Refuge

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Another post from the past. One of my garden-related favs.

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require. They need a place of refuge.

Refuge is real

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold. I can provide a place a refuge for those for whom the winter winds are too harsh.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.

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When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.

Vulnerability is the start of becoming a refuge.

Honesty and grace keep us that way. If we all truly believed that, “There but for the grace of god go I,” what kind of shelter could we offer to people for whom the winter winds of perfection and criticism are harsh and hurtful?

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I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

Dance Like We Just Don’t Care

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I went to three exercise classes last week. You might think that is normal. You are just not me. Three exercise classes is more than I have gone to in approximately three hundred years. I don’t do group classes. I don’t like them. I am not peppy or muscle-y, and I am barely scraping the edge of social. I went anyway, because a body that works when I want it to is becoming more important to me than my preference for private exercise. (By which I mean, no exercise at all more often than not.)

And wouldn’t you know, it occurred to me during the course of the hour, that exercise class is a lot like church. How, you ask? Well, let me tell you. 

Observations on a morning of exercise class:

Observation One: I love exercise classes where I am the youngest member.

Because I work at home, I am able to go to classes in the morning, after the overflow of committed enthusiasts who go before they get behind the wheel for their commute. Those people are scary. I have been at the gym at 6:00 am and seen their classes with accompanying blaring rock music. How can anyone endure that eardrum assault so early? I have watched them race onto the track and actually run, putting feet together in a coordinated, fast motion at that hour.

This is not possible for normal people. They are clearly the spawn of aliens.

But the 10:00 am classes? Filled with retired folk. Do you know what is glorious about an exercise class filled with people over 65?

They Do. Not. Care.

They don’t care how they look. They don’t care if they get every move right. They don’t care if they can’t stretch as far as that girl next to them in the designer purple yoga pants. They do not care the tiniest bit. They dance like they don’t care.

I love it.

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Church people care.

They care if your kids are crazier than theirs. They care if you volunteer as often as they do. They care if your opinions line up with theirs. They care if your clothes are nicer/not nicer/less modest/less expensive/more expensive/more outlandish/more casual than theirs. They. Care.

Not everywhere. Definitely not at our church. But at many.

So the lesson from exercise class? Find a place that doesn’t care or, better still, make a place that doesn’t care. Go to church and pretend you’re a 70-year-old woman doing yoga.

  • That other mom’s kid can’t seem to stop running through the hallway? High five her and tell her she’s doing great at a tough job. I mean, motherhood is kind of like trying to stretch your foot behind your ear while breathing properly (or breathing at all). Those kids’ souls are what matters—not any mess or noise they make. Old ladies doing yoga just don’t care about what doesn’t matter.

 

  • Go talk to that teenager wearing pajama pants to church. Welcome her. Ask her about her day, year, life. High five her for surviving being sixteen. That’s like me managing an hour of swing dancing when I’ve barely got the endurance level of a three-toed sloth. I bet she’s got a lot to share.

 

  • Find the single guy who only shows up every month or so. Ask him what his dreams are. Find out what he’s good at. High five him for wanting something deeper in his life enough to get there when he does. Kind of like showing up for strength training class when currently you’ve got the muscle mass of a hummingbird.

There are dreams and wishes and hurts and yearnings we know nothing about swirling in the hearts of the people right next to us.

It’s freeing to be among a bunch of people doing aerobic foxtrotting with glee and no shame at all. It makes it OK to make mistakes. It allows for someone to not know what comes next. It forgives. It offers a chance to dance with glee yourself.

It makes me want to come back.

What if we were the people who offered those things to the ones who walk through the doors of our church?

It’s OK to make mistakes.

It’s fine not to know what comes next.

It’s beautiful that you have doubts.

It’s great to see you whatever you look like.

I want you to dance here, with joy.

“So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free. Use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5.1, 13)

Make your space a just don’t care zone. And I guarantee, from my experience, people will want to come back.

Plowing Up the Hard Road

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I LOVE sunflowers. But I have an issue with them. Every time I plant sunflower seeds in our yard, I get nothing. No sprouts. No flowers. Nada. I put those things all over the place, but it doesn’t matter. I plant many other seeds quite successfully, but sunflowers don’t care. Absolutely nothing has come out of the ground when I plant sunflowers seeds at any time in the history of sunflowers.

Here’s the issue—when my husband plants them, those things jump out of the ground. We have a bounty of sunflowers. I don’t do anything differently. But I can’t grow sunflowers to save my life. I need to stay married if only to have a source of sunflowers in my world.

Even a good seed sower can have problems with uncooperative soil.

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Last week, we talked about how good stories change us for the better so that changed people can tell good stories with their lives. When Jesus laid down that idea, he began with a story to illustrate that very thing. It’s what we call the Parable of the Soils.

TLDR version: A farmer planted some seeds. He wasn’t very discriminatory about the way he planted them or where they fell. This was actually not too far off from current farming practices for Jesus’ time. Or he just had really bad aim. Whatever.

Some of the seeds landed on the road, where birds ate those babies right up. (I imagine starlings or blackbirds, because those things scarf seeds at my feeder like there will be a worldwide seed shortage within the next hour.) Starlings and blackbirds are also rather nondiscriminatory when it comes to eating.

Some ended up in the middle of rocks, and some dropped in the weeds. Rocks aren’t very fertile soil when the drought hits, and weeds . . . well, as a gardener, I know how fast weeds grow. Crazy fast. Either way, the good seed doesn’t fare well.

And some fell in soil that was juuuust right and grew big and strong.

It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears for farmers.

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Of course, Jesus was talking about our hearts, not basic dirt. What kind of heart will produce big, strong, plentiful crops from the story seeds he offers?

Spoiler: It’s not the first three.

“Some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them.”

The footpath has had years to be packed down into toughness. The more it’s been walked over, the more unyielding it’s gotten. Every step has made it harder, every day has tamped it down just a little bit more. It’s hard.

Maybe you know someone like that.

The hard, hard road doesn’t feel the need to give way for seeds. It doesn’t bend. It knows what it wants to accept, and anything else bounces off into the ditch of indifference.

Hard roads don’t want to hear anything that challenges their assumptions or threatens to change their minds. That stuff gets bounced right out. They have their rules; they know what’s what. Getting soft only creates people who compromise.

It just gets you hurt.

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Yet Jesus has no use for the hard roads. He knows no true kingdom values will grow there. Not until they are tilled up, plowed and furrowed and deeply dug to allow new seed to grow. 

Hard soiled hearts have to break in so many places to allow them to be vulnerable to the seed and sun and rain God has for them.

We cannot tell good stories unless we’re willing to face our hardness.

As a kid, I responded to being an actual, real-life Ferdinand (the bull who preferred to sit alone and smell flowers) with deep cynicism and sarcasm. Oh yes, you’d better believe I could do sarcasm as an eight-year-old. I didn’t get this good without years of practice. Also, I learned years later the secrets of the INFJ door slam. (“It’s been said that when INFJs get hurt or angry, they don’t hate you, they nothing you.”) 

I pushed others away before they could declare me too weird for words and push me away. Rejection as as preemptive social strike. I wasn’t very big or very popular, but I was strategic enough to know good warfare tactics.

Except human community is not built on warfare models.

When I started to face the reasons I lacked friends, the reasons behind why I reacted defensively and rejected others first, I began to heal and dip my toes in the open water of vulnerability. I learned to go first in bridge-building. I discovered that other people were just as afraid as I was. I allowed others to see between the chain mail loops about my heart.

I got hurt. But it didn’t kill me, and I found it was better than being hard.

Jesus’ words can’t enter a heart that’s defending itself from invasion. His pleas that we put others above ourselves, show mercy as our default, forgive completely, ask forgiveness, and start over—they can’t find fertile ground in hard hearts that won’t yield to the soft foot of understanding. We have no worthwhile story to tell without vulnerable hearts.

Go ahead. Plow up the ground. Face those things that scare you about letting others in. They won’t kill you. I promise that you’re tougher than that. I also promise that the relationships you will gain, the changes he will make in you, are so very much worth the scary bit. Stop hardening up. Plow deep. Allow him to plant seeds for a story that’s unique to you.

You’re a great storyteller in the making.

Don’t Mess with Texas

I went to a party a week ago. Really, almost two weeks ago, and really, it will have been a month before you read this. I went to a party in Austin, Texas at Jen Hatmaker’s house. For those who do not know, Jen is an author, speaker, mom, wife, and everyone’s best friend, plus she helps lead an awesome church that is basically being Jesus except with cowboy boots. 

Apparently, the house I partied at was made famous on HGTV, but since I only get to watch HGTV in hotel rooms (we watched a lot of it going to Texas and back) I would not know that detail.

She invited her launch team to a party. I am still amazed at that fact, and I am still amazed that I picked up and just drove to get there. It’s still surreal.
Everyone else involved seems to have written about it immediately. As in, they must have gone back to their hotel rooms in Austin and blogged at midnight, people, because that’s how fast some of them managed to get these reflections posted.

I did not.

Yes, we really drove there. And loved it.
I went back to my room, meandered around Texas for another two days, drove back to Chicago in another three, and spent a week returning to life and processing what had happened. Because I am All. About. Processing. And not so much about getting things done right away. Let’s assume it’s all for good reasons and not basic procrastination.

Being on the launch team has been a gift. In five months’ time, a group of 500 of us have somehow made a community online that defied Christian stereotypes. We are a people of random ages, backgrounds, political theories, theologies, and colors. We disagree. But we don’t fight. We don’t call names. We don’t compare. We do pray for one another, encourage one another, and mourn with one another. We even give one another our time, money, and coffee mugs. That’s community, people. And until the party, most of us had never met.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m an introvert. I don’t do parties. I don’t do people I’ve never met. In large quantities. E-V-E-R.

So this was hard. I loved it, but it was hard. (Most lovely things are.) Sometimes I socialized and hugged and told stories and listened. Sometimes, I sat and just watched the buzz around me. I’m not the person to sit on Jen’s porch and take selfies. I’m not the one who will approach her to talk about life, even though I feel (like so many others) that we could be bffs. I’m not the girl who will sit in the middle of a table of strangers and draw them in.

The day after the party, many of us went to the Hatmakers’ church. (I know, she would hate having it called her church. It’s Jesus’ church. But it’s easier for identification purposes.) She made a comment during the sermon about it looking like a sorority house in the congregation. And it kind of did.

Which is exactly the place on earth I would feel the least comfortable.
I am so not a sorority kind of girl.


In the book we launched, Jen talks about community. She tells tales of how we have the tools and the ability to reach out where we are, with who we are and what we have, to create the community the world craves. And I realized something about that while I was taking my dear sweet time processing what the party had meant.

I love those women, and I will continue to love them and support them and do life with them. Even those I never see again. I am so grateful for their presence and for the party and for the woman who brought us there.

But community needs to happen where I am. It needs to happen on my back porch, in my church, in my coffee shop or library or park, where I live. The point of the book was to push us out into creating that, not to make us comfortable with a safe group of people we don’t have to see on a daily basis. That is a wonderful thing too—but it’s not the main thing. It can springboard us into the main thing by encouraging us along, but it isn’t the thing itself.

Wouldn’t you know, looking again at her book today, that’s exactly what she says,

“Online life is no substitute for practiced, physical presence, and it will never replace someone looking you in the eye, padding around your kitchen in bare feet, making you take a blind taste test on various olives, walking in your front door without knocking.”


My community needs to be where I am. And that’s even harder and scarier than a strange farmhouse in Texas.

Because its up to me. Up to my insecurities, imperfections, and fears. But that’s the point.

“When your worn-out kitchen table hosts good people and good conversation, when it provides a safe place to break bread and share wine, your house becomes a sanctuary, holy as a cathedral. If you have a porch, then you have an altar to gather around. If you can make a pot of chili and use a cell phone, then you can create community. If you want to wait until your house is perfect and you aren’t nervous, then just forget it. This is an imperfect apparatus, thank goodness. It requires people with true faces, courageously being seen.” (Jen Hatmaker, For the Love)


I can make chili. (I don’t like to eat it, but I can make it. It’s one of the few things I like to make.) I have a porch falling-apart-deck. I can be seen.

At our house, we have a formula to test how well people know us. Appliance repairpersons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and salespeople will knock on the front door. Friends will knock on the back door. Real friends will walk in it.




In October, I want to focus on this idea of community. How do you create community? Please share your ideas, things that have worked, things that have been disasters, and thoughts for the future. I would love to see your creativity and questions!


Absolute proof I was in Texas.