Thankful Thursday – Winter 17 Reading

What I’ve read so far in 2017: an odd smattering of Christian non-fiction, memoir, historical novel, Newbery Award winner, and fiction. The winner out of this bunch: hands-down it’s A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I didn’t think I would like it. In the end, I didn’t. I loved it!

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of LivingPresent Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Note: This review is longer than my usual b/c I wrote it for our church women’s group newsletter]

Shauna Niequist thought she had built her perfect life. Until she admitted the exhausted ache in her body and soul, and that she would consider handing it all over to the first person who thought they could handle it.

She wanted more, more, more out of life, and she wanted to be recognized as terrifically capable, worshipping for a time at the altars of productivity, capability, busyness, distraction. Sound familiar? We want the best life has to offer, and we want to make a contribution to the world. And yet, we also know that quite often, less is more. It’s one thing to want to make your mark and another to believe that mark proves your right to take up space on the planet.

Tired of being tired, burned out on busy and hearing others express the same complaints—longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy—Niequist began making changes. She reminds us of the simple truth, easily forgotten, that our choices determine what will fill our minutes, hours, days and years. “…you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you’re not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it.”

She practiced saying no in order to make her yeses count. She stopped should-ing on herself: “Of course I can. If I can, then I have to. They need me. They need me to be responsible, and tough. I should. Warning, warning, warning. The words tough, responsible, and should have never led me to life and wholeness” (117). She cleaned out her closet and her calendar. She spent more time playing basketball with her kids. She learned to be okay with uncomfortable silence and to rest in God’s unconditional love.

Present Over Perfect is not a how-to manual, but one woman’s story of reprioritizing her body and soul and finding love: “…the love I was looking for all along is never found in the hustle. You can’t prove it or earn it or compete for it. You can just make space for it, listen for it, travel all the way down to the depth of your soul, into the rhythmic beating of your very own heart, where the very spirit of God has made his home, and that’s where you’ll find it.”

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before this book I had read nothing by Coelho and knew nothing about Mata Hari. Well, I knew her name, and knew she was “notorious.” This is a fast read but I expected more from an author so well-respected. Maybe I need to brush up on WWI history (um, yes). The sad–and in these days, scary–thing is how this woman, for nothing more than being an independent and captivating woman at a time when that could be seen as scandalous, was betrayed to death by those who had been her friends and lovers. She was sacrificed as entertainment, a distraction from the hell the world had become. Which frankly terrifies me in this country at this moment in history. What are we needlessly sacrificing to distract ourselves from what is truly happening around us?

A quote: “Liars, what little I know of them, are people who seek popularity and recognition. Even when faced with truth, they always find a way to escape, coldly repeating what had just been said or blaming the accuser of speaking untruths.”

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and WritingHungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jennifer Weiner’s books tend to be light, funny, emotional, sharp and satisfying like a spiked cup of dark hot chocolate. This memoir in essays has some of that but not enough. She’s a good storyteller, so each story kept me reading. It was interesting to see how much of her personal life and experiences she has mined for her fiction, and to see how a “regular girl” became a novelist. But sometimes it felt like TMI; I’m not sure her half-brother will appreciate the sordid details of his birth being published before he’s even old enough to read. Overall I wish she and her editor had done another few sweeps over the content.

Britt-Marie Was HereBritt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d hear the fuss about A Man Called Ove, but a curmudgeonly old man didn’t sound like my cuppa tea. A fussy old woman doesn’t, either, but I grabbed this book nonetheless. Backman’s a master at creating character and reveals Britt-Marie’s backstory by way of explaining her eccentricities while also moving her forward, out of her comfort zone and into our hearts. This could have had several endings but the ending he landed on is perfectly satisfying. Now to go pick up Ove…!

Quotes:
“Sometimes it’s easier to go on living, not even knowing who you are, when at least you know precisely where you are while you go on not knowing” (p125).

“All passion is childish. It’s banal and naive. It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us. Overturns us. It bears us away in a flood. All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe.
“That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk. Our dignity. The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.
“Britt-Marie yells out loud when Ben scores that goal. The soles of her feet are catapulted off the floor of the sports hall. Most people are not blessed with that sort of thing in the month of January. The universe.
“You have to love soccer for that” (p262).

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my…!

Ove looks and acts like “the archetypal grumpy old sod,” which generally means I’d steer clear. But this book demonstrates once again that grumpy people may be grumpy for a reason, and likely if you can get behind that grumpy exterior, they are so much more.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise” (p 326). As does the beauty of this book, about death, life, and love. Without Sonja, Ove has lost his focus. “Every human being needs to know what she’s fighting for. That was what they said. And she fought for what was good. For the children she never had. And Ove fought for her. Because that was the only thing in this world he really knew” (p 205). Parvaneh moves her family in next door and, despite his efforts to remain aloof, she also moves them into Ove’s life and eventually his overly-large heart. Parvaneh throws open Ove’s door and restores to him a good life worth fighting for.

I read Britt-Marie first and thought I liked it better. Until I discovered my face wet with tears at an ending I knew was coming and was, of course, perfectly on target and still so loving and sad.

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving FaithOut of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smart and engaging, Bessey takes us on a journey through her evolving theology. Because–truth–we all have ideas and beliefs that change over time, with experience and study and lots of prayer.

One of my favorite quotes: “I wasn’t created to be used. We were not saved, set free, rescued, and redeemed to be used. We aren’t here to work and earn our way; we aren’t pew fodder or a cog. We aren’t here to prove how worthy we are for the saving. There isn’t anything left to earn. God won’t use us up….
“God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because He loves you.” (p219)

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although from p1 the writing was fine, it took a while to connect with this book. The more I read the answer presented itself: it hit a little too close to home.

Love young and old(er), and three too-entwined relationships: Andrew and Elizabeth, Zoe and Jane, and their kids, Ruby (Zoe/Jane’s daughter) and Harry (Andrew/Elizabeth’s son), all falling in and out and back in love and friendship in all life’s relational complexities. The older set are firmly mid-life, 47-55yo, while the kids are 17-18.

I, myself, am in the “pushing 50” demographic while my son is ready to take on his future at 18. Too close…

Like I said, the book is fine. Entertaining, I guess, but nothing over the moon special.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book engaged me enough to read it quickly. But in the end, I don’t know how to feel about it. I have sisters and the complicated sisterly dynamic rang true. The marriage dynamic, too, really the whole messy-and-hard-but-mostly-good family thing was right on. And the ESP twist on things made this story just interesting enough. But I absolutely hated the ‘earthquake’–unlike real earthquakes it seemed completely avoidable–and I felt like Sittenfeld threw in the race issue just to make an obvious move. I loved loved loved Eligible, but this one leaves me saying, “meh…”

The Girl Who Drank the MoonThe Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book glimmers with similarities to other greats that came before:
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Considering those all won the Newbery Medal, really, it’s no surprise that this one has, too. It sucked me in with beauty and truth. But in the end, I felt like I’d missed the key moment, the surprise, The Thing that makes good books fantastic. I truly enjoyed it and have passed it on to my family and will buy it for everyone for Christmas, but it doesn’t quite measure up to my all-time favorites.

The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Heather Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nearing her death, Lucy writes the story of her family during the summer of 1935 when she, the middle of three daughters, turned twelve; the summer ended in tragedy when six-year-old Emily went missing, never to be found. Lucy leaves the journal for her grand-niece Justine, along with her family’s Minnesota lake house, the escape hatch Justine needs for herself and her daughters.

The chapters alternate between Lucy’s first person narration and third person narration of Justine’s experience, traveling back to the lake house she visited with her mother only once, when Justine was nine.

These two women transported me to a lake house summer. They carried me along in their respective dramas and didn’t give away the end until it was time. But by then the end was just too twisted, too sad. I felt sick at how characters made choices with long-reaching consequences throughout generations. I kept waking in the night with the sadness of the story weighing on my mind. I guess for some that could be a sign of a good book but, in the end, this book was not my cuppa tea.

Life and Other Near-Death ExperiencesLife and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dealt a crappy hand in childhood, Libby seemed to recover well. She is all for kittens and rainbows and looking to the bright side. People like her. She then gets, in one day, a painful one-two punch, the worst news followed by news just as devastating in different ways. What to do next? Take off for the tropics, of course.

This is not a great book but it is a highly readable and–given the serious subject matter–a surprisingly light and fun book. I truly enjoyed the story. I’d like to be friends with Libby, or at least to think I might respond with just an ounce or two of her optimism. I definitely look forward to more from Pagan.

Word Doodles

Most of us want to fit in. But often creative types just don’t–their forms of play, of self-expression, set them apart from the crowd. Many of us learn to love that about ourselves, at least most of the time. Then again, it’s also nice to receive appreciation for our unique gifts and our very selves. I so resonate with today’s post: creating to create because it’s just who you are and what you do; not fitting in, and rejection; to acceptance and recognition. Bless you for sticking with it!

re:create recess #5: Mandi Diehl

Throughout junior high and high school, I had an obsession with perfecting my handwriting. I would come up with new fonts for myself all the time. In class, my friends would doodle these gorgeous drawings with geometric shapes and flowers that repeated down the sides of their pages, and I just did not have a knack for that. I stink at doodling. So when I “doodled,” it wasn’t pictures, it was words. I would make collages of verses and song lyrics along the margins of my notes.

In a high school art class, we had a collage project, so my collage was a huge board with all of these different song lyrics patched and painted together. I was so proud of it. My art teacher gave me a C. When I went to talk to him about it, he said that he “just didn’t get it and whatever message was supposed to come across, just didn’t.” While I felt upset by his response, haven’t all artists been misunderstood at one point? Or had their art cast aside because it wasn’t normal for the time? It didn’t matter to me what he said, because my art isn’t for anyone else. It’s for me.

My word doodles and collages are a way for me to play and relax. It’s something that gives me joy. When the world around me feels chaotic (with two kids under four and another on the way, it often does), it’s something I can go back to to feel centered and have access to peace.

Flash forward from high school days to today’s world of Pinterest and customized everything, my art has found its place. Words mean so much to different people: a sign that says “gather” in the dining room, one for the nursery with the details of a sweet little one’s arrival, or a seating chart for a couple’s big day. It’s amazing to not only get to play, but have my play serve someone else.  And, I have to say, it feels good to have people “get it” now.


Mandi Diehl is a wife and work-at-home-mommy of two. She loves Jesus, super hot lattes, Pirates baseball, and the Pacific Northwest. Contact her for custom word doodle creations or makeup consulting.
www.creationsonboard.com
www.stylesbymandi.com
IG: @stylesbymandi
Facebook.com/stylesbymandi
stylesbymandi@gmail.com

 

Meatless Monday – Farro & Kale Soup

A friend sent the best kind of text. She asked when I could be available to come for dinner; she had a vegan recipe she wanted to make for girls’ night. Count me in!

She set the table with a charming quilt she’d made and heirloom china, beautiful plates with a raised spot for a tea cup in which she served soup. She had veganized a recipe she’d tried a few times to good results, and we went back for more and more and more–dainty cups couldn’t contain enough hearty veggie goodness. The kale for the soup came from her garden; so did the lettuce in the salad, to which she added strawberries, walnuts, and avocado. Another friend came straight from her shift at a local winery toting a couple of bold reds. With inviting hospitality, good friends, delicious food and drink, this weeknight could not have been any better.

Before grocery shopping this weekend, I noticed that the weather report indicated another cold front approaching. Indeed, today on this first day of spring the skies have again turned gray and wet, which makes it a perfect soup night. I bought butternut squash, already cubed because I couldn’t find whole, but forgot the kale. Imagine my delight when I came home to find a bundle of fresh kale on my doorstep, yet one more gift from my friend.

Farro & Kale Soup
Serves 6

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 c butternut squash, peeled & cubed
pepper/Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, to taste
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 c farro
6 c reduced sodium vegetable broth (I use Better Than Bouillon reduced-sodium vegetable base)
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes with juice
1 tsp dried thyme or 1 Tbsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute
2-3 c kale, spines removed & leaves chopped

On a roasting  pan, drizzle cubed squash with oil and sprinkle with pepper and 21 Seasoning Salute (or other no-salt herb mix). Roast for 25-30 minutes at 400 degrees. (Note: you could skip this step, but roasting brings out so much fabulous flavor that I think it’s worth it. If you add squash straight to the pot, you might need to add another 5 minutes or so to the total cooking time).

In a large stock pot, saute onion for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add farro and toss to coat. Add broth, roasted squash, tomatoes, and spices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and partially cover, simmering until farro is cooked, about 25 minutes. Stir in kale and simmer until wilted, about 2 minutes (if you’re not serving right away, you can add kale and remove pot from heat; leave covered until ready to serve). Adjust seasonings to taste.

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Adventures in Sunday School

I’m married to a pastor. I work on the church staff. I lead small groups for both women’s and student ministries. I wasn’t looking for more ways to serve.

But they needed teachers, and Tween has been a student helper with the 4-year-old class. Which is better for me than the 2-year-old class; the only time I can recall leaving a service opportunity in tears of failure was when Tween was 2 and I was conscripted as Teacher–give me middle schoolers any day, but I lack the gift for 2’s.

So I said Yes, I am willing to serve as Teacher when Tween is helper. But the day of the month they needed me, of course, Tween is already committed to Scout camp outs. I said Yes anyway.

I accompanied Tween last month just to watch. The other teachers didn’t mind one more set of hands, especially because the craft that day involved way too much cutting for 4-year-old hands. The Bible lesson emphasized, “God loves me,” and I realized:

Preschool Sunday school is truly about welcoming children, helping them to have fun and feel loved by God and others. If that’s all they get, that’s a whole lot already.

Today was my first time actually teaching. Fortunately I had a more experienced partner, though she confessed to having relied on the teacher whose spot I filled. Our “student helper” was yet another mom filling in for her tween while he played sports. The curriculum didn’t make as much sense as I’d hoped (what 4-year-old needs a bookmark?) so I made up new connections (We share because we love others, so we’re making bookmarks to share with our parents). Roughly following the curriculum, the three of us cobbled together a lesson–music complete with hand motions, activities, DVD lesson, Bible story, and snack, with free play at beginning and end.

Here’s the thing: it mostly worked. The kids mostly seemed to have fun, and so did we. And the hour wasn’t endless. I could do this again.

The story was the poor widow who gave her two coins, all she had, because she loves God (Mark 12:41-44). The point: I can love everyone. [Point to your heart and say, “I.” Cross your arms over your chest and say, “can love.” Point to others and say, “everyone.” We did that A LOT.]

So we practiced loving everyone. We love the precocious little girl who, as I entered the room, was spelling T-Y-L-E-R for another adult.
“Is that your brother?”
“No, he’s my baby.”
“Oh, your baby brother?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have an older brother?”
“Jake.”
“Can you spell Jake?”
“J-A-C-O-B!”
“You bet! That’s the formal spelling of Jake!” Wink, wink.

We practiced loving the little boy who never spoke a word. We practiced loving the kid who wanted all the stickers. We practiced loving the little boy who admitted that he hates sharing, but when we said, “Right, because sharing can be hard,” replied, “No it’s not!”

During our combined music time with all the preschool classes, a little girl from another class whom I’d never seen before asked to sit on my lap. In her hands, she proudly held a pink construction paper heart on which she’d glued pom poms and drawn a smiley face. I complimented her craft yet she was concerned that it was missing a long Popsicle stick with which to hold it. And the smiley face she’d drawn only had eyes and smile, no nose.

I did the hand motions while she sat on my lap, then she scooted away, returning when she’d drawn a big yellow oval nose and yellow eyelashes on her smiley face. I told her I liked the improvements.

She looked at it, looked at me, then said, “It’s for you!”
“Thank you! But you should give it to your mommy.”
“Yah, it’s for Mommy. But I can give it to you.”
“Please give it to your mommy. She’ll be so happy to have it.”
(mumble…)
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Yes, I brushed my teeth.”
“Did you really?”
“(Hmmm…) Does my breath smell bad?”
“Yes.”
“I’m sorry. Does it smell like coffee?”
“Yes.”
“Well, yes. I had a cup of coffee after I brushed my teeth.”
“Okay.”

So I also practiced loving the honest little darling who called me out on coffee breath and gave me a small pom pom so I can remember her craft forever.

Leadership can be funny. Every person you lead is different, with different ways of being and thinking and loving and understanding God. Every age and stage is different, too. The 4-year-olds need something different than the 6th grade girls different from the mamas. While maintaining authenticity, leadership seems to require chameleon-like color-blending skills–I will be who you need today so that you can meet Jesus.

Because, while every person and every age is unique, what we all need at the core is the same: to know that we are loved by God.

Jesus: Our Shepherd
Restored: Jeremiah 23

Connect
Whose leadership do you admire, and why?

Study
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:1-4.
What have the shepherds done, and what are the consequences?
God’s response includes both judgment and promise. Explain.
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:5-6.
Describe “the righteous Branch.”
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:7-8.
Why would people have said the statement in v. 7? Why would they replace it with the statement in v. 8?

Live
Who do you shepherd? What does this passage say to your practice as shepherd?
Some use bad church leadership as an excuse for their lack of participation in the church. How could you use this passage to encourage them?
Jesus is our Shepherd. How does this picture of Jesus give you hope in hard times?
How can Jesus’ model of leadership help you be a better leader?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will be a faithful follower of Jesus as you shepherd others.

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Green is my favorite color. Friday is my favorite day of the week. And my kids are both named for Irish saints, Patrick and Declan, chosen for their father’s family’s Irish heritage that we have since learned was family mythology – oh well! And this Irish soda bread recipe couldn’t be easier. As far as treats go, it’s even on the healthier side of things. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, friends!3-14 bread

Miracles in the Mundane

Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o' gold. Luck o' the Blarney Stone be with you! “Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o’ gold. Luck of the Blarney Stone to you!”

The leprechauns stopped by to lead the boys on their annual treasure hunt. Our leprechauns don’t come in the wee hours, and we have never tried to trap them. Their only mischief is to create silly clues that have the kids running from side-to-side of the house, laughing all the way.

We started this tradition when Teen was in 1st grade and Tween a toddler. Teen’s school had a book fair, and we decided we could justify buying more books if they were gifts for an occasion. The next holiday on the calendar was St. Patrick’s Day, which worked for us, especially as both of our kids have Irish names. We bought a few books for each boy, wrapped them in different paper, created a series…

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A Sheep’s Prayer

Hi, Jesus!

Hmm, guess I don’t have to say “Hi,” do I? The shepherd never leaves the sheep. You’re always with me. Though the sheep sometimes wander off, don’t they? Um, don’t we? (Cough) Don’t I? Even when my feet don’t wander, I take my eyes off you. I forget you’re here. I forget you’re caring for me and directing me to the best life, the one you planned for me before I was born. I have a short attention span.

Maybe I need to say “Hi” to remind myself that you’re here and in charge. So,

Hello, Jesus!

I shall not want because you’re taking care of me—food, drink, shelter, protection, all covered. Except, to be honest, I do want. It’s not like I’m a shopaholic. I’m actually pretty good at avoiding online and brick-and-mortar stores. But I want enough money not to worry. I want fame and fortune, though I truly don’t all that hassle, I do want success. I want to (metaphorically) walk the red carpet, to be recognized for doing what I do well. I want the vacation I saw on my friend’s Facebook feed and, while you’re at it, I want my body to look like my friend’s bikini body. At least sometimes I want more compliant kids, less vim and vigor. I want a husband who anticipates—and meets—my every need before I say a word. I want a stress-free life.

You know stress-free doesn’t just mean me, right? I want peace in my life, but truly I want world peace. I want politicians to step down off their soap boxes and work together in humility. I want freedom and justice for all, no more slavery of any kind. I want food sufficient to feed everyone who is hungry and opportunity for everyone to live a meaningful life. I want an end to cancer.

So there you have it: I definitely want.

Some of those desires are good and come straight from your heart. Help me to know how to live and serve toward a better world. But please, Lord, forgive me for taking for granted all the good things you have already provided. Forgive me for wanting what you know I don’t need, things that would ultimately get in the way of our time together.

Thank you, thank you, for the breath I breathe, this life you made possible. The ability to get out of bed this morning. For the rain that washed new the earth and watered our plants. For the sunshine in the blue sky. For the cozy little home that shelters our family and keeps us warm. For the family under this roof, and the unique way you made each one of us. Thank you for the gifts these people are to me and to the world. Thank you for our menagerie of pets. We are so weird it makes me laugh, but I also know that you have made us different and that’s a gift to the world, too. Help me to appreciate the overwhelming beauty and goodness of these green pastures and still waters.

Oh Lord, I blow it all the time. Why can’t I remember that you’re in charge, that you’ve got the right plan? I get distracted by worry, by busyness, by the glitter and glory the world offers. Even though I know it’s all funhouse mirrors and false promises. It’s the first lie, the trick that always works: you will live forever. I can offer you something the Lord can’t… And I fall for it.

Yet you restore my soul. You are so good, Lord! No matter how often, no matter the mess I make or how battered and bruised I get, you are always ready to forgive. You come looking for me when I wander off. You pick me up from the ravine where I’ve fallen. You put me back on your path, with you in front, leading to the right life for me, one that honors you.

Hey, Jesus, sometimes this life gets way too dark and scary. Illness, death, crisis of all sorts, suck the joy out of life. I get so mad when people I love hurt. I flail in the darkness. I cry out. But I don’t lose faith, because I know, even when life is hard—especially then—that you are with me. You love me, and you love those I love more than I ever can. I don’t need to be afraid because you will protect me. Even in those moments when I can’t feel you with me, when evil forces its ugly way in, you’re in charge. You’re ready to beat down the threats, and you’re ready to keep me in line. I trust you.

Back to my list of wants: no death and no bad guys. Why are there enemies? Why do I have enemies? I’m following you, trying to do the right thing, and still there are people who don’t like it, don’t like me. But what a remarkable God you are that you give those very people a front row seat to the good things you’re doing in my life. You mark me with your blessing, your fragrant anointing oil, and you make me sit down to feast as they watch. I guess, Lord, if I’m getting in line with what you want, so long as you’re pouring I should ask that blessings will overflow my cup so that even my enemies will get to sip of your best wine. There’s always room in the flock for a few more.

You go before me in goodness and mercy and goodness and mercy follow me. Mercy and goodness everywhere I look—open my eyes to see! Not one day of life has been untouched by your love. Your everlasting love shelters me now and will shelter me into eternity. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Let it be so.

 

Jesus: Our Shepherd

Connect
Whose hospitality have you enjoyed recently? What made it special?

Study
Read Psalm 23.
What does the Lord do in this Psalm and what does that tell us about Him? What do we do?
Where does the action take place, and why is that significant?
How is “the valley of the shadow of death” like/unlike “my enemies”? Why are both included?
A shepherd cares for a flock but the flock isn’t mentioned. How does that affect the tone?
How does this Psalm assure us of God’s presence and comfort in all circumstances?

Live
Which images from this Psalm most stand out to you and why?
Share examples of God providing for you, leading you, saving you and caring for you.
Does your life’s landscape currently look more like green pastures or dark valleys? Explain.
What threatens to make you afraid? How can God’s presence with you combat those fears?
Where do you sense God leading you currently?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Praise the Lord for His intimate love and care for us throughout life.

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From Letters with Candy: An Excerpt

Several years ago on a trip to DC I had the privilege of reconnecting with a childhood friend. We talked for hours, and he was even funnier than I remembered. In so many ways, our stories are the same: we grew up in the same neighborhoods, walked the same school hallways, we shared friends and teachers; we both went away to school and found our way to marriage and family and fulfilling work. And in so many ways our stories are different. To know someone you have to listen to their stories, and I’m grateful to still be listening to Brett as he weaves together the strands of this story about family.

re:create recess #4: Brett West

I was nearly 30 years old when I learned I was part Mexican. For years, I was the tan kid with the sun-bleached hair elbowing my parents in the ribs about being switched at birth. You see, the first photos of me portrayed a chubby infant with dark hair and eyes. “I’m so clearly a Mexican baby. Unless …unless these pictures are of some other baby,” I’d tease.

But here I was nearing 30, having accomplished next to nothing of all the things someone in their 20’s is supposed to own in the realm of experience. I hadn’t reached upper management, nor even middle management. I’d not yet scratched the surface on world domination. The foundation of a rock star career was built, but had no wheels or wings – had never even left the hangar. I’d spent years reading and writing material so other people could look wiser and more confident than they already were.

But I’d at least accomplished Mexican-ness.

How? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m adopted. My sister is adopted. There was always the possibility that we might be something other than the White Anglo Saxon Protestant progeny we were raised to be. And with my proficiency in wild emotion, which was – and often still is – so foreign to my parents and the way we were raised, certainly it made better sense that perhaps I was the apple from a tree in another orchard.

My birthmother’s name was Candy. She’d spent years and years trying to find me. And she made contact during the spring of 1999. It was a time when I’d spent the three previous years not speaking much with my parents, and not seeing them at all, resulting from my coming out as gay. Now the mythical creature from the past we’d always known of, but had never known, was in our present.

She assured me she wasn’t looking for her long-lost son, or even a spare kidney. Ah, we share a sense of humor. Her reason for finding me came from a sense of responsibility. She yearned to be convinced without a shadow of doubt that the advice had been sound that she’d received and had taken as an unwed teenaged girl with a biscuit in the oven in the early months of 1969. In her words, she’d lived her life wondering everyday if she’d done the right thing.

Being reached out of the blue had a profound effect on my sense of anonymity, and even incited a little paranoia. Had I met her before? Was the woman I’d recently met at the dog park who insisted on talking with me actually this person from another world trying for face time with me? Was a reality TV production crew suddenly going to ambush me on my way home from work to ask how it feels to be found?

And it also had a profound effect on my parents who felt betrayed that my genealogical past could somehow break the steel door on vaulted information.

But I could not imagine having to live with such a question, such a heaviness in my soul without more than a prayer for the answer. So, I accepted her invitation, and we began writing letters.

After assuring her that she’d made an excellent life decision for me worthy of no regrets, we waded slowly into a friendship. The mythical biomom – birth mother for the politically correct – was perfectly lovely. And not unlike me, her relationship with her parents had its challenges. We talked about her false starts in life, that it had taken her a long time to grow comfortable in her own skin to make wise decisions. After being a mediocre student, and failing at relationships, she’d taken root back in her home town, had become a teacher and school administrator of some acclaim at the school where she’d merely been a passing student. She had even fallen in love, was married and had kids. She’d learned to love her parents and overlook their expectations in contrast with her perceived shortcomings. In fact, she simply loved and accepted her parents in a manner that suggested to me she understood the fault may never have been with her, but with them. She loved them like one loves one’s child – without conditions. And it was a love she was capable of, that perhaps they were not.

And yes, she is where I get my Mexican heritage, which stretches back to when California was a Spanish colony. There are fascinating epics telling of the Duckworth’s who fled the Old World, and the Figueroa’s who settled in and defended places like Monterey and Sonoma. There are tales of orphans who were taken in by aunts and uncles, and even a famous governor of the State of California under Mexico.

And as we tip-toed into a friendship, we decided to meet face-to-face. Popular culture leads many to believe there is an instant bond between a child and his birth parents. Not true. The moment Candy walked off the plane, I recognized her from photos we’d traded. But there was nothing familiar about her. Don’t misread me – she was completely lovely. But we didn’t have much shared history aside from gestation. Bonds are created by shared moments. And before meeting, we didn’t share much – didn’t look much alike, either.

On the heels of my first meeting with Candy, I had dinner with my then-partner and our friends. It was a nice opportunity to sit down outside over a bottle of wine and recap all that I had experienced. I remember with clarity like it happened five minutes ago when my friend Mary Beth offering a sage insight. “The thing to remember is: family is not made up of where we come from or from big events, but all the bits and pieces of minutiae that are usually as inane as they are mundane. That’s where you find family.”

In the following months, I began taking on the responsibility of reaching my parents more frequently. I made plans to travel across the country to see them. And we, too, tip-toed back into familiar territory with one another. We needed to. There was much ground work to lay if there was to be a future for us that was as meaningful as the past.

Conversations in our journey back to familiarity started with big occasions or monumental road trips. “Remember the 1984 Olympics when we road tripped out to Minnesota instead of to LA in a cramped car where the air conditioning worked only when we were going uphill, and we watched each night from motel rooms along the way? And how about making the snowmen in Tehran? The heartache when Nannie passed away? Granddad rolling silver dollars down the hill for us to find?”

Once back on common ground, we found ourselves able to tackle the friction points between us. “Yes, I’m getting married and yes we’re both men. But we want you there, only if you want to be there. And if you choose not to be there, that’s a choice we must all respect and live with forever.” And “Yes, we’re going to be to fathers. And your granddaughter is going to love to bits without ever wondering why, but she might also think you’re weird if you’re not okay with us …and that’s something I’m not okay with.”

And in time, joy came back to our relationship and stiff formality disappeared. In a mysterious way, all the little dots of activity – these teeny-tiny pixels of color – started to assemble, illustrating the big picture of our life together.

With tremendous pride, I look back at how these conversations set the table for expectations, much in the same way my parents set the table for their expectations of me. My parents showed up to our church wedding and were the toast of all our friends. They were part of our daughter’s Baptism. We vacation together. But most importantly, we are woven tightly.

There is a joke in our family about how no one can change my father from the ways in which he is so deeply set. I disagree. I’ve seen both of my parents travel light years from their comfortable groove to where they stand today – right at my side.

Most of us go through life growing up in a family defined to us by law if not by tradition. I’m not saying that because I was adopted, I encountered fissures in my sense of belonging. But there have been a series of events surrounding my adoption that sewed shut any potential fissure. I experienced the perfect storm. When I felt my sense of family was threatened by the possibility that I may end up shunned for life or that I may somehow become disowned by my parents, my mythical biomom entered my life. And that threw my parents off balance, while also opening my eyes to what an adult relationship can be between child and parents. From letters with Candy, I learned to increase my capacity for loving my parents. And what resulted is that I recognize now that my family belongs to me as much as I belong to my family. Our experiences together can never be taken away – not by law, not by stroke of pen, not by anything else in the world. They are worth loving, and they are worth fighting for. And I am so glad I learned to.

 

With 22 years inside the corporate communications machine, Brett West created a career of rewriting the future of his clients through influence and persuasion. Domestic and international issues required breaking down into bits and pieces more easily digestible by news media and the American public. Throughout his career path, he began applying principles that guided him to professional success to bring about personal success and fulfillment. He has written largely unpublished works including And I Laugh a Little Too Much, Short Tall Tales of a Last Grandparent, and From Letters with Candy. In 2007, West made a mid-life career change aimed at creating a larger impact on the personal lives of his clients as a Realtor with McEnearney Associates. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband, daughter and two collies.