November 30, 2008

Stuck in the Middle

I’m in a funny place. It’s not an up or down place, a high or a low. It’s an in-between. And it feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Somehow the markers that guide my well-worn path have been moved. But to where? And what’s around the bend?

I’ve sensed it coming for some time.

Maybe it started when an elbow injury sidelined me from tennis in June, taking me out of a sport I love, leaving a gap where fitness, socializing and competition happily co-existed. Perhaps it finds root in the fact that my role as a mom is changing as I try to redefine what it means to mother my tween son and teen daughter. It could be that I’m uncertain how to proceed professionally with a freelance business I’ve let dwindle over the years.

Whatever “it” is, it’s left me with more free time than I’m used to. The schedules that ordered my days have dwindled. Where some might find an amazing sense of freedom, I’ve found restlessness and disorder.

Obviously, writing has filled the gaps. But I’ve discovered too much time alone in front of a computer screen is...well, too much. Too much time to think, ponder and analyze. Too much time to question my purpose in life. Too much time to look around and compare how much more filled/gifted/important/busy/meaningful others' lives seem to be.

Without the externally-induced “to-do’s” I’ve lost accountability. I can write or not. Volunteer or not. Work or not. Clean the house or not. Exercise or not. Call a friend or not. The “or nots” have gained the upper hand, adding to a creeping sense of drift. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? Should I wait for what’s next or plow ahead? If so, toward what?

Deep down, I sense a change of season like it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (3:1)

But, oh how easily I lose perspective and confuse today’s situation with forever’s reality.

Last week I learned from an orthopedic specialist that, short of a miracle, my elbow will not heal in the near future and my “temporary” hiatus from tennis—and many other daily activities—has become a long-term situation. The imminent life preserver I’ve been hoping would help right my sinking sense of self floated away. It might seem trivial, but I mourn this loss as well as my physical limitations.

The siren song of the pit lured me close to the edge.

Down in the dumps and unable to sleep, I took my dog for an early morning walk last week. There’s something about getting out in 20 degree weather and greeting the rising sun that orders one's thoughts—and allows God to speak.

In the brisk morning air, words from Psalm 139 came to mind: how God knows us completely; how there is nowhere we can flee from His presence; and how we’re fearfully and wonderfully made. Startling insight followed.

I knew that even in this in-between place, God’s right hand holds me. He may or may not have caused this time of pause, but certainly He can use it for good. For months, I’d become increasingly focused on what I lacked and lost sight of what I have. I wanted other people’s blessings instead of embracing the unique gifts with which God has blessed me.

I need to stop looking around or ahead, and focus on what’s been set before me. Surely with the gifts He’s given me, I have much to contribute to the Kingdom. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Jesus said it was: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34)

So, I choose to focus on today. I choose to trust His divine guidance of my time, my writing, my work, my family and my friendships. And I choose to follow—even if I don’t know what lies ahead.

What season of life are you in right now? Are you using the blessings God has specifically given you or are you yearning for the blessings of others? What steps do you need to take to trust that God has hemmed you in and laid His hand upon you?

“O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:1,3,5,9,10,14)


Read all of Psalm 139. Let God speak to you through these beautiful verses.

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Today feels lazy and preparatory and cozy. The kids are off from school. They’re eager to help with the cooking and baking, excited to see their cousins and grandparents tomorrow. A blanket of anticipation envelopes us.

It’s Thanksgiving and gratitude is in the air. What’s not to love about a holiday that makes us pause to count our blessings? Did you ever notice how your attitude changes when you do? How no matter what your circumstance, there are ALWAYS things for which to be thankful.

I stumbled across 1000 Gifts, a gratitude project on Holy Experience’s blog and it sparked me. Her evocative writing style took me on an unexpected trip to somewhere new and exciting. Her word paved a road that traveled far from my familiar.

She got me thinking (which was her purpose) about gratitude. I have thousands of things for which to be thankful. What if I deliberately named them? One at a time. Until I had a hundred, a thousand, a million. Is there an end to the list?

What if we all did that? How would our lives change, our focus alter, our perspective align more rightly? How much more of God would we gain in the process? Because that’s the point, isn’t it. To recognize that ALL blessings are from above.

Last night we were in prison again. Six of us went. Once again, we ended up taking out more of Jesus than we brought in. The power of the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries. Recognizes no border. Shows no favoritism. To hear the gospel presented in an environment so starkly opposite from our day-to-day is to see God anew.

Michael preached last night and God transformed this gentle man into a fierce warrior of the Word. He dug into Scripture and pulled out truths with such power and conviction that we all met Jesus in a fresh way. He taught that without the cross we have nothing. It all begins and ends there. Nothing we do/say/accomplish/sacrifice/give/learn can take away from or add to the Divine Blood shed at Calvary. Nothing.

And, without the cross, we have just that—nothing.

So, what better place to begin my 1000 Gifts list than at the cross. Because even if I never add another item, it is perfect. It is eternal. And it is enough.

Thanksgiving blessings to you and your family. Let’s continue our attitude of gratitude long after the the last bits of turkey morph into casseroles, the Christmas frenzy encroaches and the new year begins.

November 23, 2008

Just Too Good Not to Share

Sometimes, something is just too good not to share. In fact, this something is so good, I’ve decided to break my self-imposed blog rule of never sharing recipes and other domestic tips to share the wonderful-ness with you.

Now, I know most of you belong to incredible churches; each one possessing different gifts that nourish your congregations. But, I assert you’d be hard-pressed to find a church that serves better food at congregational get-togethers than we do at Woodside! I’m not talking church basement potlucks or even catered events, but meticulously-planned, mouth-watering, gourmet feasts. All made from scratch by the talented volunteers who magically make it all happen.

This morning our congregation gathered for a celebration breakfast to commemorate the end of our 52 Days with Nehemiah study. And once again the menu earned rave reviews!

So here’s where the something-too-good-not-to-share comes in.

For the past several years, a staple at church breakfasts is Crème Brulee French Toast. Let me tell you, it’s even better than it sounds. (Probably because “low fat” and this recipe share little in common.) But, the yummy noises from my breakfast companions told me they agreed—calories be damned!

If you’re looking for a special occasion breakfast/brunch item that’s easy-to-make, but deliciously memorable, look no further. We adopted this recipe as our own and now it's became a Christmas breakfast tradition with my family. We make it the night before and pop it in the oven while we open presents. Simple and delicious. Yum!

So, without further ado…drum roll please…

Note: Any country-type loaf, Italian or French bread will work, but challah bread is my personal favorite.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
an 8- to 9-inch round loaf country-style bread
5 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and-half (I use low-fat milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a small heavy saucepan melt butter with brown sugar and corn syrup over moderate heat, stirring, until smooth and pour into a 9x13-inch baking dish. Cut six 1-inch thick slices from center portion of bread, reserving ends for another use, and trim crusts. Arrange bread slices in one layer in baking dish, squeezing them slightly to fit.

In a bowl whisk together eggs, half-and-half, vanilla, Grand Marnier, and salt until combined well and pour evenly over bread. Chill bread mixture, covered, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.
Preheat oven to 350° F. and bring bread to room temperature.

Bake bread mixture, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed and edges are pale golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve hot French toast immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Enjoy! Let me know if you make it and what you think. By the way, I think this recipe is originally from

November 17, 2008

The Advent Conspiracy

“On your mark. Get set. Go!”

In 10 days we’ll gather to celebrate perhaps the nicest, coziest, most enjoyable holiday of the year. Thanksgiving comes with little pretense and expects little preparation. I mean, it’s pretty much the same menu every year. No surprises. No stress.

And then, before we’ve even had time to digest the stuffing and pumpkin pie, we’re off! Forget the dishes; we’ll do them later. It’s time to get ready for Christmas. Time to shop. Make lists and check them twice. Shop. Decorate. Entertain. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop.

What did you say? There are only 37 days until Christmas?

What?! Only 37 days! It’s not even officially ’tis the season and I’m already behind. Typing this makes my pulse race and my stress level rise. I need to get busy. Right now!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Christmas. I love the songs, the traditions, the decorations, the anticipation, and of course the celebration. But I HATE, HATE, HATE the shopping. Shopping for stuff the recipients probably don’t even want, may not like and possibly will never use. Don’t we all have enough stuff already, anyway? Do our loved ones feel more loved by our purchases? Or often, do they feel let down? Rarely can reality meet the expectations with which we embellish Christmas.

Each Christmas for the past several, I’ve tried to simplify. But each year, come Christmas Eve I end up feeling stressed out. At the very moment I want to feel the most joy, I find the most tension. The good will to men gets lost somewhere between the wrapping paper and the mall parking lot.

That’s why when I was in church yesterday and they showed a video entitled Advent Conspiracy, I said, “YES! This is it! This is what I (and hopefully my husband, too) am going to do this Christmas.”

Judging by the glazed faces of my friends and family during the pre-Christmas rush, I’m not alone in my thinking. What would it look like if, together, we all said, “STOP!” and then redesigned Advent. What if we made it a time to develop relationships, nurture our families, build meaningful traditions and honor the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place: Jesus.

Take a look at this video. Tell me what you think. What changes are you inspired to make this Christmas season?

If you want to give your presence this Christmas, click here to go to Advent Conspiracy for more information and some really helpful ideas on how to take this idea further.

Imagine what we can do.

November 13, 2008

The Most Unlikely Place

It was a Tuesday evening, just like any other. One where you’d expect this ordinary suburban mom to be out doing any number of things like shuttling kids, attending a church or school meeting, going to book club or socializing with friends.

Instead I chose to be here.

The spirit of God was alive in this place. I sat on my cheap plastic chair and soaked it in. It was here I saw Jesus clearer than ever, without clutter and distraction. It was here I felt His love. Understood His forgiveness. Marveled at His grace.

I gazed at the sea of faces, not a single one of which looked like me, as they sang and clapped with joy, shouted “Amen,” and lifted praise to the Lord. I felt I could reach out and touch the truth of Jesus and what He’s given us. The sermon was delivered with passion and conviction—and seemed aimed right at my heart. A few came forward to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation. We all gathered around to lay hands on these new members of God’s family, ending the evening in prayer that shook the rafters of heaven.

This familiar scene could have taken place in almost any church on any given evening. But we weren’t in church.

We were in prison.

And not a “country club” prison, but an urban, maximum security men’s correctional facility. The real deal. Of the 60 or so faces at worship that night, four belonged to our ministry. I was the only female. The rest were inmates. Many of them did truly awful things to earn their way in here. Some will never get out.

Of all the places I could choose to be on a weeknight, how did I find myself here?

Because God said, “Go.”

About six months ago, our couples’ Bible study searched for an outreach project. The typical ideas were tossed around, most having to do with food, women and children. Nothing seemed to fit right. Who are the most overlooked in our society? We searched our minds.

Breaking the silence, someone (who happened to be my husband) spoke up, “How about prison?”

We let his words sink in as we tried to make sense of this outrageous suggestion. Strangely, it felt right. We excitedly planned our next steps. Within a day, one of our friends “happened upon” someone who put us in contact with a nearby prison ministry. A few weeks later the two men who run the ministry—who are the ministry—came and spoke to us.

These guys were so filled with God’s purpose and Spirit; we listened to their stories, transfixed. By the end of the night, we were hooked.

A year’s passed since that meeting. Some in our group have moved on to other things, but a core remains. We’re still figuring out our place and our purpose among those inmates. But God keeps drawing us back. His hand gently nudges.

Being in prison reveals a startlingly simple picture of grace. One we may not want to accept: Jesus died for those prisoners as much as he died for you and me. Our God is one and the same.

On Tuesday after the worship service concluded, guards escorted the four of us out. We chatted amiably as we walked through the prison hallways. And do you know what one of the guards spoke about the entire time? How much she loved Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that even inside a maximum security prison, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, God’s love can still get in?

Once on the outside, the four of us rehashed the evening. As we stood in the parking lot, underneath the interstate, we held hands and prayed. Amid the scattered garbage, roar of cars overhead and prison looming in the background, we praised God for showing Himself to us through this experience.

Even here, in this most unlikely place, Jesus lives.
“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

November 10, 2008

A Beautiful Mess

Of all the characters in the New Testament, Paul is my favorite. His writings have shown me Jesus in a very real way. Yet, he’s such a conundrum.

When we meet Paul in Scripture he despised Jesus. Yet, claimed to love God.

His knowledge of Scripture was impeccable. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. A Hebrew of Hebrews. Yet, he eventually delivered the Good News to the Gentiles.

He never knew the “Pre-Easter” Jesus. Yet, his knowledge of Jesus would surpass the disciples.

He approved the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Yet, 13 of the 21 letters in the New Testament bear his name.

He was fueled by pride, self-righteousness and zeal. Yet, he boasted about his weakness.

He breathed murderous threats against Jesus’ disciples. Yet God chose him for a special purpose.

On the road to Damascus, Paul had a plan. But God had a different one. In a flash of light from heaven Paul fell to the ground. And was blinded. For three days. For the first time his pedigree and resume were worthless rags. He became helpless, weak and broken.

When the time was right, the Spirit came and healed him. Paul’s old purpose died and a new one emerged.

And for the first time, Paul could really see.

God saw Paul not for who he was, but for who he would become. Certainly God could have chosen someone more qualified, even-tempered or likeable. He chose Paul. Isn’t that amazing? It amazed Paul. His powerful testimony became his greatest evangelical tool. He was living proof of God’s grace.

Lest he not get too “puffed up” in his divine selection, Paul said, “there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (2 Corin. 12:7)

No one knows for sure what Paul’s thorn was. Sickness, temptation, even poor eyesight top the list.

But, maybe it was something simpler, more human. Maybe he struggled with loneliness.

Maybe he felt excluded by Peter and the Jerusalem Christians who never really accepted him into their inner circle. Perhaps he regretted words spoken in anger to Barnabus and others; that his temper sabotaged yet another relationship.

While the Christian brothers and sisters he met on his missionary journeys looked up to him and respected him perhaps they were too intimidated to call him “friend.” Maybe he longed to experience physical love with a wife. Or all the time he spent traveling and in prison left him feeling there was really nowhere to call home.

No one knows what Paul’s thorn was; as God probably intended. His thorn could be my thorn—or yours.

I love that God used all of Paul—his strength but especially his weakness—for His good. It gives me hope.

It gave Paul hope too. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corin. 12:9)

Paul was a mess. But in God’s capable hands, he became a beautiful mess.

Some days I feel the yuck overshadows the beauty. The thorns prick my side, and I’m tempted to linger and lick my wounds. Self-pity lurks, ready to set up camp.

But then I read Paul’s words and know God’s grace is sufficient for me. And it’s sufficient for you, too.

Because there, in the mess, is the beauty. And power. And hope.

And God.

November 5, 2008

Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity

According to tennis superstar, Martina Navratilova, “Whoever said, ‘It's not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.” It might sound harsh, but it’s true. We don’t compete to have fun, we compete to win.

But what happens when we lose?

This weekend marked the end of my son’s Pop Warner football season. His middle-weight team, the Raiders, ended with a perfect season: 0-9. Yep, no wins—not even any ties.

The season began in a hurricane complete with gusting wind and driving rain. (Foreshadowing, perhaps?) The inaugural game started with a Raiders’ kickoff to their opponents who returned it for a touchdown. On paper the season didn’t get much better.

The first few games were tough. Our team couldn’t match up to their opponents as they got pushed up and down the field. Everyone was frustrated and disappointed—the coaches, the players and the parents. Often kids left the field with tears in their eyes.

My son, who hates to lose, was beside himself. He looked for blame everywhere. The referees, players on the other team, his own teammates. Everywhere but in himself. Last season his coach’s motto was “Win with grace, lose with dignity.” Their winning record made it a pretty easy motto to live by.

There’s no doubt about it, losing stinks. But poor sportsmanship reeks. As parents, Dan and I knew it was time to teach our son the "losing with dignity" part of the motto. I won’t lie and say one pep talk made it all better. It was a season-long lesson we continue to give. (Don't we all need to revisit this from time?)

This season I think we all held out hope the Raiders would stage a Bad News Bears-style comeback. When losing seemed to be our fate it would have been easy for the parents and coaches to spiral into the shameful behavior we’ve all seen, and wished we hadn’t. In fact, just the opposite happened.

Somewhere around the fifth game, when you’d expect the griping to crescendo, the cheering increased. Coaches and parents chose to celebrate and encourage the small victories: a good tackle; a first down; a blocked pass. If the team recovered a fumble it was like they scored a touchdown.

By the last game of the season the Raiders’ improvement was noticeable even to my inexperienced eye. They executed plays, completed passes and held blocks. They even scored touchdowns!

Even though a late fourth quarter touchdown by the opposing team put winning out of reach, those kids played their hearts out. With minutes left in the game, the Raiders made one last effort toward the end zone. Their drive got them inside the ten-yard line. Time allowed for one last play.

The center snapped the ball. The quarterback looked into the end zone. He found his man. He threw the ball. A hushed silence fell on the sidelines. The parents and coaches watched the football sail into the end zone, as if in slow motion…right into the arms of a receiver.

Touchdown! Game over. Season over.

Those players came off the field as if they’d won the Superbowl (and they hadn’t even won the game)! Sure the year hadn’t unfolded as any of us had hoped, but in the post-game pow-wow, we parents listened to and laughed at the boys’ bantering and razzing. They had battled unsuccessfully, but they made friends, had fun and chose to persevere. The coaches told the boys they were champions in their eyes. Each of us watching knew we’d observed something pretty special: we saw what losing with dignity looks like.

As Vince Lombardi said, "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall." Long after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fade from memory, our character remains. In the end it’s what matters most.

I expect our son will have many years of football ahead of him, but I hope he carries the memories of this season with him in a place of honor. And I pray one day he looks back on it and says, “There. There is where I learned to fight the good fight.”

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

ETA: I wrote this article a few days ago and didn't plan it's release for today. But as a few of you have pointed out, it might be a good reminder the day after the election.

November 2, 2008

99 Points to Ponder

Happy Monday. I found this list on 160 Acre Woods' blog and thought it was a fun way to start the week.

At heart I'm adventurer. In reality I'm a procrastinator. There are so many things I want to do and places I'd like to visit. But, I get comfortable with the status quo. As someone reminded me the other day: "You know, you're middle-aged." (I am? How did that happen?) I just don't want to let the years pass and watch the door close on "someday."

Luckily, according to this arbitrary list I'm doing OK. (My "yes" answers are in green.) But there are still so many adventures to be had.
  1. Started your own blog
  2. Slept under the stars
  3. Played in a band
  4. Visited Hawaii
  5. Watched a meteor shower
  6. Given more than you can afford to charity
  7. Been to Disneyland
  8. Climbed a mountain
  9. Held a praying mantis
  10. Sang a solo (If I count singing to my kids.)
  11. Bungee jumped
  12. Visited Paris
  13. Watched a lightning storm at sea
  14. Taught yourself an art from scratch
  15. Adopted a child
  16. Had food poisoning
  17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty (I don't think you can do this anymore.)
  18. Grown your own vegetables
  19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
  20. Slept on an overnight train
  21. Had a pillow fight
  22. Hitch hiked
  23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
  24. Built a snow fort
  25. Held a lamb
  26. Gone skinny dipping
  27. Run a marathon (...No, but I did the equivalent on a bike)
  28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice (...I saw them in Venice, but we were poor college students at the time and couldn't afford it.)
  29. Seen a total eclipse
  30. Watched a sunrise or sunset (...Most recently at the Grand Canyon)
  31. Hit a home run (...and a grand slam!)
  32. Been on a cruise
  33. Seen Niagara Falls in person (One of our favorite family vacations)
  34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors
  35. Seen an Amish community
  36. Taught yourself a new language
  37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
  38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
  39. Gone rock climbing
  40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
  41. Sung karaoke (Enough of the music questions!!)
  42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
  43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
  44. Visited Africa
  45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
  46. Been transported in an ambulance (For my kids, but never for myself)
  47. Had your portrait painted
  48. Gone deep sea fishing (Way to succeptible to seasickness!)
  49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
  50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
  51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
  52. Kissed in the rain
  53. Played in the mud (Cleanliness is way overrated!)
  54. Gone to a drive-in theater
  55. Been in a movie
  56. Visited the Great Wall of China
  57. Started a business
  58. Taken a martial arts class
  59. Visited Russia
  60. Served at a soup kitchen
  61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
  62. Gone whale watching (Sort of... We saw a whale while hiking in Canada)
  63. Got flowers for no reason
  64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
  65. Gone sky diving (Used to be a dream. Not anymore!)
  66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
  67. Bounced a check
  68. Flown in a helicopter
  69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
  70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
  71. Eaten Caviar (...Thought it was gross!)
  72. Pieced a quilt
  73. Stood in Times Square
  74. Toured the Everglades
  75. Been fired from a job
  76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
  77. Broken a bone
  78. Been on a speeding motorcycle (...and a scooter!)
  79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
  80. Published a book (...not yet)
  81. Visited the Vatican
  82. Bought a brand new car
  83. Walked in Jerusalem (...This is a dream!)
  84. Had your picture in the newspaper
  85. Read the entire Bible
  86. Visited the White House
  87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating (...GROSS! I gag putting a worm on a hook.)
  88. Had chickenpox
  89. Saved someone’s life
  90. Sat on a jury
  91. Met someone famous
  92. Joined a book club
  93. Lost a loved one
  94. Had a baby
  95. Seen the Alamo in person
  96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
  97. Been involved in a law suit
  98. Owned an iPod
  99. Been stung by a bee

How' did you do? What one thing do you want to do or see in the next ten years?