Izzy&Nina@church Sept 2014“Can I go to church with you, Nina?” my 7-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle, asked.

She had spent Saturday night with me and was reluctant to see our time together end. I felt the same way.

“Sure!” I said. “Let’s just check with your mom and dad.” After getting permission, Isabelle and I got ready and headed toward the church.

“Can I stay with you the whole time?” she asked from the backseat.

I mentally reviewed my responsibilities for the morning: decorating the serving table for our brunch, baking mini quiches, sneaking into the in-progress service to hear the sermon, back to the kitchen to get all the food on the table…then teach upper elementary Sunday School. “Yep!” I said, smiling. “You can stay with me all the time.”

And she did. Helping straighten the doily under the centerpiece, placing the quiche on the baking sheet, hugging close to my side when we slid in the back door of the sanctuary, sitting in the front row of Sunday School. But the thing I loved best about having Isabelle with me was that, at every opportunity, she took hold of my hand. Whenever we were standing close together, I felt her slip her slim, soft hand into mine. It was unobtrusive, natural, spontaneous.

I’ve been thinking about that simple act all week and have come to this conclusion: Handholding is vastly underrated. What better says, “I am glad to be here next to you”? What better way to say, “You are special” — without even opening your mouth? It’s the most basic of touches. The first thing a baby learns is to grab hold of our fingers. We hold toddlers’ hands to keep them safe and, when first love comes calling, we hold hands to keep from floating away with happiness. Sometimes, at my church, we hold hands when we pray — a circle of intercession or celebration, unbroken, intimate.

And while the Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus holding hands, it says a great deal about his “touching” people. Blind people, sick people. People covered in leprous sores. Small rowdy children and humble Roman centurions. I can imagine Jesus good-naturedly slapping Peter on the shoulder, putting a loving arm around John, touching his mother’s face as a tear tracked its way down her cheek.

Songs and poems have been written about Jesus walking beside us or even carrying us. But this week, I’ve been imaging Jesus holding my hand. Lightly. No pressure. Palm to palm we’ve walked through my daily ups and downs. And even when my palm got sweaty, His never did.

I’m going to remember how good, how joyful Isabelle’s touch made me feel. And pass that joy on to others — one handful at a time

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photo 1The mumbling started last spring, before the first blade of green grass appeared in the churchyard.

“It’s just not going to be the same.”

“They’ll take down all the trees.”

“We’ll be worshipping in a parking lot!”

“We should have bought that property years ago.”

Every summer, our church has “early service” in the woods behind our building. It’s lovely, really. Primitive wooden benches nestled beneath ancient trees. Birds and chipmunks scurry nearby; we take communion to the music of leaves rustling overhead. You get the feeling that you are far removed from the bustle of modern life.photo 2

But that was before the apartment complex that is fast rising behind the church property. Large buildings with rows of windows. Asphalt that stretches on and on like melted licorice. All week long machines hum and power nailers crack. Soon the occupants will arrive, with their boxes of treasures and messy lives.

I’m proud to say that my church family has moved past the grumbling (well, most of us). Has recognized that a mission field, as well as an apartment complex, has appeared on our doorstep. We’ve made up cool cloth bags with our church logo and filled them with fun things: Christian reading material (thank you Guideposts!), microwave popcorn with a punny label (Pop on over and meet us!), a coupon for a free homemade birthday cake. Teen-aged boys will even be available to help families move in.

In Luke, chapter 10, Jesus told a rather long story about knowing who your neighbor is. It involved bandits and bloody bandages and religious folk too particular to dirty their hands with real life predicaments. It also featured a Samaritan, an outsider who recognized a need when he saw it. Perhaps if He were telling it today, that tale might involve zoning boards and bulldozers and U-Haul trailers.

Summer is coming to an end and so are our early outdoor services. I’m hoping that by next summer, many of our neighbors will be coming to church. Perhaps there will even be a well-worn path through the remaining trees that separate our properties.

I’d like that. And I think Jesus would, too.

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photo 2[1].cropWhat do you get when you combine 7 energetic kids with a creek full of crawfish? Laughter and splashing and squealing. And a tiny little miracle.

Last week Gary and I were on vacation in Tennessee, visiting his sister Vickie and her husband. All of our grandchildren were with us. The oldest 6 were happily wading with their Uncle Joe Ed, grabbing at wiggly shapes that swam around their ankles. Sun dappled the water, and the family’s two hound dogs crashed noisily among the trees, sniffing at roots and old leaves.

I watched from the shore, content to take pictures and store up memories. My sister-in-law held our youngest grandson, Cole. At four months, catching crawfish was a bit beyond his skill set. I’m not sure who noticed it first, but soon someone said, “Look, a butterfly!”

Indeed. A lovely little orange creature that seemed drawn to Cole. My husband came over, and we watched in wonder as the butterfly landed again and again on the baby. His shirt. His hand. His leg. His arm. Even the loping dogs couldn’t scare this delicate creature away. For more than 20 minutes, this butterfly “played” with Cole. Its wings caressed his cheek, clung to his fingers. We all became silent, amazed at what we were seeing. Why was it doing this? Sometimes it would take a loop above us, a low swoop that invariably brought it back to the baby.

photo 2Cole was fascinated, too, bending in for a closer look. Two of God’s perfect creatures, fixated on each other.

Soon the mess of muddy kids clambered ashore and came running toward us. With one last flutter against Cole’s knee, the butterfly flew into the woods. The moment was broken. Gone.

Southern folklore holds that a butterfly that lands on you may be the spirit of a departed loved one. I don’t really believe that…yet, I couldn’t help thinking of my mother-in-law Opal, Cole’s great grandmother. After a painful struggle with cancer, she’d died 5 years ago—in the home of my sister-in-law here in Tennessee, not far from the creek where we now sat. She had loved babies so!

Life is full of wonders. A butterfly begins as a lowly insect, wraps itself tightly into a shroud, dies to all it’s known…and emerges to soar on breezes and dance among the flowers. Babies grow; children learn to read and ride bikes. We grow old and, perhaps, wise. All is change except for the Unchangable One.

And that’s ok. Better than ok. Because the God of creeks and crawfish and butterflies fills each day with wonder. We only have to pay attention…and maybe, just maybe, be still.

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IMG_0931In the last week I have baked three batches of cupcakes. And while each has been topped with generous amounts of my homemade buttercream frosting and spangled with festive sprinkles, their destinations couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Or poignant.

The first two batches were for my great nieces’ birthday party.

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Lexi was turning 5 and her big sister Lilly, 7. Since Lilly doesn’t like chocolate (I know, weird), I made two dozen lemon cupcakes with lemon frosting and purple sugar sprinkles. I also made two dozen “ice cream cone” cupcakes, baking vanilla cake in the cones and topping with lots of frosting tinted strawberry pink. Oh, and chocolate sprinkles!

The party was fun. And rowdy. Dozens of kids ran through the house, laughing and playing. Adults formed small groups and talked for hours. We ate chicken and creamy mashed potatoes and fresh fruit salad. “Happy Birthday” was sung (twice) and candles blown (and blown) out. The present-opening session filled the living room floor with crumpled wrapping and discarded ribbon.

I left with a heart overflowing with love for my family…and a smile on my face.

The third batch of cupcakes was for a funeral dinner at my church.

I didn’t know Lois well. She was aging and ailing for as long as I’ve attended this church. But I am friends with her daughter and son-in-law. And I am especially good friends with her grandson, Nicky. (I won him over the year he was 4 and I created a “transporter room” for VBS, with different Bible characters beaming in nightly.)

I visited Lois in the hospital last year when she had pneumonia, taking her a copy of the Sunday sermon and bringing her communion. (We mostly talked about Nicky.) I also went to see her when she was moved to hospice a couple of weeks ago. She was sleeping when I arrived, but I sat beside her and read her a few Psalms and the 14th chapter of John.

Although I usually enjoy baking, I felt strange as I made my dessert for the funeral dinner. Are cupcakes even appropriate? Should they have black icing? I baked fudge chocolate cake and topped with swirls of pink buttercream. They looked happy. Too happy? On a strange impulse, I reached in the cupboard and brought out the confetti sprinkles. I shook a few onto the cupcakes. And then a few more. Now they looked downright festive.photo[1]

At church, I placed my cupcake creations among the more subdued apple cobblers and plates of cookies.

In the sanctuary, slides of Lois’s life glided past on the huge overhead screen up front. Lois playing the piano, one arm around a huge dog who was sharing the bench with her. Lois with a silly-looking stuffed beaver on her head. Lois smiling in front of a Christmas tree practically buried in presents. Lois holding the hand of her husband as they cut the cake at their 45th wedding anniversary party (the same husband who now sat straight-backed in the front row, staring at the casket). Lois happily holding Nicky at his pre-school graduation. Lois as a high-school graduate, wearing a dress imprinted with purple lilacs, a twinkle in her lovely dark eyes.

The eulogy was filled with stories showing how much Lois loved life, her family, her church. Again and again, people laughed out loud at the mischief Lois had caused, at the joy she had embraced.

Suddenly I was glad I had made cupcakes. And sprinkled them with confetti. I somehow think Lois would approve.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). And it’s true. Birthday parties and funerals and everything in-between. All part of the circle of life, all held together by God.

And all connected, at least in my sphere of influence, by cupcakes.

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photo[11]I live a scant four miles from Lake Michigan, but I don’t frequent its shores nearly often enough. But when I do, I always learn something.

This morning was one of those times.

The day was cool and gray, the sky the color of dust bunnies. The water was calm, lapping at the shore with a whoosing rhythm. Best of all, I was the only one on the beach. (That’s what happens when you arrive at 7 a.m.)

I swished through the loose sand and down to the water’s edge, where the path was packed tighter by the constant kiss of the waves. I stepped around lost and left-behind items: a plastic SpongeBob SquarePants sand bucket, a pair of gray canvas shoes, an empty Crayola pack. The gulls clustered in abundance, eyeing me with interest and slight annoyance, scattering when I came too close.

I tried to pray. Try is the operative word here, since my mind was constantly rushing off into the territory of “must do” lists and wandering through my cluttered calendar of commitments. Lately, the world had seemed a bit overwhelming—problems at church, friends who were ill, aging concerns that seemed to always visit around 2 a.m. And the international news was hard to understand, must less articulate in prayer. Nothing I did felt important, life-changing. What were even my best efforts against the troubles of the world?

And then I spotted it. A glimmer of blue, tiny and bright, half-buried in wet sand. I bent to retrieve it. Beach glass. It was half the size of my pinkie fingernail, yet I had noticed it. Deep, deep blue, the royal of king’s robes and priceless sapphires. Where had it come from? What did it used to be?

I kept walking, holding the tiny shard in my hand. Praying came easier. Little things do matter. Small acts are noticed. God is in control of an out-of-control world.

I brought my bit of blue home and added it to some of the other beach glass I’ve found. It is by far the smallest piece. And by far my favorite.photo[14]

 

beach cropI spent last week with my friend Lurlene, her three teen-aged granddaughters…and Jesus.

Lurlene drove up from Chattanooga, bringing Kylie, Olivia and Abbie with her. The girls live in Alabama, and part of the sightseeing and shopping fun I’d scheduled was two days in the big city of Chicago.

I was a little surprised when Kylie said, “I want to be sure and bring Flat Jesus with me.”

Flat Jesus?

I’d heard Jesus called lots of things, but never flat!

I soon realized that Flat Jesus was a holier incarnation of Flat Stanley, a fictional character who is flattened by a bulletin board and has lots of adventures in his new “flattened” state.

Flat Jesus didn’t make an appearance during our shoe shopping experience (nothing looks as cute in a red sparkly pump as a 15-year-old foot!) or when the girls played dress-up in my closet (who could resist stacks of hat boxes and baskets of dreamy scarves?) or when we stopped by the Indiana Dunes to leave a few footprints in the sand. He didn’t show up when I took the girls horseback riding at my friend Barb’s. But once we were Chicago-bound, Jesus suddenly appeared.

Kylie & Jesus cropHe was, well…flat. And dressed in a rather sporty-looking yellow robe with green trim, topped off with a purple sash. He was, of course, bearded. And for some reason he was holding a smiling gecko-type creature over his head. (A flat pet?)

Everywhere we went, someone would call out, “Let’s show Flat Jesus!” Over and over, Kylie pulled him from her purse to let him (Him?) experience some new wonder.

Photo opps, of course, followed. Flat Jesus on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. (He wasn’t the least bit afraid of the height, even when we walked out on the glass ledge. I can’t say as much for the girls.) Flat Jesus riding the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. (I got this funny feeling he would get a kick out of rocking our car of screaming females.) Flat Jesus salivating over Chicago-style pizza. (At least he didn’t multiply it to feed the entire restaurant…bad for business.)

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It was all great fun.

But I couldn’t help thinking that having Flat Jesus along made me more aware of the real Jesus. Of the fact that He is present in all the silly and sacred moments of my days. He’s there when I make the kind gesture…or the sarcastic comment. When I say my morning prayers…or rush past them to begin my workday. He knows my thoughts and dreams, my frailties and failures.

And, amazingly, He loves me through it all.

Lurlene and the girls left Saturday morning (after a rather frantic search for a pair of missing glasses and two attempts to close the trunk on all their loot). The house sank into a quiet that, while refreshing, was a bit morose. My flip-flops echoed as I walked through the empty house.

Empty? Not quiet.

Jesus was there with me, as He always is. And there is nothing flat about my powerful, constant Friend!

photo[9]It’s that time of year again. The time when birds sing and grass sprouts, when one is driven to gratitude and song…and stealing. At least I am.

It’s not a big theft. Just a snatch and grab. And I never take more than an armload.

Lilacs.

For years I depended on my mother-in-law’s bushes. They were ancient and gigantic and always loaded with fragrant purple blossoms. “Don’t forget my lilacs,” I’d say to my husband Gary. And he never did. Spring after spring he brought me bouquets so big I had to divide them between several vases.

At last those bushes grew too overgrown, too old. And one day Gary and his dad pulled them out and planted a row of pines. (Sturdy but unexciting plants.)

After that, I always had my eye out for an “abandoned” lilac—an empty house or a forgotten bush beside the highway. Usually I was able to grab at least a cursory bouquet.

But it wasn’t the same as having Gary deliver them to me, as having my house filled with the perfume of love that came with those flowers. It wasn’t the same as knowing that Gary had climbed out of his truck, reached into the bush and pulled the flowers into his denim shirt for me.

Then, a few weeks ago, Gary commented casually, “I’ve been looking for some lilacs.” I smiled, thinking about him lumbering down county roads in his dump truck while casting furtive glances toward fencerows and fields, searching for a flash of purple.

On our way home from dinner the other night, we took a shortcut down a bumpy back road. Gary had torn down an old house there a few years ago, and I found myself looking into the overgrown yard where it used to me.

“Lilacs!” I screamed.

Gary, being used to me after all these years, executed a smooth transition to the berm of the road. Then we climbed out and over the gate blocking the driveway. (I seem to remember something about a “no trespassing” sign…) The blossoms where high up, and Gary had to wade into brambles and undergrowth to bend the huge limbs down to where he could tear off a bouquet.

When he made his way toward me, I could barely see his blue eyes (the ones I’ve always loved) above the mass of flowers.

I insisted on a picture; Gary insisted that we get going as soon as possible.

The Apostle Paul tells us that “love is patient, love is kind.” Love is also thoughtful and generous, expressed in an endless number of ways.

Some of them involve lilac bouquets.

 

 

DSC06431The poor thing had seen better days. That was obvious before I even pulled into the driveway. Still there was something majestic about it, standing skeletal and stately against a blue spring sky.

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The whole family was due soon to watch the demise. My husband had already brought over the excavator and cables. Before moonrise, this old barn would be gone.

I walked around it, snapping picture after picture. It seemed important that I document that it had been here, that at some point it had stood proud and tall—the center of a bustling farm. I could almost hear cows lowing to be milked, smell fresh hay tossed into the loft, catch the snort of a workhorse weary from a day in the fields.

“Nina! Nina!” I looked up to see my grandchildren running toward me, all legs and smiles and energy. Their mothers weren’t far behind, cameras and video recorders in hand.

It was a momentous event.

The old barn stood on property owned jointly by my son and daughter. Now Brett was getting ready to build a new home for his (growing!) family on a gentle rise a thousand feet off the road…and the unsightly and unsafe barn had to go.

Kids were corralled as Brett climbed into the excavator. “Sure the cables are secure?” he asked his dad.

Gary nodded, motioning for him to begin pulling. The cable drew taut. The barn moaned, then swayed. Moments passed. All had gone silent,  kids and adults equally awed at the site of the structure trembling with the effort to hold itself erect.

But an excavator is a powerful force. And soon the barn fell, collapsing on its side like an exhausted elephant.

Oddly, no one cheered.

The kids began a game of football on the grass nearby while their mothers talked among themselves about soccer schedules and summer plans. Brett began working the debris into what had been the basement of the barn, crawling the big orange machine over the wreckage and compressing it again and again.

I walked around back, needing to be alone to absorb the loss of the barn. Lately, I’d been feeling a bit old and battered myself. The world seemed to be moving faster than I liked. And I was pretty sure a few moans had escaped my lips recently.

Then, suddenly, there they were. Daffodils! Dozens and dozens of them, zigzagging across the field, blowing in the wind like dancing fairies. I laughed aloud.DSC06423

I glanced toward the hill that would someday be home to my family. I imagined the laughter of my grandchildren, the calls of their mother urging them to “come in and wash up for dinner.”

To everything there is a season. A time to build and a time to tear down. A time to mourn and a time to dance.

A time to celebrate all the seasons of your life.

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photo 2What do you get when you cross 14 kids with 275 plastic eggs filled with stickers and chocolate and quarters? Mayhem, bedlam…and more fun than you can shake a package of Peeps at.

That was the scene at my house yesterday. After church and lunch, all the kids and grandchildren, all the nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews showed up for a dessert buffet and egg hunt. (The weather was perfect—the warmest Easter we’ve had in four years!)

My sister and I had baked all day Saturday: a chocolate double-layer “sunflower” cake, buttery yellow cupcakes piled high with homemade icing, chocolate chip bars (my personal fave!), cheesecake topped with home-canned cherry filling, six dozen decorated sugar cookies (that’s 72 works of art!), bowls of fresh strawberries and melon and…the treat that stole the show: Peep-kabobs!

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The kids raced and giggled their way across the yard, pulling bright eggs from tree branches and car bumpers and bushes. Everyone was happy; no whining or complaining. When grandson Mace, age 5, found the “Grand Prize Egg” with the $20 inside, his two older brothers seemed genuinely happy for him.

After the frenzy subsided, the adults launched into a volleyball tournament while the kids ate chocolate and jumped on the trampoline. A few of us volunteered to stay inside and take on the “job” of holding the two babies, grandson Cole and great-niece Eve.

The party broke up just as the sun was setting, a great ball of orange that seemed a kiss on the wonder of the day. Cries of, “Where’s my bag of candy?” and “Get your shoes on” and “Thanks, Nina!” filled the air.

And then it was quiet. I watched the last car pull out of the driveway, tiny hands waving out the window. My family.

This morning, I saw my niece Scarlet had posted a picture of the kids all lined up by the garage, bags in hand, waiting for the egg hunt to start. She had captioned it: “We have enough kids to have our own egg hunt—14!”

As a child, I always wanted to be a missionary. To trek through the jungle waving my King James Bible overhead, looking for natives to convert. Although my heart was willing, I never got that call from God. I have spent my entire life in the Midwest. But, looking at that picture of my family, I smiled. Mission field? I’ve got one right here, literally in my backyard.

Chances are you do, too.

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photoMy grandson, Cole, is one stubborn little boy. I don’t know this because he refuses to share his toys or deliberately disobeys his parents.

He is, after all, only one day old.

But for months and months, Cole resolutely stayed upside down in the womb, refusing to turn even when it was time to begin his exit strategy. This position was difficult for his mother to handle. Stacy’s heartburn was extreme. Her hips and lower back ached and pained her terribly. As the weeks wore on, you could almost see in the way she carried the baby that something was very wrong.

“I need the baby to turn,” Stacy said to me.

“We’ll pray about it,” I said. And we did. I emailed my friends to seek God’s help in this. I put Stacy on the prayer chain at my church.

Days went by. Weeks went by. The baby didn’t budge.

“I don’t want a C-section,” Stacy told me after one of her doctor’s visits. I could hear the tears she was holding back. Stacy had already given birth to three healthy, lively children—Isabelle (6), Knox (4) and Will (2)—and she would need to take care of them when she came home with the new baby. “I need the baby to turn.”

Little Will did all he could to help. He would place his face close to Stacy’s belly and talk to the unborn child. “Baby, this is Will. Flip! Come out and I will hold you.”

Stacy is a firm believer in prayer. But she knows that answered prayer often depends on our doing all we can to achieve the hoped-for outcome. So she read and listened to strategies others said had worked in the past with breech babies. She went to the health club and did handstands in the deep end of the pool. (I am truly sorry I do not have video of this for you.) She submitted to acupuncture. “The baby wiggled around like crazy but didn’t turn,” she reported. She went to the hospital, along with her husband, Brett, and two doctors worked all morning trying to turn the baby by manipulating (pushing!) on her belly. Needless to say, this was painful. And, unfortunately, disappointing. The week before she was scheduled for her C-section, she went to a special pregnancy chiropractor every day.

But mostly Stacy prayed. Day after day. All day long as she went about her work and while taking care of her family, she would place her hands on her belly and pray that God would flip this child.

The night before she was to go into the hospital, Stacy and I talked on the phone, finalizing the plans for my taking care of the other three children. “Do you have your head around the fact that you will be having a C-section in the morning?” I asked. I thought it important that she accept what was going to happen to her.

“No,” Stacy said with a nervous little laugh. “I don’t.”

Stacy has a stubborn faith. I had talked to her about how God’s will isn’t always what we pray for, that no matter what comes our way God will work it for our good. She agreed…but in her heart continued to believe her baby would turn and be born naturally.

The day of the procedure arrived. I prayed that the doctor would have a steady hand, that the incision would be small, that the baby could be snatched whole and healthy from the womb. I waited hours for my son to call me. Finally the phone rang.

I grabbed it and blurted out, “How is everything? Did the surgery go well?”

Brett chuckled. “Well…the baby turned. Now we’re waiting for Stacy’s labor to begin.”

I couldn’t believe it.

But I’m sure Stacy could.

Hebrews tells us that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It’s a good thing to trust God’s will, to acknowledge that what comes our way has been filtered through the hands of a loving Father. But I think perhaps we “mature” Christians give up too easily. That we need to hold fast to that which we pray for, to that which we long for. Maybe we need to be a bit more stubborn.

Like Stacy.

And like baby Cole.

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