The Gospel in Unlikely Places

You know the old saying, “You never appreciate how many great mentors you have in your life until you ask them to write blog posts for your marriage blog?” No? No one? Well we’ll call it a new phrase then.

Walk into the Hebrews coffee shop in tiny Perry, Oklahoma and it’ll feel less like a small town and more like an uptown cafe in a much larger city. With towering front windows that look out onto the courthouse lawn, massive ceilings, and local artwork covering the exposed brick walls, I sometimes giggle to think that this little town barely knows what hit it. I (Jen) had the great pleasure of working with Tina at our church in Oklahoma until she and her husband followed God’s calling to an unlikely and often forgotten place: small town Oklahoma. Three cheers for their courage and all they’re doing to advance the gospel in small places. Try not to smell the coffee and muffins as you read. I dare you.

Someone asked us at the counter last week if opening up a coffee shop had been our lifelong dream. Brian and I just looked at each other and smiled a secret smile that 28 1/2 years of marriage lets us do. The short answer was, “No, it wasn’t our dream. It was God’s plan for us.” Our education background is education and psychology. We’ve taught school, worked in career services at Oklahoma State University, and most recently, Our restaurant experience together totals 1-2 years tops–mine at Hardee’s the summer after high school, and Brian’s at Eskimo Joe’s.

For the first 21 years of our marriage, Brian and I did not follow Christ. We re-committed our lives in 2005, and since we were such late bloomers, we both prayed boldly that God would use us however He saw fit. We acknowledged that our lives no longer belonged to us and we were willing to answer His call, whatever that might be. God answered our prayer by putting us on the fast track to living a life for Him. We started attending in Stillwater, began volunteering after 6 months, joined a lifegroup for 5 months, then led one the next fall. During this time, God was working behind the scenes, and before we knew it we became employeess at in jobs that neither one of us applied for.

Several months after starting his job in Edmond, Brian felt God calling him to plant a church. He was commuting back and forth from Stillwater every day–a forty-five minute drive each way. Brian and God had many conversations during his commute. It took a handful of months, and many conversations for Brian to accept this calling from God. You must know that he is introverted by nature and he’s also a high “thinker” on the Myers-Briggs personality scale, so while all this was going on, he was keeping it between himself and God. In my little world, I was just getting used to joining the workforce after 11 years of homeschooling the kids and working from home. This change was a major adjustment for me and for our family as a whole.

Needless to say, when Brian finally decided to share what God had put on his heart 6 months earlier, the timing was not great and the declaration was met with tears…many tears on my part (By the way, I’m a high “feeler” on the personality scale–yes, opposites do attract and marriages can work!) However, God knew what he was doing and he had put us right where He wanted us. We continued to work and grow in our relationship with God and in our positions at, literally soaking up all we could from the amazing environment we found ourselves in 7 days a week.

Fast forward 2 years. I got over the tears for the most part. God helped me get on board when he gave me a double SOS during a fast–Surrender, Obey & Submit and Serve Others Sacrificially. He let us know that planting a coffee shop along with the church would be our passport into the community. We discovered that He brought us to Perry to build relationships (through HeBrews, the coffee shop we now operate), change lives (which we have seen and continue to see over and over), unite churches (we have a growing relationship with a local church and share distribution in their food ministry), and transform the community (this one is on the horizon, and is multi-faceted; God is moving and stirring us with His work and plans at present).

Looking back we feel like God was preparing us all along to work side by side, even when we weren’t following Him. We taught school together, worked at OSU together, worked at together, and now spend nearly all of our waking hours working side by side at HeBrews doing the work God has called us to do.

Our days are long, but fulfilling. We get along without tension or irritation 97% of the time. (The other 3% might be a different blog post altogether!!) In the year HeBrews has been open, we have shared in life-change stories told at the counter, at a table over a cup of coffee, or in the experience room during one of our two weekly church services. Whenever we wonder if making mochas, baking blueberry muffins, or mopping floors is really what God wants us to do, all we have to do is reflect on stories told, or listen to people right in front of us, and anticipate the stories that have yet to be told.

Build relationships, change lives, unite churches, and transform the community. That’s the vision God has given us here. Staying laser-focused on His plan for us requires us to remember Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light for my path.” One step of obedience at a time while he reveals each step through His word, His people, circumstances and prayer.

No, we didn’t have a lifelong dream to open a coffee shop or plant a church, but God had that dream for us. He knew long before we gave our lives to Him what He had in store for us. Now it is our privilege to carry out those plans each morning at 6am as we make our way down to HeBrews to serve the people in Perry…the people He has called us to serve.

In Love and War

Last Wednesday, as we walked into church for our congregation’s monthly prayer meeting, Kyle and I were in the midst of a domestic dispute. I can’t quite remember what it was about- I was probably irritated about not having eaten dinner or Kyle was upset because I seemed distracted by the fact that he was texting while telling me a story. Either way, it was something really mature. We walked in a few minutes late (because there’s always plenty of seating at prayer meetings) and both sat down in a huff, arms crossed, ready to address the triune God in all his glory. Almost immediately the pastor stands up and says, “Father, thank you for this time for us to gather in your name. Please bless our time together, heal broken marriages…” at which point I feel my husband’s strong finger poking in my back. This brought on some very serious giggles, followed by a snort, which was followed up with stares from the ones who were actually mature enough to attend the prayer meeting.

Sometimes I’m not sure what we’re doing. I honestly think we both had very realistic expectations going into marriage. But sometimes I think our expectations were of what our marriage should be. Not what we thought it would be. When you’re dating, it actually seems very realistic to think you’ll spend lots of time talking, dreaming, and gazing into one another’s eyes in marriage. That’s what you do when you’re dating. It’s easy to think that’s what marriage should be like because it’s all you know of love at that point. You think you’ll never argue over finances because you were each great at managing your own. You’ll never get tired of being together because you always had the opportunity to go home.

Well, my friends, we’re still working on all these things. It’s difficult for me to be realistic about our time together because I genuinely want more of it. It’s difficult for Kyle to relax a little on finances because he genuinely wants to buy a house in the semi-near future. When these things are matters of the heart, we realize that it’s about more than compromise.

And some days, changing the heart seems like the most impossible task in the world.

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Standing in the middle of the field as a tepid breeze whistles in my ear, the sound of dirt and spit and discarded sunflower seeds crunching beneath my feet. The lights dancing off the chain link fence as 25-year old boys, mostly boys, run around playing like 5-year old boys with bloody knees and semi-inflated egos.

It’s my favorite place in the world to be. Not playing softball per se, but outside, under the stars with great friends and my wife watching and eternity on the horizon, just below the moon. How could it not be?

And as I marched around shortstop last night at our game, in between innings while girls speckled the air with their pitchy voices and those aforementioned boys loosened their muscles by waving bats over their heads I thought about how all of this is so very much like what I do every day with God.

See in softball, as is the case with most semi-sedentary sports, there are precious few seconds of live roll-the-cameras lace-up-your-spikes action. Most of time is filled with dirt being swept from side to side, gloves being smacked with balled up fists, and chalk dancing out of the straight line it was supposed to represent.

Most of the time you’re sitting there thinking, preparing for the 3-4 seconds of complete chaos that uncovers this truth about who you are as an athlete, as a ballplayer.

As extrapolations go, it’s a pretty good one, because I find my walk with God and my spiritual, if not actual, life to be much of the same. Hours of preparation and discipline equals success. But as is the case with both, one slip of the mind into something other than what is in front of me and poof, ballgame.

So how will it be? What is my priority? Can I focus on the day, on the moment? Do I have it in me to be humbled to the point that all I am is rigorously focused on that which is important?

The sound of metal on cork slices the air as my eardrums react negatively. The ball is rocketing up the middle of the field at a pace so frenetic I can’t even process it. I take one sharp step to my left, cross over with my right, and leave my feet…

I hope my mind was clear.

I hope I was focused.

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Guest Post- In Sickness and in Health

This post is from Jen’s friend Debbie. She has been blessed in marriage twice, and has been an example to so many on what it means to live out and support a husband in sickness and in health. We asked her to share a little about what that has meant for her and hope it blesses some of you today!

Have you ever made a promise to someone you knew was going to be difficult to keep? Did you pinky swear? That always makes things official, you know? It has been quoted multiple times, “Promises are made to be broken.” I must tell you, this is a myth. Promises are best when kept, no matter how difficult the task. Our story…

I met him, fell in love with him, and promised to love, honor, cherish and commit to him in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, for better, for worse, in poverty or in prosperity, till death do us part. I vowed these things before God and the well-dressed witnesses smiling in bow-laden church pews, candles glowing with my groom in a very uncomfortable dark navy tuxedo. My heart was full. My happiness overflowed on this my long awaited wedding day. I meant every recited word as I pledged my love to him. I promised.

Fast forward 10 plus years, two sons later. My husband was suddenly sick, hurting badly. He knew something was wrong. We sought help immediately. The doctors told us the battle would be long and would be hard to fight. The doctor was extremely accurate in his prediction. The battle raged.

As the illness grew stronger and he grew weaker, the idea of multiple medications, physical therapy, an amputated limb, wheelchairs, hospital beds, and sleepless nights all weighed heavy as I began to question my ability to transform from wife to nurse/care-taker as rapidly as his needs presented. I asked myself in numerous silent conversations, “Did I sign up for this?” “I thought I was to be the blushing, beautiful bride forever, not do ‘this’ for him.” “Why God? Why?” I was selfish. I was mad at the illness that was stealing him away from me. I continued to question my ability to take care of his needs. I cried, whined, but also prayed. My prayers were varied. Some days I prayed for his healing, some days I prayed for my own health and toning up my well-being. My sons prayed for their father. A lot of tears were shed. I would guess there were as many fallen tears as prayers offered up.

His pain worsened. His hope for a long life waned. He first asked and then begged for me to take his life, withhold his medication or give him more than was needed. He cried. I cried. We prayed.
We were thankful for days where his strength was good, especially if they fell on Sunday so that we could worship together, as a family. It was a very important part of our lives, but we missed many services due to his illness and healthcare needs. That week, we were welcomed into the church with hugs and handshakes from people we had not seen in quite some time. The minister was preaching a sermon series on The Ten Commandments, familiar material I assumed and then I heard HIM loud and clear, “Thou shalt not kill.” As my body shuddered from the impact of God’s Word, I heard another voice in my ears, my own words were echoing “In sickness and in health, in good times and bad, for better, for worse…” My vow, promise and commitment to him was written on the blackboard of my mind’s eye and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could not ever help him end his life and that it was my honor to serve my husband in the capacity of care-taker until God choose to heal him. My frame of mind changed that day. I had a renewed sense of purpose and a spirit of thanksgiving. I continued to pray.

Time and illness continued to take its toll on his body and his mind. I began to pray for an answer in the form of divine healing, “please take him home Lord” I was not sure if this was okay to pray, but these were the words coming from my mouth. It was one of the most difficult prayers I had ever prayed. I wanted his earthly suffering to end. That same evening, he asked me to sit by the bedside as he talked, his voice unusually strong. We had not had a deep conversation like this in a very long time.

It was a cold December day, winds howling as a reminder of a new season blowing in. I remember his words well. I held onto his hand as he spoke about his heart-change that had taken place that day as he prayed. He spoke of a forgiveness that he had never felt before from his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I was surprised when he asked me to help him with the phone, dialing multiple numbers across state lines. He was telling friends and family of his relationship with Jesus. He asked for forgiveness from past wrongs he wanted to make right immediately. He made amends with people he once held very strong grudges against. I was dumbfounded at the change in him. I had no idea these deep issues even existed. I was feeling something new at that moment too; I was falling in love all over again, fresh love, for my husband; not a sick man in need of care and attention, but the man I loved greatly, the man I made a promise to many years before.

“Till death do us part.” It happened sooner than I had expected, but I held onto the Word, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” It was my hope and God’s promise. The Word brought comfort during the difficult days ahead. I tried to be strong for our sons, but they offered me strength. We got through the next few days sitting with the many people that visited with baked hams and scalloped potatoes running over. We were numb at some moments, crying with sadness of his passing, and at other times, laughing at a funny memory of silliness, and the good days gone by.

Sympathy cards and phone calls came in large numbers those first few days after the announcement came of his death. The number of visits drew less and less as the world kept living at their normal pace. My new normal was foreign to me. I cherished a friend’s call or visit as days grew into weeks and months.
During those first few months after he was gone, I reflected on how God answered the prayers of healing in His perfect time. He waited until reconciliation was made and all was well in his heart before calling him home. I often remember with joy, that moment when I fell in love with him all over again because I saw before me my groom, not a sick body in need of care, but a man that I made a promise to.

As I looked through the envelopes the mail man had just delivered, I wondered who would be sending me a card. It was not my birthday nor any holiday where a card might be expected. I was full of anticipation, a card, I love cards! As I read the words, tears began to fall. The handwritten note from one of his many doctors read, “I have never known anyone to keep their marriage vows the way you did. You were an example to many…in sickness and in health, till death do you part.”

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The Words We Speak

I think a lot about words. In fact, I spend most of my days thinking about words: the ones I read, the ones I try to write, the ones I want to say to people. Words are, in many ways, are the currency by which we trade ideas, thoughts, and even feelings.

So why is it that so often I find my movements, the things my body and my eyes and my hands and my feet and my mouth do, stray so far from the words I write and think?

I write that I love my wife and yet the words I say to her belie that. I think I’m disciplined and yet my ability to hit find the “snooze” button without touching the “OK” button on my iPhone is unparalleled. (Seriously- if that were an Olympic event I’d be representing the U.S. every four years). I blog on here that I am this or I do that and yet, nine times out of ten, I find my actions betraying that which I believe.

Paul wrote on this extensively in Romans, I know, it just seems so…other…to me that I, in all my humanness, am unable to overcome such things.

We are taught from a young age that we can overcome, that we can be stronger than the strength of the world, that we can outlast the daggers of sin and shame.

Which is why it seems so foreign to me that I need God in such a simplistic way, and yet I do. I always do.

A Small Focus

Sometimes I try to mentally rewind to before we were married, to try and remember my view on marriage as a single woman. I often find it difficult to remember my emotions and thoughts from a former period in my life, though I suppose this is meant to happen, lest we live our current lives with our hearts in the past.

After almost a full year of wedded bliss, I think most of what I expected from marriage has happened. Living with a boy is difficult but doable, and having two sets of emotions under one roof hasn’t made anything spontaneously combust. Even though some days I wanted to physically combust my husband. Our dynamic with friendships has changed some, partly because we moved to a new city, and partly because when you’re married, the best thing at the end of the day is to come home to someone who loves you more than anyone else.

I think in any scenario when you’re looking forward to the future (which would ideally be all stages in life) you put a certain level of expectation on that next phase. On going from high school to college, on being single to being married, on being a couple to being a full-fledged family. There’s always the stir of excitement, of new responsibilities, new things to decorate (girl stuff), and experiencing things for the first time. In each stage, we have a time of preparation, a time when everything else fades away and we focus solely on becoming who we need to be for where God is taking us next. I found a journal entry from our engagement that simply had four items.

March 24, 2010 6:30am

– Pikes Place Roast. Four creamers.
– Yellow sheet of paper
– Listen to listen, not to form a comeback
– Read his love languages.

This is such a great picture of our marriage counseling, not only because we were sneaking around at crazy hours trying to avoid scrutiny from co-workers and friends, but because we simply took one thing at a time to focus on. For me, the best thing to do right now is not to focus on the next stage in life, but to have three or four tiny goals to make my marriage better every day. Right now, these would look like this.

May 3, 2011 8:26am

Speak with kindness.
Choose your words carefully.
Pray for your husband.

And in these times of small focus, everything else seems to fade away. At least until it’s time to bring it into the light.

The Resistance

I’m reading a book right now, a really good book that I’d recommend to anyone, no matter your age or place in life. It’s called The War of Art and it’s kind of about becoming a better artist in your given profession, but mostly about defeating the resistance.

What is the resistance you might be asking. The resistance, as explained by Staven Pressfield, is anything that keeps us from doing the work we’re supposed to be doing.

So for me, when I sit down to write or plan a project, the resistance consists of the following things:

  • Twitter
  • Food and/or coffee
  • Any www I frequent for pleasure and/or entertainment
  • Thinking about anything that isn’t my work
  • Twitter (again)
  • My phone
  • My wife

The list is not concise. I basically have to shut everything down and just spend some time inside my own head, thinking, pontificating, and writing ideas.

I’m terrible at it though, I always give in. I always find myself moseying around in the Twitter world or (and I’m so embarrassed of this) playing Angry Birds on our iPad.

The resistance is strong. What are you doing to defeat it?

Oh…and happy #royalwedding day…

Loving Comfort

I was talking to a friend the other day about this idea of comfort. We both agreed that as a human race we most often seek out comfort above all other things.

I told him, I don’t care if I’m wealthy or I have a bunch of stuff or even if I’m successful, I just want to be comfortable in this life. Think about it, when talking world problems we almost always try to solve them by making the sufferers of such problems more confortable.

That plays itself out in our marriage too. Instead of confronting that extra $44 we shouldn’t have spent on the entertainment section of our budget for April, we let it slide. We plan vacations to cushy islands, not mission trips to war-strewn third world countries. We gravitate towards what’s easy, the path of least resistance.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with nice vacations or going to the movies at $22 a pop (actually there is something wrong with that, but it has nothing to do with me or you).

What I’m saying is that, when given the choice, Jesus sought out trial over free pass and pain over painless. Those things didn’t just come to him as if magically produced by life, He went after them. He saw the eternal gain in subjecting Himself to temporary physical and emotional decimation to become more like His father.

And we can barely fast for a day to catch a glimpse of this.

Our First Easter

Yesterday, we got another badge on our grownup marriage vest. We spent our first married Easter in Dallas.

After a full morning of church, we feigned a real Easter dinner with some other 20 something pretend grownups. And it actually turned out to be pretty legit. There were fancy things like crescent rolls, green bean casserole, an actual baked ham, and a homemade pound cake with toppings. For the day, with all eleven of us and the two tiny ones, it sort of felt like being with family. There was laughing and crying (not any of the adults, thank goodness) and shared cleanup and games in the yard, including the Jumper’s Jungle game service. There was nap time and life discussion and then there was even a birthday party. With more food and more games and the pitter patter of some rain on the roof, though we couldn’t really hear it from all the game-induced giggles.

All in all, it was a successful Easter, though I’m still not entirely sure what the Easter Bunny is for. Am I supposed to get my kids to believe in him like Santa? Is he supposed to leave eggs in the yard for them to find when they wake up? Or is he just some mythical creature we celebrate in the form of milk chocolate and eggs? Does anyone realize that bunnies don’t actually lay eggs?

Someone help me.

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Signs of Spring and a One Hour Chronicle

Last night, as the evening storm approached, I walked out to the dumpster, the day’s trash in hand, waiting to be Dorothied to Oz. The back alley at work smells strongly of rotten milk and whatever industrial cleaner they use to cover it up. For quite some time, it caused me to think I had lost my sense of smell, no longer able to tell the difference between freshly clean or freshly putrid. The truth is, I have been praying for rain for a month. While I’ve slept through a few storms in the last few weeks, seen a few signs of lighting in the distance, I have yet to see a full blown storm with my own eyes. And until I smell the damp air, feel the rain on my skin, see the navy colored skies swirling around me, I can’t quite believe it’s actually spring. And now it’s started to pour.

As I make a mad dash to my old red truck, my shoes filling more with water with each step, I can’t help but giggle inside. I pull myself up into the cab, unable to jump in for lack of mobility in my yellow pencil skirt, kicking off my soggy red flats to let my feet dry. As I pull out of the parking lot, I crack my windows enough to let in the cooler air while only letting in a few drops of rain every now and then. I pull my hair, now damp and clinging to my skin, into a loose bun. I turn up the radio to the local blues station, taking in the gray hazy sun and cars and sounds of tires on water. Even seeing the new cars with air conditioning, windows up, perfect paint jobs, interiors untouched by the falling rain, I can’t help but remember that life is nothing if not felt; From the heat and humidity of the day to the drops of rain on my cheek to the sound of old blues music, which comes from nowhere if not straight from the heart.

I pull into a space across the street from our little red door, walking confidently through the now slowing rain, keys in hand, thunder all around me for miles. I notice our old man neighbor sitting in his car, give a nod and half smile in his direction, and unlock the door. Twenty minutes later, in the same soggy shoes, we leave for a date night dinner. Old man neighbor walks in the red door, gives us a quick hello and a, “It stopped raining, it’s safe to go outside now.” I pause briefly, though only in my head, struggling not to pause in the physical, and secretly hope he didn’t mean to use the word safe. I quickly wonder if he might possibly be a witch, the melting kind of witch, though all my knowledge of sorcery from the children’s books tells me he would have to be a warlock. And with that, my mind is on to dinner.

It’s hard to find a restaurant that will open its patio for dining when there is lighting in the area, but all the storm lovers know that this is the best time to be outside, the scent of the storm lingering, the clouds parting just in time to display the sunset, the pink sky in all her glory. We were seated at a yellow table, sound of dripping gutters and damp streets in the background. In the distance I see a man smoking a cigarette on his front porch. I observe him, wondering what he sees from that porch, what his house and heart are like on the inside. What a strange way for us to meet in this life, me and this man. To me, he is just the man on the porch.

And to him, I am just the girl in the yellow skirt. If I am anything at all.

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