Last Friday I Went to Jail . . .

. . . and I’m not sure if I’ve ever been put to better use.

Our church commits to a Friday night chapel service once a month at a women’s prison about two hours from our campus. I had never been before, but when Dan returned from his visit a few months ago he told me I would love it. Love prison? Yeah, he kinda knows me.

What I love is being useful. What I love is doing things that make a difference in the way people feel or see the world or experience Jesus. Dan knew I would love visiting the prison. He even knew what I would speak about and what I would sing. We didn’t even need to practice.

When we first pulled up, it almost looked like a big farm. Dark red metal buildings were spaced out over several tracts of land. I had expected cinder block, I think. I barely noticed the tall fences with barbed wire on the top. The closer we got to the front door, however, the more of the tension I began to feel. It’s similar to the way I feel when I know a police car is cruising behind me: I don’t plan to do anything illegal, but its mere presence inspires a guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach anyway!

Gaining entrance is a series of security checks including badges that have to be swept over sensors at each stop, an “air lock”, and a personal alarm device that supposedly brings every guard to your assistance if you feel threatened at any moment. It weighed like a live bomb on my pants pocket. Once we finally made it into the open air of the prison commons area, I lost some of the nervousness for myself. Instead, my heart broke for the brokenness I saw in that yard.

Weary, wounded women were lined up like school children as they awaited permission to enter buildings. I saw lots of faces but didn’t hear a single laugh. Guards in every shape and size lined the criss-crossing paths of the open area. Most of them puffed silently on cigarettes and nodded solemnly as we passed.

Our “chapel” room was full of gray plastic chairs and lots of miscellaneous furniture that cluttered the space. A small stage was at the front of the room. On it we found our microphones and a plexiglass podium where I would later sit my Bible and my one page of notes and song lyrics.

The only item of real beauty in the room was concealed under a heavy canvas cover: a black grand piano. But as soon as Dan pulled off the cover, we discovered long, deep, systematic scratches across the glossy top of the instrument. It was scarred and imperfect, but it sounded beautiful. An omen, I hoped.

One by one, women began to file into the room. Not many, maybe ten. They wore gray jumpsuits and shoes that didn’t seem to fit. No make-up and a life of disappointments made them look older than they probably were. I don’t for sure. We were asked not to share personal details. But I didn’t need details to see the pain.

Their bravery to come at all surprised me. I was humbled by their willingness to subject themselves to the “ministry” of a stranger. I wondered if they were afraid of what I might say, of how I might treat them as less of a Christian than myself. I wondered if any of the visiting preachers had ever made them feel small or unworthy. I hoped not, but I know a lot preachers.

I opened with the story of my season of greatest pain: the loss of baby Ellery. I felt like it was the only fair way to enter the conversation – I couldn’t identify with their particular situations, but I knew we could all understand pain, disappointment, and fear. I told them about how burying a child changed me forever. I didn’t tell them that in that moment I was actually thankful to have a connection to them. I saw compassion in their eyes, empathy in their tears. Now they felt sorry for me – we were even.

I’ll share the points of the message in another post because this one is already too long. But at the end we sang a song that says, “Sometimes the sun stays hidden for years/ Sometimes the sky rains night after night/ When will it clear?/ But our hope endures/ The worst of conditions/ It’s more than our optimism/ Let the earth shake/ Our hope is unchanged.” And I sang it stronger than I’ve ever sung it before. And I meant it. I knew, looking upon tear filled eyes and vulnerable hearts, that it probably meant more in the barrenness of that room than it has ever meant in red-carpeted, stain-glass-windowed sanctuaries. At least, in that moment, that’s how it felt. It felt very, very useful.

And I think faith should feel that way more often.

*thanks to Still Burning Photography for the Flikr photo!

“We Demand Windows”

This is why I read. And probably one of the reasons I write.

From C. S. Lewis, as quoted in The Christian Imagination (Shaw Books 2002):

What then is the good of – what is even the defence for – occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist. . . ? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . . We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. . . .

Cover Girl

Claire and I have been working on a little project for an upcoming Children’s Hospital Radiothon planned for Friday, August 27th, in Columbia, Missouri. Most of you know Claire was a preemie at Children’s nearly 8 years ago, and we have a special place in our hearts for so many staff members there.

One of our photographer friends, Jaymes, had asked to take some studio shots of Claire in the Spring. They turned out great, totally capturing her personality. I sent in one of them, along with an older picture of Claire as an infant, to the Children’s Hospital magazine, Imagine, and later was asked if the images could be used for this minithon to raise money for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Of course we were more than pleased to help, and the results are beautiful! Click HERE to see her ad campaign.

Also, we had great news from the specialist in St. Louis this week. We have been anticipating a tendon lengthening surgery for Claire that included a long recovery and rehabilitation. The worst case scenario was likely 6-8 weeks in a hip-to-toe cast. But after examination this week, the specialist decided a less involved procedure would produce an equal result. She’ll wear a “walking cast” for just a month, a leg brace for 2-3 more months of protection, and then she can be free of all the supports and start working on a brand new stride – one without a limp! We are super excited about this promising surgery.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll include a recording of the radio interview we did that will play during the Radiothon. If you are up to it, send in a little support for the tiniest babies! We couldn’t be more thankful for our experiences at Children’s Hospital in Columbia. I wish there was no need for such a thing as a hospital for sick children in this life, but, there is, and I’m glad it was there when we needed it.

Personality Soundtrack

I’ve been asked before to write a post or two (or four) that explores the uniqueness of each of my kids. Last weekend I shot some really terrible video of the kids swimming at our mini-vacation (the real one is coming up next week). Dan and I actually laugh about the quality of the video. (Don’t blame me – iPhone doesn’t believe in service to my corner of the world, and I don’t have a fancy Flip. Blackberry is all I’ve got for impromptu moments like this!)

But despite being a grainy, fuzzy mess of a video, it is actually quite useful as a personality display. Here is the video and below is a description of what you might have missed the first time through. : )

swimming from danieljohn on Vimeo.

So, first of all, this is a five foot pool all around. But my kids are not swimmers and are not five feet tall, and so it might as well have been a hundred foot pool! Ada is in the yellow BabyFloat in the middle. Ada is six. Ada likes to be in control. After spending most of her time crying she was so nervous about the water, Dan tried to help her “overcome” her fear by putting her in the unsinkable, immovable baby floatie. No one is going to make a baby floatie that tips over, Ada, you are perfectly safe!

00:05 She is still nervous, but Ada starts bossing telling Dan that Macy needs help swimming to me (Mama).

You can see Dan towards the middle there. Macy is wearing blue water wings and a blue duckie floatie around her middle. She is the bravest of them all. With her arms draped over the duckie body she flops and floats all over the pool. I’m not sure why Ada thought she needed help from Dan, but earlier she was crying because she thought Macy was going to drown (with the two water wings and an inflatable duck around her middle!), so this is a better approach. The big pink blob is a huge inner tube that Jesse is lounged on – wearing Dan’s sunglasses.

00:19 Instead of helping her to the ladder, Dan grabs Macy’s feet and starts spinning her around in the water. This is his normal dad reaction. Why be boring? Let’s do it the fun way!

00:30 Claire makes her appearance. She has her arms wrapped around two pool noodles and is kicking her legs like crazy. Her activity in the pool is like her activity in life: constant motion. Seriously, we swam for about two hours each of the two days we were there and Claire was moving like this the entire time. No wonder she’s such a skinny shrimp! : )

00:46 Classic Jesse: “Can you make it, Macy?” He is the big brother I always dreamed of!

00:50 Classic Macy: animal noises and monster sounds. I have no explanation for this.

01:07 More Classic Macy. Me: “Say, ‘I made it!” Macy: “No, no, I need get swim to the steps!” She has her own ideas and her ideas are best. (My dad claims he lived with a little girl like this about 32 years ago, but I think he’s fibbing.)

01:15 Background noise: Ada singing, “A wed-ding toda-ay! A wed-ding toda-ay!” It was true. We were there for a wedding, but around our house it could be anything, “It’s rain-ing today-ay!” Almost anything can bring on a song!

My Context

Donald Miller posted recently about how life is the context for our spirituality. Simple, but, you know, I think this one gets lost in translation fairly often. Being a Christian should impact our everyday lives; we should be making decisions differently, pursuing more noble feats, honoring things that really matter.


My kids are my primary spiritual context (closely after my relationship with my husband, but this isn’t a post about him). Here are a few things my context is working out in me right now:

1. Answers Don’t Always Come The Way You Want. You know Claire has mild cerebral palsy from her premature birth and we’ve been going every 12 weeks for Botox shots to help relax the muscles in her tight leg. The night before our most recent trip, I had an increasing sense of reluctance and something resembling anger. Why do we have to keep putting her through this painful procedure? I want something to change! That morning, her doctor came in with the same attitude. “I think it’s time to do something else.” Yay! Well, sort of. The something else is a tendon lengthening surgery in both her lower leg and her quad area. Maybe casted for six weeks after. Months of physical therapy. But, it just might change everything about Claire’s walk and, in the words of the doctor, allow her to “do the things she wants to do.”

2. Some People Shine in Trials. Claire’s only response to the impending surgery is this: “I can’t WAIT to ride in a wheelchair!” : )

3. Giving Freedom is Tough. Our oldest, Jesse, is nine, and he got a new bike for his birthday. Suddenly he’s riding around the block in his little gang of elementary boys and asking to “go over” to so-and-so’s house to “shoot hoops.” Meanwhile, I keep the back door cracked open while he’s gone to listen for his cry when he falls off his bike or loses the basketball game. I know he needs to go, I just never anticipated how much it would worry me. Can I grant the kind of freedom to the people I lead? Can I trust them? Can I trust God? How does Father God do it for me? Or you?

4. Vacation is a Gift. I’m really looking forward to some family time in the days ahead without demanding schedules. I’m not sure what that’s teaching, but I think I probably ought to pay attention. (When was the last time I gave God that privilege in my life?) This weekend we’re off to do music for a dear friend’s wedding and they are putting us up at a “ranch” with a swimming pool. That’s a no-miss for our kids. Next week I’ll finish my final undergrad courses, and the week after that we’re off to Omaha for some genuine vacation.

Just One Thing


My friend Anna is a Rare Rock. She teaches the 3 and 4 year-old’s Sunday School class and when Jesse (now 9) was 3 she offered to pick him up and take him. Wrestling two babies and a preschooler alone, since Dan’s “paying gig” is every Sunday morning, I was never making it to Sunday School.

In turn, each of my three big kids has learned to wait at the door on Sunday mornings and watch for Anna’s white car to pick them up. It is a special treat for them and a wonderful help to me. Now Macy just turned 3 and earned a spot in Anna’s car. She wasn’t even born when Anna started this tradition. Rain or shine, late nights or holidays, Anna is there.

It’s just one thing (among the many) that Anna does to help others, but it makes a big difference in the little lives in my house. From Anna they are learning consistency, faithfulness, and devotion. Sometimes it doesn’t take a life-altering decision to be a Rare Rock, it just takes one thing. “The next right thing” is what Dallas Willard calls it.

Happy Weekend, Rare Rocks!

Join the Song

In my last post, I gushed about Claire’s cardboard testimony (click to see the video of the event) and only briefly mentioned the background music as the John Mark McMillan song “How He Loves.” I didn’t mention how truly perfect that song is and how moved I feel every time I sing it – especially with a bunch of other people embracing its engaging lyrics. Recently, Ben Arment described the song as “the biggest anthem of our generation” and I think you could make a strong argument for that.

I once heard the writer of “Revelation Song” – also a contender for one of the greatest songs of our time – say that when the idea for that song came to her she had been praying that God would bring unity to His Church. It wasn’t until after the song had become a Sunday morning standard that she realized God had answered her prayer. “Revelation Song” is sung by countless congregations from almost every stream. In fact, my children’s chapel kids request it on a regular basis and they can sing all the verses! Give us a song like that or the bridge of “How He Loves” and we might all know what to do with one another at the great throne of God after all! ; )

If you’re like me and you look for those unifying experiences on the earth, too, you might be interested in the project Ben Arment is administrating for the STORY conference I mentioned here. He calls it a song mash-up and you can participate from anywhere, even if you don’t plan on attending the conference (by the way, only a little over one hundred tickets left to the September event and the best price is available until Friday!). You just download the official track, practice singing along, and record yourself on video and on audio. (See Ben’s directions for specific things of which I leave completely to my husband!) The STORY crew is working on a video that incorporates as many of us as possible! How fun is that?

You know, I’d like to teach the world a bunch of songs, but this one would be close to the top of the list! Check it out and join the project!