Monday, April 14, 2014

glass in our feet and other ugly stuff

glass in our feet and other ugly stuff
This weekend I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing. It was amazing. I will write more on this later. The salient point here, though, was the final plenary session. It was Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorites, and I so needed to hear what she had to say.
Us, trying to fly a kite last week in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Yep, that's pretty much how I feel things look right now.
Not exactly flying high. And there were a LOT
of people on that hill in San Juan who could
fly a kite well. Like, four-year-olds. 

“If Only I Had Her Verbs! On Jealousy, Creativity, and a Generous God.”

The title got me, because I had more than an inkling she was going to go there. There, to that place I knew would be raw and painful to the touch. Like the time I had to let my husband dig a piece of glass out of my foot while I cried and grasped the chair like it was a rope hanging off the Sears Tower. It had to come out so I could walk. But the process threatened my polite pastor's vocabulary.


Jealousy of other writers, other pastors, other professionals who are where I want to be. Saying what I want to say. With platforms that actually get them heard. And I am jealous.

Yes, it's ugly and counterproductive and hard to admit. But it's real. And I don't think I'm alone.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on my Facebook author page that I have one prayer practically every day: “More You, less me.” Short and to the all-too-mortifying point. I despise my own obsession with me. But I have a tough time getting over myself.

Is anyone with me here?

I echo John the Baptist so often in my personal moments of chastisement. “He must increase, and I must decrease.” God, that's what I want. But I lack the mad skills to know exactly how that happens when the mind is an insistent thing clamoring for me to live inside its walls and telling me the internet reception is better there anyway.

It doesn't matter if it's the demon on one shoulder telling me I'm the best thing since CS Lewis and why don'y people recognize that or the demon on the other shoulder insisting I'm a huge fraud with no talent who should have gone to law school as planned because at least there putting on a show is acceptable business. 

Neither one, you might have noticed, is an angel. Both have the same goal—to get us to think about ourselves. Only ourselves. And to obsess over where those selves stand in the world of other selves. Above or below? We have to know.

(For the record, I have never believed myself to be the best thing since CS Lewis. That is called hyperbole. Just so you don't think I'm that far gone. And the immediate need to make sure you don't think badly of me just proved my point handily, I believe.)

I took to heart what she said, and I vowed to make it mine. “There is enough room out there for everyone. God is a generous God.” I know this to be true. I believe it with everything in me. I want to live it.

Then, with those best intentions evidently not-so-firmly in place, I open Facebook on Monday to hear all about my writer friends who are doing great things. And all those intentions sink in a sea of “That's so not fair!/ Why is that not my life?/ Well goody for you little Miss Sunshine I hope you enjoy it while it lasts.”

I can be pretty rude in the grasp of jealousy.

Usually, I am content to be very happy for others' success. I can want mine and love theirs. But some days, it feels like their comes at the expense of mine. That so smacks of older brother rivalry of his little prodigal bro. I don't like being that brother.

Why is there such a disconnect between what we know to be true and what we feel to be true when our dreams are threatened? Why do we listen to those twin demons? Why does someone else have to be less than so I can be more? Why can't we live like we believe “There is enough room out there for everyone because God is a generous God”?

I think the culprit, as usual, isn't anther person. It's fear. Fear that our dreams will not look like we want them to. That they won't ever look like anything. Fear can cause some ugly, ugly stuff to come out of our hearts and into our thoughts. 

What do you do when fear makes you ugly? I'm pretty sure it's not just me.

Less me. More you. God, every, every day. Until it's true. 
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Monday, April 7, 2014

an offer I couldn't refuse

My husband just had his birthday. A big, important birthday. One of those with a '0' at the end of it. I won't mention which one because, to be honest, I reached that mark a year and a half before he did. He keeps trying to catch up, but no success yet.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, in the midst of one of those full-blown college girl frenzies caused by (of course) college boys, I cried out to God, “OK, I'm done! I'm done picking out guys. Clearly, I don't do it right. God, this is the kind of guy I'm looking for, and if he's out there, I'm leaving it up to you to find him. I quit.” Yes, I did give God a list of my qualifications for a guy. I'm not sure why I thought He couldn't figure that out on His own. But I definitely remember what I heard next, in the quiet after my rant. (Not audibly, as in heard this voice in my bedroom, which would have been a little creepy. But when you hear from God, you know.)

OK, deal. It's about time, really. But you already know someone who meets all those criteria. Have you thought of him?” 

Who, God?? No, I hadn't. Probably on account of I was a junior and he was a freshman with Coke-bottle glasses and an ROTC haircut. And a girlfriend back home. Nice friend material, but . . . really?

That was near the end of the school year, and said freshman and I went home to or respective states, and we wrote letters. We were friends--that was OK, aforementioned girlfriend and all. 

Yes, letters. those things you printed on paper with a pen and needed a stamp and a mailbox for. Strange. I sent one letter with the sticker you see here:

It was just a fun sticker. Although, in fact, that was one of the worst summers of my life, and chocolate would definitely have been welcomed.

He sent it. A box of chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but homemade fudge, without nuts (just the way I like it), made not by his mother but by him. I think that's when I fell in love. (Plus, somewhere in there he dropped out of ROTC, grew curly dark hair and a beard, and got contacts. Those things helped. A girl's got eyes, after all.)

Three years later, I married Mr. Fudge Guy. Hey, if God says he's the guy for you, AND he bakes fudge, I do not argue.

The course of true love never did run smooth. (Thanks, Shakespeare. You are almost always correct.) Sometimes it's paved with college tantrums, desperate prayers, hippo stockers, cancelled stamps, and even fudge. His parents' path was paved with war. His dad mailed bath towels to his girl back home with an engagement ring attached. We are all resourceful in our own ways where love is involved.

In any case, it has been a good road. Thanks for letting me ride. Let's keep driving for a very long time.

What's your love story? Do share.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Number lines and Fred Phelps

Last week, I saw a Twitter announcement on the death of Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist founder. I called this news out to me daughter, up to her elbows in soapmaking in the kitchen. A moment later I added,

Oh, wait. That was in The Onion. So, I guess it's probably not true. Too bad.”

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My next, immediate thought--I am a horrible human being. I just said “too bad” in reference to a person's non-death. That is really unacceptable, no matter what.

Her reply, however, was profound. Something good must happen to your thoughts when you're mixing lye and lavender.

Isn't it terrible to think of living your life so that when you die, people say, 'No one's going to miss that one?'”

And then I could feel truly, honestly sorry that Fred Phelps was, in fact, dead, and The Onion was not making it up. Because while that may seem like a horrible thing to say about someone, it is far more horrible that it was true.

Like the washerwomen dividing up Scrooge's bedding, people are breathing (perhaps covert) sighs of relief that a life devoted to hate is over. That is the most profoundly sad thing I can think of happening to any human being.

My daughter's statement made me ponder. What will people say of me? What will be missing? How do we make sure that is never said, or thought, about us?

And it occurred to me that, paradoxically, humbly, the test of whether or not I'm going to be the kind of person people miss is if I can love people like Mr. Phelps.

There's some kind of continuum, a number line, if you want to go back to 3rd grade math, with hate on one end and love on the other. We move along it constantly. None of us is ever at the good extreme. But along the way, choices about forgiveness vs revenge, freedom vs bitterness, and charity vs anger move us one way or the other. Daily choices.

Can I feel rejection and accept the rejector?

Can I be offended and affirm the offender?

Can I take hurt and desire good for the hurter?

Can I look anger and hate in the eye and reflect back love?

If I can't, I'm going the wrong way on the number line. And I don't know how easy it is to turn back once started down the wrong way. The Law of Inertia tells us that things moving in one direction are tough to stop, extremely difficult to turn around.

But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5.39-45

The choice not to be like a hater is to love that hater. It makes no sense. But it makes the only sense. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

snarkiness and glass slippers and zip lining

Terrifying. And Fun. I did this too, I promise you.
But did anyone think to take pictures other
than mom? Of course not.

If you give a girl a challenge, she's going to want to take it on. And if she takes it on, she's going to feel gutsy. And if she feels gutsy, she's going to want more challenges. And if she wants more challenges . . . she writes more blogs. Do you have any idea what you've started, friend Amy?

Especially if you give me a challenge. The girl who once told her entire church, at age 19, that she thought she would be a pastor. Given the denomination of that particular church, let's just say it did not go over well. Very nervous silence. Most people would consider that a caution. I considered it a challenge.

Good thing I usually know the difference between an impossible challenge and a stupid dare, or I might have ended up like my brothers, putting a principal's car on a roof somewhere, and I do not do a “who me?” poker face well.

Oops. I just outed my brothers. I hope the statue of limitations has run out on that one.

So, at this point, the RiskRejection challenge has me working on three different risks:

OneRetooland revise my work to reach the audience God has for me. Don't play it safe with safe topics, safe ideas, feel good stories.

TwoWorkon the snark quotient. No critical words or thoughts this Lenten season. Yeah, like that's going to happen. Wait, was that snark I just detected?

ThreeLosethirty pounds and donate thirty pounds of food to the local food bank. Working on it. Working....working...working. I think this is going to be a lot of . . . work.

And . . . and . . . I know there are at least two more out there on the horizon which you will hear about in the near future. Can this be done, please? I never thought I'd say this. I. Cant. Take. Any. More. Challenges. Full up here. Challenge quota reached. That, by the way, is probably a very bad thing to say to God. It's like telling Chicago I've had enough snow this winter.

Note: It's the first day of spring. It snowed this morning.

There are so many things it would be comforting to say about challenge. It's easy. It's fun. It's . . . comfortable. But it is none of those things. And the funny thing is? I don't want it to be. I used to want that. But through challenge I've discovered something radical.

There is something better than easy.

Joy is better than fun. Fulfilling is better than easy. Purpose is better than comfortable.

Most people become adrenaline junkies at a much younger age.

Today, the update report will be on Challenge #2. The challenge? Recite Philippians 2.3-4 every time I made a critical remark or had a critical thought. At first, this seemed kind of rote. What was the point? I just learned one Bible verse really, really well. It didn't change the feelings.

Until it did. Until I found myself stopping in mid-thought and thinking about all the reasons that person could be going twenty miles an hour, or might have cut in front of me in the express lane--with twenty-one items. Until, wonder of wonders, I found myself about to say something critical and then Just. Not. Saying it. Wow. Never saw that coming.

Another surprise? It feels so good to just not say it. Freeing. Like I was bound in whatever misplaced pride or certainty and couldn't stop the tongue from flapping. Oh wait. I was. That's called sin. The Bible has a few things to say about how powerful its straightjacket can be.

It's a risky decision to admit to these things. It's not pretty, not neat, not a sweet story with a happy God-blessed ending. But it is real. And unlike happy-happy-joy-God-blessed fairy tales, it's completely up to me whether or not I want a happy ending. He'll supply the power; I have to supply the want to. When you're a natural born snark, there is no glass slipper fix. It's work. And it's joy. And it's more of both.

Challenge. Like the freedom of that idea? I'm not asking you to put a car on the roof. I mean, unless in some cosmic way that's something God has in mind for you. But please, I beg you. Open up to challenge. Find out exactly how freeing and joyful it is to look away from easy and stare challenge in the eye.

What's your challenge right now? Big or small. What are you going to do about it?

Monday, March 17, 2014

do try this at home. Just not on a balance beam

This is how balance beam work is supposed to look.
This is not how I looked. At all.
In college, I took a gymnastics class for fun. It is pretty much the only time in my entire life I considered PE fun. At some point, standing on the balance beam, I got the thought, Why don't I try a cartwheel? It doesn't look so hard. I mean, if I can do one on the floor, what's the big deal about doing it in the air? On four inches of wood?

Note to self: Always examine stray thoughts before carrying them out.

I got halfway through said cartwheel and had another thought: What were you thinking? You don't know how to do this! You are going to crash and fall and, I repeat, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? So, I did. Crash. Hard. Hard enough to make the coach look around the room wondering what had hit the floor and (probably) would he be liable for it. As my gymnastics-savvy daughter would explain, I crotched the beam. Before bouncing onto the floor. It hurt. A lot.

The power of fear midway in a project is astounding.

I bring this up not to relive (really) painful memories but to open our thoughts up to the question—where else do we get stuck in the middle of things and Just. Freak. Out?

It happens when I sit down to write a talk or a sermon. I get about two days into it, and I panic. Nothing is coming together. It's a jumbled mess on paper. No order. (I love order.) No thesis and three easy bullet points. (I love bullet points.) No flow. (I do not like unflowing, jumbled messes. Although that is often what my house looks like.)

Yes, I do sing on stage. And yes, I get terrified.
You'd think appearing in public like THIS would
terrify me. Eh, not so much.
Then something miraculous happens. It comes together. It makes sense. It begins to flow, and I see flashes of actual “Hey, this is stuff worth saying.” Every time. Yet every time, I still feel that panic. Why am I surprised by the chaos? I should know. I should patiently wait for the order. But I don't. And I get mad at myself for the panic.

Do you know this feeling? Do you feel it, in the writing of a talk or an article? In the “calm discussion” with a teenager? In the studying for a test? In the taking on of a new job, the starting of a new business venture, or bright, shiny hopes for an exercise program? Things are supposed to progress toward natural order. It's clear in your head.

But it does not happen that way. It gets jumbled. Your precision gets off target. Your arguments are as fuzzy as month-old cottage cheese, and all the bright shininess you felt get a tad tarnished somewhere in the middle. You suddenly realize you don't know what you're doing, and the hard cold floor is getting real close. Cue panic.

But you know what? I'm not sure anymore that that's a bad thing. 

What if, instead of chastising ourselves for the panic, we embraced it? What if, stay with me here, what if we decided to lean into the fear rather than fight it? What if that fear is part of the process? A necessary part? What if terror part way into a project actually makes the project better? And us? Could we handle that?

What I'm discovering is that crafting that speech, writing that article, learning that stage solo—if I attempt to do those things bypassing the fear stage? That terror-filled belief that “This is no way-no how going to come out good, great, or even acceptable for human consumption”? You know that one you get every freaking time no matter how often you've done it? If I try to dodge that stage--

I end up making that thing, whatever it is, all about me.

All about my ability to hone the message. All about getting my point heard. All about what people think of me. All about making me look good.

“Me” is seriously overrated.

Remove the fear, you remove the lack of control. Remove the lack of control, you remove the dependence. Remove the dependence, you remove the potential for magic. Fear opens us up to listening for magic. It admits, even in tiny ways--I can't do this. I need guidance. I need someone to speak into my soul and put in the words that create magic that I cannot do.

Fear edges me past the limits of me toward the limitless You. [tweet this]. It's like crawling out from under a rock and seeing the open sunshine when you had no idea there was more than your rock.

The limitless. What's not to like?
Fear is not always a bad thing. (Unless you're on a balance beam.)

What are you trying to do that scares you? What about that outright wet-your-pants terrifies you? (Now I have your attention.) Maybe it's not working because you're running away from the fear. Thinking you're less faithful for even having it. Try something different. Try leaning into the fear. Try embracing it like a helper. Say to it—lead me to the place where it is no longer all about me. Make me dependent on the One who will enter with what I need to finish what's started here.

And wait--for the magic.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

me, the bag lady. aka, what have you got to lose?

It's Thursday, aka, risk-taking day. And I've got one no lady ever talks about. I weigh 160 pounds. There—it's out there. Said. In public. In Bold. On the internet for eternity with no way of ever, ever making it “not there.” Like those pictures of you in college.

I talk a lot about body image. I talk a lot about how damaging it is to girls in particular for society to hold up its perfect strange and unrealistic ideal to them and demand their worship. I absolutely believe no one should feel inferior to anyone else based on a 3-digit number that pops up when they step on that scale demonic instrument of mental torture. That's just dumb. And any and all other synonyms of dumb. 

Numbers don't verify your worth--on a scale, in a bank account, or on your birthday cake. [tweet this].

But how much do I believe it? Enough to tell the world (or that small portion of it that reads this) what those numbers are?

Yes. Because if I can't do that, you shouldn't believe me. Period.


But---the risk today is not just telling you how much I weigh. Because honestly, why should you care? It's not going to cure cancer. (Neither is anything else I say, but there is more important stuff here. I promise.) The risk is—I'm going to do something about it, and I want people to join me. And hold me accountable.

These bags are heavy, people. That smile is
totally a grimace of "I want to put this
down now!"
I've come up with (what I consider) a genius way to motivate me to lose the last thirty pounds I'd like to shed. Here it is. See that picture? That's 30 pounds of food. Beans, chili, pasta, oatmeal, tuna, etc. No, I am not going to eat it. That is not the genius idea. That would be a counterproductive idea.

What I am going to do is donate five pounds of this food to the Food Pantry for every five pounds I drop. So when I reach my goal, hey—I helped myself and a whole bunch of hungry people! It's a win-win from my vantage point.

See, I've tried a lot of other things. A LOT. And I have dropped 20 pounds since my transplant surgery. But that was some years ago, and it's time to get real. The rest is not going to melt off in some Swedish sauna somewhere. It's going to take work. I'm not good at work. Physical work, that is. Let's just say, if gym class had been part of our high school GPA, that valedictorian speech would have been someone else's, not mine.

But---I think this one may just be a winner, because 1) I am motivated, 2) I love to give things to people, and 3) I am risking public humiliation if I don't at least make a respectable showing. I mean, you know now. That's powerful motivation.

I have no idea if I can make this goal. It would represent something I haven't seen since Lindsay Lohan was still adorable and sober. (No, I'm not dissing Lindsay. I actually pray for her. I hate seeing lost kids destroy themselves.) The medical profession is skeptical, since they say folks on prednisone can't lose weight. But trying is better than not trying, and something is better than nothing.

And if you're going to aim for something, why not make it what you'd really like, rather than what you think you'd settle for? 

I mean, I have three daughters. Suppose one of them comes home one day and says, “Hey, mom, I'm going to marry this guy. I'd like to do better, but I'm not sure I can, so why not take what I can get and call it good?” 

I would not say, “Oh, that makes total sense to me. Go forth and be blessed.” I would say...well, I probably should not print what I might say. Suffice it to say, it would not go over well in the Richardson household. Because we aim for what we want. So if I fall short on this, so be it. At least the goal wasn't too short.

Here's where you come in. I think this could catch on. I think a lot of us love to give to people. I think many, many of us would love the idea of taking our extra pounds and using it to feed people who are hungry. (NOT literally. Gross. I am not going all Sweeney Todd here.) And, I think a lot of us would like to be healthier. Not skinnier. I am not promoting unhealthy body images. Not ever. Healthy. Healthy is a worthy goal, and an attainable one, and one too many of us disregard on the way to the donut table at church.

So, would you like to join me? It's easy.

  1. Go buy as many pounds of food as you would like to lose to be healthy (not skinny). (I weighed some cans and boxes of pasta I already had at home to get an idea of how much that was.) Look on the website of your local food pantry to find out what their biggest needs are first.
  2. Lift those bags. Feel all that extra weight? Do you want to carry that around? I don't either. That's an eye-opener right there.
  3. For every five pounds you lose, or one pound even, move that amount of food to another bag to donate. I'm probably going to bring mine in all at once, but you can do it any time you want.
  4. Share this post around so other people can join in the giving and the conversation.
  5. Comment here, or keep the conversation going here on my Facebook page. Tell us what your goals are, your concerns, your joys in the journey.

I would love to know how you're doing. And I would love (seriously, I would) to have you ask me how it's going. To keep me on track. We need each other. I do. Because let's face it. I'm a self-control wuss who folds at the smell of a chocolate chip cookie. I NEED you. 

Let's do healthy together. And bless hungry people. I see win all over this.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"stunning suspense" for March

As part of March's book launch for a writing group in which I take part, I am happy to present an excerpt from the newest novel by Cheryl Colwell, The Proof. It's your chance to read a bit of the book, as well as enter to win some fun prizes. Enjoy!

Shrouded in mystery, a precious relic known as Il Testamento, or The Proof, circulated among the early Christians for centuries. Before their deaths, its guardians hid it from their adversaries, leaving only a crude map of its location. For centuries, it lay in darkness. Until now. Reports of its existence have resurfaced, inciting an ancient rivalry between a ruthless group that seeks to destroy it, and a secret association that lusts for its power. Summoned to Siena by a grandfather he has never met, Gabriel Dolcini is thrust into a dark maze of danger. And into his divine destiny.

 Part 6 of 10

The Proof
Cheryl Colwell
Gabe sat in his car on Monday morning. He had parked in the far corner of the faculty parking lot in case his resolve failed. How could he face his colleagues? But it would not be any easier tomorrow. He closed his eyes and took a slow breath, in and out, then stopped thinking and opened the door.

Entering the building, he looked straight ahead and focused on getting to his classroom. He shut out the awkward expressions as he contended with the gauntlet of the, “I’m so sorry,” comments and, worse, the congratulations from his peers in the long hallway. Relieved, Gabe realized Howard’s duties must have detained him elsewhere.

He stepped into his classroom and shut the door behind him, cringing at his smug attitude over the last week. His students immediately surrounded him, expressing their outrage. Their loyalty and courage to speak what others would not eased his bad temper and helped to soothe his wounded spirit.

“You were robbed,” Judy ranted.

He was cheated. But it was over. “Enough,” Gabe hushed their angry outbursts. “All judges maintain their own criteria. Sometimes it doesn’t fall in our favor. So, back to work.”

They drifted back to their canvases, but Judy stayed near his desk. “I won’t be a part of this. I’ll paint what I want and thumb my nose at whoever thinks they have the right to judge it.” Her eyes watered and she swiped at an angry tear before it trickled down her silky black cheek.

Gabe took her hand in his. “It’s okay, really. Just a disappointment.” No one could possibly know how deep this cut. The world was cruel, ripping small, relentless gashes in tender hearts and tentative hopes. Judy walked to her canvas, but did not pick up her brush.

He stared through the window at nothing. Second place did not count for anything in the art world. Or in life. Even after Angelica died, their father made certain Gabe knew he would never move into first place. It became unbearable to be the single focus of the man’s loathing. Gabe blinked away the past and darted his eyes from student to student. Every one of them had a story. He needed to buck up.
After three days, the sting of disappointment failed to lessen. With the summer term ending soon, and nothing to look forward to, Gabe dreaded the boredom headed his way. He hadn’t touched his current painting since losing the award.

Even his students seemed frustrated with their projects this afternoon. He frowned at his waning willingness to help. One of them dawdled with his paintbrush. Gabe grabbed it and smashed it into a dab of red paint on the student’s palette. “If you’re gonna paint, paint.”

The startled student jerked awake. “Yes, Sir.” He took the brush back and created bold strokes that instantly improved his composition.

“Good.” Gabe grimaced at his outburst and patted the young man on the shoulder. He walked to his desk when his cell phone vibrated. “Hello.”

There was a hesitant pause on the other end. “Uh, Gabe, Carl here.” Carl was the Dean of Faculty at the university.

“Hi Carl, how are you?” He hoped it was not another obligatory congratulations call.

“I’m fine, but something disturbing has come to my attention. I need you to come in today and answer some questions before this goes any further.”

The tension in Carl’s voice, mixed with the foreboding message, pinned Gabe to the spot. “May I ask what this is about?”

“Yes. A complaint has just been filed against you for misconduct involving a minor. Sonia Sanchez.”
Gabe turned away from his students, his hand clenching the back of his chair. He whispered, “Don’t believe a word of it, Carl. Sonia has lived with my mother since she was emancipated by the state.”

“Do you live there also?”

Heat blasted through him. “No. And it wouldn’t matter if I did. I don’t get involved with children. You of all people should know that.”

Carl would not yield. “It’s my job to investigate complaints regarding faculty. Come in, and I’ll take your statement.”

Furious, Gabe resisted slamming his phone on the desk and stuffed it into his pocket instead. Who would make a complaint like this? His jaw clenched. Howard. It would not be the first time he pulled a stunt against a fellow professor, and it would be just like his daughter to embellish what happened at the restaurant.

An hour later, Gabe paced in Carl’s office while the Dean explained. “Apparently, someone saw you kiss Sonia in front of the restaurant where she works and drive away with her.”

Gabe raked his hair off his forehead and clarified the situation. He studied Carl’s unyielding face and shook his head. So much for good deeds.

“I’ve asked Miss Sanchez to come in this afternoon. I’m sure you realize this could have serious consequences. I’ll be in touch.” He hesitated. “And Gabe, you should know this was why you lost the award.”

“WHAT?” Gabe could not believe he heard right.

“The judges couldn’t risk the bad press if their winner became embroiled in a sexual misconduct controversy.”

“How dare they!” Gabe seethed. “No one asked me. No one said a word.”

 “Apparently they were made aware of it just before the presentation. You would have been disqualified altogether except for Viola Hudson’s rage. She convinced them that second place never makes headlines. And she threatened some kind of lawsuit if they were wrong.”

Too many thoughts bombarded Gabe’s confused mind to find coherent words to speak.

“Until we get to the bottom of this, I have to suspend you. There are only a few days left in the summer term. I’ll get a substitute.”

Gabe stormed out, livid. And scared. This injustice would not be easily reversed.

Arriving home, he threw open the door and watched it bounce off the wall. He closed his eyes, shaking his head at his outburst. Throwing a tantrum was not going to fix his career, his finances, or this attack on his character.

He slammed into his office chair and opened the drawer to throw in his keys. His grandfather’s letter lay on top of an art brochure. Rubbing his forehead, Gabe sighed in resignation. The only option left was to respond to his grandfather’s invitation to show his work in Italy. Unless he wanted to stand on the sidewalk and hawk his paintings to passing tourists.

It had been two months since he had received the correspondence. He had never replied. Would the old man still want him? He pulled out the letter and dialed the phone number, almost hoping there would be no answer.

Someone answered the call on the second ring. “Dolcini residence.”
Two weeks later, Gabe felt resolute when he stepped into his mother’s house to face her fury. After the awards debacle, desperation had swamped him, but now he had a direction. His grandfather’s eagerness for his visit provided the one bright spot in Gabe’s dismal prospects. The timing proved uncanny.

He leaned against the kitchen counter in the house where he grew up. It was a muggy Saturday morning, and the eastern light shone dimly through a streaked aluminum-framed window. He caught a glimpse of the ocean down the hillside, too far away to see its tide ebbing and flowing.

Under the window, outdated turquoise tiles did their best to be cheerful in a house with a history of bitterness and loss. Studying his mother’s face, he traced the ravages of sadness that tugged her features downward. Deep frown lines obliterated the sweet dimples that once graced her cheeks. Year after year, his father’s venom had poisoned her. Gabe felt thankful death had taken the brute first.
Spoken in her native Italian, his mother’s protective warning made him smile. “Do not do this, Gabriel.”

He waited for her to finish her tirade while he sipped coffee from an old cracked cup. His father had smashed it in one of his fits. Gabe wondered why she had glued it back together after retrieving the broken pieces from the scarred wooden floor. Why keep a reminder? He had never understood the complexity of his parents’ relationship. Now he didn’t need to.

“We have nothing to do with Conte Dolcini,” she continued. “Your grandfather is a lunatic, trouble. He marked your grandmother for death by his fascination with tales of lost treasure—without any regard of how he attracts crazies to our family.” She ended on a shrill note, “He is not safe.”

Gabe set the mug down. He took her hands and leaned to kiss her on the forehead. Her four-foot, ten-inch frame stood a foot below him. She had always made him feel taller than he was. Around his father, he had always felt he was trying to break the forty-eight-inch mark.

“Mama, this is the next step in my career. Conte Dolcini knows the best families in Siena, and they are anxious to meet me and see my work. It’s perfect timing for him to invite me.”

“You speak Italian like an Americano. You will embarrass yourself.”

He laughed. Her attempt to dissuade him was futile. “True, I understand better than I speak, but I managed just fine the last time I traveled in Italy.” Besides, he had no choice but to go. Though there had been considerable interest in his work after the award presentation, his agent had only managed to sell two paintings.

So far, his mother was not aware of the impending threat to her home. He turned away as the accusations in his mind screamed, Fesso. And selfish. That’s what his father would say about him. And he was right.

Gabe sucked in a quick breath and let it out. So far, no publicity had surfaced regarding the false accusation. That was all he needed—to scare off the important collectors he had met before the ceremony. He hoped they still planned to contact him, but his ever-present inner critic relentlessly spewed its noxious toxins. People never come through. His constant schoolmaster since childhood, it reminded him not to stand on the shifting sand of trust.

He squared his shoulders. He had done the work. Now all he needed was someone to open the door. He gave his mother a peck on the cheek. “In three weeks, I will be in Italy.” His voice was silky while he worked to calm her, keeping his own doubts at bay.

Worry wrinkled her face. “Please listen. There are reasons we never allowed you to meet this man.”
He glanced toward the ocean’s vague horizon. Even when he had visited Siena for his studies a decade ago, he had obeyed his father’s vehement demands and made excuses to turn down his grandfather’s frequent invitations. Now, however, the time was right. Louis Dolcini’s letter lay folded in his desk drawer at home. His grandfather, a count no less, wanted to help his career. At least someone wanted to.

Though no resolution had been reached regarding the charges against him, the administrators at the university seemed glad to distance themselves. When Gabe requested leave for the fall term, they agreed that he should go. Without pay. The plane ticket to Siena used the last of his available credit on his card. This had to work.

Read part 7 tomorrow over at Carol Brown's

   Cheryl Colwell began writing fiction in 2007. True to her tagline, "Stunning Suspense," her characters visit stunning locations while they pursue adventurous quests peppered with mystery, suspense, and romance.
   Passionate about all things creative, Cheryl finds inspiration in the countryside of Ashland, Oregon - the perfect venue for her interests in writing, gardening, and art.
   John, her husband, best friend, and chiropractor, keeps her in shape for gardening and writing long into the night. They are delighted to have four unique and talented children and three grandchildren. A smart and playful English Shepherd makes their empty nest a happy place.

The Proof, published 2014 by Inspired Fiction Books
The Secrets of the Montebellis, published 2013 by Inspired Fiction Books
A story of healing in, "I Believe in Healing" by Cecil Murphey, published 2013 by Regal.

the Bible in 14 words

Having someone challenge you to think about something you take for granted is annoying. You know this is true. You get asked something like, “Why do you always have the same drink order at Starbucks?” or “Why do you love your spouse?” (two questions of an admittedly different scope), and you just mumble something about “Because it is what it is, and I just do. Why do you have to be so annoying, especially before I've had that second caffeine boost?”

Recently, our church leadership and staff have been asked to consider the question-- “What is the gospel?” We assume we know. We've listened to Billy Graham. We got the bracelet with the colored beads. We know the Romans Road and can traverse it with the best of them. But think about this. 

What do you know? What would you say? Cut away what you assume and take for granted and answer the question like you've never heard it. Maybe you haven't.

What. Is. The. Gospel?

It's a question I've pondered since seminary days, when I told my theology professor I thought salvation had to be toward something good rather than simply away from something bad. He agreed. 

My fellow students looked at me funny. Wasn't the first or last time. I didn't know I was thinking outside of the box of orthodox evangelicalism. I had no box for reference—I hadn't grown up in one like most of these guys had. I only knew they looked at me funny, which, if you know me, you know felt a little bit like a badge of honor.

Yes, it's broken. My favorite plate. Because people do this.
Break things. We're good at it.
Now, twenty- and thirty-somethings are daring to say those things I said when I was twenty-something, only now people are listening. Story of my life.

But preach it, sisters and brothers, because we need to go back and ask that question. 

Ask it again and again until we know we've left behind our assumptions and boxes and easy three-step answers and are left naked with nothing but the Word of God and open ears.

What is the gospel? Twenty-five words of fewer?(Yeah, “less” is grammatically incorrect. You've been lied to your whole life.)

I'm giving it a shot.

God created. Everything. He had a plan for perfect balance and a relationship with humans—His image-bearers. We messed it up by trying to be more than image-bearers--trying for the image itself. We wanted to run the show. We forgot we didn't create it and didn't know how to run it. Dumb. Fyi—We still do this.

God sent His image again—Jesus—perfect man and God in one piece. I don't quite get how either. But he did. Jesus said “I know your lives are broken, and your relationships are broken, and your everything is pretty much broken because that first relationship that all good things come from is broken. I'll fix it. You didn't keep your agreement with your Creator, but Ill keep it for you; I'll die to keep it.

And when I come back (which will blow away ALL your assumptions), I'll start really shaking things up. I'll start planning for and expecting the Kingdom that God meant to happen here will happen. Here. Now. And I'll start giving you the power to help me make it happen, if you believe me.

OK, that was way more than 25 words. Still, three paragraphs is not too bad, when you consider my theology book i school was about four inches wide. So 25 words? How about:

God created. We broke. God loved. He fixed. We love back—we help fix.

Fourteen words. Boom.

I'd love to know your words. How would you explain the gospel? If you are not a believer, how would you explain it? What have you heard people tell you it is? What do or don't you like of what you've heard? I would really love to have that conversation.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

(don't) just do it

It's risk time again. And as often happens while doing this listening-to-God-life thing, what I thought I'd write about today isn't what's hitting the page. The original plan will be here next month, I promise. And it's a BIG BOOTS adventure, so do stay tuned!

(“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” AA Milne)

But today, I have to face this Lent thing. I do, because it's here, and I don't feel I can ignore it, which is usually the way I handle Lent. And yes, facing Lent is a risk. Because what I'm going to say risks making people mad, which I hate more than waiting in line at the DMV, which you KNOW is serious not-liking.

Thinking about anything that 1—messes with peoples' traditions, 2—potentially questions their motives, and 3—asks serious questions about God and the crucifixion is going to get real scary real fast.

What I'm going to say is, I don't get it. I've never done it. Never seen any reason to.

Maybe I'm too much of a legalist for Lent observance. If I gave up desserts for Lent for instance, you know the first thing that would follow. Hmmm, if I eat this snickerdoodle at 3:00, is it a dessert or an afternoon snack? If I give up social media—hey, checking my Facebook while sitting in the car waiting to pick up a kid is totally a good use of time. Plus it's purely for professional purposes.

You get the idea. Give me a rule, and I'll find the loophole. Make me draw lines in my life of what is OK and what is not OK, and I become a line drawer. I will focus on where those lines are and what the precise definitions are, and it will become all about those lines. Those rules. Those loopholes. Where is Jesus in there?

I'm not seeing it all bringing me closer to Christ during Lent.

What it could manage is dragging me closer to that all-too-human bent toward legalism. Checking off the rules on my wall of what I can and cannot get away with and still be OK with God.

Which is what God begs his people to get away from several times. It's what I definitely need to stay away from, since I'm good at finding my worth--dare I say salvation?--in my achievements and things checked off on a list. I've clawed my way out of legalism, thank you very much. Don't intend to be hauled back without a fight.

God so does not want me to go there. So why would he want me to observe Lent?

And, here's the other thing. I see people giving stuff up for Lent, and I usually note one of a few motivations:

1—I'm giving up ________ because it's tradition. My church does it. I've always done it. It would be weird not to do it. To which I think, it's my Swedish tradition to eat blood sausage and fish balls, but some traditions are meant to die. Quickly.

2—I want to lose weight, and giving up chocolate or ice cream or sugar is a sure-fire way to get rid of ten pounds AND sound really holy doing so. It's a win-win.

3—When I give up something, I can talk about it on Facebook, so other people can see how holy I am. Unless I'm actually giving up Facebook, which means you'll have to see how holy I am by my absence. Which does work, in a strange negative-energy sort of way.

And—do I really need to say this?

These are not good reasons.

If I'm giving up, say, chai tea lattes for forty days out of ignorance, personal gain, or pride, not only am I going to be cranky for forty days, but I suspect I will be no closer to Jesus than I was on Fat Tuesday.

The other reason I've never practiced Lent is that it's not supposed to be a one-shot deal. I rebel at the idea that I can think about being like Jesus for only one season. Being like Jesus is supposed to consume my everyday will. Isn't it flirting with apathy just a little to say I'll work on this God thing seriously until Easter, and then, well, we'll see after that?

So help me out here. Why would I do this?

Sigh. I have many friends whom I deeply respect giving up some of these things for Lent. They are not people of apathy or loose motivations. They have reasons. They love God with all their mind and hands and heart and will. I want to figure out those reasons.

So I decided to look into the original purposes of these forty days. There, maybe, I'd find answers for all my whys. The original purpose, apparently, was to prepare the believer--through prayer, repentance, giving, and self-denial. It never says what the believer is being prepared for. And that bothers me, since it look very much like what I have problems with. We don't know why, but it's got to be good for us. Like a religious edict to eat your brussels sprouts.

Just do it” is a motto I can get behind when I'm sitting in committee meetings for a couple hours. But in matters of faith practice? Not so much.

But another thing I read catches my attention. “The forty days of Lent was meant to remind us of the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert to prepare for his ministry.” That word 'prepare'--it comes again. But this time, there's a reason. A preparation for something. A purpose behind the denial. And here it is—

so Jesus can go out and do what he came to do, with laser-focus on why he's doing it.

Would that change the way we do Lent?

I doubt that leaving chocolate behind is going to prepare me for loving the world. I don't believe, in my heart of hearts, that giving up caffeine will give me focus on what matters going forward. What I need, if I'm going to understand and do this Lent thing, is to know what will bring me to a place where I'm more prepared to focus on what God put me here to do and, yes, just do it.

I need a practice toward something rather than a push away.

So, as I think about coming to terms with this Lent, I realize there is something I can do. I can move toward being more like him. I can practice something that will prepare me to love the world. I can focus on his humility and make it as much mine for forty days as I can, hoping it will take hold and last.

That's the risk I'd ask you to take this Lent. Find your motivation. Be honest about it. Whether or not you've ever given up so much as a quarter of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, figure out why or why not. It is risky. You may not like the answer. (Im' not sure I like mine. But i'm going to do it.) 

It's always risky to look at Jesus and ask him if you know him well enough to be walking with him through life. It's scary because--He'll answer.

What are you moving toward this Lent? What is He preparing you for? Just do that.