A Better Way

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makeupI’ve stayed in more hotel rooms these past six months than in the past ten years of my life combined. As one who is often all too willing to subscribe to marketing ploys, I generally keep my Hilton Honors card pretty close (points speak, you know). But these travels have brought me to a variety of places to lay my head for the night, and to two specific A-ha moments that today are causing me to ask:

What if there’s a better way?

But before you dial in for deep thoughts, two not-so-weighty illustrations from my travels must be shared…

Every bed I slept on in Europe defied my understanding of the limits of linens. To be specific, it blew my mind that every two-person mattress was topped with two separate comforters! One fitted sheet. No top sheet. Two duvets stuffed into their own duvet covers – one for each sleep-mate.

Exposure to this one idea has revolutionized the way I make my bed! Don’t laugh! Gone are the days of blanket tug-of-war. I can stick my toes out for air on either side of my small blanket – even on my husband’s side. And I can launder the top sheet/duvet cover as often as I used to change the sheets, giving my touch of OCD a bit of a reprieve as I climb into fresh bedding and switch off the lights.

I always assumed that sharing the bed meant sharing the covers. Well – didn’t you?

Never mind that she’s a cover-hog and he wakes up shivering in the dark.

Never mind that his favorite quilt is too warm – or not heavy enough – for her.

Never mind the onset of menopause and those pesky thermostat-changes in the middle of the night.

We’re married. We share a bed. We share the covers. For better or worse. End of story. Right?

I never stopped to consider that there just might be a better way.

One of my favorite recent stays was in a funky boutique hotel. Not part of a huge conglomerate, this quirky place has an enormous hot tub that seats about 50 (seriously) and a fabulous organic Mexican restaurant curbside. The rooms have black marble tile in the bathroom and cuddly robes hanging in the closet. They give you bottled water or soda, candy bars & snacks for free – yours for the asking – and each room has a Keurig with to-go cups and lids. If you’re checking in for just one night, you can request a 24 hour stay! Check out time is 24 hours from the time you check in. Sweet!

But the coolest feature in my opinion shows up on the towel rack. It’s a black washcloth. Embroidered with the word ‘makeup’.

Now, this will be totally lost on the gentlemen, but a black cloth for removing makeup is totally brilliant! Especially for a hotel. While it hasn’t stopped me from engaging in my hygiene routine, I have often felt bad about using those pristinely whitened cloths to remove mascara at the end of the day. After all, I see my own white cloths with black stains at home, in spite of the bleach-maintenance system I’ve devised. Yet it never occurred to me that there was another option for hotels other than white!

Who knew? There is a better way!

I know, I know… Comforters and washcloths don’t exactly have the power to change the world, but what if there’s a better way to do other things, too, and instead of being ready for inspiration and open to new ideas, I’m at home on the couch? TV droning. The world at arm’s length. Firmly fixed in my comforting little routines.

What if there’s a better way to love people – and I miss out because I think I know it all?

What if there’s a better way to meet the needs of the lonely – but I fail to meet the lonely because I’m content to hang out in my own little world?

What if the God of the universe hasn’t stopped creating – and yet I’m missing His handiwork out there by choosing instead to hole up in here?

It doesn’t take a European vacation to see that there is a way of life that leads to death – where minds are shut tight and there is nothing new, nothing fresh, nothing brilliant to be discovered under the sun.

Likewise, you don’t need a hotel loyalty card to discover that, as the United Church of Christ has said so well, “God is still speaking!” And inspiring! And creating! And saving!

So, open your eyes. Pay attention to the world around you. Watch for clever improvements on the dull and monotonous. Look for better ways to do the little things, but more importantly – look for ways to improve on the meaningful work you have been placed here to do.

Don’t settle for what works. Find a better way.

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From a Distance (an Afterthought)

Bavarian Countryside

Bavarian Countryside

‘Not another church!’

You might expect these words from a teenager on holiday in Europe, but not from me. Not from the mom whose 9-to-5 (make that 24/7) revolves around the Church – the Body of Christ.

Nevertheless, after walking dutifully through gothic and ornate church building after church building, these words may have been muttered a time or two – by me – on my family’s recent European vacation.

Almost always grandiose, sometimes crossing the line into garish, the gold-gilded altars of centuries-old church buildings hit me – a follower of a Jewish carpenter – as something of an affront to the message of the Gospel…

Which is, as I understand it, Jesus Saves. Not the church building. Not tradition and ritual. Not the relics we bless and call holy.

Jesus. Saves. Period.     Right?

So as I found myself seated on a train for seven hours, diverted by rising flood waters on my last full day in Europe, it was no surprise to find myself watching churches go by. Village after village paraded past the train window. Each and every one – every single one – sported a church building of some era past. A spire or a cross that stood higher than every other structure in town. Never mind how small or large these communities were – they all had, at their center, a church.

After awhile, ‘not another church’ began to sound more like – ‘hmmm… another church.’

Whether 50 or 150 years ago, these communities were built around the church. Physically, but also experientially, with the heart of the town being the building where its people gathered – the place where they all belonged.

At the center of their life together was the church, and even from a distance they could find their way home because the spire of the village church marked the spot.

Last weekend, flying into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I was overcome with a nostalgic wave as the plane broke through the clouds and the Minnesota terrain came into view. I remembered summer vacations and years of family road trips through this area, en route to our family homestead in the north.

As the plane descended, what looked like a steel mushroom caught my eye. And then another. Pretty soon I was able to read the words on each water tower – elevated high above the township whose name was boldly painted on the side. While not physically the center of town, these towers hold the resource that allows life to go on, day after day, for the families who do life in these communities.

Driving in to work today, my eyes scanned the landscape of my own home town…

Nope. No spires. No elevated crosses in the sky.

Not even a water tower (which actually makes me nervous and got me wondering… where does our water come from?).

This town that I live in is typical of today, and its center isn’t the church. Not even a towering water tank announces that you are here.

Feeling kind of sad as I walked out of Safeway with my morning java, I realized that the center of many an American town is its movie theater. The mall. Starbucks. Can it be that entertainment and retail are the heartbeat of America – the center of our communities? The gathering places in our towns?

Traffic was crazy this morning, with road closures that altered my route to the church. Sitting at a red light, I turned and caught a glimpse of a giant white rooftop – attached to a building that I have driven past nearly every single day that I have lived in this Arizona town. From a distance, this place looks something like an ark. It houses everything from hockey games to Christian concerts, cage fighting to high school graduations.

A building where, even as I write, thousands of people are gathered inside – and thousands more sit in the hot July sun on lawn chairs among a sea of fire and rescue vehicles – because there isn’t enough room for everyone within its walls.

Never mind that those assembled aren’t all from around here – they are a community nonetheless. A family gathering to lean on each other and to share in their losses and to take care of their own… who take care of us.

I have to ask myself – and yes, I’m asking you – whether we prefer museums disguised as churches or churches in camouflage and in the trenches of real life – taking real risks for real people in real time.

When community is built from the stuff of real life and from the depths of real love, you’ll find no bold print name on the tower overhead, but what is held inside is the sweetest, cleanest, most refreshing Water you can imagine. Perfect for quenching thirst and drowning fires in the deserts of our lives.

From a distance, those country churches and city cathedrals look really good, yet most sit half-empty on Sunday mornings.

From a distance it’s clear that those Minnesota water towers serve a purpose, but the words on the outside matter so much less than the Water to be found within.

When Sunday morning just isn’t enough and we tire of the labels on the towers we erect, what is a community to do when tragedy strikes? Can the vestiges of faith and the salt of the earth be combined to make a hockey rink holy?

You bet they can. You bet God can! But you’d better come in a little closer…

You’re never going to experience it from a distance.

Written with great respect for those who serve our communities and in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Tonino! (an Afterthought)

Our first day in Italy. What better way to spend it than exploring the island of Capri?!

Unfortunately, our adventure began in a flurry of missed buses and racing hearts and feet as we showed our true tourist-colors in a strange land (with strange street names, bus stops and interpretations of time).

Never mind, though, because we landed at the dock before the ferry took its leave and were quickly ushered toward our waiting tour group and its lively, remarkably patient leader…

Tonino.

The first thing Tonino did was place a sticker on each of us (literally – he stuck stickers on our shirts, just like in kindergarten). Remember those notes to your mother being safety-pinned onto your jacket before the bell rang? There was only one word on the sticker, and as we looked around, we saw that everyone was wearing one. Everyone in our tour group, anyways. On a white background in bold red letters was the name of our guide: Tonino.

I had to giggle. Seriously?! But as the boarding process began and we saw just how many other tour groups were heading to the same small destination, the stickers made a lot more sense.

Tonino’s welcoming comments included a tutorial on how to follow the leader, which could have been a real challenge since he himself was rather short. How would we be able to see him in the gathering crowd? Thank goodness for tall umbrellas! When Tonino held his blue umbrella in the air, we knew which way to go – even in the mass of tourists.

The day was perfect! (Almost) rainless. Relaxing. Breathtaking (particularly the drive to Anacapri, with its crazy-winding roads and cliff-side bridges). Every time we were to move together as a group, the blue umbrella was lifted high and our seasoned leader would shout out (loudly) the word on our stickers – his name…

Tonino!

Tonino made an impression on us. So much so, that for the remainder of the trip, every time a family member was ready to move on and wanted the rest of us to follow, we would hear a loud ‘Tonino!‘ and immediately we knew what it meant (even if we opted out of obedience to the call).

What made Tonino effective as a guide speaks volumes to me about Kingdom living…

The church needs guides just like a group of nervous travelers needs a leader – someone who has been where we are going and knows which interesting sites to point out along the way. Someone who can avoid the potholes and navigate the quirky roads and seas. Someone who can give advice on where to eat and how much change you will need to gain entrance to the public restroom. Someone who can prepare you for what is coming, making your experience less frustrating and more fruitful.

The church needs guides who will boldly wear the Name of Jesus on their t-shirts and shamelessly holler – cross raised high! – to get our attention and to keep us together from point A to point B. Leaders who will make it possible for all of us to participate, not assuming that we already know everything about our common destination. Tonino did this at every important juncture, clearly laying out the schedule and pointing out the route so that all would make it back to the bus or the boat – so that no one would be left behind.

The church is in need of leaders who will patiently travel with us in groups, even though they know enough and are confident enough to venture out on their own. Because not all of us are ready to face this adventure alone! There is real comfort and peace in knowing that someone is looking out for you. Some of us can’t read a map to save our lives, and some of us should never EVER get behind the wheel of a car and drive up (or down) a seaside cliff, even if the view at the top is more glorious than any we’ve ever seen before.

Now, before you accuse me of advocating for too much hand-holding in the faith-life of God’s family, it’s important that you know what happened after the tour ended that day.
We knew how to get to the marina.
We knew how much a ticket would cost and where we would like to sit next time on the cruise from the mainland.
We knew that the uphill trip to Anacapri would be our preferred destination, and we knew which cafe to eat at again – because… YUM!
Our guided tour had given us the confidence and the tools to be able to venture out on our own in the future, because our guide had completed his work with flying colors – or should I say, with blue umbrella in hand?!

Not all of us are called to lead – and that is by design.
And if you are called to lead – stickers are optional, but grace and patience and empathy are not.

If you have even a hint of Tonino inside, and if you have an umbrella handy and know how to use it, I’m pretty sure there are openings in a family of faith near you. Channel that energy and ability our way!

Tonino!

 

Your Life Has a Soundtrack – Sing Along! (an Afterthought)

Europe 2013 austria 282The part of the tour that my son dreaded the most had finally arrived.

As the bus turned toward Mondsee from Salzburg, our guide switched on the soundtrack and challenged the intergenerational bus load of fans (and their reluctant companions) to sing along. I couldn’t help myself as, grinning from ear to ear, I joined Julie Andrews in a song I’ve been singing all of my life – ever since I was old enough to place that precious vinyl disc onto its turntable and drop the needle…

Do- a deer, a female deer

Re- a drop of golden sun

Mi- a name I call myself

Fa- a long long way to run…

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I actually choked up as the voices of men and women sang in unison with the recorded Hollywood Von Trapp family that day, as we visited the very places where this civilized cult classic had been filmed decades ago. For me, it brought a flood of childhood memories that I could not have anticipated. I was blind-sided by the impact of the images and stories on my aging psyche as we stood beside the famed Sixteen Going on Seventeen gazebo and drove past the gated entrance to the house where Maria boldly sang I Have Confidence (with guitar case in tow).

If a day spent in Austria – a place I’ve never visited before – can unearth memories and conjure up feelings from my own childhood, I have to marvel at the power of The Sound of Music! Not the movie per se, but the power that the sound of music wields in our lives. Connecting our heads to our hearts; our past to the present. Our dreams to reality.

It took a four hour tour on a rainy day in the company of strangers (and a teenage skeptic) to make me realize that my life has a soundtrack!

Yes – it includes The Sound of Music – but on my personal soundtrack are other songs by different artists… it’s a very eclectic mix at that.

Malagueña – played by my Dad on his guitar in our living room at night.

Simon and Garfunkel – the entire collection, but Feelin’ Groovy comes to mind…

Kenny Rogers – The Gambler – I learned to sing harmony by singing along with this 8-track in the car.

How Great Thou Art – it was my grandmother’s favorite hymn, and we sang it at my wedding (25 years ago).

Morning Has Broken – this song was on a mix cassette that came with our Ford Zephyr in the 80’s.

Charlie Rich. Mac Davis. Lynn Anderson. Grease soundtrack.

Amy Grant.

Amen, So Be It – a choral piece performed by my Jr. High show choir.

Jimmy Buffett. Cats soundtrack. Barney (yes, the purple dinosaur) and Sesame Street.

Tarantella – played repeatedly by my daughter on the piano.

REM. U2.

David Crowder Band. Switchfoot. Chris Tomlin. Shane & Shane.

Ironman – being played as I type, upstairs, on guitar by my son (the one who refused to sing along with his goofy mother on the tour bus).

Music has a way of connecting our sensory perceptions to events and people in our lives as nothing else can. Some of my own soundtrack was inadvertent – it was music my parents or grandparents chose. I inherited or adopted it by default. But some of the music that plays in my head was put there by choice, reflecting who I am – or at least, who I was at the time.

Your life has a soundtrack, too! I wonder what’s on your playlist? What memories might be unlocked if you were to close your eyes and take a musical tour down memory lane?

It might look like mine began last month, on a narrow, tree-lined road in Austria where children dressed in curtains once played and climbed and hung upside down (to their father’s great chagrin).

It might sound like a mother’s lullaby or a whistle-while-you-work.

It might feel like a frightened child or a carefree teenager on an outing with friends.

It may even smell like Sunday dinner or morning coffee or pipe tobacco wafting over the back of Grandpa’s chair.

Whatever the details, this soundtrack is yours. And it matters.

So, take time to remember. And be bold enough to sing along (no matter what your kids say).

Europe 2013 austria 110

‘Family’ is Relative (an Afterthought)

We arrived in Germany on a Monday, and by Wednesday I was getting nervous…

Thursday was family-arrival-day.

My daughter and I made the long hop together, arriving to meet my parents who had done their pilgrimage the week before. When my husband and son hit the tarmac running, we might have been singing ‘The Gang’s All Here’ – but we weren’t. All here. Yet.

The wedding wasn’t until Friday morning, and the bride was getting a little bit nervous, too. But just a little bit. She has always been strong and very capable of holding things together and keeping herself in check. It’s been that way since she was 16 years old – the year she came to live with us. Eleven years ago.

When she moved into our spare bedroom as a teenage exchange student, she was a stranger – to the desert. To American culture. To family life with younger siblings. To the branches of our Family Tree.

When she moved out one year later, it was like losing an appendage… She had been grafted into the Tree in ways we could not have anticipated, and when her plane lifted off and turned toward the east, our hearts broke apart so that she could take a piece of each of us home with her.

That was ten years ago. And here we were – sitting around the table in her apartment – getting to know the man who, tomorrow, would join her on that special branch of our Family Tree. And awaiting the arrival of the rest of the family.

The car pulled up to the curb and my heart began to race a bit. Outside stood the mother of our dear almost-daughter – a woman whose name and photos and story had become part of our own history, in spite of the fact that (until today) we had never even met. Face to face for the first time, with language barrier firmly in place, we looked at each other and watched a decade of pictures come to life. Our embrace betrayed her nervousness, too, as this oddly assembled family began to take shape with each person who walked through the door.

One of the sweetest moments of my life took place on that Thursday, as we gathered in the living room before dinner. A quick visual roll-call confirmed that everyone was present: Sue (our student, the bride) and Max (her husband-to-be), Sabine (Sue’s mother) and her parents, Karl and Hanna (Oma and Opa – Sue’s grandparents), Uncle Ingo (Sabine’s brother), Ray and Bea (dubbed Sue’s American grandparents – my mom and dad), Britton and Joffrey (Sue’s sister and brother – my children), Dallas (‘Papa Dallas’ in Sabine’s words – my husband), and me (‘second mother of the bride’ as I was teasingly referred to by my kids).

Through tears of joy in the midst of a truly surreal moment, Sue lifted her glass – for the first time in a lifetime – to her family. In German and in English. And Sabine, who was standing beside me, took my hand in hers and squeezed, but I could hardly see her through the tears that had filled my own eyes.

Paul talks about this mystery in Romans 11, in terms of the Kingdom Family Tree. He assures us that God is more than able to graft into His Tree those of us who, though wild olive shoots by nature, have within us a heart to belong. He makes room for us in His family. And He asks us to do the same in ours.

‘Family’ is relative. Who occupies the branches of your own Family Tree isn’t determined by biology alone – it’s really up to you.

That moment in the living room on a continent far away from home is proof positive that God is at work in my Family Tree. In fact, He’s been pruning and trimming and fertilizing and watering that Tree for a very long time, so that I could have this memory to cherish and treasure and ponder for many years to come.

family

Afterthoughts: Reflecting on the Road Just Traveled

Capri, Italy

Capri, Italy

Some people barrel through life in a constant state of ablaze-for-what-comes-next.

Some people live very well in the moment, but when the moment is gone, so goes its power. No lesson learned. No lingering sense of the holy in what just happened.

And some people put down roots – deep and extensive roots – in the events and relationships of yesterday, never entertaining the possibility that new adventures may spark important ideas or birth exciting connections with today. Maybe even with tomorrow.

As for me, I want to be like Mary.

Upon her baby’s birth, after the angel choir had summoned the shepherds to the humble birthplace for worship, Mary wasn’t dwelling on ‘what happens next?’ She wasn’t whining about having given birth in the straw with animal-onlookers; not complaining about inadequate medical care. And from all accounts, we don’t get the feeling that Mary was cringing at the way her story – and that of her son – was unfolding. Nothing in the narrative suggests a Mary who would have preferred to go back in time to a simpler, more ‘normal’ and less mind-blowing existence.

In fact, we get the feeling that Mary was all-in for this God-created adventure! How do we know? Luke 2:19.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (NIV)

But Mary treasured these things and continued to think about them. (NCV)

But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. (HCSB)

Mary continued to think about these things, trying to understand them. (ERV)

Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. (CEB)

But Mary was keeping within herself all these things (sayings), weighing and pondering them in her heart. (AMP)

Mary treasured and pondered and meditated on the events she found herself living. Not only while the mysteries unfolded, but later, too – committing these things to memory and weighing them. Considering them. And my personal favorite – making Mary human and limited, just like me trying to understand them.

What just happened?

We ask this question because the lives we live matter. The words that are spoken and the people we meet, the adventures (and even the mis-adventures) we experience – all of it has the potential to shape us into the best parent, the most thoughtful friend, the most faithful expression of the presence of God in a world where pondering and treasuring are nothing more than ancient practices found in the dusty pages of a rarely opened Book.

Now, I am clearly not the mother of Jesus, but I am the mother of Joffrey and Britton, and I have been the wife of Dallas for nearly 25 years. My life’s adventures can’t really be compared with Mary’s, though that is often what we do, isn’t it? Compare our lives with others?

My family has just returned home from a three week European vacation. Three countries. Eight hotel rooms. Trains. Planes. Taxis. Boats. Buses. Mountains. Oceans. Rain. Snow. And people.

While living this recent adventure, we had to stay in the moment – there was so much to see, and it was ALL new! It wasn’t until I was sitting uncomfortably on the 12 hour home-bound flight that I began to ponder the events of the previous weeks, remembering a word spoken here or a mind-picture there, weighing and mulling over and trying to understand what had just happened…

Because this adventure – this road we’ve just traveled – matters.

At face value, it was a fun trip! We did lots of things, saw places we have only read about in books or seen in movies, met new and interesting people and were reunited with family and friends that we haven’t seen for years.

But I want to be like Mary. I want to hold onto what has happened for awhile, turn it over in my mind, and see what happens. I want to be teachable, but I am also a teacher – and I want to share some of these Afterthoughts with you.

Will you walk with me for awhile, down this road I’ve just traveled?

After all, one person’s Afterthought could very well be another one’s treasure. Just ask Mary.