposed a new approach. He invited another family from church to join us on Sunday evenings for a Bible study and a meal. But he would do all of the work. I reluctantly agreed.
          Then I bit my tongue. As we welcomed them into a house that had been tidied, but not scoured. As Peter just popped frozen pot pies into the oven and didn’t even bother to wrap them with foil. As my blood pressure rose and I sensed that familiar feeling of shame. But then. As we opened God’s Word with them—week after week—and let it do its good work.
          Peter has since let me take back the hospitality reins. But his experiment was not without good effect. His point was made.
          True hospitality does not put on a show. Rather it welcomes—with open arms—other weary and wounded souls to commune with us.
          In our home. That is really His.
          Not as we wish we were. But as we are.
          Sometimes polished. But more often dusty. And usually a bit burnt around the edges.

Kelli Worrall is a professor of communications, writer, and speaker. She lives in  McHenry, Illinois, with her professor husband and two wonderful children. Read more from Kelli at or connect with her on Twitter @KelliWorrall.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Worship Makes Me Sad

I should clarify my title. Worship itself, honoring the almighty God, has never made me sad. But, today's church service, congregational singing often does. In an age where we are putting more effort than ever into staging, multimedia, and expertly-coordinated worship bands, I fear we may have missed the point and lost something crucial: the beauty and joy of singing corporately in worship to our Savior.

A series of events brought me to this conclusion.

First, I attended the memorial service for a dear member of my childhood church, the parent of one of my best friends. Mr. Charles "Chuck" Aarup was a father and a working man - he repaired trucks, so you know he was big and strong. But despite his manly exterior, he was not a gruff man. He had a ready smile and friendly eyes that always gave me a wink. He led congregational singing at First Baptist Church in South Holland, not because he was the best singer, but because he knew how to stir up the crowd.

We had evening services at First Baptist. At 6 pm, we would crowd into the paneled, drop-ceiling sanctuary with its red padded pews. I would sit on the left with my mom, as my dad was playing piano. Once a month it would be "request your favorite hymn" night. Even at age 10, I was always prepared with my personal favorite, a hymn, "Pentecostal Power." Now we were not Pentecostal, but I loved the fiery words of that hymn. And Mr. Aarup always called on me, with a wink and a smile. Always.

As our songs were selected, we would sing out with enthusiasm - drowning the piano and organ. We sang hymn after hymn after hymn - sometimes for the entire service. And, when the night drew to a close, we would circle the auditorium and hold hands, singing "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." Mr. Aarup was not chosen to lead worship because he was a great singer - he was selected because he put the focus on Jesus and on pulling the congregation into the experience - no matter how out of tune we sang or how we may have sounded.

Those times of worship were beautiful to me.

Second, I watched a video that my colleagues brought back from their recent trip to Ghana. There are only a handful of people in the video, as the church service had just started. The Africans are wearing colorful clothing and dancing. Their faces are lit up with smiles. There is energy and excitement filling the room.

In one corner there is a circle of people dancing and singing. They are waving strips of cloth in time to the music. They are filled with infectious joy - and I'm sure the singing went on for longer than scheduled. It was lively, people were engaged, they were spilling over with love for God.

If you'd like to hear them for just a moment, enjoy this beautiful brief video clip of their service courtesy of John Walton.

Even through the tiny video screen on my Facebook page,
that time of worship was beautiful to me.

In the church my family attends, great care is put into planning the morning service. The stage is designed to reflect the theme of the current series. PowerPoint and video is used to supplement the message. But the singing, though beautiful and accompanied by a full band of 8 to 10 volunteers, leaves me feeling sad.


No one is singing. Well, not exactly no one. I look around and a few people are singing. But the majority are often staring straight ahead, muted, apparently waiting for the signal to sit down. They are listening to the stage show with little emotion. They are hearing the leaders sing passionately and the guitarists play. They are appreciating the music, certainly, but they are not joining in.

Why is worship falling flat in some of our churches? I think we have put the emphasis on what is happening on stage, and lost the emphasis on the experience of community. In our church, the lights are focused on the stage and the worship band. The microphones are turned up high. But instead of the high volume and low lighting encouraging audience participation, I think it kills it. It does prevent me from hearing how bad I might sound, but I also cannot hear anyone else singing (except the leader).

The congregational singing in our church is rarely infectious. It is never extended because the audience can't stop singing. It never calls out for audience participation, unless we are motioned to clap along. It is pre-planned, pre-packaged and extremely professional. In our efforts to impress, I think we have reduced the opportunity for ordinary singers like myself to join in fully, with our whole hearts.

Oh for joyful worship, how much I miss it. 

To offer up my voice, as tone-deaf as it may be, in praise for the Savior - drowned out by the child on my left and the working man to my right. To want to sing hymn after hymn, without stopping. To hold a heavy hymn book or the hand of my neighbor. To forget the leader and the band and focus solely on Jesus.

That is beautiful to me.

Friday, June 20, 2014

One confession, two conversations, one story of God’s grace

In my guest blogger series, I've asked some of my favorite bloggers to discuss one of the questions found at the end of my book, When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up. Today's question is about Amanda Berry Smith. Thank you to these fellow writers for participating! Enjoy this essay from my beautiful and talented friend, writer and blogger, Amanda Cleary Eastep. 

Amanda Smith felt completely alone following the death of her baby, Will. At that very moment, God sent a friend to give her needed money. Why are women’s friendships so crucial? How have friends ministered to you in times of need?

There seems to be something noble about dealing with loss when something is taken from you that you have no control over, like your health or a loved one. All hearts mourn with you. Friends surround and uphold you; they offer comfort, home-cooked meals, and fundraisers. And that is as it should be.

But when loss is the consequence of our failure, of divorce, which tends to expose your most private life as if it were a 15-year-old mattress dragged to the curb, the reactions of friends can vary from pity to rejection. Yet your truest friends are the ones who listen while you spill your guts and who pull tissues out of nowhere; who pick up your kids with one hand and deliver a casserole with the other; and who see your beauty at your most ugly and remind you who you are beneath the tarnish.

Amanda Smith’s story of the tragic loss of her child didn’t inspire me because I identified with this noble woman, who, granted, may have had her faults and failures. Rather, it humbled me, because I was reminded that even at my most un-noble, God provided me with the help of friends. And, more important, God considers me as much a daughter of a King as he did Amanda Smith.

From amidst the memories of my long divorce and its arguments, custody hearings, and counseling sessions, two encounters with my dearest friends stick in my mind, because these women reminded me who I still was in God’s eyes and in theirs.

Conversation #1

Carrie was my next-door neighbor and quickly became a best friend. She is outspoken, animated, and fierce. If she were an animal, she’d be a lioness. I’m something of a border collie, friendly, energetic, herder of children and dirty clothes.

I once believed that if she had still lived next door during the final years of my marital decline, she would have read the pain between the lines on my brow, would have smelled the spoiling relationship. But she moved away, and my parents bought her house for my grandmother, who died within days of the closing. And so the little house sat empty, reminding me of the absence of two of the people I loved most.

A few years later, Carrie and I would find ourselves sitting together as she listened to my Jerry Springer-scripted marriage experience--minus any mullets or on-stage fist fights. She patiently waited until I stopped crying and was sure I wouldn’t vomit then stated in her usual because-I-said-so voice, “This doesn’t define you.”

In my current state of mind, this came as a revelation. The previous months, especially, had seemed to alter all dreams, my relationships--especially with God--and my self-worth. But she was right. My mistakes and those of my husband did not define who I was at the core. God defines who I am. He tells me, “You are my daughter. You are forgiven. You are clean. You are loved.”

Carrie gifted me this reminder of grace. And a hug and tissues.

Conversation #2

I was visiting my former roommate, Carla, who first met me at our Nazarene college wearing a calico vest and skirt her mother had sewn for the freshmen welcome orientation. She was now a former missionary to Taiwan with five children; the sixth child I would eventually help the midwife weigh late one summer night.

During our visit, there was a rare moment of peace as she worked in the kitchen, and I sat beside the children’s craft table, gazing over the complex but uncomplicated drawings pinned to the wall and strewn about like too many happy thoughts to count.

I imagined at that point in my life--the divorce final, “settled” at my parents’ home, having shared my experience with a trusted and devastated few--that I was beyond crying. But the words seemed to carry their own sorrow with them, and I paused to collect my emotions.

Carla hadn’t asked me to explain what had happened, but I felt the need to confess my failures. I swallowed hard and began again, but Carla interrupted. “Mandy, you don’t have to tell me.”

This wasn’t a “hey, I should probably extend some grace here or at least offer to.” This was true grace as she added these simple and liberating words: “It doesn’t matter.”

Another gift given; this one wrapped in Proverbs 19:11b: “It is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”

Others in my life had also offered up tears and hugs, support and encouragement, but these two friends represented all of that love and the way the hand of God moves in those moments of greatest need. These friends were bookends of grace on my sad story.

Grace and me and grace.

Amanda Cleary Eastep is  a writer, Christian, mother and wife here for a purpose--which alternates between that purpose being perfectly obvious and being perfectly oblivious to it. The business marketing side of Amanda posts at Word Ninja, and the slightly more interesting side shares her heart at Namasteawhile.