Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Things Thursday

Thing one: the cookie that might change your life
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Salted Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate. My husband says we need to put a copy of this recipe in the safe. I say it's going to be the cookie my kids refer to as "my Mom's cookies." And the kids--they inhale them faster than any other food. It made Real Simple's "Fifteen best recipes" list this past issue, so I figured I'd try it and oh-my-yum, yes these are the greatest cookies I've ever tasted. Chocolate chip cookies are my absolute favorite dessert--even over gourmet pies and pastries and gelato. I'm usually a purist, not interested in funky ingredients that tend to turn a perfectly good chocolate chip cookie into something entirely too complicated and strange for my palate. So when I first saw that this recipe, I was skeptical of the cinnamon. I love cinnamon, but not in my chocolate chip cookies. But I do love oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and I love pairing salty and sweet, so I gave it a try. Game-changer, y'all. Follow the recipe exactly. Suck it up and buy yourself a small tub of Crisco (it keeps the cookies soft for days). Take the plunge and buy Ghiardelli dark cocoa chocolate chips (one bag makes two batches, and be sure to chop them so the chocolate flavor is throughout the cookie). And whip out an extra dollar for some sea salt (table salt is NOT the same). You won't regret it!

Thing two: the documentary that might change your mind
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My deep-thinker, math education professor, movie-buff, long-time friend Sarah sent me this review. No need to reinvent the wheel, but I will give you the $2.00 it costs to watch this!

This movie had a profound impact on me, so I commend it to you. It’s a documentary about public defenders: those lawyers who are assigned to defend folks who are charged with a crime but can’t afford a lawyer. Although the film has no religious commentary and no one in the film talks about faith, I came away from this movie having a bigger view of who Jesus is and what He has done for me.

The film gave me insight into certain aspects of the criminal justice system, and I learned that public defenders have a stunningly difficult job. The cynics among us (myself included) might assume these are cut-rate lawyers who couldn’t get a decent job or morally bankrupt individuals who enjoy getting criminals off the hook by revealing technicalities or loopholes in the law. I repent of this cynical view, because I now realize how ignorant (not to mention how uncompassionate) it was.

Court-appointed lawyers defend the least of the least. They represent those who are defenseless, powerless, and penniless. It occurs to me that this is very Christ-like. One of the lawyers in the film (Brandy) talks very candidly about the struggle. She is overworked and underpaid and has seen immense evil and injustice done by her clients as well as to her clients. Without trying to be dramatic, she describes her job as hell. How can she possibly save all those who need to be saved? One of her mentors offers some perspective: you have to go to hell to rescue those who are in hell. That, I thought, is exactly what our Savior did.

In another interview, Brandy recalls a client who was charged with murder. She worked diligently to defend him, and even visited him in jail, not just once or twice, but every time he called. She was his only advocate. While she was working on his case, she found out that he was plotting her murder. His plan was that if she did not win his case, he would arrange to have her killed. When I heard this story, I was enraged. It’s bad enough to be in a thankless job with few positive outcomes. But imagine if the person you were so faithfully fighting for actually wanted to kill you. That’s when I thought of Jesus’ death for me. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Thing three: the Moo quotes that might make you laugh

  • After seeing a picture of one of my college roommates who we spent some time with last year, Moo insists on carrying the picture of her husband and her around and sleeping with it next to his bed saying, "I'm really into Lauren right now." 
  • To me one day: "You and me--we're best friends."
  • In trying to understand why Jesus didn't just "beat the bad guys," Moo said, "Maybe Finn McMissile could come and help beat some of them with Jesus." 
  • To me after dinner one night, "How was your day, Honey?"
  • ME: Moo, are you going to get married one day? MOO: Um, yes. ME: Who are you going to marry? MOO: (thinking) An angel." 

Monday, March 16, 2015

When you just can't trust

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Of all people, I get his fears. Like him, I went to bed most of my childhood nights with a sheet over my head, my body curled away from the door (in case they attacked, they'd be further from my heart). The shadows mocked me, disappearing when I flipped on the light and dancing when I turned it off. They were monkeys, snakes, evil attackers with long noses and beady eyes. The window next to my bed was a break-in portal; all someone had to do was climb a ladder and use one of those glass-burning tools to silently open my window and I would be all theirs. My parents sleeping the floor above would never know until the morning.

Night after night, thoughts like that stormed my mind, and no amount of sleepytime tea, reading, soothing music, or praying seemed to help. So his three-year-old words to me the other night, "I'm trying to trust Jesus and it's just not working"--I knew that feeling. That feeling of silence on the other end of the Universe when He's promised He's there.

We do a lot of memorizing scripture about fear around here--partly because I still need it and partly because I'm convinced that nighttime fears often have a satanic element to them. Jesus fought Satan with scripture; so will we. But those scriptures can be so tough:

"Fear not, for I am with you" (Isaiah 41:10). How do you just NOT FEAR? What do you do when you fully believe He is with you AND you are still fully fearful? What does that say about me?

"When I am afraid, I will trust in you" (Psalm 56:3). My son's statement is mine: "I'm trying to trust, but it's not working. I'm still afraid. I'm still doubting."

"He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart" (Psalm 91:4). What happens when it seems like God isn't protecting us with his fathers as a mother hen would protect her chicks? What's God up to when bad things happen, when He doesn't keep us from harm?

Tough, tough questions, folks. Really tough questions to explain to a three-year-old. But I'm learning to let him see me struggle with them as well, to seek God even when He doesn't make sense.

When my boy is cowering under his covers and falling asleep in tears, my heart identifies, and it breaks. I want him to experience deep peace and trust, and it'd be so much easier just to stay in his room until he falls asleep or let him sleep in my bed with me, but doing that wouldn't teach him to trust in Jesus; it'd teach him to trust in me. There's an element to parenting that is me modeling Jesus for him, and so I comfort and pray and listen. But I can't be Jesus for him. If I stayed every night until he fell asleep, he'd never have an opportunity to trust. I can give him tools to fight the darkness (and we have--flashlights, night lights, prayer, scripture, logic, coming back to check on him incrementally, etc.), but I can't fight it for him. At some point, he has to put into practice what he's learning. He has to trust that Jesus is who He says He is: that He is with us even when He feels absent, that He is bigger than evil, even when evil seems to have the upper hand.

Trust--it's about the hardest thing to do, isn't it? So much perceived risk to believe in what's unseen but sure. It's the original sin: not trusting that God had their best in mind, Adam and Eve tried to circumvent Him by taking matters into their own hands.

I see him struggle night after night and I remember those years of nights of my own, and all I want to do is take those fears away. But that's it's own kind of distrust and control, the idea that I can somehow fix and save him. When I can step back and get perspective, more than anything, I want him to know his need for Jesus, and to be able to experience God's presence and faithfulness in the fears. And if that's true, letting him struggle may be the greatest gift I can give him, and me.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Three Things Thursday

I know, I know. It's actually Friday, but I've gotta stick with the alliteration, so just pretend with me that it's Thursday, okay?

Thing One: The time I had surgery (oh wait--that was today)
Minor surgery, people. But I got some great sedation that gave me some of the best sleep I've had in months, so if that's what it takes to get some good sleep around here, sign me up! Had to get some veins in my leg lasered (again...had the same procedure done last fall), thanks to babies and genetics. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't be typing post-op, but maybe it'll be more exciting this way for all of us. Will be walking again tomorrow and out of pain in a month or so! Wahoo!

Thing Two: The time I got hit on at the gym
As promised, here's the tale of me getting hit on at the gym (back a month ago when I actually went to the gym): I was doing a much-needed ab workout on a mat, listening to a White Horse Inn podcast, intentionally tuning out the world and any other worker-outers there. And then I felt it. Eyes in my direction. Over and over. A guy maybe 10 feet from me doing some other ab workout on a machine just bore into me and I could FEEL it, even though I never even looked up at him. Mid-crunch, he walks over to me and says, "You look like you know what you're doing. I wonder if you can help me." I restrained the eye roll I wanted to give him (because seriously, what in-shape dude really needs ab advice from some girl in the gym?). But he proceeded to ask my advice about how to do ab workouts without hurting your lower back. I toed the line between playing the game and cold shoulder pretty well, I think, but I have to say, it felt good to know that two kids later, I've still got it. Whatever "it" is.

P.S. If you don't know about White Horse Inn and their podcasts, acquaint yourselves with them ASAP! Some of the deepest and most accessible theology in the modern world. Good, good stuff.

Thing Three: My go-to pancake recipe

I grew up eating some pretty awesome pancakes that my mom made with cottage cheese in them. Sounds gross, I know, but they were all kinds of delicious. But since my kids don't always love their fruits and veggies, I wanted to find a recipe with apples or applesauce in it, and then I found this little gold nugget: Applesauce Pancakes. It's our Saturday morning go-to and a must-make if you're in a need a of reliable pancake recipe! They're so good that I usually just eat them dipped in applesauce rather than syrup! Yum.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The shoes that remind me I'm a writer

Elvis had his blue suede shoes and Dorothy her ruby slippers, but these are my shoes. The ones I'm most proud of and the ones that define me best.

Let me back up a bit, though, to 2010. I'd taken the fast track through graduate school, finishing in just a year since my husband's job took us to and from that city for only 365 days. Graduate school is no joke, and graduate school for a degree in writing (in a year) is really no joke. My brain and beliefs and abilities and stamina stretched farther than I thought it could, and I felt defeated and powerful all at the same time.

My degree was in writing and rhetoric, but the class I looked forward to most was a creative writing elective: Creative Nonfiction. I had no business being there. I'd never taken a nonfiction writing class in undergrad because my school was too small to offer it, so I entered the class with excitement, but not experience (journaling and blogging, it turns out, doesn't actually mean you can write nonfiction well). The class was also a workshop rather than lecture-based, but this green little sapling could have used more than a few lectures on what the heck I was supposed to be doing. Of the eight people in that class--an odd mix of undergrads, retirees, middle-aged professionals, and graduate students--I was by far the worst writer. And I was reminded of that every week as we met and shared our writing. Each week, I'd read and write and work as hard as I knew how to produce something that wasn't completely laughable, and each week I was met with lots of kind and not-so-kind criticism. What I would later come to realize was that this was the way of writers; you have to start somewhere, and no matter where you are on the continuum of "good writing," you'll always face criticism and could always be better.

My professor must have prayed every night that I'd drop the class, and she may have cried when the drop/add period ended and I was still showing up on Thursday nights to share my writing disasters. This went on for a semester. I had small victories, like starting to use contractions more often so my writing sounded less stilted, but overall, it felt as if I'd moved an inch on a yardstick.

Then came our final writing assignment. We chose the topic, and my professor looked at me after class one night and said, "Write about something that made you cry." "Okay," I replied, looking off and racking my brain for what that would be. I went home and spent the next several days in the world of Writer's Block. I was also reading Lauren Slater's Lying at the time for class, and something happened: Slater's book caught fire in me. Her words swirled and sang and crackled with warmth, and I was given nothing short of inspiration; I'd found my muse that so many writers talk about. I'd always thought the idea of a "muse" was a bit dramatic, but there she was.

I closed Slater's book and started typing the best story I've ever written, about the time I went to the funeral of a dear friend's husband who was killed in Afghanistan, helping her get dressed and ready to bury her young husband. The story was due the following day and I wrote for hours straight in a sort of frenzied passion, emailing it to the class for review after the deadline.

Thursday night arrived and I approached it with with my usual dread and longing, but this time with something new: expectation. I knew what I wrote was different; I knew it was good. When my story came up for discussion, it was met--for the first time--with praise, water in the desert.

Fast forward a few months to a nonfiction writing competition the English department was holding. The grand prize was $200, so pretty much the jackpot for a graduate student. What the heck, I thought. I'll just turn that story in and see what happens. I arrived at the end-of-the-year awards dinner with expectations to say some goodbyes and clap for others, but as I sat down with my plate of food, my Creative Nonfiction professor walked up. "Did you look at the program?" I had it closed to the right of my plate at the table. I mean, I was looking at it, but her question had me perplexed. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Just look at it," she said as she walked to her table across the room. I opened the program, scanning for...I wasn't sure what. And then I saw it. Creative Nonfiction Competition Award........................Cara Johnson. A laugh spilled out of me. I was absolutely the last person in the room deserving of a Creative Nonfiction award. I'd practically botched every nonfiction writing assignment all semester and had no experience and no business writing nonfiction, and I was the winner? It was the first time I'd ever been paid for my writing, and that same swirling, singing, crackling muse came swooshing back in with all its warmth. For the first time in my life, I believed what had been true all along: I was a writer.

So, the shoes--my shoes. I left the awards dinner that night wanting something to mark that moment. It was too late for dinner and my husband was working, so I did something I almost never do: I went shopping (because I had $200 that I had earned). But I went shopping my way--at T.J. Maxx. And there in the shoe section were my shoes; it was love at first sight. They were sensible-artsy. Make that sensible-artsy-comfortable. Actually, make that sensible-artsy-comfortable-affordable. And my favorite color. I've never once regretted that purchase. And while most days writing feels like playing dress-up and toddling around in my mother's heels, these shoes remind me that writing fits me, wraps around me snug, and moves me forward.

P.S. If you'd like to read the story I wrote that won the contest, please send me your email address and I'll send it your way!