Whatever is praiseworthy…

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 31 Days of Philippians 4:8

Although this jumble of teacups could definitely be more artfully arranged, the fragile beauty of each unique vessel evokes memories of my mom, a woman beautiful in character and in compassion, faithful and tenderhearted toward those hurt by the world. She was my first example of kindness in action, and I’ll forever aspire to be as thoughtful and considerate as she. Oh, to be able to sit and share a cup of tea with her today!

 

Celebrating a quiet, beautiful, admirable life

31 Days of Philippians 4:8

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Verla Hanson  will forever live in my memory as the embodiment of faithfulness, kindness, and goodness. Her patience and gentleness in caring for the little ones of our church (like Melissa Moore, above) endeared her to parents and children alike, while the twinkle in her eye hinted at a deep sense of joy bubbling beneath her quiet, calm exterior. In her later years she continued to faithfully drive to the city to congregate with our little body of believers, inspiring us with her example of perseverance and hope. Verla is now home with her Savior. Service details will be shared as they become available.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

 

If Anything is Excellent…

Okay, let’s be real. I’m not actually going to meditate on my excellent smoothie and it’s healthful ingredients.

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photo by Wendell Benedetti

But I am going to give kudos to an excellent local hangout, With Live Market & Cafe, and the delicious smoothies created there. My favorite is the Mint 2 Be, a concoction featuring kale, pineapple, apple, mint, and lemon. I’ve made my own variation, but it in no way diminishes the delight I take in their refreshing version, which I can enjoy while relaxing in their loft and working on projects or conversing with friends.

Plus, a visit to the cafe affords me the opportunity to chat with the owner and employees and hear about their current community programs (cooking classes for adults and kids, writing class for teens and young adults, weekly yoga, the list goes on). These guys are about so much more than making money as they seek to have a positive impact on the surrounding community.

And the fringe benefit of being “in love” with this place?  I’m now just a tad bit more mindful of maintaining healthful eating habits. That’s an excellent development, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever is lovely…

Some of us have been friends for more than 30 years.

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Through these years, we’ve walked through joy and sorrow, peace and anguish. Weddings, births, and deaths. Misunderstandings, impatience, and ugly attitudes. Fractured hearts and fractured minds, restoration and renewal.

We’ve spoken words of affirmation and acceptance, and we’ve encouraged one another to keep on keeping on, knowing that Christ will complete the good work he began in us, attempting to love one another as He loves us.

So we keep showing up, rejoicing in the gift of friendship, and like today, celebrating the birthday of a treasured friend.

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Lovely? Yes indeed!

 

31 Days of Philippians 4:8

I’ve been reflecting of late on what brings me the greatest satisfaction in life. Besides being with the people I love (interacting with them, conversing with them, going deep with them), writing is what brings me the greatest fulfillment. Sometimes ideas flow, sometimes they don’t, but when they do the joy starts deep in my inward parts and sometimes even begins bubbling over. And as many of you know, I’m really not a bubbling-over kind of person.

But because of the way writing can bring me delight, I’m tentatively taking on an online writing challenge called Write 31 Days. In this challenge (started by home blogger, Myquillyn Smith (The Nester), and now hosted by Crystal Stine), bloggers pick one topic and write a post on that topic every day in October.

Since I tend to the melancholy, I thought it would uplifting and novel to look for things that fall into the Philippians 4:8 category: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My goal is to post something every day this month (um, well, the days that are left of it!) on my blog. I may share a photo, a few words encountered in my personal reading, an anecdote related to something I’ve observed in people and events around me, or even an event taken from the news. Time will see how this all plays out. But I do hope you’ll join me in this endeavor by reading my little offerings and perhaps sharing some of your own.

And so—let the adventure begin!31-days-of-philippians-4-8

Like Mother, Like Daughter?

007When visiting the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains last week, I really wasn’t expecting to come across an illustration of an important parenting truth. But there it was, the albino redwood in its subtle beauty, reminding me of a lesson it has taken me many years to learn.

As my friends and I strolled through the towering redwoods, their rich bark a striking contrast to the verdant canopy overhead and the carpet of ferns and other greens below, Bambi, a park volunteer, approached and enthusiastically volunteered to share with us a few nuggets of the natural world.

First she showed us tiny cones that in the right time will disperse miniature seeds that will in turn birth coastal redwood giants. Incredible.

Then she led the way to a tiny albino redwood sprouting from its parent tree (another form of redwood reproduction). The paleness of the offspring’s delicate needles created an intricate pattern against the darkness of the parent tree, leaving me a bit awestruck by the way two plants so closely related could each be so vastly unique.

And I was reminded of one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from parenting my daughter.009

She’s 16 now, and according to most people she bears a resemblance to me. Even Facebook has mistakenly tagged her photo for mine (probably because she doesn’t have FB). Despite the physical similarities, though, our personalities differ in some significant ways.

As a child and later as a teen, I was motivated largely by competition and approval, so striving for academic excellence was par for the course. Beyond academics, I thrived on involvement in extra-curricular activities such as sports, band, journalism, and the church youth group. In time, I learned which activities clicked with me, bringing joy in and of themselves, and I immersed myself in their pursuit.

Shayna, on the other hand, was content for years to operate at her own pace–a daydreamer’s pace. Stories of all kinds resonated with her, the quirkier the narrative the better. She would come home from school and recount Mr. Baglio’s boyhood adventures and her mentor Wendell’s takes on reruns of Get Smart and Monk. Stories still speak volumes to her, and she can quote lines from books and movies alike with a delight that runs deep and with an awareness that stories are the way she processes life. Beyond that, she’s also quite content to be something of a homebody. She doesn’t feel the need for constant activity nor does she seek approval through accomplishment. She rarely compares herself with others.

Truth be told, I kind of wanted to be a “tiger mom.” Early on I gave my daughter all kinds of opportunities for sports and classes. Thankfully, I couldn’t muster the drive necessary for insisting that she be someone other than herself. After all, she did resist, and strongly. A tiger cub was not what she was created to be.

Now, more than ever, I love and admire my daughter’s qualities. While at times throughout the years I’ve been hard-pressed to understand why she doesn’t desire the level of activity I thrived on for so long, I’ve learned to let her be herself and pursue the few activities that resonate with her being. I’ve learned, albeit imperfectly, to listen to her heart.

I’ve also learned from her example. She has a strength of character that usually enables her to resist peer pressure and stand up for herself. Would that I had known at her age how not to give in to abusive treatment or base my actions on fear of the negative opinions of others.

This summer, Shayna is acting on a dream of her own and volunteering at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. In terms of academics, she’s becoming more and more of an advocate for herself, her education, and her learning style, and she takes pride in a job well doIMG_0886ne. As she begins to consider any one of a half-dozen future careers, she’s embarking on a journey of discovery, one in which she still travels at her own pace but one that will lead her where God wants her to go.

The analogy of the albino redwood only goes so far. How thankful I am, though, that this daughter of mine is true to her nature, a nature she shares in part with me but one that exudes a beauty and depth of character all her own.

 

On Extractions and the Rich Power of Words

These days, I tend to wonder about a lot of things.345

In part, this is due to my age and stage in life.

In part, it’s due to experiences of this past year.

And in part it comes, quite simply, from the pervasive hopelessness that seems to overtake me more often than not.

Caught in waves of questions, guilt, and self-condemnation, I wonder if I’ll ever get past this, if I’ll ever be able to embrace grace and move forward, and if I’ll ever really and truly be able to offer something of value to those around me. I’ve been frozen, unable to concentrate well. And all too often I’ve hidden myself in games of Spider Solitaire rather than allow my mind to explore the rough and ragged areas of life that I’m trying to avoid.

But at least—and this is huge—I can now read again.

For a while, it was all I could do to take in a short blogpost. Finally, though, words penned by authors as diverse as Henri Nouwen and Shauna Niequist have begun to make their way into my soul, resonating with some of my deeper places and helping me to see beyond the desolation that has seemed intent on consuming me these past several months.

And believe it or not, an infected tooth was the catalyst for this step forward.

I had been trying to run—from myself, my thoughts, my reality. Then came last Friday, when after weeks of discomfort a problematic molar finally had to be yanked out, and with it came a significant amount of infection that had been hidden between the roots.

The extraction was actually somewhat painful. An hour’s worth of attempts to anesthetize the area had met with only partial success. So by the time I arrived home, I was feeling just a bit sorry for myself, and eventually a few tears gave way to a waterfall and I was pouring out my lament to God, finally confessing my frustrations, my regrets, my heart that was breaking from words spoken to me and by me, a heart breaking from my own failures and the failures of others. Literally and figuratively, it was a watershed moment.

But that moment was just the beginning. The entire weekend was punctuated by times of tears as I dealt more directly and more humbly with my regrets of the past months and even the past years. God kept at me, relentlessly yet beautifully: a conversation with my dear friend Lisa about laying it all out before God and trusting Him to cleanse, heal and forgive; a night of live worship, soul-stirring music and prayer led Chris Tomlin, Matt Redmond, Max Lucado and others at The Forum. Many rich words, many bittersweet tears.

Through it all, there was a sense that God was moving, that the infection that had been pervading my soul was being slowly extracted, not as quickly as the infection that had been yanked out with the tooth, but it was being extracted nonetheless.

And it didn’t stop there. I encountered Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart and was blown away by what I found there:

The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness…

The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after, or beyond the struggle with our false self and its demons. No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle that our Lord comes to us…

Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.

This is a journey. In reality, it’s a journey I’ve been on for quite some time. I’ve taken a number of detours, and I’ve circled the same area more than once. But it feels so good to once again take in the richness of the written word, to delight in Niequist’s essays on life, friendship and food, to be touched to the core by Nouwen’s wise, insightful counsel that seems meant just for me.

Words. Words of life, words of hope, words spoken by friends, words penned by strangers and set to music or placed in print.

Words all used by God.

I’m taking them in again—in part due to an infected tooth—and I am so immensely grateful.

The Worthwhile Lessons of March

Sometimes, grace takes time.

Often, it’s the prayers of God’s people that somehow, quite mysteriously, allow me to taste of His grace.

But always, the Source of grace is Jesus.

These, in a nutshell, are the most worthwhile things I’ve been learning of late. In fact, the latter half of February and the entire month of March have given me repeated lessons in these truths, and to be honest, I’m a long way from mastery of the material.

While the details of my story are still too deeply painful and too profoundly personal to share here on the blog, I feel compelled to give just a hint of the ways God has been at work in my heart and soul.

My 94-year old mom died toward the end of February, not unexpectedly but still somewhat suddenly. And since my nature is to engage in all the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” I can possibly find, I’ve basically been putting myself through much torment.

The prayers of dear friends upheld me in the days following my mom’s passing, and in some incomprehensible way I can say that yes, I operated in God’s grace despite the inner turmoil. In the aftermath of it all, though, I have agonized over details that just wouldn’t let me go—or perhaps better said, details that I have been holding onto with all my might—and the result has been unbearable pain, pain even now intensified by memories of my baby daughter’s death 16 years ago.  Engulfed in grief, I’ve felt more than once of late that I’m a loser who should just give up on life.

And yet. To my amazement, God’s grace has reached out to me in unexpected ways. A guest pastor pointed right at me (really!) when he said, and I quote, “The grace you are looking for is found only in Jesus.” Over a couple of weeks’ time, friends–and friends of friends–pointed me toward prayer warriors who bathed me in prayer and directed me toward the gentle, loving, accepting presence of the Lord. Slowly, God has helped me ease up on the self-recriminating thoughts and begin to see the many things I did well, the ways I had been a conduit of His love to my failing, fragile mom.

Today’s a good day. Tomorrow may be ridiculously painful again. But I trust that during these coming days of April, as the earth is wrapped in the transforming warmth of the spring sun and as the people who love me continue wrapping me in prayer, God’s grace will pursue me still by reaching into the dark, despairing areas of my soul and bringing renewed life and hope to this heart of mine.

What We Learned in March 2016

Valuing Convergence

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Lately, I’ve been tethered to the rainforest puzzle that’s covering our kitchen table. For me, there’s a certain thrill in discovering the way the interplay of pattern, shape, and hue reveals how the pieces will fit together, how each connection will contribute to the beauty emerging before my eyes.

Fascination with a different kind of convergence kept both astronomers and novices alike intently peering into the night sky during the month of June, eyes fixed on the rendezvous of Jupiter and Venus as their paths, from an earthly point of view, intersected in deep space. Together they emitted a brilliant light, the kind of light that can capture the attention of the world (and perhaps did so in an earlier celestial event about 2000 years ago).

That’s one thing about convergence. It most definitely draws attention. And for me, it also brightens the eyes of my soul.

At times, it brings me simple delight.

At other times, it speaks meaning to my deep places, calling attention to things of great worth, things my heart needs to hear.

Father Benedict J. Groeshel has written on the topic of how we perceive God and how He beckons us. Some people, he says, are led to the idea of God primarily as Good, while for others it’s God as True that resonates with them.  Some are especially drawn to God as Beautiful. Still others—and I’m definitely one of these folks—have an acute appreciation for God as One, God as the Divine Being who draws everything together in a meaningful way.

Just recently, a dear friend took a trip to Africa, and on that trip all her deepest passions converged. After months of dedicated training, she accomplished the arduous feat of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro—and that not just for the personal thrill but for the cause of raising money for a ministry dear to her heart. She squeezed in a short safari and then spent a few days helping missionary friends in Tanzania to throw a huge wedding celebration for their son.  Ministry, mountains, teamwork, reuniting with old friends while mixing with new ones: she was blessed while she blessed, and she returned exhausted but with a heart full of joy.

Then there’s Shannan Ajluni, a facebook acquaintance who is now having her own experience with convergence in the midst of her fight against breast cancer.  Here’s her description of her interaction with a new breast cancer patient.

“She was very scared, worried, depressed, and was in tears. She needed a hug. So, I gave her one. Turns out, she has breast cancer and was just starting treatment…So, I offered her a hug, and a prayer, and my story… and two other women and the social worker came in and we all offered our stories…Anyhow, she calmed down and thanked me… and then asked if we could talk again tomorrow.”

And thus was born a new breast cancer support group. Shannon is taking one of life’s greatest challenges and letting God use it, redeem it if you will. And in the midst of this, she’s being infused with a tremendous sense of fulfillment as her painful trial and her passion for helping others intersect in an invaluable way.

For most of us, moments of intersection aren’t usually so dramatic, but because convergence touches me so close to the heart, I think God uses it to communicate some important truths to me, sometimes on subjects I may be resisting.

For instance, there’s frequently an overlap between the topics my pastor addresses in his sermons and the topics I encounter in my personal reading of Scripture. Pastor Scott recently spoke on the topic of discipline—as in the idea that God disciplines those He loves. There it was in his sermon on Hebrews 12, and then there it was in my reading of various passages in Proverbs. As usual when this topic is explored, I found myself resistant not so much intellectually as emotionally,

Yet there are occasions when I know that I know that I know that I’ve received a word from God that I need to hear, and this was definitely one such time.

And since this kind of convergence requires my participation, I’m starting to more wholeheartedly embrace a handful of truths and ask a few questions.

Truth: God loves me despite my mistakes. I’m His child and I’m of great worth to Him.

Truth: Sometimes He allows hard things to come into my life for the purpose of making me more like Jesus.

Truth: Seeking Him is of greatest worth.

Questions: In this tough situation, what is it that God wants me to learn?…How can I let Him in and open myself to the work He wants to do in me?…How can I let go of bitterness and anger and instead focus on the multitude of gifts God has showered on my life?

As I ask these questions, I remember that my participation in all this is only possible by His grace.

Grace that gives…equips…sustains…transforms. Grace that transforms even me.

How grateful I am for His divine power that “has given [me] everything I need for a godly life through Him who called [me] by His own glory and goodness.”

How grateful I am that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

How grateful I am that “He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

I certainly don’t know all the answers. In some areas, I may not even know what direction God will have me go. But I can hold onto these great and precious promises.

And the fact that these promises, along with a multitude of others, can converge on my life even as it all feels unmanageable, can in fact converge on my life simultaneously with the problems and challenges, this gives me hope.

Worthwhile Recipes: Chocolate Swirl Butterscotch Brownies

Rich and chewy lusciousness
Rich and chewy lusciousness. Definitely worth one’s while (though not, of course, if you’re counting calories….)

These brownies are absolutely scrumptious. That’s reason enough for making them. Beyond that, they take all of ten minutes to whip up from scratch and you can do all the mixing in one saucepan. What more could you ask?

Well, there is one other thing. These brownies somehow seem to warm the soul. Somehow, they seem to communicate a bit of comfort and spread a bit of joy. That’s a lot to be said for a brownie.

Simple. Sweet. Soothing to the soul.

What you need:

1/4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate pieces

What you do:

First, melt 1/2 cup of butter over low heat. Then turn off the heat and stir in 1 cup of brown sugar–either light, dark, or a combination of the two. (Truth be told, the other night I had to turn my pantry upside down to find enough brown sugar, finally combining the remains of three separate bags to come up with one cup. Yikes.)

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Next, add one egg and stir well.

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Now, throw 3/4 cup of flour, 1 tsp. of baking powder, and 1/2 tsp. of salt together on top of the brown sugar mixture. Mix the dry ingredients together a bit and then stir the entire concoction till everything is nicely blended.

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Add 1 tsp. of vanilla, stir well, and then spread the batter in a greased 9″ x 9″ square pan.  Sprinkle the batter with about 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

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Bake for five minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Then pull out the rack and run a knife through the batter to create a marbleized effect. (And yes, you can lick the knife afterwards.)

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Continue baking for about 20 minutes more. Then remove the brownies from the oven and allow them to cool (if you have the patience, which I only sometimes do) before cutting them into squares.

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These particular brownies accompanied my son and his friends on a road trip to college orientation this week. And what really brought me joy the other day? Watching my daughter whip up a batch in celebration of her friend’s 16th birthday. These really are the all-occasion treat.

Remember the  three “S’es?”

Simple. Sweet. Soothing.

Make that four, because there’s one more: to be shared.