Monday, March 7, 2011

Remain in Me

"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." John 15:4

Intimidated. That's the word I'd use to describe my feelings about reading the Bible. For a very long time, I've felt intimidated, uneducated, lesser, even stupid.

I didn't become a Christian until age 24, well into a teaching career and about to be married. By then, I figured it was time to straighten up and "do the right thing." Besides, the man I was dating (now my husband) was a deeply-rooted Christian, and I was just a seeker. I figured I needed to "woman-up."

Do the right thing. Be a good Christian. Woman-up. Get a date. Those were my sole motivations for stumbling into seriously considering the Christian faith, though I had long witnessed, even envied, a peace other Christians seemed to have. Yet, it always appeared just out of reach for me and my chaotic life. Plus, though I owned one, I had only cracked the binding of the Bible a few times, that is, when I could remember where I'd stored it. To me, it looked scary. Thousands of thin, silver-tipped pages with rules, weird names and old stories...Frankly, I didn't know what to do with it. What was it all about? And who really was this Jesus whom I'd only seen on the front of church bulletins at Easter, when I'd dared to wander into church? A twisted figure hanging by his hands, blood dripping from a crown of looked more like a preview from a horror flick. Where's the peace in that? I remember thinking.

Though it didn't go well, that first date with my husband changed everything. While I was just getting to know Scott, trying to impress him with a pretty dress and a, "Sure, I'll go with you to church this Sunday," smile, I had no idea that I would come face to face with Jesus that day. Besides, unless He was dressed in a loin cloth and carrying a crown, I wouldn't have known what He looked like.

The organ music passed as quickly as the sermon and collection plate. I'd almost made it to the end of this odd observance. Ten more minutes, and I'd be sitting with my date, in a corner booth at Applebee's, surroundings much more familiar to me. One last song listed in the bulletin promised to end the service, and to free me. Doxology. I looked at the weird word that, unlike the other hymns, was mysteriously without a page number. A quick glance in the front and back of the worn-out hymnal left me in a quiet panic. No Dox-ology listed.

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." they all stood and sang together. Scott also belted out the words beside me, as familiar to him as the Happy Birthday song. It wasn't until midway through that he noticed the tears streaming down my face and rolling over frozen lips. Busted.

Stupid. Uneducated. Heathen. Those must have been the words they were all saying, or at least thinking, about me, I imagined. Besides, I was hearing them loudly enough inside my own head. I wanted to disappear. Yet, in a gesture that sealed the marriage deal for me, Scott stopped singing, too, and put a gentle hand on my shoulder. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that man in the loin cloth and bloody crown happened to be sitting near and had touched me as well. I wonder if that's what mercy feels like.

"You should tell them," Scott encouraged, instead of judging me or blowing it off. "They should print the page number in the bulletin..." For pitiful people like me, is how I wanted to finish his sentence. Stupid. Uneduca-- But, something stopped the negative thoughts this time. I wrote a quick note to the pastor instead, and sheepishly signed my name. We couldn't get to Applebee's fast enough.

"You're right, and thank you," were the surprising words I received in return from Pastor Thompson, the man who would marry Scott and I just fifteen months later. "Do you mind if we call on you once in awhile for other suggestions? We could use your perspective around here. And, hey, are you two in a Sunday School class yet? We'd love to have you." Needed. Wanted. Valued. Those faint words began replacing the ugly ones in my head, and a loving relationship of discipleship and Bible study began in the first church I came to call myself a member. Yes, this must be what mercy feels like.

Even sixteen years later, my knowledge of the Bible is still quite incomplete. And, though I sometimes still feel "behind" or "lesser" than those around me who grew up in church and can recite sweet verses of mercy from memory, I still cling to the blue, NIV Study Bible Scott gave me that year, the one where I wrote Jennifer "Johnson" for the first time in the front of those silver-tipped pages. It's the same Bible I read to our 10 and 11-year-olds at breakfast before school each day. Everytime I open it, I still feel a little intimidated, but I'm getting there. In fact, it helps me remember that my walk with Jesus started with a relationship first. Scott Johnson and Corinth Church were Jesus in skin to me that day, and I have never forgotten how that beautiful man on the cross reached down and touched me through them. It makes me want to know everything about Him. It makes me want to reach out and touch others in His name.

"Remain in me, and I will remain in you..." are the words He used to instruct and encourage his disciples just prior to his own death on the cross. What sweet mercy he gave to his confused and anxious disciples that day. He continues to extend the same invitation and ultimate promise to all of us as well. It's a beautiful exchange, an endless marriage of Word and relationship. The Bible is our conversation piece with God, our textbook of all textbooks, and a wonderful place of refuge all at the same time. It's also our brilliant model of how to seek, identify, and bring others into relationship with God, too. It certainly keeps me coming back for more and more, and more, and more...

Thank you, Jesus, for teaching us through your Word and touching us through Your people. Help us to remain in You, Lord, and therefore, receive Your perfect plan for us. Teach us Your truths and squelch the negative lies the enemy may be whispering to us. It is when we remainin You that we are confident, fruitful and genuine. Grant us mercy and grace always, Lord. Keep us coming back for more. Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Jesus Zombies

I love Facebook for its ability to reach far and connect old dots. I always wondered where my college buddies are now or what happened to playground pals from elementary school. Now, I know. I love FB for more than that, though. What’s fascinating is that the subtleties of personality are present despite the once-removed nature of interaction there. Life ambition, quirky humor and even harbored resentments lie in status updates, photo uploads and personality quizzes. Recently, a FB friend posted a quiz revealing his most hated types of people. I nearly spit out my coke with laughter when one of his answers was, “Jesus Zombies.”

“A Jesus Zombie? Is that what I am?” I asked myself, imagining my friends and I as walking dead with empty eyes, arms affront, moaning the name of Jesus in ridiculous monotone. Random belly laughs erupted the rest of the day at the copier, while driving home and even when walking my Jesus-Zombie dog. The mental metaphor just wouldn’t leave me.

The human brain rests more comfortably with patterns than in chaos, so I was not surprised at all by the stereotype. Categorizing is a natural response, shaped by life experiences. It’s quite simply our attempt to make sense of things. The problem is, none of us can claim the same categories. While the Jesus-Zombie classification is hysterically foreign to me, I wonder to how many others, however, it may seem familiar. How are we, as Jesus followers, like zombies?

Definitions for the word include, mindless and controlled. While Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead made “zombie” popular, etymology reveals a probable Haitian descent, most likely derived from the word zonbi, a voodoo-spiritual term for a person brought back to life from the dead without speech or free will. Interesting. I’m still chuckling.

I had almost forgotten about the Jesus-Zombie metaphor until Jesus himself brought it back to me recently. While I could have used a good laugh, a two-week stint with my husband in and out of the hospital and a personal bout with the flu did not conjure any visits from zombies. In fact, those friends that I had earlier imagined ambling aimlessly in mummy clothes were anything but lifeless to me. Just the opposite, in fact.

Consider Zombie #1, my friend Robin, who happily hosted my daughter in her home, despite Lily’s growing separation anxiety and horrid fear of seeing her Daddy on a gurney. Going beyond “the nice thing to do,” Robin cooked Lily’s favorite foods, carried her to the pool and found herself energized, not burdened, by doing everything in her power to make Lily’s life normal. And what about the time she waited, and waited, and endlessly waited in the hospital parking lot while I comforted Lily- in a dead panic at the thought of leaving Mommy behind again? No, mindless isn’t a word I would use to describe my Jesus-friend.

What about Zombie #2, my girlfriend Debby? With one surgery behind us and five crazy nights with my Asperger-diagnosed son in tow, she antied up for five more, without hesitation, when complications sent my husband back under the knife. “Because I love you,” was her matter-of-fact reasoning. Lifeless isn’t someone who hears you on the phone say, “No, I don’t need you to come to the hospital” and shows up anyway proclaiming, “You can get mad at me if you want to, but I had to lay my eyeballs on you to make sure my friend was ok.”

Let’s think about Zombie #3, my sister-friend, Cindy- or Cindy-Lou, as I call her. She texted me scripture every day, sometimes three times a day, and was an outlet to the world when I was stuck in the catacomb-esque CT scan waiting area, my husband fighting pain and nausea. She will never have any idea how comforting a simple “Hw RU my frnd?” can be. And her life-breathing scripture?…a complete Godsend. She and technology were simply vessels feeding me messages from above. I’m not talking about unrealistic “You will be healed” scripture, either. While there is a place for such, Cindy-Lou knew I needed to hear instead, “God is our refuge and strength, a very-present help in times of trouble,” Psalm 46:1 and, “He gives power to the faint and weary,” Isaiah 40:29. I wouldn’t say Cindy is living as one under mind control, would you?

Still, some would argue that these are things that church people just do. Nonsense. Jesus isn’t just a connection I have with these ladies, it’s THE connection. Jesus Zombies don’t go deep, and I have rarely gone deeper in friendship than with them. That’s why they show up in force when I am in need. I’d do the same for them in a Zombie-second. They understand what a privilege it is to be Jesus to another person, and they do it so well. These are just three of the many, besides my sweet family, who called, visited, texted, prayed, mowed our grass, made food for us and even offered to do the laundry.

So, call us Jesus Zombies if you like. Besides, I guess it’s just the newest slam-version of Jesus-Freak. But, I have never been more blessed by the hands of my very free-will exercising, life-giving, mindful and loving friends. Guess we have a great idea for a costume party, though.

Click here if you'd like to read the introduction to this series.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

She Sees God in Butterflies

She was a silent savior the first time I met my friend Debby. There I was, facing the ultimate terror- a room full of rowdy Sunday school children. A former high school teacher, the task of wiping noses and wrangling four-year-olds is unnatural at best. That day, pulling hair and snatching toys seemed to be sport to one in particular. The last thing I remember is the boy scaling a moveable chalkboard. I’d never seen a kid wreck a Sunday school room! We were at his mercy…or so I thought. Debby assessed the damage and expertly took command. In mere seconds, she pushed the chalkboard to the hallway, scooped up our small renegade and admonished him with an excellent mixture of soft and firm verbiage. This same phrasing she used when his parents returned to collect their little angel. While I stood frozen, Debby personified true grace in arbitration.

I continue to live in awe of my friend, but it isn’t because she’s perfect. In fact, after years of fumbling through friendships, I have learned that outward perfection sometimes hides an empty heart. So, I seek the heart of a person first, and what I have found in Debby’s is exceptional and overflowing. Deb is always looking for an opportunity to give…and to give BIG. A household, full-time job, a husband and twin boys to manage, she is able to do amazing things with little time and resources. In the few years I’ve known her, I’ve watched her organize secret appreciation functions, manage weekly ministry dinners, deliver coffee to those stuck in hospital waiting rooms, serve lunch to construction workers, become transparent to others seeking advice, take lonely elderly ladies to dinner, lead support groups and even give away her very possessions while expecting nothing in return. In fact, that’s how she prefers things. Seriously, it’s amazing to watch her work. Her humility and selfless giving never ends, and I believe God has given her a unique gift to be able to clearly see the needs around her. Also, He lovingly provides her the means to fulfill them. That seems to be Debby’s job, her purpose, and she absolutely glows when God is using her for His mission.

Watching Debby is a gift in itself, but being her friend is even more priceless. Friendship is where we get the good stuff, if we truly let others in. The behind-the-scenes-Debby is even better than the one out front. I love it because I am privy to her motives, and believe me, they are rare! Once, I saw Debby take off a pair of earrings and hand them to an admiring friend. The woman was taken aback and felt embarrassed at Debby’s offer. I love the next part. Debby leaned in and whispered, “It’s just stuff. Please bless me by enjoying them.” The friend still hesitant, Debby revealed, “Look, God is working on my want of material things, and it is a lesson for me to be able to give you something you would enjoy even more than I would. Plus, they’re just earrings!” Mind-blowing humility, I know! Folks sometimes don’t know how to take her, and a few might even argue that it’s excessive people-pleasing. Contrarily, I think it’s fantastic, Jesus-worthy stuff, and I just want to cheer when I see Debby in action.

I know how she does it all. Debby’s relationship with Jesus is her driving force, and it has a magnetic effect. Emerging from a monstrous past, her survival skills are literally (and unfortunately) perfected. Notice I didn’t say punctuality, a sense of fashion, or even organization are her strong points. Not that they are terribly weak, but a life of “just figure out what really matters and get it done” is still lingering for her. I happen to believe the imperfections make her even more amazing. She’s real. She doesn’t control life. Controlling life is simply too exhausting, and she has found a better way. She continues to give God the reins and is a model of humble endurance. I could hear her tell her story a hundred times and never tire of it, her story of sobbing uncontrollably in her car one day- of crying out to Jesus. How she received His undeniable answer is one of the most beautiful accounts I’ve ever heard.

Now, Debby says she sees God in butterflies. I have witnessed her exchange with Him on several occasions. She simply smiles and points, and I know to where her hand extends…always a Monarch in the window or the image of a winged thing in a book or a passing sign. God is never in the figure itself but in the timing instead. That’s how she knows it’s Him. She sees God in other things, but His “I Love You” to Debby is always delivered with precision and written in butterflies. That’s why I love being around her. There’s no pretention, no judgment, but plenty of spirit-filled experience and real wisdom.

Most recently, Debby is teaching me about marriage. Many would argue that if seeking a marriage mentor, find the perfect couple and ask them a thing or two. I disagree. I want to know what it’s like for people in the trenches, I want to hear from those who have been through struggles and are enduring them despite the odds. Those people remain vigilant, and I value their experience. Debby’s opinion on marriage is priceless, and because she never loses hope, I am beginning to think it is attainable. She says, “I intentionally try to be the wife Jesus would want me to be.” Debby is simply trying to be Jesus to the person He has placed closest in proximity to her. Sound flippant and easy? Oh, how it isn’t! While remaining one of God’s most remarkable gifts, marriage can get bumpy at times when in the throes of parenthood, financial struggles or when juggling life’s curveballs. Committed marriage requires patience, compromise and lots of gut-wrenching prayer. But, if I can see my husband as Jesus does, (not as I do, or even as he does, but as JESUS does) and act accordingly, I am well on my way to living a married life with few regrets. If I can become the wife with the right balance, a balance of firm and soft, of Debby-like grace in arbitration, I will have succeeded.

In the summer, our families gather at Debby’s house. She has the most amazing back porch. Oddly enough, I consider it my personal haven. Sure, the outdoors and country air are appealing, but I think I love it for much more than that. I love it because I can enjoy those things while being me…completely me… all at the same time. I could sit for hours watching the kids run around, laughing with Debby while our husbands debate classic rock or whether God has a conscience. That’s the beauty of life, when all the right things come together, even if it’s just for a warm summer evening. Debby’s porch is surely what heaven will be like for me, a place with untamed nature, unpretentious surroundings, unbelieveable peace…and butterflies. I hope there are lots and lots of butterflies.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Angels in My Infield

It’s so easy for some of our species. To be charming. To be beautiful. To manage life. To command respect. To know just when to be submissive and when to wield power. To know when to step in or when to gracefully bow out. To know how to say, “I’m sorry,” and really mean it. And even to know where all of those secret places are where a girl can simply cry in peace.

Womanhood is at times a complete mystery to me. Yet, I am in awe of those who wear it well. I’m not sorry I feel this way, only sorry that I may have missed an opportunity or two. Being more comfortable hanging out with the guys is definitely overrated. For me, it was simply an opportunity to hide. To remain one chromosome removed from ever having to really know someone.

Perhaps this is why I am so comfortable with Jesus. He’s a guy. He doesn’t scare me as much as a 5’2” chick in heels with a color-coded day planner does. I’m 5’11” and at age 39, I’ve finally admitted that writing reminder notes on my hand is as close as I’ll come to conquering a palm-pilot. In fact, it feels good to admit things, to really accept them as they are.

That’s the only fault I’ve found with our gender. The word “accept” isn’t easily verbalized, or swallowed. Change! Do! Overcome! These are all feminine word-weapons if you ask me. Killer verbs dripping with perfume. If you don’t believe me, try instead dropping the “a” word at a tea party and listen to the silver spoons clatter to the floor. No, we like to fix people instead. Or at least attempt to love them into compliance. It’s our codependent MO, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, Jesus’ modus operandi isn’t like most guys I know. Instead of allowing me to remain at gender distance, He lays the very thing I need on my pillow every morning. Like a gentlemen, He whispers, “Accept. Endure. Carry On.” I am so in love with Him. He is poetry, and because of Him, I remain in motion.

No woman wants to hear those words except for me. At least that’s how it seems. But, my Jesus is full of soothing surprises. Just this year he has led me to the ironically impossible. Yet again, He has deemed it time to remove an element of blindness and to have me see.
What do I see? I see butterflies and Shakespeare. Bell-bottom pants and clouds of chalk dust. I see Fire’s Creek, red plum trees and hay bales. I hear the din on a school bus. I feel an unexpected embrace. I open crumpled letters. I see eyes ringed with wisdom and smiles laced with understanding. I sense endless patience, and I taste the purity of mountain water. He is holding my hand all the way. He is intentional, leading me backwards down a path of distant familiarity. A path where the non-sensical weaves together in a way only He could have possibly commanded.

I was blind before, but I see them now. I see the women in my life, but this time they have wings. They are not convoluted cherubs, but gritty-real, hanging on to halos with bare hands. They walk labyrinths, draw out-of-bounds plays and deliver sermons- the best kind- those without words. I never knew women could be so stunning. This series is dedicated to them, to those beauties that fear made me miss, or dismiss. Thank you, Jesus, for providing me a vehicle for proper thanks.

(Stay tuned for a gratitude series on the women who-with God’s help-have shaped this lump of clay I call “me” into something useful.)

Sunday, January 4, 2009


When I read books, I rarely finish one. I’m known for gleaning what’s good in a book and leaving the rest for those with more time or fewer children. I’m rarely a cover to cover girl.

One book broke the streak this past year, however. Though I now sit January shivering, the summer sun and a beach chair helped me consume Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz last June. It still calls my name and may even be one I read…I can’t believe I’m saying this…twice.

Honestly, Blue isn’t the ticket if you’re looking for plot twists or hair-raising suspense. A non-fiction, stream-of-consciousness collection of Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality as its subtitle proclaims, the book simply intrigued me.

One particular chapter, Confessions, was brilliant. In short, Miller attends an intensely liberal college, smartly challenging the concept that Christians and progressives shouldn’t mix. In a stroke of genius, Miller’s buddies decide to plant a confession booth in the midst of a blush-worthy, druggy campus festival of sorts.

“Here’s the catch…We’re not actually going to accept confessions,” says Tony, the group’s self-appointed leader. “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus.”

Miller’s words capture the moment that follows, “We all thought it was a great idea…It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide he committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ. I wanted so desperately to say that none of this was Jesus, and I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had (also) misrepresented the Lord.”

In short, the stunt was a gutsy success on campus, and the small Christian group, representing humility and truth, not smoke and mirrors, soon grew.

For six months, I’ve wanted to write this blog entry. Emerging 14 years ago from a non-Christian background, I’ve seen why and how a church can repel. Sadly, many of the reasons are true. Hypocrisy is at the top of the list. Intolerance is a close second. Miller and his friends were right. Jesus was neither intolerant nor a hypocrite. Since reading Blue Like Jazz, I’ve also wanted to experience the freedom to say to the world, “I’m sorry, too!”

So, here goes…

I’m sorry for my friend who left church as a teenager after being ridiculed, her values questioned, for wearing…dress pants.

I’m so sorry for a man I talked with recently who has just returned to church after a bitter, angry 50 years! His reason for leaving? His mother was kicked out of church for not tithing.

I’m sorry to my brother-in-law’s friend, who upon finding out I am deeply religious, assumed I would treat him differently for living with his girlfriend.

I’m sorry to others who may have been told, as I was, “Honey, you just need to pray more. Christians don’t get depressed.”

My apologies to my parents who, as I recall the stories, were strategically placed on front pews as children and screamed at with threats of damnation at the slightest misstep. (I never questioned why they didn’t take us to church.)

I’m sorry for a woman I know who was shown a horrible film as a child with her youth group, a film depicting the consequences of sin…a corpse with worms crawling from it.

I’m sorry for the recipients of those fear-based tracts…the ones strategically placed in bathrooms and at the top of staircases. I picked one up once as a college student looking for some truth. What I found instead was a dark cartoon that gave me nightmares instead of drawing me closer to God. I can still see the image of Satan laughing, throwing my “soul” over his shoulder while descending into hell.

My apologies to the other children in my vacation Bible school class I ventured to on a summer trip to grandma’s house. It took me years to get over the teacher’s statement that if we even uttered the words, “I hate” and “God” in the same sentence, we would never be forgiven. Little did he know, my eight-year-old mind would spend hours repeating, “I hate the Devil, I love God,” a million times obsessively. Guess what? When one repeats such a phrase over and over, he/she is bound to screw it up…at least once. I did- more than once, sending me into an electric panic.

I’m sorry to those who have witnessed Christians praying one moment and spewing filth, engaging in questionable business practices, cheating, or running down others in the next.

We should be absolutely ashamed! We have a lot of mending to do, and it feels great to begin here, now. My personal prayer is that in the end, the line of people who have been helped by my words or actions is longer than the trail of carnage any ignorant talk, haughty judgment, or weak example I may have left behind. None of that is who Jesus really is.

I wish others could take a second look at Jesus, as I did. I wish others could hear the real truth about Christianity instead of lumping us all together with breathy televangelists, screaming preachers, or snobby hypocrites. I wish others could find a truth-bearing church, as I have, who spews grace instead of intolerance from the pulpit. One that contributes at least double the expected funds to the needy. One that reaches out (and physically walks out) into the community and the world by the hundreds. One that employs a full counseling department, investing in and welcoming those with troubles as Jesus did. One that reveals the absolute relevance of the Bible. One that has its share of hypocrites (notice I didn’t say, “sinners”- that’s all of us) in the rows on Saturday and Sunday and loves them anyway. One that asks people to stretch themselves for others instead of hoarding their -monetary OR situational- good fortune. What good is having true, deeply satisfying peace if you can't share it?

While today I wanted to take the rare opportunity to beg forgiveness for and from others, as Miller and his courageous friends did in Blue Like Jazz, I am simultaneously praising God. I could (and sometimes do) jump up and down in gratitude that those He placed before me who mirrored His true, merciful image finally outnumbered those reflecting falsehood.

It would be a privilege to be the same humble example for others. Will you pray that I will?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Faithful, Fruitful and Fulfilled

The three F's are something my church (Covenant United Methodist Church) stresses and values for its a life faithful, fruitful and fulfilled. This weekend, our pastor's sermon, the fifth in a six-week series entitled, "The Church God Wants Us to Be" (notice it doesn't say, "The Church WE Want to Be") was focused on living a life of faith and dedication, on bearing fruit through our labor and use of God-given gifts, and on finding our place of fulfillment in life through Christ. It is fitting, then, that this weekend was an answer to a dream, a calling, a hope, a pleasure. My first book, The Proper Use of One's Shell, (illustrated by Marley Ungaro) debuted this weekend. For once, I am speechless, humbled by how amazing God complicated His plan is...and how everything I let Him take control of turns out better than I ever dreamed. Much love to all who have supported me in this. May you all find the proper use for your shell.

"He has made everything beautiful in its time." Ecclesiastes 3:11

For information on the book, check out

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Proper Use Project

Hello, all! I obviously haven't published anything here in awhile, but there's an exciting reason why. For now until its completion, check out the following blog for my latest writing project.

"He has made everything beautiful in its time..." Ecclesiastes 3:11