Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday Things: Using Superlatives is the MOST Fun

1. Brussel sprouts are the best vegetable. Well, they are if you cook them in bacon grease and add a pound of bacon bits, and sauteed onions and mushrooms. Otherwise, they are the worst vegetable.

By the way, the bacon bits and grease do not detract from the nutritional value of the sprouts. Not at all.

2. Tennis is the coolest sport because you get to wear things like this:

And this:

I sure got jipped.

3. The best way to ensure that your days are productive is to know yourself. If you are a procrastinator and you have 105 papers to grade tomorrow, then you should probably designate tomorrow as a day of endless, grueling cleaning instead. This will ensure that you procrastinate cleaning to do less unpleasant activities. Like grading.

4. Roses are the loveliest way to spruce up a house.

5. Vitamin jars make the best vases.

6. Dogs are the greatest company. Next to humans. And books.

7. This is the best book I've read in awhile.

8. Fall is the best season.

9. Apple cider is the best fall drink.

10. Carving jack-o-lanterns is the best fall activity—if you do it with your sister.

11. The most darling jack-o-lanterns come in pairs.

12. The most creative way to use a surplus of pumpkins and gourds is in a fairy tale display.

The Three Little Pigs, at Rasmussen Farms, near Hood River, WA.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe

Flying with Peter Pan and his Gang

The Emperor...Without His Clothes

13. The best kind of game is a guessing game. So what fairy tale character do you think these feet belong to?

© by scj

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Copper Coins and Pistachio Shells

There is a to-do list on my kitchen table covered in pistachio shells—the remains of the afternoon snack I'd hoped would make me feel a bit better. But three handfuls of pistachios later and my muscles still ache somethin' fierce, and my fatigue is so deep it feels like it's located in my soul somewhere.

My mind is racing, tripping over discouraged thoughts, trying to figure out why I felt good for so many days and then woke up today feeling like I was hit by a freight train.

I stare in silence at the checklist I can't read for all the shells heaped on it, and it's just as well I can't see what I've written because I've been in bed all day, too achy and exhausted to do much more than feed myself the last of my leftovers.

This is so hard for me, the woman who used to make her roommates laugh at how quickly she blazed through a heap of responsibilities; who literally sprinted her way through college on a track scholarship; who is energized by productivity and is wired to scale and conquer metaphorical mountains—mountains that get higher and steeper with each victory.

And here I sit, the only mountain I've recently conquered in front of me: a pile of empty pistachios littering the list I am too exhausted to look at.

I feel impoverished, somehow. Like I have little to offer God when the fruit of my day is a pile of empty shells, when even my good health weeks allow me to do nothing more than scale mole hills.

The patient ache in my heart quivers and then I remember the widow in Luke 21 moving quietly toward the church offering, dropping in two copper coins worth less than a penny. They mustn't have sounded more than a quiet *clink* when they landed, swallowed up by piles of weightier coins.

I've often wondered how the widow felt when she watched Ol' MoneyBags walk ostentatiously up to the offering receptacle before her and pour in a heavy bag of gold and silver coins. Did she shift uneasily as the Rabbi, Jesus, watched her drop in her meager offering? As she gripped the two copper coins—all she had to live on—and walked up to the offering behind the pompous rich man, did her heart ache like mine, wishing she had more to offer God?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the kind of heart that is eager to give God everything is the kind of heart that understands the Kingdom of God—that knows that in this Kingdom greatness and value have never been determined by what we have to offer God. For what can clay do for the Potter or tools do for the Carpenter?

When Jesus saw the poor widow's offering he didn't see just two copper coins. He saw what no one else could see: a woman whose heart had taken a posture of surrender; a woman who had given the little she owned to God because she knew that the best thing clay can do is remain wholly available to the Potter for his purposes. Jesus knew that in his Kingdom—where less is more and loss is gain—the widow had given the most valuable gift of anyone in the temple that day.

The story of the widow's gift assures me that when Jesus looks at me he sees much more than a history of scaling and conquering mountains. I think he often sees a heart that strives: clay that believes deep down that its efforts and achievements are important indicators of its value and influence. Perhaps this is why God has stripped away my ability to achieve and conquer mountains this year. Perhaps he is redeeming this chronic sickness by teaching me, in still and helpless solitude, that clay is valuable, not because of its efforts, but because of the hands it rests in. Strong, capable hands that belong to a Potter who cares most about the things unseen: about hearts that need to be kneaded and shaped and taught to trust so that they can surrender to the loving plan of the Potter.

There is a stirring in my heart now—a lifting of my heart's gaze—and I know that Jesus sees beyond my pile of pistachio shells. He is looking for something smaller, something unseen. He is looking for faith the size of a mustard seed. The kind of faith that prompts a heart to surrender to the Potter's loving hands, available to be used for His plan because it knows that He is a God who uses a seed of faith—not to scale mountains—but to move them.

I think it's time to turn over my climbing gear.

© by scj

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Aslan On The Move

A few weeks ago a group of friends and I were hiking through the autumn splendor of the Rocky Mountains when, on my friend Jonalyn's cue, we stopped walking, ceased our talking and listened. I hardly dared to breath, straining to hear what she heard. A few seconds passed and then I discerned the far off, almost imperceptible burbling of a brook: the last of Winter's melted snow, winding its way down the mountain.

We stood still for awhile, hushed, wondering at the tinkling music of melted ice, and I remembered a country where it was always winter but never Christmas.

Where Narnians waited for someone to rescue them from the icy jowls of winter and give them a reason to celebrate the towering snow-covered pines and knolls frosted with fresh powder.

Where, one glorious day, the fierce whip of icy wind and silence of falling snow were replaced with the sound of far-off liquid laughter,

and the icicles began to shrink and wink in the sun's warm light, sending droplets cascading down snow-burdened boughs like tears of thanksgiving.

 The White Witch saw the changes to the world she'd turned into a prison and shuddered, but Mr. Beaver lifted his head and in joyful murmur announced to his friends: Aslan is on the move.

The Highest of High Kings may be called Aslan in Narnia, but here we call him Immanuel, God with us. We called him that 2,000 years ago when he came to live among us to make sure we'd never have to live through winter without Christmas, and to show us that winter's death will not have the last word.

Two thousand years later we continue to call him Immanuel because he's not sitting somewhere far-off watching us sweat, heave, and weep as we struggle to love him and live well. He is in us, among us, fighting for us: on the move.

So listen close for that far-off gurgle, that sound of life in a wintery world. Be still and ask Immanuel to pull back the curtain for just a moment, to show you what He is doing unseen right now for his glory and your good. He will show you.

 He will show you that the smile from your distant husband, the hug from your rebellious daughter, the Facebook message from a long-lost friend, the reduction of your last medical bill, the cookies fresh from your neighbor's oven, and the anonymous check that came in the mail are all signs of spring.

There will be days though, many many days, when even in still and silent searching it seems like spring cannot be found. When all you can see is icy grey and all you can hear is your heart creaking and cracking, splintering into jagged pieces. Be assured: your heart does not break from the weight of the snow.  This is the sound of ice that thaws. This too a sign of Aslan on the move.

© by scj

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday Things: A Colorado Adventure, Part II

Well, it took whole weeks, but I've finally unpacked my suitcase from my trip to Colorado and shoved it in my storage closet, where it will keep the spiders company for one week. On Monday I will pull it out again and stuff it full of clothes for a trip home. It just occurred to me that, if I were in my right mind, I would have kept it packed all month—to save a lot of effort and lugging. ;)

I guess the silver lining in this unfortunate lack of strategizing is that my little abode is clean and tidy, and I have peace of mind enough to sit down and finish chronicling my Colorado adventure.

And so I give you: Part II (click here for Part I)

1. After a short stay in Denver, I spent the better part of a week in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for a retreat sponsored by Soulation, an apologetics ministry founded by Dale and Jonalyn Fincher.

Jonalyn and Dale

2. It was a grand week spent surrounded by golden aspen and brilliant minds.

3. Dale and Jonalyn's vision is to help others grow more "appropriately human." They used the retreat to facilitate the exploration of several ways we can grow healthier souls, and asked three attendees to contribute presentations on topics related to spiritual growth and formation.

4. First, I got to present on the way that beauty and the imagination can shape our souls. I focused on the especially powerful nature of fairy tales in helping us to recover our wonder at the world and our delight in a magical Gospel.

5. Jonalyn reminded us of the importance of taking time to play, to let something completely absorb us so that the process—not the product—becomes the point.

And play we did.

Jonalyn also reminded us that good play becomes so engrossing and delightful that we want to do it again and again, the way God wants to pull the sun up over the horizon again and again.*

This is my fifth attempt at trying to look like I belong on the set of "Oklahoma!".

6. Robin, fellow attendee and new kindred spirit friend, helped guide us to a better understanding of the redemptive nature of difficult transitions. She explained that transitions demand the reconciliation of life events and personal values, and force us to update our beliefs about ourselves. She encouraged us to allow tough transitions to "change the story you tell about yourself to yourself."

It was a timely talk for all of us.

Robin preparing her presentation

7. Aubrie—another attendee, a bosom friend, and a grad student majoring in thanatology—gave a presentation on grieving well. She reminded us that grief is work; it is a death and resurrection experience in which we are stripped "of the props we rely on for our well-being." Grief helps us to recognize our true identity as naked souls beloved by God.

Dear friend, Aubrie

8. On Friday, Dale talked a bit about the way our thinking about work has evolved since the industrial revolution from something to be proud of, to a mere money-maker. Then his wife shared one of the questions he asks himself when he's engaging in menial tasks:

"If the world were to watch me do this task to learn something about my God, what would they learn?"

And so we worked as unto the Lord and took great pleasure in it.

Bob and Tanya getting ready to stack firewood

9. Toward the end of the week we talked about the importance of including a Sabbath rest in our weekly rhythm, and determined to live the Sabbath as if God could hold the world together without us. Then we engaged in the Jewish practice of welcoming the Sabbath, and we rested.
Some of the girls on our Sabbath walk

10. We closed our week with "Mole's End"—a time to share poems, songs, and our own writings. It was a joyful and meaningful time.

This is what I look like when I'm about to chop off a fish's head.
This is also what I look like when I'm explaining what slam poetry is.

11. I am so thankful for my new dear friends, and for the renewal and restoration I experienced in such a life-giving community. In the wake of the retreat I have felt refreshed and hopeful, settled and satisfied.

*Jonalyn was referencing an idea in G.K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Autumn Repose

This week the autumnal days have composed a soft and steady symphony; a fluid ebb and flow of sun and moon, breeze and rain, muted gray and smiling blue, curling leaves and unfurling blooms.

My soul has been still—settled and satisfied with the lot that has been dealt me, and my body, for the first time in 13 months, feels my own.

This, a most gracious gift, after learning to live a long and tiring year of chronic illness in a body that felt like a stranger's;
a frame broken and unrecognizable, an impostor in my once familiar world.

A body that didn't—couldn't—respond to the signs of the changing seasons with thrills of joy and remembrance the way it did when it was healthy and whole;
that shuddered at Winter's foreign frost, retreated from Spring's scouring rains, and squinted at Summer's bright light.

But today God has replaced the throbbing tempos of grief and the aching silence of sickness with the gentle, healing rhythms of Fall, and I remember what it is to have a body that I know and that knows me and my world.

A body that remembers Autumn, that recognizes Her dry warmth, earthen perfume, gypsy breeze, and early dusk;
that has stored in its cells Autumn memories captured by senses—sight of golden leaf, smell of rising smoke, taste of tawny russet, sound of sighing trees, chill of clearest night.

It has been two years since I last had a body that knew this gypsy breeze and could grant her passage into my soul, allowing her to swirl and stir within, unearthing the Fall memories that Winter buried there.

And so I walk into the setting sun, breathing deep, trying to swallow pools of sunshine and taste the azure sky;
my body welcoming Autumn, letting Her seep into every familiar pore,
and my soul remembers...

...Riding my little pink bike, wiry legs pedaling fast, wheels splashing through puddles and whizzing down hills, my lungs full of fresh air seasoned with the smell of wet earth...

...Sprinting laps around a stadium, face dripping with sweat, chest heaving; my teammates running behind and before me under an October sun....

...Shuffling through crunchy leaves toward the Glendora foothills while chatting with dearest friends, then stopping downtown for steaming peppermint mochas...

...Piling dirty dishes snugly in the sink, the smell of pumpkin spice wafting through the house, roommates waiting patiently for a slice of sweet bread—a taste of Fall...

...Helping twenty five pairs of little hands pick from piles of orange, yellow and green fabric scraps and tangled balls of yarn, the ingredients for third grade pumpkin patch collages...

These memories rise and rush out my eyes, wet and salty. The wind wraps around me and my spirit settles into my body, quiet and content. And in this settling there is a shedding of pain of loss and fear of the future: a lifting of my spirit. For in this reunion of body and soul is freedom, the feeling of coming home.

I close my eyes and spread my arms wide, welcoming the release, hoping never to forget this feeling: a foretaste, I hope, of heaven.

© by scj

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Brother of Mine

Last week I was hiking with dear friends, drinking in the autumn air and feasting on the fall colors, when the youngest in our group, Baby Finn, pointed excitedly at the loyal dog at our heels and proudly declared, "Dah!". His small voice shot me back in time 21 years. I thought of you, Aaron.

I remembered when "Dah" was your favorite word, the only word you used for quite some time; the word you relied on as you tried to translate the feelings and thoughts in your small soul into sound waves—your contribution to the wide and promising world you were beginning to understand.

You could carry on entire conversations using only the word "Dah," and we almost always knew what you were talking about. We could tell when "Dah" meant, "I'm going to go ride my tricycle, okay?" And when it meant, "Do you see the jack-o-lantern I'm making with this orange paper? I'm gluing it together very carefully." Your wide grey eyes said so much more than your sweet mouth.

I think your little heart would have liked very much to have a dog of your own.

But instead you had a pet goldfish; one you shared with your younger brother; one whose name I cannot remember because you changed it at least seven times. I do know you never named it "Dah" because your vocabulary grew with your chubby frame, and you could eventually pull from a well of words like Fred, Goldy, Snowball, and Simba (name #5, I believe) when christening your scaly new friend.

You must have had a special knack with fish because Fred/Goldy/Snowball/Simba lived years and years. We sure got our fifty cents worth out of him.

Caring for fish wasn't the only thing you had a special knack for. You were also the King Cultivator of new worlds for your "hard animals". You, Marc, and Anne would spend hours in mom's garden carving out caves, propping up trees, and channeling small streams for your plastic animal kingdom. You'd gather your small herd of rhinos, giraffes, warthogs and mustangs and lead them through dangerous territories on daring exploits. You were a plastic animal shepherd.

You grew up to be a shepherd of people, too, Aaron.

When our family traveled the world, wandering the streets of Spain, Ecuador, Italy, and Croatia, you would hang at the back of the pack, slowing our group's pace so that our curious mother didn't have to walk by herself, and protectively eyeing the men who gawked at your blond teenage sisters.

Years later, when friends on your community college track team were lonely and longed for the companionship of a six-pack of Bud Light, you'd go to their houses, sometimes very late at night. You'd listen and encourage, and even challenge. They listened to you because they knew you cared about their souls, that your soul was full of the love of Another Shepherd.

When you moved to Los Angeles to attend Biola University, you were asked to be a student leader in Biola's Athletic Ministry. You poured your creativity and wisdom into your teaching and leading, and you influenced people, Aaron. They wanted to hear what you had to say, to follow your example. I think this is because you've always known something I'm still trying to learn: that being a shepherd doesn't mean being at the front of the pack or convincing others to buy what you're selling. It means spending much of your time behind the scenes—away from the spotlight in the bowels of community—so that you can care for the needs of the wanderers, flounderers, outsiders and forgotten. A shepherd is a sacrificer of time, money, and comfort; a giver of dignity, compassion, and kindness. You love and lead people, well, Aaron. You point them to the Good Shepherd.

I know it wasn't your practice caring for fish and corralling plastic animals that made you a shepherd, Aaron. I think, when you were being formed in mom's womb, God must have said, "I have set this soul apart; he will be a shepherd of the nations, a tender to wayward hearts. He will grow into a man who understands that in my Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and he will point people to My green pastures and streams of Living Water."

Aaron, you've lived well these 23 years because you have served the Giver of Life, the One who gave you a shepherd's heart. I pray He gives you many many more years of shepherding His beloved sheep. And when this shepherd's work makes you tired, discouraged, and lonely, and your staff begins to feel like a rough and heavy cross, I pray you would know Christ's strength, presence, and approval.

I also pray God allows you to see the seeds you've sown, the souls you've shaped, and the lives you've changed on your journey. And as you merge lives with another seed-sower and soul-shaper this spring, I pray you would find deepest satisfaction in shepherding your family as you journey together toward our heaven-home, where our souls will rest in the greenest of pastures.

And finally, I pray that one day you'll have a little boy with big grey eyes—a doggie lover, goldfish re-namer, and plastic animal herder who teaches you the joy of watching a little boy grow into a man who loves and follows the Good Shepherd.

Growing up with you has been one of life's greatest pleasures, Aaron.

I love you mucho grande.

Happy Birthday, Little Brother.



Tuesday, October 4, 2011

When You Get Slammed with a Late Fee

A few evenings ago I stopped off at the shabby video store down the street from my house to get a movie for the class I was teaching the next day.

As I pulled into the rental store's dark parking lot I muttered to myself about how I needed to run in and out of there fast so I could go home and get my aching body into bed.

I mindlessly put my car in park, eased slowly out of my car, and was startled fully awake by the ferocious snarls of a bulldog who was trying to squeeze his head out the cracked window of the car next to me to, no doubt, kill me.

Now I'm sure the driver didn't think his killer dog could squeeze out of that sliver of an opening to destroy passers by, but I've seen a kid get his head stuck in a smaller gap between two beams on a playground and am well acquainted with the pliable nature of heads. Naturally, I was not happy with the driver's negligence.

My mood grew more foul as I walked into the movie store only to spend who knows how long looking through the unalphabetized dvds for the one I'd come for (what kind of time does this place think I have?!).

I stepped up to the counter, anxious to pay and leave, and was told by the man behind the counter that I had a late fee for my last rental.

"Impossible," I told him . "It was a seven day rental: I checked it out Wednesday and returned it the following Wednesday." I did not smile at him.

"It says you rented it Tuesday and returned it the following Wednesday."

"But I remember checking it out on Wednesday," I said, conveniently forgetting about the memory problems that accompany my health issues. "I picked up the DVD and returned it on my way into work, and I don't go into work on Tuesday." He stuck to his guns.

"It's fine, it doesn't matter," I sighed. I still didn't smile, and this time there was an edge in my voice. A cranky, I'm so over this misunderstanding that is likely not my fault kind of edge.

I paid for the DVD and late fee, and walked around the counter so the clerk could hand it to me. The man shuffled over to me and handed me the DVD.

He couldn't look me in the eyes.

My heart sank and I quickly walked out the door so I could get out of there, like I'd wanted all along.

As I walked to my car and crawled in through the passenger's side to avoid Killer Doggie, I had a vision of Jesus picking an adulteress up out of the dust, looking at her with love when no one else would. I saw him talking to a scorned Samaritan woman—the town ho—and offering her eternal life, and I saw him letting a woman sit at his feet in a culture that only allowed men hang out with rabbis like Jesus.

I saw him rounding up a band of frumpy fishermen from a backwater town and telling them he'd use them to change the world. I saw him joining a reject tax collector for dinner, grabbing the deformed hands of an outcast leper, and pulling small children into his lap when there were important adults waiting to talk to him.

I saw him dignifying humans; making them feel like they were worth pulling up out of the dust; giving them a reason to raise their heads and pull their shoulders back; assuring them he didn't condemn them and it was okay for them to lift their eyes to his steady gaze of compassion.

And oh! when Jesus tells us to follow in his footsteps, he has commissioned us to spend our days dignifying the people around us by convincing the marginalized new kid that he's worth befriending, showing the man with cerebral palsy that he's worth serving, reminding the girl who got pregnant at 15 that she still has lots to offer the world, and assuring the movie store clerk that he can look into our eyes and find compassion there.

I wish I had dignified the man who stood behind the movie counter the other night, that I had remembered the great worth of his soul. I wish I had shown him that he is infinitely more important than a possibly "unfair" late fee.

I wish my focus had been outward, not inward. No—I wish my focus had been upward, that I opened myself up to the power of the Great Dignifier as I struggled to respond to my fellow soul with warmth and patience. I wish I could go back and do that night over again.

I haven't seen the movie store clerk since that night, but I've rubbed shoulders with several people—friends, family and strangers—since then, right when my soul was most laden with anxiety, fatigue, and just plain crabbiness. In his kindness, Jesus has given me lots of other opportunities to try to dignify the people around me, the way he did. And I am learning that when Jesus gives me second chances, he crowns me with dignity.