Sunday, July 23, 2017

Love Like That

The billboard holding these words feels as if it’s pointing fingers, judging every passerby. The lower right hand corner holds an image of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  There is nothing else. 

As I zoom past it, my heart is instantly heavy.  It’s not heavy from guilt. It’s heavy because it aches. It aches for all the people who are hungry for the love of Christ.  It aches for all the people who are hurting and searching for more out of life. Someone spent a large sum of money on a billboard message only to give these hurting people a message of guilt, rules, and judgment instead of a message of love and hope.

What was the goal of this billboard?  Was it to make converts?  Spread the gospel? Slap all Christians on the hand with a ruler and make them sit in the corner?

REAL CHRISTIANS OBEY JESUS’ TEACHINGS….Are any of us real Christians then?  Don’t we all sin?  Don’t we all veer off the road every once in awhile?  Is anyone perfect every single day, in every thought and action? Has anyone ever obeyed every…single… teaching? So then, real Christianity is for perfect people only?

I guess heaven is going to be an empty place if real Christians are only described as those who have never disobeyed.

For the love of God!  Really….

God is love! We were made in His image.  When we love, we are reflecting His image.  He wants love more than obedience just as we desire love from our children.  He wants relationship, just as we want relationship with our children.  REAL CHRISTIANS HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS.  It’s possible to obey Jesus’s teachings without loving him.  But is it possible to love him without wanting to obey him?  When our own children love us deeply, it’s easier for respect, honor, and obedience to follow.

Curly, a rough cowboy in the movie City Slickers, sums it up. Mitch, Billy Crystal’s character, is out on the range with Curly, while he teaches the city slickers a thing or two about life.  

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [#*@#*]
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out.

Jesus did the same as Curly.  He looked at his followers and said (my loose translation), “One thing. Just one thing.  You stick to that and the rest of it doesn’t matter.”  

“’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’  This is the most important, the first on the list.  But there is a second to the set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.” Matthew 22:37-40  

 His disciples continued teaching "that one thing” throughout the New Testament.

The whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love others as you love yourself.’” Galatians 5:14

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:6

Love means living the way God commanded us to live.  As you have heard from the beginning, his command is this: Live a life of love.” 2 John 1:6

 “Let love be your greatest aim.” 1 Corinthians 14:1

 “Keep company with God and learn a life of love.  Observe how Christ loved us.  His love was not cautious but extravagant.  He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us…Love like that.” Ephesians 5:2  

I love that last line. Love like that. You see how Jesus did it?  Love like that, not cautious but extravagant.

I have shared this story before but I find this topic on love continues to rise up and make my heart ache for everyone to know “that one thing.” On our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband gave me a continuous string of fresh water pearls that was at least 30 inches long. I can wrap it around my neck three times, leave it long, tie it in a knot or any other creative way that hits me.   I remember opening the package while we were seated at the restaurant and, as I pulled them out of the pouch, they just kept coming and coming and coming until my arm was straight above my head trying to hold them up in the air!  The next day I told my friend Beth about the pearls and she said with a smile on her face, "I just love it when a man can love extravagantly."  

Extravagant means to exceed the limits of reason or necessity, profuse, lavish, lacking in moderation or restraint, excessive.  Does our love look like this?  Paul says, "Love like that."

Rick Warren says in Purpose Driven Life, “Life is all about love…its what matters most…. Because God is love, the most important lesson he wants you to learn on earth is how to love… It is in loving that we are most like Him.”  This is our purpose.  As we love others, we organically discover our unique purpose, but love is our universal purpose.  It really is this simple:  Love God, love others.  Life boils down to this…. that one thing.  When we get to heaven, I doubt God will ask us what we got done on any given day, or if we obeyed every single teaching of Jesus’ at all times, but He may just ask us how well we loved.

God’s purpose for our lives is practically a flashing neon sign in the scriptures. Love. Love. Love… and then love some more.  How can we possibly miss it?  Yet we do, daily.  But daily He forgives us, daily He encourages us to try again - daily He gives us the grace we need to love like Him.  Daily He believes in us.  God knows our potential.  In order for us to walk in our unique purpose, which He established within each of us, we must learn to love much and love well.  


 A perfect way to end this post.  Listen now, close your eyes, and go love much and love well.
"More Like Love" by Ben Rector

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Captured by Beauty-Part 2

Janine and I have been friends since high school.  We met at a tiny church far removed from civilization where both of our families attended.  The youth group consisted of my siblings and me, Janine, and two other sibling groups.  Several years ago, she and her husband Ted bought a 3 bedroom cabin in the middle of NoWheresville, Mississippi. Using it only on the weekends, they generously give me access on weekdays when I need to write. A large portion of Good Night, I Love You was written in this amazing log cabin with a wrap around porch settled within 80 plus wooded acres… in the middle of nowhere.  The Wi-Fi is good enough for email and some slow Internet but phone calls are almost impossible.  This makes it a perfect place for a writing retreat! We scheduled a few days this week to set aside time for my new writing endeavors. 

While on a conference call yesterday with my agent and publicist we discussed my rapidly approaching book launch this September for Good Night, I Love You.  The details heading into these last 10 weeks before it’s release make my head swim. While discussing the long view, I assured them I am also working on the next thing…new material!

I arrived at Janine’s cabin yesterday and felt as if I were coming home. I turn into their lane then press the code to open the gate. As I hear the gate squeak slowly open, I creep my car forward down the winding road to the cabin. At this point, I usually roll down my window a bit so I can hear the peace. The sound of the pebbles crunching under my tires instantly relaxes me.  I feel lighter as I leave the weight of my mind and heart behind me. I haven’t been here to write since last fall when I was finishing my first book.  I embrace these few days of beauty, creative writing, and God’s all encompassing presence.

There is a supernatural peace here. I completely decompress here.  I sleep deeply here. In fact, on my first day here, I go straight outside and lie on the queen sized swinging bed that hangs on the porch.  I never intend to fall asleep, but usually find myself slowly waking up after about 30 minutes of catnapping.  I go days without speaking while I’m here.  I don’t watch any movies or television.  It’s my laptop, the pond, the trees, the turtles, the swinging bed, a dog named Foxy, and me.  Foxy’s an outdoor dog with beautiful blue eyes that are a striking contrast to her white hair. She’s my company when I eat meals on the porch…Foxy likes me.

The solitude is a healing balm to everything in my soul. I hear the bugs and birds at all times. Most people couldn’t handle the seclusion but I love it.   I spend much time soaking in the beauty.  It’s my inspiration.  Beauty carries my thoughts deeper into a bottomless well where God nourishes my soul.  He quenches my hunger and my thirst through beauty - he ignites my passions through beauty. With huge windows on every wall on the first floor, I take in nature while I’m on the couch with my laptop.  When I take a break, I step outside to eat at the table on the porch with my friend Foxy resting at my feet. 

My other breaks are spent on the swinging bed.  I like to lie there and think of absolutely nothing.  I watch the water, make myself aware of any sounds, stare at the tree tops while looking for birds, stretch my legs out into the air just for fun and because it feels good, or I take a siesta on the swinging bed. I give my mind space. I sit alongside Beauty.  I inhale her.  I inhale her serenity. I inhale her silence.  I inhale the beauty of God’s presence in the simple life.  In the mornings, I take my coffee outside and sit on the corner of the porch facing the water as the rising sun breaks through the trees to warm my face.  Foxy joins me on the corner of the porch but stays cool under the swinging bed behind me.

This morning I sit and linger a little longer with my coffee and Beauty –she’s offering too much of herself to walk away.  I study the way the mist moves then swirls over the water.  It hovers, then, in random spots, lifts into mini tornadoes before opening and releasing into the warmth of one of the rays of light streaming through the treetops. It’s as if the mist is traveling through the ray of light back to heaven from where it came.  The rays are like multiple staircases leading to the sun in the heavens.  I feel God’s presence.  My imagination takes me back in time to creation. “God’s spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.” Genesis 1:2MSG   The Amplified says, “The Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding) over the face of the waters.”  I’m transported to Day 1.

A turtle launches into the water from the dead tree breaking through the water.  He had been doing his morning yoga stretches with his neck while basking in the sun.  I hear the multiple varieties of birds calling to one another.  I even hear an owl.  This is normal for me.  Owls follow me everywhere. My husband Michael knew how to speak to owls.  When he heard them call from a distance, he made his call back.  They spoke back and forth to one another until the owl perched on top of a tree right next to him. This made him giggle with satisfaction.  There were a couple of owls that lived in our neighborhood while we lived in Jackson.   Standing on the front patio with his glass of Cabernet, he lifted his chin and joined in the conversation with our neighborhood owls.  When I moved to the countryside of New York, woods surrounded our home.  An owl called for me on my first night.  I felt as if it were Michael watching over me.  The owl touched base with me weekly.  I couldn’t help but smile every time.  The owl finds me this morning, in the middle of NoWheresville, Mississippi.  I smile back at him.

A fish flops in the open water, the dragonflies dance across the tops of the stalks of grass on the edge of the pond.  A cow’s voice rises up from a distant pasture.  I hear Foxy crawl out from under the swinging bed.  She’s at my feet looking up at me with adoration while swishing her tail back and forth on the porch.  I’m drunk with beauty now.  I feel full and satisfied.  Reaching down to Foxy, I rub her neck and chest.  She closes her eyes relishing the moment. 

I carry this satiation with me into the day of writing ahead of me. My time with Beauty was time well spent - the fire igniting my passions has been stoked.  I'm captured once again.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Captured By Beauty - Part 1

On my way home last night from a late night run to the grocery store, I spot the full moon peering through the horizontal clouds streaking across the sky in front of it.  I’m drawn to its beauty.  My car takes me to the waterfront in our neighborhood.  I roll down the window facing the water. My sunroof is already open so I can hear the summer sounds of the evening bugs.   I turn off the engine. There she is - the moon in all her glory.  Her light shines on the water with the reflection coming straight towards me in a breathtaking column of glistening light, like a white royal carpet spread before the queen. I take in the beauty.  I watch the rippling of the water move across the reflection.  I see the tall grass at water’s edge wave in the moonlight.  I simply sit.  I let the silence and the beauty envelop me.

I wake up this morning, open my emails and find God sending me another reminder of beauty. I read the Daily Reading sent out by John Eldredge and Ransomed Heart Ministries.  It captures me quickly as he speaks of beauty and our need to chase after it. It’s the very subject that rises above my circumstances every single day. I began looking for beauty and catching sight of her, as much as possible since my husband died 6 years ago.  Reading Eldredge’s words brings my thoughts on beauty to a denouement, a grand culmination.

In an excerpt from his book entitled, Fathered By God, he writes, “We must open our hearts to all the other ways God is bringing beauty into our lives. The beauty of a flower garden or moonlight on water, the beauty of music or a written word. Our souls crave Beauty, and if we do not find it we will be famished. We must take in Beauty, often, or we will be taken out by beauty.”

Moonlight on the water.  It enraptures me every time.

I remember with great clarity the moment in my life when I recognized my hunger for beauty.  I was famished yet had not paused to take notice. 

The year is 1990. I’m teaching at a huge public school in Rankin County, just east of Jackson, Mississippi. My classroom buzzes with constant movement, restrained movement.  It’s full of boys with learning disabilities, most of them on medication for ADHD.  Eighteen preteen boys without a fulltime teacher’s aid.  Teaching this motley crew requires every ounce of focus and strength I can bring to the table each morning.

Wearing my Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” look, all the way down to the large hoop earrings with a cross hanging from one of them, I am not the average Special Ed teacher.   I am tough but cool and the boys love me for both.  I wear fake glasses to look older and more serious. It seems to work.  One day, James (think Fat Albert in look and voice), says, “Miss Barranco, you be mean when you wear ‘dem glasses!”  They were worth every penny of the five dollars I spent on them at the flea market.

 During my interview for the teaching position, I’m hired on the spot because I am currently reading C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien simultaneously, and because I use all of my verbs in proper tense. (I’m not kidding – the principal told me this then almost leapt out of her seat across her desk when I answered what I was reading at the time.)

I took that job in the middle of the year when the woman holding the position couldn’t handle the boys (or the room) any longer. She simply didn’t show up for work after Christmas.

…In walks Janet Jackson, a young newlywed fresh out of student teaching.

Armed with all of the colorful and creative bulletin boards I crafted in the days leading up to my first day, I walk into a room completely barren of beauty. Floor to ceiling grey cinder blocks become the backdrop to our uncommon yet surprisingly thriving little learning center. The fluorescent lights, hanging high above from the 16 some foot ceilings, disburse even more grey light and shadows in the room.  Their incessant buzzing is a bonus added to the dungeon-like atmosphere.   Without any windows, the soaring ceilings save us from feeling as if we are in some type of torture chamber or interrogation room.

I use the walls as enormous bulletin boards to bring life and color to the room.  When it’s time for afternoon activity period, they bust out of the room as if it is the last day of school.  I completely get it.  Sitting outside with them, I watch them detonate the stored energy in their bodies. Occasionally, I close my eyes behind the brown Ray-Ban wayfarers while my soul and body greedily inhale the light, the breeze, and the vitamin D.   I see a car drive by on the road and I think, “Oh, I would love to be going somewhere…anywhere.

I loved my boys in spite of the cinder block dungeon.

After the last student walks out at the end of the day, I head straight to coach and train two cheerleading squads until 5:30. Working only five minutes from home, I’m quickly back in my kitchen preparing dinner before my husband gets home from work.  After dinner it’s IEP work for one of my students, laundry and choreography for an upcoming dance job.  Crashing into bed is never early enough.

Our tiny house backs up to a small wooded area between subdivisions.  It’s early in the morning. I step outside the back door to head straight to my car before work.  I stop suddenly. I notice the quiet in the air. Beauty calls me.  The moment snatches me.  I breathe in this little slice of beauty.  It feels as if I am out in nature instead of standing on a concrete slab in the middle of our zero lot line neighborhood with cars parked on the streets and no privacy from neighbors.  Then I hear the birds.  I see the blue sky outlining the towering pines.  I notice the leaves that are now on the trees from an early spring.  I press the pause button and truly see.  I see there is beauty if I only pause and acknowledge it.  It is in this moment I realize I’m starved for natural beauty.  I know in order to survive my days in the cinder block dungeon, I have to take in natural beauty wherever I can, whenever I can - even if it’s only while standing on a concrete slab, in a little cookie cutter neighborhood development, in Rankin county Mississippi.

I have short-term memory.  I found how easy it is to forget beauty.  Easy to forget to feed my soul with her.  Easy to forget she’s right there, if only I pause to breathe her in, in all situations, locations, and circumstances.  I must find time for beauty.  She desires to fill me and bring me back to life, as it should be. I must be intentional. When I acknowledge beauty and take a moment to simply be with her, I’m renewed.  My hope renews, my stress recedes, my joy emerges.  I am reconnected with God on an intimate level.

Some people never connect with beauty.  How tragic that is to me.  They don't even recognize they miss her.  They are content in their routines, schedules, to do lists, and more. They learn if they simply stay in motion, then they can silence her cries.  More times than not, these people are the ones who have turned down the volume of their heart's voice because they "don't want to go there."  They don't want intimacy - with people, or with nature, with beauty, or with their own heart.  So they shut off opportunities for beauty because it makes them squirm.  They turn away and get back to what they "need" to do.

Since my years of living in the Hudson River Valley of New York, I’ve become even more keenly aware of beauty.  Beauty in all things.  Nature especially, but also in people (not their looks), but the beauty of a conversation, the beauty in pain shared, the beauty of fellowship over a meal, the beauty of laughter. The beauty of a naïve comment from a small child.  And the beauty of real love.  Deep, pure love - love without judgment, love in spite of flaws, love that is patient, kind, and compassionate. Enduring love.

Now I sit typing while listening to a summer rain land on the tin roof – another beautiful moment.  Allow unexpected beauty into your life. Hit the pause button. I pray you see, fill your mind with, and experience beauty today.

 “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”  Philippians 4:8 & 9 MSG

Photo cred to Mia Jené Barranco

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Good Night, I Love You

The day is here. My heart is racing. I feel speechless-I'm in awe as I watch God weave the miraculous tapestry in my life. After many years, countless hours of writing in solitude, and even more tears, the release of my book is announced - September 19, 2017!

Three days after my husband died, a strong fire ignited in my soul to record my journey through what I call the Midnight Hour. The fire burned day and night and was never satisfied until it was finished. Good Night, I Love You was birthed as a result of my willingness to persevere through the fire.
Many told me along the way that they wished I would put my Midnight Hour experience into a book so they could put it in the hands of others. This book is for all. The human experience of grief is universal. Even if you have never lost one close to your heart, you know someone who has. Loss comes in many forms other than just death. It can come in the form of divorce, the death of a season of life, a broken relationship of any kind, and much more. Understanding the world of grief and loss is imperative. It is a part of life. We need to embrace it and learn to show limitless compassion, mercy, love, and patience to those walking through it.

My prayer is that this book will give all of us courage to let grief out of the closet. Let's feel comfortable discussing it with our friends. Let's give one another freedom to experience the depth of its pain without the fear of judgement. Let's extend a hand to the griever and sit with them in their solitude or invite them to come out for awhile. Thank you to those who extended their hand to me, sat with me, and prayed for me and my children.

“Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.” C.S. Lewis - A Grief Observed

Pre-orders are now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major book sellers. It will be available in hardcover and e-book. Book tours and speaking will begin this fall.

A HUGE thank you to Hachette Book Group and FaithWords Publishing!…/…/1455598445

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wrestling for Deeper Relationship

It’s cold and raining here.

My daughter Mia made me an afternoon coffee.

I sit here in my room listening to the rain while sipping a brevé cappuccino and reviewing my notes from Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis.

I come to a passage that jumped out at me the first time I read it earlier this year.  It’s underlined and has a big star next to it.  I feel it’s just as important the second time.

"The rabbis have a metaphor for this wrestling with the text: The story of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32.  He struggles, and it is exhausting and tiring, and in the end his hip is injured.  It hurts.  And he walks away limping.

Because when you wrestle with the text, you walk away limping.

And some people have no limp, because they haven't wrestled.  But the ones limping have had an experience with the living God."

I am not satisfied with what I call "doormat faith".  I don’t want to simply lie down and take whatever comes my way.  I question, dig deeper, and wrestle with the scriptures and God for understanding, for enlightenment.  Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who never enters into true, deep, and meaningful discussions with you?  We all long for more.  Like iron sharpening iron.  As Jacob was injured in his wrestling, we may walk away with a limp but stronger, wiser and with a deeper understanding from the wrestling.

Bell also says, “We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God.  Doubting the one true God.  Wrestling with, arguing with, getting angry with, reconciling with, loving, worshipping, thanking, following the one who gives us everything.  We cannot tame it.  We cannot tone it down."

The Bible is a living story.  We are in this story.  Our earthly relationships take work just as our relationship with Him does.  It takes all these actions to build and develop a truly deep and meaningful relationship.   Every time I wrestle with the scriptures and wrestle with God, I walk away with not only a limp but also with a better understanding of Him.  I walk away with a knowing that I understand more and am understood.  I walk away knowing I love and am loved by the Father.  I walk away with more courage that could only have come through the wrestling.  The same holds true when I dare to wrestle, go deeply into more intimacy through conversations in my earthly relationships.

It makes me think of Theodore Roosevelt's speech, "The Man in the Arena."

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I would rather be in the arena...”face marred by dust and sweat and blood”.  Striving valiantly, screwing up, learning, making mistakes, but at least I am IN the arena making the effort.  I choose to wrestle.  I would rather risk having a limp than never have stepped foot into the arena. I will boldly take the experience with the living God.  I will dive deeply into more meaningful relationships here on earth.

Wrestling makes me vulnerable, but I would rather dare greatly in my vulnerability than never dare at all.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Silver Linings

I'm on a personal writing retreat at the moment in an old fashioned little beach town somewhere off the southern coast of the United States. I typically watch movies or exercise when I need to completely disengage from my work. I try to choose movies that cause me to think or those that are known for fabulous dialogue.
Last night I watched Silver Linings Playbook for the first time. Impressive acting... every single role. But of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawerence's performances stand above the rest.
In every movie I choose, there is typically a quote by one of the characters that becomes a tasty morsel to my thoughts. I latch onto it and begin to process it into my own life. As soon as the line is spoken, I know its the reason I needed to watch it.
Silver Linings Playbook was no exception.
Not too far into the movie, the bottom line of the movie comes out in something Bradley Cooper says to his parents after coming home from an 8 month stay in a mental hospital. He is determined to set a new direction for his life. With passion and fortitude, he responds to his parents' concerns with this statement, "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take all this negativity and use it as fuel and I'm going to find the silver lining...that's what I'm going to do! And that's no bullshit! Now that takes work... and thats the truth!"
The silver lining I have looked for since my husband died has been purpose. How will I take the negativity from the great loss and use it as fuel for my life to go higher? How will this help my purpose? How will this life experience propel me even stronger into the direction God has planned for me? How will it secure my purpose even more? How can this negativity in my life be used as fuel to help others who have had similar negativity come at them.
This kind of thinking helps me look to the future instead of continually looking back at the painful circumstances. I challenge myself every time I think, "Now, what am I going to do with this? How do I see God using this for good?"
In addition to purpose, the other silver lining is that it has caused me to live my life with even more boldness...because, as we know, life is short. Be real. Be honest. Be compassionate. Show mercy. Forgive. Love deeply. Don't hold back love. Break down walls. Enjoy others.
Follow God in spite of the negativity, toward the silver linings that are there, if I only look for them... like a well crafted, thought provoking quote buried in the dialogue of a movie.  And if I look hard enough for the silver linings, they come to me.
Keep your eyes straight ahead. Because the silver linings are ahead of you, not behind you.