Finally Fish Camp! & The Elephant Who Became a Mermaid (video)

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I’m riding in the skiff, head down, burying my neck in the three coats I layered so carefully. The wind is frigid. I forgot gloves. My hands shrink and fist in the long sleeves of my rain coat. The mountains hover over the water, still wearing their white winter coats. This is May. It’s a cold wintery May. And I’m on my way to fish camp.

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How did 8 months of travel pass so fast? How am I here again, riding over steel waters, approaching my 40th season at fish camp?  

And was this homecoming beautiful? After planes and trains and subways and jeeps over tens of thousands of miles, didn’t I throw myself over my doorstep, step out of my ruby slippers, slough off my backpack exhaling, “There’s no place like home”?    

 

I didn’t. People would ask me as we traveled, “Don’t you miss Alaska? Don’t you miss home?” I didn’t want to disappoint them. I said I did.

But I lied. The truth is, I felt at home everywhere. Everywhere.

 

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I set off in October with my two youngest sons and my husband, looking around for God in this world. (I am always chasing after Him, though more than half my days I am surely running the other way. He does not hide; it is I who hide from Him. He is not silent, it is I who cannot stop boasting long enough to hear him. )

But there he was In the African bush, the karoo, the French Alps, the island of Patmos, the ruins of Corinth, the townships, a Paris café. In the mountains of Greece. In Pollsmoor prison.

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 I saw God’s spirit move in mighty ways. But the months passed too fast. I wasn’t ready to leave any of those places. There are people there now whom I love. People I miss. There are churches and publishers and cities and villages I want to see again. Not even mentioning the elephants. Have I told you about the elephants?

 

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We spent a week in Kruger National Park in South Africa, sweltering in 90+ degrees and safari-ing from south to north in our rented car. If love is measured by length of gaze, I surely then love elephants. And this elephant in particular.

There were three at first in this watering hole. Galumphing, cavorting like gazelles in the only element that renders them floatable and suddenly graceful.

After thirty minutes, two of the water beauties tired of hosing one another and solemnly emerged, dripping, plodding off into the trees, with just a single glance behind, “Flora, dear, aren’t you coming?”

But Flora was not coming. Because she knew who she was. She was not an elephant; she was a mermaid. And here in this water all her dreams come true. She longs to be small and lithe, she longs to dance rather than plod, she longs to lunge and sink, to hide, to float, to twirl. And all of this she does and is. And when she’s done, she swishes her shimmering tail and climbs ashore, lumbering off to her daily elephant chores, lighter. Here is 42 seconds of Flora:

Watching that video again now on my Alaskan island,  gazing at snowed mountains, hailing rain and a stormy sea, thinking of all that is ahead of us in this salmon season, I remember---

These waters---how sweet and deep they are! This clumsy child of God who limps and trips, she falls into them each summer and remember? She does not drown. She swims. She floats. She spins. Sometimes she even breathes underwater. (And is that a bit of webbing growing between her toes now after 40 seasons?)

 

I know. The world beckons and shines brighter than our own tiny dim islands. But here. HERE. Is where God has now planted you and me. And it will be sweet, these months, years, however long we must stay. No matter how hard. If God cares about Flora's joy, he cares about yours. Every island, every field, every city, every street has a watering hole as deep and as wide as heaven. It does. Go ahead----Jump in!

 

And at the end of this season, we shall all say, dripping, with a flick of our (mermaid) tails:

 

Our mouths were filled with laughter, 

our tongues with songs of joy!

Then it was said among the nations,

 “The Lord has done great things for them!” 

The Lord has done great things for us, 

and we are filled with joy!

                                       (Psalm 126:2-3

 

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Are you ready to plunge? 

 

For Mother's Day: Madeleine L'Engle on "The Flesh is to Be Honored"

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Dear Friends, I come to you today from Kodiak. I write looking out upon my rainy Alaska ocean. Home at last.

It's almost Mother's Day. So I come with a small gift: beautiful words not my own, but words from the beloved Madeleine L'Engle I have caught like seeds on the wind, words planted in The Wonder Years.

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There is no more beautiful witness to the mystery of the word made flesh than a baby’s naked body. I remember with sensory clarity sitting with one of my babies on my lap and running my hand over the incredibly pure smoothness of the bare back and thinking that any mother, holding her child thus, must have at least an echo of what it is like to be Mary; that in touching the particular created matter, flesh, of our child, we are touching the Incarnation.

 

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Once, when I was in the hospital, the smooth and beautiful white back of the woman in the bed next to mine, a young woman dying of cancer, was a stabbing and bitter reminder of the ultimate end of all matter.

But not just our human bodies: all matter: the stars in their courses: everything: the end of time.

 

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Meanwhile we are in time, and the flesh is to be honored. At all ages. For me, this summer, this has been made clear in a threefold way: I have fed, bathed, played pat-a-cake with my grandbabies. In the night when I wake up, as I usually do, I always reach out with a foot, a hand, to touch my husband’s body; I go back to sleep with my hand on his warm flesh. And my mother is almost ninety and preparing to move into a different country. I do not understand the mysteries of the flesh, but I know that we must not be afraid to reach out to each other, to hold hands, to touch.

 

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In our bedroom there is a large old rocking chair which was in the attic of Crosswicks when we bought it. It seems to have been made especially for mothers and babies. I have sat in it and nursed my babe in the middle of the night. I have sung innumerable lullabies from it. When Hugh was in Medea, which was sent overseas in 1951 by the State Department, I sat in the rocking chair, carrying his child within me and holding our firstborn in my arms, singing all the old lullabies, but especially “Sweet and Low” because of over the Western sea and bring him again to me.

This summer I sit in the rocking chair and rock and sing with one or other of my granddaughters. I sing the same songs I sang all those years ago. It feels utterly right. Natural. The same.

But it isn’t the same. I may be holding a baby just as I used to hold a baby, but chronology has done many things in the intervening years, to the world, to our country, to my children, to me. I may feel, rocking a small, loving body, no older than I felt rocking that body’s mother. But I am older bodily; my energy span is not as long as it used to be; at night my limbs ache with fatigue; my eyes are even older than the rest of me. It is going to seem very early—it is going to be very early—when the babies wake up: Alan, Josephine, Cynthia, and I take turns getting up and going downstairs with them, giving them breakfast, making the coffee. Is it my turn again so quickly?

 

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Chronology: the word about the measurable passage of time, although its duration varies: How long is a toothache? How long is standing in line at the supermarket? How long is a tramp through the fields with the dogs or dinner with friends, or a sunset, or the birth of a baby?

Chronology, the time which changes things, makes them grow older, wears them out, and manages to dispose of them, chronologically, forever.

Thank God there is kairos, too: again the Greeks were wiser than we are. They had two words for time: chronos and kairos.

Kairos is not measurable. Kairos is ontological. In kairos we are, we are fully in isness, not negatively, as Sartre saw the isness of the oak tree, but fully, wholly, positively. Kairos can sometimes enter, penetrate, break through chronos . . . The saint at prayer, friends around the dinner table, the mother reaching out her arms for her newborn baby, are in kairos. The bush, the burning bush, is in kairos, not any burning bush, but the very particular burning bush before which Moses removed his shoes; the bush I pass on my way to the brook. In kairos that part of us which is not consumed in the burning is wholly awake . . . 

 

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I sit in the rocking chair with a baby in my arms, and I am in both kairos and chronos. In chronos I may be nothing more than my social security number; or my passport number.

In kairos I am known by name: Madeleine.

 

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                    **************************

 

May you love well and fully this Mother's Day! And May God give us the eyes to see every  kairos moment with our babies, our grown babies and our grandbabies. 

Gratefully,

Leslie

P.S. Maybe bless your mother with a copy of The Wonder Years for Mother's Day? It will inspire and encourage her.

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The (Astounding) End of My Pilgrimage & 10 Wonder Years Winners!

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Congratulations to the winners of The Wonder Years! Please find your names at the end of the blog. Books are going out to you asap.)

                         *************************************************************

 

How do you end a pilgrimage? Never. But this journey comes to an end this week. And how do you end a book that you have only lived, not yet written? And when you are tired from 7 months of travel, how do you keep seeing when your eyes are going dim? I don’t know the answers to any of this. But it seems maybe God does.

The last Sunday of my pilgrimage toward praise took me somewhere astonishing. To a particular church in Lyon, France. I went to this church because this is the church my French hosts attend. They have become dear friends so of course I will go with them.

 

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It is a small church. Not many over 100. They meet in a rented space, a convent. It is an ordinary building, an ordinary room.  We sit on chairs so small they look like nursery school chairs. We face a cross that seems to be made of twigs. I like its fragility. 

 

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The church is noisy with people in clusters, around babies, families, an elderly woman, teenage boys. It’s an “all-ages” service.

The announcements begin, spoken by an elderly woman from Scotland, I think, by her accent. The pastor is from the U.K.

I have come knowing something about this church already. I had lunch with the pastor yesterday and many of the women at the seminar were from this church. So I knew already. But it doesn’t hit me until we stand and begin singing.

Name above all names
Worthy of our praise
My heart will sing
How great is our God

You're the name above all names
You are worthy of our praise
And my heart will sing
How great is our God

How great is our God, sing with me
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God

I look around me. At the couple from Nigeria with a baby snuggled into her mother’s chest. The elderly French man sitting 3 inches from me, whom I discover is teaching French to refugees in the church. The woman across the aisle from South Africa. The family from Iran, another from Pakistan. The woman from Malaysia, the couple from Korea.

Some hands are raised, including mine. Old hands. Middle-aged hands. A baby cries. A child complains. Our voices rise, I sway.

 

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Name above all names
Worthy of our praise
My heart will sing
How great is our God

 

One woman, pregnant, walked from a Muslim country across a mountain range to get here, fleeing for her life. I sing next to a woman who emigrated from the middle east to the US. When they were settled in, her husband abandoned her and their children. Through a Bible study in Michigan, this muslim woman found Christ. I see to my left the Asian woman whose teenage son committed suicide. A tiny frail woman in her 90’s is behind me.  We are singing another song now:

 

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord

"Praise You in the heavens
Join with the angels
Praising You forever and a day
Praise You on the earth now
Join with creation
Calling all the nations to Your praise , , ,"


 

I think of those days in January I was on Patmos, Greece in the Cave of the Apocalypse. I sat in that cave for four mornings, for three hours each, reading aloud through the entire book of Revelations. “Revelation” comes from the Greek word apocalypsis, meaning “an unveiling, uncovering.” I was asking that this book unveiling Heaven would unveil my own eyes. Click to tweet

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It was quiet in that cave as I read verse after verse. I was alone nearly every hour of those readings, (except when the janitor came in to dust and vacuum the holy objects.) John saw the other world, the one waiting for us just beyond this fragile curtain,

 

 “You were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation . . .” 

 

But I saw nothing in that cave.

Three months later, standing now in this church, with a shudder, I know that God has given me the revelation I was seeking. I stand among people who have come across mountains, deserts and seas, from Buddhist temples and synagogues, from city streets and distant mosques, from far countries and next-door neighborhoods to this small church in France that doesn’t even own its own building. People who have fled for their lives, people who are rejected by their families because of Jesus; people of every color and tongue who have found Jesus. People who now are one family. 

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On this last Sunday, out of all the places on earth I could have been, God has led me from Alaska through tens of thousands of miles across three continents to this one little church where I stand undone, silent, tears slipping, hands raised to this God who has led me too from rejection to love. Click to tweet

He has torn the curtain to show me what is coming and what is possible---now. That Jesus can break down every wall that divides us. That heaven begins now in the neighborhoods of the world. Click to tweet

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And I know He has given me the ending of my book about praise.

And the ending to the book of my life.

The ending to the book of all our lives, we who have been rescued by Jesus.

 

 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

 

To him who sits on the throne

      and to the Lamb
   

 be praise and honor and glory and power,
 

for ever and ever!

 

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Amen.

                                                ***************************************************

 It is nearly Mother's Day! I intended to send out only 5 books (because I have to pay for them too!) but---SO many responded here, I'm sending out 10.  (See names below.) It's my HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY present to you!

 

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For all who didn't win a book, I hope you're able to order one? They're $12 on amazon and other sellers. (And if you absolutely can't---and you NEED this book, please let me know: leslieleylandfields@gmail.com)

with love to you all,

Leslie

**Kim Jurney

**Deb Peabody

**Cherie Grunke

**Dianne Lami

Barb Winters

Carole Sparks

Chara

**Sherry Fisher

Colleen van Nieuwkerk

Robin

**Send me your email address please!

 

 

 

Are We Aging, Sagging or "Saging"? And The Wonder Years Giveaways!

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I send this from Slovakia, still on my pilgrimage, but this is a very special week. Finally! The official launch week for The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty and Strength (with Luci Shaw, Elisa Morgan, Kay Warren, Lauren Winner, Jeanne Murray Walker, Joni Tada, Madeleine L'Engle, Elizabeth Elliot, Margot Starbuck, Jen Pollock Michel, and many more) 

 

https://www.amazon.com/Wonder-Years-Women-Beauty-Strength/dp/0825445221

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https://www.amazon.com/Wonder-Years-Women-Beauty-Strength/dp/0825445221

 

We need this book!  (I NEED this book, which is why I spent the last 5 years compiling and editing it! And maybe your mother needs this book for Mother's Day?) Come and have a taste!  Book giveaways at the end. 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

 

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I am looking into the mirror. Not the mirror, mirror on the wall, which kindly tells me whatever I want by a quick dim and flick of the light switch, but the far scarier one: the mirror in my hand that magnifies my face by a factor of ten. Under this painful scrutiny, I skip over my pores and crow’s feet and go right for the brows. I count a record number of greys. With jaw set I pluck them ruthlessly, realizing I’ll soon be brow-less at this rate. Thankfully, the mirror is minute enough to keep me from cataloging all the other marks of age upon my body. Today, it’s just the brows.

Tomorrow it might be something else, especially if I have given in to my secret online obsession of celebrity slideshows. Particularly the “Where are they now?” slides, documenting actors’ unforgiveable lapses into middle and old age. How dare our movie icons age like that? The disgust is palpable. Those galleries are usually linked to celebrities trying to escape that ignominy who end up instead in the next slideshow: “The Worst Plastic Surgeries Ever.”

 

 

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Who wants to age, really? We fight it in so many ways, some of which are downright silly. Recently I saw an enticing online headline that had gone viral: “The Hairstyle That Will Get a 38-Year-Old Carded.”

I clicked on it, of course. There she was: a woman obviously in her late thirties, peering goofily from behind long, blunt bangs once popular among tweens and teens. At least they weren’t pigtails! But this obsession is hardly new. Remember Twiggy, the seventeen-year-old super model-waif from the sixties, who suddenly made mature women everywhere long to look eleven years old?

 

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Are we so youth-obsessed that we long to be children again? Perhaps. Who wouldn’t love another chance at childhood, to do it right and thorough with the proper joy next time? But maybe all this is more than the universal human hunt for the fountain of youth and innocence. Maybe it’s something more modest, more possible. Maybe we older women just want to be seen again.

 

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In 2013, Salon.com ran a provocative article by Tira Harpaz with the headline, “Women Over Fifty Are Invisible.” The essay made significant waves—among women over fifty but was, predictably, ignored by others. The author’s thesis was simply this: “If you want to make a person invisible, just put her in the shoes of an over-fifty woman and abracadabra, watch her disappear.” Harpaz, herself in her late fifties, described aging and its accompanying invisibility as a kind of fading away into irrelevance, including “a loss of attractiveness and sex appeal, the end of fertility, a glimpse of a slow, lingering decline.”

I thought about women ahead of me, women I admire two and three decades older than I: Doris with her glowing red hair and killer figure. Luci with two new books coming out this year; Vera who still teaches dance classes; Kay, still speaking around the world. I thought of Iris Apfel draped in turquoise or orange with layers of massive ethnic jewelry lighting her tiny figure. When she attended Paris Fashion Week, she was treated like a combination of “a rock star and Queen Elizabeth.”  She is drop-dead gorgeous. And she is ninety-four. And not least among them, Merle with her servant’s heart and generosity to all.

All of these women are well past eighty. I am agog not at their age; there are plenty of nonagenarians and even centenarians knocking around. But a ninety-four-year-old setting new fashion trends? A ninety-ish woman who is still making new friends? An eighty-eight-year-old still creating stunning poetry? An eighty-three-year-old opening fresh biblical truths to hungry audiences? Beauty and age have too long been enemies and antitheses. But times are changing. And so are we. Dozens of models over sixty grace fashion runways and magazine covers, flaunting their wrinkles, wearing their grey hair long and flowing as they pose elegantly among women young enough to be their granddaughters. Even in this dizzying technological age, which prizes the nimblest brains and the quickest adapters, we women over forty are proving again and again that innovation and imagination can flower all the way into our nineties.

 

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Even more than this, as I look around my faith community, I see older women serving. I see them beginning new ministries after their retirement, finding new ways to alleviate suffering and lighten others’ loads. Here are the real radicals, women who reject the prevailing notion of our culture that age delivers a license for freedom and self-indulgence. How many times have I heard celebrities and acquaintances alike, on the eve of their fiftieth or sixtieth birthday, proclaim to the world, “Watch out. It’s my time now. I’m gonna say and do whatever I want.” And in the next breath, when asked for their newfound wisdom, they invariably say something like, “I’ve finally come to love myself just as I am. Now I don’t have to please anyone but myself.” Is that really all there is? Did we survive childhood, adolescence, and our twenties and thirties to arrive on the doorstep we left as children? Surely not.

 

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I’m not saying aging is a breeze. Vanities and losses remain, I confess. This book is something of a coming out for me. I’ve vacillated over the last few decades over making my age public. Sometimes I deliberately hide my age or even lie. A few months ago, I changed my birthdate on Facebook to a full decade younger, thinking, Why not? Why should I reveal that I’m almost a senior citizen? I speak to university audiences often and would rather not be perceived as their mother, or worse, their grandmother. But it didn’t stand long before I was spasmed by guilt and tried to change it back, only to find the date uneditable. (It seems you can only change your age twice before the FB police come after you.)

So again, this book is a kind of coming out for me. Like many others, sometimes I am mistaken for someone ten or even fifteen years younger, given good lighting and the just-right dress. But other times it cuts the other way, which feels like the ultimate defeat. But why?

Why do we feel as though we’re racing against time? And as if time were not an inequitable enough racing partner, some of us, mostly subconsciously, lace up our shoes next to Photoshopped magazine cover models who regularly go under the needle and the laser, who work out four hours a day with their personal trainer, nibbling salads devised by their personal chefs. For a few, their own postmenopausal youthfulness has become their single raison d'etre.

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It’s a rigged, impossible race. Mostly, we know it. Our best claim, then, is to look or feel younger than our actual age. Here, finally, we’re crowned a winner in the lifestyle sweepstakes, which is not so much about cheating death—we’re not concerned with that—yet. But to cheat Time itself, and even more, to cheat Nature, who, by the time we’re over forty, we know for sure is not our Mother.

 

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How then do we respond to the passing years that make their inevitable marks upon our faces, our bodies, and our abilities?

A thousand different ways. Look around. Look and listen to these forty women, most of whom are just like you and me, women who are growing, beginning new ventures, casting off old shadows, whose own passages through life and time have yielded great fruit, even when aging saps health, energy, and abilities. Yes, even then. Welcome to the party!

But we’re serious, too. Aging is not for the thin-boned or the faint of heart. As we climb year by year, whether it’s a mountain or a ladder, we need to stop for a long moment and consider the view. We need to ask questions. Maybe we should even check our ladder. As a number of writers have told us, we could spend our entire lives climbing the ladder of achievement and success only to discover, once we mount those upper rungs, that we’ve leaned the ladder upon the wrong wall. It takes courage to stop and take stock of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It takes strength to keep our hearts open. It takes fearlessness to keep questing after the good, the beautiful, the true. We’ll do exactly that in these pages, knowing that no matter our age, it’s never too late to keep becoming the women God wants us to be.

 

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These are indeed The Wonder Years. In writing and compiling this book, I have been astonished and inspired by my fellow writers. I know you will be as well, but we have another audience in mind too. We’re taking up the mantle the apostle Paul gave us in Titus 2:3–5, for “older women” to “teach what is good” to “younger women.” All of us in these middle and later years have gained a storehouse of memories and experiences that surprise us in their depth and breadth. We find ourselves, unexpectedly at times, experts in a whole host of areas: we’re mothers and grandmothers, wives, mothers-in-law, and stepmothers. We’re professionals. We’re farmers and fisherwomen. We’re pastors, writers, teachers, ministry leaders. As we have learned, stumbled, and grown, we must pass on all that is good and true to those coming behind us. Many of us had no such encouraging voices as we lurched through our own earlier years. We send these notes on to you, our younger sisters, with joy and love. We commit ourselves to easing your passage as well!

How shall we do this, then? Our lives seldom divide into neat packages, but the three sections of this book make enormous sense to all of us in our “years of wonder.” Along with the passage of time comes courage, a wise sort of adventuring that knows how fleet the passage of time and how ripe the moment for new experiences, so we begin with “Firsts.” The wisdom that launches us into new ventures also relieves us of burdens and obligations we no longer need to carry. The next section is “Lasts,” where fourteen women cast off the weight of regret, fear, judgments, and perfectionism. Finally, though we’re constantly changing and growing through the embrace of the new and the loss of the old, we arrive as well at our “Always” convictions. We discover again the core of who we are and who we vow to remain, no matter our health, our abilities, or our age.

Welcome to the Wonder Years! Get ready for break-out joy, indulgent abundance, heart-stopping wisdom, and never-let-go faith!

 

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(Some of the contributors at the book party in Grand Rapids last week.)

 

I’m giving away 5 copies of The Wonder Years this week! Here’s how to enter (and don’t forget Mother’s Day is near!):

 

1.   Share this post on your social media outlets. (Thank you, friends!)

2.   Leave a comment here telling me this---AND, share why you too need this book. (thank you again!)

 

3.   Include your email address so I can contact you if you win.

 

That’s it. A huge hug to you all. I’m so grateful to you all---more than you know! (YOU are the reason I write.)

Paul's Last Prison & What Happens When We Die

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Notre Dame

     This trip will soon be over. Too soon! We have seen so much beauty and a lot of pain as we've traveled. On our flight from Zimbabwe to Rome 2 weeks ago, we had a layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The airport was primitive, dirty, overcrowded. Close to midnight, we tiredly lined up to board our flight, when a man behind us began to yell. He was in his sixties, perhaps, and was shouting in French and gesticulating to the airline employee we had just passed through. She was tiny, young, startled. She shook her head no at him; he yelled louder, in her face. She stood her ground, though she looked frightened. He hopped in rage, then pulled off his hat and smacked her across the face. All of us in that long crowded line caught our breath, frozen in shock. He rose his arm to hit her again and a large man jumped in between to stop him. The two men began arguing loudly in French.

 The scene went on for 15 minutes. When she told the man he was no longer allowed to board the plane, he was even angrier. No security guards came to this employee's defense. Instead, three imposing men, fellow passengers, came to the old man’s defense, surrounding this woman, harassing her, trying to get her to reverse the decision. She didn’t budge. Just before midnight, as we wearily but thankfully stumbled out of this grimy airport, I looked back at her. She looked unbearably weary.

 

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 A few days later, in Rome, following the apostle Paul again, I went down into Mamartine Prison, where St. Peter and St. Paul might have been held just before their deaths. I must say “might,” because no one knows for sure, but history and church tradition place them here for reasonable reasons. Even now, when empty, it is a dank, pitch-dark moldy underground cell. Now put 30 dying men in there .  . . 

 

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Prisoners were dropped into its stony hell through a hole in the floor above.  No one survived this prison. It was the holding tank for enemies of the Roman Empire condemned to die. Some were left until they starved to death. Some were strangled. Some were hauled out for public execution. If Paul and Peter were held here, they were pulled from here after who knows how long in its depths? 

 Both were killed under Nero. Paul was beheaded, most believe. Peter crucified upside down.

 

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Today I am thinking of Paul. I stood alone in that underground prison, used for nearly a thousand years, as long as I could, trying to see, to feel, to understand. But the fuller story is above ground.To get to the cell, prisoners would have walked through or seen the Roman emperor’s palace on next-door Palatine Hill. A place of such luxury, decadence and brutality, we can hardly conceive of it. Historians record that for his famous orgies, he would provide night time illumination outdoors by burning Christians at the stake.

The palace itself is described by an ancient historian, like this: 

 

Its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico;

 

In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulfur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner, he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being.  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars

 

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Two men, two lives. Paul the apostle of Jesus Christ ending his days in an underground prison. Emperor Nero, just above and outside the walls of that cell, living in palatial luxury.

 

One man shackled for delivering healing, liberation and  brings eternal life. The other man, through slaves, carry out his most extravagant personal desjres. 

 

One man, compelled by love, delivered hope and life to countless others. The other man, compelled by self-love, delivered death, killing his mother, his two wives and countless others., with special hatred toward Christians. 

 

Both died by the same man’s hand: one ordered the beheading of the other. And the same one, not long after, when his enemies came to capture him, killed himself. 

 

 In Corinthians Paul wrote

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

 

The day they came for Paul, to haul him out of his cell to the execution block, was he afraid? Did he recant? Listen to the words of his last letter likely written shortly before his death (2 Tim.):

 

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.  The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

What happened in the moments before the sword came down? I know the Lord stood at his side again. And he was delivered.

 

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I am sober this week. We have to choose, too, whom we will serve and how we will live. Even if we land in a prison with a sword at our neck---and we may, Paul has given us our prayer. I pray it even now:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack

and will bring me safely

to his heavenly kingdom.

To him be glory for ever and ever.

Amen.

 

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I will be at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids this week. I think many of you will be there! Please say hello!!   

Dancing in Zimbabwe (and a snake for Holy Week?)

We have been in Zimbabwe and Botswana this week, talking to so many people, learning as much as we can. Which meant visiting a snake rehab center where a python took a liking to my hair. (This was a "haaaa!" and "yuck" moment both at the same time.)

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(No, at this point in the encounter, I think I'm well on the yuck side of the scale . ..)

But the best day was Sunday. In church. A Baptist church, of sorts. Some very kind people gave us a great gift there. They don't have much. They don't have cars; many don't have jobs. They don't have a church building of their own. Some live without electricity. But let me show you what they do have!

 

 

We got to be part of this joy and worship for 3 hours. We walked a long way in the hot sun to this gathering with the woman who cleans the house we are staying in. By the time we entered the church, in a concrete block building with concrete benches, the congregation was already in full voice.

They sang in several languages, only once in English, but I knew who they were singing about and I had some idea of what they were saying. No one could stay silent. There were "Hallelujahs!" and "amens!" everywhere, even trilling ululations floating high above it all. Nor could anyone sit or stand still. I felt at home here, shuffling, clapping, singing, swaying song after song. How else to praise the Lord but with our voice breath and bodies?

 

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After an hour of singing and testimony, and after being greeted with a hug and a handshake by every person there, the pastor called us down to the front: “Come down and share some words with us, Fields family!” 

 

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And he thrust a microphone in our faces.

Duncan started, thanking them for welcoming us so warmly. Thanking them for their music. Then it was my turn.

I talked about where we’ve been, about how we find God’s people everywhere. About the Apostle Paul, and how he suffered the most of all the apostles, but he also praised God the most. I finished with something like this:

“I have heard that things are difficult here, that the economy is very bad. I know there is much hardship. But I see how you worship God. It is so beautiful! We go to a Baptist church in Alaska. We sing too. And we praise the Lord. But we hardly ever clap. And we don’t dance! I think you are right.  We need to praise God with ALL that we have and are, and that is what you are doing! I’m going to tell my church back home about you and how you praise the Lord!”

Everyone clapped and cheered. As we sat down the worship leader said, ‘Thank you very much! We’re going to give you a gift right now. This is for you!”

And he called a few people to the front and the music began again, and here it was:

 

I will not tell you that the music was professional, or that the dancing was elaborate. Here, everybody sings. Everybody dances. It’s not about who is gifted in this or that. This wasn’t about talent. This was about celebrating God-with-us. God who died and rose again for us. This was about loving him back with all we are.  

After the dance, there was a sermon. A powerful sermon from the gospel of Mark. They knew the Word of God, these people.

Writing this now, watching the video brings tears. I think about the American church. And I wonder where our joy is.  I wonder why when it’s testimony time the same few people speak and everyone else is silent. I wonder why pastors have to work so hard to move an audience. I wonder why we’ve professionalized the “Praise Team” and sidelined the congregation’s voice. I wonder why our services are run by the clock. I wonder why sports and and every other activity we cram into our Sunday takes precedence over worship.

Maybe I’m wondering how much we need Jesus. We have so much of everything else, we Americans, we have only a little room left for a little bit of Jesus. That’s all we want, I think, just a scant sprinkling of a tiny touch of Jesus, an itty-bitty cherry atop our hot fudge Sunday.  . . .

Many of you reading this have lived and served in other cultures. You know about this far more than I do. But I too have seen in so many countries how those who need Jesus the most know Him the most. Love him the most. Praise him the most.

I’m thinking now of this Holy Week before us. If you don’t need Jesus then Jesus didn’t come for you. He wasn’t hammered to the cross for you. He didn’t rise from the dead for you. He didn’t bring everlasting life to you. He came for the sick, the sinners, the poor in spirit, the down and out, the sinners, the have-nots. But if you don’t have Jesus, you "have not." The poorest of all are those who do not know the God of All That Is.

What if you said yes to Jesus? What if you finally said a full, real "Yes" out of the deepest pocket of your soul? I think if you did, you might sing. You might feel as free as these dancers. You might find joy everywhere, (even in a snake curled in your hair.) The serpent, after all, IS defeated!

 

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He is Risen!

 

Do you know someone who might need these words, these joyous videos? Pass it on?!

So Gratefully,

Leslie

What Happened in the Township & "Easter Uproot"

 (Two of the leaders who made this conference happen. Amazing women!)

(Two of the leaders who made this conference happen. Amazing women!)

Happy Holy Week, dear friends. Forgive my silence. This last week in South Africa has been run-around crazy, and in the midst of it sickness and fatigue. But I owe you something. You prayed for me, for that errant train stuck in the desert, and for the conference in the township. And you need to know what happened!  

(But apologies first. I have only two photos of the event, these taken after the conference. It felt rude to go around taking photos. I simply needed to be fully present.)

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But here’s part of what happened. This 40-hour-train-trip woman with little sleep for three days went to the Township outside of Cape Town. And went filled with energy and excitement as if she had slept all week. (Supernatural strength given!)

But------would anyone come to this first-time event? It’s scary to go to a township of a million, where many good people live, but where there is violence as well. Some township dwellers do not welcome "settlers"--and who would after the evils of apartheid? There is a deep sad history here.

But they went. Women from the city came who had never been in the township before. Women from the township came to meet them. We sat around circular tables together. We prayed together. We sang praise songs in English and in Xhosa, the tribal language, our voices blending perfectly. We ate lunch together, women in beautiful head wraps and women in flowing dresses. We talked together about the deepest things in our lives as  women and mothers.

In the midst of my two hour presentations on parenting, I asked them to share with one another four different times.

 “What were your expectations of motherhood before you had children?” 

“What do you feel most guilty about as a mother?”

“What are your hopes and dreams for your children?”

 “What can we do to be faithful mothers?”  

These were the most glorious moments, as women of all colors, ages, languages and history opened their hearts to one another. Women who had been separated by apartheid, literally fenced off from one another for generations. In those long beautiful moments, with heads bent toward one another as stories and burdens poured out, the sanctuary was a picture of the reality of resurrection.   What man worked so hard to maim, fracture and divide, God is joining together. 

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This is why Christ died and rose again: to unite his many people around the world into one people, who sing His praises in many tongues, but in one glorious song.

God has so much work in my own life still to do .... but your prayers helped make this happen this day. (And there is yet more to be shared another day.)  Please KNOW I am on-the-floor grateful for your partnership in the gospel this way.                       

And---one more thing?  

For this Holy Week, may I share one more time the Easter poem written last year? That Christ was not buried, He was planted . .. 

 

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Lord, help us to live and move and root our being in your resurrection power every blessed day of life that you give us!

Torment on An African Train--and Why I Bless It

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In South Africa, we have survived a 24 hour train ride that warped into 40. I will not lie. It was tortuous. When we embarked on the Shoshaloza Meyl train, the purple and teal train that looks like an 80's birthday party train, other South African riders asked us, "What are you doing on this train?" This train had a reputation. This train was always late. This train company, on another route, had collided with two vehicles 6 weeks before, exploding and killing 19 people, injuring hundreds. (We didn't know this until halfway through the trip.) But this was the train we could afford. 

 

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Was it really "torment"? You decide. It was 90 degrees when the trip began. No air conditioning. We had a sleeper---YES! But the double-decker 5'x6' space was tight and claustrophobic for four bodies. The train moved at a glacial pace, and stopped and slowed every 10 minutes with a shrieking grinding of the brakes that lasted for minutes each time. Nails-on-chalkboard that even my earplugs could not drown out. I did not sleep.

 1 a.m.  Working in my "office" on the presentations.

1 a.m.  Working in my "office" on the presentations.

The train moved at half speed when it managed to move at all. Why so slowly? The signal equipment and the rails had been vandalized and looted so often, trains have crashed. With other trains. With cars. So the trains go slowly to be safer, to anticipate danger. 

Twenty-four hours in, we broke down. In the middle of the karoo (desert). An engine was sent from Cape Town to rescue us. We rejoiced. Then that engine broke down. No one knew for how long. 

I cried for help. Using my phone for internet, I posted our plight to Facebook and begged for prayer. "Our train is broken down and I have to be in Cape Town to give a conference on Saturday." I tried to explain: This conference is not just any conference. It's a conference in a township, for the first time bringing black, white, brown, African, Alaskan, Afrikaaner, Asian together. To break down the walls between us. To unite us in Christ. It's risky. It's scary. It's kingdom work. 

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And now I am stuck on a train in the desert? Now, I am sleepless for 2 nights? Now, if I get there, I am dehydrated, dirty, cramped, exhausted, weepy? If I arrive at all, this is how I must arrive and speak at this all day conference?

And God's answer is yes. And I bless Him for it. Here's why. 

  He answered all those prayers. Those prayers moved mountains---and that train. We shrieked and ground our way into the pitch dark station in downtown Cape Town after 3 a.m. Yes, fourteen hours late, but there. An hour long uber ride later, we crawled into beds at 4 am.  

 There are 100 other things that happened on this train, but this is what I must say now. I am here readying for this conference tomorrow  because of you. Because of all of who prayed.  Because not only does God not leave us alone, not only is He with us always, even in a broken-down train,  but my brothers and sisters from around the world were with us as well. Dozens and dozens of you prayed. This is the miracle of Christianity. When we were stuck in the Istanbul airport trying to get into this country, and then stuck on the train getting to the conference, I knew and felt a cloud of witnesses around us interceding on our behalf.  

This is the concrete world of the kingdom of God which is not a fairy tale world or some spirited realm of ether. It is a world of real hands, of spoken words going heavenward; it is people with feet that walk to your doors, fingers that send emails. This is the new world that Jesus began when he lived among us.

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 I am not a satan-watcher but I do believe satan wanted to thwart me going to the conference. He wanted to wear me out, to wear me down. To suck out all my juice and energy. 

And he has. He did. But it won't work.  I live on an island in Alaska, so I am always coming from far away---from a place where the storms freeze planes to the ground. Where fog hides the skies and planes hunker low. And even then, even when my plane is stopped and I must wait and then fly all night and I arrive exhausted, even then, if I stand and speak and in my fatigue, if I should even weep before them, he inhabits those tears. What was meant for defeat becomes strength. For doesn't God shine all the more through our frail trembling bodies?

 

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It was true for all the disciples. For the apostle Paul. For Jesus himself. And for me, just one tiny shadow of those men. And it is true for you too, is it not?  

This is a love letter written to you. Written with shaking hands. Written in awe of our God. Written with anticipation of what He will do tomorrow. Through my weakness and your prayers.

SO gratefully,

Always,

Leslie

 

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An African Safari, and Surviving a Wild Woman Attack

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Tonight we are staying on the Crocodile River in Kruger National Park, in eastern South Africa. We arrived just before dark, and found our thatched-roof bungalow delightfully near the river.  We dumped our backpacks, unpacked our bag of food, then heard a roar, a splash, a growl from the river. Hippos, likely. Maybe a crocodile as well? 

(Let me show you, but apologies! These are not Nat Geo photos. These are mostly from my iPhone ‘cause that’s all I’ve got.)

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In the hour before, we crawled the earthen roads on another wildlife drive. What would we see today? Ten minutes in, we rounded a corner and STOP! The biggest bull elephant I’ve ever seen was walking the dirt road, just feet in front of us.  Was it safe to pass him? I’ve been told multiple stories of marauding bulls who charged cars, even overturning them. We passed, holding our breath, clicking our cameras at his massive head. He flapped his ears at us, lowered his head, and just when I thought he would charge, we were gone.

Minutes later, in the early evening dusk----GIRAFFES! Two of them calmly in the road while I gestured wildly at the boys. (For those who doubt the existence of God, I have a one-word apologetic for you: “Giraffe.”) And how can I tell of the flocks of impala, waterbuck, zebras, white rhinos, on and on?  All wild beasts carrying on their untamed lives in more than 7000 square miles of national park land.  This is their world, not ours. We are the ones in cages not allowed to get out of our cars, while they roam free. Just as it should be.

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I know that feeling of being caged, trapped. I felt it in church last Sunday. Not knowing where to go, we chose the church nearest our B+B. Just as we entered the building, the pastor, in t-shirt and jeans said, with a smile, “I hope you like worship that’s totally free!?”

“Sure,” I smiled back confidently.

Then it began. The fifty congregants, of all colors and ages, stood and swayed and clapped and danced to the worship band’s pulsing beat. The band sounded like they had dropped in from K-Love radio: perfect, professional contemporary Christian music. And so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice.  

We joined in enthusiastically. Between songs, the leader began a tiger-like pacing of the platform, exhorting us in the tones and movements of an American televangelist. It got hot. We kept going. One praise chorus about God's love for us lasted for 20 minutes. Another for 15.  More than an hour later, we were still singing about how much Jesus loves us. 

I realized that every word spoken in those 80 minutes was about us. About Jesus’ love for us. That he could never ever love us any more. His love was unconditional. God didn’t need anything from us so our job was to take from him. (Where is that in the scriptures?) God was there just for us. To pour out his love upon us. . . . .

It was 95 degrees. I had given two keynotes at a Writing Conference just the day before. I had poured it all out. And now, this message and music which was exactly like a church we had visited a few weeks before, whose 3 hours were spent sending people into ecstatic visions . . .  I felt cloyed and sick.  I sat down.

Suddenly a woman appeared beside me, the well-dressed woman originally from England who had greeted us with a too-hard hug when we first came in. She clapped her hands on my shoulders and began praying, loudly, over the throbbing music. She prayed.

“God, Abba, set your daughter free. Set her free from whatever is holding her back!  Demolish whatever strongholds are erected against you. Release her from disappointments. Refresh her with your love. Reach down and cleanse her from whatever is troubling her . ..

And at this point she placed her hand on my stomach and pushed hard as she prayed (she’s so right about my stomach being a stronghold!! I’d love a few pounds of fat to be released in Jesus’ name!).

Then, she moved her hand to my breastbone, pressing and praying again,

“Lord, we pray against Satan. That you would destroy any ground that’s his. That you would tear down anything that stands between you and your daughter. Set her free, Lord Jesus! Set her free!”

Etc.

  I sat there, captured. Helpless for 3-4 minutes. Feeling preyed upon by her prayer. Duncan, who was still standing, was next.

She pressed herself against him, this stranger, putting her hands on his belly, his chest, while Duncan stood frozen as she cried out to God over him. Micah was next. And before the next attack, Abraham decided wisely and conveniently that he needed to go to the bathroom, so he was spared.

We escaped church before the closing song.

I am sure she is a kind woman who truly loves Jesus and wants everyone to experience him as she does. But there’s so much I wanted to say to this wild woman. Jesus has set me free. I may be exhausted right now, with a headache, but I am totally set free. I’ve been freed to worship Jesus with my mind as well as my heart and soul. I am set free for a purpose: not just to dance in the aisle at church, but to serve and love God and our neighbors with all that we are and have. (And when God says “love” he means more than a feeling.)  

Maybe that’s what she was trying to do. Maybe I missed it.

And maybe I am making too much of what was intended as love. But I visited another church much like this one a few weeks back. It was a 3 hour service where the pastor urged the congregants, through the music, to find "ecstasy" and to "take from God whatever you need." There was no scripture. There was no sermon.

Listen, I’m worried about us. I’m worried about the Church. I’m worried about our narcissism. I'm worried that we've created a fenced-in fairy godfather god.

The beasts of these African fields remind me who God is, a wild God, a Maker God we cannot tame. We exist for Him; He does not exist for us. And this is real freedom: to be freed from our tiny caged hearts, to be freed from worshipping a small god of our own making. 

Lord, truly, set us free! Show us your wildness and your glory!

 

 

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Petting Cheetahs & Chasing Racism

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Will you come with me today? It won't take long, but I must show you what I saw today, or else my heart will collapse or explode. Or worse yet, I will turn away, and blithely return to my nice little life, keeping blinders firmly in place.

But first, the Cheetahs. I confess, I am not a cat person---I have always loved dogs and their bounding enthusiasm for life. Cats seem more like our alter egos, the darker cunning selves we hide. But this day, in Bloemfontain, South Africa, maybe I was converted? 

 

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We spent 2 1/2 hours with these magnificent animals, who had all been rescued from various circumstances of neglect or sickness. The fastest creature on earth, who is all legs and lithe length, lay and put his head in Micah's lap. Sat still for a chin scratch.

 

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These cats don't belong on this farm. They should be wild, pursuing their prey, living their slinking beautiful lives in the long grasses of open plains. But they are dying. Their gene pool is dangerously small, leading to disease and premature death; They've lost 91% of their habitat.Only 7100 remain in the wild. They're dangerously close to extinction.

When you sit inches from their gorgeous faces, you get it. You feel it. The coming loss. 

 

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We left Bloemfontein a few days ago and are now in Johannesburg. Today, we are back from another prison: Constitution Hill, in the heart of this city of 20 million. Why should you go into one more prison with me? For the same reason I went: to crack the door yet wider on the human heart---into its depths and into its brilliant light. There is hope coming soon, but first, you must know this:

The prison was built in 1893, This is the prison where Gandhi was held for 8 months. Nelson Mandela was here too. It's most egregious years were the years when the prison was crammed with black and "non-white" men and women who wittingly or unwittingly had violated the inhuman Apartheid laws. Between 1947 and 1948, in a single year---more than 90,000 men and women spent time in this horrifically overcrowded, brutal place. Yes, there were criminals here, but for many, their crime---they weren't white. 

 

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Others were political activists, mine strikers, prisoners of war . . .. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children of all colors were held here, and some died here. 

Solitary confinement in rooms with barely room to lie down----where men spent weeks, months, even up to a year, with no food but rice water. 

Constant purposeful degradations.

Tiny cells where the windows were covered to keep a perpetual night. 

I'll stop there and let the photos tell the rest:

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 The men's solitary cells, which are no more than 10 ' by 4'.

The men's solitary cells, which are no more than 10 ' by 4'.

60  men held in deliberately blacked-out rooms built for 30. Two toilets. Barely enough food, and the food often vile and even rotten.

 

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It's a sad, broken upside down world. Yet this is not the end. There is brilliant light out of this dark:

*That the bricks of this prison that treated women and men like brute beasts for 100 years were torn down and used to build the Constitutional Court in 1996.  A court that protects the rights, freedoms and dignities of all South Africans.  A court that is open to all. (Yes, we walked right in to court, while on a break.)

 

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*And this light: that we who enter the prison complex choke as we stand in the solitary cells,  cringe at the stories of the survivors, fight tears as we view the torture devices. We recognize evil. We name it. Recoil from it. We determine to expose and end racism wherever we find it, starting with ourselves.

 

In the name of Jesus. A name so powerful, so filled with hope a desperate man carved this altar into his solitary cell.

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I don't know if he made it out alive or not. I don't know how many hundreds of black men endured the hell of that cell.  But I do know Jesus was there.  Just as He is here, ready to free us all from our own racism and prejudice against those who are different than us.

We don't want Cheetahs to go extinct, but we need racism to go extinct, don't we? We need brutality and hatred to go extinct. We need Love to grow long lean legs on us like the Cheetah's to race, fierce, swift across the cities and plains chasing injustice, hatred, brutality far from our borders. Far from our hearts. 

May it be so. 

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Can Heaven be Found in Hell? Inside the most notorious prison in South Africa

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I cannot keep up with God, I just cannot. Nor can I keep up with this blog.  I have not space to write about being stuck in Istanbul for 48 hours because we were missing a document we didn't know we needed. I have not time to speak of the writers' workshop here in Cape Town, where we all, yes, saw miracles happen among us. Or the days at George Whitefield College where hearts were knit together, or the visit to a township of a million souls, and. ...so much more. Let me write just about today. 

But first, may I complain a bit? It must be 95 degrees here in Cape Town today, like most of the days we've been here. Sweat is rivering down my back. And there is an ongoing devastating drought which makes everything hotter. We are more than complying with the water restrictions, we Alaska bush people, who can nurse a cup of water into an entire head-to-toe bath, with enough left over to boil for a tea party for twelve. But in this dry heat this far-north woman is half-melted and dehydrated and limp with fatigue.  But I am resting this evening. Resting from a trip to someplace unimaginable. Somewhere I did not expect to go. 

 

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 I went to Pollsmoor Prison. It's a facility in Cape Town, South Africa  built for 1500 during the days of Apartheid. Built, as some have written, "to break the spirit of the black man." Nelson Mandela was held here. Now, it houses more than 4,000. It is 300% over capacity. Gangs rule. HIV, Tuberculosis and other diseases are rampant. Even the prison guards call it "inhumane."   In 2016, CNN snagged an exclusive look behind the walls of Pollsmoor. The headline and the video here:

Exclusive: Inside the Hellish Prison Where Nelson Mandela Was Held

 

This was my outing today. 

I shouldn't have gone. There's no way I should have gotten in. One of the directors of Hope Prison Ministries asked me to come last week. The chances of me getting clearance into a maximum security prison on such short notice were slim. So many hoops and circuits and stamps to run. But somehow----there it was. Yes. I can go.

And what shall I do there, this woman from Alaska? Hope Prison Ministries has an incredible ministry among the inmates that focuses on restorative justice. People who could have brilliant huge salary professions are here instead, giving their lives to these men and women many consider hopeless, unworthy. What can I add to their amazing program? I went to talk about forgiveness. 

I did not know anything before it started. To whom I would be speaking, to how many, or where we would be gathering. In a cell? In a hall? in the cafeteria? In a closet? Then the news: I would be speaking to young women outside in the courtyard.

I joined the Hope team as we walked through hallways grimy with peeling paint and cracking ceilings. Stood in line to be frisked one by one behind a curtain, then passing through one iron gate after another, ending up outside in a long narrow concrete courtyard, where laundry hung on a line and tumbleweeds of black spiraling hair swept across our feet. Then they came, these women, dressed in neon yellow prison uniforms.  They were not there by choice. 

We sat in a giant circle. Some glowered at me as I sat among them. Of course. Who is the white woman coming to speak to us? She can talk and then leave back to her privileged white life." I would feel the same.  How do I start? "Thank you for coming! How is your day going so far?" No. I don't remember how I started, it's something of a blur, but this is what I can tell you about those 90 minutes:

I told them of God's love for them. That his forgiveness was available to all of them. That when we are forgiven by God we stand perfect, holy, clean, pure before Him. I told them my stories of forgiveness. How hard it can be, but how God makes it possible. How we can break generational cycles. And----they listened. And----I told them to write something. I made them do an exercise, an empathy exercise, and they did it. I couldn't believe it. And they had questions. Near the end, we stood in a circle, the sun beating down and I am wondering how I get to be here holding the hand of a young South African woman whose life is already in tatters. And I get to call upon the Lord of the Sky and the Heavens on behalf of those women who have hijacked cars, committed armed robbery, broken into houses, sold drugs, sold themselves for drugs. Women who were given little chance in life and who may go straight back to it. Or not. But women beloved by God.

Some of them know Jesus. One woman told me she found Jesus there in Pollsmoor last month. She had a Bible now. We sat knee to knee and talked, talked deep and stood and prayed in a long hug. I am thinking of her now and praying for her. She has so much against her. But she has Jesus. 

One woman just lost her remaining parent. She was alone in the world now. I prayed with her that God would bring her mothers and fathers, that she would be embraced by the family of God that is everywhere.

At the last we broke into small circles.  The others in the team led sharing and prayer. Hands were held tight, heads were low. And I knew: We were not alone in that courtyard, that ugly harsh courtyard inside one of the worst prisons in the world. God was with us. We knew it. We saw it. We saw Him there.

The Hope Team, who is there nearly every day said, 'This day was special. Was very special. God was at work."

SO many of you were praying. Your prayers were heard. Your prayers help me go inside that prison. Your prayers helped me plead and coax and love my heart out to each one of them. And God was pleased to use all those offerings. 

(And there will be follow-up with these women next week. this is not hit-and-run ministry. I too must continue to pray for them.)

I send this out to you, these raw words that I do not have time to make beautiful. I send them because I want you to know not about me, but about Hope Prison Ministries and the 100 people who spend their time volunteering in a place that everyone else runs from. They inspire me.

But you inspire me as well. You bless me so much by your prayers. I could not have done it without them. And I want to encourage all of you---do not be afraid to go into new places with the gospel. Do not be afraid of photos and news stories and words like "hellish," even when they're true.  Because Jesus reigns. And He has work for you to do in hard places that won't feel hard when you're there. Because you will only see people who need him, beautiful broken people who need love and Jesus. And you've got both. That's all that is needed to enter even hell, holding out a piece of heaven. 

This week, be brave. Dare to love. Bring someone a piece of heaven.  

Love to you all,

Leslie

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Dear Holy Patmos and What Can Prayer Do?

 On Patmos, windmills rigged with sails. From the 16th century.   

On Patmos, windmills rigged with sails. From the 16th century.

 

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So  much happens every day, I cannot keep up. We are in Cape Town now, after a 48 hour ordeal in Istanbul. There's SO much I want to share with you.  About the terror of driving in Athens. About Istanbul. About arriving in Cape Town yesterday. About Patmos. 

For now, just Patmos. And something incredible that happened there because of one woman's prayers. 

Ten days ago, Duncan and I took an 8 hour ferry to the island of Patmos, very close to the coast of Turkey. Patmos, you remember, is where John was exiled and where he was given the visions and words of the last book of the Bible, Revelations.

Patmos is lovely and very small, just seven miles by three miles. Only 2,000 people live here year round.. Every day I spent the morning in the Cave of the Apocalypse, (more on that later) but the most exciting day was at the monastery. 

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The Monastery of St. John the Theologian, dating back to 1088 sits atop this tiny island as both a fortress and a beacon. But I wasn't that keen on going. My real focus was the Cave. But people kept asking, "Have you been to the monastery yet?" So we had to go. 

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That morning the massive doors were open, but no one was around. We tiptoed inside the massive walls, hushed, respectful. We began to explore its twisted tunneling stairs and rooms, feeling like children stealing cookies. Finally we saw someone: an elderly man coming out of a room, a library, it looked like. To our surprise, he motioned us in.

We tried valiantly to communicate. After 30 minutes, through Google translate and a lot of mistranslated phrases that sound like bad Found Poetry  ("I would like to  milk the cat for Christmas. Do you know how fences interrogate Why do broken shoes follow ugly astronauts?) Duncan told him I was a writer doing research on John. , and then he offered to let us into the inner library in one hour.  

We were excited and said yes. But we didn't know what we were saying yes to. 

In the intervening hour, we went back to the car and I got out my Biblical Sites book. And discovered what I should have known: that this monastery had a spectacular library that housed 3,000 ancient manuscripts, including several very special manuscripts. And----no one was allowed in this library except scholars doing research. (And you're inviting us?)

An hour later we tentatively followed our host down three sets of arched tunneling stairs---down down down, emerging into a room surprising for its size and light, with walls of ancient scrolls and books. He showed us one volume after another . ...works by the Church Fathers, Greek philosphers,  hand-bound volumes, scrolls, parchments . . . . 

Just as we entered a sign read, in bold lettering, "No Photos Allowed." But I was dying to record this moment. "Photos?" I asked, waving my iPhone.. To my shock, he nodded yes, with a smile. (Really? How is any of this happening?)

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And then, the biggest prize of all:

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The monastery holds 33 pages of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus. It's the gospel of Mark dating back to the 6th century. (Can you comprehend that?  The Sixth Century!) This rare manuscript is written in silver ink on purple-dyed vellum (calf skin) and is considered "a work of immense historical, archaeological, theological and artistic value."  

We were not touching the actual vellum, of course, but rather, the entire manuscript photocopied and bound. Even that was a treasure. There are only a few of these complete copies. What mystery and wonder to see the words of God about the life of Jesus painstakingly and perfectly rendered on this specially treated calf-skin, then hidden and protected for more than a thousand years from raiding anti-Christian armies. As I touched the pages, it was breathtaking to consider.

 

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But this is not what impressed me most.

Wherever we went in the little village below, people asked, "Did you go to the monastery?" And when I told them we saw the library their eyes went wide in disbelief: "No! Only a few are allowed into the library!"

But we were. Because of one woman's prayer. And this is the rest of the story.

Michelle is a dear friend who lived in Kodiak briefly 20 years ago, and we have corresponded since then, through disasters, deaths, joys, everything. She is younger than me but has become disabled these last few years. Some days she can barely move. But she is with me on this trip. I am going places she has always wanted to go but cannot. She studies God's Word (in the original languages) and sends me the best research she can find. She looks at maps of where I am going. holds my arms up when they are tired. She prays for me.

This day she felt the urge to pray a special prayer that God would lift and encourage me in some way, especially as I was laboring so hard for this book.  I did not know it. I did not get her email until that night. At the end of her email she wrote, "Tell me, how did God answer this prayer today? Were you in trouble and needed help? Or were you blessed in some way?"

Yes, I wrote back. This day, the doors to the sacred library opened. And we saw a gospel manuscript I didn't even know about----the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus.

And she was even more shocked and joyous than me. (She knew more about the ms. than I did!)  

This is the best part of this story. This happened because someone prayed. Because the words of that Codex are not just ancient words inked on purple calf skin. they are living, breathing words inhabited by the Holy Spirit who originally gave them. And Jesus' words in the gospel of Mark that I held in my hands urges us to pray fearlessly, confidently:

If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for—believe that you have received them, and you will have them.

My friend Michelle did this. 

Praise God for His undying word.

Praise God for the men and women who have devoted their lives to preserving His word.

Praise God for the women and men who live by those words.

Praise God for listening and responding so powerfully to our feeble words.

 Praise Him.

 

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"Hanging from Nowhere" with the Monks

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No one wanted to climb the rock but me. It was getting dark, and everyone was tired. But, really? Didn’t they see how glorious it was, how compelling? The pyramid shape, the rocky ledges, the ancient crumbling fort on its summit? Finally, I won. We tied on our sneakers and set off.

It was indeed magically majestic, and worthy of our efforts.

 

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Who can resist a mountain? For the ancients, mountain tops meant protection, domination, victory, safety.

For others, mountain summits evoke worship.  Never have I seen so many crosses atop mountains as I have in Greece.

 

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This week, we stayed in Meteora, surrounded by a bowl of mountains and monoliths laid bare. It’s a holy place, say all the books. And so say the generations of monks and nuns who have made these rocks their perch and their home since the 11th century. Their impossible home. But chosen, for many, to be closer to God.

 

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At one time there were thirty monasteries here in Meteora, (which means “hanged from nowhere”). Some were only accessible by rope ladder, by net (hauled up by a giant hook). The very presence of these buildings and the monks and nuns who inhabit them is miraculous.

 

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The day we hiked from the village to the summit of one monastery, I admit it. As I climbed the switchbacks for an hour, wending high and higher, until emerging into the stone steps chisled out of a massive monolith, as I ascended a steep half tunnel and suddenly emerged in a stone house among the clouds, heaven felt near.  The icons in the chapel were stunning. The quiet, overwhelming. The reverence, palpable. I lit a candle. I prayed. I envied the two monks who call this home. I wanted to stay.

 

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I wanted to step away from the buzzing human hive and hang from the sky this way, suspended in prayer. Imagine. No braying news hounds. no politicians, no freeways. No internet. no noise. Just me. And God.

 

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But I know the truth about myself, and maybe everyone else. All of us, even the inhabitants of high castles and underground caves are a confusing blend of God-hunger and self-satisfaction, purity and jealousy, holiness and selfishness.

 

 I live every summer on a far north island Alaskan island off an island.  I know the truth about it, that ultimately retreat from the world is retreat from others.

 

And I know too If my own soul state is my sole concern, and if I think I will be holier, purer for my remove from people, I am in error. I am as polluted as anyone else, and the cure is not isolation but God and neighbor-immersion.

 When we let the world shrink to one, we can believe that in caring for ourselves we are caring for the  world . ..

 

 

In Paul’s Mars Hill address to the Athenians he spoke the truth, that God’s desire is that men and women

“would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”

 

He is not far from any of us. We don’t have to chisel stone steps up a thousand foot monolith. We don’t have to be hoisted to a cloister in the clouds to find him. He is here, in the world he created and still reigns over. He has come down to us.

Close your eyes right now, or open them, and you will find him.

 

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After the Tsunami, Guarding Our Treasure

OR---A god No One Could Make Up

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We are in Meteora, Greece. Today, we were ready to go out and explore these holy monoliths and monasteries when we got word of the 7.9 earthquake off Kodiak, Alaska (our home sweet home). The Tsunami sirens went off all around town, waking people from their beds. All of the town in low-lying areas evacuated to higher ground.

I wanted to be there. Our house sits on a cliff over the ocean. Last week a window blew out in 100 mph winds. This week, a major quake a full minute long shook and rattled our home. What about our treasures? The only thing I care about is the dozens of albums of babies smeared with spaghetti and the journals and scrapbooks filled with decades of memories. What would happen to my treasures?

 

 

I am learning a lot about riches and treasure here in Greece. I had forgotten that the most famous structure in the world was built to house one particular treasure. 

 

 

 (The advantage of traveling Greece in the winter: there's hardly anyone else here!)

(The advantage of traveling Greece in the winter: there's hardly anyone else here!)

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 This marvel of human engineering that has withstood more than two millennia was constructed to house the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, of military victory and the patron deity of Athens. At one end of the colossal interior stood a 36 foot statue of Athena set atop a 12 foot pedestal. The statue was fashioned from a core of wood then covered in ivory and gold. Anyone who stood before her size and splendor would have felt as small and insignificant as a gnat.

 

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She was their treasure! But no one was allowed inside this monumental structure to see her. Only the priest was allowed to enter the sanctuary of the Parthenon to offer sacrifices, and then only once a year.

The Parthenon was built not only to inspire devotion from Athenians, but as a warning to potential enemies: “Don’t mess with us. We’re guarded by the goddess of war and victory!”

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The gods that man imagined and fashioned were gilt, remote, violent, inapproachable, selfish, demanding sacrifices and constant obeisance, inspiring fear.

Four hundred years later, the Apostle Paul stood in the mighty shadow of the Parthenon, on Mars Hill, speaking of another kind of God, a god

who does not dwell in temples made with hands;  nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things."

 

Who is THIS God? He is a God no one could dream up, who came as the most vulnerable creature possible----an infant, birthed through the body of an obscure teenage girl in a barn among beasts of burden. A baby who mewled, puked, cried, and soiled himself.  The Greeks nor the Romans could not have conceived of such an entrance for any god, let alone the God of All Things.

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And this God came not to be served or feared. He did not ask people to bow down to him. He did not require a pedestal, the highest hill in the city, a throne. He did not ask that people come to him. He went to them. He went where the people lived and worked.

And showed he was God not by his power in war or his ability to intimidate, but by his ability to love, a love so powerful it brought freedom from sickness, hunger, disease, loneliness, guilt, ignorance, even death.  

But there is more. Something that almost couldn’t be believed.

This God not only dared to come as a baby, and dared to serve rather than to be served; he chose to come yet nearer: he chose in live not inside massive unapproachable monuments of marble, but inside     

us.

 

Perhaps Paul was thinking of the thousands of shrines and temples that housed the Greeks gilt gods when he wrote,

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay  . .. "

 

That's us, ordinary jars of clay, the most common of household articles: disposable, susceptible to cracking and shattering  

 

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 yet, we carry within us a treasure that can't be weighed or measured: "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." 

 

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"We have this treasure in jars of clay . ... the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  St. Paul, 2 Cor. 4

 

 

I have more ancient cities to tour this week: Thessaloniki and Phillippi. But I will remember as I survey the temples and ruins,

This is the kind of God we serve: one who has chosen US as His temple.

He is our treasure.

And---we are His. 

 

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Shipwrecked on Malta

We stumbled into Malta this last week, tripping over ourselves after 30 hours of transport through 10 time zones. Among the lost: a night and a half of sleep, mental clarity, familial affection, two blogs and a hair dryer, scorched by the very first jolt of European electricity. But Malta has been so worth it:

 

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While here, we missed a massive storm in Kodiak, where it blew over 100 mph. (Our house is on one of these cliffs. We hope it's still there!)

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I've been thinking of storms all this week in Malta, this tiny island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean. I'm here because of the storm that shipwrecked the Apostle Paul nearly 2000 years ago. 

 

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Soon after landing here, we spent the evening with Mark Gatt, the man who made an astonishing discovery in 2005. He is a rescue diver, and on one of his dives he found the massive stock of an ancient anchor barely protruding from the sandy bottom of a bay. Other anchors have been found, but this one was special. It was inscribed with  "Isis" and "Serapis," two Egyptian gods.

 

Many scholars believe Paul was on board an Egyptian grain ship filled with corn or wheat, with 275 other souls on board as well, many of them slaves.  This was no luxury cruise for him; he was a prisoner being taken to Rome for trial. He was committing the unspeakable crime of teaching the good news that freed the guilty, fed the hungry, uplifted women, empowered slaves, teachings that upset all the usual tyrants and powers.

This morning, Mark took us out in his little red Zodiak. We bounced and skimmed the waters off Malta to St. Paul's island, where a statue commemorates his presence.

 

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(The historic news is that the ship foundered not in St. Paul's Bay or on St. Paul's Island, as tradition places it, but rather one bay east of there, in Salinas Bay.)  After this visit, directed by his depth-finder, Mark drove us to the next bay to the spot where he had found the anchor in 2005. It's just another quadrant of water, but the sand bottom beneath this bay has told another story. It is there and there only where numerous artifacts have been found:  all from the same era, and likely all from the same ship. There is ample evidence by scholars and others to suggest this is indeed wreckage from Paul's ship. 

 

Mr. Gatt has even spoken to the Pope about his remarkable find.

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(Mark has written a compelling account here of the findings and has also produced a DVD that tells of the discoveries and their significance:

 

Malta has never been the same since Paul's swim to shore. He spent 3 months here teaching the gospel and healing the sick nearly 2000 years ago and because of it, there are more than 360 churches here, many of them dedicated to the Apostle. Paul is the patron saint of this unique  island nation, still considered the "most religious country in Europe."

And I, us, what of us?  Is my faith stronger because I have touched this ancient anchor?

 

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 (Do you see the lettering, "ISIS"?)

(Do you see the lettering, "ISIS"?)

I'm thankful for Mark's passion and faith and his great generosity in sharing his knowledge with us. I get excited over Biblical archeology and am unspeakably grateful to be traveling around the MIddle East for months this year following Paul's tracks. Honestly, I am still trying to process the presence of this anchor.  One thing I know: being here paradoxically reminds me that my faith does not depend on the ruins, on the cities, on the artifacts I see and even touch. Yes, the archeological evidence supports the historical veracity of the Scriptures.  If we claim something is true, it helps to have visible evidence.

 But I also know I believe not in what is dead, inert, wrecked, ruined. I believe in the Living Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, that impelled Paul and all the apostles to carry the good news of freedom and forgiveness around the world . .. the same Spirit that brought me these many thousands of miles to this very place. Even, remarkably, to the man who found the anchor.

There is so much I want to praise here, but this one piece is all my travel-rattled mind can grasp:  The Christ that Paul joyfully served in chains and in shipwreck 2000 years ago is the same living Christ that I serve today. (Do I really get to serve Him?) 

In this ancient walled city  I know more than ever,

     Our God is alive      still

freeing and forgiving,

filling and compelling,

loving and empowering.

This is our anchor. 

 

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(A facsimile of the massive anchor) 

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Can God Really Be Trusted in this New Year?

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We've been tucked up into the Colorado Rockies this entire week. A whole gathering of us: children, beautiful in-laws, new family. Though I am often deeply conflicted about Christmas, each year I am astonished at the overflow of love and undeserved goodness.

 

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This year has been no different. But the day after I received a Christmas card and letter that broke my heart. It was from a man I will call Bill. His daughter was my assistant for two summers out at our fishcamp. We loved her. She loved us. She was part of our family. Eight months after leaving us, she took her own life. This year, Bill sent us this beautiful Christmas card

 

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Inside his letter told another story: in the spring, his wife of many years died of a rare disease. And a few months later his other daughter took her own life.

What do we do with this as we stand at the brink of another year? Can we trust God with 2018? Every New Year we laugh and eat and pray at our parties at church or in our homes that this next year will be filled with peace, joy and prosperity. We ALL at least secretly hope for this, no matter how sophisticated or reformed our theology. And yet for some, like Bill, the year brings death and death.

 

What do we do with this? At the start of this new year,  we fly out of the country for four months of constant travel around Europe and Southern Africa. Here in the last three months of travel in the States, one son received death threats with a gun and an attack dog trained on him (in Louisiana), I was nearly run over by a car while crossing the street, an out-of-control semi-truck missed our motorhome by inches. Of course. This is our everyday life, all of us.

In 2018, I hope and pray we'll return home to Kodiak safely. In this new year, I hope and pray for peace, joy and prosperity to ALL of you, my dear friends. But maybe our lives will go like Bill’s this year. I don’t know. 

And though I stand shaking before the uncertainties and obstacles ahead of all of us, I have to tell the whole truth. The whole truth of Bill’s letter and story. The whole truth about God and the year ahead of us all.  Here is how Bill's letter ended:

 

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This is almost too much for me. That a man who has suffered so much loss still trusts and clings to God, still calls Him "the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort"?   And he believes that his afflictions will be used for the good of others? Yes.  Some day. 

There is more. I posted a part of Bill's story on my Facebook page, and within hours more than fifty people, none of whom know Bill, were pouring out their hearts before our God of mercies on Bill's behalf:

        **"I cannot imagine the pain of loss that this man bears each day and yet he turns to God each day with praise. Thank you for sharing Bills story and it will be a privilege to lift him up to the Father."

 

    *"Will be challenged to pray that my faith can match his as God continues to hold him close."

 

    *"Lord, I lift this man up to you right now. Please give him comfort and joy in such a dark time in his life."

 

"May God increase Bill's trust and faith exponentially. And thank God for the Comforter."

 

Bill is not alone. 

The same day a dear friend who has endured many losses in her life texted me: "I am so thankful for the beautiful friendship we have. Arm in arm, through many trials, we are together navigating the path to the Celestial City."

Is this not true?  Together, we  are navigating the path to the Celestial City.

You in your church family---together.

You in the Body of Christ---together.

Us, here----together.

The Holy Spirit who indwells us----together. 

We can trust Him in 2018.

We are not alone. 

 

These last three months in our odyssey around the country God has shown us this truth again and again: (Please listen to the song as you watch.)  

 

"I will never leave you nor forsake you."

                                        -------Jesus

 

 How can I pray for you this coming year? (You are not alone.)

Do you know someone who needs this message? Please send it on to them that they may join us here. Together. 

 

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Fixing Christmas: A Gut-honest Guide to the Holidays

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Are you ready? No, I don’t mean are your packages wrapped and is your house lit up green and red. I mean for some truth-telling and heart-opening about the holidays. We are still on the road, somewhere between Oklahoma and Denver, where we'll meet up with all our kids (minus one) for Christmas. I am full of joy-----and also, this.  (Maybe you too?)

 

Every Christmas, I fail. In all these ways:

** I reject the consumerism of our culture, wanting to replace super-materialism with super-spirituality, but

I am never spiritual enough.

I don’t pray enough.

I don’t wait on my knees and light an advent candle each week.

I only occasionally meditate through a holier-than-usual advent devotional each day.

I am not still, I am busier than any other time of year.

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 **I am busy worrying about the economics: am I buying enough or too much for my family?  Am I giving enough away to those who don't have much? (No, it never feels like enough!)

 

 

 

** I want to be crafty and earthy and make at least a couple of homemade gifts, but I always run out of time and end up buying everything, which makes me feel materialistic.

 

** I feel guilty for what I have, so I give my time and energy to compensate and assign myself impossible tasks to serve as many as possible. And I am exhausted.

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** I have created a host of family traditions to fill the vacuum of my joyless anti-Christmas childhood, but struggle to fulfill them all. And I’m not always happy when I do them.

 

 

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**I am impatient. Do I really have to go to another Chinese Auctions (or the Yankee Swap, the White Elephant gift exchange, whatever it goes by in your neighborhood)? Could we all maybe just talk to one another, sing songs and tell stories?

**I hate all the Christmas waste and wrapping so I fanatically recycle everything I can, but I still see the mounds of holiday garbage stuffing our dumpsters and land fills. I feel wasteful.

** Sometimes I think I am going to scream if I hear “the Christmas story” read from Luke one more time, as if these are the only inspired words of God. If God wanted us to spend two months of our lives on this fragment of His story surely He would have given us more than 20 verses?

 

** I'm a party-pooper, because I wonder, Must we be so relentlessly happy these weeks? Maybe we could do with a little less cheer and a little more fear. Isn’t this baby the one who grew up saying things like, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? Am I just be

**I’m frustrated by the ongoing “Merry Christmas” wars. If anyone wants to take Christ out of Christmas, they’re free to do so. And they likely already have. We’re not going to make America a Christian nation again by fighting over the meaning of the holidays. (In fact, we’re probably not going to make America a Christian nation again. Ever. We’ve been called to “make disciples” not convert nations.)

**I'm trapped. When New Years is over, I thank God, collapse and feel like a survivor of the season (which also includes 3 birthdays, an open house and an anniversary). But then, I feel so guilty that I feel so relieved.

And so the season ends.

 

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There it is. My failures, complaints, and guilt hang from my Christmas tree like tacky tinsel and twine throughout the season like plastic garland. But finally I understand:

I try harder every year to be purer, better, less wasteful, less judgmental----

but I'm not.

I will never get it right.

We will never get it right. 

Our bumbling fraught over-anxious celebrations

will continue year after year,  if we don’t give up.

And it’s okay, because this season finally

is not about what I do or you do or about how any of us feel.

It’s not about what we get right and what we get wrong.

It’s about what God has done.

And what He's ready to do again this week, this very moment:

Are you ready? (O Lord, I am so ready!)

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(For unto US is born this day our Savior, who is Christ the Lord!!”)----thank God.

Let THIS be the day!

Amen.

(But I’m totally skipping the Chinese Auction.)

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And one more thing: THANK YOU dearest friends and readers for hanging with me in this space all year. I treasure each one of you! So many of YOU have ministered to ME through your thoughtful comments. I hope these words bring hope, relief and maybe even a moment of worship and joy this week.

With much love,

Leslie

 

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Of Swamp Monsters, Men and a Baby God: A Christmas Story

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I am shocked to discover it is already the Christmas season. We have managed to avoid it thus far in our long far travels. While most are deluged with the relentless avalanche of Rudolf and Frosty, we've been underwater swamped---In the Louisiana swamps, beyond the reach of Christmas cheer, where holiday ads don’t play and Santa cannot sleigh, thank God.

We took a boat, five of us, into the Honey Island Swamp for an afternoon. It was creepy, haunting and beautiful, this swamp, twenty miles long and seven miles wide, considered the least altered river swamp in the U.S.  The labyrinth of cuts, bayous, ditches and rivers was astounding, circling us ever deeper into an eerie world. Alligators abound here, and herons, ducks, nutria, deer, raccoons, And people. As we chugged past their stilted houses, I imagined them with soggy webbed feet, with bedraggled hair and scraggly beards like Spanish moss. 

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A monster also lives here--the Honey Island Swamp Monster. Reports and sightings date back to 1963. There's even film footage and casts of footprints. He is reported to be a two-legged seven foot tall, extraordinarily hairy creature with yellow eyes and a four-toed foot who wafts the disgusting smell of rotting flesh everywhere he slumps. One of the origin stories, my favorite, is of a turn-of-the-century traveling circus riding a train that derailed in the swamp. All the animals escaped. The Chimpanzees mated with the alligators and somewhere along this fleet evolutionary tale some homo sapien got mixed in. 

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Ahhh, don't we love our monsters? We want them: Bigfoot, Yeti, King Kong, The Fouke monster, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp monster.

We want something big, hairy, scary, wild.

We want something beyond us, wiser, stronger, native

                   who slinkily  instinctively navigates the swamps and fields.

We want a creature we can't kill off, who has survived us, our guns and human wasteful ways.

We want a creature lurking in the dark. We want to be afraid; we don’t want to be alone.

We want to know we don’t know all there is to know.

 We must have mystery. We must have monsters. 

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Maybe it’s easier to believe in them than Christmas. What is this story?

An unknown girl in a backward town played host to the holy ghost?

The fierce untamable God came near, came tame and mild, as an infant child?

That God squalled for his mothers’ milk, wore diapers and a peasant’s rag?

That he grew and healed the dying, wholed the sick, sang the mute, taught the truth?

And all this story to end in a gory death on a cross to take our place? 

God born for all to die for all to set all free, at no cost?

 

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 So many won't believe it. They say instead,

"Who can bear or believe such a myth, such luck, such a god, such light?

Give us back our swamp,  our night, our glorious fear. 

 We’re more at home here."   

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 "Light came into the world, but people loved darkness instead of the light . .."

But I do not give up hope, that some even this Christmas will see the light that shines for them . . ..

 

Breaking Silence: Let Me Now Praise Good Men

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This week, I’m breaking silence with my own expose of men: A tale of three heroes.

 

Hero #1

I was stuck in the sand. No, not quite this:

 

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But this behemoth we’ve named Benson, our 32 foot home-on-wheels was stuck in the sand near a beach. I just wanted a spot for the night that wasn’t a truck stop, a Walmart, or a movie theatre parking lot, our usual (free) haunts the last two months as we’ve bounced and toiled from Washington across the northern states to the Midwest and now down to the Deep South. 

Micah warned me: “Mom, you’re going to get stuck.” I waved him off, imagining our sleeping bodies being smashed in the night by an only slightly errant car. I had to move further off the road.

I took precautions. I’m not a complete novice. Years ago, I helped push an expedition truck across the Sahara, using sand mats and shovels when we sunk to our rims. But despite my sand mats and boards under the wheels, in 3 seconds the beast was heaving and groaning. Stuck.

Out of the dark, just at that moment, a man appeared at my window, “Oh wow, you’re really stuck. Here, I can pull you out!” I blinked. How could he just appear like that? I was stuck for literally one second!

He had a black 4 wheel drive truck. He was wearing a blue t-shirt and beige shorts. “You’re in luck cause I’ve got a pull rope!” He seemed very happy. He sprang to the back of his truck and came out with a thick yellow strap. He dropped to the pavement, first on his back then on his belly under the carriage while I squirmed to be in such need as to require this kind of grovel. In the dark. On a road. By a stranger.

Then he popped out and called behind him, as he rushed to his truck, “Turn your wheels slightly, not too hard.”

I got in the drivers seat. Ignition on. His truck pulled, our wheels spun, something crunched, our little house swayed---and in a few grinding seconds, Benson was free!

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Hero #2

We spent that night in a little dog park beside the beach. The next morning I saw a woman picking up trash. I watched her for nearly an hour as she pulled a wagon, down on the beach, beside the road. I gathered my courage and went to speak to her. Her name was Karon. She told me this:

“I have a good retirement, so this is my job. I spend an hour or two every day, however long it takes to fill up my wagon. The plastics are the worst. The turtles try to eat the plastic bags and it kills them. The straws too. That’s why I do this.”

When I drove away from that brilliant white beach, I saw her in my rear view mirror still  bending tover a pile of trash.

 

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Hero #3

The next day I woke up sick. The temperature dropped to the forties. It began to pour. We packed up and I drove through the rain to Biloxi, Mississippi, grumpy, tired and chest-achy. I decided to splurge and stayed in a park with actual plug-ins. Except our electricity didn't work. Again? I just wanted to sleep. I just wanted a little power. A little light. A little warmth. Maybe I wanted even to be back home in Kodiak without all the daily stresses of traveling. I did’n’t want to deal with this again. I sat slumped on the seat, too tired to move or even to care.

Then Patrick showed up. I didn’t ask for help. When he discovered I didn’t have power, he spent the next two hours tooling and poking and checking, all narrated in a thick Mississippi accent, until our lights were on. Until everything worked. 

 

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When this trip started, I called it a pilgrimage toward praise.  Praise is easy to write. Praise is easy to give to my children. But to speak praise to strangers? Even to God? When I was growing up, praise—for man, child or God---was a foreign language no one spoke. A language I didn’t know existed. I am still learning to find my tongue.

That night when the man pulled me out of the sand, just as we parted, he looked up at me in my cockpit seat and said, ‘Now that’s what I call luck, me being here. “

It was Sunday. I had taken communion at church that morning. I had sung songs about the coming of Jesus, had cried at the altar up front. And now out on this beach, this man who pulled me out of the miry sand was pulling me toward luck, away from God, toward silence.

 

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I took a breath, then: “No, not luck. Providence. God was with us. I thank you and I thank God,” I said as lightly as I could.

The man laughed a bit nervously while coiling the yellow line. “Oh of course. Yes, Him, of course. Always that,” he said in a way that I knew it was probably never that. But he was a brilliant angel anyway.

I almost didn’t speak to Karon.

I almost didn't say thank you to Patrick. When I pulled out of the park in Biloxi, I almost snuck away in silence. But something tugged. I parked and went into the office.

“I just wanted to thank you and to thank Patrick for all his help. He didn’t have to help me. But I’m so glad he did. We’ve been having trouble with our power for awhile. Just thank you so much.”   

I left amid hugs, talk of God, kind goodbyes.

 

 Now, so many women are speaking. They're breaking their silence to expose corrupt men---just as they should. Let truth be heard. Let all wicked men fall. But I need to speak too. I am breaking my silence here to praise good men and women who keep appearing everywhere I go around this country. Don't let the headlines distract you from all the praiseworthy women and men around us. 

And I am breaking a longer silence: to praise the God who gives each of them breath, strength, and love for the stranger.

Behold, God is my helper;
    the Lord is the upholder of my life. . . .

I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good.
For He has delivered me from every trouble.”

 

Who do you need to thank and praise?

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Turning 60: Hear Me Roar (and whimper)!

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I had a birthday this last week. On Thanksgiving Day, actually. And my son did as well. Long-time friends in Georgia invited us in off the unending road to a long table wide and high with feasting food and more love than can be counted. And a cake. A chocolate cake, my favorite. It was a big birthday, one of the ones with a zero in it. Since you already know the number let me dispense with the drama.                           (But I'm still practicing this number. I am----gulp. 60.)

This is a coming-out for me. I have not told my age in this space before, let alone using the number in the title. I know what I’m supposed to say here: that I love being this number. That I embrace my new wrinkles, the thickening waist, that I’ve earned every spot, wrinkle, roll and varicose vein, so hear me roar, you dewy-faced wasp-waisted superficial babes----I got wisdom! I got sage! I’ve got 94 year old Iris Apfel on my stage!

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I know the message well because I’ve been reading and consulting many others on this whole aging thing (I’ll have a book out on it in the spring.) I’ve heard some of the over-forty crowd crow, triumphantly, as they jam another candle in the cake, “I don’t care what anyone thinks anymore! I’m free!”

When Oprah turned 60 she announced, “I’ve earned the right to be just who I am.” Another guru pronounced the high duty of loving herself “purely and truly” every day. A TV star who hit the ripe age of 44 dispensed her life’s body of wisdom by saying, “I’ve come to love my body just as it is---curves and all.” One woman in church told me, laughing,  “Watch out for me, ‘cuz I’ve paid my dues, honey. I’m gonna say whatever I darn well please.” 

 

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She was turning 50. And she leads a ministry in her home church.

Hooray for self-acceptance rather than diets and plastic surgery, but the rest of this? Now that I’m a card-carrying 60 year old with a license to say whatever-the-hell I want (see, like that phrase right there! My 59 year old self would never have said that!), here’s my truth. Here’s my rant:

Can we women-of-a-certain-age just grow up?

Do we see the irony here?  When we’re raising our kids, we knock ourselves out to grow them past the squawling infant, the demanding self-centered toddler. We teach them share your toys, play well with others, apologize, be kind to strangers, say you’re sorry, let others go first. As soon as our kids launch, on their way to “responsible adult,” we throw ourselves a party, speak our truths, quit teaching Sunday School and go play golf all week.

How is it that we raise our children to become responsible, kind adults, and as soon as they do, we become kids again?

 

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But I’m not really mystified. I’m starting my third decade of raising kids. That's an exhausting parade of serving and loving. And by the time we get to this point in our lives, we’ve weathered huge storms---probably some we did not expect to survive. We’re tired of being nice to everyone. Here we are, still standing, with who know how much time remains so let’s Carpe Diem the heck out of what’s left! Just do it! Leave your husband, galavant and rant, Be angry! BE HAPPY! Speak your Truth! And most of all, love yourself unconditionally. (If you’re having trouble doing that, you can take a course by Deepak Chopra on Oprah’s channel, “How to Love Yourself Unconditionally.”)

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Yes, love yourself, do, but do we really think so little of ourselves, I wonder. Do we really believe this is the best we can do----that the image of God in us, and the eternity in our hearts will be satisfied with the tiny shards of a single self when all the world and God is offered to us if we would just reach for it?

 We imagine freedom and happiness lies in serving ourselves rather than everyone else. But haven’t we learned by now that the self is a smiling beguiling despot? We are our own worst tyrants. If I had to get up every morning with the dictum “I’m going to love myself unconditionally all day long,” I think I would kill myself (metaphorically) after a week.  I am my own worst enemy at times, but I am never my own best friend. Because I have actual friends who are smarter and far more interesting and helpful than I am. Not to mention Jesus, whom mostly I can’t see, but who keeps showing up in the most astonishing ways.

Like this. The day before I turned 60, I get an email from a stranger. Someone who has survived a traumatic childhood, who met Jesus last year and who has decided to get baptized because of a book I wrote. And who now has hope that God will heal her of her past. I spent two years writing that book, giving up most of my free time. I cried when I read her email. I am wildly and deeply happy.  Still.

Today I go to visit a couple in their mid 80's who, instead of playing golf,  fly to developing countries teaching pastors and building libraries.

At 60 I don't know much, but this I know for sure: 

All we have is one little life that passes too fast. We can guard the contents of our own tiny thimble or fling it out joyfully, recklessly, filling a hundred, a thousand other cups.

I choose to fling.

May all our cups run over. 

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(Thank you for reading! If this resonates with you, would you consider sharing?)