A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

What’s Hidden inside Your Love Story?

Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.

–Sweet Land (PG, 2005)

I tease my husband (the poor introvert!). Because whenever I write about him—he, who washes his hands of anything to do with internet attention—readers eat. It. Up.What's Hidden in Your Love Story

But honestly, we’re all suckers for a good love story. Even if the characters are, say, a couple of anthropomorphic animated trolls with psychedelic hair. Yes, even guys, from Marvel comics to Jason Bourne.

We don’t just dig the attraction, gee-whiz-you-happen-to-be-exactly-the-Prince-Charming-I-was-keening-for stuff.  We watch (or read, or listen to the top 40) for two hours straight, or a whole TV season (or six), our spirits pressing the two together through everything life or a team of writers can throw at them.

Whether it’s Mark Antony and Cleopatra, This is Us, or Gru and Lucy in Despicable Me 2, they’ve all got something in common: death to self. Sacrifice. Overcoming. Novelist Suzanne Wolfe pens, we touched each other in passing as if we always had to bridge the gap that separated us, no matter it was only air. The love stories that rivet us are those where the two will do anything to be together–but more than together. To be unified; to be one. It’s what author Paul Miller, of A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships calls “stubborn love.”

Love is…transfixing. As M. Night Shyamalan has written, The world bows to love. It kneels before it in awe.

I reflected on this as I thoroughly enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast movie last night, despite a CGI-created beast and an actress I thoroughly associate with Harry Potter. I understand the concerning issues the Christian community has with this movie. But aside from that—and in my own efforts to see God in technicolor display in culture—I was overwhelmed the story that played out before me. Perhaps my favorite scene, there in the theater with the 3-D glasses bigger than my face, was when the entire castle transforms breathtakingly, radically, not just back to the way things were, but even better.

Living the J-Curve

Miller writes, “almost every Disney animated movie is a death-resurrection story—a gospel story of sorts…No story is more powerful than a gospel story. In fact, if you want to write a book or a movie script, you’d  better make it a gospel story, or it likely won’t sell.” He describes the “J-curve” of a good story: when the “J” begins, things are good; happy—but then they descend (the bottom of the J) into some form of loss; of death. Yet in any good love story, this is followed by a “resurrection”–the long, upward arm of the J–hands-down better than before.

See, inside any love story…is the real Love Story. Of a God unrelenting to get us back; willing to lay down His own life so we could be brought close again. Miller elaborates that our own love requires living a J-curve.

As we go downward into death, we are active: active in seeking humility,  in taking the lower place, in mindless, hidden serving. This is the journey Jesus took…We can do death. But we can’t do resurrection. We can’t demand resurrection—we wait for it.

Perhaps love stories are so compelling because they echo the story we’ve always wanted. And the one that God’s already playing out: His relentless pursuit. His bridging the gap. His restoring everything we ever lost.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Love Story

Honestly, when I began typing this post, I felt hypocritical. My husband—the man of my love story–and I had an argument a couple of hours before; hadn’t reached our reconciliation yet.  But perhaps that’s what propels us all, swiveling our eyes to that couple who, despite the inevitable arguments and morning breath and toddler years and in-laws and naked selfishness, chooses us.

Miller insists that death is at the center of love. Sometimes that death is as simple as throwing your arm around your mate as you drift off to sleep after an argument. Sometimes it’s forgiving after something unspeakable. Sometimes it’s deciding your mate will be more important than the thing between you.

As for the two of us: death to self looked like my husband stepping through the doorway, arms frothy with a bouquet of white flowers I did not deserve (check out the photo of some of them!). Flowers that said, No matter what divides us, I choose us. He took our conflict, and made it an opportunity for us to continue even stronger than before. (As Ligon Duncan has said, “People don’t fall out of love. They fall out of repentance and forgiveness.”)

In every story of true love played out around the world–every grand proposal or small armful of unwarranted flowers, every angry word bitten back or dirty sock picked up out of generosity–God is retelling His own love story.

How’s that for a happy ending?


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Guest post: God of My Heartbreak: Teaching Teens to Pray

Of the many nuggets I’ve gleaned from my father-in-law, perhaps one I am most grateful for is his response to my husband’s teen years.

A lot of people find merit in Mark Twain’s quip: When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.

But my father-in-law wasn’t one of them. Those tornadic years of my not-yet-husband’s were a signal to pull out the outdoor gear, summit as many of Colorado’s fourteeners as they could knock out, and tack on some decent kayaking, cycling, and snow caving along the way. My father-in-law saw the rippling strength of the teen years as a chance to explore manhood together.

teaching teens to pray

As people have forecast heartbreak for these years of parenting—and I realize my portion will come—my husband and I loved our six years of youth ministry. It was a little like working with wet cement, these textured, gravelly years of becoming. We could hold gut-level conversations about real, heartrending issues. Our faith offers unmatched answers to the question marks looming in the teen mind: unfathomable meaning and purpose for their lives, far beyond themselves.

On many of the Wednesdays of 2017, I’ll be helping my friend Barbara Rainey, on everthinehome.com. We’re exploring what she calls “prayer lessons”: ideas to pray for ourselves, our most critical relationships, our communities. This week’s post, God of My Heartbreak: Teaching Teens to Pray, offers ideas to come alongside teens in prayer.

I hope it encourages you today, wherever this finds you.


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Guest post: Why Our Kids Need to Struggle

My family and I are headed back from Africa, which twists my heart in all sorts of new ways. But with that, my kids will be attending school for the first time—American school. Any of you mamas out there imagine the ways that messes with a mama’s heart?

So many of my prayers are poured out like water over their adjustment. Over finding just one solid friend. Over teachers and my son’s learning disorder and my kids’ abilities to be kind in the face of insult. And I think this is as it should be: asking God’s generous favor, slathered all over our kids.

But there’s this. I was reading Brene Brown last night, who occasionally helps me get my emotional head screwed on straight. And she reminded me of this: “Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.”

I’m thinking out loud about this over on WeAreTHATFamily.com again. Want to hop over and check it out?

May you have all you need this week to do things hard and holy.

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Gifts that Remain: Life Lessons for Keeps from Africa

I view the items in my home differently now. Everything is slid into a category in my mind: Pack it. Sell it. Give it. Just as we did five and a half years ago in Little Rock, we’re packing up our lives here in Africa. But of course the person who packed up then isn’t the same person who’s packing now.

And thankfully, those intangibles are things I can keep.

They don’t take up precious luggage space; I won’t need to sell them for pennies on the dollar with which I bought them. They’re Africa’s gifts to me.

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For the Day You Feel Powerless, Part III: On Hope and Longing

Missed the first two parts? Grab I and II here.

When my husband and I were dating, he had this (irritating!) habit of asking what I wanted. Example:

Him: Where do you want to go out for dinner?

Me: I don’t care. [I really didn’t!] You pick.

Him, pulling over into a parking lot: No problem. We can just sit here until you know what you want.

See what I mean? Good grief.

Truth: I’m not great at knowing what I want. At least, not since high school. Before high school I knew what I wanted. But that’s when—due to some unhealthy insecurity and a mildly healthy desire to serve and surrender to what God wanted—I uncovered a great delight in pleasing. (My husband maintains that I can please with the best of them, but that lurking underneath is still a strong will to be reckoned with. He even goes so far to suggest that this strong will is attractive to him. I mean, can you trust this guy? Really?)

This has been gut-wrenching lately because when it comes to staying in Africa or moving back to the U.S., I actually did want something very much. I wanted to stay. And after giving up a lot of the things that don’t matter to me, it has at times felt almost a betrayal that God might ask me to give up one of the things that does.

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For the Day When You Feel Powerless, Part II

Missed the first post? Grab it here.

Last Thursday was one of those days that encapsulated so much of what I love and what drives me bananas about living in Uganda. I veered through jaw-clenching traffic on the 45-minute drive home, assembling all the clutter of my day into the appropriate mental file folders. This is quite a task to begin with–considering both a) my mind and b) at least four sudden oncoming governmental convoys. (Let’s just say mental “papers” kept being upended from their file folders by real life.)

As I do every week, I’d taught Bible at the refugee center. Even after three years, it’s a bit of a rabbit hole for me. There are so many cross-cultural experiences to make sense of at once that I’m flying by the seat of my skirt.

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Ideas to Be Your Spouse’s Wingman

If you’re thinking of Goose and Mav, you’re getting my idea. How can we be our spouse’s “intimate ally”*? Get this: The word God used to describe Eve in the Bible (ezer) translated as helper—is most often used in the Bible as either as a term for a military ally…or for God Himself, helping us. Here are a few practical ideas—for husbands and wives–to act as your mate’s shield, advocate, and protector. (Like this? Be sure to check out 50 Ways to Inspire Your Wife and 50 Ways to Inspire Your Husband.)

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Guest post: 30 Activities for Kids in March

Has your family started the spring break countdown? We want to make our time with kids intentional. But where to start? Over on EverThineHome.com, I’ve got 30 ideas to try this month. Hop on over and check ’em out!

Happy almost-Spring! (And BTW–if you like this, you might love the Relationships page, full of tons of ideas.)

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: Simple Ideas to Teach Fasting

I’m posting this in part for families who’d like to fast for Lent. A few believe Protestants shouldn’t; but Matt Chandler offers this perspective–so it’s your call! At any time of year, I feel families can benefit. Here’s why.   -Janel

fasting for families spiritual discipline

Yeah, I bet you were wondering what I was going to write in this one. (I was, too.)

It’s hard enough for adults to get the idea behind fasting, I think. But I like how John Piper phrases it: Fasting is about demonstrating a hunger for God. It’s like saying, God, I want you this much. Remember how man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God? Fasting—much like its sister discipline, simplicity–is like putting down the bag of Cheetos in our lives that mutes our soul’s shouting to be filled. (My refugee students could likely out-fast me any day, simply because they’ve lived life without being constantly satiated.) Kids aren’t likely to understand this easily, so let’s put it this way.


What it is

THE KEY: Fasting is a sweet offering to God of choosing against something we really like for a little while, so we can be satisfied by Him rather than all the pleasures in our lives.

God made those pleasures as good gifts! But He never means them to get more important than Him. Fasting helps us step away from them a bit, to spend time thinking of Him and praying more.

We keep it quiet, because fasting isn’t about making us look all spiritual. It’s about our private walk with Him, like a special secret between the two of us.

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Finding God in the Hot Wheels: Circling the Grace in Motherhood

My seven-and-a-half year old sat near me as I typed quietly yesterday. His Hot Wheels were performing gravity-defying stunts; he rather violently hummed the Cars 2 theme song, replete with adrenaline-loaded sound effects, of course–over and over. And over. I almost quietly asked him to please desist. But then–I realized my Hot-Wheels-overlaid-with-Cars-2-soundtrack days are kind of winding down. (Sniff.)

Keep hummin’, buddy.

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