Beauty Balm


With Krista Wallace, on the drive back from Big Blue Trail, CO, following our 13 mile hike.

There are 2 significant things I have been learning this year – presence and expectancy. I have my continuing struggles and frustrating patterns, but I have come to expect God to meet me in the middle of them. I expect him to work on me and show me things, and I, in turn, try to be agreeable to the process. The “work” I have been called to when it comes to my own healing and growth can be hard at times, but there is a part of it that consistently brings me immense joy. That is the work of paying attention.

Richard Rohr draws a wise connection to these words from the gifted photographer, Ansel Adams, who said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Rohr continues the train of thought, “So the waiting, the preparing of the mind for “chance,” the softening of the heart, the deepening of expectation and desire, the “readiness” to really let go, the recognition that I really do not want to let go, the actual willingness to change is the work of weeks, months, and years of “fear and trembling.”” –Breathing Under Water

I was struck to the core by all of this – It wipes away every bit of the shame of struggle. In fact, it is the struggle itself that allows grace to do its best work!

I have taken some lovely photos the past couple of years. Someone asked me recently, “Why do all of the beautiful things find you?” I was a little taken aback, and as I glanced over my photos, I thought for a moment that there was some truth to it. But I quickly realized that’s not really the way it works.

I am astonished at times when beauty finds me, but it is easier for beauty to find me when I pay attention to the urging to get up at 4:30 in the morning, climb out of bed at 2 a.m. to see the stars, listen to the birds and educate myself on their migratory patterns, work on a writing or editing project till 10 p.m. instead of watching T.V. so that I can spend the next morning at the state park, or sacrifice a little physical comfort.

“Softest of mornings, hello. And what will you do today, I wonder, to my heart?” ~Mary Oliver, Devotions

None of these “sacrifices” guarantee that I will find beauty, but I sure give myself a better chance. In all of the photos in the slide show below, I gave up something to get them – I got up early, stayed up late, stood still for a long time, turned off the TV, hiked a long way, got hot, got cold… something kind of hard, or really hard. I did nothing to make the scene beautiful, but I was willing to put myself out there.

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Sometimes working with God means I wake up early, read challenging books, step into tough but necessary conversations, place myself among people who are not like me, vulnerably confess my struggles to a friend, or say I’m sorry, frightened or hurt. None of these things is guaranteed to make me beautiful, but all of these things, in cooperation with a caring God, give beauty a fighting chance.

Job 12:7-12 The Message (MSG)

7-12 “But ask the animals what they think—let them teach you; let the birds tell you what’s going on. Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics. Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories. Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree that God is sovereign, that he holds all things in his hand—Every living soul, yes, every breathing creature?”


Forget New Year’s Resolutions

This week, we reflect – Christ came. He came as a baby at a particular place and time, but in an eternal sense that no words can explain, he comes again and again. He has come to me. He comes to all who call upon him in the midst of the current chaos of this world, in the midst of the chaos of their own internal world.

Fully man, he continues to enter our fleshly, decaying world as only one who has lived in a fleshly, decaying body can.

The advice lists for new year’s resolutions 2018 have started to float across social media networks. The more sophisticated lists now advocate “new year’s intentions” and sound deep and mature: things like kindness to the grocery cashiers, time in nature, daily focused meditation, simplifying, etc.

All good things, but then I read this in my favorite prayer book, The Valley of Vision.  I think I have found my new year’s, my rest-of-my-life hope and intention, because everything else loses its luster in the light of it.

“Give me a deeper trust, that I may lose myself to find myself in thee, the ground of my rest, the spring of my being… Plough deep in me, great Lord, heavenly Husbandman, that my being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until thou alone art seen in me, thy beauty golden like summer harvest, thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty. Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.”

As anyone who knows me can tell, I am a woman who often processes in images. I called to mind the last time I saw a huge commercial tiller running through the rich, deep-black soil. Have you seen a tractor plough up close lately? Those are some awfully big blades. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like huge blades are shredding our hearts? What if that shredding could be laying the groundwork (couldn’t help it) for the person we are meant to grow into?

(Side note – I was looking at images online of tractor ploughs as I wrote this, and I came across a website from the UK called The Society of Ploughman – it’s awesome. They have competitions and everything. Check it out. The internet is amazing.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarry close up. When I think of a quarry, I always think of this scene from the film Garden StateGarden-State-Screencap-indie-films-1931521-1024-436I consider the violent demolition needed to create a gash in the earth the size of this, and I shudder a bit when I consider applying that image to my life. But the writer I quoted above longs to be quarried so that he might overflow with living water. That makes me tremble with excitement.

It is life in Jesus Christ, life in the one God-man, the one whose birth we celebrate this week, that can plow and quarry our hearts for the purposes of love and expansive grace. This is the life that I am scared to want, but still, want it I do. Oh, quarry me deep.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde

Go with your gut. Follow your heart. Trust your feelings — right? If I lived according to my Twitter feed – absolutely! But where would that really take me?

We all have occasional (or more than occasional) splits between our “thinking truth” and our “feeling truth”. For example, my thinking truth about a serial killer is that he or she is a broken human, still made in the image of God, with the gift of complete grace extended and waiting his or her acceptance. My feeling truth is a little more human. Being alone in a room with them would make me feel scared and probably sickened.

Or consider an extended family holiday dinner. You arrive in thinking mode. This is my family. I love them. We are all grownups now. And then, one snide political comment later, you and your brother are exchanging nasty sarcastic remarks reminiscent of your teenage trauma years. What the heck? Do you and your family love each other or not?

So which one reveals our real personal truth – thinking response or feeling response? I used to believe that feeling brain always held the trump card as it exposes what is true in our core. I still believe that our feeling responses can be useful and telling, but many times those responses tell only of our baser selves – not the self we desire to be – not the self we are growing into.

When we are hit with unexpected emotional chaos, it triggers our fight or flight response. In our house, that usually means he fights and I fly. It dredges up the ancient remnants we thought we finally buried deep enough. Both fight and flight responses are equally self-centered, with the understandable, innate goal of self preservation. These reactions are legit and reflect a real part of us, but they only tell a fraction of the story.

I am now convinced there is more merit or truth to the “thinking” responses. During an emotional storm, grace gives the benefit of the doubt to me and to others. Feelings come and go. People can change. Most of us are changing, or at least we desperately want to be. Making judgments about one’s character in the middle of a fight or flight moment is unlikely to promote healing and reconciliation when things settle down.

Thinking response zone is where my beliefs rest the majority of the time. At this stage of life, it is my chosen, mindful truths that serve as a steady compass. I have learned the hard way that although my emotions sometimes help and inform, they can also distract and destroy. They should be regarded with great caution, especially in the middle of life’s chaos.

When emotions calm, my mind can step back and acknowledge that the hurt caused by feeling responses is a part of reality, and this reflection is important. It brings humility, reminds me of my weak spots, helps me be vulnerable, and prods me to reconsider the trigger circumstance in a healthier way.

Because I continue to have patterns of self-destructive feeling responses – usually set off by haunting insecurities –  I need to pay attention and possibly make some different choices about the way I am living. But I would never want to make those choices out of fear or shame.  I want to make decisions about my priorities and my family based on the true and better me I am growing into.

On the days when my feelings and thoughts are as mismatched as the socks from my latest load of laundry, I can choose to lay both sides down at the feet of my steadfast God and trust in something far bigger than any part of myself.

steadfast love

Supermarket Mayhem and Master Mamas

Dear sweet young Mama from the Kroger line –

Mercy me, you’ve got your hands full – full with your middle baby – one of three – with a wild tuft of white-blonde hair and the Snow White princess dress she obviously lives in. I wonder if you give her Benadryl once a week just so you can pry it off and wash it in the the middle of the night.

Your words to me, “I don’t get out much.” Yeah – I didn’t either. It’s particularly wearing on a woman’s soul not to get out much, to be removed from both adult conversation and the quiet of nature. And then you do get out and 90 percent of the words you utter are “I’m” and “sorry”  as your little tornado does her thing before and behind you.

I wish I knew who your were so I could send this to you – because I guarantee we had a vastly different perspective about those furious five minutes in the check-out line. My fascinating middle one is a young woman now. My firstborn is about to fly the nest.


When your little girl was grabbing every candy bar within her reach, tearing the corners of the wrappers and deciding which one to secretly stow in your purse, you were mortified. I watched in wonder and thought, “Dang – that kid must have a high I.Q. I wonder when they will decide to test her for G/T”. If she’s like mine, she’ll be “gifted with a glitch”, but that will make her far more interesting.

When she wandered away from you as you fumbled to pay for your groceries – don’t worry, I had your back – she had this look of pure joy as she picked up every single Disney coloring book with her sticky fingers (candy quest!). Fancy fonts and color and art captured her spirit. This child is going to create; I know it. All you knew is that you had to pay an additional $5.95 for her favorite one – the one that was now missing its front cover.

Then… the hissy fit of the year! Oh my gosh – can she please be in my band when she grows up? A natural performer. Spinning in circles on her back avoiding your reaching hands like a little ninja. Impressive! You saw a stubborn, willful, difficult girl. I saw strength. I saw a baby who will one day be a young woman who will know who she is and what she stands for. I saw a future leader.

And I wish you could have seen, in the midst of your horrific embarrassment, the grace that surrounded you. You were in front of ME! Me, who prayed for your tender, tired heart, who silently blessed your precious hellion, who remembered the years when I “didn’t get out much”.

And then the precious cashier! He wanted to dump the entire stupid candy display in your cart, free of charge, and give you a big high-five on the way out (no wonder Moms don’t get out much – they make the check-out area a freaking nightmare). He didn’t quite know what to do with your baby, but he was full of compassion, not an ounce of judgment.

You were beautiful, full of patience. No yelling, no swatting. You just wanted to hit the rewind button and leave mini Snow White at home! The milk and eggs (and candy bars and coloring books) could have waited.

What you don’t know is that you also gave us a brief moment to practice patience and find our laughter and try our best to bless you in the midst of the chaos. We got a glimpse of a promising future that your current vantage point can’t give you quite yet.

You are a Master Mama, and your baby will shine. I know it! I can’t give you a hug because I don’t know who the heck you are. But for anyone reading this that knows one of these Master Moms in the thick of it, hunt her down and hold her tight. Chase her crazy Snow White or Ninja Turtle for as long as you can handle, and let her take a nap – or a shower.

Some people freak out about the whole “it takes a village” idea, but the strongest future-grownups require more supervision than 1 or 2 humans can possibly give. One day, in a vastly different phase of life, a young Mama may very well look at your strong, beautiful young woman of a daughter and ask, “What is the secret?” And you can say with humble triumph,

“The standard ingredients are love, grace, and mercy. The secret ingredient is pain. The pain is the reflection pool for the other 3, so that not an ounce of the good stuff goes to waste.”

As for today – I pray for you – I will call you Master Mama – I pray you will continue to be surrounded by merciful moments of grace, even when you are too tired to notice. Hang in there and try to keep her safe. The future is much closer than you realize.

Is Your Heart a Fixer-Upper?

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This is where I stood last night – between to 2 small rooms housing 2 not-so-small-anymore children struggling with heavy hearts.

One awaiting the potential consequences of an innocent error – an accidentally missed school deadline that could have extreme consequences.

The other caught out in disobedience that struck her sneaky, tender heart to the core.

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I stood there because I could not sleep. My forehead against each door, I prayed for their minds to find peace, for their bodies to sleep, for their hearts to recognize that individual moments cannot name them.

There is only One who names them in truth and love. He names them according to their whole story – or rather their place in His grand story.

As my tears hit the wood floor, it occurred to me that my love shows up bigger when they blow it. It’s not that the love wasn’t there moments before, but their struggles pull my fierce-ancient-mama-love to the surface in a hurry. When my kids mess up, I might get sad or mad or temporarily discouraged, but what I feel the most is crazy, hopeful, passionate love for them, for their story, for their future.

Last night as I secretly, silently loved on them through the sheetrock, I had a flash of memories. I saw in quick succession numerous failures and heartbreaks of my own. I remembered being curled up alone on my bed feeling like the world was caving in on me. And I see now that God was there, right outside the door of my heart, not barging in, but waiting, loving, hoping, knowing that there was so much more to my story, calling out to me by my real name – not the horrible ones I was calling myself.

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-From the first part of Isaiah 43 in The Message


My love for my kids in that moment filled me to bursting. That love is the biggest thing I’ve ever experienced. And I have a Father who loves me like that, but multiplied beyond any exponential factor I can imagine. Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 12.56.41 PM

The friends I enjoy most are living reconstructed lives. That means they first had to experience deconstruction – the breakdown of dreams, love, security, pride, family, and self. Piece by piece, they have been – they are being – put back together. But this time, all of those pieces are infused with GRACE, and it oozes out of them as they interact with others.

As much as it hurts me to see my kids hurt, I know what I want for them is the kind of reconstructed lives that only come through suffering and surrender. I know that on the other side of the suffering is a life full of real love, life that is vibrant and joyful and authentic. Embracing the deconstruction/reconstruction process is the only doorway to such a life.

HGTV has become one of the top cable channels. The biggest episode of all time for them? Fixer Upper – no surprise. We all love to see beautiful things emerge from the rubble, and Joanna and Chip can work some magic inside a broken home. They are pretty cute making it happen, too. On a much bigger scale, the Creator of the universe can work miracles in the secret rooms of our hearts.

I told my son this morning as he walked out the door to learn the fate of his AP English grade:

“You are a character in a grand and fantastic story – your story – and all of us who are watching your story unfold are rooting for you to find your way and get the girl, no matter what crazy plot-twists you have to wind your way through.” 

This morning, his teacher showed mercy and grace. She saw him, the real him, and I hope he remembers.

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When You Find Yourself On the Receiving End



This is my crazy month at the back of the food pantry with our big annual food drive. Things are also getting busy in the front of the pantry with clients. With oil prices plummeting and jobs disappearing, I heard a few statements like this last week: “I’ve never done this before”…”I’ve never lost a job, and now I wonder if I’ll ever get one again in my 60’s”…”I’ve never been in a food pantry”…and from a 16 year old girl of a single Mom, “It’s nice not to worry if I’ll get to eat dinner for a few days. This is awesome.”

We talk a lot about giving, but we don’t talk as much about receiving. From my observations and personal experience, I believe these 2 things go hand in hand.

There are many reasons people give. They give to follow religious rules. They give to be seen as givers. They give because it is expected of them. They give because they feel guilty. And then there are those who give because it is their nature. It is like breathing. They give as if they have received something in such bounty that it is constantly spilling over their edges.

In the nonprofit world of children’s homes, churches, and food pantries, I have watched and participated in this dance of giver and receiver for decades. And I have seen that the most gracious receivers are often those who have been the most generous givers – givers of whatever they have to give, be it money, food, and clothing, or kindness, grace, and hugs. They walk into any given space and view the humanity around them with the humble knowing that they are deeply connected, that had they walked the same path as another, they would be in the same leaky boat or sinking even faster. Sometimes it’s because they have actually been in that boat. Other times, they simply know themselves well enough to be compassionate when dealing with human weakness.

So when their number is up, when their job vanishes, when they get sick, when they stumble into moral failure, they are not shocked and dismayed. They have lived their lives knowing – there by the grace of God go I… When they suddenly find themselves in their own tough spot, they are able to receive the hand of grace from another with genuine humility. They receive from a place of God-given-self-love that blesses the giver as much or more as the giver is blessing them.

Brené Brown in Rising Strong: “I define wholehearted living as engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.” When we receive from a place of worthiness, we are fun to give to!

The other kinds of receiving are heart-wrenching to watch – the receiving that comes doused with guilt, anger, or pride. These poor souls still have to take the food because they are hungry or the jacket because they are cold, but they resent the giver as much as they resent the circumstances that led them there.

The gifts that are bestowed upon them feel like burdens instead of blessings, and the givers are challenged to find joy in such a process. Or, even worse, they cannot receive gifts at all and choose instead to wallow in unnecessary misery. Receiving a gift requires space to absorb it.

If our heart is completely full or ourselves – our pride, our fear, our anger – there is no room for gifts.

The hope of my heart is to learn to be as gracious in receiving as I am in giving. For I have received grace and mercy that is unexplainable – from God, from family, from friends. It has reached into the deepest crevices of my heart, and I am learning to soak it in like a sponge. My hope is that I will be able to draw deeply from the grace my heart has stored up in order to give more deeply to whoever comes my way.

Like it or not, if any of us live a long life on this earth, we will be receivers in the end. From what I have witnessed, old age is a grand distiller. It whittles away at us until we are left with the essence, the core of who we are. We can become exaggerated version of our younger personalities, and that can be ugly or radiant.

Time will blow away the chaff and leave the grain. What is my grain? What is the kernel at the heart of things? I hope to purposely practice authentic, joyful giving and receiving so that authenticity is what will be left in the end.

I am a big giver (keep reading). That is the truth, and yet it tells you little about me. There have been times when I have given spontaneously from a place of goodness and mercy. But do not be deceived, my friend. I am often a people pleaser. My striving to make others happy comes from a place of fear and insecurity. When I am giving from that place, it is a sick and manipulative effort. And although it might have the appearance of generosity, it is in fact a way of taking from others what I need. Tricky, huh?

As I have stumbled through this life, with each fall and each recovery, I have relinquished a little bit of that need to please. I have accepted more of God’s grace and mercy, and love has slipped in through the cracks and settled in deep places. My brokenness has led to my healing, and from my healing, I can now offer healing to others. When I give from that real place, that raw place, I also grow in my ability to receive well. And receiving well is a gift back to the giver – my thank you gift.

We often talk of downward cycles – addiction, abuse, dependence, etc… In contrast, authentic giving and receiving is an upward cycle. The way one feeds into the other is a thing of astonishing beauty.


The past couple years have been a particular season of receiving from God and others – one season of many. It challenged my pride, but love won and my heart opened. Now I can give from a place of deeper understanding and vulnerability. I pray that I will file away this receiving experience and find even greater joy and gratitude next time I am in need of rescue. This is the deep community we all silently long for. And we can have it!

I’d love to hear from you – do you find it hard to receive? And how are you challenged as a giver?

Sinners Anonymous


“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

His mercies never come to an end;

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.”

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Hello… My name is Alyson… and I’m a sinner. I have a lifelong addiction to downing myself, to doubting my identity as a loved child of God, and doubting my ability to be a loving wife and mother and daughter and friend and sister. But I’m trying, and maybe I’m starting to hang on to the truth a little tighter than I used to. My recovery road has been a series of little deaths and resurrections (OK, some were big), but I’m still walking and working it out.

Now that I’ve made that clear, I feel OK about addressing the drama that erupted last week over the Duggar family.

Sin, defined by The Free Dictionary as “something regarded as being shameful, deplorable, or utterly wrong”, is embarrassing. Hiding sin is my natural, automated response.  It is also the natural inclination of others to hide their sin. And our mutual deception creates a codependent cycle of repression that is rather hard to dismantle.

I spot a lovely, put-together lady at church and know she probably has her own crap hidden under there, but what if… what if she doesn’t really – not like me? And I don’t go around publicly advertising my latest follies, so maybe she wonders the same thing about me. Even if the 2 of us can be honest, we will never understand each other’s sin completely.

Sometimes we are just prideful, but often it is fear of exposure that sets us up to look like hypocrites. In desperate deflection we cast our vitriol upon the sins of the world while hiding our own. We don’t see it this way because we go to our small group or Sunday school class and readily admit to “sinning” and “struggle” and the “redemptive work of the Spirit”.

We skirt the edges of the abyss just close enough to feel sort of honest and humble. But there are a lot of things we don’t say, things like:

  • I lied to my best friend yesterday.
  • I was rude to the sweet, slow girl that checked me out at Wal-Mart because I was going to be late to my nail appointment.
  • I looked at porn on my computer in the converted attic office most of the night and I can’t stop.
  • I drank an entire bottle of wine – in an hour – and woke up drooling on the couch at 4 in the morning.
  • I got so mad at my kid that I called her stupid and slapped her face.
  • When my kids go to school on Mondays, I lay on the couch and watch Real Housewives from Anywhere until they get back home.
  • I cheated on my History exam, again, and then my parents paid me for making all A’s.
  • I fit in these skinny jeans because I sneak upstairs and throw up my dinner every night.
  • Sometimes I feel so dark inside my heart that the idea that a good God created me seems ridiculous.

Most of the confessions I listed above are actual words Jesus-claiming people have confessed to me privately, and some of their struggles cut me to the quick because they rattle memories in the corners of my own heart (and I could add some other whoppers of my own to the list). These conversations usually contain another confession: “I’ve never told anyone that before.” Well, duh!

Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” -Carl Jung

I am NOT saying we should climb to the rooftops and holler out our private list of horrid crimes. On the other hand, I would not go on a lecture tour for tweens lecturing them about self-esteem and identity without framing it within my own struggles. Part of what the media is going ape-crazy about is that a family (and a T.V. network) created an image around a ideal that was incomplete in it’s depiction to say the least.

Sometimes we find a place of spiritual strength in authentic, humble confession and fellowship. Other times we are shown on camera in our matching clothes, with the answers to life, with a superior system of living, with our happy face on and the appearance of deep community…

Until we’re not, until we are found out – and WE COULD ALL BE FOUND OUT! And then it is very confusing – and sometimes strangely comforting – to the people not in our corner of the world. They knew all along that it was not possible – not human – to be this “good”. When they do their victory dance around the fallen, it is to affirm that they are not alone, that they are not the only lost ones.

And now – here is how we fix it all… Just kidding. This cycle is not going anywhere until the end of days and that’s the truth.

I don’t have a solution – to the Duggars, to fallen pastors, exposed conservative politicians, lustful teachers, or run-of-the-mill screwups like myself. But I do have an answer – and that is GRACE.

It is the only thing. And if we are intimate with God’s grace, we can extend the real thing to others. We cannot expect grace for our stumblings from a desperate world, but we can and we should expect this kind of grace from ourselves.

The grace of God has astonished me. At times its presence has been downright unbearable. In spite some profound spiritual experiences, I can still become immune to its healing sting. I hope grace will continue to haunt me and to shock me to my senses when I lose my way – or whisper a reminder when I’m rocking along and come across a fellow struggler in the thick of it.

Grace to the fallen and the exposed. Grace to the prideful. Grace to the judgers. Grace to me, and grace to you.

Free to Swim


These lyrics come from the story I told my kids at Easter. My 2 girls are trying to get a grasp on some very abstract and difficult concepts. I was amazed how helpful it was to set it in a new story. Being public school kids familiar with lugging backpacks, they definitely grasped the idea of lugging one full of stones.

Free to Swim

Your grace is an endless ocean

My sin is a backpack full of stones

Your mercy from horizon to horizon

All my stumbles and regrets already known

You say, sit right here in my little boat

Lay your heavy burden down; rest your weary bones

Let’s skip some stones

And all I’ve done, all I will do, all the secrets that I keep

Bounce across eternal water, fall to the deep

And the only thing that changes in this ocean blue

Is a sweet but imperceptible rise

You said that it is finished, I can begin again

No burden left to drown me if I jump right in

And so we swim, we swim, we swim

Now again I sit next to your endless ocean

My good deeds tied in a big bouquet

You motion from horizon to horizon

Yet you smile at me, say child, you’ve done OK

Just climb right back into my little boat

Let’s give your pretty flowers a brand new home

Let’s let them float

And all I’ve done, all I will do, all the good words I will say

Float across eternal water on the giant waves

My meager gift dissolves into your ocean blue

I can rest from all my striving sitting next to you

You said that it is finished and now the fun begins

Hands free of what I’ve gathered, I can dive back in

And so we swim, we swim, we swim

We swim, free to swim, we swim, we swim