advent 4: cardboard signs

“Go Evi, Take State.”
The black spray-paint letters were scribbled on cardboard held up by electric fence posts.  A high-school track athlete, running late for the bus like always, I slowed my cheap school car and sat in my red and white sleeveless uniform and stared at the signs that dotted our country driveway.  It was only after a minute that I could compose myself to touch the gas pedal, feeling a different kind of weight than pressure to run fast: the pressure of a hug without arms.
My mom is the hugger, giving gifts, always telling us she loves us, but my dad–a German Lutheran farmer–loves differently.  At my grandpa’s funeral one of the men on the council said to me, “Your dad doesn’t say much, but when he does, we listen.”  So when my dad took the time to nail up those signs along driveway, it was like a wrung to hold onto, a concrete for the untouchable. 
His quiet love sat there shouting.

Sometimes love is expressed from a distance.  God’s love can feel like that, like it’s removed from our daily, off somewhere on a cloud, but Jesus comes–physical, alive, breathing, sweating, crying, living, dying–to be WITH US on a Night that was nothing but Silent.  Christmas, like my dad’s track signs, should slow our cheap school cars down as we marvel at a love so showy, so on display, so concrete–the ultimate wrung to hold onto.  

advent 3: ugly Christmas doll

My favorite Christmas toy is a hand-sewn Cabbage Patch Doll.  As a kid, I used to get mad when people called Elizabeth ugly, but even my own daughter looked at her, threw her on the ground, and went to grab a book.  I guess I was holding out hope that my own child might understand, but I can see now what I couldn’t see through my pink-rimmed elementary school glasses: Elizabeth’s unfortunate under bite, her weirdly dis-proportionate body, and her eyes that seem to follow you around the room (and not in an artsy Mona Lisa kind of way). 
In spite of all that, I love her.
For once that year I got it–Christmas is about love–about love coming to be With Us.  From before I can remember, I’ve just loved her, and that’s why I picked her.  God picks us this Christmas.  We are His from before we can remember.  God comes to earth as Jesus specifically because he loves (your name here), regardless of if you’re good enough, regardless of how you measure up in this world, and regardless of how the world’s not picking you, God looks past the rest–straight at you and says, I’ve got dibs.  And he says it in the least expected of ways . . . a manger, a virgin, a small town . . . but if I look through those pink glasses of a kid who gets it, it all makes a weird kind of grace-filled sense for a God of Who’s all about love.

advent 2: Chex Mix

I stand next to the appetizers trying to look less awkward than I feel, as if my tiny plate of Chex Mix and roll-ups is some sort of social life preserver.  Finally, a familiar set of eyes meet mine.  Without their normal shine, I wonder what’s left my friend looking so tired.  She confides it’s been “the week from hell.”  I giggle and lean in, ready for a normal convo about work.  
It’s not.
Her raggedness is left from trudging through tragedy with a close friend.  She’s spent the week swimming in the yuckiest, darkest, mire of life.  Seeing how this helping left her, I wonder at the courage it takes to move toward a hurt like that . . .  
Grabbing coats at the end of the night, my friend’s eyes look brighter.  It’s easy for me to equate God with this end-of-the-night-joy, to see God in laughter or friends swaying to good music.  What’s harder is to realize that the God of Christmas, the Christ we’re waiting for this advent, is also a God who’s been, like my friend at the start of the night, entirely used up on a cross, spent from loving us.
Our God sits close, His eyes puffy too, right With Us in the room that yells “run the other way:” the illness, the breakup, the suicide, the hurt that threatens to eclipse our hope.  It’s a fiercely practical love, one that shows up.  Come Lord Jesus . . . God With Us.

advent 1: two bellies

We stop to say hi in the hallway, both of us twenty-weeks along, rounding bellies and smiling faces meet like a mirror, somehow a modern Mary and Elizabeth.  Each time we meet, I’m surprised by how pregnant I am.  It’s terrible, but with this second one, at times I even forget we’re expecting, as I chase our toddler around the house. 
My friend’s look is different.  It’s her first; the waiting and excitement consume her.  She tells me “He’s huge, almost one-and-a-half-pounds!”  I grin, realizing how not-yet-huge these bellies are, but nod in agreement.  I leave the conversation feeling smug in my own wisdom of experience, but later wonder, why am I not the one more memorized, realizing the glory that’s coming?
As Christmas’s line up in our past, we forget, don’t sense advent’s slow urgency.  We forget what it’s like to be that six-year-old loving and hating it as we eye the biggest package under the tree.  All too often we screech into December in a pumpkin-pie coma, thankful but distracted by the gifts to buy and plans to make.  How can we re-awaken that first-Christmas wonder?  How can we remind ourselves of the glory that’s coming?  Taste the anticipation like the smell of homemade bread baking in the oven?  Lord, restore a childlike wonder in us, help us to wait well, like a new mother, joyful, yet almost scared at the Glory about to come and be With Us.

football and grace

You know the roar, the red, the band’s precision. You know the goose-bumping effect of the tunnel walk. Memorial Stadium pulsing in preparation for a Husker game is something–once you’ve experienced it–that you know deeply. If you’re a fan, you know it like it’s a part of you, or maybe you’re somehow a part of it. Fan or not, you know the parking and driving nightmare that Lincoln can be on Saturdays in the fall.
Unfortunately, you also probably know “that fan.”
The fan can be recognized by loud offensive language that only subsides when the team is winning. Somehow a great run or a favorable score quiets this person. On more than one occasion I’ve sat in my red thinking, “I wish that fan would just leave, so we could enjoy the game.” I must also confess that I’ve imagined how it might feel to chuck my water bottle in this person’s direction.
Recently Bo Pelini was in the press for throwing his own verbal “water bottle” with some vocabulary that was, um, less than creative.
When I first heard the story, I thought he would be fired within the week, and I couldn’t help noting, “Good ole’ Dr. Tom would never talk or behave like that.” This controversy over our Big Red-in-the-face coach didn’t end with a firing as I first suspected. I was tired of hearing about it as my husband flipped the channel to ESPN late that week. I cringed, waiting for the negative onslaught as Nebraska came up, but one commentator’s slow tone and positive notes caught my attention.
“The Nebraska game will be one to watch this week. The Nebraska fans are going to rally behind Coach Pelini. It’s going to be something to see.”
It is news when controversy becomes convergence. In Coach Osborne’s formal comments he didn’t condone Pelini’s actions, but he did give numerous reasons for forgiveness; he showed a form of grace. God’s forgiveness and grace goes further, bowls us over without condition, without hope for future victory, and without note of “Team Jack” type good works.
Grace says, we’re part of God’s team, period.
The church in Macedonia was faced with its own controversy in my church’s reading from last Sunday, 2 Corinthians 8:1-3. The troubles were “pushing them to the very limit.” The pressure, instead of breaking them, brought about the unexpected. It left them helping the poor–reaching out instead of turning in. As we face trials in life–even deeper than those associated with the human things we hold close like Big Red football, a spouse, family, a career–those trials have the potential to break us but also the potential to reveal the real us, as God provides grace for the moment.

*Thanksgiving is a day of food and football in my family.  Whatever your day may bring, I’m thankful for your reading eyes in this space where I am so thankful to write.  Happy Thanksgiving.

What I Want for Her

My one-and-a-half-year-old just plopped down on my tummy. I didn’t experience this type of jostling with my first pregnancy. That nine months was all naps and snacks. This second round of getting rounder is much less serene.
I had a moment of panic last week with my toddler at the dentist’s office. The receptionist noted, “Well, your next appointment will be in April.” April . . . April . . . I trolled through the numbered days in my iPhone only to see a surprisingly clear month. I realized then that I’d be off on maternity leave with a one-month old. The circus juggling act of getting one carrier + diapers + another child + myself (dressed and not crying–me and the kids) all into my car and to a dentist appointment buzzed through my mind as I turned my mouth into a smile and said, “Yes, the fifteenth will be fine.”
How is it that people get these kiddos to 18 with all their limbs and a nice pair of eyeballs intact? As I think again about new motherhood, this new little one, and the world he or she will grow up in it’s hard not to wonder. What is it that I really want for my daughter if I can somehow wedge my thoughts past simple survival and car seat loading?
I want her to be healthy. . . to never know hunger in her own belly.
To see the beauty of a Nebraska gold-soaked sunset.
To enjoy a random Tuesday dinner with a spouse, talking through struggles in a way that leads to laughing.
To feel a passion for something.
To know the pain/joy of helping.
To wear an outfit that isn’t what’s popular, just because.
To feel the pain-then-joy of exercise.
To know how it feels to be on a team.
To plug into those things that are life-giving and unplug from what sucks energy away.
To watch a movie with someone sitting next to her–close on the journey.
To know motherhood . . . if that is what she wants.
. . . I’m guest posting over at my friend Michelle’s blog today.  Will you join me over there for the rest of the story?

here we go

I don’t usually share my prayer writing, but in the spirit of Michelle’s 31 days of authenticity. . . here we go!

I believe that God shows up first.  God’s been here before I even thought about it or knew that it was a pronoun, or knew that it was a word.  God’s preemptive; a preemptive eternal hugger.  Before the hurt, before the tired–before the whatever it is that needs hugging–God arms are around me, holding me up, reminding me who I am and who I might be, saying “Here is the way,” no matter how many times I step off course.

God has outrageous plans.  They include me.  Outrageously fun, and filled with laughter and color and life.  Today I get to be with God–as I will forever–I just gotta show up to the day with a willingness and a realization that I am not God.  Just because it’s dreary or January or I’m tired doesn’t mean outrageous can’t show the heck up.

I believe God is good.  And I believe hurt is real.  Pain is real.  Tears don’t just drop, they’re ripped from us unsuspecting again and again in this life.  God is good and comforts us, joins us in the suffering.  The suffering and God’s people sloshing around in it (to help each other) are both evidence OF and FOR God.

I believe God is mysterious, and I love that.  I love that I can’t know it all.

I believe that God is still creating–through us and for us.

I believe God is bigger than my worry, than my initiative, than my calendar chalk full, than my motherly inadequacy, than my relationship hiccups, than my fear of every little and big thing that might be. . . but probably never will.  I believe that my happiest life is one turned out and upside-down from the way that gravity drags and weights down and dingies everything up around here.

I believe there’s a glimmer around every moment, if I’d just open my eyes, if I’d just slap myself silly somehow and wake up.  WAKEUP!  I believe I am, have been, and will continue to be the problem.  And I believe that God loves me regardless.  And I love That.

voices, U-turns and Amazing Grace

“You might not want to eat that fourteenth Oreo.”
“You should stop at that colleague’s office today.”
“You should sign up for that volunteer event at church.”

We all have “voices” inside our heads.  Think you don’t?  Pretty sure you’re arguing with yourself about it right now.  To shore up the uncomfortable nature of these cues, we’ve depicted them in comics as an angel and a cartoon devil at our shoulders, or dismissed them as phooey.  Lately, one of these said voices has been not so much hungry for Oreos as it has been hungry for my time.

I was driving through town with perfectly practical/logical plans to go grocery shopping, when I got the sense that I should stop and visit my grandmother in the Good Samaritan Center.  Ugh.  I’ll be frank. . . I hate that place.  I’ve been creeped out ever since I was a little kid singing Christmas carols there.  “Silent Night, holy night,” we sang as a woman in the crowd rocked back and forth, while another slow-moving elderly man came up to actually touch the hair of one of my fellow choir members.  In my fast-paced, recess-filled world I had no frame for this experience.  Plus, no one really created a space to process the experience, so I made the logical kid choice to just avoid these places.

I know that was a long time ago, but the residual taste in my mouth is still there.  So, when I got a sense that I should willingly go for a visit, I was channeling my inner Moses (that is prior to actually doing any work for God).

No was clearly the answer I was giving to this voice, and I justified it while driving along my happy way.  So the U-turn I took in my car was one filled with angst.  I arrived at the center during hymn sing-along time, so I quietly slipped my chair in between the wheelchairs to see a quiet smile from my grandma.  As it came time for requests, she leaned in with her weather-worn voice and noted, “I hope it’s not #88.  We sing that one EVERY DAY.  Amazing Grace. . . I’m sick of it.”

As we sang song after song, my wall of defense crumbled as I found myself quickly wiping away tears–not wanting to look out of sorts in this group where I already stuck out.  As we sang, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.  Count your blessings, see what God has done,” the tears sprang as I heard these voices coming from ones with physical and emotional ailments that I couldn’t begin to understand.  The problems of my fast-paced, grocery shopping emergency life dimmed in comparison.

So, when we got to dreaded #88, I smiled realizing the Amazing Grace God had shown me in that small little U-turn that ultimately turned a corner in my heart.

veggie garden God lessons

Yesterday I walked out with my muddy shoes to dig the last of the potatoes and realized. . . it’s over.  The brown dried plants and barren mud seemed extra quiet, like a concert yard littered cans after the booming music clears and dancing bodies have exited en masse.  One lone pumpkin is all that’s left, quietly pointing to the turn of the season.  I can’t help feeling like one of my kids just went off to college.
There has been a party out here this summer–a planting, weeding, weeding some more, growing and harvesting party.  On a practical level our garden nourished our tummies; we canned and ate fresh meals and gave extras away to neighbors, but this garden and it’s process has nourished me in a deeper way as well, teaching me some lessons about life and faith.
Memory 1:  Weed-pocalypse
My first day of gardening this summer consisted of rolling up the remnants of last summer’s weed patch. The left-overs had created a woven blanket of tan scoundrels that were not only filled with dust, but were also anchored to the cemented ground at nearly every inch.  Clearing the space had me sweating and dirty.  New Baby + No Knowledge about Gardening + Naive Attempt to Garden Last Summer = Weeded Mess.  I hated this day.  This day I vowed never to garden again.  It was decided, gardening was no fun and too much work.
Memory 2: Weeding. . . weeding. . . and weeding some more.
I think we should change its name from gardening to weeding.  The planting and the harvesting really come and go quickly in relation to the maintenance that gets things to the harvest stage and creates a space for the new life to grow.  Weeds come fast and without warning.  Setting the rows right, and getting those early weeds made for a more enjoyable late summer as the weeds seem to get the hint after numerous reminders.  It was funny how each time I picked up the hoe to demolish some weeds, I would remember the weed-pocalypse day.  Thinking back to what can happen if I let this get out of control, helped me stay motivated.

Lesson 1:  The journey of faith can leave us feeling sweaty and dirty, and mad–just mad at what we’re having to do or go through, or what we’re seeing others go through.  It’s hard to see how God might be giving us a memory of difficulty, an experience of death and resurrection, that we’re going to need later–later it might just be our gasoline. (This lesson is best learned in retrospect and won’t be taken well when said to those who are currently all sweaty and dirty with life.)  

Memory 3: Harvest Party
Our yummies came in waves as each plant set on and ripened in its own time.  I was almost giddy squatting there filling my bucket–surprised that things actually grew.  With each new bean pod, I felt like I won some lottery.  It doesn’t make sense that tomato plants can grow taller than me that came from a little seed.  If that ever ceases to amaze me, you have permission to slap me in the face.  I know there’s science to explain the cell development, but the sheer volume of the thing that can grow from seed + dirt + sun is mind-boggling.  Creation is crazy.  CRAZY!  “Helper” is a relative term when it’s used to describe a toddler at garden harvest time.  My favorite memory about harvest was how my munchkin would shadow me down the rows, picking her own vegetables, leaving a little trail of half-munched-on goodies.  When we harvested carrots, she got so dirty and muddy–and giggly, that I just couldn’t help grinning.  On those summer evenings when Charli really did earn her bath–when the water ran brown–I couldn’t help thinking that today we lived well.  Sometimes to clean up we gotta get dirty.  To feel the goodness of a shower, we need to get down into the muck.

Lesson 2: The harvest of faith will surprise us.  Sometimes the biggest yields came from the ugliest plants (and vice versa).  My one pumpkin grew from a huge vine that spread the length of the entire garden, and yet some of the simplest plants created fruits that were so heavy they weighed down the branches themselves. We might think that the biggest–the strongest–will be the ones who are really sewing the seeds of what Jesus was talking about.  In the end it might be the quiet ones who really surprise us.  It might be the whispered life lived in such a grace-filled way that leaves the biggest ripples going out, the life lived so far outside itself that the harvest is bigger than the branches can hold.  

Lesson 3: Ultimately it’s not me.  I can add in the right ingredients–the plants, the watering, the weeding, but I can’t–no matter what I do–make a tomato grow.  And that takes the pressure off.  That’s the grace we live in each day.  God’s got it.  But it’s pretty awesome when we get to come along for the ride.

I am not a fan of taking “selfie” photos, but had to show just how tall these tomatoes grew!

Doritos locos Lutheran tacos

I thought the joy of Doritos Locos Tacos coming together couldn’t be rivaled.  When two things I love–that are separate–find a way of marrying, it just rocks my socks.

Similarly, thi Saturday I couldn’t wait for two of my favorites, On Being, and Nadia Bolz-Weber to get together for a radio-show recording first date.  The sometimes crass, always frank, frequently funny, and deeply thoughtful author of Pastrix, didn’t disappoint.  Certainly the “attention getting” parts of her personality–her tattoos, her mouth, her sarcasm–got their fair share of air time with the masterful Krista Tippett steering the interview, but what struck me most, was the way that Nadia sang Lutheran theology in a way that wasn’t dodgy or stuffy, but alive and compelling.

When she talked about Luther’s claim that we’re 100% saint and 100% sinner. . .
When she spoke of grace as something she’d experienced viscerally. . .
When she said her parish embraced wonder more than certainty. . .
When she gave thanks for a church where she didn’t have to check her brain at the door. . .

Her voice gained passion and excitement.  So did my ears.

I’ve always wanted a way to somehow turn up the volume on the theology that I love, these beautifully written, old understandings of God that still sing in my contemporary heart, but all too often I take the German Lutheran stance that smiles inwardly, but quietly, never wanting to offend, always wanting to embrace others.  For me the beautiful gray nature of Lutheranism has always seemed to whisper; the soul-ringing middle-of-the-road third-way of understanding has been given the press of a middle name.  In a presidential election it’s can be hard to listen for the moderates.  Yet, Nadia spoke with such graceful boldness, that I couldn’t help but feel my own Lutheran shoulders straighten as she spoke of God’s grace being sufficient for communities, as she owned it and didn’t apologize.

When a train interrupted the interview, she led the bare-footed tent-revival group in a harmony-rich acapella rendition of Amazing Grace.  As I stood, adding my own harmony to the recording on my iPhone in my kitchen with toddler daughter in my arms, it was one of the most beautiful moments I can remember in my own home.

And in that quiet thin space it was like standing in God’s smile. . . my favorite place to be.