Dueling Signs

On our Thanksgiving travels, we ate at this restaurant in small-town Alabama.  Notice the enticing message on the marquee…



Now, in this next photo, please take note of the other sign…the church sign in the background, right smack next door to the restaurant.  See it back there?  If you were driving down the four-lane highway like me, it would be the very next sign you saw.  Like, bam…bam.  A great effect, as you shall see.



I am not a big fan of church signs, except for the ones that have something uplifting to say.  Save the guilt-inducing one-liners…the ones that make me groan and bang my head against the steering wheel…please.

But this church sign, right next to “WE HAVE IT & ITS COLD,” is just too good.





Appleanche - (ap-uh-lanch) - n. - a massive cascade of apples falling rapidly to the floor of the produce department, the result of plucking one or more apples from the pile. 

If it hasn’t happened to you, there is a good chance that you have seen it happen.

I was examining the blush-toned collection of Fuji apples in the grocery store, admiring them in all of their autumn-ness.  The only way to apple shop is to pick one up, check it for worm holes and bruises, and then discard it, even if you don’t see any real problems with it.  You just have to know if the other ones somehow look better than your first choice.  Keep your options open.  Pick up another, discard.  Pick up another, discard.  (This is why we wash our produce.  Carefully.)APPLES

Locking my eyes on one especially delectable specimen, knowing it was destined to be mine, I seized it.  Which set off a disastrous chain of events.  The removal of that specimen dislodged its Fuji neighbors, who began to plunge to the ground in protest, kamikaze-style.  One, two, three…and then…lots. 

I watched in slow motion. 

Oooohhhh noooooo.  What have I done?  It’s too late.  Too late.  Too late.  There is no stopping gravity. 

I watched as the apples rolled and rolled and rolled, all the way to the feet of other produce department shoppers, who graciously helped me pick them up in my embarrassment.

How many times have I believed that I was plucking one thing (because surely one thing won’t hurt), only to wind up with a big old mess at my feet?  Didn’t Eve believe that in the Garden?  Just one Fuji.  It’s not going to matter.  It’s not going to bring down the whole mountain of apples.  The whole mountain of humanity.  No way! 

But it did. 

In fact, that was the appleanche that started it all.  A cascading mess of original sin that has rolled and rolled and rolled throughout the generations…all the way to my own pair of feet that step in it far too often.  Countless apples littering the ground, littering the whole earth. 

Oooohhhh nooooo.  What have we done?  We didn’t mean for it to happen.  We are ashamed of the mess we’ve made of things.  Like a shiny apple that has hit the ground at a stunning velocity, broken humanity sees itself as bruised and sullied inventory.

That is what we are.

Until we find ourselves at the feet of Jesus.  Jesus, who does not discard us with disdain, but rather, picks us up with care, healing our bruises and damaged places and setting us right where we belong.  Jesus, whose love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), whose love covers our embarrassment, whose love chooses to forget our past appleanches (Hebrews 10:17).  He is the One who fixes the mess.  The only One who can clean it up.

It’s Thanksgiving. 

It is the time to fall…on His grace.


When Profile Pics Come to Life

It should be clear by now that I have long been conflicted about social media – what it’s doing to communication in our culture, how we have come to rely on it more than we should, how it tempts us to share too much and retreat into online relationships instead of real ones, and how invasive it is.

But there is another side to it all that I cannot deny.  The fascinating side.  The side that makes us stand back and recognize that something revolutionary is happening.  The world is connected in every way, it’s so easy to get information, you can reach anyone at any time, news unfolds in real time when it’s live-tweeted, and the entire world is on youtube.  If technology gets any more fantastic, our brains might explode at any minute.  Sometimes I feel that way.

yourchica and me Take, for instance, my friend Christina, who joined me for lunch today at the halfway-point between our two cities.  She’s a talented artist, a like-minded blogger, and a kindred spirit.  I would never have had the privilege of knowing Christina…ever…had it not been for that thing I enjoy bashing so much.  Social media.  Christina began following my tweets two years ago.  But it was not until today that we had the chance to sit down over a meal and talk face-to-face, which is always supremely better than electronic conversation. 

So I have to give credit to twitter for it, a little grudgingly.  On the very rare occasions that I have been able to meet the real people behind postage-stamp sized profile pictures, I have noted in each case that you can only learn so much about a person through words on a screen.  You may think you know someone through their writing, but you really don’t.  On a screen, you don’t hear vocal inflections…see facial expressions…observe hand gestures and mannerisms. 

Making cyber-acquaintances used to carry the stigma of being weird and risky. An activity reserved for computer geeks.  Of course, it is essential in 2011 to remain guarded and smart about what you share and don’t share online.  I still shudder remembering the status updates I saw ticking by on Facebook when I had a personal account.  Most people know by now that you should not post your phone number, address, job complaints, stupid party pictures, upcoming vacation plans, or your drama that nobody wants to know about.  But no longer is it considered weird to converse with a stranger through social media, and no longer is it inherently dangerous, as long as the above rules are followed.

Look how far we have come in just a few short years - how much more we are willing to put out there, for better or for worse, than we were in the not-too-distant past.  The general sentiment out there is that since we are all doing it, it must be okay.  Eh, right? 

Three years ago, I was hesitant to allow a picture of my face to surface on the Internet.  Consider the contrast in the year 2011.  I now have youtube videos, blog posts, tweets, and a Facebook fan page.  Most of the people in your own circle of acquaintances have, at the very least, posted a picture of their face on the web somewhere.  A sea of human faces floating around in your computer.  Isn’t that odd to think about?  With all those faces and people in there, it’s only natural that some of them meet in the computer first, and in real-life second, rather than the other way around. 

I am grateful for today’s happy lunch meeting.  I might say that I owe it to technology, but it is better said that I owe it to the Lord, the ultimate designer and crafter of all friendships and divine appointments.  The God of everything allowed technology to be the vehicle by which we would cross paths in real life.  (I like to ponder strange serendipitous-ness.)

Some of you are still faces in my computer that talk to me.  I know that on the other side of that profile picture and bio is a real person.  Somebody who, in many cases, I would like to have coffee with one day.

What about you?  Were you reluctant at first to establish an online presence?  Have you ever had a face-to-face meeting with a cyber-friend?  Have you become less guarded about what you share, or more guarded?  What are your thoughts about how different life is now, compared to 5 years ago?


Whatever Happened with that Jordan Idol Thing?

Today I’m bringing up a story from the archives on its anniversary.

It’s from a pretty long time ago. But every now and then, someone will still ask me… “Hey, whatever happened with that crazy Backstreet Boys singing contest thing that you did?”

OK, first of all, it was not Backstreet Boys. But if that’s you, then read on.

I am re-posting the complete story below to refresh your memory. There, I have included a loosely-defined “update” for those of you who wonder.


November 22, 2009
In my imagination, I climb into the DeLorean and race back to 1990 to warn my 13-year-old self that, 20 years later, I would be doing the unthinkable. Initially, my 13-year-old self just stares at me in bewilderment and wants to know when I had gotten crow’s feet around my eyes and whether or not my hair color is natural. And after we get the other routine questions out of the way (Who will I marry? How many kids will I have? Boys or girls? Where will I live?), we get down to important matters.

“There’s something you need to know,” I say to my young self. “It may seem a bit much to take in right now, but just bear with me. In fact, you might want to sit down.”

Teenage me slowly eases into a chair.

“In 2009, you are going to sing for New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight in an audition. Of sorts.”
You see, in 1990, he was all THAT…
nkotb old
and (cringe) here in my room, I was THIS…
jen in nkotb room

In typical, hormonally-charged teenage fashion, my 13-year-old self leaps out of the chair and launches into a disbelieving tirade. “No way! You are lying. Don’t manipulate my emotions like that!”

“Calm down, Me. I’m not making fun of you. It’s true. I just thought you should know.”

With that, 33-year-old me mysteriously disappears, with fairy-godmother type sparkles left in my place. (This is my made-up story. I don’t need a DeLorean.) And teenage-me is left standing there breathlessly, hands shaking. She is a skinny little kid with bird legs and puffy permed bangs whose voice quivered whenever she sang in front of the church. How in the world was she going to have the guts one day to sing in front of Jordan Knight? It didn’t matter. She would figure it out later. Regaining her wits, she reaches for the phone to squeal the news to every single New Kids on the Block fan friend she ever had.
Fast-forward to November, 2009. Jordan Knight, now in full-fledged reunited boyband mode…
nkotb …is holding auditions across the country in the hopes of finding background singers for his album or even duet partners (and of course, though not explicitly stated, in the hopes of ingeniously creating a buzz to surround an upcoming solo album.)
Thirty-three-year-old me, now in full-fledged soccer mom mode, knew the time had come. I was under no illusions about what the prospects would be for me. Still, though the past 20 years had not given me voice lessons, they had provided me a good bit more singing experience and some more confidence than I had in my bird-legged days. “How could I NOT go?” I asked my husband. “Just to say I did it. To be there, for the fun of it all.” Knowing the history I had with my favorite group from days of old, he had no real answer to that question. Actually, he understood, and made the statement that a comparable experience for him might be receiving a touchdown pass from Dan Marino in a Super Bowl against the 49'ers, or being Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader...his childhood fantasies. So I went with his blessing and his encouragement, one of the many reasons that I have the greatest husband in the world.

In the days preceding the event, my stomach started to tie up in knots and the insomnia kicked in. Am I really going to do it? I thought to myself. And why am I freaking out like this? I was used to singing in front of a church. But THIS…this was different.
Here is the “teaser” video that came out just prior to the Atlanta event. Just watching it made me want to throw up.
What had started in the initial planning stages as a van-load of girlfriends traveling together had dwindled down to only one person – myself. One by one, everyone’s plans fell through, some even at the last minute. My true blue friend who was planning to accompany me all along wound up in the hospital that week. But standing in line outside the venue, I made new friends and met up with an old one I had not seen in ten years. The blockhead community at work.
Inside, my nervousness reached a new level and continued to skyrocket when Jordan Knight came on stage to welcome everyone and the judges were introduced. And when fellow New Kid Donnie Wahlberg took his place on the judges’ couch as a surprise guest judge later in the evening, I started to think this was all too much for me. I stood in the “singers line” waiting my turn to perform and enjoyed watching an endless parade of mostly amateurs getting our moment, as if we were all loyal subjects entertaining royalty. It was encouraging to note that no one was criticized, mocked, or ridiculed by either the judges or the crowd, in American Idol fashion. On the contrary, everyone got a polite response, whether it was deserved or not.

Later, as the line snaked past Jordan himself backstage, the girl in front of me told him that we were nervous. And I said, stupidly, “You have no idea.” I quickly amended that statement to, “Well, I guess you do have some idea.” He said that now we know how he feels. (Really? Jordan Knight still gets nervous?)

When Donnie Wahlberg squeezed past us, I had the opportunity to look right into the infernal dark glasses that he insists on wearing indoors and to tell him that I had written the blog he had tweeted recently. As it registered, he spread both his arms out and wrapped me in a big bear hug. I thanked him for sharing that link with the fans.
“What are you thanking me for?” he said, smiling. “You wrote it.”

He graciously signed a copy of it that I had brought along, and then he started to read the whole thing again. I stood there beside him, awkwardly, and I finally said, “Um, you don’t have to read it now.”
“I remember this,” he said. “I actually read the whole thing. And that’s good for me because I have ADD.” I wanted to give him a gold star.

By that time, it was almost my turn. As Jessa, the nice girl in front of me destined to become my cruise roommate, sang “Amazing Grace,” my nervousness started to ease up. I found my feet carrying me forward, and Kendrick Dean, the emcee, putting his arm around my neck, asking me my name, where I was from, and what I was singing. “But I gotta say my twitter name,” I said, since he had asked previously asked each contestant what their twitter name was, and it was relevant to the song I was about to sing, a re-write to the old NKOTB song, “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.”

In that moment, I realized why I had been so nervous all along. What if the re-write flopped? What if the crowd just blankly stared at me and didn't get it? It was terrifying. But it was too late for what-ifs. I was on the stage.

“I’m not that kind of girl with a five-star VIP,” I sang, referencing the high-priced concert meet and greet tickets. The crowd responded with laughter, and Jordan did, too. I felt more comfortable. I started to warm up. “There’s just so much that I wanna say,” I sang. “But when I try to tweet, all the spam gets in the way!” When I finished, Jordan jumped up from the judges' sofa and reached up to hug me, and Donnie was on his feet. “That’s why I had to say my twitter name,” I said.
Here is a clip that captures most of it…
And here is the 45-second clip of the reaction of the “judges”…Jordan Knight in white shirt and black tie, Donnie Wahlberg in baseball cap and vest…

I floated off the stage. My teenage heart was soaring, not because of any abilities I have, but because I set out on a solo adventure to pursue a long-forgotten dream. I went that night all because my teenage self told me to. Her voice does not often surface, and when it does, I don’t always listen to her. But every now and then, she has a pretty good idea. I pause to consider it. And if she’s lucky, I carry it through. So, teenage me, I'm glad you're still a part of my life. I hope you’re still around 60 years from now when I’m 93. Because then, I’m certain, we could really have some fun.

Laurie and me standing in line at Jordan Idol
Atlanta, GA

Addendum: Two years have passed. As far as we know, no word ever came to anyone about the results. It simply “is what it is.” Or rather, it was what it was. Could it have been a PBI, maybe? A partially-baked idea? It seemed good to everyone at its inception. Make no mistake, it was. But I suspect that it was too complicated to carry it through to a resolution, for any number of reasons which I would not presume to speculate upon.
A nebulous ending might very well be for the best. That night in Atlanta brought some great friends into my life that I would have never known otherwise, and for that reason alone, it was worth it. (Well, that…and the whole dream-come-true bit.) I have no regrets.
We still don’t know why you went through all that trouble, Jordan. It remains a mystery. But no matter. We’re glad you did. Thanks for the memory.


Operation Christmas Child: It’s Not Too Late

Many of you are familiar with Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse.  Every Christmas, millions of shoeboxes full of small gifts and supplies are distributed to needy children all over the world as a way of sharing the love of Christ.  Last year in particular, 8 million shoeboxes went out.  (Eight million!)  Today I’ve spent some time watching videos and stories about individual children who received not only shoeboxes, but a touch from God that was, in many cases, life-changing.  I couldn’t stop watching their faces lighting up.  Pure joy. 

This is Ralph’s story.  It’s only 3 minutes long.  See the impact on his life.  You will not be able to remain unmoved by it.

The wonderful thing about this ministry is that anyone can participate, and it’s so easy.  You just get a standard size shoebox from your closet or a clear plastic box, pack it with small toys and school supplies and hygiene items (complete list of suggestions and printable labels here), and then drop it off at a location near you.  You can wrap it, but you are not required to do so.  Simple.


For an additional fun thing to include if you have children, print out an All About Me page for your child to fill out and place in the box.  We have friends who did this last year, and they received a letter and photo back from 3 small Iraqi children with big smiles.  In the photo, the children were playing with the Slinkies and matchbox cars that were in the box.  It was amazing for my friend and her sons to see the culmination and the destination of their efforts. 

One box among 8 million?…you might think.  What does it matter?  One in 8 million seems miniscule.  But your box is destined for one child…one child who is precious in God’s sight. 

And that matters.

It’s like a message in a bottle…you’re sending it out, and you don’t know where it will end up, or whose hands will gently lift out the treasure that you packed.  But God does.  A trip to the Dollar Tree could change the life of someone like Luis, who says he would be in a gang today if it were not for the shoebox he received. 

National Collection Week (the time to drop off your boxes, sending them forth out into the universe) is next week, November 14-21.  Time is short, but it’s not too late.  Please consider the impact you might easily have on a little soul somewhere in the world.


Confessions of a 7th-Grade Clique Member

Everybody likes to belong. At some level, most people look for acceptance and community among other human beings. It’s natural. Even non-conformists like to find community among other non-conformists, whether they admit it or not.

Perhaps the need to belong can be seen in its most evident forms in junior high, when peer pressure becomes a very real, and sometimes ugly, force.

Seventh grade was a year of intersection in my school system.  The highest grade in my elementary school was sixth, as was the case for another elementary school in town.  Both of those elementary schools were funneled into 7th grade at a third school across town, where those kids had been together as classmates ever since kindergarten.  Add the onset of adolescence to the mix, and it was a recipe for widespread misery because essentially, you had 3 camps of kids – the Chalkville kids, the Clay kids, and the Hewitt kids – thrown together and expected to live in harmony in a big melting pot during the universally tempestuous year of 7th grade. 

HT MiddleIt was not exactly harmonious.

At the beginning of that year, I was apprehensive. I loved my little elementary school and I was not keen on the whole melting pot concept. I worried about finding my classes. And having lockers. And of course, above all, belonging.

Homerooms were coldly, impersonally divided by the first letter of your last name. I walked in that first day and saw a “Team Chalkville” friend nearby whose last name began with a letter right next to mine in the alphabet. I lifted up a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the beginning consonant of my last name. Something so insignificant was about to determine my entire 7th grade destiny.

As we nervously whispered to each other, she told me about a marvelous opportunity. Some of her friends, including girls from these intersecting schools, who I had yet to meet (but, no matter) had formed a “group.” She would see about getting me in. I nodded enthusiastically. Ready-made friends? Oh, yes, please! I was introduced to the officers of the group, voted on by secret ballot (yes, truly), and by the end of that first week, found myself belonging. Oh, joy! Mom and Dad, isn’t this fabulous? (They weren’t nearly as thrilled as I was.)

Everything was rosy until I had a falling-out with one of the group members, over what…I didn’t know. And still don’t.  And I went to sit at an unapproved location in the lunchroom because of it. Suddenly, artificially belonging wasn’t quite so much fun anymore.

Because I didn’t.

Thus ended my only real foray into the world of cliques. Thus began my distate for elitism.

Somehow I got through it. Like everybody does. I believe that those girls, looking back on history, would now join me in shaking our heads at our immaturity…and wondering why we behaved that way.

We behaved that way because, given the chance, people will do anything to feel accepted, and it starts young. Sometimes adults behave that way, too. Maybe not with secret ballots, but with plenty of nonverbal signals. It’s horrible to feel out, it’s good to feel in. I know that those years are approaching for my own children, and I also know that with the advent of many new challenges, the world is different now.

But peer pressure is not.

It has always been there, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

It is amazing how, given the benefit of time, things that seemed so important back then are not nearly as important now.

Not important at all.

I wish I could have had a little talk with my young self and told her that. It would have saved her a lot of heartache.

I would have told her that the girl she would sit with at the unapproved lunchroom table would remain her closest friend, 23 years later. I would have told her not to take everything so hard. I would have told her Jesus loves her unconditionally. I would have told her that other kids aren’t thinking about her nearly as much as she is afraid they are. I would have told her that, in many ways, the adult world is easier than the kid world. And that she would get there one day.

One day.

Sooner than she thinks.


The Devastating Mississippi Miracle

I am not a sports writer, but I am sort of pretending to be one today.

I am a football fan. (Admittedly, sometimes fickle in my devotion. Yeah, I’ll just go ahead and own that.) But a fan who has never changed her original allegiance. I come from a long line of fans. I am married to a fan. I have fans for children. I love football weather and the thrumming, anticipatory drum line beating in the distance. I might not know the technical definition of “holding,” or be able to spot it myself, or explain exactly what happens in overtime, or what constitutes illegal procedure, but I can certainly hold my own in following a game.

Those are my qualifications, paltry as they are, and thus, I begin.

millsapsThis past week, I was reminded of something big that went down on a fall afternoon four years ago. Something incredible that has since made its place in the annals of football history, something that stunned the football-watching world and will no doubt live on for all eternity on youtube.

The Miracle in Mississippi.

It was Trinity University vs. Millsaps College. San Antonio, TX vs. Jackson, MS. Division III. ESPN junkies will remember. Trinity’s last-minute play, almost laughable in its far-fetchedness, left everyone’s jaws on the ground and everyone’s heads shaking in disbelief. Once the explosive footage made its way to youtube and ESPN, it became evident that the impossible had suddenly…bizarrely…become possible.

Now, all of you pseudo-football-fans (i.e. girls like me) need to understand something technical about football before you watch this play. You need to know what a lateral is.

In American football, a lateral pass or lateral, officially backward pass, occurs when the ball carrier throws the football to any teammate behind him or directly next to him (i.e. on or behind a line running through the ball and parallel to the line of scrimmage). A lateral pass is distinguished from a forward pass, in which the ball is thrown forward, towards the opposition's end zone. In a lateral pass the ball is not advanced, but unlike a forward pass a lateral may be attempted from anywhere on the field by any player to any player at any time.
Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/lateral-pass#ixzz1cPcAsFTb

Got it, girls? It means you can throw the ball to somebody behind you or beside you, but not in front of you. Trinity was down, they had one chance to win, 2 seconds left in the game, and they executed 15 laterals. FIFTEEN! A miracle! What are the odds? And, the real question, why am I sharing this here?

Because for the guys on the Millsaps team, it was not a miracle at all. It was utter horror and devastation. One of those linebackers was my brother-in-law Canaan Farris, who stood on the sidelines when it all unfolded. I remember him saying later that it literally made him sick. Recently, he was quoted several times in an ESPN article about the anniversary of that fateful game…how he desperately wanted to run on to the field and tackle somebody, but couldn’t. His hands were painfully tied as he watched a train wreck of a game-changer happen, described in the article as a “circus,” and he had no way to prevent it.

See it happen here. Take note of the announcers who lose all dignity and self-control at the end, and the poor Millsaps players who litter the field like fallen soldiers as the play culminates in a game-winning Trinity touchdown.

There is no way those Trinity players could have practiced such an intricate, nuanced play. It just happened! One lateral after another. Those guys found themselves tossing that ball, and tossing that ball, and tossing that ball again…and somehow, every time, it stuck into the hands of a teammate. Like glue. Surely the players were as disbelieving as the opposing team, who chased them like frustrated predators whose prey continued to elude capture.

My hubs likes to say that football is like life. When I am not rolling my eyes, I am admitting that I can see why he says that. So what have we learned about life today?

From the Trinity perspective, we’ve learned that when the chips are down, it is pretty plain to see that those chips just might not be the last word. There is always hope, no matter how far-fetched or unreasonable it may seem. Especially when there’s a good friend around who has got our back, who will catch our desperate ball when we toss it to them, a teammate and fellow pilgrim on the journey who will carry that load with us in a Galatians 6:2 manner. I am grateful to have some people like that in my life who catch my laterals when I lob them wildly. They know who they are.dominoes

From the Millsaps perspective, we’ve learned that sometimes, good days can quickly turn bad, and bad days can quickly get worse, in a piling-on sort of way, and you watch helplessly as the dominoes fall. Boo. It happens. But when the world is running circles all around you, all over the place…you can’t seem to catch a break…there’s only 2 seconds left…you’re missing tackles and lying spread-eagle on the field on defeat, get back up. You’ll live to fight another day. Millsaps did. They had to put aside stinging heartache and pull themselves together to face Trinity the following year, in which they carried out sweet vengeance upon their opponent.

Now…stay with me…instead of viewing these as mutually exclusive, let’s put the two lessons together, since we have now witnessed the perspective of both the winning team and my valiant-hearted bro-in-law from the other side. Both cases are true. Both happen to us. Neither happen all the time. If one is witness to some amazing answer to prayer…dare I say, a miracle…then, by definition, it only comes on the heels of desperate circumstances. And if, on the other hand, one is in the throes of despair, then there is generally nowhere to go but up. That’s why I like this story so much, even while my heart goes out to Canaan’s team.

So, you see, I have to say it. I can’t help but see it, even in a football play. We take our knocks, but the knocks are not the last word. And this is what believers know.

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:9

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