Life is Hard

Life is hard is almost a throw away sentence and yet is probably one of the truest things I know. Life is hard makes Chris squirm because he is an Enneagram 7 and it is better to focus on what is ahead and whether or not a vacation is on the calendar. Life is hard is every human’s reality–and yet we all somehow want to hop off the ride and choose something a little slower and more predictable like the ferris wheel: it may go high…but we have a better vantage point and can see danger from a mile away. I recently heard someone say that pain and love are the most predictable things in this lifetime. This statement is a cousin to life is hard, but I like it more because it speaks of Love.

When we returned from Uganda I kinda thought we had hit our quota of life is hard and maybe would experience a lot more life is easy–or at least less painful. The residual sadness and depression lingered far longer than I could have ever imagined. I have already written a dozen blogs about this as well as referenced the disorientation I felt spiritually speaking. I do think the grappling and grasping for clarity on where my faith fell in the midst of suffering was alarming at best. At a tender age I was taught that a life with Jesus would not be a bed of roses…pretty sure this was a direct quote…but it would be a lot sweeter than living without him. In the deepest darkest recesses of my wounded soul I wasn’t so sure. Instead of smelling roses I smelled something reeking a bit of prosperity gospel and it filled me with nausea. My childhood faith simply could not sustain my life is hard real life experiences.

Deep down I believed–maybe subconsciously or secretly:  to live a good life meant good things would follow you…or nothing really terrible would happen. (Isn’t that what most proverbs tell us?) I knew about Jesus and taking up our crosses…and even knew what was His eventual end…but I couldn’t imagine life would be truly hard–as in–excruciatingly hard.

I think the real kicker was returning home and still having hard stuff land on our doorstep. Stuff like suffering still occurring all around the world and it was filling my newsfeed. Stuff like a parent with a drug addiction or dementia. Stuff like being betrayed by a co-worker. Stuff like untimely deaths and broken relationships. Wasn’t Uganda the end of the hard life stuff? Didn’t we hit a lifetime quota of hard? Did we do something wrong and not learn a lesson the first time?

To some my words may be a relief. You have lived long enough to know life is hard–or have walked alongside a loved one who has suffered. You have grappled and grasped and there was no pretty bow, nor roses, or cherries to put on top. It wasn’t because you weren’t looking or didn’t like flowers or trusting…it was because it simply couldn’t end with prosperity…or pretty packaging…it was too deep, too dark, and too tragic. To be honest, it was non-sensical, which leaves us desiring to eat a truck load of chocolate while scrolling social media simultaneously making a commitment to never step foot in church again. Or on a rare occasion–as was my case–all of the above–and THEN actually continuing to grasp and grapple despite my best evaluation and judgement to see if there is anything left on this side of faith to cling. The desperate search looks like turning over the dead log in the forest…inspecting it for life…to see if even the strange creepy crawly things might have some good purpose after all. I have found faith is still faith when you do this type of investigation.

My words might be off-putting to some who are looking for a pretty bow or a positive lesson learned. A three point sermonette neatly packaged detailing how we “trust God in the hard” seems appropriate. Those words will sell books, fill services, and are perfect for memes on social media, but these lips won’t be saying them. It is not because I am bitter…I am actually much better than I have been in a long time. But in earnest, to exit our Uganda story and step in to a new story meant losing a sense of self and and certainty. It was a peeling off of skin that was both painful as well as delicious…similar to Eustaces’ plight in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when his dragon skin was removed.

No one wants to exist in itchy dragon skin when they were created with a heart of a human. Love came and painfully pulled at the thick layers revealing Eustace’s tender pink skin underneath. For me Love came down and slowly but surely provided a new story with new skin. It was disorienting because trusting my wings and breathing fire was a very natural way of life. I was certain beyond certain of most all things spiritual–and specifically Christian. Now with the leathery protective shell removed, with fresh pink skin, the tender heart of this little girl knew about deep pain and deep love and not much more. If there was a bow, roses, or a cherry to speak of in this lifetime, it would be Love. Love in the smallest sense and simplest action sparked a hope for me in humanity. Love pointed me to our Creator. Love in the greatest sense…a love that came down and continues to come down pointing to something larger than my life or my story. Love in the daily sense is what has saved me. My family and friends have shown me what being the hands and feet of Jesus really look like. Not because I deserve it–or because they are hoping to avoid pain by alleviating mine–but my friends and family have quite literally entered in to the pain and brought love (and sometimes food) and it inspires me to do the same for the world around me.

May You Believe You are Loved and Be Love,

Jenni

 

 

(Photo cred: image-20160411-21959-ps6nll.jpg)

 

 

 

A Connected Colony

Images are so powerful. Recently I have been fixated on the roots of Aspen trees. I have been unable to stop thinking about how the root system is actually a grand colony that began with a single seed. On the surface we see single trees standing side by side, but underneath the ground is an intricate and deeply connected colony of roots that grow and work together. Recently I learned…when the root system dies…the Aspen forest dies.

Karen was one of the first people we met when we arrived in western Uganda. She had a wide smile, heart of gold and helpful hands. For two months she was a bright spot and a dear friend on what was a rainy season of our lives. We not only were given the chance to get to know Karen, but also met her adorable son Lordrick. I will never forget the day Lordrick began to have an epileptic seizure in Kylee’s 9 year old arms. It was so very frightening and my heart sank because I knew medically options were limited for Karen and her precious baby boy. A group of teens in the states heard stories of Karen and Lordrick, and they wanted to make a way for him to see a physician. They covered the cost of medical bills and Lordrick’s much needed medicine.

Over time a friendship bloomed between Karen and my American friend Janine. She realized there might be a way to invest long term in Karen and Lordrick’s lives. She carried that vision to her core team: a small group of teens and adult leaders in her church. Together they committed to sending Karen to university. Janine and her team believed an educated young woman will provide for her family, stay healthy, save money, start a business, empower her community, and lift her country. They were right. Karen has spent the past four years in school, recently graduated, and is well on her way to doing just that: providing, saving, building, empowering, and lifting others up. I know this because this is the kind of woman she was before this opportunity was given to her and so it will all the more be who she will continue to be moving forward!

So back to my Aspen trees. I have always been incredibly struck by the beauty of the Aspen tree: the golden heart shaped leaves sparkle against brilliant white bark. Though from the surface it appears as if there is one singular tree towering toward the heavens, we find actually underneath the ground an entangled colony, deeply connected to the roots of it’s brothers and sisters. I am no biologist so forgive my preschool understanding of this phenomena; but that said, I was deeply struck by this image and the many many amazing people who have intertwined with my life, strengthened me, at times held me up, and who have made me who I am today.

Image result for Aspen Roots image

I could not help thinking of Aspen roots as I reflected on Karen’s graduation. The intersecting of lives that have been strengthened as they have strengthened Karen and Lordrick. Moving forward, so many all over Uganda will be blessed by Karen and Lordrick’s lives. We are better together. We need one another and will forever be changed when we grow where we are planted and allow ourselves to be intertwined for the strengthening of the forest.

Love, Peace, and Aspen Roots,

 

Jenni

 

 

 

May We Live Life the Way We Hope to be Remembered…

Her Christmas cookies were simply peanut butter sandwiched in between two Ritz crackers dipped in milk chocolate–but they were legendary and didn’t last longer than a day or two sitting on our kitchen counter. His voice was quiet and deep, his words were few. Yet I hung on any and every childhood story he would tell of his life on the farm.

After church one Sunday, at the tender age of six, I boldly approached this couple and asked what might be the strangest question a child could ask: “Would you be my grandparents?” They took this request seriously and included me in their nightly prayers and watched me when my parents went out of town. Grandma sewed clothes for my Cabbage Patch dolls and Grandpa carved wooden cars for my brother. They taught me to ride horses and yearly would host elementary students on their farm introducing them to their ponies: Chocolate Drop and Spot.

I realized they not only set the bar very high for what I hoped grandparents would be like in the life of my children…but they showed me a model for marriage.

When Chris and I were dating we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa. I would “shush” him as we tip-toed through the front door, briskly walked through the kitchen; then we would crane our necks to peak in to their simple living room. It was 3pm and I hoped to catch them doing something I had witnessed many times before: an adorable couple…married for over 50 years…spooning on the floor eating popcorn and watching a random black and white television show. The volume was turned up so loudly and their backs were turned; they could not hear us enter their home…and just for a moment Chris and I were frozen in this tender moment. Two people in love…still doing life together after all these years. It may seem creepy as we invaded their space and their “moment” but for me it was a window in to something I longed for in my future marriage. Captured on the rug was an innocence and intimacy that eludes many marriages after the kids are gone…or even before. The connection and commitment to this ritual spoke to me.

Recently I received a gift that reminded me of the deep impact this couple made on my life. I realized Grandma and Grandpa modeled what I hope to provide in my marriage and my home. A safe place and the gift of presence. Grandma and Grandpa had PLENTY of biological grandchildren, yet they made room in their hearts for a few more. They treated us as if we were their own and held out a Light of Love that drew me in and shaped who I am.

Strangely…I had almost forgotten. We often are given relationships for only a season. This time of year I become reflective and my heart expands in thankfulness. I realize that I am not the sum of a few but it took a village to raise me (in Indiana) and another village who helped me grow in my adult life (in North Carolina). Dozens of people showed me how to be a parent. Chris and I had spiritual guides, mentors, neighbors and friends who have molded us in to who we are today. I wanted to pause here and say we are thankful for EACH one of you.

I wonder if we all might take a moment between the busyness of the Christmas season and the start of the new year to reflect and give thanks…may we say a prayer of thanks for those who have shaped us? Maybe a text or phone call to express our gratitude…whether we are related or not…we are designed to be in relationship and do life together…and we are better together.

Grandma and Grandpa lived simply and loved well. They did not strive for wealth or fame. But they will be forever lifetime heroes who have made their mark and left a legacy…in my heart…and in the hearts of many.

May we live life the way we hope to be remembered. 

Merry Christmas…and Happy (Almost) New Year,

Jenni

(Image found courtesy of… imgur) 

If You Really Knew Me…

Before two very tragic and public deaths occurred last week–I penned this blog. I realized after re-reading my words–they felt even more relevant today–as we truly do not know the battles that can often rage within. After hearing a powerful message this week surrounding suicide at CoM–I realized this was an important time to share what I had written:

Over the past few years I have witnessed college folks playing an intriguing game called, if you REALLY knew me. When I first encountered the game I was slightly disturbed by what was being shared as I was concerned that it might encourage forced vulnerability. Pushing participants to disclose intimate stories from their very real lives. But in a culture that is chocked full of perfectly polished Instagram stories; where we continue to post our highlight reels, maybe this is exactly what is needed to remedy all those shiny selfies. We rarely reveal what often is just under the surface. I realized that this little game of “if you really knew me” is actually a helpful tool to allow honesty to be shared in an (ideally) safe space. We can take off the mask and allow others to peek in to the window of our humanity…revealing our hurts…and  provide a place where others can respond with a hearty, “I see you…I hear you…you are known…you are loved.”  When culture is carving out online space for us to daily consume the very best portrait of others’ lives–no wonder we are hearing reports of deep depression and loneliness? We actually are craving someone who “REALLY KNOWS US”…and things would be better off in our own psyche if we really knew others stories because we would feel way more NORMAL and certainly not alone.

So to celebrate my 42 years of life I decided to get as raw as I possibly could–and share 24* things you may not know and might not believe about my life. (*42 would be WAY too boring…but 24 is digestible!)

Continue reading

Baking Worship…Not Bacon Worship

Have you ever had someone prepare a meal for you that was made with love?  You could tell with each bite it was more than mere calories and nourishment?  Maybe you have witnessed a last second shot taken from half court…all net no rim? Have you ever been moved by words written on a page? Or walked in to someone’s home and been encircled with a warmth…complete with coffee and cozy couches? There is something that stirs within us when we experience or encounter these things…

Recently, while she was bustling around the kitchen, I told Kylee I believed baking was actually one of her spiritual acts of worship. She looked at me as if I had two heads! Such a foreign concept that something so “mundane” and something that brought her so much joy would be considered “worship”!?! This made my heart a little sad. I think we need to re-frame our understanding of worship and properly align our mindset around what it truly means.

When we hear the word worship we often think hymns, sitting solemnly inside of buildings with steeples, praying prayers with heads bowed and hands folded. Sometimes we imagine furrowed brows, sermons or an hour gathering on Sunday mornings…

But here is what a wise teacher said about worship:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday,        ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  (Romans 12:1,2 The Message*) 

Writing and reading do something similar within me that baking and dancing do for Kylee. I feel so very alive in those moments. Sitting with others listening to their stories feels (at times) like a spiritual act of worship. For too long I have compartmentalized these worlds thinking they were separate. But it is in our every day, in the ordinary daily doings of life, that God is active and moving and we are worshipping.

There are times when reading and writing feel indulgent. Sitting with another sharing “heart stuff” feels almost too sweet. But having been on the receiving end of a delicious meal prepared with love, enjoying fresh baked cookies, or being welcomed to a home with cozy couches and copious cups of coffee, make me wonder if I might be experiencing a life-moment where I am encountering another’s spiritual act of worship? Was the half-court shot that left me in awe and the song lyrics that left me in tears someone else living out of their very best life?

The wisdom is loud and clear…

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.*

In my every day ordinary life…may I live reminded…the every day things I do are all opportunities to live a life of worship. And may I recognize, see those things and call them out in others. May I not think worship happens simply on Sundays. May I teach my kids the things they do and the ways they do them are so very often a spiritual act of worship. I am sure many worship bacon…or create a pretty mean bacon-wrapped meatloaf as their spiritual act of worship; I want to suggest that baking, dancing, writing, creating safe space and listening are all acts of worship. We should celebrate and lean in to our daily activities…embrace the things that seem mundane…they are ways we love others and life our best life!

May You Worship with your Every Day Ordinary Life…

Jenni

 

 

 

The Sea Glass Speaks

Nothing’s fine…I’m torn…I’m all out of faith, this is how I feel…
I’m cold and I’m ashamed…lying naked on the floor.*  

Sea glass is the litter left behind, then drug out to the ocean by the wind and waves, only to surface again busted and broken in to somewhat smaller pieces. When discovered on the beach days, weeks, months, or years later, this glass has miraculously become quite lovely. It has lost its jagged edges. It is frosty and softer in appearance. One can tell the original state from which it has come; yet, it is…in a sense…new.

It is no wonder I identify so deeply with the sea glass I collect. I am full of jagged edges, yet, God is softening me, making me lovely, and making me more lovable. Through my life, I have endured hardship and have been tossed by the waves of despair. The sea glass I find has also endured much to become the beautiful gem it is today.

While walking along the shores of this place, in this time of deep grief, I am longing for a message of hope, a message of love. Trying to make sense of my life while asking the unanswerable questions. God seems silent, but the Sea Glass speaks. Her transparency allows the sun to create a shine unlike any shell on the sand. I am drawn to her…I lean in…I listen. She tells me a story of significance. She tells me of the time she was thrown out, ugly, unwanted. She tells of shattered dreams and a fragmented life. She tells me of her hope being lost. She tells me of the hardship she endured while at sea. She tells me she wanted to be buried at the bottom of the ocean; begging for the tossing and turning and churning to end. She tells me I am not alone. She tells me I am seen, and that some day…some day…I will emerge, not tossed away trash…but His treasure.

*Thank you Natalie Imbruglia (for giving words to describe what we all have felt or feel at times in our lives)

Excerpt from my mini memoir: Oceans Between Us (The Sea Glass) 

A Seriously Excellent Excuse to Slow Down

Food shared around a table can bring some of the most healing and healthy moments to a soul. It is not necessarily the food that matters. The friendship, conversation, and laughter around our tables provide energy and encouragement to engage in the life we were meant to live. I believe it that strongly…and I believe there is research to back up the power of this intimate time.

Though the food doesn’t necessarily matter it sure is nice when it is delicious. I decided to try a brand new meal out on some friends we have known for a long time. It felt like risky business. This could go terribly wrong. And then we would just be eating salad–because it is difficult to mess that up. But I trusted my fellow foodie who shared the recipe and we forged ahead. Oh and by the by, did I mention the recipe included an uncomfortably large volume of onions? I don’t even LIKE onions. But I like food with flavor and these were promising a caramelized taste and I do like carmel and so we went with it! I went on the heavy side of seasoning and heat and decided to add this kale salad…it sweetened the spicy meal a bit…but in only the best possible way.

Because it just isn’t very nice to keep things this great to yourself…I am going to share the whole meal and hope you find the courage to try it. It is not a week night meal–or at least it isn’t in our house. The caramelizing and cooking of the lentils took at least an hour but because I didn’t want to burn them or cook them too fast, it probably took closer to an hour and a half to caramelize my onions. Years ago someone told me you spell LOVE…T I M E. This is a meal made with love…and you have been warned…don’t get angry at the chopping or length of cooking cause love takes time.

Moving forward are Jen Hatmaker’s words describing her Sweet Potato Lentil Bowls. She will guide you through how she cooks this…I personally think the recipe is pretty forgiving…so just go with it.

Sweet Potato Lentil Bowls

1 bag of brown lentils

2 cups of rice (I like basmati here)

8 cups of veggie stock

5 sweet onions

2-3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2-3 cloves chopped garlic

Olive oil Spices: Cumin Cinnamon, Curry powder Cayenne Plain Greek yogurt for serving Chopped cilantro for serving

So basically, this is all to taste, and I am reluctant to tell you how much spice I add because it will seem irresponsible. We like spicy food, okay? Rinse and sort your lentils. Over medium heat in a pot, sauté a chopped onion and 2-3 cloves chopped garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil for about 3-4 minutes. Add the spices in any quantity that makes sense for your tribe and stir for about a minute (maybe a tsp of each for normal people?). Add the lentils and toss to coat. Add around four cups of veggie stock, cover and reduce heat to low, and cook for around an hour.

Slice up all your onions. Four will cook down so much, so don’t be scared of the enormous pile of raw onions you just amassed. In a large skillet on LOW HEAT (all caps means I am yelling), add a healthy pour of olive oil, all your onions, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Stir periodically and cook down for around an hour. This will turn into a sweet, carmelized pile of deliciousness that could stand alone as the whole meal if you ask my opinion, which you basically did by reading this. Peel and cube your sweet potatoes, toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and some of the same spices you used in the lentils, and roast at 375 for around 45 minutes. Cook your rice according to package directions. I like to use stock instead of water so the rice tastes like something. One part rice to two parts liquid. Plus salt! Oh my word. Unsalted rice is such cause for weeping. Layer it all up: rice, lentils, sweet potatoes, carmelized onions, a dollop of plain Greek yogurt, and a sprinkling of chopped fresh cilantro. You could also add chopped peanuts because it is a free country. My kids pick and choose their bowl layers, but I am here to tell you that somehow every single layer together makes the magic. A couple of my kids leave off the yogurt, and their lives are the lesser for it. Leftovers are delicious the next day, and no one will even realize you served them a totally healthy vegan dinner.

Okay it’s me–Jenni again…

(Thanks for this photo…http://www.mamabirdnest.com/…I didn’t take a photo…mine was not as beautiful as this dish…but to be sure…the food tasted better than this looks.) 

I don’t know how your heart is…or how your much you are needing a slow night to be with your family or a few close friends…but this meal will give you a great excuse to do it.

Enjoy! 

May You Be a Blessing and May You Nourish Your Body and Soul…

Jenni