Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Importance of Friends

Friendships matter, and I've had two experiences this week to remind me of that truth.

On Sunday, we celebrated my mother-in-law Kathy's 70th birthday. A few months ago, Dan's siblings and I started working on a unique birthday present for her. We used a company called LifeOnRecord, to "rent" a phone number and voicemail box. We contacted loved ones and asked them to leave a message for Kathy: a birthday greeting, a sentimental tribute, or a funny memory.

At the party, we presented Kathy with a CD of forty recordings. There were messages from nieces and nephews, neighbors, grandchildren, siblings, and in-laws. When we first started playing the recordings, Kathy's face had a look of intrigue and surprise.

A few tracks in, intrigue gave way to tenderness and her eyes filled with tears as she heard the voice of her kids' third-grade teacher. Soon after, laughter replaced the tears when a cousin's voice recalled funny stories from childhood. The tears returned when the voice of Kathy's best friend described the gift of Kathy's presence at her father's funeral.

I watched my mother-in-law's range of emotions with anticipation and empathy, riding the roller coaster of laughter and tears with her. As I watched her face, I realized Kathy has spent 70 years not knowing how loved she is. Haven't we all spent our lives with that same mindset, thinking we don't matter much in the big scheme of things?

Kathy melted when friends from her past - and present - gave her the cheapest and most priceless gift of all: words. They shared their memories and reminded Kathy she has a place in this world.

The words of friends can give you the location of your heart.

While witnessing this happen with my mother-in-law, God overlapped a second friendship lesson this week. I've had quite a few phone conversations, emails, and texts with one of my brother Jackson's best friends. Tobi met Jackson in college at West Point, and he is writing a memorial article about Jackson for a school publication.

Tobi has been gathering information about his life and achievements, reaching out to my family and Jackson's classmates. Yesterday and today, I helped Tobi with some of the editing. In that process, he shared stories I never knew and revealed a side of Jackson I had forgotten in my grief. We laughed about Jackson's perfectionism and razzed about him as if he were still here.

I realized this friend still holds pieces of my brother inside him. As long as Jackson's friends continue to live, so does he.

Talking to Tobi was like putting on an old, comfy sweatshirt I had stuffed in the back of my closet. I remembered the joy of being Jackson's sister and how he was a truly remarkable man. I remembered how my relationship with him shaped my view of the world and my self-worth. I thought to myself, "We should all live in such a way that memorial articles are written about us when we die, like Jackson." And then I caught myself comparing and competing with him, even twenty years after his death. I chuckled as gratitude for a brother who shaped me bubbled up inside my heart.

Remembering is where the inhale of knowledge becomes the exhale of gratitude: I remember, then I understand, and then I thank.

Friendships matter: not only the ones people have gifted to me, but also the friendships I have chosen to extend to others in my life. I think of the deep friendships that have wilted over time, or completely rotted on the vine. Yes, even those kinds of friendships matter too because we grow even in the heartache.

Watching Kathy and reminiscing with Tobi reminds me how friendships shape us, refine us, define us, and center us. Friendships can be our lifeline, because trusted friends can nudge you when you're wobbling off course or wipe your tears when sadness threatens to consume you. How do your friendships affect you? Do they grow you, mature you, or sustain you? And what kind of friend are you?

The healthy friendships in your life are an extension of God, an echo of His voice that names you through relationship with others. My prayer is that we will sense the presence of God in our friendships, since we are each made in His image.

Monday, April 18, 2016

When Curses are Blessings


That one simple word makes you want to groan, doesn't it? Me too... and I did, as I dragged three loads down the stairs this morning. I pulled the hamper liners to the laundry room and felt defeat even before turning the dial and hitting the button to start the first load.

In the battle of human vs. laundry, laundry wins every time. Why? Unless you're doing it naked, you're never done. It's the everlasting curse of adulthood.

But today, I happened to have my grace glasses on and got to see the curse as a blessing.

When I pulled the bags from the hampers, I said under my breath, "I can't WAIT until the kids are gone and I can get away with doing laundry only once every ten days!"

That's when it hit me: there will come a season of my life when I'll actually miss these days of drudgery and everlasting laundry. I'll bemoan how the hampers are never quite full enough to justify washing a load mid-week. I'll miss the days of active mothering in the trenches, wishing I had my laundry-multiplying little ones around to make extra work for me. 

Um... What?! Let's get real here, people. I'm not *quite* sure I'll feel THAT nostalgic for dirty undies and smelly socks. But I'm sure there will come a day when I desperately miss the small clothes that fill my hamper to overflowing. Maybe it'll be the day we sell the house and downsize, or the day I first come home to an empty nest after dropping Katie and then Jackson off at college, only to find a perfectly organized laundry room mocking my tears. (Even then, laundry wins the battle. It's a cruel world, isn't it?!)

Today, my prayer is that we can see our curses as blessings. Instead of focusing on the everlasting suds to come, I'm choosing to focus on the fact that I HAVE  laundry to do and a family to take care of. 

Could I actually show gratitude for the things that weigh me down?

I can, when I remember the mamas out there who no longer have laundry to do or dishes to scrub or dinner to make, because maybe their kids are grown or maybe they turned their backs or, heaven forbid, didn't survive after a terminal diagnosis.

What's the "curse" of your life today that you could see as a blessing if only you stepped back far enough to gain perspective?

Friday, April 15, 2016

God's Name

Last weekend I attended the To Be Told conference with Dr. Dan Allender, who is an author, therapist, professor, and speaker. I heard of him years ago when I was going through grief counseling and my therapist suggested I read one of his books. I now have four of them, including To Be Told.

After the conference ended, Dr. Allender stuck around all weekend and preached at our church services. I was happy to get an extra dose of him! The whole weekend was phenomenal and I'll be digesting it for a while to come.

One of the things Allender asked this weekend is this question:

"What do you call God?"

Allender read the story of Hagar in Genesis 16, when she was pregnant and ran away from Sarai and Abram. God's angel meets her in the desert, names her unborn son Ishmael, and tells her to return home. After this interaction, Hagar had a new name for God: El Roi. In Hebrew, it means "You are the God who sees me." God went to such lengths to chase her down in the desert and demonstrate that she is not invisible and inconsequential, which changed her view of Him and developed a new nickname of sorts she could use for Him.

Allender told a story he experienced with his young son while fishing. It was a long story, so I'll summarize by saying they had been fishing for days and hadn't caught a single fish. Allender prayed, asking God for just! one! fish! But still, no fish.

He was ready to pack up and leave when his son begged him to stay. He relented and promised his boy he could cast five more times but THAT IS ALL. Four casts came and went, and still no fish. Allender had already started the boat to leave when his son threw his last cast, and caught a fish. There was much rejoicing and later, after the excitement died down, his son said, "Dad, I know God's name. To me, He is the God of the 5th cast."

This story brings up the question, "Who or what do you call God?" because there are experiences in our lives where we learn a new name for God. Wednesday night, when I was volunteering for our church's youth, the youth pastor asked if any of us knows our name for God and if we would like to share it.

The first name that came to my mind is The God of Open Arms. That's one of the names I call Him, because He has welcomed me home countless times: when I first got to know him as a child, when I was born again as a teenager, when I turned back to Him after walking away in 1996, and now on a daily basis as I make mistakes and keep asking forgiveness.

But after that name another, more intimate name came to mind: The God Who Dances. I remembered the name I gave God when I returned to Him in 2009, when I saw my life with Him as a dance. I remember when I first wrote about that name here on my blog, so I went looking for that post. And as I looked, I found so many other names I've whispered and shouted and cried for God, as He surprised me with new dance moves and spun me around the dance floor of life:

The God Who Provides through PayPal

The God Who Unravels Scarves

The God of Flawed and Imperfect

The God of Intersecting Dreams

The God of Letting Go and Giving it Away

The God of the Internal Eternal

The God Who Turns Liabilities into Assets

The God of U-Turns

The God of Krazy Glue

The God of Parenting Redemption

The God Who Meets Me

The God Who Wants Me

The God of Enough

Who is God, to you? What do you call Him? Maybe you've spent your life not knowing what to call Him, or not even wanting to.

I get it. There was a 5 year period of my life where I called Him things like The God of Harsh Hurt, The God of No Healing, and The God Who Doesn't Care. Thankfully, the distorted view I had of Him didn't change who He was, and He waited patiently for me to get back on the dance floor and, then, to stop dancing alone.

He's gracious enough to love me no matter what I call Him, because His name for me has never changed.

He calls me His.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Going Public

This week, I took a HUGE risk: I went public with my blog.

Yes, I know that sounds like somewhat of a letdown to a certain group of people whose definition of a "HUGE" risk might be something like climbing the Himalayas or selling your house and living out of an RV or quitting your job to pursue your lifelong dream of being a dolphin trainer. (Uh, what?!) Publicizing a blog doesn't seem like much of a risk...

...UNLESS you're a recovering People Pleaser.

...UNLESS your confidence is shaky because you've been called names like crazy or weird or fanatical or exhausting or demanding or "just too much" (and, hey, let's add Bible-thumping Christian to the mix too!).

...UNLESS you've spent any amount of your day listening to the lies saying you aren't enough or you're invisible or you have nothing to add like other writers who are so witty and know just how to turn a phrase.

What seems risky to me might seem dull to you!

God has used books and podcasts and retreats and conversations to give me courage to go public. He has reminded me that being vulnerable is a calling and sharing my story through writing is my sacred, holy inheritance. Being who I am, I (of course) tried to argue God out of this idea for the past few months.

The arguing ended this weekend, when I sat in tears at the Allender Center's To Be Told conference. I'll go into what I learned some other time, but it became clear to me that the wrestling was over and I must attempt this crazy transparency God is asking of me.

On Tuesday I posted a link to my blog on Facebook, along with these words:

I can't believe I'm actually going to do this, SO PLEASE BE GENTLE and read on.
Sometimes, God is like a determined sibling who keeps tap-tap-tapping me on the shoulder and poking me into action. He uses a husband who never doubts and a sister who holds my early memories and friends who encourage and songs on the radio and speakers at conferences and books about lovely things and devotionals that stir longing and condemn fear.
The tap-tap-tapping is so fierce I’m convinced it’ll turn into whacking if I don’t surrender soon. And THIS is what surrender looks like for me.
A handful of you already know I've been blogging for a while: eight years and one week, to be exact. I've never shared my blog publicly, choosing to share it only in one-on-one conversations with close friends and family. I've been too (chicken) private (chicken) worried (chicken) scared to EVER link to it through Facebook.
Until now!
I spent the weekend listening to a man named Dan Allender explain how God says we are each a story to be told. Couple that with encouragement from some of you after I posted a birthday letter to my son on FB two weeks ago AND a triple dog dare from a friend.
Oh, and this "calling" (ha) thing God’s been echoing in my life since elementary school...
...and I realize time is wasting and there is encouragement for each other in all of the ME TOO moments of our lives. Writing is the best ME TOO offering I can give. What’s yours?
It is time to replace fear and trembling with equal parts trust and vulnerability.
I am going public and asking you to grab a cup of coffee (or a beer) and come join me at Six Golden Coins. And while this isn't even a blip on the radar of your life, it IS more-than-a-blip for me! (This is where I repeat the BE GENTLE request. Pretty please?!)
Being obedient to the tap-tap-tapping is a BIG deal. Click on the link to read and you'll understand why!

[Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go toss my cookies from all the nerves! Sheesh!]

And, that was it! For the next 24 hours, I fought the urge to delete the post and barf. People actually started reading Six Golden Coins, and I haven't received any hate mail (yet!). I even got a few blog comments, plus a lot of love that rained down on me through Facebook comments, texts, and face-to-face conversations.

Look at me being brave! AND still standing in the aftermath! Whew!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

I Get Fed in the Writing

Here’s the thing about writing. Well, actually, there are a lot of “things” about writing – but this is the thing that captivates me right now: writing is mostly one-sided.

You can get to know me through the words I choose to withdraw from my mental bank and deposit on the screen or the page. You can read about my mountains and my valleys, if I choose to be vulnerable and allow these words to see daylight which, often, I do.

You can read my words and a few of them may resonate and call something out of your past or put a name to your present. In the reading of these words, you come to know me and feel a kinship with me.

But that's the thing about writing: it's mostly one-sided. You read. You ingest and then digest and, maybe, God lets my words become a nutrient that grows the muscles of your heart.

Yet here, on the other side of the screen, I don't know how - or even IF - my words were consumed. Were they an appetizer that you nibbled on the way to another author's gourmet meal? Were my words the main course, the one source of sustenance for your soul? (God forbid! I hope you are going to His words for deep feeding, not mine.) Maybe my words were the cherry on top of your banana split day.

The thing is, I don't know! My passion for writing means I do it regardless of consumption.

On my worst days, I imagine this little blog as a place where I craft and create succulent foods but no one makes a dinner reservation. Some words can be bagged up and stored in the freezer that is the online blogging world. Other words don't freeze well; they are the lettuce that wilts and liquefies in the bottom of the fridge crisper. They get tossed in the dumpster in the back alley. On my worst days, I see a landfill of waste. I wonder if words even matter at all.

When I turn inward, I know words DO matter. So do I. And so do you.

I write.

You read.

You learn about me and the way I make sense of the world. But unless you respond to tell me which part of the dish had the best flavor for you, I never know if the meal was tasty at all.

The question is this: do I write to be read, or do I write to be obedient? When I admit to my pride wanting a little action, I confess sometimes I write only to be read. Lately, though, I'm learning obedience can be the workshop where passion lives. Writing means responding to God's nudges and obeying even when He's asking me to write the hard things.

I'll keep writing, for me. And you can keep reading, for you. Or not reading, too. That's okay with me either way, because I get fed in the writing.

God is so good to nourish me with the thing that makes me notice and relate to Him best: creating just like He does.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Looking for Lovely (aka One More Reason I Might Get That White Tattoo)

Rejoice, bookworms! We get to welcome a bouncing new book to the world today!

I kinda feel like I should be writing a birth announcement, except it isn't a book I birthed and, really, is it my place to announce it? On the other hand, books aren't birthed solely by their authors. Readers have a role in the birthing process, too. Beside, I got the honor of being on this book's launch team so, here goes!

I'm pleased to announce the arrival of Looking for Lovely by Annie F. Downs! *cue the party horns*

I received my copy of LFL in February, and quickly consumed it: which means I dog-eared pages, underlined, and starred the heck out of it. And then I did what I normally do after I read a book that connected with me.

I collected all my favorite quotes from the book and jotted them down. This time, I added the notes to the back pages of the book so I'll always have them.

This is the second book I've read of Annie's. [Sidebar: through her book Let's All Be Brave, I found out we are from the same hometown in Georgia. I loved her already!] I love her writing style because it flows and doesn't force me to work at comprehending. When I read her words, I feel like she's having a conversation in my head. I like authors who feel like friends (even though the moment I raise my head from the book, reality pummels me and I remember - sadly - that I really don't know this person in real life).

The premise of Looking for Lovely requires language that doesn't force its way into your head: the point of the book is we all have the God-given ability to find lovely even in the starkest circumstances. Annie tells the stories of her life and doesn't shy away from the painful parts. In the foreword, she spends the the very first 88 words of the book unpacking her "massive breakdown" and ends it with seven words of wisdom that came with a price, as most wisdom does:
Transformation and suffering came in a pair.
When Annie throws down a gauntlet by starting the book like that? Whoa, baby. Get your waders on because it's gonna get deep in here.

Annie continued to captivate me in the Introduction when she went just a bit further into the story of her breakdown, and explained the hard place she found herself in the summer of 2012. And then, she went and brought up her white tattoo. And THAT was the hook that pulled me into the boat of Annie's book.

I've been wanting a white tattoo for a while. A few days before my 40th birthday, I even went to the tattoo parlor to discuss the one I wanted with the tattoo artist. When I explained I wanted a white one because I wanted it to be faint so only I could see it, the artist and his buddies argued tattoos are meant to be visible art - so why make it barely visible? Seeing how pale my skin is, he and his buddies advised me NOT to get a white tattoo. I walked away and shelved my idea... until I read Annie's words:
So grace. I needed it. I really wanted it permanently tattooed on my wrist. But, because I didn't want it to be distracting every day for the rest of my existence, I wanted it to be white. I am as pale a shade of human as people come, and I cannot tan. I'm either white or red. Pale or sunburned. So a black ink tattoo would be seen a mile away, while a white tattoo on me doesn't stand out at all. I imagined it would almost look like a brand. And that is the feel I wanted. I wanted it literally burned into my skin because I wanted to BE grace. I wanted those five letters to be stuck to me. And I wanted it, then in August 2012, to mark some important shifts of season.
Annie asked a lifelong friend to write the word "grace" with her great penmanship, and the tattoo artist inked it in the friend's handwriting. My word isn't grace. It's something else I've written on myself countless times already, using pens and Sharpies and tubes of henna. It's a word that defines who I am because it reminds me WHOSE I am. After reading Looking for Lovely, I haven't bolted out to get my tattoo quite yet. However, it's something I'm still pondering.

I turned the page and moved from the white tattoo story into the next topic on Annie's mind: fitted sheets. Yep... fitted sheets!

Aaaannndd... this is where I stop. I'm not going to unpack the book blow by blow for you. You don't need a "helicopter parent" book review! You need to go pick up the book yourself, and dive in. You're going to love the short chapters and the way Annie ends some of them with a tip on looking for your own lovely.

But before you do that, I'll leave you with two things:

First, I know it's hard to find lovely in the shattered pieces of your life. I've lived days full of such grief and loss when I couldn't get out of bed, much less look for something worth finding. There are still days I feel looking is a waste of time. If you relate to this, would you consider reaching out to me or someone you trust? And as a way to encourage you (and myself), I'm going to post photo art for the next few Mondays (because Mondays can be hard days, which means looking for lovely can be a hard task). I'll use my photos or art, plus and Annie's Looking for Lovely words in hopes of reminding you to keep looking.

Second, I thought it best to end this post where Annie's book ends (and I promise this isn't a spoiler). In the last chapter, she talks about her love for God and music and wanting to sing a song for Him. It's a lovely tune! Wanna sing along with us?
I would sing that He is a miracle worker, even when you aren't seeing it. I'd sing that His love is unmatched, and you can see that best in the darkness. I'd sing that my life is only because of Jesus and only for Jesus and the mess of an Annie I would be without Him is almost too painful for me to imagine. I'd sing over and over again that He knows me better than I know myself, and for all the hard days and all the confusing moments and all the pain I have faced, I wouldn't trade a minute of it because of how I know Him now. I'd share a verse about how He can be trusted, how God is your Father and Jesus is your best Friend and the Holy Spirit is here to comfort you.
I would sing that I know no greater joy than living life with Jesus, and I lack absolutely nothing because I have Him.


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