It’s Friday again. The drive from the gym felt far too short. I barely had time to get some eyeliner on to my tired eyes before we came to an abrupt stop in front of the boxy brown building on Pennsylvania St. that is the Volunteers of America housing for their Fresh Start program. It’s hot today and we both stare out the windshield in front of us, wordless, watching the heat rise off the pavement. David grabs my hand from the driver’s seat, “We should pray….”

“Not yet. I need a minute…were still early!” I whine as I continue to stare unhelpfully out the window at the art gallery across the road. For some reason, I am immediately interested in the random exhibition of the month…something to do with abstract interpretations of furniture, seems impractical, but it’s enough to let me stall a few more minutes. “Early” as I interpret it, is mostly still late by David’s standards, but he squeezes my hand again ignoring my new found passion for the arts and begins.

“God we’re tired again…and distracted. Help us please…show people you…amen.” And that’s it. We’re on. Walter begins to bark from the back seat at a half dressed homeless man ambling past the truck. Like us, this dog is skeptical of the situation he’s found himself in. He’s whinny and unsettled and acutely aware of how short he falls of a proper therapy dog, but he’s getting hot now and would rather get inside no matter the details.

I hop out of the truck onto the street, resolved now that there is in fact no way out but through, and I dodge traffic only to be clobbered by my 90 pound dog as he scrambles out of the truck in a torrent of hair, and misplaced enthusiasm…Therapy dog my ass. I’m now covered with hair and my arm is scratched raw as I help David unload the large totes weighed down with a combination of workout equipment, snacks, and Bibles. I’m grateful for the days we have a few volunteers who can help with the totes and speakers, but a lot of days look like this mad scramble of shuffling and scooting until we at last get to the front door. Once there, the attendant may or may not remember we are coming or let us in.

There have been years this looked different. The first year we split up. I would come downtown early after work; haul all the equipment around with an awkward sense of purpose, workout with a few willing girls and then drive back to pick up David. We would then both drive back downtown to hold a small church service finishing up some nights around 9pm. Most Fridays the staff forgot we were coming, or would tell us the multipurpose room wasn’t available and could we just do it in the cafeteria that smells like stale hotdog water and regret (my description, not theirs).

There were times we’d have 50 girls through an evening and times when no one showed up. There were weeks we drove from one side of Indianapolis to the other for different residential programs. There were months I drove an hour to pick the women up, bring them to our gym for a workout, go through the futility of ordering food for 5 hyped up girls with mental health issues, and then drive them back again stopping as they chanted like children for gas station slushies and cigarettes. There were times we drove out 45 minutes at 10 P.M. to pray for a girl, who thought demons were in her room, or to listen to another girl’s nightmare, or to take another girl to Thanksgiving dinner just so we could stand on her porch while she never came out. She messaged later letting us know she was ok; that she had just taken too many pills and her boyfriend couldn’t wake her up. No harm, no foul.

So 5 years in we look different. 148 Ministries has 30 volunteers in 4 consistent locations. 5 years ago, I prayed for God to send people to help who were better at this than I was, and He did. And before you say, “Aw… they’re not ‘better’” Let me remind you of my aforementioned attitude and stop you right there; I know myself. Over the years these people showed up with talents and abilities David and I don’t possess. They showed up with fun games, and speaking abilities, and a gift for mothering. They showed up with kindness for the outcast, patience for the teenage girl, and an understanding of the felon. They showed up…all different kinds. And for the life of me, when I try to figure out what ministry even is, it always comes down to showing up, ready or not.

This Friday, we are not ready, but we did show up, and the guy buzzing us in knows who we are and I think may be starting to like us a little. For the longest time I was convinced he couldn’t stand us and would delay letting us in hoping secretly that we would give up and go away. A few times I seriously considered it. But today, he seems like he likes us and he talks candidly to Walter who is dragging me around while I try to wheel my overstuffed tote through the second set of locked doors. I push to get through quickly so this guy who is now patiently holding the door for me keeps on liking us, it has become my one goal not to irritate him; I am fixated on his approval in a fairly unhealthy way considering the relationship. I get through pretty smoothly and shout an overly enthusiastic “Thank You!” at him as Walter continues to drag me down the hallway. Whew…I think that went ok…I think.

And that’s where I am today, headed straight into a group of women who’ve lost almost everything. They need encouragement and hope that life gets better, while I cuss at my dog and obsess about whether the guy at the front desk is ok with me.
But I showed up. You get who you get.

The carpet in the multipurpose room is fairly new but the whole space still somehow has its own funk. There are tables and chairs grouped in the middle from the last group and we silently go about moving them against the wall, setting out the food, and finally the workout equipment. I do a similar circuit every time because this program has high turnover and because it’s easier for the girls returning to remember what to do. We bring in fruit, cheese, veggies and cookies because fresh food isn’t always available in these kinds of places. The girls seem to get particularly excited about strawberries and stack them as high as they can on as many plates as they can. I’ve only ever had to break up two fights, and at least one of them was over strawberries. We remind them that they can keep the whole tray when we leave, but it doesn’t matter. Years of scarcity and competition have trained them well enough to know they need to get when the getting’s good.

A girl or two straggle in. It’s now several minutes past the start time of 2:30 but it doesn’t matter anymore. A few more wander in non-commitally enough to let us know that whatever vibe they pick up in the next few minutes will decide whether or not they stay. You’re move. A few more enter and without fail at least one girl pipes up with an exempt from workout excuse.
“Hey I can’t work out with Y’all tho ‘cause I just had a baby yesterday…” or “Hey I can’t work out today because I gotta go to court later and I don’t wanna be sweaty.” Or my favorite, “Um, is it ok that I don’t work out because my boyfriend ran me over with his car and now my ankle don’t work.”
“Got it. Ya girl, sit this one out.”

We start when we think at least most girls are there and after I’ve sent a girl or a staff member back upstairs to make sure no one else wants to come down. A hard schedule doesn’t exist here… until smoke break…for that they have an internal siren in line with Greenwich Mean Time.

I start the music and it’s a tribute to 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop. I ’m not into Christian music for the most part and who doesn’t get turned up by Salt’n Peppa no matter the dismal situation they may be in. I’m yelling instructions and demonstrating at this point because attention comes at a high a price around here and I’ve got to work for every bit of it.
We worship to the musical stylings of Eminem, Busta Rhymes, and Missy Elliot. Most of the girls are old enough to remember what that music felt like in middle school or high school before life got real and the felonies and pregnancies started piling up. A lot of times they entirely forgo whatever exercise I had set up and instead break out into some improvised gyrating. We become a time traveling night club where everyone is sporting house slippers and at least on C- section scar.

Sometimes it’s the Cuban Shuffle, and they ALL get going. For some god forsaken reason, the dances I avoid at weddings are a big hit with the recovery crowd. Other times, a station that was supposed to be a bicep curl or ball slam becomes a twerking exhibition. I always try to get in on this one and match the moves, but either my tight hips or Baptist upbringing have physically compromised me and I am a thrusting nightmare of crippled sexuality. It’s hard to watch and we all start laughing. For a moment, everyone forgets why we’re here. And this is my favorite. This is the thing that I get out of the truck for. For a moment, tattooed and terrified women dance. They pick up a beat or a weight and feel their body again like it used to be before drugs or babies. They Dougie, or cartwheel, or twerk, or lift a weight for the first time since high school soccer practice…and Jesus is there, hand on the volume. They sweat and breathe then give up and try again.

If you can hold your insides still in the middle of the shouting and the excuses and the painfully loud music, you get to see these complicated stories get really very simple. You get to see what Jesus sees… girls, who, before they were hurt or angry or used, just wanted to dance.

The workout doesn’t last long; they don’t have the stamina to go much longer than 20 or 30 minutes. Then we stretch, which most of them prefer anyway, at least the laying on the floor part. The very pregnant and the injured come off of their chairs and join in. I answer questions about food or back pain or losing weight and then dismiss everyone for snacks before the bible study.
We pull chairs into a circle and the girls pile their small plates with cookies and veggies with lots of dip. David is up next and I wrangle Walter so he doesn’t steel anyone’s cheese. I sit somewhere to the side to recover from the chaos of the last hour. Both the women and I are glad that I’ve stopped jumping around and shouting.

David begins by asking the girls where they may have seen God working this week. Their recognition comes in the dismissal of a case or the health of a baby born despite drug use, or in one more day when they didn’t run out of this place. He goes on into one of a handful of different bible stories so paired down and simplified that the church language has been striped clean out of it. Over the years we have adapted to a different culture where you don’t use words like “sanctified,” or “transgression” and you sure as hell don’t make assumptions about a universal understanding of “Christianity,” or “God.” In the middle of a perfectly normal Bible study you are prepared to field questions like, “Is my brother in Hell for committing suicide?” or “can I talk to my dead mother?” or “Hey, what happened to the dinosaurs?”

You stick with Jesus in the muddy waters of reality and you listen and you push for focus on things like love, and forgiveness, and hope. You learn to look for the pulse of the God who weeps with those who weep and restores what the locusts have eaten. You tell stories about the God who waits on the porch and runs toward the worst of us coming home. The One who gets on his knees and looks a naked adulteress in the eyes and asks “Where are your accusers?…” The One who dips his bread into the bowl with his betrayer, and doesn’t try to change things. The God who looks at a man past hope and says, “This day… with me… in paradise.”

We don’t go on about consequences much or use Jesus as a bullet pointed sermon on how to live a good life with no mistakes…it’s a day late and a dollar short for that kind of talk here. But we speak about what we know; that grace has claws for holding on, and that God likes them…terrible parenting, felonies and all. They already understand Hell and consequences, they’ve lived it. But we show up for a moment of their lives to talk about a God who calls us “daughter” in the midst of the bleeding and lets us come back home again.
When it’s over we clean up and drag our totes back out the alarm triggered doors with even less grace than we drug them in. We’re tired and we all have to pee, especially Walter, so we scramble to the restrooms and then exit. Back in the truck, driving home, I’m tired and questioning whether we’re doing anything worthwhile or if any of it matters. We didn’t fix anything. We didn’t get anyone a home or a job, or childcare. We can’t be there every day to solve the overwhelming demands that are going to befall these women the moment they leave the shelter. Most of them will relapse multiple times, they will end up back at VOA or another court ordered program, or they will go back to jail or overdose for the last time. We see them through the years. We get to see the good times and the bad with the ones who stay connected. We don’t fix it for them. We’re just there. And sometimes that just feels useless.

Those are hard little selfish spirals for me. I want to know that I am the best kind of savior and it’s a little nauseating for everyone involved, especially me. But again, if you can hold your insides still in the midst of the demands of the day, the noise, and your screwed up motives, you get to see things get very simple.

Jesus walked the earth for a short time, His ministry lasted 3 years and in that time, he walked around a relatively small geographical region of the earth. He healed hundreds and yet walked past thousands. He forgave, made the blind to see, the lame to walk, and then kept walking. Then He left with one heck of an exit. But He didn’t really fix anything, not at least how everyone thought He would. There was no revolution, no freedom for Israel, no end of persecution. Even the ones who received the miracle of sight were left to figure out what to do with themselves the next morning. Er…get a job, I guess… And what about a year later, when the ability to see just opened their eyes to the suffering around them? What were they supposed to do with that?

And here we all are, tired, scared, and wondering whether we’re doing anything right. A part of us wants to change the world but when we try, we realize pretty quickly that were in it up to our neck. We’re so quick to look for the dove descending on our good deeds from above and we want the solution; the end of the pain for ourselves and others. But a timeless God gave humanity only a moment for a savior. He stopped for a moment and looked us in the eyes to say “I’m the answer…go love like I love.” From that point on it should have been pretty simple. The world was as wrecked then as it is now but the call never stops being simple. Just go. Show up. Bad attitude, wonky emotions, stiff twerking and all. Go do love in whatever way you can.

So that’s what we do. We show up, and we invite others to do it with us. The whole thing starts looking like one community reaching out to another with little to offer but their gaping hearts wide open. No coffee shops, or concerts, or cushioned seats and mostly it doesn’t feel like it’s under any kind of control. But, ready or not, cue the music. Just start moving. After a while, you get over yourself and the hips loosen up…it starts to look like dancing. And you start to realize it’s the only kind of thing worth doing.

We had two more hours to go. 

David looked at me from the driver’s seat and we both knew the game was over. We would need to pull over for a nap before resuming.  We both felt like absolute failures.  I had eaten an entire bag of sour gummy bears in vain.  It was no use.   Nausea and night blindness were overtaking us both, so we stuffed our shame down into places from which it could only reemerge later as a drinking problem or a personality disorder and went to sleep.   David was immediately out; even the dog in the back seat snored and farted comfortably under the warm glow of truck stop lighting. 

I closed my eyes and the sounds of the long day reverberated mercilessly as I phased in and out of gummy bear infused sleep.  I settled in to let my mind review the day on its own and maybe just schedule a meeting to review it with me later. 

We had just left the Jones family Christmas party.  Every year, or almost every year, I make the trek to Michigan.  Every year I think I should maybe do something else this time, but every year, I go anyway. 

Over 70 years ago, I haven’t thought about the math, but my dad is 68, so I can only assume it has been longer than that, Bob and Geraldine Jones started something.   My father is one of twelve children born to the devout Catholic couple emerging as a family out of the Second World War.

Most 30 year olds now with the standard 2.5 children in tow, demand a fully loaded SUV, larger and with more amenities than the farmhouse in which my grandmother raised 12 children.  And yet, she somehow made it seem effortless, at least to me.  She ran her family like a good general, confident in chaos, able to organize fun so that you couldn’t even tell it was organized at all.  Their kids grew up and had kids of their own and by the time I arrived, I was already embedded in an elaborate system of family dynamics that seemed to breathe and play and move all the time.

 Honestly, I cannot even give an accurate number of all my first cousins. I know them when I see them.  And still, year over year, I watch as their own children begin to look so much more like them.  When we’re all together, it’s like a strange time warp occurs and I see us all again, huddled on the floor at Grandmas feet on Christmas Eve, listening to her voice that both sang and cracked at the same time. 

I loved her voice.  And every year, on Christmas Eve, We all got to drink in that salty, sweet, rhythmic voice as she gathered us around to read the Polar Express.  

That’s not how the evening started, however.  It started with standing room only chaos.   Whether you were a Jones or married to a Jones, you were there.  I’ve realized now that most families do this awkward dance between in-laws.  There is a sharing phenomenon that gets played out between the families of adult children with children.  We all scrap for attention and the kids are caught in the exhausted middle trying to please both sets of parents or, God forbid, the ruthless dance of divorced parents.   There is something evil about the way this all goes.  But not back then…not for Grandma and Grandpa Jones…at least not how I saw it.  You went to their house on Christmas Eve.  You wanted to.  But also grandma had the kind of power that compelled you.  She never demanded or used guilt, but you somehow just knew that was where all the warmth was and to do anything else seemed a little wonky.  

You entered the farmhouse from the side porch into a cramped mud room stuffed with coats and boots.  It was a wet carpeted mess of melted snow, and too few wall hooks considering the demand.  From there you could already hear the muffled hum that humans make when large numbers are pressed into small spaces.

 Then into the kitchen, buzzing with women mashing and warming things.  I’ll admit, you never went for the food.  It was made in huge quantities like an army would require and you couldn’t take the kind of time or money a smaller family could in making special fancy things.  But we did have chop suey …lots of it.  I don’t know why.  Maybe someday I’ll ask where it started, but I haven’t asked yet, because it was what I knew, and as far as I knew, why would you even ask?  

At some point the food would all be out taking up the whole dining room table.  This was ok, because no one ever expected to be eating seated at a table.  You were lucky to find something to sit on at all.   Many just hovered around waiting for a spot to open up, many knew well enough not to leave their chair if they had one and were simply committed to never getting up for the bathroom.  Many others leaned on walls and milled around, happy enough to refill their drinks and chat with the sitters and other wandering guests.  There was no elbow room. 

Many of the men would eventually slink out to the zib-zab room, a large front room in grandpa’s pole barn heated by a wood stove and furnished with the most horrifying couch you’ve ever seen.   It was warm and quiet compared to the house, and the couch pulled you in despite, or maybe because of its worn and broken frame…also there was a lot more beer.   I used to think it was called the zib-zab room because of a tool grandpa used to use with when he would do part time work for a local plastic factory.  It made this funny “zibzab” noise so that made sense to me . The actual reason has to do with some sign some guy left there that read zibzab on it…I like my story better.   This is also the place from which Santa would dress and emerge when the time called for it.

I didn’t know this when I was little.  I simply knew that at some point, when the adults seemed to be wrapping up all the eating and mingling,  someone would plop a single chair in the middle of the living room already packed beyond capacity, and Grandpa would sit down with the biggest, most Holiest Bible I have ever seen, to date.   It was goldish all over with the face of Jesus according to Warner Sallman on the very front cover.   From it, Grandpa would read the Christmas story, not the easy one either, the one from the Gospel according to Luke who spared us no details.  Some years went better than others, Sometimes he ended with a dirty joke or took more liberties embellishing than others, but it was always his gravely, monotone voice grinding out the story as recorded by Luke that we got to hear out of that gold Bible.  After this he pulled out his harmonica and played Silent Night as we all sang along.  The mood was somber; our voices were sweet and pure.  And even though the situation was an absolute fire hazard as the huge Christmas tree bulbs lit our hope filled faces and threatened to burn holes in the carpet, I felt safer than I ever have.   I understood for a minute what life was all about.

Next up to the chair was Grandma to lighten the mood a little.  She read the Polar Express all the way through, and we listened all the way through because we knew what came next and the energy was palpable.  Most times, I’m so thankful we didn’t have cell phones growing up.  We were there for all the boring parts of life you miss when your face is in a more interesting screen of unreality.  You actually miss most things, and then later wonder why you ended up so lonely.   But I wish I could have recorded her then.  I wish I didn’t just have to rely on my sticky childhood memories.  Because she was beautiful.  She sat like a humble queen in the middle of us reading a story we had heard many times before.  It didn’t matter.  She was love itself, she made us better than we really were, and I would gladly get lost in a whole world of unreality if it meant I got to hear her read to me again. 

She would finish the story, her eyes would look up knowingly and from somewhere in the kitchen, a single jingle bell would ring.  Then from the belly of the zib-zab room Santa would make his triumphal entry.  The spell was broken and chaos would rein again.  One of my, by now, fairly intoxicated uncles would be the chosen Santa and in donning the uniform, be required to sit in the chair next to distribute presents by name to all us kids.  Inappropriate jokes, lots of awkward lap sitting, and laughter was all there was left in us after such an evening.   It was uncomfortably perfect.   

The kids unwrapped their gifts, the adults exchanged theirs.  Some years the pattern was different.  Some years it seemed like we did things in a slightly different order, but at the end of it all, sometimes many and sometimes only a few stayed in the dimly lit family room to sing half of every Christmas Carol we could remember.   For over 70 years this family has refused to learn all the words to a single carol.  We sing the parts we like and mumble the parts we don’t, then we trail off into the next one with renewed confidence. 

As I lay here at a truck stop in the middle of the night, tired and disillusioned by my own broken expectations, I can’t help but think how they just may have gotten the carol singing right all along.    

It was a long time before I realized that not all Christmas Eves looked like this.  That some families are small and quiet and play board games.  Some families go to Vegas, or Florida, or do nothing at all. Some dads don’t see their kids, some moms are in jail, or high, or are taking selfies with a new husband, and some, never made it through the year.  The day comes around again but someone is gone and they are mourned again. It’s worse now though, because what you’ve lost has a fragrance and color with it… the pain has texture.

It was a long time before I’d realized that Christmas had become pretty disappointing for me too.  It  was a reminder every year that I wouldn’t hear my grandmother’s crackly voice giving orders about what went where or see her looking up mischievously after the last sentence in the Polar Express when the bell would ring.    My first husband’s family was of the quiet, board game variety.  It was a nice change in some ways, but small families seemed kind of sad to me, and I never quite got my footing when there was no uncle in a Santa suite, no singing…no chop suey.

 David has his own baggage.  His childhood memories lie in stark contrast to the Christmas he was able to have with his own children after the divorce when the kids were still very young.  The kids are probably ok… they don’t know any different… but he does, and so do I.   Maybe it’s just the price of growing up and living out the consequences of all our terrible decisions.  That’s probably likely.   But also I think Christmas has always been a bit of a mix bag of expectation and disappointment.

 Hope broken down by what we thought it would look like and the big hairy thing we’re looking straight at in disbelief and denial instead.  Right from the jump, God’s plan for reconciliation with humans was a real bummer.   I suppose it’s lovely to have a baby and all, and to have angels say nice things about you.  But also you’re having it in a barn, with no epidural, and your family thinks you’re a whore, all those tight lipped smiles at the baby shower… oh yeah, and now the current government wants to kill it.  But just hang in there, 30 years later, things get real uncomfortable.   Other than that… Peace on earth. 

It’s a perspective thing.  This probably didn’t comfort Mary a whole lot when she learned about the slaughter of all the baby boys just like hers in the village she had recently fled.  Seriously, what have we done to this holiday that would require the expectation of perfection and peace?

Christmas annually fails to live up to my childhood memories.  I am older and all too aware that the holiday doesn’t go well for so many…that their own lofty memories are dashed by their current reality.  Death, divorce, and dysfunction are breathing down the necks of us all and are called into sharp focus around Christmas.  If you live long enough, you know what I mean.  It’s just a real mess.   There’s not one person who doesn’t get seriously, clinically disappointed this time of year.  If you haven’t been, then it’s you.  You are the disappointment. 

But it’s ok.  I think Jesus likes it that way.  It keeps us all from getting too uppity.

 No matter what has happened all year, you sit down together to listen to a story you already know.  You buy the things and you eat the food.  And when it’s time to sing the carols, or deal with family, maybe you just sing out real loud the parts you like the best.  You mumble the rest and move on quickly when it gets obvious no one knows what they’re doing anymore. 

My grandparents have been gone a long time now.  But when I make the drive to Michigan to put myself in the middle of the chaos they started so long ago, I get to see them again.  It’s different now.  I’ve been away so long that I barely know all my cousins anymore, or their kids… they are legion.  But I see my grandma in my aunts as they try to organize the food and their grandchildren.   In my uncles who have an incredible way of filling a room with laughter, and, my dad, as he sits in the dark with his lighted Christmas  neckless flashing, he closes his eyes to sing silent night, the parts he remembers, I see my Grandpa again.

But most importantly I see what love looks like when it shows up, no matter what, for over 70 years… 

 Like singing a song without knowing the words,  like a teenage mother getting run ragged because God asked her to step up a little, and maybe like sleeping in a truck stop parking lot just to get a glimpse of your grandma again.

I watched my inherited grandson playing with David the other day.  He had come up to me earlier saying, “I wanna make somethin’.”  Without wanting to unleash the box of craft supplies and its unholy possession of glitter and finger paints, I opted for the box of various gift wrapping supplies.  Tape, wrapping paper, scissors, ribbon, and a misshapen collection of bags to be re-gifted all jammed into one plastic bin. 

Sometimes, when life seems particularly out of hand, I think about this box stacked away quietly in a closet and say to myself, “see…you’ve got it together…you have a box at the ready for emergency gift wrapping situations.”  It never fails, however, and I usually end up needing to make a stop to buy another bag in route to an event where a gift is required because none of the ones in said bin fit the particular gift application.  Nevertheless, this box is a great source of pride and comfort for me.  I grabbed a bunch of things that had building potential.  “Here you go!” I said, in my most disarming sing song voice, praying silently that he wouldn’t see the demon glitter bin just underneath, “Go make something!”

He set to work with David’s oversight.  I busily set about doing adult things such as seriously considering getting some laundry done as I curled up on a chair to watch ‘Despicable Me 2.’  In between scenes of Gru learning to access vulnerability,  and my internal considering of the laundry, I watched two generations of men “make somethin’” from the raw materials of my valued wrapping box.  Good thing I have it…

The build project was rife with massive inefficiencies.  Time and resources were mercilessly wasted.  At one point, Trenton asked David to cut the cardboard tube, which once usefully held about 6 foot of wrapping paper (…that I might need at some point),  into three separate segments and then, realizing his mistake, taped them all back together again like it never happened.   Ribbon was wrapped around and stuck through holes, some intentional, some not.  He was focused.  His every decision was carefully weighed in the creation of what he said would be a “crane.”  He chattered away nonstop explaining his plans to David, talking through the project, and asking for assistance when larger hands were needed.  David simply stood over him, letting him think and then obliging with a cut or a tie off as the project demanded. 

David Beamed.

“Look at how he’s thinking through just how he wants it,” he said,  “All I did was help where he needed it, but it’s all his idea…his design…” more beaming.

I nodded in agreement that Trenton was indeed a very special kid, as the cardboard tube held together by scotch tape swung from miles of red Christmas ribbon in a kind of pulley system from my ceiling…a crane.  If it had been presented to you as a prototype for potential investment, you would have declined…strenuously.

I watched my husband, his Papaw, swell with pride.  I saw absolute delight.  If you’ve never seen another person delight in something or someone absolutely, I recommend you start looking for it.  You may need new friends.  You will most likely need a different family.

It’s the look I think God has when He watches us “make something.”  It’s Him huddled over us absorbed in the process of letting us do it, hoping we talk through the strategy and waiting for us to ask for help…because our hands are too small and we can’t reach the ceiling. He doesn’t mind the mess, and He doesn’t get snotty about the overuse of ribbon or needless cuts because He knows where there’s more, and has enough tape to fix it…He’s got a whole box. 

He just delights. With no agenda and no end in sight, He knows we have been created in the image of a creator and He simply likes to see what we come up with.

Perhaps without knowing it, at some point, most of us decided to make something.  We went to college, got married, or started into a career.  Maybe we were brave and tried something big and new, or maybe the normal things of life were enough of a project.  Either way, we thought we’d try.  We were given a set of raw materials, probably the box without the glitter, and now stand in a life of our own making, an ongoing construction site.

There seem to be a couple ways of going about it.  But mostly I think we miss the point.  For whatever reason, we don’t see God like Trenton sees his papaw.  Parents, friends, and churches teach us instead that there isn’t enough goodness in the box to be making sloppy mistakes, or that if God delights in us at all, it’s because we were already good at making cranes in the first place.  I remember growing up with the mantra that “God wasn’t interested in my happiness, He wanted my Holiness”… to this day I wish someone would say that to me again so that I could kick them in the back of the knee.  As an adult, I’ve had many shouting matches with those people in my car and, had they been present for them, they would have reconsidered their theology probably.

The good people I know are mostly afraid of making mistakes.  They stop short, limit their exposure, friend groups, and efforts.  They can’t even get to “I wanna make somethin’” because they don’t trust the God in them that made them “want” in the first place.  They hand the scissors back and say, “I’ll just watch you do it.  I don’t want to mess it up.”  While they make very few mistakes, I tend to think that God agrees with me when I roll my eyes at these kinds of people.

The rest of us isolate the whole process. We don’t want help because that would require a willingness to unclench our jaws and ask…like we don’t know what we’re doing or something.  We don’t chatter along openly like Trenton, communicating without taking a breath, asking for help when needed.  We hide our stupid little project until completely out of hand and then throw it back in despair, begging for the redemption of a mangled cardboard tube…or life…whatever.

The author Gregory Boyle says “How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have…the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval.” How far is that from the God we learn about?  He doesn’t separate happiness and holiness; he winds them so tightly together that to strive for one is to be caught up in the other.  So that to be given life to its full is to mimic a creator, and be joyfully unafraid of building, and growing, and doing in a world that is marked by the failure to get it right all the time.

God put us first in a garden and, while we were still quite capable of choosing life or death said, “Go make something.”  He didn’t hesitate to give us authority, in fact, He insisted on it.  And when we bend to the twisted pursuit of our own holiness, there we go again, making a brazier out of leaves to hide the inevitable shame. 

I just sat there, on holy ground, watching Gru get married surrounded by minions, laundry forgotten, thinking that maybe life is easier than I make it.

  It was always supposed to be a conversation.  We have always been called to create.  The life, the relationships, the business, and the family you have sit in stagnation or wreckage for lack of a vision and the sense to ask for help.  And still, they can be unrecognizably resurrected when we get brave enough to co-create.  He wants you to use your head and He wants you to use His hands.  There is no waste in the mistakes.  He’s got enough tape.

The time I get to sit is rare anymore.  Most of my time these days is spent managing the gym I’m partnered in, working with the nonprofit my husband and I began, and coaching clients both in person and online through the labyrinth that is physical health.  It seems like a lot when I say it like that… especially when I consider how much I actually enjoy sitting and doing relatively nothing with a good book and fluffy blanket.  Alas.

  I wish I could say that I choose to read and meditate on scripture in the original Greek and Hebrew all while marking my Bible up with various colors of highlighter.  I wish that I worked more diligently on my writing or that I studied independent news media to keep an open mind toward the realities of current events.  Mostly, I don’t.  Sometimes I shop, sometimes I watch YouTube videos about how to do yoga for self-care, and then proceed not to do yoga for self-care.  Sometimes, like today, I get caught up in scrolling social platforms and get huffy, or envious, or worse…I start to compare.  

Today was particularly tricky because it was my own feed that got under my skin, and it’s just a bummer to be the source of your own disappointment.  It began innocently enough; I was trying to be productive… (It occurs to me that that sentence should be written on my headstone)…anyway…I was rolling through my Instagram looking for old writing content to move to a different page. 

It should be said here that scrolling to the bottom of one’s social media feed should legally require the oversight of a licensed therapist.  I felt things.  None of those things were that great.  

I don’t know who that girl was six years ago, but she sure was into fitness…and I don’t know who that girl was three years ago, but she sure was into Jesus.  Each frame is unforgiving.  Each little write up is a kind of sweet wound.  Kinda cute.  Kinda painful.  It’s not that I’m no longer into fitness or Jesus anymore…It’s just…different.  

I don’t mind admitting it made me a little sad that I don’t feel like I used to about fitness or ministry.  I know social media is the place where we all say things with lots of passions and agendas, but you get a different feeling when you live in between and long after the frames.  As I scrolled down through years of posts they exposed me as shamefully attention seeking all the way around to an unsophisticated saint.   Looking around for a therapist and finding none, I was left to my own analysis…”you seem kinda stupid” I said to myself and finished the analysis.

Five years ago, in a different marriage, scraping out my own business, I was a girl whose faith was placed in work ethic.   I had grown up in, and had grown out of, church. I believed in God, but was desperate for that God to turn his face away from me.  Up to that season in life, I had learned one thing about faith; whatever it was, I didn’t have enough of it.  I tried really hard to be religious.  I tried to fit in at church.  It always culminated with a big, fat, faithless, failure on my part.  So, five years ago, I had already resolved to lay low, spiritually speaking.  It was a pretty solid strategy.  You can see it in my posting.  You can hear it in my writing. It was a faith that kept heaven out of reach and hoped for God not to notice. 

Years of posts later, I’m different girl.  My current husband and I began a nonprofit ministry.  I had started life over with a new job…all the blessings.  The posts were from a girl steeped in faith.  The things I wrote and the way I thought dripping with scripture.  Faith had awoke in the wide-eyed kind of way one gets when falling in love with the childhood friend who’d been there all along.  Somehow in the space of three years’ worth of posts I had a heart that seemed to beat harder for the sufferings of others.  Somehow being closer to my own pain provided more empathy then than feels like I have right now.   I was quick to serve, energized, and full of the kind of optimism that thinks everyone should care as much as I did.  You can see it in my posting.  You can feel it in my writing.

I seemed like a much better person to me then, than I do right now. I seemed like an entirely different species from the girl of six years ago.  There’s always a bit of melancholy mixed with memories, and this was no exception.  Looking through the past,  I felt like my faith wasn’t what it once was and, if that was true, was it ever what I thought it was?  Yeah…that’s the kinda stuff I think about sitting around.

I don’t feel like I used to.  

I don’t rush to the side of a girl who thinks she sees demons in her room at 10 o’clock at night.  I don’t try to listen to every plea for help or attention.  I don’t push to get involved with other nonprofits because I think they might get me more connected.  I don’t get upset when I can’t give what is asked for.  When I can, I don’t get any feeling of chills or any such tingly thing.  Every one of our volunteers is a much better person than I am, and I am well aware we are nothing without them.  

I used to think everything was such a big deal.  That we were going to change the world by speaking love and life into those who were marginalized and abused.  That never really happened, at least not from my particular vantage point.  In the last three years I have been a guest in the lives of more than a few drug addicts.  I have been stood up on Thanksgiving for hours while the girl I waited for was sleeping off her latest hit.  There have been countless hours of portable workouts and church services, late night hospital visits, baby gifts, and prayer requests.  I have watched merciless cycles of relapse on repeat.  I have been disappointed by people I thought were different than I thought, and humbled by people whose goodness was hidden by what I thought was otherwise.  I am sometimes harshly judgmental of choices I think are foolish from people whose pain I can never fully understand.     I am often changing my opinion about what is holy.  And sometimes, I don’t think all the effort matters at all. 

I don’t think ministry is that big of a deal anymore.  I think it’s just a kind of living where you are in the midst of God in the space of others. It’s simpler and infinitely more difficult.  Every day, sometimes every hour of every day, I am surrounded by people of every kind and I can’t tell which is ministry or who is ministering to whom anymore. 

 I struggle to love, I’m selfish with my time, outcomes are seldom what I think they should be, and I’m often salty.  I can be discouraged by the smallness of what we do but simultaneously, uncomfortably overwhelmed by just how big that smallness really is. I am uncomfortable in church.  And in fact, I get envious and cynical when I see churchy people post or say what I think is vending machine Christianity.  I don’t want to hear it.  I don’t think it’s cute anymore. I can be a relapsing cynic. Like that girl I was so many years ago, I already know I’m not faithful enough, unlike her, I’m not interested in hiding or pretending but I’m also not jumping up and down shoutin’ Hallelujah,  joining a small group. 

The faith I used to have…both the kind that was barely enough to be called a mustard seed and the kind that thought anything good was possible have given way to whatever I have now.  It’s battle tired, sometimes skeptical, but daily renewed. It’s no matter what, and whatever I’ve got. It’s been broken down but it’s far less frail.  Its less flashy but more formed.  It’s not cute or post-able, because it simply is the thing that continues to believe God turns toward us even when He knows we don’t have enough.  

 The faith of the young biblical character, David, who killed a giant, had a kingdom singing his praises…It seemed like a big deal.  But keep scrolling and that same David, many years later, forced to his knees in repentance after moral failure, still had faith… It probably didn’t feel the same.   Yet, it was probably harder for an old man to trust that God would forgive him, than it was for a young man to trust for Gods victory.  His faith actually had to be stronger for him to hold to it in the midst of failure.  A young man full of hope and without as many mistakes has a different kind of faith. But faith over time is thickened and hard like a callous formed to fit the work. It is year after year that one experiences God in all circumstances and finds Him faithful enough to look at us squarely and say “this, still, is one after my own heart.”

What I realized was that much of my sadness over the kind of faith I used to have was just a faulty judgement of what my faith should now be…what it “should” feel like.     Faith, however, is more in the doing than in the feeling.  Sometimes it’s only strong enough to stand still, sometimes its hands in the air singing hallelujah, and sometimes it’s head down and do the thing again.  As the years go by, if you expose it to a world that makes hard demands, it gets tough.  It won’t feel like it used to but it will be stronger than it ever was, not on its own merit, but because it has seen who He is over and over again regardless of who you were.  It has always been small and simple, but it actually is a really big deal.

In conclusion, maybe be more productive in your down time.  And when you’re tired, don’t scroll your own feed digging up what you’ve already buried under years of filters and circumstance.  Expose the faith you have to things that might ugly it up a little bit, but just may toughen it up a lot.

Why do you do whatever it is you do?

I’ve been thinking about that lately.  The world stopped for a precious minute and we’ve all had time to ask ourselves for the first time in the history of probably ever why we do what we do without the eyes of the outside world expecting much.  We have had a literal minute of silence followed by a horrific noise leaving us all speechless, and Silence again.

So, no one is paying attention but everyone is watching.   What matters to you? What do you actually care about?  The world was stopped and now its inflamed.  Everyone is speechless with their mouths hanging open and I ask myself why and what next.

I love transformation.  I seek out people who want transformation.  My life has been a process of slow transformation, and transformation is the kind of work I do with my life.  While I make my living in the physical transformation of bodies, I get to be a part of the spiritual, mental, and emotional  transformation that is all part of a divided whole.

This picture feels like what we so desperately want.  This little girl, arms open wide, shamelessly joining in what she hopes to be good, and where she hopes to be included.  It may just be the warm up to a workout, but she’s all in.  She knows getting it perfect doesn’t matter, she’s already loved.   She has no shame in her.  She’ll do as much as she wants, stop when she wants, and take her shoes off at inappropriate times.  Those of us surrounding her are riddled with obligation, addiction, and bear the consequences of living past her age, but are quietly, desperately trying to get back to her.

While my job is training and helping run a gym and nonprofit ministry, what is it really that I want to do?  Strip down the logo and expose the foundation and what is it that drives me to keep trying?… It took me more than a minute of thinking and staring out of windows serenely, but now I know, when it’s all shut down or burned up,  my heart wants this:

To be a witness to transformation.  To invite strong women who have let life teach them to be small to embrace the bigness of their soul and to feel the even biggerness of God’s grace as they break things on the way. 

And to watch the boarders of privilege blend with poverty.  In the same room…Rich with poor, Weak with strong, sober with addicts…all the colors. To see the pious and the social outcast share life.  To live out stories that ground us to our knees in empathy for the load every one of us is carrying.  

You see?…Its never just a job or a place…or a gym.  It’s  where we meet together to accomplish a thing.  Where we sweat and struggle and lean into what is hard on purpose.  Its where getting to the goal demands getting rid of old habits, fears, and the weight of self-protection.  All in.  Everyone exposed.

I love transformations.  It’s part of what makes me love training the body.  I  love that moment we wake up to recognize that we have strayed far from the little girl who didn’t hide, and didn’t worry, and didn’t try to control.

It doesn’t matter if you’re fresh out of jail battling a 20 year drug addiction, or a soccer mom faking your happiness  worrying about what happens to your marriage when the kids leave home. It doesn’t matter if you are black, brown, or white.  A holy thing happens when you start to pay attention…and then you decide…and then you move. Transformation.

It’s really brave, really messy, sometimes inconsistent, and there’s no limit of bartering, begging, or re starting.  It’s all transformation.  It starts sometimes from your hatred for what evil or neglect or sabotage has happened to you…or the apathy you have allowed to happen.  And it tenaciously grows out of what is most hoped for, and the peace you long desperately to recover…and it’s all holy.

It’s a decision point.  A pain point.  The time you try again, or the time you decide NEVER AGAIN.  It wakes you up from numbness to see God, wrestles to break free, sits with failure, and reaches for salvation.

 It’s in the hard labor of breaking a sweat, the fear of not knowing what sober, or thin, or strong, or equality even look like.  It’s fragile and yet it’s terribly strong. 

Its why I do what I do, and no matter what I do, I look for its likeness.   And as long as I do things, I hope they are things that hold space for what is transformational.  Arms open wide, shamelessly joining in, already loved. 

Right now.  You as an individual may be at a pain point or a decision point.  The world has stopped a moment to get your attention.  What is it you really want?   A good body?…Peace on earth?…  all good things.   All things that need you to seize a moment and decide what happens next.  You get to be this girl in the picture, unafraid to say what is true but grounded into a deeper truth of her absolute rightness in taking her place on the floor.

What will you do with a world that is sick and burning or a body that is weak and dying?  You can go numb…or you can begin to move.  It’s my favorite thing…that moment of decision.  It’s the moment where you see your life as a thing that can change.  You have a body, a mind, and a heart that can transform. You are a business, a city, and a culture that can decide.  Arms open wide, shamelessly joining in, already loved.


Yesterday, I wrote a blog about what we say yes to.  I spoke about the way our lives are a reflection of our innermost beliefs and desires about who we are and what we ultimately want.  It was big picture, wordy, thought rambling stuff so you may or may not have made it past the first few paragraphs.

Today, I want to break down using the medium to which I am accustomed (health and fitness) just what it is that you actually want to say yes to.  Almost entirely everyone has a body that demands constant attention.  I don’t care who you are or what you do, I’d put good money on the fact you need a body to do it with.  Regardless of that fact, our bodies are for the most part a mess.

In a culture with more food, education, and opportunity than ever, how is it possible that most people who come to me as a trainer in person or online, or to our gym 148 Wellness, and have so little connection with what it takes to subdue the body into a reasonably maintained vessel?

  I’m not going to blame culture here… there have always been snake oil salesmen and lies in the media.  None of that is going to change.  Instagram bunnies, diet culture, and “As seen on TV” devices are going to keep coming.  It’s not personal, they need to make a living too, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be at your expense.  The world isn’t going to spin differently to accommodate your particular weakness, but it also won’t stop you from learning to get stronger…so, that seems like a fair enough arrangement.

Allow me to list a few possible reasons people continue to struggle with their own body:  (This isn’t exhaustive…I’ll probably come up with more)

-They haven’t spent time studying their own life

– They haven’t taken ownership of the current state of their body.

-They intentionally stay helpless by focusing on impossible body images or dieting technique.

-They associate pain, discomfort, or even change with fear, punishment, and failure.

-They struggle with control, self-regulation, and the concept of failure.

-They have become accustomed to instant gratification, and find it difficult to be grateful for what to them seems like a burden.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Is it possible you have camped out in any of these particular head places?

I just turned 40.  The first time I started hating my body, I was around 8 years old when a babysitter said my thighs touched too much…yep, I even had thick thighs at 8…what a blessing.  I was bullied in middle school for being ugly, dumb, and fat. I developed a really fun case of bulimia in my 20s when a boyfriend introduced me to how genuinely inadequate I was…and then decided he was gay…I found not being a man yet another impossible standard to live up to.   On and on it goes.  So I’m not condemning anyone when I list out all of the potential pockets of their dysfunction, I’m simply listing my life experience mingled with my particular profession.

I tend to be long winded.  So this is the first in a series of teasing out just what it is you have agreed to in this life.  If anything in the above list resonates with you, pay attention to that.  Stop what you are doing and think, really think…without a phone…about what it is you want for your health. 

If I can walk up to almost any man or woman in America right now and get a full 20 minute dissertation about the ways they struggle with the body they have been in possession of and directly controlling since birth…maybe simply containing the discussion to “health and fitness” isn’t working.  It may be time to look at yourself as a whole lifetime of decisions, hurts, reactions, desires, and compromises.  It may be time to address your current body with a discerning eye on the past, and hope for its future.