Weed tree lumberjack

For the most part, my husband and I were raised as city people. A half-acre lot was plenty for our folks. They had their vegetable gardens and rosebushes. Brent’s dad even had some fruit trees. But our homes were situated in suburban neighborhoods (in Nashville and Knoxville, respectively) with weekly garbage pickup and streetlights and city buses and access to nearby interstates, not out in the country.


Now we still live in a city surrounded by neighborhoods, but we have a little bit of land—almost 5 acres—and sometimes our citified upbringing surfaces. We accidentally neglect parts of our property, and then a Saturday free of obligations rolls around and we spend all day catching up. Mowing and weed-eating, digging up unwanted plants and trimming back hedges. We get to work, sweating and toiling like we’re preparing for the arrival of royalty to our humble village.


Last Saturday, I decided to tackle the forest of weed trees growing unchecked below a line of tall pines along our driveway. I used everything in our gardening tool arsenal: long-handled loppers, an electric hedge trimmer, a chainsaw, and a small hatchet. Many of those weeds I drive past every day had grown taller than me. Some of their trunks were thick, as much as 6-inches in diameter. How did this uninvited grove grow right under my nose?


I suppose I was looking elsewhere, my mind wandering, sussing out both the important and unimportant, and the weeds just became the expected backdrop. They were green, so I didn’t look too closely. If I had, I would’ve seen thorns and ivy snaking around the trunks of the pine trees. I wasn’t heeding the Scriptures which remind me to be watchful. “Dressed and ready with my lamps trimmed and burning,” as Jesus told his followers. “Ready to answer when the master knocks on the door.” I was caught off-guard by what can develop when I’m not vigilant.


But it’s not always just our negligence or laziness, those weed trees suddenly towering over us. Sometimes we actually invite the invasive and insidious. Take kudzu, the widespread vine from Asia, for example. It was introduced to the U.S. at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia as an ornamental plant which could be handy for shading front porches. It was eventually seeded all over the country to combat soil erosion in the face of the Depression-era dust storms. The government actually paid farmers to plant it.


At first, it seemed like a good idea and who could blame them? It grew quickly, could be fed to livestock, and smelled like grape bubblegum. But now we see what happens when kudzu goes unchecked. Without cattle to graze on it and keep the vine controlled, it chokes out the nearby native plants. We see it cascading by highways, mountains of green originally planted there to fill in the gashes made by road crews. There seems to be no stopping it. (Although the Japanese kudzu bug, which somehow traveled to a garden near the airport in Atlanta, according to a fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine, is working hard to suck the juices from the vine and may reduce the spread of the invasive plant.)


Nature is a reminder of God’s creativity and majesty and power, but it can also be a metaphor to apply to our day-to-day lives. Even the weeds can teach us. As I hacked away at those vile weed trees on Saturday, I pledged that I would do better at keeping them in check. I made promises to my Lord and myself that I would be vigilant, both in my landscaping and my life.

Greatest of All Time

Somewhere between 4th grade and 7th grade, it was a common pastime for girls in my school to rank their friends. “Tiffany is my first best friend. Holly is my second best friend. You are my third best friend.” Unless you were number one, it was demoralizing and humiliating, but you also knew your place in the pecking order was always tenuous. Any move by you or those in your circle could shift you up or down. You could get demoted by another girl extending an invitation to her birthday party at the skate center or a sleep-over at a house with an above-ground swimming pool or something as seemingly small as the gift of a Cindy Lauper cassette tape or a Duran Duran slap bracelet. (It was the 80’s, so these were a tween girl’s currency.)


As cut-throat and cruel as this may sound, it’s not a new idea. For all time, we humans have wanted to know where we fit as we’ve worried about the prominent placement of our seat at the table. Whether we like to admit it or not, we desire confirmation of our significance, and this often comes at the detriment of those around us.


Jesus’ twelve best friends were no different. As He was traveling around the area, preaching and healing, his disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest. When we read Mark’s account of the story, Jesus asks them what they were quarrelling about (even though he knows the thoughts in their heads let alone the words they’re saying to each other as they walk down the road), but “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” They knew what they were talking about was childish, and they were embarrassed to tell Him.


Of course, Jesus used that moment to teach them (and through His Word, us) a valuable lesson. He told them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Then Jesus saw a little child standing nearby which he lifted in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”


You would think that the Disciples had been adequately upbraided by Jesus once he held an actual child to illustrate to them how they were acting like babies, but they didn’t fully absorb the lesson. Later, we see them reclining at the last supper they would eat with Jesus. He’s just dropped a bombshell, saying that one of them would betray him and His death was just around the corner, and they’re arguing about their status again.


Jesus shuts down the bickering by telling them that the order is different in His kingdom than in the kingdoms you find in the world. He tells them that it’s not about being the boss. Instead, it’s about being the servant.


I heard a preacher tell his congregation about an assignment for a discipleship course. He said that for a week, the person taking the course couldn’t brag about himself or defend himself when being criticized. He also couldn’t gossip or speak negatively about anyone else. He explained that the assignment was nearly impossible. He became aware of all the times he was concerned with his position, his seat at the table. He had to fight the urge to inflate his own ego or puncture the self-worth of others.


Jesus shows us that choosing to live the life of a servant isn’t an act of weakness, but one of extreme strength. To continually die to ourselves goes against the selfish nature we were born with and requires willpower and self-control. Most likely you won’t read words like humble or submissive or foot-washer in a political campaign ad or in the job description for a CEO or in a post-game interview with a professional athlete, but Jesus provides the best example of how to be the greatest.

Would You Rather?

Our youngest son was recently interested in the game “Would You Rather?” In it, a person asks another person questions like: “Would you rather have one thumbnail pulled off or all your eyelashes plucked out?” It’s meant to be a difficult task, choosing between two mostly equal options. But when Ezra posed the questions, he didn’t always grasp the required balance necessary to make the game fun. For instance, a few months ago, he went running down the driveway, shouting to a friend who was driving away to roll down his window. Then he asked, “Hey, Tyler! Would you rather fight a dog or eat a hot dog?” To most anyone, the answer was obvious.


If only all our choices in life were as easy as eating a hot dog instead of participating in a dog fight. Unfortunately, many of the selections we face are more like the actual “Would You Rather?” game. In the real world, there are nuances to consider and unknown variables and long-term consequences. Further investigations may be needed with possible pros vs. cons lists. “Would You Rather?” turns into What If I Don’t?and What Will It Cost? and Are There Better Choices?


I’m no expert on this and I’m sure to forget this plan way more than I will remember it, but I am going to try to use three key verses when I’m making a decision, big or small. (Note: I recently heard someone say that he even prays before he chooses which restaurant he should go to for lunch just in case God has a plan for him to go to a particular place. No choice is too small!)


  1. Listen carefully! Isaiah 30:21 tells us, “Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go, whether to the right or to the left.’” This listening may require a long, sometimes uncomfortable pause. As a people-pleaser, I’m working on listening better for God’s discretion to tell me when to say yes and when to say no.
  2. Look different! Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” I’m going to give myself permission to look different than the world, removing that ridiculous and unattainable burden of worldly achievement and flawlessness which can weigh me down.
  3. Live faithfully! In Joshua 24:15, we read some of General Joshua’s final words to the Israelite people. “But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua was taking the Israelites to an existential crossroads. He reminded them of all that the Lord had done for them, then he told them to make a choice to be faithful to the True God.


We will not always be given the greatest choices, forcing us to use phrases like “lesser evil,” “best of a bad bunch,” and “least bad option.” But, although we don’t live in a perfect world, we can serve a Perfect Lord.

Disagree to Disagree

I don’t get to read as much purely entertaining fiction as I’d like. They’re like dessert for me, so I don’t ingest them as much as the vegetables I end up reading and studying instead. But with our recent Fall Break trip to the mountains, I decided to treat myself by reading one of my favorite authors.


I read a book about a group of people taken hostage by a bank robber. (FYI: This was not a Grisham-like thriller. It was a charming and funny, character-driven story set in Sweden.) The basic idea was that these eight people with dissimilar personalities and established prejudices and heavy emotional baggage are thrown together in a traumatic situation, and they come out on the other side not as strangers, but as something more like family. They experience a potentially life-or-death situation, resulting in a new understanding of those people who lived in a different “universe” (though they all physically live in Sweden) than them.


I have been stewing over this story since I finished reading it a week ago. I keep thinking about if it’s really possible for a person’s entrenched perspective to change. Can years of hurt and misinformation actually move aside for a new view to form? What do we do with people we disagree with? Especially when it’s something we think is important and central to our entire moral code?


Dr. Christena Cleveland thoughtfully lays out the issues with division in her book Disunity in Christ where she devotes a lot of time discussing perspective divergence or what she calls the gold standard effect. “Basically, the gold standard effect leads us to believe that not only are we different from them, but we are also better than them…When we adopt a unique group identity and surround ourselves with similar ingroup members, we essentially create our own alternate universe in which we believe that the standards, ideals, and goals of our ingroup should become the new ‘normal’.” She explains that most of us like to live in homogenous worlds where all the people think and act and vote the same as us. And when our Gold Standard view is challenged, there is often hostility. (And when it’s challenged on social media…watch out! Sparks will fly!)


We’re living in period of heightened division, and as much as I’d like to think it will all clear up after November 3, I feel like these hurt feelings and angry comments will still be hanging over lots of relationships like a dark raincloud. Someone much smarter than me should suggest how to repair these divisions across our country, but in the meantime, I have a plea for those of us who are a part of the body of Christ.


Just like those fictional characters in the Swedish novel I read who survived a life-or-death situation and came out different people—realizing they were more alike than different—those of us who claim to be made new by the One who lived and died for us should be willing to love each other without hurting each other so frequently. Strangers, acquaintances, coworkers, friends and even those who worship at the same church are tearing into each other on social media because they don’t agree.


Here’s my advice, the next time you begin to type a comment which tears down the person who posted it have a conversation with yourself. Maybe it can go a little something like this: “Wait…Is this comment I’ve formed in my mind using my own Gold Standard going to punch this brother/sister in the gut? Is it a personal attack? Is there some motivation behind this person’s post which I’m unable to see? I was in a life-or-death hostage situation with this person and by the blood of Christ and God’s overwhelming mercy, we both barely made it out to the other side. If what I’m planning to say is really that important to me, I’ll call this brother/sister up and talk about it privately. Otherwise, I’ll move on. I realize that’s a lot more work than a hastily written 10-word comment displayed for all to see my brilliant assessment of recent political events, but I am not lazy. Looking to Christ’s example, I am a servant.”

Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Sometimes it’s hard to summarize a big concept, especially when you’re talking to young children. Explaining complex and heavy topics, such as racism or wars, takes a bit of thinking. How much historical background should I provide? Should I go deep or just stay on the surface? Recently, in one short car ride home, my 1stgrade son and I went from his question: “Why did someone shoot Dr. King?” to the negative effects of European colonization of his birth country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I may have gotten a little lost in the weeds.


I’ve been reading through the Minor Prophets—the books of the Old Testament of the Bible which cover more than three decades when God’s people are in one of three periods: about to face the extreme punishment of exile from their homes, in exile, or after they returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem. It’s been a fascinating study, but one where it’s easy to get tangled up in the frustrating details and dense poetry.


This week, I’m reading the Book of Micah. He’s a prophet during the reign of three different kings, so he spent a lot of time mostly being ignored. It was before the people in his region were carried away, human plunder for their enemies, and they didn’t want to listen to Micah’s warnings. Still, Prophet Micah was dedicated enough to walk around naked and shoeless for a time to let the people know just how bad things were.


A lot of the writings of the Minor Prophets can be pretty depressing. There are 14 “Woe to…” exclamations in those 12 short books. (Example – “Woeto you who lie awake at night, plotting wickedness…”) Micah goes city by city, describing their upcoming destruction. He chastises the leaders, scolding them for not doing what’s right. He prophesies about a future day when the people will come back to their Promised Land to live in peace and prosperity. Sinfulness followed by punishment followed by mercy.


Then, in chapter 6, Micah says what his original audience must’ve been thinking: “Yikes! So what can we do to fix our relationship with God?” He tells them that God doesn’t want thousands of rams or rivers of olive oil or their children sacrificed on some altar. Instead Micah summarizes what God wants from them:


“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith your God.” (NIV)


I’ve heard this verse hundreds of times, but I’m appreciating it more now than ever. You can use Micah 6:8 as the standard 3-part test for nearly any situation. I can ask myself: Am I being fair? Am I showing mercy? Am I humbly following the example of Jesus?If the answer is noto any of those questions, then I’d better get a new plan.


If I let this verse penetrate into my thinking, then justice, mercy and humility can become my default yardstick for how to conduct myself. And then it can change my relationships with others.

Yeah. I’ve done a little modeling…

When Ezra, our African-born son, was struggling with his new language last year, we signed him up for speech lessons. At first it was difficult to determine if his issues were basic language acquisition (getting his words) or physically articulating them (saying his words) or both or something else entirely. We needed help!


His speech lessons were a worthwhile way to spend all those mornings last spring. Not only did he get hours of focused attention for his speech issues, but I also got a sounding board for many of my questions. For instance, I solicited their professional opinions as to how often I should correct Ezra’s verbal mistakes.


By the time we started the lessons Ezra had been in America for about a year, so it wasn’t that he was having a hard time speaking English. He was naturally replacing Lingala words (his native language) with English words. The last holdouts were words like lipa (bread), bongo (others), minga (thinking? We were never 100% sure about that one but he said it often).


His most consistent errors were things like leaving out words or ungrammatical subject/verb agreement or incorrectly using pronouns. In other words, he sounded like a caveman. So I asked the director of the speech clinic if I should correct him when he used “me” instead of “I” as the subject (Me sad. Me sleepy. Me lovee bacon.) because he did it constantly and I didn’t have the heart (or the stamina) to tell him he was wrong all day long. She said that I should model the appropriate pronoun and he would catch on eventually.


That day when we got home from speech, as if on cue, Ezra said, “Mom, me hungry.” Remembering what the director told me, I said, “Ezra, I am hungry.” He paused for half a second and said, “Well, eat something.”


Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our kids is often easier said than done. It takes consistency and thoughtful introspection and time. I feel confident that Ezra will eventually use the correct pronoun when he’s referring to himself, though it hasn’t happened yet.


But it isn’t just parents who are role models and it isn’t just kids who need them. Moms of Newborns need the advice of Empty Nesters. Pre-teens need Responsible High School Seniors to look up to. Newly Hired Employees need Seasoned Veterans to guide them through the first months of a new job.


To put it plainly, most everyone can be a role model to someone else. Look around and see if anyone is looking up to you. You might be surprised (or even a little scared) to know that others are watching and taking mental notes. Be the leader they deserve.

No Fair!

This morning my 6-year old Ezra woke up on the grumpy side of the bottom bunk. In his defense, it was a dark, rainy Monday, and none of us were really thrilled about the 6:30 am wake-up call. But as the morning progressed, there was a definite theme to his dialogue.


When I grabbed a pair of socks to give to his older brother Knox (Knox has a broken ankle, otherwise he’d be getting his own socks), Ezra said, “No fair! Knox has undies and socks in the same drawer! Why can’t my socks and undies be together?”


I mostly ignored this question due to its absurdity and hustled Ezra to the kitchen. I saw my husband eating what I assumed was a bowl of cereal, and I said, “I thought I used up all the milk last night,” and my husband answered, “This is yogurt.” Then Ezra said, “No fair! Me want milk!” To which I replied, “But you don’t like milk.” Ezra stomped back to his room in a huff.


After he eventually returned to the kitchen, Ezra overheard me talking to Knox (you know, the favorite child whose undies and socks get to hang out together in the same drawer) asking him if he wanted to bring leftovers in his lunch and warm them up in the cafeteria microwave. “No fair!” Ezra cried, “Why Knox get to use the microwave? Why me no have microwave at my school?!”


And so forth and so on went the morning.


It’s comical to think of his lamenting over such trivial stuff because he’s six and most likely forgot the whole exchange by the time he stepped into his classroom. I wish I could say that 6-year olds were the only ones who flew the “Unfair” banner so carelessly.


As adults, we may not whine over the same topics as children do, but the whining does happen. Claiming “No Fair” often occurs after we unnecessarily compare ourselves to others. “Why does she have that ___________ (insert house, car, weight, clothes, marriage, etc.) and I don’t?! It’s not fair!” Talk about feeling as gloomy as a rainy Monday morning–that line of questioning will ruin anyone’s day.


Other than the negativity these comparisons create, the other travesty is that there really is rampant unfairness in the world. And the people who cry “No Fair” aren’t usually the ones with the most valid reason to say it.


So instead of concentrating on the inconsequential issues that threaten to spoil what could turn out to be the most blessed day you’ll spend on this planet, take advice from the Book of Isaiah and look for ways to help those whose lives truly are unfair.


“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (NLT) Isaiah 1:17

Good guy or bad guy?

Watching movies with Ezra, our five-year old son, is not exactly relaxing, that is, unless you like to give a running commentary explaining dialogue, plot twists, character analysis, and generally how the movie will end for 90 minutes nonstop.

His most frequent question is: “Mom, good guy or bad guy?” Pointing to the questionable character on the TV screen—the one who just lost his temper or just laughed in a creepy way or just stole something, Ezra will interrogate me for information so that he can guess what might happen next. He is trying to formulate which characters he should root for and which characters he should hope will fail.

His “good guy or bad guy” questions aren’t just limited to when we’re watching movies. When he saw the characters from the movie Frozen on our paper towels (don’t judge…they were on sale), he pointed to Elsa, the ice queen who selfishly turns her kingdom to ice and consequently endangers her little sister just because she feels like “letting go.”

“Good guy or bad guy?” he asked as I slid a piece of toast on top of Elsa’s picture. He’s seen the movie several times so he knows that Elsa’s actions are bad, but in the end (spoiler alert) she makes things right with her sister. Good or bad? That’s a tricky philosophical dilemma to wrestle with at 6:30 a.m.

Before bed, I read Ezra a book about the story of Zacchaeus, the man who was too short to see Jesus as he was teaching to a crowd of people. As the song says, “He climbed up in a Sycamore tree. The Savior he wanted to see.” I read the story which touched on Zacchaeus’ reputation as a dishonest tax collector. Then Ezra pointed to the picture of Zacchaeus and asked: “Good guy or bad guy?”

I explained, “Zacchaeus was a bad guy then he decided to be a good guy. Sometimes people change, especially after they meet Jesus.”

I thought a lot about our conversation. I thought about Ezra’s need to categorize people into good and bad and I thought about the monumental task of changing your status and reputation from one side to the other.

When word got out that Jesus had eaten at Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was confronted by the people of the town. They couldn’t believe that he had dined with a “notorious sinner.” Zacchaeus could’ve decided that he had too much bad press to hurtle in order to change his life around but instead he promised to give back all that he owed and then some. This had to be difficult and fraught with a variety of consequences.

I went back to read the story again and I was surprised to see that it took place in Jericho, best known for its wall that came tumbling down after the Israelites marched around it for a week. It may be a coincidence that this interaction between Jesus (Prince of Peace and Light of the World) and Zacchaeus (town creep) happened in a place known for tearing down walls that prevent people from realizing their Promised Land. Or maybe that’s what Jesus is all about. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

I am everything of all I have ever met

While working on an assignment for school, my daughter found an interesting line of poetry. In her poem “Finding Voice,” Joellen Strandburg’s last thought is “I am everything of all I have met.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea and whether it’s true. I think about my first experiences and influences—good and bad—and how they shaped me. If I we had lived in a different town and I had gone to a different school, who would I be? Would I have turned out remarkably different? If I had never traveled to other countries or if I hadn’t gone to college, would I even recognize the me I am right now? If I had pursued sports in school instead of chorus and drama—other than being a really frustrated, uncoordinated person—would I now be more likely to watch ESPN instead of PBS?

But then I think about that age-old argument of Nature vs. Nurture. How much of our personality, strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and limitations are written in our DNA from the moment we are created and how much is created in us over a lifetime of experiences?

My best guess is that it is both. It is Nature and Nurture. Our actions and behaviors are a result of a mixture of inside and outside influences that make us who we are and who we could be.

Of course, we are not just receivers of the influence of others. We can also be the ones who impart it.

I was reminded of this fact in a bold way this week at the funeral of a kind and generous man who held a significant place in our family. There was a theme to the messages of condolence for his wife, sister, mother, and children. They told his family what a difference this man had made in their lives.

They told stories of how he had selflessly served others, how he had shown up at just the right moment to help. They spoke of his concern for all and neglect of none. His example and encouragement spurred them on to be kinder, more caring people.

If I must say that “I am everything of all I have ever met” then let this be my legacy. Let me be not a blank paper to be written on by whomever I encounter, a sponge soaking up their bitterness and disappointment. Instead, let me be discerning in what influences I allow and, beyond that, let me be an influence for good. Let part of the “everything” that I am be a series of writing on the papers that are the lives of others so that someday they can say, “knowing her made me a better person.”

Leather Sandals

When I was little, my mother would buy each of my sisters and me a pair of brown, leather sandals every year. She would caution us to take care of them so that they would last the summer. They had thick, yellow, rubber soles and brass buckles on the side. For some reason, we hated them. I don’t remember reaching this opinion on my own, so I’m guessing I was convinced of their utter ugliness by my older sister.


Not satisfied with only corrupting our opinions of the leather sandals, she also convinced us to methodically destroy them. Behind our house, along the property line where our backyard met our neighbor’s backyard, there was a ditch. When we received very much rain, this ditch would become a shallow creek of grass and muddy water. When it was high enough to cover our feet, my sister would instruct us to put on our sandals and wade out into the water.


Her diabolical plan was to get the sandals wet enough that they would fall apart and it would all look like a harmless accident. (Everyone needs an older sister like this.)


So we would do it and over time, our sandals would fall apart. I can’t remember what shoes we wore after that or how my mom reacted to the news, most likely completely frustrated since she was trying to make ends meet on a preacher’s salary with three young kids. What I do remember is the feeling of standing in the ditch with those wretched sandals on. I felt a mixture of guilt and delight as I wriggled my toes and felt the cushion of the insole fill up with water.


Why does disobedience often feel good at the time? I knew I was disobeying my mother when I blatantly disregarded her instructions and didn’t take care of my sandals but I did it anyway. The knowledge of my disobedience didn’t stop me, and in some it ways it was actually thrilling.


Now that I’m the mom correcting the disobedience of my own children, I have a new seat to watch this disregard of carefully spelled out instructions. I must sometimes witness their disobedience and deliver consequences for their actions. As the parent, I have more information and experience to back up the instructions I give my children—information and experience they don’t always feel justifies my right to correct them, but in the immortal words of my sister, “Tough noogies.”


We can identify with King Solomon when he wrote in the Book of Proverbs: At the end of your life, you will be sad that you ruined your health and lost everything you had. Then you will say, ‘Why didn’t I listen to my parents? Why didn’t I pay attention to my teachers? I didn’t want to be disciplined. I refused to be corrected. So now I have suffered through just about every kind of trouble anyone can have, and everyone knows it.’” Perspective.


Obedience doesn’t always come naturally, even for wise kings, but the consequences aren’t far behind. I discipline my children because I love them and I have to cultivate a trust in my Lord who also disciplines out of love and wants to me to be obedient, even when I can’t see it from His perspective.