Box baby and my brother’s camera

Boy runningSuicide is hard. The way of death seems to define a life.

Entering the world is also hard; it’s often painful and awkward.

Before I got pregnant, I had the blessing to attend the births of my nieces. What an experience! I could feel a spiritual presence. The lighting was low and warm. Both times my sister-in-law snuggled her baby on her soft chest and rested in a glowy ease.

My own experience giving birth was bloody and medical; it involved screaming—my own. My son’s lungs weren’t strong enough to cry. The lights were bright. The machines were beeping. Six or seven medical professionals ushered my son in the world six weeks early. They placed him on my chest for all of two seconds. Then they whisked him off to intensive care to give him help breathing. His underdeveloped lungs weren’t quite ready to sustain his own life.

It wasn’t a joyous time. I was terrified of losing him. I had been on bed rest during my pregnancy for five months. Finally my baby had arrived, but it was still dicey. Would he live? Would he have developmental problems?

My brother and sister-in-law came to the hospital to meet my son. I took them on a walk through shiny halls to the neonatal intensive care unit. We looked through the window at the small wire-covered baby inside a plastic box. They said he was beautiful. They congratulated me. It was hard to hear them. The sound of my worry was loud in my head.

My brother said, “You need a camera?” He pulled the strap over his head and gave me his camera.

A film camera was an extravagant present in the mid-1990s. I couldn’t have afforded one myself. I accepted the gift with a grateful heart.

I took many shots of my new baby, tiny in his box. I paid extra to have my photos developed in one hour. I could visit my son four times a day in the neonatal intensive care. In between visiting times, I gazed at the photos of him. The camera was the perfect gift at just the right time.

My baby lived. I took many photos of him growing up. Now my son is a strong young man who runs fast.

My brother died of suicide. I remember him, and I work on remembering his generosity. I want the stories of his life to overcome the difficulty of his death. It’s a process.

Right now, you have a gift that is a tiny seed waiting in your heart. Its power will only grow once you place it in the heart of another. It might be the act of giving away a possession like a camera. It could be an act of service, honest words, a homemade meal, a hug or a smile for a stranger. I challenge you to give this gift this week.

Will your gift stop suicide? I don’t know.

I do know generosity softens the world, and our world could use softening.


God, bless us to give
in your name.
Strengthen us to love
in your name.
Challenge us to change
in your name.

Tell me your thoughts!

What is on your heart to give this week?

4 free lessons from the Little Drummer Boy

daisiesAs I begin my new book project, I struggle with that voice that says, “You’re not good enough.” While I can’t quiet the voice, I can remind myself that this book is my offering to God. I’ve been thinking of the Little Drummer Boy.

My mother was one to listen to Christmas songs year-round, or at least starting in August. She would break out the Mannheim Steamroller vinyl and turn the stereo up to at least 7.

She loved the classics as well as electronic music. One of her favorite songs was the Little Drummer Boy. This song tells the story of a young boy with nothing to give the baby Jesus. With Mary’s blessing, he plays his drum.

Without fail, my mother cried every time it came on.

I seem to have inherited her Little Drummer Boy crying syndrome. Now when I hear the song, I remember her feeling so touched. It brings tears to my own eyes.

The simplicity of the story means each generation can learn from the little drummer boy.

Give now. Don’t wait to be an expert to give your best to God.

The little boy didn’t say, “Wait, I need to take some drum lessons and get better before I offer my song. I will come back in a few years.”

As I was talking to my husband about the song, he said he imagines the little drummer boy played the drum the way young children play drums, in a clumsy, charming way. The song doesn’t say, “Then the very best child drummer—a kid so good that had he been on YouTube 2,014 years in the future, he would have had 1 million views—played for Jesus.” It only says that he played.

Be a proud beginner.

As adults, we get caught up in looking like we know what we’re doing. How we look seems to matter more than what we feel and experience. How many new things do we avoid because of fear and the idea of “I don’t want to look stupid”?

Children are beginners at everything, even self-consciousness. They haven’t learned to be self-conscious.

What if we approached something new with an attitude of openness without worrying about how we look?

Remember it’s OK to look like a beginner. It means you are beginning something new!

Offer what you have with your heart.

The boy was motivated by his love for the Lord in this song. He could have gotten caught up in self-pity that he had no frankincense.

Whether you are offering a prayer, a smile, a glass of water or a devotional—do it with spirit and goodwill. Let your love for the Lord motivate you. Whatever you have to give, if you give it with love, it will be enough.

Be present to the moment of giving.

The boy wasn’t half-drumming, distracted by the score of a game. He focused on what he was giving.

How often are you present? All the time? Most of the time? Or like me, sometimes, here and there, when I am not distracted by ponies and to-do lists?

Think of a Japanese tea ceremony with its deliberate patience. Instead of tossing your offering in an off-hand way, present it with intention.

Center yourself and give part of yourself. The recipient of your generosity will feel your presence. You will gain more from the giving.

Give well.


Lord, let us give what we can now:

Smiles to the lonely,
Peace to the troubled,
Food to the hungry,
A hand to the stumbling,
An ear to those not heard.

If we don’t have big tithes
or fancy prayers,
time for overseas missions
or prayerful retreats,
let us give what we can now:

A kind word,
A welcome,
A thank you.

Let us be the people who turn around
someone’s day.

Guide us to become people who give
as you give:
extravagantly, excessively,

Tell me your thoughts!

How have you been blessed this week? What will you give out of love for God? What would you like to learn?

Servant’s art

scuplture of woman with green trees

scuplture of woman with green treesI recently had an thought-provoking conversation with my friend, Jenny McGee. She talked about changing from an artist who used painting as self-expression to becoming an artist whose work serves others. Her focus has widened to encompass a participatory process with multiple people.

I have been turning over this nugget of an idea in my mind ever since.

There is art I make because I have so many feelings that I need somewhere to put them. This is art as self-expression, art as an external container.

There is art we make because others need our art. It fills an individual or community lack.

An example of art for others is the Field of Empty Chairs. The 168 chairs represent the lives taken on April 19, 1995 in the Oklahoma City bombing. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children. (from the Oklahoma City Memorial)

This art is a testament to both agony and healing; we mourn and we endure.

A world in need of your art

See what you can do to fulfill a need. You can be a translator of our existence. Where are common stuck places? What is often confusing? Use your abilities to bring light where others are in the darkness.

When you do art for others, you make them feel worthy of living in a world of art.

Your art is a gift. There is no more “my work isn’t good enough.” There is only “my offering.” Aspire to follow the little drummer boy as your guide.

Right now is your time. The chair with your name on it has a person in the world who can move, give and serve. People need your art.

Paint, take photos, sculpt, throw pots, crochet and draw for others. Show them what they have forgotten. Your symbols will remind them of eternal truths.

Sing, dance and act for others. Let them hear you. Your song will lighten their day.

Write for others. Tell them what they need to hear. Your words will clarify their experiences.

You, my readers, bring me joy. I appreciate the opportunity to serve you with this blog! 😀


Lord, use our hands
to make the pictures
people need to see.

Lord, use our voices
to sing the songs
people need to hear.

Lord, use our arms
to make the quilts
people need for rest.

Make us your servant-artists,
coloring the world to match your
brilliant vision of abundance, kindness and love.

Tell me your thoughts!

Where can you share your art as an act of service? If you let go of “not good enough,” what kind of art would you offer to others?

A guide to gift-giving: the single gift you need to give

heart in hand

heart in handMy father was a successful executive when I was growing up. I was the only child at home in the 1980s. I remember fat times and lean times. During the good times, we lived in a nice subdivision and ate at fine Chicagoland restaurants.

When things were going well, our Christmas tree had presents that stretched out beyond the branches of the tree to the edge of the room. My parents were generous. I opened lavish and luxurious gifts: cashmere sweaters, a Casio keyboard, Atari 2600 game system, new leather tack for my horse and an electric typewriter.

When it was a time of unemployment, the tree branches overhung a handful of small boxes. The contrast from flush years made it seem like we were in desperate times. We weren’t, but I was too young to understand the difference between belt-tightening and true financial trouble.

In my life, I have experienced both extremes of luxury and poverty. Because of my experience at both ends, I wanted the holiday to stay modest for my son. I wanted to be sure that I could be consistent.

A time to spend, a time to wrap

What are your memories of Christmas?

Do you splurge on gifts? Do you show your love through gift-giving? Do you spend more money than is comfortable for your family’s financial situation?

This time of year encourages us to be financially irresponsible in the name of Christmas. We see romanticized ads showing happy families due to the perfect purchased items. Everyone looks joyful.

Yet our families haven’t changed just because it’s snowing and the nights are long. They will stay our families: wonderful, annoying, entertaining, vexing.

One of the best Christmas gifts I get from my mother-in-law is a long letter from her heart that she includes with the gifts she sends. She writes about the qualities she appreciates in me. I keep these notes in my journal and enjoy looking back at them.

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Slow down, dang it! It’s Christmas!

The typical Christian message this time of year is to slow down and remember the real reason of the season. I’m all for that. I also know that this is one of the fullest and busiest times of the year for me. I go to more parties, do more baking and shop more than any other month. It’s unlikely I will have wide swaths of time for prayer and reflection.

But I can take ten minutes to write a few notes. I will tuck them in the presents. I will let the people in my life know why they matter.

Interested in writing some too? Here are some ideas with examples:

  • Say how the person affects you. Describe details about what you appreciate and why, such as, I appreciate how responsible you are with the animals when I come home late from work. It means so much to know they’ve been fed and watered. It’s a great feeling to be able to walk in the door and relax instead of deal with six hungry mouths.
  • Include something unique. List a quality your loved one might have, such as, I appreciate your ability to laugh off irritating situations at work. It is such a better commute home together when you are upbeat instead of depressed, despite a tough day.
  • Tell the story of a specific memory about something that happened during the year that stood out to you. After you got your driver’s license, you offered to go get groceries for us. I thought that was so generous and helpful.
  • Keep it short. Don’t feel like you need to go on for pages. A paragraph or two is plenty. You have a way of lightening the room when you smile. I appreciate your good nature even when I’m grumpy. Thank you for being a sunny person!
  • Do it now. One note of a few words today is worth more than the intention to write everyone you know entire novelettes. You have been there for me through three dozen hairstyles. Thank you for keeping the mullet jokes to a minimum.

Going forward, all the latest fancy gadgets will become quaint and outdated (remember the Atari and Casio I mentioned?). Clothing will get worn out. The popular games and music will be replaced by desire for the next new thing.

They might lose the notes you write, but the messages you give to your loved ones will be written on their hearts.

The effect of a love letter never ends. Write yours today!

Big Thank You Book Giveaway: my poetry book!

Have you gotten a note you treasure? Whom do you plan to write a note to? How is this Advent season going for you? Let me know anything on your mind and heart in the comments! I have my fifth and last book to give away and everyone who leaves a comment will get a chance to win it. It is my book of poetry from 2011 titled take. I will draw on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 at 3 p.m. Good luck!

Ultramen in handmade sweaters

ultramenMy mother knitted them for my niece’s Barbie dolls. She followed careful patterns to make sweaters, pants and dresses. She counted stitches. She included details of stripes and snaps, elastic waistbands and ribbing on the cuffs.

She must have used tiny knitting needles. The little loops curl around one another in rows, neat as bowling pins with equal distance between each one.

How satisfying it must have been to make the miniature outfits! A whole wardrobe could be finished in a week.

Making clothing for adults can be tedious. You never notice how big a grown man is until you try to knit a sweater for him! You notice how strange our heads are shaped once you wrestle with the angles of making a hat fit.

Dolls make perfect models. Never growing, they stand ready to pose in your latest fashion. They won’t stretch out the sleeves or wear out the elbows.

A new purpose

My niece grew up. The dolls—no longer needed—waited for a fashion show that never came in southern weather unsuited for sweaters.

Because of my interest in all things yarn, my sister asked if I wanted the Barbie clothes.

“Of course! Sounds fun!” I said.

She mailed me the clothes in an envelope the size of a thin paperback.

I admired them and put them in a box. The sweaters waited.

Meanwhile, my husband’s Ultramen protected the bookshelf from attack. They stood unyielding in molded red plastic armor.

The realization struck me. Sweaters are made to be worn, not stored in boxes.

These Ultramen need sweaters! I got them dressed immediately.

Could my mother imagine her creations would decorate Japanese plastic superheroes from the 1960s? Would she be distressed—or delighted?

After we’ve made something, we can’t control how it’s used. We can make it with joy and give it away with our best hopes. Once it’s out of our hands, it goes in its own direction.

What are you making now that will outlast you?

Her work—with its unintended purpose—continues to produce joy.

Proud Ultramen in knitted glory look out from their bookshelf across the vast bedroom. They are never cold, always cozy, cheering us up every time we see them.

Ultramen in hand knit sweaters—the silliness of it, the wonderfulness of it, life!

Give that horse a banana!

Devon sees the bananaWhat’s the typical thing to give a horse as a treat? Apples and carrots, right? But I know a horse named Devon who is different. Devon loves bananas.

When he sees that I have a banana, his eyes brighten, his ears perk up and he’s quick to the door. He even licks my hand afterward to get every taste of banana he can. Bananas are from heaven for Devon.

Do you give what you expect your loved ones to want (apples and carrots) without knowing for sure if it is their heart’s desire (bananas)?

Time to play games

I used to get my husband books, candy and clothes. Those were things he liked and they were easy to buy. Then I realized the sweetest treat I could give him wasn’t anything sugary. It would be playing games with him. Now I make time to play card games like Blitz and bluffing games like liar’s dice.

A friend told me listening and kind words are her banana. She appreciates when someone pays close attention to her feelings and responds by saying the things she needs to hear in that moment.

A pack of gum

After I graduated from college, I went overseas for an internship. There I met Rachel from Oklahoma. As the only young Americans working in a small town in Belgium, we were drawn together. Over a dinner of pasta as we got to know each other, she told me her dreams about how her future husband would be. What she said has stayed with me for two decades.

“He wouldn’t bring me roses on Valentine’s Day. I don’t want flowers when everyone else gets them. I’d love a pack of gum on an ordinary day if he brought it home to me and said, ‘I thought of you at the gas station and got this gum for you.’ Just knowing my husband had thought of me would be better than Valentine roses,” she said.

Since our time overseas, Rachel married and has been with her husband for 14 years now. While away on business, her husband recently posted a photo on Facebook of a beer on a Friday night. Now a cold glass of beer might be enough to make most guys happy, but for the photo caption he wrote, “Just wish my favorite lady was here to share it.” Her husband’s thoughtfulness makes her feel like the most important person in the world. Even thousands of miles away, he always has her on his mind.

Ask, understand, give

Devon enjoys his banana.Often we give what we like to get, or we give the typical choice. Horses eat carrots, right? Instead, ask your loved ones, “What is special to you?” Take time to understand them and their deepest values. Let them surprise you. Work to delight them.

Give that husband a game partner, give that wife a pack of gum and give that horse a banana!

What makes your heart sing? Do you know someone who gives affection in an unexpected way? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!