Kudzu to you and you and you

As a kid, I remember looking up from the car window at a patch of Kudzu in two different spots in my hometown. I thought those vines were so beautiful. Like all things, adulthood brings an entirely different and deeper understanding to what once was thought good and beautiful.

One day last week, Greg said “we have Kudzu spreading!” I, of course, had to investigate myself. My scientific analysis: yes, we do have Kudzu. We have lived here for 7 years, and it has never been a problem. But, it is a FAST growing problem now.

I sat down on the porch to spend time with God this morning, and I look up to see the spread of Kudzu all over. So, naturally, I googled “how did kudzu appear in my yard?” I didn’t get that personal of an answer, but I did learn about Kudzu.

It’s a sobering thing dealing with Kudzu because it can grow 12 inches in a day all ways. It overtakes everything around it–including buildings. It was imported here in the 1930s from Japan to solve erosion. Spoiler alert: it did not solve erosion AND it became a pest that spread like wildfire. We did not create Kudzu but we manipulated it and brought it into the environment to wreak havoc. Not the intention, but it was the consequence. It was a quick fix to bring it here, but getting rid of it is NOT quick and NOT easy. You could do all the work to cut it down and leave one little root and it sprouts like wildfire again. To get it out, you have to wage war.

All of us have areas of deep roots in our lives that we thought were a beautiful vine that could solve a need in our lives. It makes sense to us. Why wouldn’t we? It follows where our heart is leading… It makes us feel seen. It makes us feel important. It makes us feel understood. It makes us feel empowered. It makes us feel better for the moment. Until, it begins to choke us out and to take us over. It becomes bigger and stronger and we don’t even recognize ourselves. We cannot see the bigger picture that we have been covered by the kudzu.

When our feelings and truth become the guide, we are deceived. We are in the midst of a culture right now that is telling us that the only truth is what we feel. If you have lived any amount of time, you know that feelings change with the tide. It’s like building a sandcastle house. It is so very confusing to try to stand on shifting sand. There is nothing to anchor to. I see this in the hearts of people right now. It is disorienting. The vines are growing at lightning speed. Our “freedom” is actually destroying us.

If we do wrong, we quickly have an excuse or a way to spread blame somewhere else. Like Adam in the garden–passing the buck to Eve and Eve to the serpent. We, then, make excuses questioning what God says is good and what is sinful. Genesis 3 –“did God really say?” We are masters at twisting things to our own benefit. We are working on taking responsibility for our actions at our house right now–without saying “but he did this to me first!” We can come up with some wonderful sounding excuses, but that just trims the vine and keeps the root churning out the Kudzu.

As I pondered the kudzu and my heart in light of scripture, I thought of John Owen’s quote “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” We don’t like to talk about sin these days unless it’s someone else’s. I am more and more and more grateful for the Truth of God revealed in scripture. Romans 1-3:20 explicitly shows us our motives and our end. All of these things we see unfolding again and again are foretold. The nature of sin from the beginning, the consequences of it, the rescue from it, and the realities of living as strangers in the world when we cling to Him are all written in the Bible. The Enemy and Accuser loves for us to gloss over sin or to pretend it doesn’t exist in our lives because the kudzu keeps growing to choke us out and to overtake us. All we have to do to be destroyed is to ignore or make light of Truth. Real life and hope and joy are found in recognizing that the kudzu of our hearts for what it is and looking to the Savior and Redeemer to cut it out and to give us Himself–the True Vine.

It’s so easy to be overwhelmed and confused these days when we try to walk in our own understanding apart from God’s word. As I was in 1 Peter this morning, I took great comfort in the gifts from God to walk in–chosen in Him with an identity firmly planted, sealed with the Spirit, grace and peace in abundance, new birth into a Living Hope, an imperishable inheritance kept in Heaven, shielded in His power, every grief and trial refining my faith and bringing praise and honor to Him when He is revealed–and filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.

To further this thought, I encourage you to read John 15:1-8 all about Jesus being the true vine and God the Father being the gardener and how we are to remain in Him.

You Know I Don’t Like Waffles!!!

This morning, my youngest exclaimed “You know I don’t like waffles!” It was news to me since he begs for them consistently. It was proclaimed as an indictment against my motherhood. As I coached him about how to say things in the future, the mirror was held up to my heart.

My oldest son growled at me and gave a mean stare as I drove away from drop off…pleasant times. I drove thinking “He doesn’t understand my heart toward him–that doing the hard thing builds perseverance and character and matures him.” Then, the mirror was held up to my heart.

I sat to spend time with God, and the question bore into me as I read it on the page… “when you are tempted to envy the life of someone else, what are you envying?” (Paul Tripp)

In taking a moment for self reflection, I listed things like experiences, travel, regular experiences in life without the struggle. But, those were too easy, the real desire lies beneath. It takes time to unearth it. In my flesh, I want an easy life–a comfortable life. It is always my Achilles heel to desire that first and to pitch a fit inside when it doesn’t happen.

When I really take a deep breath and think on it, I don’t want easy and comfortable. The fruit of ease is: shallowness, selfishness, annoying attitudes, a brushing past others, arrogance, a demanding voice, a critical spirit, a lack of any grit or perseverance, impatience, a heart that is never satisfied and wants more and more.

As I am firmly middle-aged, I see a pattern in life. The stuff that counts and matters and is LASTING is formed in the hard. The easy we can do in our flesh. We can be in a good mood and look good doing it. The hard strips us of our facades. The hard shows us every place we are lacking. The hard is ugly and it shows our need for One beyond ourselves. The hard can bring rich, beautiful pearls and diamonds in our lives when we would easily settle for a sugary candy ring.

The fruit of the Spirit, which is the character of God, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22 Those characteristics are formed when we come to the end of ourselves. We learn patience in suffering long. We learn love in choosing to give up what we want in the moment for the sake of another’s good. We learn joy in the midst of sorrow. We learn peace in trusting God’s character when there’s swirling chaos all around. We learn kindness by realizing His kindness toward us in our sin, and extending that grace to others. We learn faithfulness from Him as we walk long roads of commitments for His glory alone. We learn goodness by reflecting on Him and seeing His heart in comparison to the trappings of what the world calls “good.” We learn self-control by knowing that our momentary pleasures are not “the end,” and there is a greater thing that compels and controls us.

Greg and I parent with an eye for the long haul–adulthood. We discipline and have boundaries and practices to teach beyond the momentary whim or need. We know what it is to walk in this world in relationships, commitments, jobs, etc. We do not want to send our children into the world demanding and petulant and ill prepared for hardships. We want them to live in Hope and Kindness and the Grace of the Lord. We do this very imperfectly.

How much more does a perfect, eternal, all wise, all knowing Father parent us toward the good? He doesn’t tire or falter. He sees with a scope we can never fathom. He holds all the mysteries of life, and yet He shares Himself with us. So, as I scream “you know I don’t like _____,” and as I scowl at my way of comfort being thwarted, I remember His heart. He knew we would need to remember His heart and character toward us. He knows we so easily forget, and that is why He told us through Jesus to be connected to Him everyday and in every need.

So, I remind you and me to connect to the truth of who God is in His word–to be reminded of His beauty, His heart, His character and His purposes. When we are tempted to accuse Him, we are missing out on so much more.

Crushed in Spirit

Things are always clearer in retrospect. I understand more about my childhood and young adulthood now, and one of the clear things is that I have always bent toward depression. There have been times circumstantially and hormonally that have tipped me deeper. Those times included a season of young adulthood, post partum with my oldest son and these past two years culminating in January of 2022. Darkness settled in a way I had never experienced it, and it felt as if I would never get out.

I uttered a prayer for freedom and joy to be restored at our first worship service of the new year in January. The next two months were filled with wrestling, tears, anger, sadness, struggle, growth. As I was walking out this journey inwardly and outwardly, I prayed “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” That psalm was what I had–looking to His character and His presence and His power. As I journeyed, this painting came—so much darkness but the Hope of His light twinkling “out there.” It was an outworking of my inner life.

I said goodbye to this painting last week for someone who needs Hope on their journey through darkness. What a privilege to be used–for the ultimate Creator to give me a vision to be passed on to another. Nothing is wasted.

Crushed

Pearls of Great Price

These last two years have been challenging for all of us as a collective group of humans, huh? We have experienced differing levels of loss, grief, frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment. Some are barely crawling now under the weight of their jobs or their families. My heart goes out to leaders, educators, medical professionals, pastors who have borne loads that have progressively gotten heavier over time.

Adult life is a series of griefs, but it just so happens that we are all carrying heavy loads at the same time. As I have been experiencing and learning myself, the Lord keeps giving me a picture of a pearl. The pain and irritation that comes into an oyster that forms beauty over time is a metaphor inviting us to not shut down but to engage the process.

This past Fall, I began working with layers over color. Some of the layers are 2 to three deep, and some are 15 to 16 layers deep. There’s a story there to be uncovered. Each layer builds and adds to the complexity of the beauty of our lives. A shiny life is not the goal, but our world would tell you it is. A shiny life just reflects the culture while a layered and complex life provides places to connect with others in their layered journeys.

The Spirit’s Work in the Storm

This picture was in my memories yesterday.

Storm rolling in PCB Summer of 2018

Storms invade, they come, they bring pain and loss. Then, the sun comes out again. They are fierce, but they do not last forever. They shape us, but there is hope in the anchoring in the midst.

I was inspired to paint this. I couldn’t find a big blank canvas at my house, but I found a mixed media piece from 10+ years ago and began painting over it. The piece had the words of the fruit of the Spirit on it— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

No matter how thick I painted, no matter how much texture, those words shown through.

And then, I smiled.

The Lord is amazing in using all things to teach us. Those words are proof of being in Christ—the literal character of the Spirit who dwells in us. In trials, in storms, in pain, what is inside spills out. It cannot be managed or hidden. It is the beautiful way that God brings Himself glory where it is impossible to be about “all we can do” or what we can manage, or how we can perform. It is the raw heart knowing it has no hope apart from Him. His deposit of life in us, magnifies Him. Storms are frightening. Storms can destroy. And, anchored in Him, storms transform us to bring us to be more like Him and to enjoy Him at the greatest depth. So, nothing is wasted—not even what we think was a failure that didn’t “look good.”

It takes a little time sometimes…

It’s the flavor of lovingly fried chicken, crumpled recipes handed down that are barely decipherable, egg salad sandwiches on Sunday nights, and the sound of green beans in a pressure cooker on Saturday afternoons.

It’s in the lingering. It’s not scheduled but it’s purposefully planned. It allows space for boredom and has no space for curation.

It’s quiet and yet it’s music sings in the dark night of the soul. It’s plain, but it’s simple beauty is ornate.

It takes loneliness to point you to it. You only embrace it after you’ve busied yourself with the things you guess that are important.

This will be marked as the year that the intangible things that can only be learned with time began to settle into my soul. These are things not learned by a curated feed on google. These are often things that are experienced, rejected by the confidence of “knowing better” with the novel ideas and adventure of youth, and, with time, adopted wholeheartedly in surrender when you finally see the wisdom of the “old road” truth. These are things that are not taught in books, in seminars, in schools. These are “caught” truths that shore up one’s life.

It’s not quantitative…it’s qualitative and repetitive. And, in the end, it’s what makes up real and true and meaningful life.

Before this year, I saw the rhythms of community as fluffy. I saw recipes as disposable. I saw marking time with friends as a luxury that “must be nice.” I saw lingering time as self-indulgent. I did not say these things out loud, but they were obvious in my choices and my assumptions. Before this year, tasks that marked productivity, ministry and movement won out because they were “allowed” in my definitions.

After this year, everything is reframed. I think back to the weekly rhythms of my childhood and see the purposes that marked them. What felt busy began to take on a different purpose. I was transported to dinner on the grounds and Wednesday night suppers and Music Camps and realized they were more than tasks and activities…they built a familial community. I think back to lingering around a table after breakfast and see the worth in it. There was nothing more important to “get to” than the being of “there.” I intimately understood the reasons for camps and retreats and unscheduled activities.

The picture of this truth really began to be clear to me as I sat at the funeral of a woman who was like a second mom to me growing up–Kenzie. Her home and presence represented to me all the intangibles, and only at 46 did that become clear. I have intimate memory of special foods she would make–not fancy but so so good. Markers of childhood and life. I think about the things she had for me to play with–things left over from her children–not fancy but so comforting. I remember each one of them–a lego like set that had lattice windows, an old Ker Plunk game. Week by week, I retrieved them from the cabinet and placed them back. Week by week she welcomed me with a place to land, to be known ever so quietly. She never stood on a stage to demand attention or have a following. The people who truly matter to our lives never do.

my worth is not found in who notices me

I was a really cute little kid. And then…my adult teeth came in. And then, there was the tragedy of hairstyles. I went from being noticed to “looked over” or the butt of jokes. I won’t go into the unwise choice of getting pink tinted glasses in fifth grade!

After most of my childhood, getting braces, choosing some longer hairstyles, and wearing contacts, I started coming back around at the end of 8th grade. I remember the first time a boy showed interest in me. I thought “really? I am seen now?” It was surreal. It was weird. It boosted some confidence. I had spent my formative years developing my personality and my character, but those were often not “seen” by peers. As the great Sue-Sue Heck declared–“it’s not good to peak in 8th grade. We are developing character and are going to be awesome 30 year olds!” (Watch “The Middle,” and thank me later).

As a woman, there is so much emphasis put on being “seen” with hair, skin, body type, fashion, personality, personal brand, business savvy etc, etc, etc. Now, there’s a whole industry of “influencing.” It literally involves strategically finding more ways to be “seen.” It is addicting, exhausting, exhilarating and soul crushing. What happens when no one responds, when no one likes what you put out there? There will come a day for all of us that outward beauty fades and all that is left is the substance of the quiet building of character that is forged in the shadows and out of the limelight. That character and the things done in the shadows are what produce a legacy.

We carefully hide, adorn ourselves, patch the holes… When, for those in Christ, freedom is found in surrender and in letting Him transform us from the inside out.

So, it leads me to ask…what am I focusing on? What are you focusing on? It may not be written goals, but it might be our thought life, our anxieties, how we compare ourselves to others. All of those thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behaviors. Left to our own devices and following the cultural noise, we can find ourselves empty shells that are shellacked and decorated on the outside while anemic, exhausted, hurting and lost on the inside.

There is a certain time window where women are considered worthy, and then…invisibility comes. I have experienced it…I cannot pinpoint the date. The first starts when people refer to you politely as “ma’am.” And then it moves to when you are considered as someone’s mom and they do not know your actual name or any details about your life. Then, there is a time that comes when you walk into a store or a room and feel as if you are a vapor. Ironically, the more wisdom and experience and deep thought you have, the less volume the world gives to you. This is the time you have the most to offer to encourage and to see others.

This disappearing leads to a crisis of belief. Where are we really looking for our worth? Where is it defined? How will we grieve it? Will we panic and claw and grasp or welcome it?

This year: I have more than COVID19 lbs–and that is fun showing up in person knowing people are thinking “oh dear, Jen has gained some stress weight!” Is my worth in how much I weigh? No, but in the scope of what this world tells you about who you are to be as a woman, it surely feels like it. I have shown my weakness in my RF business this year with the bare minimum of energy to give to it. I have shown my weakness in every area of my life. I am learning to deal with the war inside of a world-defined success verses my children’s needs and the needs of our family unit. Art has been an outlet for me, but I have minimal energy there, as well, to build and expand, etc. We are more than the sum of our productivity and the sum of being “seen” by the world.

Here’s what it comes down to:

Finding worth anywhere but the Lord is a chasing after the wind.

When our outside shellacking is ripped open, we have the chance for real life to pour forth to make a real impact. What is there?

My heart hurts as I see women literally piecing together things to improve themselves–fillers, injectables, additions to their bodies, the next idea, the next reveal, the next relationship, the next house, the next redo, the next thing for our kids. There is nothing inherently wrong with those things, but we always need to ask why we are compelled to do them and what is the end to which we are looking. What problem do we think this is solving? What value is this adding? What do we think we are missing? Are we just the sum of our parts? Are we the sum of our opportunities or bank accounts? Are we the sum of the applause coming our way? How is this investing into others? What legacy are we leaving with this?

I am praying that my life looks more like this now than ever.

What do you notice about the picture above? The shellack or the life and hope in Christ coming through? May we learn and grow to be women who show their wisdom by showing their scars, by entering into other’s lives, by giving away Hope and Truth instead of teaching others the new method for hiding and covering and fixing.

Coming Out of the Shadows

This year: The meaning those words have is…heavy, transforming, redefining, refining.

We are all emerging from the shadows as different people. We will not even be able to quantify the vast changes to our environments, communities, rules of behavior for a long while. It may left to the history books instead of our own personal narratives…and the number of personal narratives is daunting. You can browse the “socials” for that.

Still, I am attempting to create my personal narrative and my perspective on the collateral damage to the fabric of what once was and what might be in our neighborhood, city, church, region, country and World.

For me, the day to day required a lot of dying to self…sometimes while screaming and kicking with a side of bitter resentment. It required measured thinking without a lot of space to process. I am an introverted extrovert. I need people for energy (which I did not have at all) and yet I need time to write and create and to settle my thoughts (which I did not get much of at all). Options were VERY FEW. When I did get “out,” I panicked “where do I even go?” In the Winter months, I withered and my heart was not pretty. I TREASURED being able to worship with our church body on Sunday mornings–the only time my boys and I saw people all week long. I was very grateful for the safety protocols in place which were annoyances to some but made it possible for us to be a part of worshipping in person which was water to my soul.

Personally, I have sacrificed a lot this year to create a safe environment for our family due to my husband’s chronic illnesses. For a woman who highly values options, spontaneity, and freedom, it was really hard. ***:

  1. We homeschooled. This was never in my plan until it was the what we discerned was wise for the needs of our boys (one with special needs that struggled mightily with virtual crisis schooling). Along with being a pastor’s wife and running a business–this is one of the 3 big NEVERS that have become a part of my story. The joke is on me:). In July 2020, I found myself reading articles about the 7 philosophies of homeschooling, researching curriculum, securing a God-send of a certified teacher to help me with Math and Language Arts (this deserves a blogpost all to itself). I was signing up for something I did not have a clue how I would follow through on except for the fact that I knew I had to for the sake of my boys.
  2. We lived life in a virtual bubble. We basically quarantined and masked and socially distanced until we got fully vaccinated. We did not gather with our families for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We did not hug people apart from our 4 person family unit. We did not bend the rules, and even then, there were some “close to us” COVID calls. Our one outing per week was church masked and distanced.
  3. We experienced the hardest year in ministry ever, and we have had HARD years before. NO ONE is at their best–they are all grieving, so we prayed to have eyes and a heart of empathy and understanding. We grieved and continue to grieve the ripping apart of bodies of Christ and the larger Body with rhetoric and politics and differences of opinion. There are so very many things to grieve about this, and the shrapnel will continue to be unearthed in the coming years. Shepherding hearts is dangerous terrain. We are exhausted.
  4. We got diagnoses this year that flattened our hearts and left us feeling paralyzed.
  5. We lived through the most contentious political year of our lives to date and saw people ripped apart relationally by misinformation and rhetoric. I was not prepared for the evil of the human heart to be on such display in so very many ways in our country and our world. From the opinion about race and masks and vaccines at the personal and communal level to policy and leadership on the national level…relationships splintered everywhere. I saw friends of color hurting deeply. I saw poor leadership all around in our partisan government that was more about leveraging power than affecting change for the good of the people. I saw families and close friendships blown apart as members were radicalized politically far left and far right . I was unfriended more times than I can count by those who did not approve of the middle road I sought to walk in the Body of Christ seeking to speak to the examination of the heart. I muted some, as well, because their continual outrage was fueling my heart and mind not to be about shepherding those in need in front of me. (Say NEVER to every comment section) It grieves me as people jump to conclusions and assassinate the character of others so easily in this day of social media.
  6. We saw people suffer and die with COVID and suffer and die with Cancer and suffer in loneliness and hunger and die apart from a Savior. So much shrapnel.
  7. We saw our own personal “saviors” get revealed and flattened (ouch and good!)

Those are the cold facts written in list form, but the reality is, this year involved a lot of grief. All of us have experienced personal and collective griefs.

For us, there were losses of what “could have been” like school and school relationships. We lost a whole community of people day in and day out to do life with. Many of those had very different views of COVID and protocols along with it, and that automatically put distance physically and emotionally. We lost rhythms of home and away, of other voices speaking into our kid’s lives and our lives. I lost time alone. My husband lost time alone. I lost time with people. I lost proximity to everyone except for those 3 in my immediate family. Lost proximity was on everyone’s plate the first 2 months of this journey, but ours continued on as I felt there was some new normal orbit (at least for a good swath of my Facebook friend’s highlights).

There was a depth of decision on everything, and most of the time it came down to leaning toward the sober answer of no. I cannot explain the relief I felt two weeks after my final vaccination. I did not realize the heaviness of the anxiety I was carrying about protecting Greg and all of us. It has opened my life to flexibility, and for that, I am so very thankful.

So, how do we walk out of the shadows into the light of the rhythm of this new life? It is not “over” even though there are more options. It is not what it was before and our grief tells us so. It shows when we attempt small talk and bumble all over ourselves. It shows as we have choices again as to what we will do about masks and proximity and travel and school. It shows as many are gone from our churches and we see who is left and welcome those who have come. It shows as we see people face to face who have been very vocal on social media and decide how to interact. It shows as we make decisions about what we will take with us and what we will leave from this 15 month time period.

What is the way forward? It doesn’t look good if we do not do the work of examining our hearts, swallowing our pride and humbling ourselves. It is not “business as usual.” It will require conversation with messy answers instead of relying on assumption. It will require grace and giving the benefit of the doubt. It will require shedding our personas to connect with where others are. It will require time on our knees before a Holy, Kind, Righteous, Gracious, Loving, Just God to see the plank in our own eye before we point out the splinter in another’s eye. It will also require a seeking of Truth and a walking in the freedom and Truth and reality of the Gospel treating others with the same grace that we, who are in Christ, have been given through Christ. The hardest and most important service and work is on this side…our communities depend on it.

***Really hard with caveats that I WILL NOT TAKE FOR-GRANTED–we were able to financially, we did not lose jobs or want for food or supplies, Greg could basically do his job virtually except for speaking on Sunday mornings. So, basic physical and emotional needs of safety were met.

Creatives gotta create!

Intense around these parts, huh?

I needed an outlet to create during Christmas break. I also needed a way to shape something in a purposeful and good way. There’s so much strife, negativity, back-biting. and confusion. We can either drown in feeling stuck or make a positive contribution.

Gay street at sunset in acrylic

It’s been a awhile since I have painted in acrylics, and it was a good challenge to capture all the colors, shadows and reflections of this beautiful sky. Creating helps me walk back into the chaos more settled and calm.

Downtown Knox in watercolor

I love capturing homes and buildings, so when I got a vision to draw and paint iconic buildings in downtown Knoxville, you couldn’t hold me back! Fond childhood memories of these are mixed with college experiences and new memories. For instance, as a child, I remember riding in the back seat after Vols games seeing the glowing lights of tiffani lamps in the building now housing Glitterville. With all those windows and a unique placement on the corner, it’s fun that there are beautiful glowing and shiny displays to carry on the tradition!

We also frequented the 1982 World’s Fair where the Sunsphere fascinated my 8 year old imagination. Fun fact: I was in my 30s the first time I went up!

We spent a LOT of time in Knoxville in my childhood. We lived an hour a way, but between Vol football, my grandmother living in Fountain City, my great aunt living in West Knoxville and my Aunt in South knoxville, we covered our bases! In fact, I saw more of a diverse span of the city then than I do in the day to day now!

Creativity helps the spirit

This has been quite a year, right? That is an understatement.

As my world has gotten a lot smaller, my feelings have gotten bigger. Do you identify?

Creating collages of cities near and dear to me has become cathartic. I love that it is blessing others, as well. It’s really fun to see people gift ornaments and prints to others to pass on memories and to mark special times in life that are connected to certain cities.

One day, after getting some prints made at F32 photo, I walk in and my friend, April, presented me with a fun ornament of my Knoxville block piece. That ornament sparked all of these. Thank you, April. I hope you all enjoy them on your tree and smile for years to come!