Exhale Grace

Back in my young teen years, one of my younger sisters received a Strawberry Shortcake doll as a gift. This baby doll’s claim to fame was that she blew a kiss. The perfumed smell of that kiss matched the doll’s name: Apricot. Something about that Apricot doll’s blown kisses were just right for me. I was clearly too old for playing dolls, but whenever I saw it lying around I’d quick give her belly a poke and breathe in the sweet aroma. Years after we had all grown beyond playing with dolls, I recall finding Apricot in the dark, sometimes musty basement. I would make a beeline to her pressing the tummy once again filling the air with apricot delight.

One of the requirements of life is breath. Without conscious thought, our bodies breathe in and out somewhere between 12 and 20 times per minute. Over the course of a day, that adds up to 17,000-30,000 breaths per day — or more!* That is while we are resting. Start moving and we breathe in and out at an even faster rate.

Inhale. Exhale. Taking air in. Letting air out. Sweet smells.

In the Bible, Paul (the writer of many of the books in the New Testament) uses this imagery to describe what the followers of Jesus are like. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance of the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-15 The Message). Clearly, we don’t wear an actual perfume handed out at church once we decide to follow Jesus. So what aroma is it that we exude?

I’ve been reading through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for several weeks now and I stumbled across this powerful two word phrase. He described an open field one of the characters regularly visited as a place which exhaled grace. Exhaled grace. I have been turning that phrase over in my mind since then. As I consider Paul’s description of a Jesus follower giving off a beautiful aroma, I wonder if that aroma might be grace.

Smells assail my nose daily. Sharp smells of opinions, anger, and self-righteousness. Cold and musty smells of people walling themselves up after too many years of hurt. Undefinable smells of apathy, escape, and avoidance. Sometimes I get so used to those smells I hardly notice them. They have become part of the atmosphere…until I stumble across an exquisite fragrance.

I see a father reach for a daughter’s hand as they walk a few short steps into the corner store.

I watch a child show another child how the watercolor paint works.

I observe a man listen patiently to the same story for the fourth time that morning.

I see a frustrated friend slow down and work a process when she’d rather barge ahead.

I listen to a college student quietly redirect a kindergartner to try again rather than doing it for him.

And every time I smell it: exhaled grace.

It becomes a way I want to be. As natural as breathing. I want to exhale grace 12 – 20 times a minute, 30,000 times a day. So I get up in the morning and inhale grace. I read of Jesus in Matthew. I breathe in his words of life. I breathe in his loving actions to the beggar, the leper, and the blind. I breathe deeply as he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well. I breathe in his embrace of the children. All that morning inhaling of the grace of Jesus fills me up to exhale grace the rest of the day.

And in those moments when the sharp, cold, stale air surrounds me, I stop and turn my soul back to the apricot aroma of Jesus. I inhale Jesus deeply and prayerfully and find the strength once again to exhale grace.

This type of inhaling and exhaling does not come as naturally as the air in and out of my lungs. It does, however, bring life. My soul begins to live in this breathing in and out of grace. No one lives on the inhaling alone. We need the inhale and the exhale. To keep our souls alive, we also need to take in the matchless grace of God and send out that grace to friends and neighbors. Jesus even said something about giving it out to enemies and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48).

Will you join me in this new way of breathing? We surely will not get it right all the time but sometimes just one whiff of an exquisite fragrance lifts our heads.

Inhale grace. Exhale grace. Repeat.

karyl jada beach

 

*Check out http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/how-many-breaths-do-you-take-each-day/ where I found these stats and for more info on breathing.

On Becoming a Patriot

I remember the day I became a patriot.

Sitting in the living room on a Sunday evening with friends from Congo, I slowly nursed my cup of water and listened. Three years before this large family had moved to the United States in two shifts—first the older sons who could more easily be placed in jobs and then the parents with their eight school-aged children. Their youngest daughter and mine met one evening in our backyard and were instant friends. They did not speak the same language but smiles, gestures and giggles were enough to bond them together. This night I had asked if her father would tell me his story. What were the years before the United States like? What had brought them here?

His story spanned two generations of highs and lows and more than one move across man-made borders for safety. His father had once fought for a European nation and been given farmland as a reward for his loyalty. Years later the son had to flee the country due to ethnic turmoil. He rebuilt his life in that new country only to have to leave again because tribal divisions threatened his life. He and his wife are not from the same tribe and were targeted as a result. Leaving behind relatives and the only kind of life they had known, they fled to a refugee camp in a neighboring country.

After years of waiting, months of paperwork and tests and questions (generally 18 months for most refugee immigrants), they came to the United States. From my settled middle-class eyes looking in, those first years were hard for them. The sons lived in a basement apartment that flooded the first winter when the hot water furnace sprung a leak and it took a few days for them to let me know and get the landlord to respond. Mom did not leave the house much that first winter as she had never experienced such bitter cold and she could never seem to get warm. The rental houses were old and small for such a large family. The minimum wage jobs were hard on the body and barely filled a wallet. I wondered if they regretted coming to this country where life, from my perspective, seemed really, really hard.

The last question I asked my friend that evening went something like, “Do you like living in the U.S.?” My implied question was, “Do you regret coming here? Isn’t it hard?”

His lightning fast response was that he loved the United States.

Why?

His family was safe here.

That was it.

I left that evening a patriot. I was and am still fully aware that our country is far from perfect. And yet, my father is German descent and my mother is English descent and no one attacks them for being married. Growing up, we moved from a small town in Michigan to the big city of San Diego and then back to Michigan to the capital city. We didn’t have to leave behind our belongings and everything my father had worked for running in fear of our lives. We moved because there were other opportunities, new horizons to explore. I spent a semester in college studying public policy in Washington D.C. during President Clinton’s first inauguration and watched the peaceful transfer of power. Our government has been purposely set up to represent the people rather than ruled by the whims of whatever dictator has the biggest guns. Why do I now love my country in a way I never did before? Because an immigrant showed me a new understanding of safe.

In the last eight years, my life has been filled with friends from Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, and Sudan. Each of these friends have arrived at some point in the last eight years with nothing. I cannot count how many of them now own homes. The majority of them work in menial jobs like laundry facilities, hotel housekeeping, sewing, chicken farms, parts factories and warehouses. Many of those jobs nobody else wants. They get paid little and they save those pennies and buy cars and homes. With that money they are also growing gardens and starting businesses. They are giving back by helping newcomers. This last month, a new Congolese girl who had been here only one month gave birth to a baby. A family from Nepal and a family from Myanmar donated a crib and clothing to this new family they had never met. Though I haven’t officially counted, it may be safe to say that every home I have entered owns an American flag proudly displayed in the living room. Again, I have lost count of how many of them have become citizens overcoming major language barriers to answer the questions about this country so that they can say, “I am an American.”

They come because they want to be safe. They are tired of war, and fighting, and hatred. They already know what that is like and they don’t want any part of it. They want to be active participants in a country where they can marry, raise children, go to the store, and attend community events peacefully. They have taught me hospitality inviting me into their homes for tea and homemade food giving me more honor than I deserve. At one level they are the walking wounded, victims of division and greed. At another level they are simply people like me looking for a quiet, safe place to live and love.

They are my friends, my neighbors, my fellow Americans.

 

Hope in Context

con·text
ˈkäntekst/
noun
  1. the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

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About a month ago, while raking and bagging leaves for hours, I started to listen to podcasts. I happened upon an interview with a female theology professor, Jeannine K. Brown and I liked her. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that most of her study has been focused on the book of Matthew and she had recently published a commentary in the Teach the Text Commentary Series. After a little research, I ordered the book feeling an inclination to go deeper into the Bible. I talked to a friend about possibly reading it together but did not make any specific plans.

Today I started an Advent Devotional on my YouVersion Bible app. Reading number 1: Matthew 1. (Insert one angel singing, “Gloria” here.) I pulled out my commentary reading and rejoicing, learning and musing.

Ten years ago, I would have cringed at the sight of the genealogy in Matthew 1. Skimming through the familiar and unfamiliar names, I would have rushed right to the moment the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. One of the gifts of middle age, however, is perspective, context. As I look through that list of names today I’m having a hard time gathering my thoughts to consider the riches hidden in that list of names.

That list signifies time. Do you know it was approximately 500 years between the time Isaiah prophesied about a Messiah and the time Jesus was born? I struggle to remember what happened earlier this week and cannot fathom what my life will look like in 5 years. All the people on this list of the genealogy of Jesus lived with the anticipation of the Messiah who would release them from their darkness. They lived and died under the shadow of the waiting. Generation after generation Isaac, Tamar, Ram, Salmon, Jehoram, Josiah, Zerubbabel, and Matthan lived and waited and did not see the light break upon them. They did not live to see the promise fulfilled.

They were part of the promise, though. See their names there in that list? I do not pretend to understand how that works. Some of these people have parts of their stories told in the Old Testament, but the vast majority of them do not. Yet, here they are listed in The Story. In the opening words of the New Testament, this book that has been translated into hundreds of languages, Salmon’s name is there. The guy who shares a name with a fish is in the opening credits to the greatest story of all time. Salmon had already been dead for decades. For all we know, he fished every day of his life. Maybe he never even thought about the Messiah. We don’t know.

Context. On my very best days, I feel a deep sense of assurance about this Big Context. I believe in the long and meaningful story of the Kingdom of God. I believe that my name is also on a list God continues to write. I prefer to think He is writing it in calligraphy because that seems important and appropriate. And that one day when time is full, I will stand in the full presence of God, no more “through a glass darkly” but “face to face”. (See 1 Corinthians 13.) I will know just as I am fully known and this waiting, all these years of dark and light and the crazy haze will be worth it.

On my darkest days, I try to remember this dark span of time that ultimately leads to God becoming flesh. When I cannot see past the heaviness of the hour, I will choose to trust that I am standing on a span of road that leads to another Bethlehem. I will ask God to send me a donkey to carry me forward. I will believe God knows my name and my years regardless of whether any other human being reads my words or sees my heart.

The baby Jesus was born, a promise fulfilled, the result of years of waiting by real people each of whom is somehow a part of this long, long story. Context gives me hope.

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Less Than or Greater Than

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Dearest Children,

Movies are funny things. We use them to entertain us, sometimes to help us forget our workaday world. Good storytellers beckon us from the opening scene, reel our hearts and minds in, catapult us into a world of adventure, and boldly take us where few have gone before. Then the soundtrack fades away, the houselights temporarily blind us and there we sit, legs cramped from sitting still too long, a little dizzy from the dazzling multicolor pixels, and so very grounded to this earth.

Remember that symbol you learned in math? < . Less than. Sometimes when I see a movie with a hero ten feet tall on the big, big screen, that’s how I feel at the end. < . My little, little life does not compare to the wonders of the heroes of old. Or even the achievement of the heroes of new. Already I am 40 years old and I have not discovered any cures for grave diseases, invented technology to simplify daily life or turned around the economic outlook for a community. < .

Those same 40 years of life, however, have taught me something else–a different definition of important and brave. Let me tell you a story that no one will ever make into a movie. I was a teenager once. I know. Hard to believe. Every day I drove to school and drove home. I was a good student and a generally nice kid who got along with most everyone. Every day as I drove down the street just outside that 3 story ancient brick building I saw a girl walking alone. I had met her at the beginning of the school year at an Honor Society function I think. Something inside me felt a little bad each day seeing her walking alone. Alone is a really hard place to be as a teenager. Mostly the unspoken goal during those years is to never be by yourself. Many fifteen year olds pay dearly in ways they never thought they would just to avoid being alone. And there she was, EVERY day alone.

One day it was raining. Not the light sprinkle of a daily tropical palm watering in Florida. Pouring down rain. Windshield-wipers-racing-to-the-left-and-right-and-still-losing-to the-raindrops Michigan downpour. Turning out of the parking lot cautiously, there she was. Walking home alone again, in the rain, without an umbrella. This is when the still, small voice inside spoke. “Offer her a ride.”

I waffled. “I don’t know where she lives.”

“Does it matter?”

“It is so embarrassing. I don’t know what to say.”

“Offer her a ride.”

“I can’t remember her name.”

“She doesn’t remember yours either.”

I negotiated long enough to pass right by her. But the still, small voice was right. And I knew it. I turned around at the light, turned around at the next light, and pulled up beside her.

“Can I give you a ride home?”

So began a friendship, a deep friendship, that lasted only a year before we both went away to colleges far away from each other. We wrote a couple of letters after that, then went on with our separate lives.

17 years later, I was walking through your one-story, aging brick preschool building. A mother with two young children trying to figure out how to manage little people hour after hour. Adjusting to a very small circle of people. Grieving the loss of a child not yet born who had already left us. Disappointed at how unimportant my life felt. Having a < (less than) kind of year. A familiar voice trailed down the hall. My friend.

One of the very first things she said to me that day was, “I was just telling someone about you the other day.” Really? 17 years later? Suddenly I knew, knew deep down in the most important places of my soul, what courage meant. Courage, my children, is listening to the still, small voice and following it. It is not always comfortable. It is not always exciting. Maybe “they” will make a movie about you (who are “they” anyway?), but “they” will probably never even know you exist. Courage won’t matter to all of “them” but it will matter to one of “them”.

Later on in the story, you will see that the still, small voice knows exactly what it is talking about. It has picked out a story of bravery that is made specially for you. Living that story, no matter how big or small, famous or hidden, is an adventure only you can experience. And you will realize you, and your courageous choices, and the still, small voice are > (greater than).

Love,

Mom

 

Photo of a statue in Eglise La Madeleine

Not alone

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Change comes. People scatter. The Father stays. See that tiny cross on the top of that tower? It is Jesus’ sacrifice affixed on the steadfast tower of God the Father’s love. For God so loved the world that He will never leave me or forsake me. We will weather this change and the next one and the next…together.

A tower of Sacre-Couer taken from the top of Sacre-Couer overlooking the city of Paris

The Way

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This picture taken in front of the Church of Saint-Sulpice. The first time we walked over these stones we were frantically looking for the entrance to the church. The front doors were obviously closed and the visiting hours were almost over. I thought I saw a sign of direction but pressed for time we took off around to the left looking for an entrance. After walking/jogging around almost the entire building we found the entrance on the opposite side about as far away from where we started as we could be. After our visit we walked back to see the fountain out front. I decided to run up and look at that sign. Sure enough it directed us to the right to find the entrance. How often do we rush through life finding our own way instead of looking for directions from the one who can see the whole thing? Look to Jesus, He knows the way. He is the way.