Playing with Father Redux

God asked me to come out and play—again.

In the freshman composition classes I teach for University of Northwestern St. Paul and  North Central University, I demonstrate how to write narrative reflections using a blog post I wrote a few years ago called “Playing with Father.” It tells how God “put together” a costume for me to wear at our church’s Halloween alternative, the Fall Frolic. God taught me some lessons I needed to know right then—in a playful and surprising way.

Evidently, I needed an update to my costume repertoire and some advanced lessons from Father. A couple of Octobers later, I headed back to the thrift store to purchase what I needed for my new persona. This time, instead of God leading me to the various items of my ensemble, I knew I had everything I needed already. Everything but a stuffed monkey.

I was going to be Pippi Longstocking. I had striped stockings and wild ribbons for my hair. I had a striped shirt and some chunky boots (left over from that previous costume). I had an eyebrow pencil to dot my face with freckles. I just needed Mr. Nilsson, Pippi’s pet monkey, to make it clear who I was.

Although I’d had this plan in mind for a couple of weeks, when the day of the Fall Frolic arrived, I still hadn’t journeyed out to find Mr. Nilsson. The Goodwill store five minutes from my home had bins brimming with Teddy bears and Beanie Babies, and I was hoping to find a cheap furry friend there. With only a few minutes to complete my mission, I strode over to the stuffed animal aisle. A few seconds later, I spotted him.

ff1I assumed I’d have to safety pin whatever creature I found to my shoulder to make him part of my costume—and I wasn’t confident that would work. But God had that all under control. The Mr. Nilsson who was waiting for me had long arms with Velcro hands, so he could hang perfectly from my neck!

My transformation into Pippi was surprisingly quick and easy. At the Fall Frolic and when I posted my picture on Facebook later, everyone knew immediately who I was. No doubt Mr. Nilsson helped!

Later, when I had time to contemplate the event, I realized that once again God was showing me something about myself and about Him. But this time, He wasn’t showing me what I could be, but what I already was through my relationship with Him.

In the book series by Astrid Lindgren, Pippi lives alone in her father’s house. Her father is away at sea, but he has made sure she has plenty of gold coins, a pet monkey, and a horse. While others doubt the existence of Pippi’s father, Pippi never doubts him or his love for her. Pippi’s father trusts her to be capable and wise—and she meets those expectations.

From time to time people release “all I ever needed to know I learned from” lists. Interestingly, though I had always loved the Pippi stories, I never believed I was anything like Pippi. Until that fall. That’s when I realized God had been developing in me all those best qualities of Pippi, and I could finally make one of those lists.

All I really need to know in life I learned from Pippi Longstocking:

  • My Father loves me and takes care of me, even when I can’t see Him.
  • I have infinite riches at my disposal.
  • I use my resources wisely and never squander them.
  • My pets are my friends.
  • I am stronger than I look.
  • I can get away with wearing bright colors.
  • Freckles are cool.
  • I am capable of living on my own.
  • A new adventure, with new friends, is just around the corner.
  • Washing the floors is fun.
  • I don’t mind if others think I’m “different.”
  • I am my own unique person and am confident in who I am.
  • I will be reunited with my Father someday.
  • Pigtails don’t have to be straight.

I’ve come a long way, but only because of my loving Father, who provides for me and teaches me, even though I can’t see Him.

“That’s all you need in life right now.”

rebecca at acfw2Yesterday the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Annual Conference wrapped up. I was blessed to attend and blessed to be a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest.

When I attend an event like this, I always expect God to show up and teach me something big. This time, the first day and a half went by, and although I learned many wonderful tips for becoming a more successful writer, I didn’t have an emotionally moving moment where I felt God’s special word to me personally. I’d already heard several amazing God stories about how one attendee or another had connected with just the right person or received just the right message.

I decided to give God a little help.

Since I’d only scheduled one appointment with an editor and one with an agent, I put myself on the schedule for a publishing representative who had a free appointment slot. I signed up for an opening on Friday, but the person I requested to meet with didn’t show. The next day, I noticed that the person who had blessed a friend of mine had an opening, so I put my name down to meet with her. When my time came, she, too, stood me up.

Once is a coincidence, but twice is a pattern.

I interpreted it to mean that God knew what He was doing. If I wasn’t satisfied with what had happened so far, then God had something else in store.

I didn’t dare think it would be winning the Genesis Contest. I knew that many authors who had been writing fiction longer and with more expertise than I were in the contest, and I didn’t expect to win my category.

I was moved by a workshop that Liz Curtis Higgs presented. If hers had been the only session I’d attended, it would have been worth the trip to Nashville. What an inspiring woman!

That night, as winners were announced in the Genesis Contest, I didn’t receive an award, but I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t my time.

Sunday morning, I had a few free hours before leaving the luxurious Gaylord Opryland Resort. I donned my walking shoes and rambled through the sprawling indoor tropical paradise. As I approached a waterfall that had drawn me near several times over the past days, I considered its unique attraction.

cascade fallsThe pathway leading toward it was bordered by manufactured stone that reminded me of the cliffs along the St. Croix River. One of my earliest memories—a mere flash of recollection—is of my dad taking our family to an outing at Osceola, Wisconsin, to see the falls where Osceola Creek tumbles over a cliff on its way to the St. Croix. A special feature of Cascade Falls is that you can walk behind it, and that’s what we did.

I was probably only three years old. Dad carried me in his arms while my older siblings walked. We stood in the cleft of the rock as the waterfall roared in front of our faces and the creek rushed away before us. I smelled the damp stones and fragrant vegetation. Cool water sprinkled my face as Dad’s warm, protective arms enfolded me.

ACFW2018Like Cascade Falls, this indoor waterfall allows one to walk behind it. It even offers a bench to sit on behind the falls where you can watch the water pour down from the rocks and pools above your head. With plenty of time this morning, I stopped a few minutes to meet with God. It was a drop-in appointment, but He was ready and waiting for me.

Sitting in that secluded nook brought Colossians 3:3 to mind: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

When I attended Bible College, one of my favorite Bible teachers told a story about that verse. He remembered being out in a rainstorm with his dad as a very young boy. He and his teddy bear were wrapped inside his father’s rain jacket next to his heart. My professor’s point was that Christians are the teddy bear, held close by Jesus, who is held close by God.

I’ve drawn comfort from that image hundreds of times. But today God pointed out that I had an image of my own that would serve me better—one I’ve left unclaimed for decades. Behind Cascade Falls, I was enclosed in Dad’s sturdy arms, and we were both hidden in the cleft of the rock. God is the shelter and the fount of blessing. In Christ’s arms, I am safe, and I am loved. That’s all I need.

Perhaps I hadn’t received some big reveal from God during the conference, but He’d given me everything I needed right now.

ACFW2018aEncouraged by that thought, I continued my walk. A few minutes later, I stopped by a pastry stand for breakfast and ordered a double chocolate muffin and two percent milk.

When the server heard my order, she grinned. “That’s all you need in life right now.”

The same thing God had just told me. He must have wanted me to hear it twice.

Playing with Father

(I wrote this post about seven or eight years ago for a different blog. I now use it as an example of a narrative reflection in my college-level Rhetoric and Research class, which I teach for North Central University. My R & R students have all seen the now-famous leopard shirt and platform shoes. With Halloween approaching, it seems appropriate to post this here.)

God asked me to come out and play.

My daughter Naomi and I went to the Earth Exchange thrift store to look for a costume for her for the Fall Frolic Halloween alternative at our church. As I was scanning the clothing racks for something for her, I ran across a black shirt jacket with the head of a leopard painted on it and leopard pattern trim on the sleeves and collar. I showed it to Naomi. “You could be a leopard tamer,” I said. Naomi dismissed the idea, so I put the shirt back. I kept suggesting other ideas to Naomi, and she kept suggesting other ideas for me. When we had exhausted every possibility for Naomi, she insisted that I find a costume for myself. I went back to the leopard shirt. “I could be a leopard tamer,” I said.

We proceeded to look for other pieces to complete the leopard tamer outfit. There were some long black pants that I had ruled out because they were size two, but Naomi encouraged me to try them on. Naomi found a black t-shirt with the appliqué of Mickey Mouse in a leopard pattern. I said, “That’s great! It means I can turn a leopard into a mouse!” The pants fit (surprise!) except they were way too long. That’s when Naomi presented me with some amazing black platform shoes. They were a little too large, but they added three inches to my height! Naomi then found some black clip-on earrings, and I found a black stocking cap and a black water bottle holder in which I could place the whip my son had used with his Lord of the Rings costume. To my surprise and delight, I was unexpectedly outfitted in a costume so unlike my “real” persona that it was sure to make anyone who knew me smile at the irony.

At the beginning of the evening, I had the opportunity to have my nails painted, something I seldom do. One of the junior high girls who was volunteering at the nail-painting station was wearing orange nail polish with black spots. I asked her to paint mine the same way. Having always been a minimalist when it came to fashion, I never understood my girly girlfriends’ fascination with accessories.  Now with my earrings, heels, hat, bag, and nail polish, I was fully accessorized. I felt “put together.”

Wearing the outfit for four hours affected me. I felt unusually tall, feminine, confident, and capable. Whenever I met a little kitten or leopard, I asked if she wanted to be tamed by me. They all refused! Nevertheless, I knew that if I were a real leopard tamer and they were real leopards, it wouldn’t be up to them. The leopard tamer is the one who calls the shots.

At the end of the evening, I had a new appreciation of my own strength and femininity. I understood that strength and femininity need not be in opposition. In fact, they complement and enhance each other. It was a healing revelation I desperately needed right now. How mischievous for God to teach me so playfully!

Thanks, Father. I’ll play with you any time!

Zorro and Silver Pennies: Why I Collect Books

As the youngest of nine children, I keenly felt the pain of illiteracy at four years of age. Seeing all the people I admired most sitting down and reading by themselves was tantalizing to me.

Not wanting to feel left out, I frequently spent time combing the family bookcase. Unfortunately, except for a few tattered Little Golden Books, the only books on the shelf were grown-up books without pictures–with one notable exception.

How well I recall the glossy illustrated hard cover of The Legend of Zorro!  In brilliant hues the dashing Zorro–his masked face set with resolve and his black cape swirling about his scarlet shirt–sat atop a rearing black stallion against a Southwestern landscape. Before entering first grade, when I knew all the sounds of the letters and knew how to sound words out, I sat down with Zorro in my lap and tried to read. To my dismay, I couldn’t get past the first word: “the.”

After first grade when I had really learned to read, I tackled Zorro again. I could now pick out a word here or there, but not much more than that. After second grade, I thought I’d surely be able to find out about Zorro, but I still couldn’t read it. Ditto after third grade.

By that time, a few more children’s books had found their way into our home. By saving enough box tops, my mom was able to subscribe to a series of hardcover children’s anthologies that came in the mail once a month. The books had poems, short stories, fairy tales, and an excerpt from a longer children’s book. I eagerly devoured those volumes the day they arrived and couldn’t wait for the next one. They only served to further whet my appetite for books, not satisfy it.

Every so often the school library would discard books. My sister and I kept a watchful eye for those “discard” piles and grabbed any books we could. One of them that I snatched up was Silver Pennies, a handbook-sized children’s poetry anthology. Silver Pennies was in sorry shape when it found its way into our home. A chunk was missing from its hard cover and multiple pages had been scribbled on by unruly children. The little volume was already 40 years old when I adopted it. But I read and cherished it, committing many of its poems to memory. The enchanting words of Vachel Lindsay, Walter de la Mare,  Sara Teasdale, and William Butler Yeats became second nature to me.

silver pennies 1

Tattered and worn–but well loved.

When I was thirteen, both my parents became quite ill, and our family had to move out of our home. There was no time to sort through possessions to decide what was worth taking. When I arrived on the scene, the family bookshelf with all of its contents had already been deposited on the back of a pickup truck destined for the dump. The shiny volume of Zorro was buried somewhere in that load–beyond my ability to rescue it.

But Silver Pennies miraculously survived. I must have had it among my personal belongings. It’s the only book from our original library that was not destroyed. I keep it in a Ziploc bag in my bedroom to prevent further deterioration; it’s pushing 90 now. But it doesn’t remain in my room. A couple of times each semester it goes to class with me. I want my students to feel the awe this little book gave me, so I show it to them when I’m teaching one of my favorite poems from that volume or when I’m sharing with them how important books are to me.

When I decided to home school my children, I also decided to invest in an excellent home library. The tragic “legend of Zorro” was not going to be repeated in my home! My kids have had plenty of books appropriate for their ages and reading levels. They all became excellent readers and probably have their own stories to tell about books that are especially meaningful to them.

As possessions go, books are in a class by themselves. They are more than things. They are companions, mentors, confidants, and friends. I like being surrounded by them.