Monday, March 30, 2015

Hope that Remains



Maybe because I'm an overly-introspective person, or maybe as a strange coping mechanism, I occasionally like to step outside of myself and imagine what my life would look like if it were different.

I don't mean that in a "What if I were single?" or "What if I had different kids?" kind of way. My man and my little people are ingrained in my fiber. There's no other way when it comes to them. We're a unit. Connected across time and miles, hopping DNA altogether but stitched by eternity and every single "meant to be".

Weird as it may be, a large part of my life is my writing. It's this blog. Seven years in, it's no longer something I do, but something I am. I can't imagine me without it.

I frame my world in blog posts, it's always rumbling beneath the surface. I've written hundreds of posts while washing dishes, posts that never do tumble out on the screen. I'm sorry to say I do my best work in the shower, against the white noise of water and the muscle memory of rinse-and-repeat.

This is part of who I am, in precisely the same way Timi persuades a judge or Sarah writes proposals or the chef in town pairs sweet corn with crab. We risk differently in our work, but we all risk. Including you.

Now and then, my work finds me on a plane, lurching into the air just to land again in a different city where there might be tulips blooming in late March as sleet spits against the windows at home and the whole world remains brown and leafless.

These planes sweep me away from my everyday life and set me back down to marvel at all the signs of life, giddy from the warmth.

Some of my truest friends are plane rides away. I miss them all the time. 


Yesterday I sat on a lounge chair at the edge of a pool. I ate a hamburger with the sun on my face and my hair whipping around.

For three days, I was surrounded by hundreds of women. I saw good in every single face, saw again the way we're all tracking the same things.

People say the world keeps getting meaner, but I don't buy it. We have more access to the mean, that's all. It's always been here, and I believe it's receding. I do. We're growing more connected in different ways, less so in others, but a circle doesn't lose power as it widens. It gains.

I've talked before about the time I flew to Belgium for a month as an eleven-year old. The heart and guts of that trip was the firm belief that making friends across cultures can literally change the world. I don't remember trying to navigate language barriers or worrying about international codes of conduct. I remember being corralled in a gymnasium on a rainy day where we danced with glass plates on our heads until the last one had fallen in shards at our feet. I remember dipping folded paper into bowls of dye. Every day, we ate packaged Belgian waffles and drank bottled Coke for snack. We held hands around a flag pole and called ourselves a family. We played water games where we gulped water from the same bucket, ran the length of the yard, and spit it into another. As the days wound down, we sang into the night. We clung to each other. We grieved on those last days as though we were adults. I don't know that I had ever cried harder, or felt such despair mingled with so much promise.

Almost three decades later, I bear witness again to the surging power of humanity. Our mutuality is universal if we can only believe it's true. Doubt for a second, and you risk missing it.

There was so much fun to be had, so many laughs, so many tacos.

We were a mash-up lot, so we got down to the business of being neighbors and we memorized our kinship.

God used our misjudgements to remind us how much bigger He is than we remember. He called us all iron then threw us together for a while. Driving home late last night from the airport, I knew I was sharper for it.

{my can't-be-beat small group}

 {my can't-be-beat small group plus one}


Was our time together perfect? Close, but not quite. There were things I would change, moments I'd like a second shot at. But that's the beauty of community - it's never perfect. That can't be the goal, and we all know it, because community involves us. We jack things up. We're negative for no good reason. We're prideful and insecure, we angle and hide. We have to choose sometimes, and we don't always choose well.

We crash against each other. My edges meet yours, then hers, then hers.

In the end, we're a little softer, a little stronger.
Our cheeks hurt from smiling, our eyes hurt from crying.

We would do it all again.
We will do it all again, in a thousand different ways.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Hot Boots


I've often wished I were a more normal person, but the sad reality is, weirdness follows me around like Tom follows Jerry.

I can go almost nowhere without strangeness happening, and it's not just that it happens when I'm there, it usually happens to Actual Me (see this and #2 of this post) or, at the least, in my immediate proximity (like this.)

I'm the magnet, situational comedy the metal. (May I remind you. Also.)

Though this makes me an awkward person to travel with, it can also be fairly entertaining. Except for the time said "awkwardness" happened to be a near-miss with a would-be band of mayhem-makers on a flight from the Dominican Republic to O'Hare airport. Please don't ask Cory to corroborate this story, because it's still a bone of contention. BUT I WAS THERE. I KNOW INFERRED WHAT I KNOW INFERRED AND SAW WHAT I SAW. I didn't write imaginary goodbye letters to my children for nothing.

All of that to say, I've been keeping a secret.
I'm so sorry.

It happened back in October and it's taken me this long to feel comfortable sharing. I don't know why. Or maybe I do. Whatever.

See, I bought these boots in Arkansas, back in July. I was boot shopping at Country Outfitter with a gaggle of friends and we tried on ALLLL of the boots. Even though a gift certificate was involved, I felt squirrelly about spending the money, plus I have problems with boots because 1) I'm already tall and 2) twig ankles.

At the very, very last second, I spotted these, fell in love, and brought them back to my hotel with me, but that just sounds creepy.

I think they were hidden from me until it counted. No one else saw them. They were a mirage rainbow boot miracle. I LOVE THEM VERY MUCH.

Yada, yada, I wear them all the time.
They work with everything, or at least I say they do.

It's no surprise that I wore them to the airport when I was leaving for a couple of back-to-back trips. What WAS surprising was when I was sitting mindlessly at my gate in a chair that almost seemed too fancy to be for a regular person, when a man approached me. I saw him from my peripheral vision, but dared not look up, because he must have just had poor depth perception and was actually heading somewhere else. He had to have just been a crooked walker.

When it was obvious he was getting ready to speak to me, I looked up to see a youngish, handsomeish man wearing a full suit and tie.

Too bad for me, Cory and I were just wrapping up a Blacklist bender, so when the man wordlessly passed me a single, folded piece of paper, I assumed he was getting ready to bomb the joint or abduct me.

I remember I was wearing a coral sweater, and I'm sure my cheeks matched its hue as I stammered, "Uh, for, uh, me?"

He nodded. Just once.

Yes.

Handed me the paper, then turned and walked away. Without a single word.

I was suddenly feeling clammy and weird. Though I wanted to know what the paper said, I was terrified to look.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the suited man hand over his boarding pass, and board a plane headed for It Totally Doesn't Matter. He never looked back, which was comforting and interesting, in light of the slip of paper in my claw hands.

Only then did I unfold it, quite sheepishly, my eyes darting around the perimeter.


And then I fainted dead away.

Because WHO does this stuff happen to? Was this real? Were there cameras somewhere?

I texted Sarah, who dropped every important thing she was doing to engage in the sort of banter we haven't enjoyed since college.


Following much discussion, we agree he wasn't hitting on me, which is the only way this story can be retold, so hallelu. There are a hundred possible conclusions, but the one that seems most plausible is that this was a man simply overtaken by the power of the unicorn boots.

Was he fashion-savvy? Yes.
Safety-conscious? Indeed.
Did he carefully protect his anonymity? He sure did.

He also wisely left his options open for 2015 with that "this year" remark.

Don't get too excited, Shannan.
Every business man on the planet knows 2014 was lacking in "hot" footwear.

As for me, I'm heading to Dallas for a few days, by way of the O'Hare airport. I'm sure I'll come home with stories.

Single Weirdest Person Always,
FPFG


Thursday, March 26, 2015

When Church Hurts - And a Giveaway



Claiming the Victory
excerpted from the original post, dated May 5, 2013
(click here to read its entirety)


My earliest years were wrapped up in a little village church, where everyone started as friends and became a family. It was a body of humble people - dairy farmers, groundskeepers, receptionists, carpenters, housewives. They perfected the carry-in lunch and someone always had extra when we forgot our own table service.

We sat in the pew - middle section - sometimes I sucked on the one in front of me. I can still taste the tang of the varnish. All I knew was that Jesus loved me. He loved me because they kept on telling me He did, and I trusted them, because they popped corn in the cooker well past dark on summer evenings and laughed with my parents until the whole room shook.

One day, when some might say I was too young to understand, I asked Jesus to live in me. Before long I had my gray Awana shirt and made it my mission to memorize the most verses so I could win the trophy.

Nothing ever stays as good as we think it should and before long, lots of adults got in the way, disturbing the tenuous balance of my universe, pitching me straight out of my safety net. 

My family left that church.
In my mind, that's where the trouble started.

It's been a long road between ages 8 and 37. My faith charts well outside the plot of a steady incline. It's marked with swells and dips, and maybe that's unavoidable. Maybe almost everyone would say the same.

Somewhere along the way, people stopped reminding me that Jesus loved me. I grew in years and it became more about what I should do than what had been done for me. I had the power to make Jesus sad, to incite God's wrath, to hurl a mountain into the ocean, or to prove my infant faith to everyone and doubt for one second - doubt anything, for any length of time. I could insist that I deserved great wealth, I could say one million times that he should be healed - that he was healed already.

I wonder if things could have been different if we had been allowed to see the quieter work of a God who transforms a life over time, by repeated exposure to the boldness of His love amid personal failure, by the simplicity and power of His word. Maybe then I wouldn't have walked into adolescence and adulthood with a cynic's view of Christianity and a penchant for disproving my own brokenness.

I can't bend time, but I have a hunch that it would have served me well to learn by repetition that God wanted me low, humble, needing much, clinging always and only to Him for survival.

Jesus loves me. He saved me because He knew I needed saving. He knows I'm destined for failure outside of Him, but spotless in His sight. I am a mess and so are the rest of His loves, but there's no end to his mercy. He screams and cheers and street-fights for me and He won't ever stop. He needs me to go to His people and He needs me to not care at all what it might cost.

Because to live in Him is gain. It's all there is. 

***

I'm sharing part of my "When Church Hurts" story today as part of a blog tour for Varina Denman's new book, Jaded.

"Jaded is a novel that will speak to anyone who has every gone through a hard church situation and lived to tell about it." - Jaded press release


Varina's team has kindly offered two copies to FPFG readers. Leave a comment to be entered! Tell me a church story or what you're wearing today or anything in between. I'm easy. :) Winners will also receive a bonus copy of Then Sings My Soul from Amy Sorrells.
 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Your Faith Doesn't Fit the Mold

I don’t remember much about Edith.

She sat near the front of our gymnasium church, though I only remember her standing. She was gray-haired, slight, her skirt fell well past her knees. Her hands were always raised. Something told me she was gutsy and bold, but I don’t recall ever sharing words with her. She fell in and out of my line of vision while I tried not to fidget in my seat, wondering why I didn’t feel the things everyone around me seemed to feel, feeling guilty that God was somewhere past my reach.

People described her as a Prayer Warrior.

I'm at (in)courage today, writing about the ways my faith often doesn't fit the mold, and why I'm done comparing it to the faith of others. Click here to continue reading.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sliders

He sits at my island, directly across from me, while I chop peppers, stir the sauce, drag a soapy rag over crumbs.

Robert sits to his left. On the stools, you'd never know D is a full eighteen inches shorter.

They say they're brothers. Or maybe cousins. I don't remember for sure, but they've bound themselves by some intangible, untraceable forever. It took me a while to realize this, but it actually means something to them. This is their code of honor, and it overrides the lectures they dole out to each other in turn. It supersedes the days when they write each other off, cuss each other out, fall clean off the grid. If I asked them (and I should,) they'd probably say they're stuck at this point. You can't pick your family.

But they did.

His chipped front tooth holds the light like it often does and all I can see is him, as a child. A ten-year old, just like Calvin. A boy who dreamed of owning the block and kissed his mama every night.

I stand there in my weekday ponytail staying busy so they'll keep on talking. It doesn't matter that Robert is my son, I study them like it's the night before finals. I've missed so much, but cramming has its perks.

I can always tell who Robert's talking to on the phone just by the tone of his voice. There are at least three distinct dialects, and he falls in and out of one of them while they make fun of each other's hair and drop their g's. Every "you" becomes a "y'all", in the singular. Their eyes shine.

This is the language they share, so they speak it. Sometimes.

D "has'ta bounce," and I invite him over for dinner the following night.

It's the exact thing that makes Robert's friends nervous and put-on-the-spot. It's not what these kids are used to, this "professional" way of making plans and keeping them, the premeditated torture of sitting twitchy around a table without their phones.

I know all of this, but I don't make it easier. I need this one in my life. I can't explain it. I loved him the second I met him, and nothing else about him mattered. He's loved by his mama, I'm pretty sure, but call me an Auntie, if Robert's your brother. Call me your foster mom (this is a weird thing that happens when a kid from hard places feels loved by you but isn't exactly sure how to define it.) Call me your second cousin once removed. I don't give a rip what you call me, just stay. Here.

"We'll order pizza," I tell him. That might be easier to commit to than the stuff I usually cook. Besides, I think, stirring the pot on the stove, I don't have time to cook tomorrow, anyway.

His face flashes uncertainty, then rebounds.
I've made a life of catching those wisps before they've diffused.

"Do you not like pizza?"

"I do...I was just hoping for those chicken sliders."

The light bounces off the angle of his front tooth and hits me square in my soul. It breaks the earth. I'll feel it there for days. I'll watch it grow.

For all the time I spend wondering how to love people better, the moment feels suspiciously lacking in bullet points. Plans and programs and promised prayers still fit so nicely in my hand. I know they're traps, shoddy stand-ins for relationships and actual sacrifice, but they're tidier and they almost never break my heart.

"I'll make you chicken sliders. Extra pickles," I say without hesitating, pulling chicken thighs from the freezer, not so much a gesture of kindness but a veiled, preemptive guilt-trip. Do you see me thawing this chicken? Auntie isn't playing, so don't play with me. You'd better show up.

In an instant, my agenda shifts. My plans are left leaning in the corner, waiting for a different day. My priorities realign. I'll be making chicken sliders. And you don't need me to tell you a chicken slider is useless without homemade mac and cheese.

The point here isn't that I'm good or kind or extra-sacrificial. You'd have done the same thing. I know you would have.

The point is, relationships grow relationships.
Community changes us.
Opening our hearts to the unexpected frees us from our tired standy-bys.

The point is, love means sacrifice, and sacrifice is freaking hard.
But not always.

D showed up early the next night, an extra guy in tow.
We filled our paper plates then went back for seconds.

Our measly definition of family slips easily between the cracks of what God calls family.

All three of them felons, they talked about prison - which one was the dirtiest, which one the "freshest". When I asked D if he'd been to prison, his response was quick and without a hint of humor, "Nope. Not yet."

For three hours, we loved those boys the best we could.
We parented them, because they secretly like it.

We played board games and like usual, they hesitated. Then, like usual, they didn't want to stop.

When they left, we had a talk with Calvin and Ruby, and not for the first time, "It probably seems like everyone eventually goes to jail, but it's not true. We've never gone to jail. You will never go to jail."

I would trust those men with my home. My children.
My hunch is, trouble hasn't seen the last of them.
But their hearts are good and I know God is gunning for them.

I don't know if a chicken slider is enough to nudge them anywhere, but the good news is, a chicken slider was never meant to save them, and neither was I.

My job is to love, and some days, it's like breathing.
Some days it's brown sugar with cayenne, meat falling off the bone.

Those are the days I hold near me, a promise for the other days.
You couldn't snatch them away if you tried.


{Recipe: Jenna's Pulled Chicken Sliders with these pickles.}

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Stack


Things are prone to changing around here, but the one thing that never, ever does is the teetering stack of books by my bed. And on my floor. And strewn around the entire house.

I'm heart-deep right now in a book I'll have to tell you about in a separate post because it's EVERYTHING and I don't have enough words for it.

For now, this is the rest of the stack. Some I've finished, some I haven't. One I won't.

From the top!

Orphan Train - Christina Baker Kline
My friend Kim loaned this to me but I haven't started it yet. Kim and I go together like Santitas and salsa, yet we've struggled to find common ground with books. More specifically, she likes what I pass on to her and I grumble and grouse about her recommendations. Our only conclusion is that I'm the problem, and I can't say I disagree. This one might change all of that.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol S. Dweck
I have a child who seems to hold the opinion that since he is smart, he should never have to try. At almost anything. This perplexing "condition" inspires me to whack my head against the wall. A wise woman who loves him very much suggested this book to Cory and I. She has a similar son and it helped them tremendously. Stay tuned. (ps - It's possible that I was afflicted by the same condition from grades K-now, a fact my mom recently reminded me of. I'm pleading the 5th.)

Paper Hearts - Courtney Walsh
My friend Courtney wrote this and it's so much fun. I just hear her voice when I read it. It makes me smile! Courtney is completely hilar and humble and rad, all qualities which shine through in her fiction. I'm not quite finished with this one, but close!

You're Loved No Matter What: Freeing Your Heart From the Need to Be Perfect - Holley Gerth
Haven't started it yet, but I've heard great things about this new title from Holley.

The Beautiful Daughters - Nicole Baart
I have loved everything Nicole has written. She started out writing Christian Fiction, and I discovered her somewhere along the line as she was transitioning to traditional publishing. Her writing is lyrical and her stories are real. The Beautiful Daughters is available right now for pre-orders and will officially drop in April.

The Beauty of Grace: Stories of God's Love by Today's Most Popular Writers - Dawn Camp
So many of my friends are in this one! I can't wait to clear the deck and start it.

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community - Sparks, Soerns, and Friesen
I started stalking DL Mayfield a year or so ago and willingly submitted myself to her bossing-around immediately. We look at the world in a similar way, leaving just enough room for debate to keep things interesting. When she posted a picture of this book on Instagram, I went to Amazon and bought it in a nanosecond. (I haven't started it yet because I'm too busy loving another one of her suggestions...)

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy - Donald Miller
There's a lot of hype about this one, but I'm three chapters in and I'm hooked. I'll have plenty more to say about it.

Looking for Alaska - John Green
I mean, John Green. Be mine forever, John! Keep being intelligent and witty in my ear! His writing is remarkable, and totally PG-13, so just be aware. I gobble up his words. I don't know what it is exactly, but he grabs me. This isn't my favorite JG read, but I still adored it.

Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie - Beth M. Howard
The title! The cover art! Beth Howard lives in the American Gothic house in Iowa (the one in the famous painting). I'd heard about her. When I stumbled on her book, it was a WIN and when I read the introduction, I was ready to faint dead away from a pie-induced coma of literary excellence. But then I kept reading and it lost me. I only made it to chapter three before I returned it to the library. The truth is, it pains me to ever say anything remotely negative about a book.  It's like saying someone's child isn't cute. You just can't go there. It's all in the eye of the beholder, etc...Maybe I didn't give it enough time? At the end of the day though, these books aren't going to read themselves. Sacrifices must be made.

What are you reading?
I'm all ears.


Literally.

*all of these are Amazon affiliate links, which means if you buy one, I'll get a tiny bit of the $, which will allow me to buy more books, which means if my kitchen floors never do get mopped, it's sort of on your heads. Go in peace.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

TBT - My First Visit to Jail

I've never thrown back on a Thursday, like ever.

Until today.

I've been up to my eyeballs in writing projects, and part of my "research" usually involves skimming through my journals, which happens to be this blog. I'm always reminded when I read old posts that this is why I blog. It's why I started (over six years and 1553 posts ago! What.) and it's why I keep on truckin'.

It was never to have my kitchen in a magazine or land a book deal. It wasn't even to make scads of new friends and invite some of them over for salsa and re-gifts.

It was to remember. To memorialize the days that might all bleed into each other, if I let them. It was to make sense of what my heart thinks.

I know some of you have been around almost forever (are you one of them? I'd love to know!) and the rest of you trickled in somewhere along the way, maybe three years ago, maybe last month. Either way, I'm so happy you're here and I want us to get to know each other better.

To help fill in some of the gaps, and because I happen to enjoy reliving steps on this wild road, I'll be re-posting on Thursdays for a little while. I'll usually give a bit of context on why I chose that particular post.

Today, I'm posting about our journey into the jail, which actually didn't start with Cory, but with me. It was over two years ago, but feels like a lifetime. I was so nervous the first time I entered and now it's hard to imagine a time when it was foreign to me.

Since then, Cory became the full-time chaplain. I haven't visited in over a year. But the people of the jail have become our people. God continues to allow us to love and be loved by this beautiful community of souls "on the outs", people who want the same things you and I want.

This post is written proof that what might seem like the strangest, never-saw-it-coming day, could actually be the starting line of a life you never imagined.

Happy Thursday, Homies.


Jailbird
originally posted October 5, 2012


The officer behind the desk today is the friendly guy. (There's only one.) It's as good a sign as you can hope for at the jail. He asks Silas about Charles and laughs over my ancient Old Navy flats with their secret metal arch supports as he runs them through the machine again.

I pick up the receiver and there she is, her face as lovely as ever. She's there in her "reds" since she's a model citizen, so she stands in front of the video camera, twirls. Her cheeks flush as she tells me about her extra privileges; her, shining red in a wide sea of beige.

She swears like a sailor then says she went to a prayer meeting last night. The church ladies put their hands on her forehead and prayed for her headache. It didn't go away.

I hardly know this girl.

Her letters land in my box, tiny hearts floating above the "i"s and "j"s. We've mutually concluded that it must have been God who led me to her front stoop just 10 days before her world stopped turning.

I'd walked out that night excited about everything I saw in her in the small span of 30 minutes. It was enough. I gave her my number as I walked out the door. I watched her punch it in knowing she'd probably never call me.

We had no idea what was coming.

So here I am, her only friend. Her only visitor in almost two months. I'm the only return address and the only cash on her books for envelopes and a sports bra. She's got no one who can help. No one else sitting on the other side of the monitor.

Here's the understatement of the century: I never thought I'd see the inside of a jail.

My only frame of reference was some kind of ridiculous 1980's movie. Or maybe Shawshank Redemption. I saw myself walking down a cinder-block hall, tattooed men reaching through the bars, howling, leering. Spitting? Maybe.

Uh yeah, I watched too much TV in my younger years. (Also, single toothpicks are not whittled down from a giant oak tree, as Woody the Woodpecker would have me believe. You're welcome.)

So jail isn't what I imagined. It's just a big room full of telephones with screens. There's also a bank of vending machines that turn my smallest child into a frothing maniac. 

It's not as scary as I imagined. But it's every bit as lonely. It's maxed out with hurting people; kids without Dad or Mommy, women scrapping for less than what they deserve, men with tattooed necks whose blue eyes cast darkness like a line.

I hurt for my friends living on the inside. I miss 'em. Every week, they send me back out to the world with a smile and I'm so thankful, all the time, every day, that God gave them to me.

It seems futile to try to fix their kind of problems, so I just tell her she's smart and beautiful. I tell him that the God who made the world and him can handle a plea deal. I talk in the present tense and nudge them to dream a little about what comes next.

It never feels like enough.

It always feels a little unfair that they fill me up while I'm there.

It's exhausting and I fight the lie that I don't have time.

Because the truth is, none of it is haphazard. I fell into them for a reason.

So I go.

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