With a Few Good Friends

Meandering through my mental memory book, I see us both in our cute little pleated skorts and a team sweater.  Mine was blue and gold, hers, blue and white. We met on the b-ball court, each cheering for opposing junior high teams. Our chant went like this.
“My name is Erin and I’d like to get to know you!”
“My name is Dolly and I’d like to get to know you!”
The words concurred with grand gestures in formation, jumping, pointing and clapping.
That was my exclusive foray into cheerleading. Trust me, it was best that way. Her bouncing blonde ponytail, wide smile  and frenetic energy, however, continued to rev up courtside fans all through high school.

Basketball season wasn’t in the spring but that introduction was the harbinger of a blossoming friendship. Both of our feeder schools melded into the same high school, where our paths crossed again in 10th grade. In some ways we were polar opposites. She was gregarious, confident, a quick and ready response always on the tip of her tongue, and funny too. She did anything and everything—choir, band, drama, tennis, cheerleading and debate—a Jill of all trades. I, on the other hand, was little Much Afraid—limping along with my own brand of a crooked foot, afraid of my shadow, tomorrow, the chemistry test next week and mostly the big bad wolf. 

But just under the frost line a bleeding heart and a daisy don’t look that different and we discovered a kindred-spiritness from the inside out. We talked alot about mutual interests—ice cream and boys. She worked at a shop called Temptations that perpetually smelled like fresh waffle cones and we consumed copious amounts of dairy back in the day. Calcium for our growing bones. One lick after another, we’d fantasize about real and  imagined prince charmings who overwhelmed by their affection, would sweep us off our feet, mount us on their horses and with a backward glance and a wave, we’d gallop away into happily ever after. Everybody needs a friend like that to dream with and Erin was mine.

We were teeny boppers who’d just earned our wings. Sometimes, we’d cruise around in her yellow Maverick— before she didn’t notice the yield sign and it was no more. Sometimes it was feet to the pedals of her tandem bicycle sailing down the steep, winding hill on the street leading away from her beachfront home.

It was around the long wooden rectangular table that now resides in her Colorado dining room that I was first introduced to homemade ham balls on rice. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 girls, plus me, and  a set of parents, floor to ceiling windows high on a bluff overlooking the Lake. Anything served for dinner with that view tasted like a delicacy. I still pull out their recipe and prepare it for my family every Christmas as tradition and I learned to love it sitting around Erin’s family table. 

Her mom, a no-nonsense, Dutchwoman marked family singing rehearsals in permanent black ink on the calendar, often right after dinner. ”Be There!” Period. For friends like me, it became a spectator sport, watching them practice at home before taking to the road like  the Von Trapp family singers. Five daughters in 4 part vocal harmony, a mom at the piano and a proud papa in the front row seat.

To get to their private, sandy beach, we climbed down a bunch of creaky wooden steps. At the bottom, there it was. The finest fresh water great Lake of all, waves lapping against the shore. Feet crunching in the soft sand, we walked due north, my favorite direction, toward the breakwater, a weathered wooden vertical construct jettying out toward the water, perfect for sitting on and imagining our bright futures once we squeaked our way through Algebra 2. It was there that we wondered together how our itty-bitty selves would find a place to match and a person to match up with in this great, big, beautiful world. Back then, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

We wandered our way through our twenties living and learning, sometimes excruciatingly painful lessons that we hadn’t imagined on the beach. We each found our own oasis in the desert and  started to write our adult stories, pursue our unique educational pathways and marry our partners. 

My name became Mama first. But one summer, both our bellies bulged and we birthed baby girls just a few September days apart.

We’ve never lived in the same state since those days on the breakwater but every second week of June my phone rings or dings with this message,  
“I’m coming home in a few weeks, can we get together?” 
There are 4 of us in on that gig—myself, Erin and two other beautiful souls we call friends from way back when.  Mostly, the four of us live our separate everyday lives connected by December Christmas cards and our June dinner meet-up.

Last summer, we sat around a table telling each other hard stories of transition, eroding confidence and insecurity. Even though we’re mature now, old enough to be members of AARP,  we still don’t know what we don’t know and our uncertainty takes us back to the days on the breakwater.

June morphed into December in the blink of an eye. On a whim, I texted Erin one day in lieu of sending a Christmas card. 
“Hey, want to get together this winter and do a retreat?” 
“I love it. Let’s talk after the holidays,” she replied.

January was rough with all those navy blue days. When it was almost time to flip the calendar my soul needed some sunshine, so I texted again. 
“What do you think about me coming to your house for a few days next month and we figure out solutions to the worlds problems… or maybe just try to machete a path forward with ours?”
“Let’s do it. Come!” 
And so I did. Cashed in some Southwest points and boarded a plane with nothing more than yoga pants and sweatshirts except for the last minute addition of a swimsuit for her hot tub.
We spent the next couple of days walking, talking, tubbing, laughing, crying, deep breathing, painting Ethiopian angels, listening to podcasts, practicing psychological exercises and celebrating our half birthdays with the most decadent flourless chocolate cake imaginable.

We’ve taken some significant personal, parental and professional hits these past few years. They’ve left us feeling like we’re in free fall. Like we boarded a plane to take a trip to a pre-planned terminus and found ourselves on a skydiving exploit instead. We lost control of our destination and got booted out of the plane against our will. Puking our way down in mid-air, which is a real thing, according to my son-in-law’s report, we’re wondering how in the world we’ll ever find the parachute pull cord and land safely, let alone gracefully.

We feel alone but we’re actually harnessed to a Pro and if we crash down with a splat, so is He, and that just won’t happen. He’s prepared to pull the ripcord if we can’t and together we’ll float down to where the wind carries us. And it’ll be right where we belong.

Through the rear view mirror we’ll likely reflect back on our airborne adventure with awe and wonder.
After all, we’ll have survived. 
We’ll have coped.
We’ll have learned. 
We’ll have grown.
We’ll be more than we were because we experienced this crazy encounter.
And we’ll have a story to tell.
And that story will inform other new stories we have yet to write in this epic called life.
And those stories will connect to an even bigger story of faith, family, community and humanity.

I keep writing forward the number next to my age, and with every passing year, life seems more unfixably broken than I could have perceived and more beautifully redeemed than I can comprehend. Simultaneously. I’m left with the conundrum of holy and not-so-holy indignation merged with deep gratitude and astounding wonder. Life isn’t as monochromatic as I used to think. Black and white values mixed together with pigments create more than shades of grey. Maybe maturity is marked, at least in part, by blessing the messy process by which the Master Artiste creates a Great Work using the entire color palette.

Seems like the more I learn, the less I know, but here’s one thing I’m bona fide certain about. While my life has been, oh, so ordinary, the friends who’ve travelled with me on this pilgrimage, they’ve been, oh, so extraordinary. And for the privilege of journeying together, I just feel genuinely, tremendously grateful!

Ash Wednesday: Making Peace with my Body

Dear Body,
This thank you note is long overdue.
I want you to know that I see you taking care of me with Herculean effort 24-7 and I appreciate it.
Your work ethic is exemplary.
You’re strong, reliable and oh so resilient.

I owe you many apologies. 
I haven’t treated you very well. 
I’ve despised you. 
Punished you. 
Misused you. 
Neglected you. 
I’ve been critical of you and trash talked you when I look in the mirror.
I’ve made demands of you that are unfair, unkind and unrealistic.
I haven’t nourished you with proper fuel.
I haven’t hydrated you with enough water.
I haven’t offered you routine rituals of rest.
I’ve lobbed comparison and performance grenades at you unwittingly one after another as if we were enemies.

I’ve been afraid of you too.
Afraid of your vulnerability.
Afraid of exploitation.
Afraid of the future when you succumb to injury, disease, old age.

My expectations of you have been too high and my appreciation too low.
So here I am, on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, posturing myself for a few moments of curious wonder and delight in honor of you.

Oh, the places we’ve gone together….
From the two mile walk home from Kindergarten holding my mama’s hand, 
To hoofing it behind a double stroller with giggly girls and a dog on a leash, stopping to explore stones and leaves and ants and tree bark and other miracles in plain sight, 
To jogging a handful of kilometers up and down the hills of my neighborhood, 
And hiking to the peak of Ben A’an in beloved Scotland. 
Those hips and legs and knees and feet, that heart that pumps and lungs that breathe, they’ve all worked together to gift me memories that I cherish.

That little girl with long, brown, wavy hair and a skinned up knee, that was you before you grew into a tall, slender teenager, bronzed from hours of sun worshipping. Your pretty hazel eyes gazed deeply, attentively at the people around you and you smiled affirmations of their worth and value. Later on, someone besides your mom and dad looked at you and loved you, attracted to your beauty.

I’m recalling how the two of you created unique people inside your body. Five times. Your egg dropped out of your ovary by design, travelled through your fallopian tube, met up with a sperm and a brand new life started growing inside your uterus. Your pelvic muscles supported ten pound baby girls one after another in your protective incubator until it was time for the door between the worlds  to stretch and tear and bleed and birth and then heal. You nourished your babies with milk that miraculously squirted out tiny ducts in your breasts stimulated by bonding hormones as your babies sucked skin to skin.

I wonder at the integration and separateness of your brain and body, the way your brain unconsciously regulates digestion, heart beats, inhalation then exhalation and the elimination of toxins. The gray matter protected inside the bony cage of the skull sends messages to receptors and organs, who respond like a domino train. The left hemisphere holds thoughts and knowledge for ready recall while the right intuits and carries secrets incognito.  That brain innately communicates strategies for you to response with when I experience little joys and itty-bitty stressors to major magical moments and traumas that have rocked my world.  It tells you, body,  when to run, when to fight, and when to freeze, and you do exactly what’s needed to take care of me.

I’m revisiting cycles of the seasons one year after the next, and seeing your hands. There’s almost always dirt under the fingernails from weeding and planting, sowing and reaping. You’ve never worn gloves because you need to feel connected to the earth in all of its tactile splendor as you nurture beauty.

I marvel at those hands. They’re evidence of maturity and durability. Where the skin hugs the veins, I can follow the vessels and find my story. 
It’s a history of sprains and breaks,
Bumps and bruises,
Aches and pains,
Acute and chronic,
Viruses, inflammation and disease.

It’s an archive of vigor and vitality,
Healing and recovery,
Beauty and pleasure,
Taste, touch, smell, sound and sight.

In this chapter of my eternal autobiography, you and I, we’ve been paired together as a team. You provide a temporary home for the immortal part of me, but your role, it’s time limited. From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.
For now, I receive you as God’s temporal gift, for however long He gives it.
Today, I hold your glory and your ephemerality in tandem. Simultaneously. And bless them both.

With Love and Gratitude, Hope

From January Blues to February Oranges

I turned the page on my calendar relieved. Hopeful. Ready to write about something lighter and happier than my January navy-blues.
So, let’s talk about orange. I know, tis the season for red, strawberry and chocolate but my heart belongs to orange.
It’s not the color that I love, it’s the flavor. Truth be told, I’m kind of citrus-snobby—Juicy clementines, yes please. Navel oranges, no thank you. My best affection goes to the cheap imitation—orange in all of its deliciously artificially sweetened varieties.

If I were watching a movie of my life right this very moment, I’d be lying on a couch in a therapist’s office reliving my childhood.
“It all started with baby aspirin,” I’d divulge sheepishly. “I’d tell my mom I was sick just so I could eat some chewables. Once medicated according to the directions, I’d sneak extras from the non-child safe bottle.”
Then I’d recount how my aunt kept a stash of jelly-like orange candy, shaped like fruit sections and covered with sugar crystals. They were tucked away in the corner of her cupboard and when she took them out for my visits, I’d eat the whole bag.
After a pause, I’d affectionately recall our family tradition of Friday night grocery shopping and my mom’s “yes” when I added a big bottle of Faygo orange pop or a box of orange Creamsicles on a stick to the cart.
“Later, I discovered orange rolls in the refrigerated aisle, the kind you bake and frost,” I’d muse dreamily, then sadly add how I miss them since they vanished off the shelves after the pandemic.  
And, I’m a huge fan of orange Skittles, Starburst, Trolli gummy worms and now, thanks to my son-in-law, Sour Patch Kids. “I eat all the orange ones and give the rest of the bag to him because I’m so generous!” I’d confide, grinning like a naughty kid.

I’m taking a class this semester about Play Therapy because one way or the other, almost everything circles back to our childhood stories and the stories before our stories. That’s called epigenetics and it’s full of intrigue about the mysterious transmissions of gene expressions between generations.  Maybe even related to food preferences? 
I wonder if my mom loved orange too… I wish I could ask her. I wish I’d been more curious about her ordinary stories—the everyday experiences that made her life sweeter.

My professor says, “If you’re going to be a counselor, you can’t take anyone further on their healing journey than you’ve gone yourself.” So, we do a bunch of exercises to get acquainted with our own inner kingdoms, our mental narrators and the language our bodies speak. We use the palette of our senses– what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, together in symbiotic relationship, to ground us in the present and illuminate the past. By God’s grand design, our olfactory nerve is direct wired to our brain and viscerally connects scents with associated memories.
And right now, I smell orange.

What’s the point of this meandering rumination? There’s something worthwhile in wondering about your story, in non-judgmental observation of what you’ve loved. There’s something life giving in being curious about who you were and how it impacts who you are now. Orange and I, we go way back. We’re pals. And as my Instagram friend Kate Bowler would say, that’s a “Good Enough” thought to inaugurate this new month with.

Surviving January

Here’s the first thing I wrote in January.

The other day was a dumpster fire.
Only my darkest realities were able to be accessed. 
The most nagging daily grinds. 
The deepest disappointments. 
The most profound fears. 
The greatest unmet longings and desires.
The most significant relational losses.
The most painful forms of rejection.
The most glaring personal inadequacies.
The saddest aspects of the loneliness I experience magnified.

I prayed.
I jogged. 
I breathed.
I cried. 
I verbally bubbled over at my kid.
I yelled profanities in the privacy of my own car, only God listening.
And, still, I could not see any light filtering down into the pit I fell into.
I was not able to experience relief from my suffering.

It wasn’t triggered by something monumental.
More like a death by a thousand cuts and the most recent abrasion, though relatively small, hit a main artery.

The best decision I made that day, though later than ideal, was to go to bed without an alarm and sleep it off. Maybe like a bad hangover. I wouldn’t know….

I woke up to sunshine peeking around the edges of my pleated shades and I recognized it as a fresh mercy. That was a good sign. Without crawling out from under my warm blankets, I selected my favorite Scripture meditation app, determined to forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead.

I wish I could say that terrible, awful, no good, very bad day was an anomaly— a fluke, far afield from the norm, but that wouldn’t entirely be the truth. While my emotional pain level definitely ranked an orange frowny face then, the better part of the first 23 days of January a nagging, lingering, gray, gloom waxes and wanes across my horizon like a winter companion, even with a daily regimen of Vitamin D.

It seems like a sunnier January than normal up here in the frozen tundra. And, there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be, other than on a 2 week vacation in the Gulf coast of Florida. But still, there’s a winter hardiness required to meet the times that feels too cold. Too slippery. Too hard this year.

And here’s the scariest part. 
What if it doesn’t get better when winter is over?
What if it’s not just winter navy-blues?
What if the pandemic doesn’t go away? And COVID patients keep dying and being transported down to the morgue on gurneys? And what if one of those patients is someone I love? And how many more times can I listen to “code blue” on the hospital intercom?
And who else in my world might make an early and unpredictable exit in 2022?

And what if in 2022 my body gets weaker—more fragile than it already is? And my weight goes up instead of down? What if I actually need to start taking blood thinners to pre-empt a stroke or a pacemaker to synchronize my irregular heartbeat?
What if my sense of purpose remains clear as mud? And I continue to take costly graduate level classes without the confidence to pursue a distinct professional path? And what if my insecurities aren’t ever tempered? 

What if relationships I value most continue to struggle or altogether implode?
What if my kids are victims of trauma? Violence? What if they suffer gross injustice? Or get their hearts broken? What if they become disillusioned with God because His ways are mystery? And what if they only remember the broken aspects of our relationship and forget the ways it’s also been beautiful?
What if our family hiking trip to Scotland this summer gets cancelled? And even if it doesn’t, what if people are tired, and cranky, and unkind to each other?

I, literally, cannot predict the grenades yet to be lobbed in 11+ months of 2022, though as an Enneagram Six, I’ve obviously invested some significant time and energy musing over the possibilities. And I’ll be honest, even the potential direct hits to my little world, make me feel afraid.

When I come up for air, even after I practice my box breathing, there’s not much relief. I mock myself for moaning and groaning about how difficult life is in a pandemic. I hear myself ungraciously dialoguing with me, saying things like, “You’re so soft, so spoiled, so pathetic. You worry about literally nothing! You don’t have the first idea what real suffering is like. You’ve never lived in a third world location, bathing in the same dirty river you get a drink from. You’ve never been truly hungry, let alone starving. You’ve never experienced war in your back yard. No genocide here. And you’re white for goodness sake. Your life is pretty cushe. Pull yourself together.”
I would never say things like that to another image bearer, but I tend to be downright mean to myself. 

I’ve been learning about self-compassion in grad school and the education is timely.  I’m starting to practice it in my own story, though I admit, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Here are some of the resources, tools and mercies that have made my January a little brighter and a tad bit kinder.

1) Pray As You Go app

2) Watching Season 2 of PBS’s All Creatures Great and Small

3) REI’s YouTube tutorial on Basics of cross-country Skiing—a great resource for learning my newest recreational winter sport.

4) Christine Caine’s Instagram quote

5) The Mindfulness reminder on my new apple watch.

6) Bethany Barnard’s album All My Questions

7) Artwork by Charlie Mackesy

8) Greg Johnson’s new book, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn From The Church’s Failed Attempt To Cure Homosexuality. This book is so important, so comprehensive and so refreshingly kind.

9) Long, cold walks and dinner table talks with good friends.

10) Watching my amaryllis grow.

11) simply.scotland Instagram feed I’m coming. Hopefully!

12) Stefans Gretzinger’s new album Faith of My Father

13) Planet Fitness’s hydromassage beds

14) And, last but totally not least, Kate Bowler, my favorite new-ish instagram friend and tutor in self-compassion.

And so,here is my very own benediction for the first month of this new year.
God bless January 2022 and all of us who walk brave on the ice of our own stories, trying to keep our balance in the harshness of the elements, feeling the biting wind on our pink cheeks while catching snowflakes on our tongues, evidence that we are embracing the now and the not yet, trusting that God will companion us through both. Amen.

What’s so great about Kindermusik?

At the dawn of the new year, I’m reflecting back and hoping forward. January is an invitation to rehearse the past and I find myself musing about the experiences that I’d repeat if I got a do-over and the ones I’d drive by and wave at second time around. It also invites me to imagine the potential of an even more generative future.

I’ve hit the bullseye of my fifties now and in the seasons of a life story, the chlorophyll is breaking down and I’m starting to blush. Some call the fifties a decade of depth because you’ve lived enough of your story to see a plot line, to recognize what you love and how you tick, to know what makes you feel most alive. The last quarter century of my story has been primarily invested in answering to “Mama”, with all of its rights, privileges and responsibilities, but another title I’ve cherished is “Miss Hope”. That’s the name all of my Kindermusik families call me.

I first connected with Kindermusik  about 25 years back. I sat in a circle with my baby girl on my lap. We shook our bells together way up high, then way down low, really, really fast and then oh, so slow. I was a first time mom, and in love. Determined to do my best for my own little Angel. Kindermusik reeled me in from the first 45 minute class— the music, the instruments, the rituals, the cuddles, the vocal and imaginary play- the whole shared experience was absolutely delightful!

It wasn’t long until I trained to be a licensed instructor and that’s when I began to fully appreciate the method behind the masterfully written curriculums. Kindermusik uses a Montessori play based developmental educational model that supports maximum freedom in a prepared environment. Music is the medium by which young children learn to flex their brain muscles, building auditory processing skills, promoting memory, strengthening the executive function of the brain and increasing neural connections. Every Kindermusik class features a fun theme that integrates developmentally appropriate musical skills, fine and whole body movement, sensory awareness activities as well as language and literacy components. It sounds like work but it feels like magic!

As a mom and as an instructor, I’ve taken countless spectacular imaginary adventures inside the walls of a Kindermusik studio to exciting destinations like the park, the sea and the farm. We’ve travelled in pretend boats, cars, airplanes and taken leisurely walks splashing in mud puddles only to come back home for our make-believe bath. And it all happens while we sing and play with simple rhythm instruments and props. We practice in class what families can take-home and integrate it into their daily routines.

These days, I’m in a new classroom, working toward an advanced degree in psychology. I’m learning that the most compelling research on relational flourishing unequivocally points the direction of the formative experiences in the the earliest months and years of child’s story, even before they possess explicit memory or verbal language capabilities. Attunement from primary caregivers to their babies and toddlers lays the foundation for healthy attachment patterns over a lifetime. 

Attunement occurs when we parents are emotionally available to our children and responsive to their needs, not perfectly but reliably. When we learn to read and understand their cues, to react with engagement to their expressions, to repair relational ruptures when they occur and to touch them affectionately. Then,  they feel safe, seen and soothed, which wires their brains to recognize emotionally healthy bonds.

And that’s what I love best about Kindermusik. By design, the entire class focuses on attunement between young children and the ones they love best. Big and little people drop their coats, purses, shoes and most importantly phones at the door.  We sit in a circle and sing hello to every single friend in the room. Then, mommies looking lovingly into their babies eyes, massage their arms and bicycle their legs. Tiny kiddos giggle as their daddies give them a playful tickle. Nannies imitate their little buddies playing sticks or bells or egg shakers. Grandmas find the most comforting way to rock or cuddle as their grandchild snuggles in close. Grandpas make silly sounds in a mirror as their grandkids look on with fascination. Favoritest big people clap, rub, pat, hug, bounce, jump and run playfully with their toddlers. And sometimes babies cry, so mommies soothe them or toddlers get upset because it’s time to put instruments away and daddies distract them. During class, there are moments of holding our children close and times designated to let go. Just like life, kids go exploring but they need to know you’re there to run back to for a hug, an ear, a smile or a secure place to land.

In a world where feeling safe, soothed and seen mostly seems out of reach, Kindermusik connects people. Regardless of our age or stage, in Kindermusik we look at each other affectionately, we touch one another gently, and in those moments, we know we are safe together.

The sparkly, white, swollen snowflakes are dancing around outside my Michigan window reminding me that the new year is bursting with possibilities yet to be discovered, but I have a good history too, years and decades of partnering with hundreds of families like mine, who live a better, more bonded story because of Kindermusik. And for that privilege, I just feel really, really grateful.

Past posts I’ve written about music, brain development and bonding:

Sending a shout out to the fantastic Maestro Kindermusik programs I’ve been privileged to be a part: Kindermusik of Rockford with Carol Hillman, Miss Lisa’s Music with Lisa Muratore and Kindermusik by Purple Nest with Molly Pieroni. 

Because Gratitude is never Belated

I almost hit a guy tonight driving my silver Chevy Trax. It would have been a  collision of flesh and bone against metal and motor. His outfit matched a starless night, at least I think it did, but it all happened so fast…. Suddenly, there he was, walking into oncoming traffic straddling the white line on the passenger side of my lane. Another car travelled parallel to me so I couldn’t move over—much….

100 yards later, my body started trembling, responding to what my brain already knew. My close enoucnter almost turned deadly.  How might this very moment have been different had body and car collided? When the police officer came on the scene, who would have been determined to be at fault? Me or him? And how much would it matter if the guy’d ended up absolutely broken?

There’s been mostly a hush on my blog this year, the majority of my words spent on academic papers and a hefty reading list—31 books complete on Goodreads 2021. For everything there is a season and this year, listening rather than talking and reading more than writing have been my daily bread. I’m re-considering familiar frameworks, assimilating novel ideas, inputting new data and assembling it all like puzzle pieces linking together to create a more complete 3D picture of who I am and how I fit in my world. Ironically, the image keeps getting fuzzier—but maybe that’s because I buy my reading glasses at the dollar store. Or maybe it’s that the more I learn, the less I know about anything. Everything.  Questions trump answers and some of them are my own, while others are the Mindbenders my kids ask, like the ones we bantered around over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Is male headship in marriage an expression of post-fall brokenness or of God’s design for gender?

What are the most productive days, times and locations for dumpster diving?

I wonder how God decided what Jesus was going to look like…

What can be learned from The Squid Games about depravity and desperation?

Can a relationship ever be healthy if there’s a power differential where the disempowered party isn’t free to walk away?

Which version of Taylor Swift’s Red is best?

What do you think about the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict?

What are the most effective strategies for growing your retirement account? 

And, what about real estate investing?

What does the biblical text in its original languages have to say about the role of women in church leadership? And what place do historic records and traditions play in determining God’s intent?

Which Little Women movie is the best and why?

How do enneagram-type combinations impact relationships?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Young’s The Shack and it’s portrayal of God the Father as a Mother? And what to do about gender pronouns to describe God?

Who’s lying about being an operative when they’re really a spy in the board game The Resistance?

And, of all the Frasier fir Christmas trees on this farm, which one would be perfect for our living room?

None of our questions have quick and easy answers—at least for us. Ours is a tribe that could rival an old-fashioned podium pounding hell and brimstone preacher for the love of his or her conviction and it was into one of those kinds of moments that our mediator intervened with a lesson in Communication 101 she learned from a TED talk. “When people aren’t really listening but rather preparing their defensive responses, the conversation is zero on the productivity scale. Just saying.” And it’s not just us who needs that reminder. From the most public platforms to everyday hum-drum interactions, fault finding, finger pointing, moralizing monologues disguised as dialogue are now cliche. We’re so high on blaming the government, the economy, the liberals, the conservatives, the vaxers, the anti-vaxers, the CDC, BLM,  the police officers, the feminists, secular culture, LGTBQ+ people, church leaders and christian nationalists, our sobriety to concentrate on human suffering has been compromised. Meanwhile, at the hospital we work at, the death toll keeps rising, one image bearing creation of God at a time, and relationships are arresting without resuscitation due to metastasized dogmatism.

This is what communal duress has exposed about us and it’s not pretty. But it’s also not all that we are. 

We are also nurses and doctors who don our PPE methodically every time we enter a patient’s room. We treat sick human beings regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, religion or vaccination status. We do our best 24-7 day after week after month and now years. That’s plural. And when the virus wins, we walk our patients corpses down to the morgue on a gurney and then don our PPE again. 

And we are morticians who care for the shell that remains when the spirit has departed. We administrate the rituals of closure and burial, providing needed services and care to grieving families in their darkest hours of raw grief.

And we are teachers, managing multiple educational platforms and adapting to ever changing expectations for the benefit of our students, to create learning environments that offer as much normalcy and stability as is possible.

And we are chaplains, pastors, counselors and social workers providing  safe, secure, soothing support to anxious, fearful, grieving, despairing individuals and groups amidst skyrocketing suicide and divorce rates, each their own form of demise.

And we are supply chain producers who are tirelessly working against the domino effect to keep goods and services available to society in spite of complex barriers to production.

And we are more than what we do. 

We simply are.

We are the objects of the affection of a supremely loving God who looks at all He has made with tenderness and incredible kindness. He actually knows who’s right, what’s right and how to do it right but He chooses instead to focus His gaze on our universal misery with unmerited compassion.

And that makes me grateful—which brings me back to Thanksgiving and our yearly recalibration of gratitude. This year, in addition to all the oldies, new voices, fresh perspectives and more maleness made our crowd better and more fun. I wait all year long for that morning where we walk and talk about the goodness of God in our stories. Our pictures mark time indelibly and remind us that we were together and it was good. The music, the puzzles, the games, the movie, the time around the table with 3 extra leaves, and an abundance of food and drink to share.  Shoulder to shoulder, we thanked God that we are healthy and supplicated for the ones who aren’t. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to answer all of my questions. Or theirs. And some days that feels pretty paralyzing but not on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we recount that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. And we tell each other what that’s been like in each of our stories. And on that day, I just feel grateful.

Starla Rose

September 24—17 years ago today- looked pretty much like this one. Clear blue sky and lots of sunshine.  The opening day of the Texas State Fair. 87 degrees at 3:18 central time in Dallas. Accompanied by her dad and Dr. Payne (yup, that’s really his name), who very assertively instructed me to “Push, push, push!”, she metamorphosed out of her cozy cocoon and found her voice—loudly. In that moment, with her little arms and legs flailing uncoordinatedly, she made her way through the starting gate and her race began.

My kids birthdays are my favorite days of the year. All day long, I reminisce about the life we’ve shared….

This one, she’s answered to lots of names over the years, in-house derivatives of the one on her birth certificate—Woozy, Rosie, Roni, Roan- all terms of endearment for the babiest of all the girls in the family.

“‘Kin-a-‘kin” were her favorite words as a toddler. She’d speak them like a declaration as she pulled my shirt up, oblivious to public decorum. She wanted us to be touching belly to belly all close and warm.

Falasadie, Rushidi and Adona, the little, plastic orphan girls were the main characters in all of her dollhouse pretend stories with Robyn. As time went on, those stories became epics as they added chapters from their cozy twin beds drifting off to sleep at night. Sometimes, I can still hear their little girl voices giggling in my head.

There were teepee adventures in the yard and plenty of princess dress up too.

She started cooking on her Chico kitchen set and created the most marvelous concoctions made out of rubber beef and other such delicacies. Then, she starred in the homegrown screenplay, Once Upon 3 Cooks, as the exemplary sister who shopped and ate healthy. Later, we watched every episode of The Great British Baking Company together and nowadays she bakes, stir-fries and cooks “clean” with eclectic creativity and flair.

I’ll never forget the way she skipped up to the stage at the annual Awana awards night in her multi-tiered cotton “happy” skirt to receive her trophy for being unanimously selected by leaders as the first grader who best exemplified the spirit of Awana.

For years, she lived and breathed Adventures in Odyssey episodes on CD. From before she crawled out of bed in the morning to when she snuggled up next to Oreo at night, Whit, Connie, Eugene and the whole cast of voices were as familiar to her as ours were. Later, she sat behind the microphone at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado recording an episode in the mock studio and shared a Wad-fam-choc-sod in the soda shop with Robyn— 1 drink, 2 straws.

And those weren’t the only stories that put her CD player to good use. Audiobooks, in and out of order, were the order of the day for many years. How many times has she listened to every book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder The Little House on the Prairie series with the reader who sounds like a hoarse cowgirl or the librivox recording of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?

Then there was every single Wildkrats episode she watched on the computer expanding her love of and knowledge about animals which she delighted to expound on.

In the hazy, lazy days of summer, you could find her jumping in the neighborhood pool or building sand castles on the shores of the Great Lake. And at twilight, she’d be catching fireflies in the peanut butter jar with the air holes drilled into the cap.

And she got older, she developed a voracious hunger for reading and writing. Her room became a solace for consuming stories quietly. She created characters and worlds and super powers, attempting to translate thoughts onto paper, exploring the complexity of good and evil. And she started retelling the best and truest story of all to children at church every Sunday morning. Then, standing up in front of a thousand people she told her very own story of being adopted by Jesus and got baptized. 

More recently she’s been driving and working and studying. I admire her work ethic, her commitment and her integrity to the extreme. She’s learning how to take care of herself with kindness— getting acquainted with God’s unique design that is her and learning what it looks like to nurture it. Her soul is a mosaic of colors, every wavelength of light and dark all along the spectrum, creating a beautiful rainbow.

Lately, she’s taken up jogging and every time I watch her pound the pavement, I think about God’s words comparing life to running a race. It’s about focus. And training. And persevering. And I’m one of her witnesses. Cheering her on, I’m hooping and hollering, “You go girl!”  from the sidelines. But Jesus, he’s running right beside her. When her pace slows, so does his. When she gets a second wind, he speeds right along with her.  When she falls, he’s got the first aid kit and attends to her wounds. When she needs a drink, he’s the one carrying her heavy water bottle. When she’s about to give up, he gets behind her, like a wind at her back making her next steps easier and when she just can’t anymore, and she collapses along the side of the trail, he sits with her, patiently, until she’s ready to get up and run some more. Here’s the point: She does not run her race alone and she never will. In this fresh new year, the last one before her emancipation, here’s what I know is true. The steadfast love of the Lord never changes. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22)

She got a new t-shirt this summer that she wears for self-inspiration. It’s black with big white letters saying, “I’ve got this!” And she does. She’s got this.

21 Things I Love About Brennan in Honor of his 21st Birthday

After the adrenalin rush of celebrating Brennan’s birthday eve with dumpster diving and a late night swim at Lily’s pool and hot tub, I’m reflecting today on his story interconnected with ours. He’s one of us now—with all of its good, bad and ugly- and I’m so glad he is! Here’s what I love about Brennan.

1) He’s funny. Literally, other than his wife, none of the rest of us can pull off a timely joke successfully.

2) He’s responsible. From the first conversation about driving Robyn places to his get up everyday work ethic, he does what he needs to do.

3) He’s resourceful. From Goodwill super shopping to dumpster diving and metal detecting, he repurposes things better than anyone else I know.

4) He’s creative. In so many ways—like crafting candles from soy wax and pringles cans and making Robyn’s ring out of gold he found metal detecting.

5) He’s a gentle soul. His voice is soothing. He’s sensitive and his manner makes you feel safe when you’re with him.

6) He’s fun. He just is. If he’s around, everything’s better.

7) He cares about God’s creation. From picking up turtles and helping them cross the street to tending trees he grows from cuttings or seeds, he honors what he’s been assigned to steward.

8) He’s sincere in His faith. In all of its highs and lows and its moments of clarity and confusion, he loves Jesus.

9) He loves going to the beach like I do, which makes him a kindred spirit.

10) He’s teachable. He reads, ask questions, takes classes or watches Youtube videos to learn important stuff he wants to know and understand.

11) He’s versatile and flexible. He enjoys lots of things. He’s good at a wide variety of tasks.

12) He’s cool. His vibe is eclectic but he and Robyn are definitely the coolest people in our family.

13) He’s nice. Everybody likes Brennan. He talks to them and treats them kindly.

14) He repairs relational conflict. Brennan gives and receives forgiveness and moves forward.

15) He is a man of integrity. He tries to live honestly and be trustworthy in his personal choices even when it costs him.

16) He’s financially responsible beyond his years. 

17) He’s totally Robyn’s match. I think I could see it from the very beginning and I love that he loves her so well.

18) He likes good music and shares it with me.

19) He’s adventurous. I appreciate how he embraces my crazy ideas.

20) He wants to hike at as many national parks as he can and so do I.

21) He gets excited about finding a great deal or getting things free.

I always wanted a son and maybe someday, there’ll be 4, but today, I’m really grateful for Brennan. He makes my life sweeter and it’s an honor to be his second mom.

What About the Pandemic of Child Sexual Abuse and the Church?

I’ve never written anything more important than this 151st post.

An old adage says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more true than in cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated in Christian communities.

Case in point. Currently, the Upper Midwest diocese of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) finds themselves in the vortex of a sexual abuse scandal involving children. The abuse was initially disclosed by a mom named Cherin, on behalf of her 9 year old daughter in May 2019. First, she told her parish priest and the news moved up the food chain to the diocese Bishop a short time later. Neither church leader reported the allegations to law enforcement. The accused perpetrator, Mark Rivera, served at 2 Illinois parishes for more than two decades in leadership positions that gave him access to children. The date, 2019, matters because it’s 2021 now and until this spring, the Bishop made no public congregational acknowledgement of the accusations against Mr. Rivera and the possibility that there are other survivors suffering silently in their seats. The structure matters because it exemplifies the widespread ignorance of church leaders on multiple hierarchical levels regarding abuse prevention, responding to disclosure, reporting requirements and after care for survivors and their families. And, this unfortunately is not the only diocese in the ACNA to be embroiled in mismanaged sexual harassment and abuse scandals in recent years.

I write this post as an outsider looking in. My church community is not connected to the ACNA, but I am also an insider looking out because the ACNA is part of my broader Christian family and what is happening there is an institutional protestant church pandemic.

I’m a 50-something mom whose four amazing daughters are almost all launched so I started grad school this past year, simultaneously enrolling in Diagnosis and Treatment of Trauma Disorders and Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.  PTSD, a disorder commonly suffered by child sexual abuse survivors, was the common denominator in both. What I understand better now compels me to write because when you know, you can’t un-know anymore.

But let’s start here.
You don’t know what you don’t know.

This applies to the average person warming the pew and the ones whose bios and headshots are posted on an organization’s website. Both, unfortunately are anemically informed in epidemic proportions about the most basic facts, statistics and predictable, preventable patterns associated with child sexual abuse and its aftermath, which results in failure to protect and care for the little children Jesus loves. 

Here’s a working definition and 3 basic statistics from the CDC and the Department of Justice .

Sexual abuse is any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. Abuse can be physical, verbal or visual.

  • 1 out of 4 females and 1 out 6 males will experience sexual abuse before they reach the age of 18.
  • 90% of the child sexual abuse problem is perpetrated by preferential offenders whose victims know and trust their abusers.
  • When a child discloses abuse, 96-99% of the time, they are telling the truth. Abuse actually occurred. 

Do you feel the weight of those statistics?
If not, sit soberly and consider them until you do.

That 9 year old girl whose mom, Cherin, disclosed abuse to her priest in 2019, she and the Bishop have both submitted written public statements recently, 2 years afterwards. You can follow the he saidshe said storylines in blue. 

Read it for yourself.

It’s a textbook case of a mishandled church sexual abuse scandal. 

Where did the church get this wrong?
And what might it have looked like to get it right?

Starting with prevention. How might this tragedy have been avoided had all provincial denominational leaders, church staff, volunteers and parents been trained in the facts and misconceptions about sexual abuse, abuser characteristics, the grooming process, common grooming behaviors and reporting requirements? What if the church had a safety system in place based on this awareness education? In my seminary class, 4 students enrolled. Count them on one hand—a mom, a social worker, a retiring police officer and a staff pastor. Classes on Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse are an anomaly in seminaries, so I applaud my school for offering it; however, they can do better. It is an egregious oversight for any accrediting educational institution to launch graduates into Christian ministry without training them in prevention, reporting and victim-centric aftercare. 

If these church leaders had been trained, they would have realized that not only are 96+% disclosures true, they would also have understood that predators not only groom children, they also groom caretakers and gate keepers of children so that barriers of protection are removed and they have easy access to their victims. Predators, they don’t look like predators. They’re typically charming and distinguish themselves in their communities over time by appearing responsible, trustworthy and helpful. Usually, they’re married and have children. That’s why it’s so shocking when accusations start to surface.

And here’s the thing, accusations will almost always be plural. Once one brave soul finds his or her voice, a symphony of singers will join the somber song. Typically, by the time a predatory offender reaches the legal system, if the truth be told, he’s averaged 150 victims if he prefers boys and 52 if he prefers girls.

And if that 9 year old girl’s church leaders would have been educated in the neurobiology of trauma, they would have realized that when a child finds their voice, that doesn’t mean that she can articulate a cohesive narrative or consistently recount details of her abuse. By God’s design, it is normal for memories to be fragmented and even absent from conscious recollection in order for the victim to be able to bear their trauma. The child’s account would not have been evaluated for accuracy but assumed to be true because 96+% of children’s disclosures of abuse are the truth.

If the parish priest and his posse of church leaders, including the Diocese attorney would have understood mandatory reporting laws, they would have conjoined their legal and moral responsibility to immediately report any reasonable cause to suspect abuse perpetrated by an adult on a minor to CPS or local law enforcement. Instead, churches often want to take reports of abuse to committee to internally investigate first. Sometimes they fear that they will unjustly besmirch the reputation of the accused.

Other times, they are motivated to do so based on innate mistrust of CPS and the legal system, thinking they can adjudicate a more just resolution internally. 

Some churches think of sexual abuse as primarily sin and therefore consider themselves to be the most appropriate setting to address their spiritual process of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. 

And, it’s not uncommon for churches to negotiate deals with offenders to leave their community of faith quietly, believing they are protecting the reputation of Jesus from public scandal or at least protecting the name and renown of their own institution.

All of these options, however, bypass the law, and mandatory reporters are increasingly being held culpable for endangerment of children and criminally prosecuted themselves. 

Once Mr. Rivera was arrested, if his parish and Diocese understood trauma they would have realized that the church can’t provide support for both the victim and the accused predator—that includes his family, who also, sadly, suffer because of their spouse/parent’s crime. The church would have opted for a victim-centered response plan which prioritizes the safety and well-being of the victim and her family, starting with ensuring a protective and supportive community of faith for them to continue worshiping in. Mr. Rivera’s family would need to go so 9 year old girl’s family could stay. Then, because leadership understands that 96+% of children’s disclosures are true, they would promptly and publicly fully disclose the allegations to their congregations and invite the voices of others who have been harmed to be heard. With unanimity, leadership would communicate that abuse matters and commit to becoming a place that protects and defends those who have been harmed.

This approach not only invites voiceless victims who feel ashamed, threatened or fear that they won’t be believed to risk sharing their stories, it also speaks volumes to the individuals who are watching the process unfold and are themselves adult abuse survivors, or married to one or love someone who has been. There is incredible, widespread, redemptive opportunity in the aftermath of abuse if a community of faith gets this right. Unfortunately, the Upper Midwest Diocese of the ACNA didn’t.

Rather than retrying victims in the court of public opinion, as was the 9 year old girl’s family experience, if they got this right, the church would begin the long, holy journey of communal suffering alongside victims instead. 

They would grieve with and for their victims.
They would listen without judging them for their anger and sadness.
The would support them the best they know how, ensuring that they have the resources they need to start to heal. 
And they wouldn’t just say that these things would happen, they’d actually happen.

Tragically, the clock can’t be turned back and the harm can’t be undone for the 9 year old girl, but we cannot and must not continue to get this wrong because when we do and children’s formative experiences in faith communities are sexually violating, barriers to understanding God’s character and receiving His love result. 
And Jesus has something to say about that in Matthew 18:6. 

If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. 

We can; however, learn from the mistakes the ACNA and so many others have made. Going forward, as a unified community of Christ followers, our banner of love can proclaim that we will no longer be blind, deaf and dumb to the pandemic of sexual abuse. Today, we will begin to make our churches places of safety, hope and healing. 
May it be so.

(All data and statistics credited to Ministry Safe, legal professionals who are sexual abuse experts and whose mission is to prevent child sexual abuse in ministry contexts.)

Land That I Love

It’s on my bucket list—to run in an organized 5K race. And I want it to be connected to a cause that’s personally meaningful to me.

I’ve trained.

Tested my stamina on various routes. 

And I almost mustered the courage to register for a race over 4th of July weekend. 

Then I found out that my daughter’s friend was participating and he planned to finish in 17 min. That changed everything! I’m way too insecure to have a 16 year old boy charge past me and wave on his way to the finish line while I’m huffing and puffing on the first half of the course.

So, it’s not a bucket list cross off yet– not until I do the deed with the crowds, in the morning, regardless of the heat, and in spite of my anxiety. But, I did identify a creative alternative so I could at least pencil in my check off.

I like to jog at night. I pretty much prefer doing everything at night… so at around 11:30 on 4th of July eve, I tied my seafoam colored running shoes, put on my reflective vest with flashing lights, stretched my calf muscles, turned on my exercise playlist and took to the road. By then, there were just occasional loud popping-sizzling fireworks sounds like the last kernels of popcorn in a pan on the stove. The moon, a waning crescent, left the sky otherwise pitch black. I could barely see the next step in front of me, but I know this route. It’s become my friend. Over and over again, I’ve coerced my body out onto the pavement and told it to move and breathe, so even in the witching hours, I know where the drains are, where the pavement is tilted and in my neighborhood, the road belongs to me.

And so, I jogged in the holiday 2021 on my own personal 5K run–just me and Jesus because he’s the only one I jog with. It took me a lot more than 17 minutes but that’s OK. I’m not a 16 year old boy. I’m me and I’m doing my best. 

As I jogged, I reflected on my life lived out as a citizen in this country–something I consider worth celebrating. 

Here is where I jog on paved roads and groomed rail trails. It may not seem like a big deal but I’ve been to places where the norm was potholes big enough to make my dad cuss.

My feet and my knees and my back and my shoulders and my heart and my lungs are all able to work together to propel me forward because when I’ve been sick, I’ve received excellent health care and because of masks and vaccines combined with the mysterious grace of God, I didn’t die of COVID. 

This is where I’ve lived out my story and in a lot of ways, it’s been a really cush place to do it in. I’m the majority culture, white European descent, with all its privileges and benefits. 

I have a flushing toilet, clean drinking water, a Meijer grocery store, which in my humble opinion, is preferable to Walmart. 

I’ve seen red rocks, mountain ranges, rainforests, oceans, urban metroplexes and sweeping farmlands with amber waves of grain. 

I live in the best state for me with the greatest lake ever less than an hour away. 

My children have received an excellent education and we had choices about what that would be.

We are free to read what we like, to learn what we can, to speak what we want to say and to worship as we see fit. 

In my city, immigrants from the Netherlands and all over Europe are neighbors to refugees from Syria and the Congo, creating a menagerie of eclectic diversity.

And every year that I’ve staked my space on the sidewalk at the local 4th of July parade, I’ve consumed snowcones and cotton candy while kids on every side of me fill their plastic Meijer bags with candy.

I’m proud to be an American and grateful for a multitude of fresh new mercies morning after morning. And, I am disappointed, even ashamed, of its personal, communal and political toxicity past and present.

This country—it’s a mixed bag. We have much to celebrate and much to grieve. 

Should its goodness be diminished? No way! 

Should its faults be ignored? Absolutely not!

This global planet orbiting around the sun and all of its inhabitants simultaneously bear both a reflection of God and the contaminate of sin. Until God restores all that’s been broken to its original glory, living with this co-mingling of good and evil is an inevitable reality and attempts to sweep our imperfections under the rug in order to preserve a photo-shopped image of greatness is an illusion—a slight of the hand, a trick of they eye.

Being a citizen of this country is a lot like being a member of a family. Every family’s story is ugly-beautiful. The healthiest family owns it all, not just the posed snapshot where everyone wears khakis and a white shirt, their skin tan, feet bare, toes in the sand, smiling. That picture genuinely represents a moment, a glimpse, a slice out of the whole. But those same parents may have gone to war hours earlier about the cost of the photo shoot and on the drive there, the kids elbowed each other in a power struggle from the back seat then blamed the innocent sibling who was minding her own business when their frustrated parent yelled impatiently at them to “Cut it out back there,” and threatened to take away the ice cream cone promised as a carrot for their cooperation. And that photo, it doesn’t show the wounds in their hearts from systemic patterns of shaming each other, the feelings of isolation because their parents are more engaged with their phones than attuning to their children, the competition between siblings for “favorite” child status. That picture doesn’t show how they look in the cold, dark dead of winter and it doesn’t tell what the walls in their home could speak. 

Same is true of our nation’s birthday. It’s commemorates what’s pretty, what’s good, what we appreciate. It’s not about the domestic unrest, the injustice, the discrimination, the violence we enact against each other and our failure to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. But both realities are woven into the fiber of life in America.

David French says, we love our country “not because it is always great—or even always good- but because it is our home. Its citizens are our neighbors. It is our national family. As with any family, loving our family means knowing our family. And yes, that means telling our full story, the good, the back and the ugly. It means hearing from admirers and critics alike. We should approach our national history with this sense of curiosity and security. You won’t make me hate my home. You can, however, motivate me to preserve what is pristine and repair what is broken. You can make me proud of the beauty and sorry for the injustice.”

And that kind of genuine curiosity can transfer beyond the purview of our national identity to a spirit of inquiry about our neighbors, our families and even ourselves. And that’s a cause I’d jog a marathon for.