A New Advent Tradition?

Holy Trinity Brompton Church in the Knightsbridge area of London. I’ve heard about this church for years because the Alpha course was born there and some friends used to attend. This is truly a church whose reputation precedes its reality in the sense that millions of people around the world have been touched by Alpha, but relatively few have attended a service where it all began. I visited today.

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The reality was quite different than what my imagination expected. My mind was conjuring a contemporary hipster church a la Nashville, not the traditional, moss covered walkway leading up to the scaffold clad ancient building. Lots of greeters chimed “HellO” as in “cheerio” as I walked through the arched entrance. The interior was buzzing with zillions of hyped up children who had already taken multiple trips to the sweets tables in the back. As I sat down a kind man in a Christmas sweater informed me that it was “Christingle today” so his kids were beyond excited. I thought he said “Chris Kringle” which struck me as a bit odd we’d be celebrating Santa in the middle of Advent, but this is England. Last night hundreds of teenagers were milling around downtown London, dressed in full Santa suits for St. Nicholas’s feast day. A somber Advent is not the tone here.

The entire service was run by kids with the exception of the narrator of the drama being one of the pastors. The donkey in the drama was a giant, goofy creature who could have been out of the movie Madagascar. His name was Keith. By this point I’m a bit disappointed. I was hoping for a killer sermon by Nicky Gumbel and transforming worship, but instead Keith the donkey is dancing his way across the stage to cowboy music (not kidding, as in Happy Trails to You). While shifting around in my seat, wishing I’d gone to Christ Church Kensington, a leader from the front announced that it was time for the children to get their Christingles. The place went silent, lights dimmed (10:00 in the morning) and I’m waiting for an Elf on the Shelf to start hopping about. The band played contemporized traditional Carols and parents left their seats to form a HUGE  line with their children approaching the front.

Something magical happened as the children returned to their seats holding their Christingles, in awe of their beauty and wonder. Amidst the chaos, our fearless leader explained that the orange represents the world, the toothpicks imply the message of Christ’s light going out to all the world, the candle is his light and it sits tucked into the orange with aluminum foil wrapped about to represent the metal nails that pierced Christ’s hands on the cross. On the end of each toothpick were marshmallows, symbolizing God’s provision for us. The whole thing is wrapped in a red ribbon to remind us that his blood was shed so our sins might be forgiven. Talk about a labor of love created by volunteers for every child in the building. Tingles ran up and down my spine as I witnessed how much joy these elaborately dressed oranges brought the children. They held God’s love in their hands. It was tangerine tangible and a new tradition was born in my heart and also in the church, taking your marshmallows on the toothpick and roasting them in the candle flame

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, attended this church and 4,000 people throughout London participated in their Carol services last weekend. Perhaps a somber Advent isn’t the only way to prepare your heart for Christmas? Merry, Merry!

p.s. Just so the children wouldn’t be the only ones in a festive mood the pastor announced that mulled wine and mince cakes would be served in the guest house after the service. Only in England.

Creatively Capturing Summer

August 1st is the day we become painfully aware that summer is slipping through our fingers. Eager-eyed parents will be staring at me on August 25th Orientation, ready to hear about all of the challenges that their students will take on during the 2016-2017 school year. This leaves only 24 more days to savor the altered pace of summer. So before my calendar is covered in ink, I’m pledging to capture a moment of summer’s beauty in verse, image or prayer each day in order to have a tiny reservoir to draw from when leaves and then snow begin to crunch underfoot.

This idea came to me while reading and sleeping on my porch only to be awakened by a hummingbird zooming by. Details like this are full of beauty and glory, but we often miss them. Translating what strikes our heart chords into a poem or a photo also enables us to remember and hopefully not say, “Did summer even happen this year?” What glory sightings are you encountering this August? Create something that lasts from these moments and tell me about them!

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Awakened by Humming-

bird. Strumming through air,

shuddering summer beneath

sparkling silver Beech.

Your rumble of sound

enfolded by almighty, precious cielo.

I doze.

“Midnight in Sicily” flopped open

on sunscreen slathered legs.

Single strands of caressed hair

crossing and sticking fast to

sweat beaded face.

Your hum, breaking silence,

miniature freight train,

winged whir and whiz.

Heavenly music, drilling down

into scarlet Dahlia

one by patient one,

600 heartbeats a minute.

God’s alarm clock.

Arise. Summer is singing by.

 

Graduating Baby Corn Plants

Like millions of others, our youngest child graduated from high school this month. “Millions have done it before you and millions will do it after you,” my husband was told when he signed up for the Barbri course to prepare for the bar exam. There is something everyday, you’re just a number about graduating from high school. In the U.S. it’s common and rates are at an all time high with 81% of students graduating. As I hung graduation lanterns over the patio and sent out announcements I couldn’t escape the “been there done that” rudimentary feeling…until driving home from Wisconsin put me face to face with thousands of baby corn plants.

Their simple rows of lime green spriteness reflected hope. Each of them owned the potential to give something back to their planter and maker despite their soft leaved vulnerability. “Knee high by the Fourth of July” seemed impossible with only four inches of growth on Memorial Day. With the right conditions their single growing season will produce abundant food, about 800 kernels on a single ear of 16 rows. By November, those soldiers left standing dry, brown and brittle will blow over with the first winter blast. Left unharvested, their final act feeds the soil to strengthen the next crop. Our son’s eighteen years felt about the length of one growing season, but was it beautiful, rich and nourishing enough to grow a self-sacrificing adult?

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His little toe head of curls, one of which I keep tucked in a Limoges box on my dresser, felt the same as these first little corn leaves I stooped down to touch after pulling my car over. They also carry a soft curl before they toughen up in the face of sun, wind and rain. Making friends came easily for our young one and I wondered if these little plants become tight with their growing partners who share their space in just a few weeks. In every grade, desk partners and playground pals became friends out of convenience and necessity. He formed “The Purple Punk Club” with his skateboarding buddy in first grade – their mission – stealing the kindergartner’s ball. Naughty, but adorable boys. The corn plant doesn’t veer off mission unless deprived of nutrients and water. Did I water my little guy enough in those early years? Without water the tassels don’t form, there is no pollination, no kernels. I watered him with books and music, Berenstain Bears, Beatrix Potter and Yamaha Music School. As a graduate, he doesn’t read much for pleasure and would rather slam on his basement drums. Were those countless Berenstain bumbling stories enough to bear fruit in his developing soul? Well, drumming can be food for people. It aligns to their heartbeat and leads them into worship or it can offend and harm sensitive ears, a.k.a. his 82 year old grandmother. What happens with those drums is not my decision now.

Precious few of us know at eighteen what we want to be when we grow up. When he built his first drum set at three years old out of cookie tins and oatmeal containers we suspected. Dozens of concerts and thousands of practice hours later, our suspicion is confirmed. Come harvest time his hands and heart will be cultivating a new field in a new state with new gardeners, but the beating of the drum still pounds out his growing song.

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One proper growing season can produce millions of ears of milky white corn kernels, enough to feed a country for a year. One tiny house on the corner of President street and Liberty sends its youngest child off to college, but the tassel of golden silky hair remains in my Limoges box. The mother’s privilege is to take it out and ponder it’s possibilities when the silence of beating drums in this house produces a relieved sigh, an empty ache or a hunger. I’ll stop to savor a buttery rich ear of corn with a nice cold glass of pinot gris and toast the truth that although they all travel off to plant their own field, the farmer’s job is never done.

Geeking Out at Book Expo in Chicago

Imagine lines three people wide as far as you can see for Jonathan Safran Foer to sign his forthcoming novel, Here I Am. Think people rushing the entrance to get the coolest book bag swag from Sourcebooks, the free measuring spoons from Capstone. There were so many people in line to get in at noon when the Expo opened that I cut in, haven’t done this since grade school. It was easy. A group of unsuspecting book buyers were sitting on the floor studying the exhibitor map when everyone else stood up. I slipped in between them unnoticed. Bad girl! After two hours, my feet throbbing, I descended the 500 foot escalator for refuge on the second floor where I took off my black boots and looked over the almost dozen books I acquired free. Yes, new books – FREE! Books that haven’t come out yet – FREE!  I’m salivating. These booksellers are hawking their fall offerings with gusto. You can smell the ink of ARCs drying on pages. The enormous McCormick Place West arena filled to the gills with little elevated tables surrounded by four high chairs (not the kind you feed your kids Gerber Sweet Potatoes in, much cooler looking), with reps in suits talking books with even bigger Ingram reps with breast pocket kerchiefs. I actually met John Ingram who started the dominant world of book distribution ten years ago. If you haven’t heard of him, he is to book distribution what Michael Jordon is to basketball.Think every imaginable book nerd checking out the fall catalogues of everyone from HarperCollins to Double Dragon who publishes blood dripping horror.

I kept seeking out thick carpeted booth spaces to give my aching feet a break, not daring to sit in one of those high chairs out of fear of being identified as a bookselling poser. I’m not a seller, rather someone who is looking at trends in the industry and looking for something breakthrough beautiful. I’m already sick of adult coloring books so what is new out there? Surprise! What’s new is death and dying. Hasn’t that been around for awhile? But the Boomers are dying and they want to die well. End of life, preparing for end of life, what happens in the afterlife, are you ready to meet the “monster” of death books everywhere. Also, the look and style of creative visual compilations like John Derian’s (Artisan Books). He transports the nostalgia of 19th century flea market postcards into singular works of contemplative art, one gigantic image at a time. An eye. A pear. A paperweight per page draws the reader back in time to a restful place of savoring an object of beauty without looking at it on our phones.

I also went to meet my publisher, John Koehler of Koehler Books and my favorite agent, Don Gates. IMG953723John is a pioneer who realized that he can identify new talent and make deals on all fronts; traditional, hybrid and a recent self-publishing line with Ingram Spark. He is a special breed of publishing entrepreneur, professional boomerangist, Christian author and beach comber. I love his openness to trying new things, like embedding the classical music tracks in my novel. John rocks. He gives hope to the stodgy publishing world, now forced to undergo transformation due to the overwhelming influx of people writing books and self-publishing. Yes friends, several of the big five houses have self-publishing lines now. What a great way to make money when about 5,000 books are being published per DAY!

Books are alive and flourishing. Those silly doom predictors who said print was moribund, in permanent decline can forget it. In these days of Trump insanity, “HUGE” deals are still being made, bought and sold. Hundreds of readers are standing in line to get a signed copy of a yet to be released book and writers are dreaming up their next big story arc, all on the shores of Lake Michigan. Ha! Book Expo left New York for the Windy City. Perhaps the Cubs really are going to win the World Series.

Natasha’s New Book, Mentor For Life

I have to admit being a bit in awe of people who go to military academies. Natasha Robinson is one of them. They emit a burning efficiency which singes us lesser beings who actually spend our moments at a stoplight daydreaming rather than crossing off the to do list. For the last several months I’ve been meeting a gal in Panera who is a new friend, new Christian, and new to the church as in first time in her entire life new. I love this ray of sunshine and freshness friend. We always order the same thing, dress in whatever and hug each other coming and going. I guess you could say I’m her mentor although I’m not entirely equipped to be her mentor so I’m ordering Natasha’s book, Mentor for Life. If you have a desire to mentor and want to know how to do it well, this is a book you’ll love. Here’s a bit of Natasha’s cool, focused face, her beautiful book published by Zondervan and some of her own thoughts about it. You go girl!

http://www.amazon.com/Mentor-Life-Finding-Intentional-Discipleship/dp/0310522358

Why did you want to write the book, Mentor for Life?

Natasha: The process for Mentor for Life came about quite organically. I was leading a mentoring ministry in my local congregation and it was the type of ministry I wanted to be a part of my whole adult life. I was growing my faith, meeting new people, having interesting conversations, and reading thoughtful kingdom-focused books. The ministry was important to me so I would frequently talk about it and I wrote about it on my blog and in some of the leadership articles I wrote for Christianity Today. When I would share what we were doing and how I was watching God change people’s lives through mentoring as intentional discipleship, I started hearing people say, I want to be a part of something like that or I wish there was a ministry like that are my church. I would get messages on my Facebook page, notes in the comments section, or emails from my blog asking for a resource or my curriculum. When I saw this was a need in the church and people were sincerely asking for help, that’s when I sat down to write this book.

How has mentorship impacted your life?

Natasha: Mentoring has had in invaluable impact on my life. I grew up in a small town in South Carolina, in a community of people that understood the African proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” I always had mentors in my formative years in the form of coaches, teachers, community servants, and pastors. Everyone was collectively speaking into my life. The lessons I learned from these mentors taught me discipline and helped me confirm my identity, which later guided me to the United States Naval Academy.

The Naval Academy’s mission is to make leaders who are committed to making a career in the naval service. The institution cares about the moral, mental, and physical development of their midshipmen (students), and mentoring is naturally built into the leadership structure of the school. From the time you walk on campus, you’re being mentored by several and being groomed as you advance so you are able to mentor others. My time at the academy was very important to my professional development and the honing of my leadership skills.

With regards to my spiritual life, I was raised in a church but really didn’t start walking with the Lord in a personal relationship until I was in college. At that time, I was discipled and mentored by a woman who shaped me. I had many spiritual influencers at that time who built me up and helped me become who I am today.

Mentoring has become a passion of mine, because of the impact it’s had on my life, but also because of the transformation I’ve seen in other people. I believe mentoring is my service to God and to His church.

How do you think the church will benefit from the message of your book?

Natasha: I think the church will be challenged by Mentor for Life, specifically because it is not a how to book. It is a book that calls us back to the priority of our primary calling to make disciples who follow Jesus with their entire being by laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel and this great kingdom mission God has set before us. I think the church has relevant concerns and challenges in today’s culture, but we are not without hope in this world. I believe in the vision of the Lausanne Movement: “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” We can do that whether we are going out as missionaries to other parts of the world, or whether we are faithful and credible witnesses to the various people groups God has already put in front of us. Any devout believer wants to make disciples of Jesus, yet in our daily lives we become distracted, and what this book does is it resets our priorities and challenges us to allow everyone to overflow out of Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven. Mentor for Life challenges and equips the church to focus on the gospel and Jesus’ simple call to “follow me” and we do that by making disciples through relationships in an intimate small group of intentional learning.

 

How can someone seek out a mentor at church? How can you prepare yourself to be a mentor at church?

Natasha: How can someone find a mentor: ask! Just make sure that when you ask, you’re specific and make your motivations and intentions clear. This gives the space for conversation. For example, my mother passed away during my sophomore year of college. When I entered into a mentorship with an older woman at my church, one of her early questions to me was, “Are you trying to fill a ‘mommy void’ with this relationship?” That was certainly a valid question. I thought about it and confidently replied, “No.” No one would ever be able to replace my mother. I had a wonderful relationship with her and I have no regrets.

The reason I had sought out this woman at my church was because she was a prayer warrior. So after she asked me why I wanted her as my mentor, I told her it was because I wanted her to teach me how to pray. This taught me the importance of being specific in your “ask” of a mentor and to not be afraid to ask and make your expectations known. Putting all your expectations of a mentorship out in the open also gives you the opportunity to check your motives as a mentee. I still have a mentoring relationship with this woman today and I value it greatly.

With regards to preparing to become a mentor, most of the time you are just not ready. I do not want to discount the importance of training. I am an advocate for training and equipping leaders so they can serve the body of Christ and others well. That’s why I have written this book. That’s why I offer free downloadable information on my website. That’s why I have written a mentoring leadership training manual and accompanying videos. That’s also why I offer leadership consulting and mentoring coaching. However, I feel like this feeling of “not being ready” is what a lot of people use as an excuse to not commit to mentoring. I am saying very clearly that is NOT a sufficient excuse. “On the job” training is a big part of being an excellent mentor. There’s only so much you can prepare for. In mentoring, there’s always more to learn. There’s no “arriving” when it comes to being qualified to mentor. Prepare what and where you can by praying, being in the Word, listening and learning from others, and taking advantage of the tools that are available to you, but don’t wait on fully accomplishing those things before saying “yes” to being a mentor.

For mentors and mentees, it is imperative that both parties be open and honest up front about expectations and boundaries. Laying everything out at the beginning will help keep your time together focused, and will also provide accountability for both parties. Many times, the expectation of the mentee can lean towards being completely unrealistic. When that expectation is ultimately not met, the mentee ends up checking out of the relationship. Having affirmations can clarity expectations, build trust, and cause the mentoring relationship to flourish.

Mentorship is oftentimes all about “me,” when it should really be all about Christ. He is the mentor both for those who offer mentoring and those being mentored. For mentors, this means being open and willing to serve when called upon. For mentees, this meaning being open to change and willing to learn from a mentor. Both mentors and mentees need a humble and mutually submissive posture, and both need an attentive ear and teachable spirit. Shift away from focusing on yourself and your needs, and see how God wants to teach you and use you to influence the lives of others.

What makes Mentor for Life unique?

Natasha: Mentor for Life is unique because it does address mentoring from a perspective of 1-on-1 relationships. It clearly defines mentoring from the kingdom perspective of intentional making disciples, and we do that within a small group of approximately six mentees and we invest in building quality relationships through intentional learning over a longer period of time (approximately a year). The book is kingdom-focused, it engages the biblical texts, there is opportunity for theological reflection, it is missional (not just about what we do in the church but how we live among people), and it is challenging. It is also personal and relational. Throughout the book, I share about my faith journey, along with the leadership and mentoring lessons I learned while attending the United States Naval Academy and serving as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

How do you imagine the book will be used in both an individual and group setting? 

Natasha: I love to read so I have grown to love books. In some ways, I see myself being shaped and formed through the books I read. So I pray for the individual that this book will be transformative for the reader. Mentor for Life is not necessarily a book to rush through. It is a book to ponder. I have included questions, opportunities for personal reflection, and exercises at the end of each chapter. I encourage the reader to complete those, and I pray that as they go through the book they are not only thinking about starting a mentoring small group or ministry, but they are also asking themselves, “How can I be more intentional in how I live?” So I pray that Mentor for Life is spiritually transformative for every reader and it’s my hope that they will share and model what they learn with others. Mentor for Life is a leadership book, so it was written in mind to lay a solid foundation for those who do want to start a mentoring group or ministry. Reading this book will be a good first step for a small group ministry or leadership team, and they can follow up the reading by accessing the leadership training resource and videos to accompany this book.

Does spiritual mentorship have any effect on a person’s professional life? Can spiritual and professional mentorship work hand-in-hand?

Natasha: Yes, the two absolutely work together. I’ve experienced this in my personal life and I’ve been able to be a mentor spiritually and professionally for others.

In preparation for the book launch, I am having a kickoff event at my church. This event has been designed as an educational opportunity for church members and the public to have a better understanding of mentorship as intentional discipleship. Part of the event will include a panel discussion with mentors of mine, past and present. It was important for me to have these mentors present, because I wanted to show the different sides of mentoring and how everything works together.

One of the ladies that will be on the panel was my boss when I worked at the Department of Homeland Security. When I decided to leave the military and pursue a career, I had three job offers. All were good, which made my decision a little more difficult. I called an alumnus of the Naval Academy and sought her counsel regarding my decision. She had actually worked for one of the companies that was offering me a job, but advised me to go work at the Department of Homeland Security because of the skill set and influence of the woman that would be my boss.

During my interview for the job, my future boss seemed to sense (more than I had) how unsure I was about the job. I’m typically a confident person, but after having been in the military for eleven years, that was all I knew. The thought of starting something new was unsettling for me. My boss seemed to understand this fear, and she told me, “I can sense that you aren’t sure about this. But let me tell you this. Come here and do a good job. Network and meet great people, and use this job as your ‘transition’ job to figure out what you want to do.”

Having that freedom and support gave me a great sense of safety about this job and new career. It was about this time that I began writing for Christianity Today. I sent my boss the first article I had published, and she ended up calling me into her office and talking with me for a good half hour about it! It was so encouraging to hear from her, this accomplished woman, how much she’d gotten out of what I’d written. She encouraged me to keep writing, and later, she encouraged me to pursue going to seminary.

I’m so blessed to have this woman as a mentor and friend. She is an amazing example of how to be a Godly influence in a secular environment. Whether they knew it or not, everyone who came in contact with her saw Jesus. What better example of marrying spiritual and professional mentorship could there be?

 

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Climbing Kilimanjaro for Esperance and All

Today I’m praying for my friends and sisters who are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. A handful of women, two from the Redbud Writers Guild, are trekking up Kili as a fundraiser for women who are demeaned by their culture simply because they are women. This movement, One Million Thumbprints, is a “movement of peacemakers overcoming the effects of war on women.” It sounds peacenik, like a bunch of 1960’s retro-gals who let go of Hendrix and got ahold of the idea that real change can be won one woman at a time. That’s not all bad, particularly if you’re stuck in America chained to the election blather and wondering if God has anything good left for our country. Presidential candidates joking about yoga during a debate? As we say in Lent, “Good Lord deliver us.”

When I learned about this trip last fall I wanted to go and represent the Afghan Women Writers awwproject.org whom I mentor. These Afghan ladies walk an hour to an internet hot spot trying to sneak a cry of truth out into the world. Highlighting their voices from the mountaintop would raise awareness and funds to help support them and all women marginalized by the effects of war in their respective countries. I even have a picture of Kili on my Pinterest “Dream” board so I qualify. My sons have researched climbing Kili and it takes 4 -6 days depending on the route. Hopefully, they’re taking the six day journey which provides the most time to adjust to the altitude, meaning less altitude sickness. I know from experience that you don’t go out one October morning and run the Chicago Marathon, training helps. Alas, my day on the mountaintop awaits. My son’s last high school musical is running and papers need grading.

Instead, I’m here on my knees for these brave climbers, who give voice to women like Esperance and the hundreds of women who are raped every day on the front lines of sectarian conflict. You can learn more about them at www.onemillionthumbprints.org Please add your thumbprint, buy the devotional guide or even give to the cause because you know that healthy girls, thriving women, and educated mothers bring good into our world. As you walk into Marriano’s to buy your fresh squeezed orange juice at the ridiculously low price of $3.99, think of Sudanese women walking miles for water or Syrain women boiling dandelion greens to keep their families alive. I’m not trying to motivate you out of guilt. I make this grocery store trek weekly and I also don’t think of them while on my suburban pilgrimage, although I should.

If you have a yearning to change the world, hang out with people who share your heart. Another one of my favorite organizations which educates young girls in the third world is www.roomtoread.org  John Wood started Room to Read by collecting books in his garage and then taking them via a train of yaks up into the Himalayas to a school that kept their few books under lock and key, fearing they would be taken. Room to Read is changing the world for good.

Dig into what you’re passionate about. Learn and live it. When I climb Kilimanjaro I’ll let you know and if you write and say you want to climb for the cause near and dear to your heart, you’re welcome to come along. What issue is burning in your heart today?1MTClimb4Peacefront

We’re All Spring Ephemerals

While walking my yorkie-poo this morning I spot these early harbingers. Tufting out of the last fall’s rotting leaves a sunshine nugget shoots forth, one blossom so tiny you could miss it. After looking right then left, I reach down beneath my big toe and pick one. A single winter aconite (Eranthis). Six transparent yellow petals surround a burst of stamen rays, all clustered together to protect themselves from what might be tomorrows predicted snow. They belong in the ranunculus family (my favorite flower), but they look like summer buttercups. Ephemeral – transitory, short lived. Like us.

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We’ve been admiring “Bobby’s winter aconite” since our kids piled into double strollers and headed down to our neighbor’s corner. All of us longing for a blast of fresh air and someone to kick their new spring ball. You know the ones Target keeps in corded cages that you wrench the ball free from revealing its pastel glory, knowing that in about a week, POP! MOMMY(sobbing, hitting). Winter aconite makes a yellow carpet in Chicago’s February sun. Our eyes stare at the vivid swath of ground level warmth after months of twiggy grey, white and black. Color, all too short lived burns our retinas with newness of life.

The single stem now sits in a tiny bud vase on my writing desk, actually a Sanbitter bottle from the grocery store. Lifting it for a sniff propels me through today’s writing projects with a dose of perspective. We are all Spring Ephemerals. Our lives start out every bit as fresh as this bud, no wrinkles, unfocused blue eyes, cradle cap heads in need of nurture by caring, mature hands. We unfurl, for good or bad. With grace we’re given our day to bloom. Our eighty years is an hour equivalent in the life of this unassuming flower. Yet despite its hiddenness, the silent beauty of winter aconite dependably bursts upon us, leading us into the full spectrum of color which is there for the taking every year.

“What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.”

from Spring by Gerrard Manley Hopkins

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Polar Plunging Into 2016!

As the LARGE bearded men gathered in their white robes on the beach of Lake Michigan, I had second thoughts. We’ve attended the January 1st Polar Bear Plunge over the years and laughed at the pounds of searing red flesh exiting the water and half naked people of all sizes standing in coolers of hot water to revive their frozen feet. This year was my year. No ice to be chopped up means no ice cutting through your shins and knees as you fly out of the water as fast as your near hypothermia muscles can get you ashore. Another edge, our friends who are seasoned plungers were going in and they knew the tricks, e.g. HOT water coolers, clothes waiting on chairs so they don’t get soaked, must wear shoes so you can run out more effectively and most important, go out in the front of the crowd to avoid the back up of tiptoers into the water who slow down the process to a polar crawl.

While festing at a New Years Eve party the night before a yogi was asked what she thought of the plunge, “I think it would be great for your lymph system.” Of course, this is the main reason to do it. All my lymph nodes will be excruciatingly squeezed and therefor detoxed for about two minutes. Sounded like a good idea, but then I could enjoy this benefit at my local juice bar while waiting for my cut of locavore salmon. Another compelling reason was provided by my girlfriend who served in the Marine Corp., (the real one, not the 35 degree water marine corp. we were about to dip into) “It propels you into the new year like nothing else. It kind of sets the tone for your whole year.” Hmmm. What might my whole year be like if I plunge? Visions of conquering new, unforseen heights and depths of creativity came to mind. Now that’s a benefit.

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The “Jump Around” music blasted out of the speakers and we got psyched up by jumping around. The new years day countdown to plunge sang out and off we all charged into what might be our end. There are several ambulances and firefighters who stand waiting to retrieve the weak and frail, or the many Packer fans who are overloaded with holiday cheese curds and Cherry Bounce, yes they go in too and you can smell them on the beach before you hit the water. Here’s what I learned:

– 35 degree water is easy to run out in but it makes it hard to run back. Your system is so shocked that you can’t breath, but your muscles need oxygen to get you out. This is why the kayaks and fireman are in place so no one goes out too far.

– There is a camaradarie that comes with doing something stupid. My son plunged with me and we are now proud members of the Polar Bear Club. The organizers give you a certificate if you sign the waiver saying you won’t sue them if you die. I wonder how many plunges you need to get one of those white robes with the official polar bear patch on them? Those were impressive. If my son gets one before I do, I will be jealous.

– 25 degree air feels like 25 degree air whether you are wet or dry. The difference is that your body becomes stiff when wet so park your car CLOSE to the beach.

– Hot water filled coolers provide the difference between life and death.

I hope this inspires many of you to plunge next New Years Day! Here’s the video of our graceful water ballet if you need more motivation. God bless your 2016 with healthy lymph nodes and the fulfillment of all your resolutions. Check out the lady in the white bikini holding the two stuffed polar bears. Now that’s Wisconsin!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5UGt6XD3Co

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A New Year, A New Life and Love

She’s never been to Starbucks. Never stayed in a hotel. Never heard a bedtime story and now she’s living with us. Our new year began on Janurary 2nd.  We drove a quiet 11 year old girl from Boston to our home, arriving at 2:00 a.m. to be greeted by welcome notes and lavender macaroon cookies left out on the counter by our other kids.

On December  10th, 2014 we were going about our lives, getting ready for Christmas. We snuggled into our cozy beds and drifted off to sleep as the street light shone through spyrographic ice on our bedroom window. At 4:00 a.m. God woke me up, to the sound of my own voice yelling, “Hurry!”  At first I wasn’t sure it was God, it was “just a dream,” a dream about an adorable girl we know in our Sunday night Bible study in the refugee apartments. “I’m going to be adopted,” she said in the dream, working her small rough hand into mine. “I want to show you where I’m going to live so you can meet them.” We flew through the air and landed in the rugged courtyard of her new apartment complex. Several young, jobless or homeless men gathered around burning trash barrels to stay warm. The icicles dripped rust from the balconies. “It’s that one up there on the end, next to the stairs. I’ll be able to come and go as I want to.” She smiled as she pointed out a lacquered black door on the second floor. We began to creep across the courtyard toward the staircase, arms locked so we didn’t crash on the ice. The circle of young men in “wife beater” t-shirts, gangsta jewelry and flannel coats approached, questioning me. “What are you doin’ here?” Danger slashed across their faces. We began to back up. I whispered to my little friend, “I think we need to get out of here. Hurry!”

This dream, so vivid, spoke of impending doom and urgency. Something was wrong. Reaching over the edge of the bed for my computer, I immediately emailed the Bible study co-leader. It was 4:00a.m. “Is she o.k.?” I just needed to know. Her response back, “I think your dream was from God. Her father is moving her to Boston on December 16th. She doesn’t want to go.”  In six days!  We started praying. My husband agreed that perhaps God was showing us something in the dream and we should speak to her dad about the possibility of her living with us. Her dad agreed, but first she would go to Boston for Christmas. We checked out the neighborhood they were moving to. From a crime perspective, it’s one of the worst.

Many miles later, we sit in Starbucks and sip hot chocolate. I’m teaching her to play the piano after school and she is singing in our church children’s choir. We’ve read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Number the Stars and tonight, The Witch of Blackbird Pond at bedtime. She’s getting fat eating American food rather than Liberian pepper soup. She laughs with her brothers who live nearby and our kids and we’re all learning together; learning to make room, to share, to sacrifice our personal schedules, to listen to 103.5fm instead of our favorite stations on the way to school. We are learning to live with and love someone new every morning and every night.

As I walk the dog after getting everyone to school, I’m thankful. I thank God that he still speaks in dreams and visions. I thank him for always doing something new, so thankful that her father said, “yes,” and as we walk toward Valentine’s Day, I thank him that he is still teaching us all how to love.

Watching and Waiting with Wonder

Watching and Waiting with Wonder

Signs and wonders. A phrase so common in the Bible that the word “wonder” appears 109 times. Wonder is defined as:

The feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

Children own wonder. It’s engrained in the purity of their hearts and expressed through their senses.  How often I’ve watched my own children see and interact with the created world differently. While sitting in church, I remember a fat, sticky hand caressing my face with such intimacy and adoration that I flinched. The gesture was borderline embarrassing. Our toddler son once exclaimed, “Mommy, I have a sunset on my mouth,” as he caught a glimpse of his grape juice moustache in the mirror.

 

What would it take for me to walk out this Advent season of preparation in a state of unencumbered wonder?

 

In pursuit of truth and beauty we must remain children all our lives,” wrote Albert Einstein. He recognized the need for us to seek after the true and the beautiful as children. Seeking takes time and focus, the ability to slow down and see the world both at ground level and in the expanse of the heavens, to stand in front of the unopened box and wonder what’s inside. Children have the capacity to do both these things simultaneously. I’ve watched countless little league t-ball games freeze as the commercial jet flies overhead. One minute they’re missing the drive to second base because of ants in the grass and the next, dropping the ball out in right field because of American Airlines. Children see the wonder of creation down low, in the individual blade of grass and then they roll over and see the majesty of the sky. They do not rush to get up and get on to the next thing. They gaze.

 

I have to retrain myself to experience the world anew, to open my eyes and see, taste and touch for the first time.

 

I’m learning that the key to experiencing Advent with the wonder of a child is found in seeing Jesus. He is the source of beauty, truth and wonder: “As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him” (Mark 9:15). These words offer comfort and hope for the weary commuter and the exhausted, nose-wiping mother. It says “all the people.” We who are waiting and watching for him are part of that glorious group of “all.” We are in the crowd and the children are with us. And we too, can be overwhelmed with wonder.

 

Still, in Advent what do I usually wonder about? Finding the right Christmas gift, paying the bills, year-end giving choices, gaining weight, projects that were New Year’s resolutions that I probably won’t get to? Instead of worrying about these earthly realities, I’m shifting my focus this Advent to waiting on him.

 

I grew up with a simple countdown to Christmas peppermint rope that my mother grabbed at a church bazaar. My brother and I read a little poem as we took turns untying the peppermint candy from its red yarn bow. Like an Advent calendar, this colorful tool made bedtime tasty, but the waiting was endless. Our three-year old daughter learned about the pain of waiting while watching the Nutcracker ballet for the first time. She reveled in the opening battle scene and Clara’s escape to the Kingdom of Sweets. As the second act journey took us to tea parties in Arabia, she grew fidgety and bored. For her, it was all about seeing the Sugar Plum Fairy dance to her celestial music. In a whining whisper she leaned into me, “WHEN is the plum sugar going to come out?” Impatience, almost tears, consumed her.

 

What if we felt this way about waiting for the Lord’s return? Would a single experience of wonder make us wait differently?

 

I have a habit of praying before getting out of bed in the morning. It starts out with a simple prayer our children learned in Sunday school, “Good morning Lord, this is your day. I am your child, please show me your way.” This Advent, I’m adding to the prayer. “Give me eyes of wonder and a heart of love to see what you have in front of me today.” Come Lord Jesus. Give us your heart, Lord.  Give us your eyes.