To the Strong Young Woman on Flight UA3608 from IND to EWR  on New Year’s Eve 2022 

To be clear, I did not want to end 2022 shaking mad and speechless. 

I am sure it was not the way you wanted to spend your flight to Newark either. 

I doubt you will ever read these words and I know I was briefly able to share my disapproval as we were deplaning— but there were paragraphs upon paragraphs that needed to be said, not just a quick and sharp exchange with your aggressor and several exasperated: 

“I am SO sorry’s” to you

Because there is more to be said, this is the only place I could think to share it. I don’t want to start 2023 without having said it. You, my dear, deserved better.

Initially, the gentleman wearing the starched button-down who was seated directly behind me appeared to be my favorite kind of Hoosier, friendly and talkative. I know he was a Hoosier because he was speaking loudly about his home in Indiana. He began immediately chatting with his seat mate and as I pulled out my book, I smiled knowingly because many of my mid-western friends have the gift of gab and friendship. I love them for it. The pair began chatting freely back and forth and all appeared well in their conversation. I opened my book and began to read. 

Much later in the flight, after the drinks and snacks had been served, I began to notice the tone of the conversation and content switching to race. The man sitting behind me began making sweeping and broad stroke statements about black men, they were not positive. My ears pricked. The gentleman was speaking loud enough for me to make out the majority of the words even over the strong streams of extra oxygen and the roar of the engines. 

I wondered who in the world would be having such a caviler and racist conversation on a large multiracial flight? I ignorantly believed these types of conversations were reserved for quiet whispers or at least behind closed doors where strangers would not be privy to your opinions and harmful belief systems. I glanced behind me and could see that the gentleman across the aisle appeared to be of Asian descent. Is he hearing this? Oh good: headphones in. I tried to mind my own business burying my head back in my book.

Soon I noticed a crescendo in the conversation and that the other person he had engaged was a woman. Were they related? Was this a siloed conversation with no nuance where one person is agreeing with the well spoken gentleman? No, it appeared the woman was thoughtfully and kindly refuting his claims. The more I listened (I had no other option because he was speaking so loudly) I realized the man was not only mansplaining he was white-splaining things to the woman he was sitting with. My heart raced. 

I started to realize the conversation was heating and this woman, in an attempt to protect herself, was being forced into a slightly more defensive posture. The gentleman kept saying, “In my 60+ years of life, it has been my experience…” Very clever, because she cannot speak to his experience. But when she would begin to speak of her experience he would dismiss her and not hear the thoughtful and insightful words she shared. He would accuse her of using psychology or a straw man’s argument. 

I couldn’t begin to get in to the weeds as to the details of the argument and I debated intervening more than once but I wondered for so long if they knew one another—was this possibly a father and daughter having a heated conversation? The young woman was holding her own and did not appear in distress. Because the tone would go from respectful and polite to heated and argumentative back to respectful and polite, I continued to read my book and sigh deeply.

For the final 10 minutes of the flight I fully realized what this conversation truly was: a young woman (maybe even a college student or graduate) who had respectfully entertained a racist conversation and held her own with an argumentative and skilled wordsmith, who would twist and turn the things she would say, or cut her off before completing her thought. I kept thinking it was truly the most racist conversation I had ever heard and his brash bravado and hate speech was followed by words like, “I love all people,” at which point if the fasten seatbelts sign had not been on I would have cut him off and explained that this was the least loving conversation I had heard in my lifetime. I kept wondering if he hoped to convert her to his belief system? What were his hopes for change?

At one point the young woman politely asked, “Would you do me a favor?” The man said he would and she asked him to read, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. The man said this would be a significant request of a dyslexic. She quickly suggested  the audio. I was silently cheering her. She was not missing a beat.

Was she experiencing the same fight or flight feelings that I was? She appeared (generally) thoughtful and calm, but there were times where I could hear a little laugh or human connection that had likely made her approachable to the conversation in the first place. It was turbulent and I couldn’t quite hear what was said, but she exclaimed something implying that her being a black woman spoken to by a white man in this way was problematic, she was more eloquent, but that was the gist. She confirmed my greatest fear. This whole time the “friendly” Hoosier had been debating with and talking at a young black woman, asking her to explain and defend her people group. It was at that point, we were descending, I felt like I was going to climb out of my skin. For those last few minutes of the flight I recognized the young woman tucked against the window was being held hostage. She was being told racism doesn’t exist while being forced to endure racist themes and arguments for what was quickly approaching an hour. 

My pulse was racing. She didn’t need my help. But to say nothing would make me complicit to a verbal assault. He may not have even known it, but he was a racist bully masquerading as a friendly, loving, thoughtful (possibly even curious) well spoken 60+ year old white man.

Where was the eject button? Could she have rung the bell for assistance from the flight attendant? Could she have gotten up and moved seats on this over-crowded flight? In hindsight…I wish I would have thought to offer for her to switch seats. To the end, she never gave up nor did she was shut down, she remained poised and respectful. She was remarkable.

When we were given permission to remove our seatbelts I turned to my seat mate and was physically shaking. She asked if I was okay. I said I was not, due to the awful conversation that was going on behind us. While saying this I turned to look behind me to find a lovely YOUNG woman who should never have been asked to do the work for a man who feigned thoughtfulness on the subject of race. I first mouthed, “I am SO sorry.” I then spoke directly to the man and said, “You were speaking so loudly I could not help but overhear your conversation.” I asked him to please add Waking Up White to his audio book list. He shook his head slightly shrugged and sort of mumbled something under his breath like, “Okay” but not in a complicit way–more with an eye roll and mind your own business way. I had SO many more things to say but people began feverishly rushing off the plane. It was New Year’s Eve and flights were a MESS. 

The young woman took the most immediate exit that she could and all I could do was grab her arm and apologize again. She didn’t need me…she was strong. But she didn’t deserve to spend a single second of her life defending her race to a 60+ year old white man on New Year’s Eve on her way to New York. All I could think was I want her to know I see her. I still do. To the precious strong young woman sitting behind me on Flight UA3608 I see you. And I saw what happened and it was awful and wrong. And my eyes were opened to blatant racism that I thought only existed behind closed doors.

My seat mate and I had had our connecting flights delayed and my bag was farther back on the plane so in compliance with the pilot’s request, I let several folks with immediate connecting flights off the plane first. My seat mate turned to me and said, 

“That woman was a saint.”

I loudly replied, 

“Yes, that was VERY VERY  wrong!” hopeful the “friendly” Hoosier still seated behind me would hear. 

Shaking and not able to stay seated any longer I went to grab my bag. Flustered, I realized it was deeply stuck in the overhead compartment. I began to tug still shaking and feeling tears approaching angry and hot. Suddenly I heard a gravel-y voice behind me ask, “Can I help you with that?” I turned and looked into the eyes of a 6ft 250 pound hooded, non-smiling black man. The irony of this moment was not lost on me. I felt nauseous. And grateful. And grieved. With a sincere thank you and intense eye contact that he could not possibly have interpreted; we dislodged my bag, I moved forward and gave him one last grateful look. The first person I encountered after that bizarre insufferable conversation was (by his physical appearance) the “threatening and intimidating” presence that the gentleman behind me had just been raging about. Pulling my bag swiftly, I rushed past the “loving” Hoosier…feeling not so loving feelings.

I write to physically work things out of my system. Things that are lodged or that I don’t understand. I write for therapy, but I also write to bring solidarity, maybe something that I am working out of my system might be worked out within you as you read? I want those who read my words to feel seen, or maybe inspired. I write to explain a bit more of who I am, and who I want to be. I write so that my kids might know their mom better and understand what is going on inside her crazy head. My kids need to know about this flight and this conversation, they need to know that silence is not an option. I don’t want to pretend that I am fully aware and don’t have unconscious biases of my own, and I know I have plenty of my own work to do. But I was reminded that the days of holiday conversations where we pander racist 60+ Uncle Harry are long over. I don’t care how old people are, this is not innocent, this is ignorance and in the case of the flight conversation on New Year’s Eve 2022, it was evil. No one should have to endure what that young woman endured. I understand that our racist roots run deep. But it starts with us. We need to do our own work, then can move toward those we love. Maybe just maybe this year we could resolve to read a book (audible if needed) or listen to a podcast to begin to wrestle the ghosts of our past that follow us and continue to do harm to those around us. (I have listed a few suggestions below.)

Signing off on New Year’s Eve 2022…a very weary traveler who has been rerouted and delayed on 3 different flights…I don’t know much, but I know we need to do better. 

It’s 2023 y’all. Let’s do better. We must do better.

I wish I had also suggested THIS book when I turned around because clearly the “friendly” Hoosier with the gift of gab believed he was just having a friendly conversation… I cannot recommend this author and book enough:

The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth about Racism Can Radically Transform Lives and Organizations

This was the book the young woman behind me suggested…

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness

And this was the book I suggested…

Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race

This is also a book I would recommend:

Better Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice

If you are a podcast person…

Reader’s Digest has listed 20 different podcasts that you could listen to on race…

With deep love, appreciation and respect for all who read this,

Jenni 

My Ugly Christmas Card

We have all heard of Ugly Christmas Sweaters but I realized today that we might consider a new card genre: The Ugly Christmas Card…

Recently Kylee read some of my writing and said one word: “Bittersweet.” She is not wrong. The through-line of my words refuse to play a simple melody in major key. I may prefer the triumphant sounds that major keys make, but our life is filled with stories that also dip into the minor chords and have a more sad or sinister sound. That is why Christmas cards and Instagram posts can be so disorienting. They traditionally share highlights and triumphant stories all wonderful and worth celebrating. But for some, it makes us wonder if they go through life with any minor key moments? Do they have darker tones or tales of woe to tell? And our cynical selves assume no; but I know no one moves through life on victory laps and good will tours alone.

Starting at a young age I learned that it was very important to put on a smile in the morning. It was imperative to our family that their red curly haired girl wake up and do her best to be obedient, well mannered and cheerful. Looking back I see it for more of what it was: a survival mechanism. It served me well and I received “best smile” as my high school superlative. (Not surprising though as I had been working on this skill my entire life.) My Pollyanna personality was likely annoying to some but it was all I knew and it created peace. It also translated perfectly into a faith that I adopted in high school. I will never not be grateful for this faith that taught me how to hope and sustained me during some of my darkest days. But it was a faith that was flawed– fostering a facade of life being simple once you follow Jesus. I know my words may be misunderstood, so stay with me, I know Jesus says, “pick up your cross,” and the lives of he and his followers were marked by suffering. And yet, currently many Christians have taken and twisted this good news and placed prosperity and very simple spins on complex scripture. Americans are very uncomfortable with suffering and don’t appreciate being asked to walk the same road as the “man of sorrows” and so they are quick to ask those suffering to “consider it joy” and move past the painful parts inadvertently whitewashing our disappointment, confusion, suffering, or sadness. It is understandable, it appears a bit like bad PR for Christians to wear a frown instead of a smile. And so I shifted from one space of familiar expectation to another. I moved through my faith obedient, well-mannered, cheerful and with a smile…

Until the raw pain and loss and grief were so thick I could not see straight. Not for days, or weeks, or months, but years. And that pain also pulled back a curtain that opened my eyes in new ways to the deep suffering of others. Something to which I had in the past only given cliched lip service; I now saw the tremendous pain and suffering of the world and I could not unsee it, nor could I find any adequate words to explain it.

And that is the tension I live in. It is why my stories will always land bittersweet. They will always carry a major and minor key. I may personally be living in a triumphant moment, but I know there is always someone who I love who is experiencing the sinister notes. I also know strangely that I can be celebrating a beautiful “major” moment in the morning with my child and it takes only a ten minute drive to visit my mother with dementia (who does not recognize me) and peer in to her tiny shared medicaid bedroom with sights and smells that we as a society want to tuck away and not experience–and I am immediately surrounded by all of the dark notes. It is a ten minute drive between the bitter and the sweet. To be honest, I am thankful that I am masked in those moments because it is hard to find the smiles.

Today and throughout this Christmas season, may we hold in tension the beauty of the season–the lights, sights, gifts and joy. May we also remember Jesus was born amidst mud, manure and madness–his start in life has me believing he lived life on earth knowing the major and minor chords. Do not grow discouraged if you do not have a lot to smile about, and think that others do. They are likely only a ten minute drive to their bitter moments, they have only chosen to share the sweet. Or maybe they were asked to always put on a smile, maybe that was their survival, so there is grace. Or maybe they believe there is no point in dwelling on the negative, I can appreciate the sentiment but to buff out the pain is not real life at all. Embracing our pain creates compassion. So I will embrace both bitter and sweet; and as for me and my words–they will forever live in the tension of the two.

Whether you are in a major or minor key moment–or maybe a little of both…Merry Christmas.

All Christmas cards are welcome in my mailbox. Beautiful or Ugly.

Love,

Jenni

On the Day Before December

As I count the days until December, my favorite month of the year, I am finding myself struck with shock and horror. How are we knocking on the door of the final month of the year while my precious first child is experiencing so many lasts? Last Christmas parade, last time choreographing and dancing in the Holiday Cabaret. Last December in high school.

Fall semester felt so very full with applications and responsibilities to various commitments, to her coursework and to her friends. At times it has been heavy and exhausting and I have wanted the applications and conversations about college to end so we can sip and savor the moments we have with our senior.

The rest of the family has continued on their own paths, their lives marching forward with practices and musicals and they are less aware of the lasts. But I am acutely aware of the teenage time warp that we are experiencing; accompanied by less family dinners and movie nights, fewer slow weekend moments, and the sand slipping through the hourglass. I have never quite counted the months the way I am counting them now. The memories. The moments. My heart feels heavy.

And yet.

I know that for everything there is a season. I know that moving forward is her only option. I feel like I am holding in tension the need to linger in the lasts, but celebrate her new chapter that is ahead. Really soon we will be moving in to a season of firsts. Isn’t that what life really is? A season of firsts and lasts? So as much as I find myself in shock and horror by the speed of which this semester has flown, I want to meet that moment with gratitude and grace, knowing that there is a celebration on the other side of this season. There is a beautifully baked young woman that is ready to spread her wings and fly. I cannot nor do I want to pull her back into the nest.

This December may I be fully present. May we bake cookies, watch Christmas movies, may there be big kid snuggles and lots of candles. May I be fully present this month loving not loathing the lasts, and may I be ready to celebrate the season of firsts that is upon us.

Thinking of each person who is walking a road of lasts and firsts. May we find the courage together to be fully present in the now. May we show up for today with all that we have in us, and somehow slow the pace enough to savor this Christmas season.

My Birthday Prayer

Today is my birthday. This has been such a weird day to celebrate life. To be honest, I woke up grieved and heavy hearted. I started my day in silent prayer. Then I posted something I believe deeply. Prayer today is NOT enough. Action is needed. Henri Nouwen wisely tells us, “Prayer and action…can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation.” 

I want to begin by humbly sharing that I have taken the prayerful approach for many many years. Columbine, Sandy Hook, and even this year I had direct touches as my friend’s son was in the school in Winston Salem that had an active shooter, and my childhood friend was teaching just miles away from the shooting in Oxford, Michigan. The incidents were coming closer to my world and I still was sending thoughts, prayers, and condolences. I was deeply grieved to hear about the hateful attack in Buffalo and I was both angry and prayed. But today, one day after the tragedy in Uvalde, maybe because it is my birthday…a celebration of life…I knew I could not simply pray another prayer. Enough is enough. Action looks different for each person, but for me it looked like hugging my kids on the way out the door telling them I love them deeply. It looked like a phone call to both my senators requesting for the HR 8 to be passed and expanded background checks for the sale of firearms to be implemented. I grew up in a home filled with guns, by a man who collects and handles them safely. I am not asking for a ban, I am asking for reform. Gun violence is my concern. Are you concerned about mental wellness? Take action. Are you concerned about racism? Take action. The action may seem small…it could be a call, text, or email to your child’s teacher thanking them for their service. It could be contacting an organization to volunteer, donate, or find out how you can support the cause.

I don’t know much, but here’s what I know after 46 precious years on this planet: God loves his children. God loves us and has asked us to steward this earth…care for it and for one another. Taking care of one another doesn’t simply look like prayer without action, it looks like prayer and action in lock step. We are agents for change…change for good in the world. Your definition of good might even look or appear different than mine and that is okay…but too many of us become overwhelmed or even paralyzed and we resort to asking God alone to fix it. And I think respectfully, if I understand my role as God’s creation, I am asked to care for this world and those in it; to do my best to be an agent for healing. I am given the honor of being the hands and feet…and so are you. Speaking of being the hands and the feet, Joshua and I went to lunch today and the woman taking our order asked if she could speak directly to Joshua. She took him by both shoulders and said, “I love you. You are precious. Listen to your teachers, learn the protocols, do whatever they ask. And always know you are loved.” I “know” this woman, she has taken my order many times before. She is a person of color, a mother who dropped off a 2nd and 4th grader at school today. Her words were powerful, Joshua was deeply moved. I wiped away tears and could barely recover to place my order. This is love in action. This is what we need a LOT more of…less prayer? No, but more action. We actually are called to be the change we hope to see in the world.

I love each of you. I know we all have different backgrounds and social media is the last place I want to get into a heated debate about beliefs or rights or faith. But today is my birthday and I felt it only right to honor the lives of others with this one precious life I have been given. 

Oh and if by chance you are looking to contact a NC Senator about any of your specific concerns–here are their numbers: Richard Burr 202-224-3154 and Tom Tillis  202-224-6342.

This is my birthday prayer…scratch that…this is my birthday action for you and for me.

Jenni

Christmas Reflections…

Christmas cracks open the tiny windows of our hearts to the tender goodness of Light and Love. 

Today the news brings word of doom and division. The state of the union is stressful and much of the world is living in survival mode. Fear and famine. Forced separateness and fatigue. Friends and families living with loss. Low levels of anxiety and depression pervade our homes and workplaces. The winter of our soul is a dark, heavy blanket. We search for a glimmer, a glow, a guide. 

In many homes Christmas is full of anticipation. There are shelves of elves and days are counted by clever antics and whispers back to the North Pole. An expectancy builds day after day throughout December as children wait for gifts from St. Nick. 

For others, Christmas is a season of slowness. It is a break from the mundane. It is different decorations and delicacies that are only enjoyed once a year. 

We change the fragrances of our home. We fill our houses with cider and cinnamon, fresh pine and balsam. 

We watch different movies, we pause from the current binge to re-watch the classics. We allow our heart to thaw and grow three sizes. 

We listen to songs about frosty, drummer boys and holy nights. 

We feel nostalgic and remember Christmases of long long ago. 

We light candles. So many candles. 

We feel rushed. We shop in stores and online. We write letters. We attend parties. We bake, we cook, we clean and we try to accomplish more in a few weeks then we normally would in a few months. Christmas is exhausting. 

We try to make impossibly perfect memories for the little ones that care less about the paper and bows and simply want to be wrapped in our arms. 

We see family and faces we don’t regularly see. Sometimes this provides elation and pure joy and other times it is painful and we drink too much to power through. 

Giving is where things get really good at Christmas. We become mindful of those around us. We think of our loved ones and we wonder what would spark joy? We buy it or make it, wrap it and put it under the tree. We think of strangers or those who might benefit from a little brighter Christmas. We do candy cane bombs in parking lots. We donate coats, food and toys. We sing carols at nursing homes and we dance for Smiles. At Christmastime we seem to see others with more compassion. Oh that it might be Christmas year around. 

We discuss and ponder why it is that Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year? Could it be that we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…that we need a little Christmas now

Even during the spooky season we begin to play songs with bells, twinkle lights go up and Hallmark Christmas movies are streaming on repeat. Why? What is it about this time of year that we love and long for? I understand the resistance and those who powerfully protect the pumpkins and pilgrams; respecting the holiday where we pause to be thankful. But what is it? Why do we want more Christmas? And sooner rather than later? Could it be because our hearts soften just a little more during this season?

We linger while looking at the lights. We attend services with lessons and carols, where children read stories of sheep and shepherds visited by angels. We hear about the proclamation of a baby being born given the name, Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” 

Could that be the draw toward this season? Toward the songs and lights? Toward the expectancy and generosity? Could it be the promise of Hope that comes from the news that our Creator, our Wonderful Counselor is with us? 

I am grateful for the tenderness and thrill of hope I feel in my heart each advent season. I don’t know what place Christmas holds in your heart–but for me I think this season is especially important because it softens me. It slows me. It changes the scenery enough to welcome the whisper of Immanuel…God with us

“This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey.”

Henri Nouwen

Much Love and Merry Christmas, 

Jenni 

 

“Remember Who the Real Enemy is…”

Haymitch says these cautionary words as Katniss Everdene is about to enter into a deadly “game” hosted by the Capitol. The Hunger Games is a heinous annual event where children are chosen at random from their local district to be part of a bloody televised battle to the death. Only one winner emerges victorious, hence the belief that the other children are their enemy. Haymitch, Katniss’s guide, reminds her of a greater truth: the enemy is not the other children

Haymitch’s words have run through my mind over and over this past year and especially over the past few months. The division that we feel as a country and in our communities is palpable. We do not feel united–we feel divided. Our votes and polls show our division. Words and messages on social media speak of “us versus them”…hate is spewed on both sides. There is nowhere we can go without obvious lines being drawn. We have to look no further than a piece of cloth on a face (or not on a face) to have immediate alarm and a litany of assumptions fill our minds. I understand the stakes are high. There is serious racial tension, we are living through a pandemic, there is political unrest, these are intense and unprecedented times. 

Last week I stumbled upon this quote by Elizabeth George Speare and it really struck me: 

It is hate that is the enemy not man. Hate does not die with the killing. It only springs up a hundredfold. The only stronger thing than hate is love.

So I started to think to myself…who is truly the enemy? Is it hate? Throughout the pandemic we have seen so much violence and social injustice, and during the most recent events at the US Capitol, I have also seen fear in the eyes of those witnessing the events and even in the eyes of those committing the attacks. To be honest I believe our president has been leading from a fear-based mindset which has created an even more fearful republic. 

Politics are not my strong suit–philosophy and psychology are more in my wheelhouse, but seeing hate and fear filling our newsfeeds and permeating all around us, I began to ponder their presence as the true enemy. 

Interestingly, Gandhi says, 

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate–but it is really fear.

Many would suggest the opposite of fear is truth or possibly hope or faith. But I found an interesting perspective that presented the opposite of fear is curiosity. I wonder if the most effective thing we can do in our fear is be curious? Why does this group act, live, speak in this way? What would cause them to make decisions that are diametrically opposed to the way I think and believe? Further, do I know anyone who holds a different viewpoint or who holds different beliefs than my own? Could I find or make a new connection and have a curious conversation with someone who holds a different worldview? 

One of the only ways that children survive the Hunger Games is by believing in self preservation. They may appear brave and warrior-like (even groomed as the Careers) but ultimately they must dig deep to destroy a life and that often stems from a primal fear.  All of the children in the game must be dehumanized because how else could there be such a slaughter and the person who “wins” live to tell about it? Not to be dramatic, but I believe our humanity and human decency is on the line. We must re-adjust our mindset toward one another…we must not be driven by fear or hate. We must see one another. Not as enemies but we must see their humanity. 

In thinking about this, I was reminded of a brief clip from I Love You America where Sarah Silverman was visiting a home and family from Louisiana with whom she shared an opposite worldview. In those seven minutes I witnessed a chasm being bridged. Sarah was kind. Sarah was curious. The people who hosted her in their home were gracious. Both parties humbled themselves to see the other…not as the enemy but a sister or brother. 

It takes courage to lower our defenses and move toward one another to find common ground. When we extend ourselves, and face one another, and see the other side, our humility and vulnerability look like love. This past year we have been wrecked by divided households, friendships, political parties, churches, and communities. I believe the human divide is growing daily and the drivers are hate and fear. I am not sure whether our real enemy is hate or fear…but I know the enemy is ultimately not the other children in the game. And I believe the antidote is love. 

Love in our homes. Love in our neighborhoods and communities. Love in our churches for God’s sake. This is a complex time where we are not able to be together and invite someone over to dinner or grab a cup of coffee in the same way we could in the past. I know this is partially why we have become even more siloed and hidden behind screens and our closed front doors. I really believe there is a way to make our way toward one another and it starts with a belief that “they” (name whatever group is most different from you) are not the enemy. The corrosiveness of this system works if we stay stuck in this mindset and continue to fight one another and not the larger systemic issues. Our best weapon is love. 

There is no way to fully begin to take on the scope of these topics and I know this may seem incredibly simplified or without teeth or a practical application. I know. To say nothing felt wrong. I am deeply disappointed in the current climate and devastated by the lives lost over the past year from violence, the pandemic, and our political unrest. I am grieved by the anger, hatred and fear. My words are a feeble attempt to say in the midst of all this I don’t have all the right words or all of the answers but I do have hope because Love wins.

Hopeful,

Jenni

(Photo Cred: https://redwoodbark.org/22769/reviews/hunger-games-finale-expectedly-hits-bullseye/)

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!)

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