The God Who Cares

I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly. –Madeleine L’Engle

My middle schooler has been stumbling along this week, in need of a God who will not let him fall. He has been stretching and growing in painful but maturing ways. As if the tragedy of the weekend were not enough at once, he caught a stomach bug Sunday night and came home from school yesterday with more bad news. Sadly, he reported that his favorite teacher has had to resign due to health issues and her son, who sits next to him in class and is a favorite school buddy, will be changing schools. My knee-jerk reaction is to want to protect him from the pain and make everything all better. But a kiss and a superman band-aid don’t fix the hurt anymore. My bigger kids experience bigger pain, and the only solution is to point them to the God who is bigger than their pain.

Our human tendency in weeks like this is to scream, “Why, God?”, but it is when we stop screaming and start listening that we begin to understand. God is still there, even closer in the darkness, clinging to us in our struggle. When we ask, “Why, God?” not out of anger but out of a heart ready to learn how to grow through the pain then we will feel His presence every step of the way. And then we begin to experience just how big our God is.

Number Your Days

Hug your kids a little longer today. Read that book to them one more time and go have the tea party or play the Wii game with them. Your to-do list will be there tomorrow, but your children may not. My family has come up against this hard reality this week, as we have seen the frailty of life, wrestled with God in prayer, and watched God in His wisdom call a 12 year old boy home to be with Him. It’s not the way any of us wanted it to turn out, but it is what happened. My heart breaks for those parents and sister that have to go back home, walk into his room, and face the fact that a new reality begins today; life will never be the way it was but they can learn to live in a new kind of normal.

I pray that all those affected by this, both those who knew Zach and those who happened to be present at the accident, will find peace in their souls. These kids have seen a little too up close and personal just how fragile human life is. I pray that this whole experience will cause them to seek their purpose on the earth and to follow hard after what God has for them to do. Psalm 90:12 says “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” A different version says, “Teach us to use wisely all the time we have.”

May we all number our days a little more carefully in our pursuit of a heart of wisdom.

Soap Carving

After yesterday’s post, I felt the need to post on ways to love our kids well and enjoy our time with them. To that end, I have recently discovered a great blog called Unplug Your Kids. The author shares my views on TV – who needs it? – and offers creative alternatives to engage our children. She presents a weekly Unplugged Project with a theme and encourages others to pool their ideas. In keeping with this week’s theme of White, I wanted to share an activity that my kids enjoy and that can appeal to younger and older children – soap carving on white bars of Ivory soap. I know – children, soap, and knives don’t mix. But there is a safe solution. The book Soap Carving for Children gives step by step directions for making your own carving tools out of popsicle sticks! We found that the popsicle stick tools work best for the simpler projects and are great for young hands. My kids had almost as much fun just shaving off pieces of soap as they did trying to carve a sculpture. They also enjoyed carving faces and designs into the soap, which is much simpler than trying to shape it into something else. We started out following the directions in the book and ended up with our own creations. If you have younger children, they would have fun with a bar of soap and a stick or two. If you have older, patient kids, they will enjoy following the directions, making their own tools and feeling the satisfaction of creating a piece of art.

Tragedy and Trust

We’ve all heard the warning: “Be careful what you wish for.” It hit home for us this weekend in a way I never expected. I had hoped that my boys would have a life-changing experience while on their fall retreat. But not like this. Not by coming face to face with tragedy. My middle schooler witnessed a horrible accident to a fellow student – the stuff parental nightmares are made of. The young man was coming down a 1000 foot zipline at about 45 miles per hour when he hit, full force, a platform that had mistakenly been left in the path. The other kids watched him hit it, watched the platform go crashing down the hill, and watched their unconscious friend dangling from his harness until the workers could get him down and the Lifestar medical helicopter could take him to get medical assistance. What started out as a weekend full of fun ended quite differently, especially for one family. They have a long road ahead, as the extent of the boy’s injuries, which include a cracked skull and possible brain damage, are still unknown.

How do you prepare your children for these possibilities? And how do you deal with them when they strike close to home? The church staff did an awesome job talking and praying with the kids and reestablishing some sense of normalcy to the weekend. We parents were briefed on how best to talk with our kids on their return and what possible reactions to expect. But the simple truth is that we live in a fallen world where mistakes are made and bad things happen to good people. And through it all, God is still God and He is still in control and worthy of our praise regardless of the circumstances.

I remember back to 1988, when as a college student I had recently returned from a semester in London. Flashing across the news were the reports of a plane that had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, carrying many college students headed home from a similar study-abroad program. My dad looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Do you see? Do you see now why I didn’t want you to go?” I honestly hadn’t remembered his being resistant to my going, but I tried to understand his pain. I understand it even more now, as that child who went down the zipline at the wrong moment could just as easily have been mine. But I can’t wrap him in a padded suit and lock him in his room. Life is meant to be lived, and life is full of risk.

Jeremiah 29:11 states: ” For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” He can bring good out of the most tragic of situations and will often use the most unlikely people to further His kingdom. I don’t know what the future holds for the victim of this tragedy, and I don’t know the long-term impact it will have on the witnesses. But I do know that God has a plan for it all and His future is full of hope. And I know that since we are not promised tomorrow, I’ll hug my boys just a little tighter tonight and thank God that He has given us today.

Food for the Soul

They were calling to me today – zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins, and corn.  I wandered through the farmer’s market near our house in rapt delight as I passed each booth. Our little farmer’s market is growing, and I was as excited as a kid in a candy store.  There were probably twice as many booths today as there have been, and it was busy even though I arrived later in the morning than usual.  Is it crazy to get excited about fresh produce? Maybe. But the thought of feeding my family well strikes a chord deep within me and brings comfort to my soul in a way that I can’t explain.  It just feels right to buy fresh produce and meat from local small farmers rather than the big box stores.  After all, feeding my family is about much more than just putting food on the table.  As Andi Ashworth shares in her gem of a book Real Love for Real Life, “One of the vital functions of a home is to nourish, both physically and emotionally, the people who dwell there. When the art of cooking is not practiced, more is lost than good food…A tangible sense of well-being comes to rest on a home where someone is bustling about in the kitchen preparing food that will nourish the body and act as a catalyst for conversation.”

In my attempts to better nourish both the bodies and souls of my family, I have also been learning more about the benefits of buying local.  I do buy meat, milk, and eggs from local farmers when I can find it, I grow a small garden in the summer, and take advantage of the available produce at the farmer’s market.  But do I read labels in the grocery store to see how far my food has come?  Not usually. Did you know that, according to a 2005 study in the journal Food Policy, it is better for you and the environment to buy local than to buy organic?  That is because the organic produce often travels so far that the environmental impact outweighs the benefits of it being organic.  We have not one but two fabulous new super-grocery stores opening up within a couple of miles of my house in the next two weeks.  While I know that everything will be visually appealing and tempting, I will challenge myself to read the newly required Country of Origin Labels and do my best to buy local. If I get really wild and crazy, I may take the Eat Local Challenge. Anyone know where to buy Tennessee bananas?

Retreating Memories

My middle and high school boys left this afternoon for a weekend fall camp with their church youth group. At $275 for the two of them, I hope it is a life-changing experience.  My husband and I could have had a nice romantic getaway at a bed and breakfast for the same price.  However, I remember how much I enjoyed weekend retreats as a student and want the same for them. That time away was a wonderful break from my hectic high school life. We rode on those cramped 15-passenger vans to a camp where the cabins were heated by kerosene heaters and we had a dark, cold walk to the smelly latrines. We heard inspirational speakers and shared our lives around the bonfires. We laughed, we cried, we pulled the crazy stunts that teenagers do, but in the end, we loved each other well. New friendships were forged and good friendships were solidified during those trips.

It was also a time for me to be alone for a while and re-connect with my soul and with God. One of the most interesting retreats I went on while in college was a silent retreat, and yes, I mean a group of college students together for a weekend with no talking, except for a debriefing discussion at the end.  It was challenging, particularly at mealtime when you had to motion to pass the peas.  It made me keenly aware of how much noise filled our every waking moment and how ill equipped we were to deal with silence.  At the same time, there was a peacefulness to the time that was beyond explanation. Inconvenient? Yes. But conducive to a more intimate time with God? Absolutely.  As Mother Teresa pointed out, ” We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.”  That must be why I always feel refreshed after some time alone in nature – that is where I meet God and my soul is filled so that I can come back and touch the souls of others.  I pray that my sons come back with their souls filled with the beauty and silence of the nature that surrounds them and that they will touch the souls of others when they return.

A New Year and a New Knee

I know what you’re thinking – why is she writing about the New Year in September and what does a new year have to do with a new knee? Please allow me to explain. Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and it is also the day that my mother is having knee replacement surgery. Since I can’t be with her because of the distance and my family obligations here, I am hoping you will pray with me for her speedy recovery.

The celebration of Rosh Hashanah is both a celebration of the new year and a time of renewal and forgiveness. The old is forgotten and the new is welcomed. So, on that note, we hope to soon forget the pain of mom’s old gimpy knee and we welcome the new and improved one. Mom, may you have many happy new years on your new knee!

Perfect Rice

I love my rice cooker. I know you’re not supposed to love inanimate objects, but anything that saves me time, money, and aggravation in the kitchen should be worthy of at least a little affection.  I confess that when rice cookers first appeared on the market, I thought they were one of the biggest money-making, worthless gadgets I had seen.  Why did I need another appliance to take up room in my kitchen when I can boil rice on the stove in a pan that I already own?  Ever had rice turn out as a sticky glob or tried to scrub a pan after you burned the rice on the bottom?  You might fall in love with a rice cooker, too!

Back in the days before we owned a rice cooker, my husband would dutifully eat rice when I fixed it, to set a good example for the kids, of course.  As long as I dressed it up with some type of topping, the whole family would usually eat it. Then came dinner at my sister-in-law’s house.  She pulled out a rice cooker to prepare the meal, and I laughed. But when we sat down to eat, everyone actually loved the rice – without any sauce or gravy on top.  My husband said that he would happily eat rice more often if it tasted like that.  I purchased a rice cooker that very week and I have never regretted it.

Now, there are a few guidelines to achieving perfect rice. Everyone knows about the cheap, short-grain white rice that is readily available in most grocery stores.  Do not buy that stuff. Look for jasmine or basmati rice, also sold in the same section, but much more aromatic and flavorful.  If you like a nutty flavor, look for wild rice.  Do not be fooled by the boxes of rice mixture loaded with sodium, but find a bag or bulk bin of pure wild rice or long grain and wild rice.  Please don’t let the instant rice commericals fool you into thinking that cooking rice from scratch is too difficult or time consuming.  It is much cheaper per serving than packaged rice and it only takes 25 minutes.  Just pour in the rice, pour in the water, turn it on and forget it. If the rest of your meal is not done then, never fear. Your new servant will keep the rice piping hot, ready whenever you are.  And the best part –  no burned pans to scrub!

Newton’s Law meets Murphy’s Law

Don’t you hate that pit in your stomach when you know you’ve made a big mistake but you’re not exactly sure how bad the fallout will be? Then you lose a night’s sleep tossing and turning, beating yourself up for doing something that seemed reasonable at the time, but now you know it wasn’t. Do you remember back to high school when even minor decisions carried the weight of the world?

Enter my son, high school freshman, perfectionist, and science lover working on his first science lab report of the year two days before it was due. He had written formal science lab reports before, so it should have been a fairly straightforward assignment. But he panicked – the all-out, I-can’t-think-straight- and-I’m not-even-sure -of-my-name kind of panic that renders one incapable of coherent thought. He couldn’t get a graph of his data to look right when all of a sudden it dawned on him; his lab group had done the experiment backwards and all of his data was inverted. Because they were using some new high-tech equipment to perform the experiment at school, there was no chance of us replicating it at home. Gone are the days of science experiments with simple household supplies.

We let him have a good cry, assured him that this wasn’t the end of the world, and then together came up with some strategies to handle the situation. He would contact the teacher first thing in the morning to see about the possibility of re-doing the experiment on his own time. If that wasn’t possible, we would encourage him to write the paper explaining his skewed results in light of his errors. Either way, some good life lessons were being learned. By morning, his head had cleared and by that afternoon, I had my son back. He had been able to re-do the experiment during lunch ( my son who is hungry as soon as I put away the food had given up his lunch to do this!). He confidently came home and with a renewed sense of purpose has been diligently working to complete the paper.

The whole episode reminds me of those VISA commercials:

Cost of trying to write a lab report with incorrect data:1 night of tears, 2 stressed parents, and 1 missed lunch period to re-do the experiment with the teacher

Value of redeeming his self-confidence and knowing that he overcame one of life’s many hurdles on his own:

Priceless.

Parenting. It’s everywhere you want to be.

Amani Ya Juu

Many in our country are reveling in the fact that a woman with a real shot at winning has made it on a presidential ticket. Finally, some feel, the glass ceiling is being shattered. While we watch a woman climbing to the very top in America, the women in many parts of Africa are merely hoping for a chance to make a simple living at the very bottom. Broken by war and despair, they have almost given up hope of being able to care for their families. That is where Amani Ya Juu comes in. This organization, based in Nairobi, Kenya, offers women the opportunity to learn the marketable skill of sewing, teaches business principles, and provides a loving and nurturing place of healing for women from a variety of troubled backgrounds. They are a fair trade organization, striving to promote peace through faith in the God whose peace transcends all racial and ethnic strife. No money from their sales goes to administration, but it all goes back to helping the women start their new lives. Each of these ladies has an incredible story to share, and we have the opportunity to be blessed by hearing some of them. In October, the cities of Orlando, FL, Charlotte, NC, and Washington, DC will host their first ever American tour.

“Sankofa: Look Back, Walk Forward” is a high-end fashion narrative produced by the women of Amani ya Juu.

Through brilliant costumes, choreography, lighting and music women from seven countries – Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda – use the fashion runway as their stage to depict courageous journeys from war-torn homes to their new life of wholeness and reconciliation at Amani ya Juu.

This is sure to be a one of a kind, inspiring event. If you are fortunate enough to live near one of these cities, I hope you will be able to attend. If you live too far, please visit the Amani Ya Juu website to read some of their stories and see their wonderful creations. And remember today, whatever your problems may be, how truly blessed you are.

You Are so Blessed

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who won’t survive the week.

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 20 million people around the world.

If you attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death, you are more blessed than almost three billion people in the world.

If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If your parents are still married and alive, you are very rare, especially in the United States.

If you hold up your head with a smile on your face and are truly thankful, you are blessed because the majority can — but most do not.

If you can hold someone’s hand, hug them or even touch them on the shoulder, you are blessed — because you can offer God’s healing touch.

If you can read this message, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read anything at all.

You are so blessed in ways you may never even know.