Switched sites!

Go on over to www.jenshowalterblog.wordpress.com. See you there!


Dang it, Brene’!

Brene’ Brown is my BFF. She doesn’t know me – except that she must know everything about me, based on how insightful her writing is – and on a pretty regular basis, I’m tempted to drive across town, find her on the campus of U of H (cause I live in Houston, too) and hug her.

Today, though, her words just made me audibly groan. I’m taking the Courage Works parenting course online and these are the words that came out of her mouth and hit me hard.

“Be the adult you want your kids to grow up to be.”

In an effort, however, to not SHAME myself and beat myself up over all the things I’m not, I want to go about this in the most healthy, life-giving way possible.  Because the things that I want my girls to grow up to be are really not the things I beat myself up over. Which should be an indication that I’m focusing on the wrong things for myself.

What I want my kids to grow up to be:


And so I declare that these will be my words and my goals. Certainly there is more to becoming these things than simply declaring them, but it’s a start.

How can I gain confidence? How can I become more kind? What new things can I try? How can I gain wisdom?  Where am I cynical and need an attitude adjustment?  In what areas can I focus on building strength?

Because I know that I want these things for my girls – and they will learn them from what they see in me.


Messy . . .


We visited New York City the February after the September 11 attacks. Five months after the skyscrapers fell, there was still thick dust covering the surrounding streets. It was a mess. Huge, tall tarps blocked the work sites – for safety reasons, I’m sure. We still needed to see it, though. We needed to see the devastation first hand – so, we climbed up on a ledge to peek over. I had never seen anything like it.

I had watched the news coverage. I had listened to the eye-witness accounts. I heard the horror stories and my heart was filled with sadness and fear. I simply didn’t want to believe that people could do such terrible things.  But that evening, as I stood on the tips of my toes, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Heartbroken.

How can we live in a world that has this kind of suffering? This kind of evil? How can we bear it? Because, to be honest, it’s just too much. Right?

For an Advent devotional, N.T. Wright recently wrote, “The foundation of all biblical visions of God’s purposes for the world, and how they are to be implemented is that the Creator God wants his world to be full of his glory, which means among other things full of true justice and generous mercy. This is not just a vision for a far-off distant time. We are not expected to sit on our hands and wait for it to happen beyond the sky by and by. Even in Old Testament times it was perfectly possible for kings to do justice and love mercy; they often failed, but the best of them didn’t do too badly. And part of the point of the resurrection narratives in the gospels is that in the risen Jesus God has already launched his new creation. Jesus himself is both the start of that new creation and the Lord who gives his own Spirit so that his people can continue the project. You see, from Genesis 1 onwards it’s clear that the Creator God wants to rule his world through wise, image-bearing human beings.”

I don’t know about you, but the reality of that is really, really heavy.

This is my favorite time of the year. I love it all. And yet, it’s easy for me to gloss over what Advent calls us to. It’s so easy for me to miss what it meant when God became flesh and walked among us. It’s easy for me to forget the mess that he got himself into.

The incarnation – the act of God “moving into the neighborhood,” is so much more than a manger scene.  It was dangerous. It was costly. It was painful. To say the least, it was uncomfortable.

In many ways, the world Jesus moved into looked a lot like the one we live in today. My goodness, the images from Aleppo are hard to look at – they experience 911 daily. People living in fear for their lives, without homes – completely displaced. On the brink of giving up. And while the world looks physically different than it may have 2000 years ago, it’s the same fear and pain residing in the hearts and minds of people.  It’s a mess out there.  It’s a mess IN there.


And, into this, we are called to be image-bearers of Christ. The ones, on whom, the responsibility lies for doing the same work that Jesus would do.

Y’all.  That’s for real scary.

And overwhelming.

There are more people living in slavery than in any other time in history.
Children are being abused.
Poverty rates world-wide are staggering.
Genocide is happening. Right. Now.
The neighbor across the street is depressed.
Your cousin just had a miscarriage.
Your friend’s marriage is struggling.

It’s just too much. The mess is too big.

I think, though, that I have fallen into the camp that says, “well, I can’t fix it all, so I’ll just smile at that stranger and that’ll at least help.”  And I feel better for a moment.

What does it look like to be an Image-Bearer? Well, it’s certainly not something that can be checked off of a list. “Hey, I bought that person coffee in the drive-thru behind me. Awesome, I’m done! I did it! I was an image-bearer!  Now I can cuss at the stupid drivers in front of me in traffic.” Or, “I put some money in the red kettle at Wal-Mart. Check! Okay, I’m done – now I can go put the beat-down on my lazy co-worker – or yell at my kid for getting a stain on her pants.”

As Image-Bearers, God is depending on us to “continue the project.”  To show generous mercy.  Not just once in a while – but as a complete way of life.

I’m praying for more courage to do the uncomfortable – even the dangerous. I’m praying that God will continue to mold my heart to be more compassionate toward others and less irritated with them. I’m praying that, through the work of His Spirit, my heart AND my feet will be moved.  I’m praying that the heartbreak I feel for this world and the pain that others are experiencing will not paralyze me. I’m praying that I will be an Image-Bearer in my actions AND in my attitude (that might be the hardest – I’m kind of a hot-head.)  I’m praying that I won’t settle for just buying that cup of coffee (though, I think those small acts of kindness go a looooong way) but that I will step out and do more than what I feel I’m capable of doing, because then I know it’s the work of the God who alone does such wonderful things (Psalm 72:18).

May we all live out the incarnation of Jesus each day and be His hands and feet. Just as He came to a world that was in a mess, may we be willing to get messy. Really messy.


Red cups and desperation . . .


Today is the official start to the holiday season – red cups have arrived at Starbucks.  Y’all, I love this day. So when I got to the pick up window to get my to-go cup this morning and they handed me a plain white cup, I nearly cried.

I’ve been listening to Christmas music for a solid week. Spotify and iTunes have a steady rotation of Bing Crosby and Lauren Daigle’s new Christmas album.

My neighbors were cleaning their gutters the other day and I told them I was so excited because I thought they were hanging Christmas lights.

Don’t be surprised if our tree is up before the weekend.

I am desperate for Christmas.

Not in the way you might think – I mean, I love the festivities and food and gift-giving and all that – but this morning, Christy Nockels was singing “O Holy Night” through my speakers and she nailed it when she sang, “the weary world rejoices.”  I kind of laughed at the absurdity of the phrase. An oxymoron, it seems.

I guess you’d say I’m middle aged (even though I refuse to admit it), but in all my life I’ve never sensed such despair in friends and strangers. I sense such weariness around me – not only from world and local news – but from simply trying to make it through the day. Trying to hold our families together. Trying to pay the bills. Trying to make better decisions, because we have a track record of making poor ones. Trying to smile when we feel so dead inside. Trying to not feel so lonely in the middle of a crowd of people.


Are you weary, dear one?

Me too.

Which is why I’m so desperate for Christmas. I know that the world was weary over 2000 years ago – and it had been weary for hundreds of years when Jesus came. Light in the darkness. Hope for those who were trying so hard.  I’m desperate for Christmas because it reminds me that there’s another way.

I can choose to look at the darkness.
Or I can choose to look for the glimmers of light.

When you are weary – when your knees are weak – when you can’t go any further – when the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you can’t stand up under it any longer . . .

Fall on your knees.
Oh hear, the angels singing.

I’m desperate for Christmas because I just can’t anymore and it reminds me that I don’t have to.

I’m desperate for Christmas because I know the light shines brighter in the darkest of night.

So, this weary soul can rejoice.

And hope for a red cup this afternoon.





Open Hands Living . . .

A crowded bus. Sweaty people. Tired babies. Not exactly the picture that comes to mind when I think of hospitality. At least, it didn’t in the past. Now, however, when I think of the word “hospitality,” this is the picture I have in my mind.

On a recent trip to Disney World, we got on the bus to ride back to where we were staying. It was midday, but we were tired. Our feet were aching. The girls were quiet and ready for a nap.  We found our seats and thanked God for the creation of air conditioning. The girls were looking through some cards they had collected for a game you can play in Magic Kingdom. The cards are free, but you can only get one pack each day you visit. They were comparing the cards they had received while a couple struck up a conversation with us. You see, this isn’t uncommon. I’m amazed at how people on Disney buses actually TALK to each other. “Hey, where are you from?” “Those are some nice ears!” “Would you like to sit down? I don’t mind standing.”

These folks were big Disney fans like us. They had a little boy and he was there for his birthday. We were chatting about everything from the weather to our childhoods.  Right before we got off the bus, the dad handed our girls each a pack of the cards they were collecting.  He said, “We really have more than we would ever need and your girls will enjoy them.”

It was a magical moment and the looks on the faces of my tired little girls was priceless.

Sure, those cards didn’t cost the couple anything to receive – but it did cost them something to give them away. They gave up their right to keep something that was given to them. They gave up having more because they realized they had enough.

They were “open hands” people.

1 Peter 4:9-11 is an “open hands” kind of passage.  Words like “hospitality” and “good stewards” are used in a way that challenges us to live as though God is speaking through our words and actions.

Here are a few quick definitions . . .
Hospitality: generous treatment of others.
Steward: a person whose job is to manage the land and property of another person.
Generous: providing more than the amount that is needed or normal.

When I look at these definitions, I can’t help looking at the list of things I’ve been given care over.  The things that ultimately are not mine, but I am a steward over.

“My” children.
“My” time.
“My” money.
“My” marriage.
“My” talents.
“My” attitude.
“My” ___________

Am I caring for these things responsibly? Generously?

I want to be an “open hands” kind of person, not worrying that I won’t have enough.  Open hands to be generous with my time and resources. Open hands to give more than what is normal. Open hands to go above and beyond to show kindness. Open hands to recognize it’s all been given to me to care for – not to hoard. Open hands to give up my right to be right.

Open hands also means letting go of the things that aren’t vital, so my time and my money aren’t wasted. Letting go of the things that take up space in my schedule and wallet that don’t matter – so I can use them for the things that do.
I want to use whatever gifts I have received for the good of others. I’m still learning – and it’s not easy to let go of certain things. And sometimes I worry about MY needs being met. However, I believe that when someone lives with open hands, they are able to receive things like peace, healthy relationships, fulfillment and joy. I really do. You can’t receive when your hands are clenched in fear.

At the end of my life, I want to have been spent completely on things that matter. Nothing held back. That will be a life well lived.

So, I ask you. In what areas will YOU be generous?  How can you use your gifts for the good of others?  And, just imagine what could happen if we ALL lived with open hands.





Fighting Fair . . .

I hate conflict. I avoid it at all costs. Honestly, conflict sends me into some of my most insecure places – so I would rather not deal with it.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.

This, I’ve learned, isn’t healthy. I remember back when we were first married and learning to live with each other. We had to get used to each others habits and tendencies. There were things that I did that I thought were so normal – until I got married – and he didn’t think those things were normal. The whole toothpaste thing – I squeeze from the middle and he squeezes from the bottom. Let’s just say we don’t share toothpaste anymore. We had more conflict back then – maybe because we had more energy before kids – maybe because we were so new at learning to live alongside someone so different.  While we were very similar, we brought with us our own narratives and baggage – things that were never brought into question until we had to share space. Conflict was inevitable.

We both learned a lot about fighting fair in those early days – and some days we need to revisit those “rules”.  One thing I remember that was really helpful was learning to deal with one issue at a time. It didn’t mean that the other issues weren’t important or that we wouldn’t get around to dealing with them. It just meant that you can only solve one issue at a time.

Our arguments used to go like this:

“Honey, did you use my toothpaste?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, you squeezed from the middle. I hate that.”

“Oh yeah, well, YOU left your shoes in the middle of the floor. I hate THAT.”

“Oh yeah, well, YOU didn’t put the toilet paper back on the holder.”

“Oh yeah, well YOU ALWAYS leave the toilet seat up!”

“Oh yeah, well YOU ALWAYS leave all your junk on the counter and I can’t get to any of my stuff.”

“Oh yeah, well, maybe you don’t love me if you can’t deal with my stuff! Maybe you really just resent me and don’t really want to be married to me.”


I might be exaggerating. A little. And believe me, it was usually me who sent the conversation totally in the wrong direction. We could have saved a lot of heartache had we dealt with the first issue at hand.  The toothpaste.  Sure, we would have eventually gotten around to the toilet paper, but maybe dealing with one issue at a time would help make working through the other issues less, well, dramatic.

When you try to dump a bunch of things into an argument – or  even a discussion – it’s impossible to come to a resolution.

There’s a lot of conflict out there these days. It’s suffocating. I really believe that most people are just trying to make sense of it all. We’re all trying to live with each other in new ways. With social media and the ease to disagree from behind a screen, we’re like newlyweds that don’t know how to fight fair.  There are no ground rules and we’re all screaming over each other so our voices will be heard – when, in reality, it’s impossible to really hear anything at all.

Several weeks ago I shared a sermon at church about David and Goliath. Goliath has always been described as a terrible guy (and maybe, rightfully so). What isn’t normally talked about is how Goliath grew up with a narrative of fear toward the people of Israel. It never would have crossed his mind that he would be the “bad guy” in the story because, in his mind, it was normal to act this way. He would have felt justified in his actions. It never would have been a consideration for him to look in the mirror (if they had those back then) and do some soul searching. He didn’t have to. He knew he was right.

As I worked through that sermon, I realized that there have been many times in my own life that I have been Goliath. I let false narratives in my own life affect how I treated other people. I let my fears guide my actions. I didn’t fight fair because I was right, and I knew I was right. Too many times, I have failed to look in the mirror and deal with the issue at hand. The issue of me.

It’s easier to try to protect myself.
It’s easier to point the fingers at where others have screwed up.
It’s easier to blame someone else.
It’s super hard to be vulnerable.
It’s super hard to look at my own mistakes.
It’s super hard to realize that maybe I wasn’t as right as I thought I was.

I want to be brave enough to accept responsibility for the issue of me.  Sure, there are contributing factors and circumstances that affect me, but I am ultimately responsible for me. I’m responsible to seek to understand before trying to be understood. I’m responsible for listening before reacting. I’m responsible for giving others the benefit of the doubt – because they’re just doing the best they know how.

We have to share this space called Earth. And we all have to somehow do our part to make it better for everyone. But it starts with me.  If you are reading this and you instinctively think, “wow, so and so really needs to read this so he/she can take responsibility for his/her actions” – you might need to start over.  Clearly, I’ll be doing the same.

For helpful information on how to “fight fair” go to https://cmhc.utexas.edu/fightingfair.html.




What I’m Learning About Encouragement . . .


I told her, “I’m so proud of you.” She didn’t respond with a thank you. She responded with, “What about me are you proud of?”

And even though I could go on for days with the list of things about my kid that makes me proud, I was a little stunned by her response.  You mean, you want specifics?

Have you ever noticed when you are criticized, the criticism is usually pointed or specific? You don’t usually get a “you are terrible at your job” or “you are a bad person.” You get all the details that someone has thought about – the argument to prove their point.  These are the things I see that you are doing poorly. This is the list of your weaknesses. This is the list of the reasons why you are driving me nuts right now.

Believe me, I get it. When I am frustrated with my kids, I nitpick with the best of them. “Look, you left this SOCK ON THE FLOOR! Who does that? Who leaves ONE SOCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR!”  And then I go on to list the many grievances I have against their ability to clean.

And yet, when it comes to encouragement, we are resigned to platitudes and simplicity. “Hey, good job on that presentation” or “You are a nice person.”  Granted, those compliments are nice to hear, but generally they leave the hearer with nothing to build on – nothing to grasp onto when they are feeling inferior or discouraged. Because we are all our own worst critics and generally we don’t need someone to join the chorus of the words swirling in our own minds.  We need words that help build our emotional and mental muscle – words that strengthen and make us want to be stronger. Criticism rarely does that.

I have heard – even though it’s not obvious by my physique – that when you build muscle, fat burns faster. Am I right here? So, when you give more strength to the things that are working well, there is less of the stuff that doesn’t work.  Now, I’m no exercise physiologist or psychologist or anything like that – but it seems that the same would be true for our minds.  I think the Gallup organization would agree (go buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 STAT).  If we encourage each other in our strengths – if we tell each other specifics about those strengths – we will more likely help each other achieve greater things than  if we criticize the weaknesses.

When I tell my kid, “I’m proud of you” but don’t back it up with specifics, it is easy for her to shrug it off and think I’m just saying it because I’m her mom. But, if I follow it up with, “I have noticed that you are quick to help others” or “you’ve really been working hard in math and you are getting better every day” – it encourages her to keep doing those specific things.  So when she is struggling in spelling, I don’t necessarily have to point that out (she would already be aware), but she can remember that I told her that she was getting better at math by practicing.  I can encourage her to do better in spelling simply by encouraging her in something else that she’s doing well.

Instead of, “You are a nice person,” I can tell someone that I have noticed that they always let others go ahead of them in line or that they are so good about giving a warm smile to everyone they see. Instead of, “that was a good presentation,” I can tell the person how I loved how they connected with people or that they were good at telling stories to back up their point.  It’s the specifics that take a compliment a step further to become true encouragement. The specifics are the words that instill courage.

I want to be the kind of person that looks for the strengths in others – not their weaknesses. I want to take the time to notice the little nuances and details about them that make them who they are – because we are all strong in different ways. I want to be brave enough to say to someone that I have noticed their gifts and build their emotional and mental muscle.  Because, let’s face it, we all feel pretty beat down most days. We all feel like failures at one point or another.  But, when we have something – even just one little thing – that we feel pretty good about, well, we can start to feel like maybe, just maybe, we can start to build some muscle there. And when that muscle starts building, the fat starts to burn on it’s own.

Today, I hope you will encourage someone in very specific ways.  You can do it in person or in a note. However you decide to encourage someone, I promise you, YOU will end up encouraged, too. Words matter. Use them well.