Know Your Audience

It’s one of the most important pieces of advice for speakers, writers, teachers, communicators of all sorts….. get a good read of the room before you open your mouth, or pickup your pen or open your lap top. The opening story or joke one may use at an orthopedic surgeons conference my fall flat at a similar event for dentists. Two groups of people with different experiences, skill sets and possibly personalities. Knowing your audience – its key to connection and It’s a skill, dare I say it, I own. I believe it was developed over a lifetime of watching my father start and grow a church in the suburbs of Detroit. It continued as I moved into full time ministry with my husband and then for the last 18 years have built a business with hundreds of team members and customers…I’ve honed my people reading skill.

Or at least I thought I had.

This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with many people both personally and professionally. After a year of needing to intentionally disconnect, the summer of 2021 was full on – meet the people. I spent one week rekindling relationships with business connections around the state of Michigan. I stayed in 5 different homes in 7 days. I shared space with some of my favorite humans on the planet. My love language is coffee and connection (or as Gary Chapman Author of “The 5 Love Languages” would say – Quality Time) thus, my cup was filled. I took several long road trips with my 18 year old daughter and later in June our entire family travelled to Utah for a week with 80 + members of our extended family. My husband and I ended the summer with a trip to Indiana to watch our oldest daughter receive her Specialist Degree in Education, a full on graduation ceremony, in person. It was the cherry on the top of a really fantastic summer.

Any place I go with this crew is amazing… but Utah ! Wow!!

In this return to travel, and people, and gatherings I found myself needing to dust off some skills that had gone dormant since spring of 2020. Booking hotel rooms or scheduling Air bnbs. Checking schedules of friends to see if they would be home when I would want to visit. Budgeting for gas and food. Reading my GPS when rerouted in crazy Chicago traffic in the rain. Planning extra travel time for road construction. Packing appropriate clothing for weather changes and a variety of activities.

There was one skill, the one I thought I had down, that I discovered was most important. It required much time and patience. I learned it first in college so many years ago – that people really don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care. I remembered that before I speak I should listen, listen, and listen some more. I had to Know my Audience. And what I learned is that my audience is diverse, and passionate and caring and concerned about our world despite the glaringly vast differences of opinion on everything we are all currently navigating.

As I sat over numerous cups of coffee, or dry red depending on the time of day, I listened to the concerns of my people. I asked questions about what their last year of life had looked like. I worked hard to get a read on their level of peace or lack there of. We struggled together to answer questions that seem impossible to understand. We laughed over crazy things we had done to pivot on a daily basis, we cried over the loss of both our normal routines and also actual human beings. We prayed for the future of our world and often we agreed that on some issues we may need to disagree. In many cases I realized my audience that I thought I knew so well, had changed. And I guess, so had I.

And thats the real rub isn’t it? The one we all may be trying so hard to ignore. The fact that people we know and love and trust have chosen an opposing side to our own. We read peoples social media posts or watch their face covering activity ( or lack there of) in an attempt to understand. We then quickly make value judgements and form opinions that feel heavy and yucky and divisive. I’m watching my two college students navigating a list of written and unwritten rules now that they have returned to campus. The struggle to understand simple daily activities and relationships continues.

This past week I was with a friend that was sharing a news headline about a current hot topic. Her tone was one that communicated she had bought in to the “evidence” of the writer and was wanting my ‘Yes and Amen’ but I couldn’t give it because just the day before…

I had listened.

Twenty four hours earlier I had a conversation with another trusted friend on this same topic. She had shared data that completely opposed the information in the article my first friend had shared. I asked lots of questions to clarify and later went home and did my own research. When I shared my findings we were then able to have a healthy conversation about the issue – neither of us coming to a firm conclusion on the topic, but agreeing that there is usually always more to the story.

And that is the lesson I am taking from the summer of 2021 – that there is always more and getting to the “More” takes time and listening, and more time and more listening. After the time and the listening and the More time and the more listening there may come understanding but (and this is important) there might not come agreement.

You may not agree.

You.

May

Not.

Agree.

And it’s ok. It really is. It has to be. At least it does for me.

If I’m going to continue showing up in my work, my friendships, my faith community, my grocery store….

I have to come to grips with the reality that I may not see eye to eye with people I deeply know and deeply love.

As I walk out of my house today I look to the one that I’ve always looked to for wisdom and guidance and truth. Jesus. He rocked the world of many as he lived his short life with one goal in mind – to pay the price for the mess humanity had made of the perfect world his father had created. He was ok with disagreeing. He met people where they were at, not ignoring their issues, but loving them in the midst them. He broke rules, he listened to the questions of doubters and answered with love, grace and blunt truth when appropriate.

He was so willing to carry out His ultimate mission – to die on a cross – a perfect human in the place of imperfect humanity for one reason….

He knew his audience.

He knew they were desperate. He knew they were hopeless. He knew they were beautiful creations of his Father that loved them deeply. He knew them because he spent his lifetime correctly reading the room through countless hours of listening and answering questions and loving .

And the good news is… he still does.

He knows us.

You and me – members of the current audience, the ones filling the room of this stage of history.

He understands our questions.

He feels our sorrow.

He mourns the evil and the pain.

He sees our splintered relationships….

and he promises to walk with us in it,

through it.

He promises to bring peace, and wisdom and discernment.

It’s the hope I’m holding on to today – how good to know its available for you as well.

Good conversation takes time… thankful for many of these moments in summer 2021.

Heart Gardening

Last summer we grew our first garden. My sweet husband built a couple of small raised beds in the sunniest, most out-of-the-way-of-rambunctious-children spot of our yard and filled it with rich midwest dirt. We took it easy: one basil plant, four cherry tomato plants, four Roma tomato plants, and two cucumber vines. This little garden produced enough to keep us busy eating, weeding, pickling, and watering.

Then this spring, in full Molly form, I decided small success meant I could grow by leaps and bounds (despite the fact that we did not add any square footage). My unrealistic expectations were exacerbated by the ample seedlings available at the local greenhouse, and we returned with three different tomato varieties (with multiple plants of each), two serrano pepper plants, cilantro, two basil plants, three cucumber vines, and four watermelon vines. Did I mention that we still intended to use only the original two beds?

When we placed the tiny little plants in the garden, everything looked neat, even, and promising. I felt proud of my spacing and planning thinking, I’m providing for my family! I’m basically a homesteader. However, as the summer heat grew, so did the plants. The tomatoes, overcrowded, developed a leaf fungus from the lack of airflow which destroyed the foliage and produced far fewer tomatoes than we hoped. Right after planting, the first trimester of pregnancy hit full force, and I did not find time or energy to trellis the cucumbers, leaving nowhere for the vines to grow. The watermelon vines tangled with the cucumbers and often we wouldn’t find the produce until too large and bitter to be of use.

By late summer, except for inconsistent watering, I avoided the garden. Disappointed and overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done, I simply picked and watered where needed and shielded my eyes from the chaos. The yellow-spotted leaves on the tomatoes looked hideous and vines creeped everywhere possible. Ashamed of my choices, I avoided acknowledgment and care.

Until last week. I armed myself for battle, donning mosquito spray, a five-gallon weed bucket, and a trowel. I pulled off every fungus-infected leaf, leaving the few good ones on the plant to collect sunlight. I removed three non-producing plants, leaving more room for the surviving ones to spread out, and weeded the space around and underneath. I still have more work to do, but the garden no longer looks as hideous, and the remaining plants seem grateful.

The first and biggest garden haul was much more promising than the rest of the summer.

As summer freedom turns to fall rhythm, I’ve realized how much my garden reflects my life. Afraid of insignificance, I committed to too much. I made promises to countless friends and family members. I told myself I would write more and start building a career. I looked up new recipes and planned countless adventures with my children. Outwardly we were busy and efficient, but inwardly my mind became crowded with weeds.

The more tired and overwhelmed I felt, the more I compared myself with others and came up short every time (ironically prompting me to do more and commit to more). 

How is your heart in this transitional season? Are you seeking significance? Do you say yes because you’re afraid of the consequences if you say no? Do you want to be everyone’s friend and confidante? If you nodded along to any of these I empathize with you deeply. We strive so hard, sewing patches haphazardly onto our vests. When we look over our shoulder it seems everyone else has more patches than we, but instead of the panicked look in their eyes, they’re in a happy little circle, laughing and enjoying one another’s company. We start to reflect the J. R. R. Tolkein quote, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Paul writes of feeling stretched, convicted by his own striving in Philippians 3. By all outward appearances, Paul had it together. His garden was the picture of pedigreed heirloom plants, all neatly ordered in well-manicured rows. However, even though his social media accounts would have boasted #nofilter and #blessed, he writes,

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”

This past week, after the relief I felt from cleaning out my garden I realized I needed to clean out my heart, too. Over and over I’d heard God’s nudging, telling me to lay down my ambitions, to recognize him as sovereign and holy, to see my own brokenness, to recognize that I cannot do it anything by my own strength. I asked God to reveal to me where my own selfish desires were crowding the good he had planned for me and waited.

Usually, I write these posts after I’ve learned the lesson and changed my ways, but today I’m drawing you into the weeding and pruning. I am saying no, I am laying down perfection, but I am not yet harvesting the fruit of this process. I am still waiting for God’s divine trowel to wrestle the weeds and overgrowth away. If you feel thin and stretched, overgrown or overcrowded, please join me in the blessed relief of letting go.

Heavenly Father, we know that striving is not wrong. You call us to say our best yes and to divine work. However, sometimes we strive too hard and say too many yeses instead of finding our fullness in you. Remind us that we do not have to work to receive the blessed gift of your son, Jesus Christ. Weed out our “too much” and replace it with your peace. May we always be found in Christ.

Unchanging Faithfulness

I am honored to introduce Emily Schatz to the campfire this week! Emily and I attended the same University (THE Concordia University Chicago), and I was always struck by her calm cool and devotion to the Lord no matter what life threw her way. Today, she is an incredible mom to two gorgeous girls and devoted mentor to many youth. Emily is truly a woman seeking to see and share God’s heart. Please enjoy her heartfelt words today, and may they encourage you as you live in your season.

A Season of Change

Our family has had many changes in the last four months. These changes include leaving my job, relocating our family from Colorado to Missouri, and moving in with my parents. Then I started a new job, and to add even more change, now our family is getting ready to close on our first house. Change is inevitable. We find it everywhere. We find it in every season of our lives.


Sometimes change is hard.


Sometimes change is needed.

Sometimes change is God’s grace disguised.

Sometimes change is welcomed with open arms.

Moving back to my childhood home in Missouri has felt like an extended vacation. I have lived far away from my parents for years working as a Director of Christian Education. (For those that don’t know, a Director of Christian Education is a Lutheran church work position that handles all aspects of Lutheran education in the church for all ages. Typically, many will work in youth ministry, but DCEs are a jack of all trades.) I have worked in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington and the Denver Area of Colorado, so it’s been a while since my Midwest heart has been home for any longer than a week at a time.

To be honest, it was a bit scary. My husband and I felt the pull to move back home for many reasons, but the desire to be close to be family was top of the list. This momma wanted to be by her support team. But, any big move is a massive leap of faith. What will my husband do for work? Where will we live? Can we make it work so I can stay home with our girls? All these questions arose.
So, my husband and I prayed. We prayed for an opportunity to come home. And we waited for what seemed like ages. When we visited our family in St. Louis for Christmas, there was no doubt in our minds. It was time to come home.

“God will provide.” My husband told me. God gave me a good one, this husband of mine. Always reminding me when I try to do things myself to lean on the Lord.

When we headed back to Colorado, we started to take steps to see if we could really do this. My husband’s job offered him the opportunity to work remotely from Missouri. I told my job I was leaving, and we sold our condo. Good Friday morning we headed out in the moving truck and headed toward the sunrise.

Honestly, after we moved there were weeks wondering if I would ever take another job working in a church or to even have that opportunity come up in the St. Louis area. The Lord heard many prayers from me asking what was the point? Am I supposed to be doing this youth ministry thing, because right then, I wasn’t so sure. Then, like God does, he answered my doubts with faithfulness, tender love, merciful grace, and reassurance.

Two doors opened for me to go back into youth ministry. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how I felt about jumping back in so soon. I was enjoying being a stay-at-home momma. I had been weary and I was just starting to feel restored.

When we walked into my current church for a site visit, both my husband and I felt filled with peace that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. I clicked with the staff. I was excited about the vision the Pastors had for the church’s ministry. I hadn’t felt this excited about church in a while. After taking some time to really discern God’s will for our family, I accepted the position of Director of High School and Young Adult Ministry with this church. It’s been the most refreshing change I’ve experienced in years. Even through my doubt and being afraid to take another chance, God showed up, faithful as always.

All these changes have been full of up and down emotions. Yet, we’ve seen God’s hand in every single moment. In the low points, it’s not always easy to see why we go through certain seasons. Now looking back, we can thank the Lord for every moment that He showed our family His generosity, His love, His forgiveness, and His unchanging faithfulness.

God has placed a verse on my heart for the last few weeks as I’ve reflected on all these changes. Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Those words ring in my mind and soul as I’ve begun this new chapter in my new church.

There is a piece of fabric that I have entwined around a cross that sits on my desk at work next to my computer.

There is a piece of fabric that I have entwined around a cross that sits on my desk at work next to my computer.

Last week as I was sitting at my desk working on plans for the upcoming months, the fabric caught my eye. You see this strip of fabric has been with me from the beginning of my time as a DCE. The day I received my first internship placement this fabric was part of a larger piece. As it was prayed over, a strip was pulled off for each DCE in my class. Every time I see it I am reminded of God’s unchanging faithfulness in my life. He’s been with me through each job change, through each move, through each up and down life has brought me.
Looking at the fabric wrapped around the cross reminds me how I want my entire life to point back to my savior. Things like how I act, what I say, how I serve others, how I parent, and how I disciple my students; I want all these things to point to the one who restored my soul. The one who rescued me from sin and death and instead, through the waters of baptism, gave me faith and eternal life.

You see our Lord doesn’t just sit up in heaven and ignore us. He is active in our daily lives. He is with us through every moment. Grieving with those who cry. Dancing with those in joy. The Holy Spirit is a comforter for the heavy hearted and a cheerleader to those who spread God’s gospel message. Jesus is for all. He is active in baptism and through the Lord’s supper. Those means of grace give us a glimpse of the joy of heaven.


You will face many changes in this life, but you will face them with a God who never changes. He is always with you. He hears your prayers and God is always faithful.

Rest in the truth of the unchanging faithfulness of our risen Lord Jesus today.

May the peace that passes all understanding be upon you in whatever change you find yourself facing today. Bring that change to God and know that he is with you through it all.

A guide to ambiguous college decisions

Today we welcome Brooke Lange – special guest contributor to the fire. Her decision making wisdom grown from her recent college choice process is helpful for all of us making any kind of big or small life decision. She is a regular contributor to her college blog and this post was recently featured. Enjoy more of her work at http://www.cune.edu

Published by Brooke 2 weeks ago on Thu, May 13, 2021 4:41 http://www.cune.edu

My visit to Concordia began and ended with little drama. I talked to people, I toured the buildings, I observed people doing college things. The day was entirely normal, which was the issue.  

I got coffee with my mom and contemplated and went for a quick run and contemplated more and ultimately continued living my life.  

After a while, I decided to accept Concordia University Nebraska into my life. It was about the spring of my junior year. For me, it was because of my major. There were few colleges that offered a quality English as a Second Language program, and Concordia was one that was not ridiculously expensive, and conveniently located in not Hawaii.  

When I would tell Concordia alum and some of my own friends why I made the decision to go there, they had the tendency to ask me with wide eyes and bated breath, “Didn’t it just feel like home?”  

It did not. It did not feel like anything.  

As an ardent lover of pros and cons lists, Freakonomics, and the phrase, “based on past experiences,” the notion of choosing a college based on how it made you feel really perplexed me. There was no reason! There was no system! I felt simultaneously justified and unjustified in my college decision. Justified because I felt I had logic on my side, unjustified because I did not have this P(S)aul on his way to Damascus type revelation that everyone was speaking of.  

So, I thought, and I concluded that people are diverse enough to make decisions using a variety of methods. Crazy, I know.  

Maybe you’re like me and you’re choosing a college based on what you believe to be logical reasons. When I was making my college decision, my main goal was to be an ESL teacher and work overseas. I had a clear picture of what I wanted my future to look like, and in my mind, Concordia was the most logical way to get there.  

Despite what I might want to think, this absolutely could change. I could have arrived at Concordia and realized that I hated teaching, (has not happened yet, I will keep you posted) or that there were better opportunities for me somewhere else. We can use logic and reason as a means to get to the ends we want, but sometimes those ends change.   

Maybe you don’t really have a specific plan going into college, but you visit, and you like the campus and the people, and truly, you just want to be a part of it.  

This can also change. Although there are lovely people at every college, you might eventually find that your goals and aspirations don’t align with the university or the community you’re surrounded by. Emotions are also important in making college considerations, but let me tell you, those also change a lot during college.  

Essentially, you can make your college decision in the way you are comfortable. But saying that you have made the absolute right decision when these big decisions and changes in life occur can be pretty limiting.   

The summer before my freshman year of high school, my family moved from Michigan to Missouri. It all seemed very sudden. The high school I was planning on going to was such a big part of my life. My dad taught there, my siblings went there, and attending high school basketball games and plays was a staple activity in my house. I already knew a lot of the teachers, coaches, and I had a vague outline of a friend group. When we decided to move, my future at that school, so seemingly meticulous in the making was gone. 

  The high school I attended in Missouri had a sizable percentage of international students, and during the summer of my sophomore year, I went on choir tour in Europe. These opportunities I had to connect with  people from other cultures made me realize that I wanted to be able to help people to make these connections. It was then that I decided I wanted to teach English as a Second Language. 

I was truly on the cusp of living an entirely different life. My life in Michigan had all the trappings of being happy and successful, but for whatever reason, the fabric of my life changed. 

However you make the big decisions of your life, or perhaps, have the big decisions made for you, do not limit yourself to simply what appears to be the right choice. Our brains are a maze of discovered and undiscovered passions, aspirations, and talents. The world is similarly complex. It is honorable to bloom where you’re planted, but please do not believe you are incapable of growing anywhere else. 

Brooke

About Brooke

Halloo! I’m Brooke, welcome to the blog!
I’m a freshman education major who enjoys encouraging my plants, watching The Office to destress and great movie soundtracks.

Read more from Brooke

A guide to ambiguous college decisionsSome Helpful…And Not So Helpful College Purchases

Steeplechaser

Halfway through an eight-miler, our feet crunching the gravel roads, my running partner pointed out that although a mile out of town, we could still see our church’s steeple. “I like to see how far away I can get and still catch a glimpse of it poking out above the trees,” she continued. St. Pauls’ Germanic steeple towers above almost everything else in town, gently giving dimension to the skyline. It’s a good thing Victoria is a distance runner, because we have to get pretty far away from town to no longer turn and witness its beauty.

Many, many years ago, according to Business Insider, runners “would often race each other from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were chosen because they were easy to see from long distances…The countryside would also require runners to jump over various barriers over the course of their race. These included stone walls and small rivers.”

Modern track and field competitions modernized this race by using hurdles to simulate the walls and a water pit for the creeks and rivers, naming it “Steeplechase.”

Although I never competed in track and field, I often engage in my own steeple game. Running through life, I get stuck in a path of self-pity or selfish pursuit. How long can I pound down this pavement of self-pity and selfish ambition while still peeking back and seeing the steeple? I can always stop and run back, I tell myself, I’m not that far gone yet…my self-righteousness must not be too bad if the steeple is still in view behind me.

Yesterday I read Psalm 25. A beautiful prayer, which I encourage you to digest in entirety, but I want to highlight a few sections specifically.

David pleads in verse four, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your path” and then in verse ten recognizes, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” In contrast to my own selfish plans, God’s ways are full of love and commitment.

But praise be to God we are not left alone to right our footsteps: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” We are promised that our sins are already forgiven through Christ’s work on the cross, and we are given the Holy Spirit as a helper when we are caught in the path of self-centeredness. What a gift!

If you run through Concordia, be sure to look for the steeple and remember the steadfast promise waiting for you in love.

Vickie Pottschmidt is a lovely person to run alongside 🙂

Knowlton, E. (2016, August 17). Here’s how steeplechase – the wackiest event in track and field – came to get its name and water jumps. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/olympic-steeplechase-history-explainer-2016-8.

Silence

I am excited to introduce Nancy Gowen to the campfire community. My (Molly’s) writing teacher, mentor, and mom! Thank you for sharing your gift of words with us today and welcome the the Campfire.

The silence was deafening. All that deep quiet, intending to give a sense of peace and tranquility,
nearly exploded in my head and made sleep elusive. The mountain was dark and the cabin completely void of noise, but I was not calmed by it. I finally got out of bed and put in my earbuds to listen to a podcast to drown the quiet.


A combination of life events evidently caused tinnitus, a constant whoosh of noise in my left ear. I’ve had it for years and it is hardly perceptible until I listen for it, or I am in a noticeably quiet place. Being in that much quiet was painful.


Thinking back on that situation makes me wonder about the noise we “hear.” Is it background noise or is it disruptive? What is that hum, barely noticed in the milieu of life? Are we tuned in to the noise of the daily or have we learned to ignore it? I remember the long-long-short-long whistle of the trains behind my childhood home, the constant buzz of cicadas in summer while living in a farming community, military aircraft practicing over the house and whining sirens from first responders coming into and leaving the hospital across the street. Have you had similar sound experiences that you have become accustomed to?


The ear doctor told me that I had better hearing than most of his patients, which seems kind of paradoxical. With constant distraction, do I really hear that well? Apparently, the noise is superficial, or perhaps my brain has accommodated for it. Rather than lament its annoyance, what can I learn from this noise?


Elijah heard sounds that seemed to carry God’s signature, but it was the still small voice that spoke His word. Here is Elijah, waiting on God to speak, and God used a quiet noise to get his attention. (I Kings 19:11-13)


Jonah had to be swallowed to hear God’s voice. Noah and Abraham waited years to hear the plan. Jeremiah couldn’t hear God for all of his complaining.


Henri Nouwen wrote many books about prayer and in most of his books, he connects prayer with quiet listening. He suggested that in order to really hear God, a closet was a good place to start (and this was 25 years before War Room was published!). Nouwen writes, “the real ‘work’ of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice…” (Life of the Beloved) He also understood that we are easily distracted people. Have you ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer all the way through without losing concentration? To stay focused, Nouwen recommended repeating a short Bible passage repeatedly, perhaps 2-5 words long. With practice, we learn to hear what God is saying. I want my whooshing ear to be the silencer of other background noise, or maybe to hear that background better. Maybe that’s the Voice. Maybe I just need to talk less and listen more.
Maybe it is time to find a good closet.

Reading Poetry, Reading Scripture

Photo courtesy of Pexels.com

For the last year and a half, I have been pursuing an MFA degree in fiction writing. For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories—immersive settings, evocative prose, interesting characters in strange situations. But for how much I adore good literature, I’ve always been a little intimidated by poetry. 

I don’t think I’m alone. In my experience, most people avoid reading poetry these days, either because they find it difficult to understand, too esoteric, and/or just plain boring.  

Lately, I’ve been wondering if many of us struggle to read Scripture for the same reasons we struggle to read poetry. After all, around one third of the Bible is poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Revelation), and much of the rest of Scripture relies heavily on poetic language—metaphor, allusion, symbolism, imagery, etc. For those of us who have a hard time with poetry, it isn’t any wonder that Scripture can sometimes feel a bit inaccessible, too. 

This spring I decided to challenge myself as a writer and reader by enrolling in a poetry class. I’ve learned a ton from my classmates and professor about how to actually enjoy engaging with poetry, and I’ve started to use some of those same strategies when engaging with Scripture. Approaching Scripture with an eye for the poetic has made reading the Bible more pleasurable for me and has helped me feel closer to the Lord—after all, as the format of the Bible makes clear, God speaks to us through poetry!  

So, I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned with you in hopes that it will help you, too, refresh your approach to Scripture and hear God speak. 

1. Read slowly and more than once. Poetry is not meant to be guzzled like those best-selling paperback novels we see in airport bookshops. Poetry, like a fine wine, is meant to be savored. While I do think it’s admirable to read as much Scripture as possible in a single sitting, I have found it most beneficial to read small portions of Scripture at a time—perhaps just a handful of verses. This allows me space to meditate on the language, and to really consider what the text is saying. When it comes to good poetry, including Scripture, new meanings often emerge upon reading the text for a second, third, or fourth time that may not have been apparent on that first read.  

2. Read with a pen in your hand. We live in a culture that favors passive consumption, but poetry and Scripture resist passivity. In fact, poetry and Scripture demand active engagement. One of the best ways to engage with any text is to annotate, annotate, annotate. Underline words and phrases that stand out to you, jot down questions and gut reactions, make note of connections you see between the text and other texts, or between the text and your life. Annotating your Bible, or taking notes in a notebook, puts you in direct dialogue with God’s Word and helps you avoid the temptation to consume Scripture passively.

3. Look up words or allusions you don’t understand. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing: Often, the key to unlocking an entire poem is simply looking up a term or reference that I don’t fully understand. This has proved true for me when reading the Bible, as well. Scripture is particularly complicated when you take into account the historical contexts in which the text was written (much of which is foreign to our postmodern sensibilities) and the fact that the Bible is translated from ancient languages. Taking a few minutes to look at alternative translations, look up difficult words, or Google historical information has made scripture feel much more accessible.  

4. Find pleasure in the language. Even when a poem feels difficult to decipher, we can still enjoy it simply for the beauty of its language. The Bible is full of exquisite language, too. Take this portion of Psalm 104 for example:

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

    O Lord my God, you are very great!

You are clothed with splendor and majesty,

    covering yourself with light as with a garment,

    stretching out the heavens like a tent.

He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;

he makes the clouds his chariot;

    he rides on the wings of the wind;

he makes his messengers winds,

    his ministers a flaming fire.

He set the earth on its foundations,

    so that it should never be moved.

You covered it with the deep as with a garment;

    the waters stood above the mountains.

At your rebuke they fled;

    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.

The mountains rose, the valleys sank down

    to the place that you appointed for them.

You set a boundary that they may not pass,

    so that they might not again cover the earth.

Without trying to understand what the Psalm means, let the imagery sink in: garments made of light, chariots made of clouds, mountains fleeing at the thundering sound of God’s voice. The images alone, even apart from the context of the verse, are like paintings in the mind. To describe God is beyond our ability as humans, but the Psalmist uses poetic language—metaphor, simile, and symbolism—to get as close as possible. 

5. Find rest in ambiguity. I think one reason we often resist poetry is because we feel like poems are trying to trick us—like each poem has a single meaning, and it’s our job as readers to work through the language to decipher that meaning. But poems are not riddles. They are not locked containers designed for hiding ideas. Good poetry is often ambiguous because, well, life is ambiguous, and poetry is meant to reflect life. In an article for poets.org, Edward Hirsch puts it this way:

Too often we resist ambiguity. Perhaps our lives are changing so fast that we long for stability somewhere, and because most of the reading we do is for instruction or information, we prefer it without shades of gray. We want it to be predictable and easy to digest. And so difficult poetry is the ultimate torment … [To appreciate poetry], We have to cultivate a new mindset, a new practice of enjoying the inconclusive.

I tend to resist ambiguity when I read Scripture, too. I like easy answers, simple explanations. However, much of Scripture—like all great poetry—is paradoxical and mysterious, and it’s okay to rest in that. I like to think of it this way: If everything about God was always easy for us mere humans to understand, what would make him God and us human? Let us bask in the wonderment of God’s mysteries. Let us appreciate that God is God and we are human—some of him is simply beyond our comprehension. Let us find rest in that knowledge and praise him all the more for it!

To Love Me is to Know Me

When our daughter, Louisa, moved from California to Missouri last summer, my husband and I took the opportunity to hand off some of the bins of her papers and memorabilia that had been taking up space in our garage.  A couple of weeks after receiving these “treasures,” Lou sent me this text:  “I went through those bins you sent down here, and I have a whole bin to send back because it is Katrina and Ted’s stuff. But I found this:” 

Below this text was a photo of a weathered piece of notebook paper with the following heading:

“Chicken Pox Blessings – Louisa”

Seeing those words transported me back 20 years to the winter of 2001 and the time when chicken pox ran quickly through our missionary school in Moscow.  Students and parents alike fell victim, and only a few families were spared the interruption of a chicken pox siege.  In our family, this memorable period began innocently when one of Louisa’s friends came home from school with her.  The girls played quietly together for a couple of hours, and a few days later we learned that Louisa’s friend had chicken pox. If we had plotted to expose Louisa to this illness, we could not have done better!  Within a few days we detected the first spots on Louisa’s back and chest.

So it was that Louisa and I spent much of the next two weeks together as she bore the discomfort of sores, fever, fatigue, and itching and then began to recover and heal.  Katrina and Ted brought home daily reports of more and more kids who had disappeared from the daily school routine. We knew it was only a matter of time before Louisa’s siblings would have it, too, but for those two weeks my world was small, and I was focused on Louisa.

As she began to feel better, I was moved to make a few observations—a kind of remembrance of this quiet time that we spent together. Thus came into being the list of “chicken pox blessings” that Louisa found nearly 20 years later. It continues as follows:

“A Mom likes to discover things about her children.  Thanks to Chicken Pox, I have discovered, or rediscovered, some things about Louisa:

  1. Even when she is sick, she is active, and not one to lie around for awhile.
  2. She is innovative and creative, thinking of her own way to deal with itching.  She kept her hands busy so she wouldn’t scratch, and gently rubbed her shirt over her chest and back to relieve itching.
  3. She tends to be patient or at least quiet, rather than vocal, during her illness.
  4. She doesn’t, as a rule, drink a lot of water!
  5. She can focus on one thing very intently.
  6. She enjoys helping, unless she is focusing.
  7. Her dream house has lots of room for Action, Art, Adventure!
  8. She prays, and appreciates prayer.
  9. She has a quick sense of humor (she “gets” Calvin and Hobbes)
  10. She is sentimental about “old stuff”

Other things were also a blessing:

  1. I got to spend lots of time with Louisa, and so did Ted
  2. We got to move the room around, so it was better for everyone.
  3.  

Well, there was nothing written for that third point.  Clearly, I had intended to go on, but in a household with one child recovering and two others going down for the count, something probably distracted me.

Louisa keeping busy in the time of Chicken Pox

To my great regret, I did not begin a similar list of blessings for either Ted or Katrina. Ted has reminded me that they had each other to occupy them, and they even spent some of their time deciding how they would welcome Louisa home from school at the end of each day.  Still, I consider it a pity not to have a list for each of my kids because the striking thing, as I read my observations about Louisa, is that much of what I discovered (or rediscovered) is still true.  I treasure this reminder that those quiet slower-paced days of nursing Louisa through her illness allowed me to know my girl a little differently—a little better. 

This experience helped to reinforce a piece of advice that I read as a relatively new parent when Katrina, our oldest, was still a baby.  It went something like this: “Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and take some time to study your child while he or she is playing.”  It was an attractive idea, to be sure.  I like to sit.  I like coffee.  Sit in an easy chair, sip from a steaming mug, and watch—not just watch, but study—my little one while she contentedly putters about with her toys. What could be better? 

I have often shared this advice with young mothers, but I usually add a disclaimer, because what I learned, from the few times I tried to do this, was that Katrina was quick to realize I was not busy with anything else, and she wanted me to be busy with her!  My coffee cooled on an end table and I exchanged my comfortable chair for the hard floor as we played together.  But—mission accomplished. I learned that quality time together was important to her—and it is still one of her love languages. 

We are fond of telling parents “nobody knows your kids better than you do,” but it’s not something that happens automatically.  The fact is that you know something better if you study it, and that includes a child.  Study includes observing, thinking, and reflecting.  Quite simply, it takes time, and time has become a most precious commodity, I think. But studying our children—however we do it—is time well spent. A friend of mine told me recently that her husband loved to just sit and stare at their baby son. “I just can’t stop looking at him,” he says.  And I think, “Perfect.  Study that little boy. Start now and keep studying him throughout his life.  Learn all you can about him and help him learn about himself.  It’s a powerful way of saying, “You are loved.”

My husband and I were fortunate to have opportunity and encouragement for studying our kids.  Our life as a missionary family in Russia allowed for a lot of family time during the years when our children were still small.  Over time, John’s increasing responsibilities led to training and education that was designed to help him better understand his own strengths and weaknesses. He enjoyed bringing the things he learned home to our family, so that the “discovery tools” he learned to use became part of our family discussion.  We would even joke that “Dad has a new test for us to take,” or “Dad has a book to tell us about.”  But we also knew that we were going to learn something new about each other and ourselves, and that was a good thing.

The phrase, “To know me is to love me” is familiar to many of us.  It can also take the form of “to know him is to love him,” or “to know her is to love her.”  It reflects the idea that anyone who knows a person will automatically love them…or if you know that person, you can’t help but love them…they are that lovable.  The problem is that for plenty of people, the more we get to know them the less impressed we are.  Love and appreciation do not always grow from knowledge of other people. All too often both love and any desire to know come to a screeching halt.

But turn that phrase around, and we have a truth that comes straight from God:  To love me is to know me.  Psalm 139:1-4 says,

“O Lord, you have searched me

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise:

You perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

You know it completely, O Lord.”

God IS love. His love for his creation, and for each of us in his creation, is extraordinary and nothing we have earned or deserved.  It’s not that, by knowing us God can’t help but love us.  It’s more like he loves us and can’t help but know us.  And isn’t this what we all desire—to be fully loved, fully known?

I think our world is crying out to be known.  We feel unheard, unappreciated, unwanted, and much of it begins with feeling unknown.  We resent being lumped in groups and categories, without any knowledge of the intricacies that make each of us unique. And instead of building bridges to know each other better we build walls that keep the “unknowns” out of our life.  And at the same time that we resent not being known, we think we know a lot about everybody else.  The fact is that without the love and gracious forgiveness that only is possible because of our Savior, Jesus, gaining knowledge of one another that leads to understanding and the certainty of being loved is impossible. 

There’s a lot we can do to help the people in our circles feel fully known and fully loved.  I realize that’s easy to say, and not always easily done.  If people are open and talkative, there’s a lot you can learn in a short amount of time, although there is probably more under the surface, still to be discovered.  If people  are like me, they are harder to know to know—I am an introvert, I tend to listen more than talk, I like my privacy, and my circle of friends is small.  In knowing others, I tend to err on the side of caution, expecting other people to be as private as I am. But I do appreciate it when I realize that people have observed things about me and are willing to share those observations with me. This reminds me that there are ways of knowing people that don’t require invading their space, but rather the time to study them in different situations, building trust, looking for opportunities to ask questions in a comfortable way that leads to better understanding.

We can take that understanding a step further– The chicken pox siege gave me the opportunity to know my daughter better and to put my knowledge of her into words—words that were precious 20 years later. As an adult and a teacher, Louisa has learned the power of defining and communicating what she knows about her students to them…she helps them to see in themselves the things that she sees—their abilities, characteristics, and gifts that are God-given and make them the persons they are.  Those insights, too, become precious over time.

A few months ago–at Christmastime–Louisa got married.  She and Andrew had put three years into a long-distance relationship, and her move back to the Midwest was meant to give them an opportunity to spend time together in the same place.  It only took a few months for them to realize that they did, indeed, want to spend their lives together!

In early October, when Andrew spoke to John and me about asking Louisa to marry him, one of my enduring impressions from that conversation this: “He knows her. He loves her and he knows her.”  We knew that Louisa loved Andrew, and Andrew loved Louisa.  By God’s grace, in loving each other, they were also eager to know each other. Knowing took time, but it made love all the more real. 

Resources for knowing yourself, your loved ones, and others:

  • Charles F Boyd with Dr. Robert A. Rohm, Different Children, Different Needs:  Understanding the Unique Personality of Your Child
  • Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages
  • Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell, The 5 Love Languages of Children: The secret to Loving Children Effectively
  • Richard J. Leider, Calling Cards: Uncover Your Calling (set of cards with instructions)

Space for you

I see you.

You, the one reading these words.

The one who woke up today.

The one thats been given another day to live, breath, work, play, rejoice, mourn….

and write.

One of the unexpected gifts of creating this space for friends to gather and share stories are the handful

of new friends that have quietly asked if they could share as well.

One request came in an email.

Another with a friend in a conversation we enjoyed over lunch.

and one more in a late night ding to my facebook messenger app.

They all shared the same thing…..

“Beth I think I have a story to share around your fire.”

They did.

And they shared.

And many were blessed.

Friend – you, the one reading these words.

The one that has been given another day to live, breath, work, play, rejoice , mourn and

write.

I believe you have a story as well. If you’re alive – you have a story. And if your heart is beating a bit faster

right now at the though of putting it in writing and sharing with our fire….

It may be a sign that you should.

Friend – your story, your reflection on the crazy or simple ways God has or is working in your life

is important.

And there is space for you…..

Here.

This is your invitation ( if you havn’t picked up on my subtle hints yet:) to send me an email, ask me to join you for lunch or send me a late night FB Message .

There is an open seat at the fire……

for you.

Is it time to share YOUR story?

30k by 30

On March 6th, 2021 I ran 18.6 miles. No, it’s not a new fad race distance; it was my birthday party.

The idea began with an innocent conversation at the breakfast table. “What was that race I did with you mommy?” my oldest asked.

“You ran a 5K, sweetie,” I responded while spooning scrambled eggs onto the baby’s tray.

“Oh, yeah, because I’m five. Next year I’ll run a 6K,” he responded. I acknowledged his idea with a smile and went back to my steaming cup of coffee.

An hour later, I stepped out into the clear, 65-degree morning for a quick two-miler. As my feet crunched gravel on country roads I mulled over conversations from the past week: acknowledging the fragility of life, lamenting current events, naming personal disappointments and sorrows. My heart ached for circumstances out of my control. I needed to remember the purpose of striving.

My son’s words echoed in my head, and I wondered: could I run a 30k on my 30th birthday? If I could conquer this somewhat crazy goal, and God used my efforts for his glory, then maybe even one person could find hope to conquer their own challenge.

Later that day, I started looking into my crazy idea. I had about six months before I hit my next decade which, according to most training plans on the interwebs, was plenty of time for a decently in-shape mom to get off the couch and get in some Ks.

If you read the first sentence of this blog post, you already know I completed my goal (so much for suspense).

s/o to Pastor Michael for the artistic sign!

And while I don’t want to diminish the incredible feeling of crossing the (imaginary) finish line, the time spent training is where God worked in my heart, bringing me to my knees and lifting me into his care. I journaled throughout my experience and, through reflection, compiled the top 30 things I learned. Just kidding, no one has time for that. Here are my top six wisdoms-in-progress:

  1. Tell someone

About a week into my training I told my longtime and very dear friend about my goal. She frequently checked in and always spoke kindness and encouragement over me despite my roller coaster of self-doubt (which probably got pretty old pretty quick). Although she lives several hours away, she surprised me at mile ten on race day, and at mile fourteen, Melissa laced up her running shoes and inspired me through the last 4.6. Through her generous spirit, I realized that no matter how big or small a goal might be, we need to open up to one (or several) people. It will be hard. It will push us to actually follow through on what we say. I promise it will be worth it. 

Surprise!
  1. Find a tribe

In February 2020 I was six months postpartum with my third baby and hadn’t run consistently since becoming a parent six years ago. When my across-the-street neighbor learned of my pre-child marathon days, she invited me into their weekly running group. Although intimidated by marathon running mothers, I nervously laced up my Brooks and walked across the Trail of Memories one Saturday. They did not laugh when I stopped at three miles, and the community running eventually pushed me to five, and then eight. When I shared my 30k by 30 plan, once again no one laughed, and Victoria even chirped, “I’d love to train for and run it with you!” (she did!) They told funny stories during hard miles, offered their own equipment as a loaner until I could get my own, and opened up their homes for post-run celebrations. (While a tribe can be any group of like-minded people: a mom’s Bible study, a church community group, a book club, or a softball team, I realize that finding an in-person tribe can be difficult right now. Our running club met outside year-round and is a naturally socially distant activity, but don’t give up if your only tribe options are online… see my next point)

Cheers to many more long runs with this lovely group.
  1. No step is too small.

The other day I had an opportunity to run for fifteen minutes. Pre 30k, I would have turned up my nose, whined that I didn’t have more time, and served iced coffee and chocolate at my pity party. While training, I realized even walking my kids to school instead of driving built muscle, perseverance, and desire for more: a domino effect that ultimately helped me accomplish a big goal.

  1. Look around.

The town where I live is only 1.78 square miles, so during distance runs, I got to know the neighborhoods very well. I recognized new paint jobs, flourishing gardens, and where extra prayer might be needed. Now, as I walk my children to school or enjoy an afternoon run, my eyes are looking for opportunities to pray and praise.

  1. Invest wisely.

At the advice of my running group, I purchased running “gadgets,” and my body thanked me for proper nutrition, hydration, and a muscle roller. Investing in the care of my body meant I was better able to serve my family and friends as well as enjoy the training.

  1. Rely on God 

In the last weeks of training, I continually fought the fear of not finishing. What if I let all these people down? What if I got injured? I relearned the beauty of casting my burdens and fears on the Lord, taking them to him in prayer and resting in his promises. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7)