Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On Moving to a New Place

In 2012, about 100 blog posts ago, I set up this little blog called Permission to be Real.

It was born out of unexpected inner conflict when my youngest started kindergarten.

When I dropped him off for school the first day, I thought I might cry. Lots of my friends had cried. However, I’d dropped off my two older boys for kindergarten in previous years and did not cry. At all.

I thought it might be different with my youngest.

After I got him settled in his classroom, I returned to my car, slammed the door and for one second there was utter, blissful silence. Then suddenly, almost as an involuntary reflex, Händel’s Hallelujah Chorus rang out inside my mind!



It was as if an imaginary symphony had been invited to the first day of school, and I was the soloist. Hallelujah! The words and music just kept going in my head.

I laughed, but I also felt a little ashamed at that kind of maternal reflex.

My friends had shed actual tears, and I’d been driving away pumping my fist into the air singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

I didn’t want to fake sadness.I was glad for the changing of seasons and the new schedule. I wanted permission to say it out loud, “Hallelujah.” So I got permission from myself, and gave the name to my blog thinking maybe someone else needed permission to be real too.

Just as needs and schedules change when kids go to school, my writing schedule and needs have also changed since then. So I’ve been working on something that makes it easier (and prettier!) to blog and share. Namely, a NEW WEBISTE! (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus!)

I’ve renamed the blog Rest & Relief for Ragged Souls because life leaves me feeling a little ragged a lot of the time. I don’t have a lot of expertise in “10 ways to improve anything” or “15 hacks to make life easier,” but I am certain of this: Jesus Christ gives rest and relief for ragged souls.

Sometimes rest is a change of mind. Sometimes relief feels like a laugh. Sometimes both come from taking a fresh look at a familiar Bible story. 

photo courtesy of Nicolas Huk
However it comes, it comes from Jesus, and it is my pleasure to write about it.

So I’m announcing a move, from this corner of the internet to that one. If you’re already subscribed here, you’ll still receive these posts in your inbox, but they may look a little different as they will come from a new email address and mail service.

If you haven’t subscribed but would like to receive these posts in your email inbox, please click HERE and fill out that little form in the right sidebar and click “Sign up!” You’ll get an email asking to confirm your subscription, and after you do…Voila! A little rest and relief in your inbox!

Thank you, friends, for reading and encouraging. You multiply my joy!

See you next time at the new place!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

An Unconventional Valentine

It was what you might call an unconventional valentine. Early and unexpected. The best kind.

It didn’t come with doilies, construction paper, glue or conversation hearts.

There were no chocolates or stuffed animals.

It was delivered to me over a table full of Mexican food as we crammed in dinner between parent teacher conferences and basketball practice.
Artwork by Julie Chen: Get your print here

As it often does, our dinner conversation turned sour, and we landed on the subject of halitosis--bad breath. 

I’m not sure if it was the garlic or the refried beans that brought the topic to the fore, but in any case, the boys began to discuss the perils and hilarity of bad breath—their own and that of others.

They mocked each other about morning breath and other unpleasantries.

And though I was laughing a little inside, I bemoaned the fact that our conversations rarely cover topics that matter, and so frequently digresses into the realm of gross.

Maybe it’s just boys.

Maybe I haven’t been diligent about redirecting or disciplining this kind of dinner conversation.
Maybe both.

In any case, it was the most unlikely time or place to receive a valentine.

But I did.

As the laughter died down about decaying teeth and horrible breath, one of the boys looked at me and said, “Mom, thanks for making us brush our teeth.”

I almost choked on my chips.

I wanted to laugh, cry and shout “Ol

It may not seem like a big deal. Certainly a different kind of valentine.

And though he would deny it to the death, I’m choosing to believe it was an adolescent-boy's way to say “I love you.”

And I will take that over chocolates any day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Zooming In: On Magnifying Mirrors and Mountains

Kurt and I recently stayed in a pretty swanky hotel. We were swimming in “amenities” we didn’t even know how to use: For the safe keeping of my Walmart jewelry, there was a safe which I couldn’t open. There was also a spa and fitness room which we never found.

But there was one “amenity” that was familiar. There on the bathroom vanity, towering over the travel size toiletries was a lighted, double-sided magnifying mirror. You know the kind? Where you have to lean in 3 inches from the mirror just to bring your face into focus.

Cool. I flipped on the light switch and leaned toward my alarming reflection.

At first glance my porous skin looked like a giant kitchen sponge.

I began to tweeze, moisturize, and conceal the flaws. I outlined and brushed anything that could be improved.

At dinner that night, my mind was soaked with the spongy image from the magnifying mirror. I could hardly order my meal because of all the useless questions swirling in my head.

Can the waitress see my grays?

Does my face still resemble a sponge at this distance?

Is this lighting the same as the magnifying mirror?

I desperately tried to forget all my questions about facial hair.

The prolonged examination of my own face enlivened every insecurity, and I found myself wanting to sprint to the nearest cosmetic counter and purchase all the beauty-enhancing products.

All the little things had become way too big. I was distracted. Uncomfortable. Self-absorbed. And not much good for conversation…unless it revolves around hair coloring and age defying potions.

I came to this conclusion: zooming in on the wrong things is depressing and draining.

In contrast, on the plane ride home I zoomed out. I had a window seat and I spent the better part of two hours marveling at the topography of the Southwest. From the air you can tell exactly which direction water flowed to create the spires and canyons of Utah and Arizona. 

You can see the crests and crinkles bordering tributaries running toward a channel. 

You can clearly see where water has carved the rock.

It is fascinating and captivating. And my neck cramped from looking left out the window until we flew into clouds.

I pondered the difference. How can inspecting my own face up-close make me wince, and zooming out on God’s geographic artistry leave me in speechless wonder?

It occurred to me it might have to do with where my eyes and my heart are drawn by what I’m viewing.

When I magnify myself, all the small things become too important. I decide it’s up to me to fix and fiddle with tiny matters. I tweeze, conceal, cover and control. And when I accomplish so little, I’m ashamed.

But when I view the landscape below the plane, my mind is driven toward God. This is His canvas. His carving. His masterpiece. It is drastic and breathtaking.

The magnificence I see magnifies its Source. In the words of C.S Lewis, “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

Perhaps this is what King David had in mind when he wrote Psalm 34:3:

When we magnify God we end up seeing His greatness up close. 

Whether it’s the zoomed in view of a Columbine flower, or the zoomed out view of the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet, God’s handiwork can draw our minds away from ourselves and toward God. 

To be sure, even staring at your own face—the living organ that is your skin, the intricate machinery that is your eye—with a bit of practice, can draw your mind to your Creator.

David goes on to explain what happens when we magnify God:

That strikes me as a huge relief.

Our privilege is to simply look to Him. And when we do, He does something lovely.

He plucks us from sin, and covers us in His perfection.

He makes us radiant.

And, no matter how closely you examine it, there is no shame in a face He has made radiant with worship.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Keeping Track: Books and Sharks

I'm not sure I’ve ever kept a resolution for three consecutive years. Until now.

Keep track of books I read.” It was a change of strategy regarding resolutions which you can read about here, and it worked for me.

This year, two books stood out as all-time-favorite material. And you don’t have to take my word for it. They each have more than 16,000 reviews on Amazon.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown and All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr were my uncontested favorites.**

But besides reading, I kept track of a few other things that didn’t appear on any list of resolutions.

Metaphorically speaking, 2015 was the year of my Shark Tank episode.

In other words, I wrote a book proposal. 

To be accurate, it took me about three years to write a bunch of coherent pages of a book “idea.” In doing so I’ve discovered the book publishing industry is strikingly similar to the show Shark Tank. In case you haven’t seen it, here is the gist:

Enthusiastic entrepreneur-contestants have the opportunity to solicit funds from six venture capitalists—also known as "the sharks." The contestants create a prototype, make a business plan, summarize it all in a creative way to “pitch” to the sharks. If, the sharks like the person, the product and the potential, they make a deal. They invest loads of money in the business idea in exchange for a stake in the company.

It’s the same in the publishing industry. With the slight difference in vocabulary and the fact that it isn’t televised.

In publishing the writer is the creator-contestant. The prototype is in the form of three sample chapters of a book. The business plan is called a proposal, and the sharks are publishing houses.

On Shark Tank, some of the entrepreneurs have a partner who has helped them develop their product and pitch the idea to interested parties. In publishing, this person is a literary agent, (the agent functions like a real estate agent. You have something to offer, an agent has people in mind who need or want what you’re offering.) Together you make your pitch to the publishers through your proposal.

Publishers, review your sample chapters and business plan to see if you can string together interesting sentences or ideas readers would want. If a publisher wants to invest in you and your book, it’s called a book contract.

At this time last year, I put the finishing touches on my prototype/sample chapters. I wrote a business plan/proposal. Then, after signing with a witty, savvy, and kind literary agent, we made our pitch to the sharks--er… I mean publishers.

We are now at a commercial break, so to speak. We’re standing in front of the sharks, searching their faces (or emails) for interest or enthusiasm, waiting for an offer.

And when I review it all like that, I can see why those things didn’t exactly appear on a list of resolutions. I would have collapsed under the pressure of all I had resolved to do! Finish proposal, write chapters, find agent, submit proposal, pray like mad…hyperventilate.

Yet looking back, those things are exactly what the Lord allowed to happen, one baby step--one sentence, one paragraph, one email, one prayer--at a time.

Has God invited you to do something hard this year? Do you have a dream that seems too big? A goal that seems too distant? Can I encourage you to walk toward it one baby step at a time? 

Today, talk to God about it. 

Tomorrow, research it for 15 minutes. 

The next day, tell a friend.

And next January, let’s just see what God has taught us. Maybe there won't be a finished product, or a contract, or even measurable results. But we will have tried something hard, done something new, and learned a whole lot in the process.

We will likely fail in some respect, but God has not asked us to be “successful.” He has called us to lean on Him and be faithful.

Oswald Chambers wrote, “The goal of faithfulness is not that we will do work for God, but that He will be free to do His work through us.”

May 2016 find us faithful even in—especially in—the little things, so that God is free to accomplish whatever He pleases in us and through us this year.

**I also read:
The Giver, Lowis Lowry 
The Hardest Peace, Kara Tippetts 
Good News for Weary Women, Elyse Fitzpatrick 
Hinds Feet on High Places (children’s version), Hannah Hurnard 
Christ the Lord, Ann Rice 
One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp
When I lay My Isaac Down, Carol Kent 
For the Love, Jen Hatmaker 
On Writing Well, William Zinsser 
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield 
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg 
Lila, Marilynne Robinson 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

All I Want for Christmas

It came up again last week at bedtime.
A gift from the past:
hand print snow man ornament.

“Mom, what do you want for Christmas?”

I could not think of one reasonable thing to say.

A few years ago Zach asked me this same question, and I was ready with a completely practical idea.

“You know what I really want? A pair of really warm pajamas.”

He looked at me in disbelief, and exhaled an incredulous, “Phfffffff!” My request didn’t even warrant a real word.

I got my warm jammies that year, but not from Zach. I got them from my mom who had a good chuckle when I told her the story.

It’s not that can’t think of anything. I’ve had my eye on several pairs of high quality, semi-cute, supportive shoes made for middle aged women with fragile feet who aren’t willing to concede the need for ghastly orthotics. But that’s not much fun to write on the Christmas list.

“Candles?” he suggested.

“That sounds good.” I do like candles, they help cover all the wet boot odors, and last night’s supper smell that the furnace recirculates day after day.

Then he made an astute observation for a 13 year-old: “You know, for the first twelve years of your life you kind of know what you want for Christmas. But then you learn some things. And you don’t know what you want.”

And that’s the truth.

He has learned “some things.”

He’s learned that dollar store toys fall apart after 3.5 minutes of play time.

He’s learned that any affordable remote control vehicle will withstand approximately one crash before it has to be super glued or tossed.

He’s learned that this year’s impractical Christmas gift often ends up on June’s garage sale when he needs cash for fishing bait.

I told him it’s the same when you’re older. I had a robust Christmas list when I was young.

One Christmas I asked for stuffed animals. For years I displayed my vast collection in the corner of my room, arranged by height and in rainbow order.

In my teens I asked for designer jeans that basically guaranteed coolness and self-worth. For several years in a row I got them. Guess. Z.Cavarricci. Pepe. Union Bay. (Brass Buckle, anyone?)

I used to want a horse shoe driveway in front of our house so guests could just drive right up and out without a cumbersome three point turn.

Then I learned some things.

Stuffed animals take up a lot of room, and I have no idea what became of them.

Personal value doesn’t come from jeans, and after college I made a denim quilt.

Paved driveways are overrated, and it turns out guests don’t really care where your driveway is, or that you have a thick crop of crab grass where the horse shoe drive might have been. They just want to know you enjoy having them.

The things I want for Christmas can’t be paid for. Sometimes they have to be worked for. Fresh creativity. Thriving relationships. Unshakable confidence. 

The kind of things that make a 13 year old roll his eyes.

After he went to bed I decided I should have said, “All I want for Christmas is for you three boys to love Jesus, love each other, and actually want to come visit dad and me someday.”

But if I had thought of that request before he fell asleep, I’m pretty sure it would have been met with the same response the jammies got.


And that actually feels like an appropriate response some days, because that kind of gift doesn’t come with a receipt and tidy wrapping.

Some days it feels like work. I run out of creativity. I second guess every single thing. And I think, “It’ll never work out that way! I haven’t done enough to guarantee I’ll get three grown sons who love Jesus and each other…and still want to visit Kurt and me.”

But God is gracious. And the nature of a gift is that it can’t be earned.

With prayer and thanksgiving I will make this request known to God, and I’ll have peace in remembering it can only come from Him.

It will likely look different than I expect, but it will undoubtedly be exactly what I need in order to know Christ better.

And knowing Christ better is what I really want…not just for Christmas but every day.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Receiving the Undeserved Gift

I scrambled up to the first couch cushion and dutifully obeyed my mother’s little rhyme:

“Open your hands and close your eyes and I will give you a big surprise.”

Meanwhile on the middle couch cushion, long after I had settled myself, my little sister wriggled off the couch and then climbed back up again. I didn’t dare open my eyes to see the spectacle, but I could feel it.  And without looking, I knew she hadn’t even closed her eyes!

Now I use that little rhyme on my couch.
Which of these little monkeys
do you suppose deserved a gift?
I was irritated by her unrestrained glee, because she wasn’t doing it right. And I didn’t think she really deserved a gift.

I, on the other hand, was doing it right. And I wasn't going to merely receive a gift. I was going to deserve it.

And yet, every time our mother said the little rhyme, we both received a gift simply because it was our mother’s great pleasure to give.

Last December I had big plans to celebrate Advent right. To get quiet. To lead my kids through their Advent calendar. To read my Christmas devotional. To prepare.

I started strong, and for a while I did Advent “right.” Then we added to our Advent celebration by worshiping Christ at programs, performances, and parties all over town.

But all our celebrating led to a string of late bedtimes. I fell behind on my reading. My kids fought about whose turn it was to open the Advent calendar, and I worried I wouldn’t experience Christ’s presence during “the most wonderful time of the year” because I wasn’t doing Advent right!

But the Gift of Christ’s coming was never based on our performance.

God gave us the gift of Christ because He wanted to.

 “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by sending Jesus Christ to die for us. And he did this because he wanted to!” {Ephesians 1:5, TLB}

It was His pleasure to rescue us from having to earn a place in His family, and to this day He is still rescuing performers from working to earn His gifts.

“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” {Romans 4:4-5, NIV}

His gifts cannot be earned. And incredibly our shameless, open-handed receiving is counted as righteousness!

So if the Christmas craft--which looked far easier in the video--reminds you that Christmas cheer isn’t dependent on your decorations, receive it as a gift of His presence.

When the company Christmas party, which you’d rather skip, presents a natural opportunity to bring Christ into conversation, receive it as a gift of His presence.

And if you find yourself wiping tears at another Christmas program where tender little voices sing Away in a Manger, receive it as a gift of His presence.

These undeserved gifts are indications of His presence. Reminders that in the hush and in the hustle, He is still Immanuel.

God with us.

The grandest surprise of all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Growing Gratitude

Back in the day when the boys were 2, 3, and 4 years old, it was a little rugged around our house. 

I was plagued by my inability to mother like I thought I should--you know, teaching my toddlers to use their manners, say thank you, and always obey. But since that rarely went planned, I almost always opted to stay home and relish nap time rather than go anywhere. 

Occasionally we ventured to the grocery store where the boys, bit through the hot dog packages, chewed on a bag of chocolate chips until melted chocolate oozed out of a little hole in the bag, and also tipped over the cart.

Needless to say, we didn’t get out much. 
Artwork by Julie Chen of Live Verse Design.
Order prints here

So when the postman brought a package from the outside world—from Grandma no less-- expectations were high. 

They each ripped open a little present and sat silent for a moment.

With a budding sarcasm I didn’t even know was growing in him, Zach finally said, “Another Hotwheels car. Big surprise.”

The incident prompted the first of many conversations about being grateful when you receive a gift. The same pep talk we will be having again in a couple of weeks: “Whenever you get a gift--regardless of what it is--you should SAY, ‘Thank you. Thank you for thinking of me.’”

And with a few more years of practice we might be able to pull off a convincing gratitude act.

Beyond being polite, it’s the way we remind ourselves that someone spent time, effort, and money with me in mind. This kind of gratitude is rehearsed, polite, and necessary.

Gratitude starts here, but this is not its end.

Contrast that experience with the long suffering experience of hearing the boys plead and beg year after year for a Nintendo Wii. In 2010 on Christmas morning, when they opened two Wii remotes and an empty box, they were confused and breathlessly hopeful.

In a rare moment of parental readiness, I got it on video. 

After a few minutes of urgently explaining to mom and dad that “you need a Wii machine, not just remotes,” we sent them downstairs where the “Wii machine” was ready to be enjoyed.

Elated and excited, Zach and Levi took control of the remotes and Spencer sat down, began smacking his head and said, “I think I’m dreaming!”

Now I realize the cost and anticipation level for a Hotwheels car and a Wii are different. The analogy breaks down here because the Wii is no longer the fulfillment of all our entertainment cravings.

But I use the example to propose that sincere gratitude is born out of the recognition of what we lack. A need. A longing.

It is a strange dichotomy.

A fragile connection exists between pain and pleasure, hunger and fullness, need and thanksgiving. Without the first, it is nearly impossible to explain or experience the other.

Can I truly be thankful for my health when I have not walked through the valley of chronic pain or illness?

Can I truly be thankful for my meal when food has been available every day of my life?

Can I truly be thankful for peace and freedom when I have only read of war?

Can I truly be thankful for God’s forgiveness if I do not accurately understand the extent of my sin?

For all these things I can be--and am--politely thankful in the way I have rehearsed with my boys.

But there are things which illicit that squealing, head-smacking, “I think I’m dreaming!” sort of response, and I doubt it’s your new Wii.

It might be the baby you waited a decade or more to conceive or adopt.

It might be one day of feeling good in the middle of a long stretch of feeling horrible.

It might be a resurrected marriage.

Maybe it’s a fresh understanding of God’s gracious rescue in Christ.

Even this degree of gratitude isn’t the end. Just as need produced the head-smacking gratitude, the fruit of gratitude is unbridled generosity.

Those who have seen war willingly give their lives to ensure their families can enjoy peace.

Those who have suffered through chronic pain willingly give time and effort to relieve the suffering of another.

Those who have witnessed a resurrected marriage willingly give counsel to anyone suffocating in a dying marriage.

Need presupposes gratitude.

Gratitude produces generosity.

Generosity meets the needs of another, and the cycle repeats.

Over time, we might be surprised to find ourselves genuinely grateful even for our need, because it is the fertile soil where gratitude takes root and generosity blossoms.

You may even find yourself smacking your head and saying, “Thankful for my need?! I think I’m dreaming!”

But I assure you, Friend, you’re not.