Boys, Brownies, Signs, and Wonders

I’ve been weeping a lot this week. Which, for me, is not normal. But take a look at the scratched photo above (scratched because he’s our fourth and his pictures never made it into albums). Just look at that kid, the one with the ’90s choker and the homemade haircut. The one with the dimples. If that was your boy and if that boy grew up and one day (TODAY) got on a plane and flew to South Korea to teach English for ONE WHOLE YEAR, I think you’d be weepy, too. My heart cannot decide whether to melt in tears or to burst with pride. Heck, I think I’ll bake brownies and do both. Speaking of brownies, I hope you’ll cut me some slack and read an old post today. Of course you will, especially if there are recipes at the end.

When our boys were too young to get into any real trouble but old enough to be safe on their own, we let them have free range of the neighborhood. Every few weeks they and their friends formed a club. The same collection of boys, gathered under a banner of ever-changing club names, convened in our backyard or in the tangle of trees and kudzu by the community pool.

One week it was the No-Ma’am-Bake-Me-Some-Brownies club. Which meant exactly what it sounds like. These kings of the neighborhood were too manly to be bossed around by some woman and too immature to consider baking their own brownies.

I don’t know why, but I thought it was hilarious. You’d think their disrespect would have triggered an angry lecture from me about women’s value in general and my value in particular, especially since not so long before, while Bill was out changing the world and I was stuck at home with four small children changing diapers, I actually said these words to Bill: “All I’m good for is baking the brownies.”

I said it more than once. It became code for, “I don’t do anything more valuable than make sure all those people who have more important things to do have something good to nibble on at your meetings.”

I wonder when I began to not mind being the official brownie baker so much. Back then I would never dream of buying a mix, because brownies were so much better from scratch. That sounds suspiciously like the preference of a woman who must, somewhere deep in her heart, like baking brownies.

I admit it, I liked it then, and I still do. But when did being relegated to the kitchen cease to feel like an insult? And when did I decide I kind of liked it there?

I have to add that my husband never once told me this was my job. Neither did anyone else. But, in those days, there wasn’t a lot left over in my life, neither time nor energy, for much else. Things changed, and somewhere along the way I discovered brownie-bakers have their place among the world changers. I began to feel less marginalized, and I discovered I had plenty of other gifts. By then our son’s attempt at knuckle-headed, boy club humor gave me a good laugh.


This morning I read about Stephen, the first martyr of the church, and his story made me wish I’d understood the massive potential of brownie-baking sooner.

At first glance it appears Stephen was nothing more than a lowly brownie-baker just like me. He was recruited to handle the food service complaints of a disgruntled faction of the early church. Stephen and six others were members of a hastily formed club, recruited because the apostles had more important things to do. Compared to all the high profile world-changing going on, this seems very unexciting to me.

But I am beginning to see that when God chooses a person like Stephen for a job, even if that job is to feed grumbling Greek widows or to bake a batch of brownies, it is never about the job itself. The scriptures say Stephen was a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When a task, any task, is performed by someone like that, no telling what will come of it.

Acts 6 implies that Stephen did not in any way see his role as a limitation. It was simply his means of decanting the Gospel to a thirsty world. He was “brimming with God’s grace and energy… doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.” Or, as another translation puts it, he “did signs and wonders.”

As a result, Stephen was put on trial, not for serving food, but for the kind of person he was while serving food. The kind of person who, rather than question the role he’s given, fills it up with wonder and wears it as a sign of something far greater than the job itself. A person who knows that dying is mandatory in any act of service, from baking brownies to preaching to thousands.


No one will deny that being a mom is hard, sometimes thankless work. Even if you go to another job that satisfies your intellect or your sense of worth and purpose for a few hours every day, there is still so much to be done at home that feels inconsequential. Not exactly a “signs and wonders” gig. But I am learning that what we do is always a reflection of who we are. If God is with me, I will do “wonderful things,” no matter how wonderful—or not—those things may seem to me at the time. And I’m learning you cannot complain and still have “the face of an angel” like Stephen was reported to have.

When I look at Stephen’s short but astounding life, I realize I missed so much. When I ask myself if I ever had any shining moments, any brief flashes when the wonder of God came through, the funniest pictures come to mind.

Like the time when the boys and I made coffee and cookies and served it in our best china on a tray to the four sanitation workers who were stranded on our street one January morning. Or when I drove the getaway car for our guys as they rang doorbells in the housing projects, dropped off gifts on doorsteps and ran, their faces painted with streaks of green and black, their hilarity infectious. Or those times we took “sad food” to friends or neighbors to comfort them. (And, yes, brownies were almost always a staple in those deliveries.) Nothing special, except that now that I remember them, they glow with a certain wonder. They remind me that I have a cup full of God’s grace, and that cup spills over in rare, surprising moments.

I’m compelled to add that, before we had children, my husband taught me to see the potential in the lowliest of tasks. During his three years in seminary he cut grass, painted buildings, and did maintenance at our apartment complex, a job which included scraping the toxic gunk out of refrigerators and—get ready for grossness—blowing residue out of dishwasher drain hoses. (Don’t make fun of him for washing our dishes before he puts them in the dishwasher. He has a good reason.) One day I overheard some seminary “lawn guys” talking about how absurd it was that they were cutting grass when they had Master’s degrees, and I realized that I’d never heard my husband say such a condescending thing.

I, on the other hand, said it. I said baking brownies was beneath me, and whenever said it, I missed what could have been. So often I couldn’t seem to die enough to see that I had been assigned a task, and that the nobility of that task was in who assigned it and why, not in the task itself. Who knows what signs of God’s grace, what wonders of his love can spill out of our homes if only we’ll embrace what he has given us to do in the moment, even if it’s just baking brownies?

Basic One-Bowl Brownies
(This is a Baker’s redux from my Augusta friend Lauren Washer)

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
3/4 cup butter or margarine (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour, sifted

Microwave the chocolate and butter in a large bowl for about 2 minutes. Remove and stir until the chocolate is melted (this may take a bit more time depending on your microwave). Stir in the sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and combine. Stir in the flour and mix well. Pour into a greased 9×13-inch pan. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes.

Or, here’s a fancier version, thanks to my friend Karen Guess:

Crunchy Brownie Bars

3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cup oats
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
Mix well. Press into 9×11 greased pan and bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

Any recipe or mix for family size. (I use the recipe above) Pour over crust and bake as directed.

1 stick butter
3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup cocoa
1/3 cup milk or cream
1 tsp vanilla
Mix cocoa and butter. Add sugar and milk, beating well. Add vanilla. Ice!

Parents: Take the Long Jump into Mystery

I’ve been working on this post called something like Mama, Don’t Feed Your Children Christian Clichés. In my best snarky voice, I was going to make fun of those moms who demand a “hedge of protection” around their children or tell them that, yes, our dog Sparky is certainly in heaven or the moms who really believe Romans 8:28 gives their children a pass from pain and sorrow. I was even going to ridicule the billboard just outside of Chattanooga on I-75 with the angelic (dead) teenage boy propped up on a pink celestial cloud reminding drivers to wear their seatbelts. I’m a mom, so I get it. The clichés make sense because we want them to, especially in that moment when our child hurts and wants answers. Easy answers.

I was going to talk about how we translate the truth to make it more palatable for our children and how for a while this is fine. After all, it’s hard to make abstract orthodoxy accessible to children’s concrete minds. But the danger comes later when we alter truth in order to make life more palatable. I was going to ask if we really want our kids to embrace an epicurean faith, one that stops at the taste buds and never gets fully digested into the deep tissue.

I was going to talk about those messy, painful times when a pink cloud cliché is easier than truth. When what is biblical seems like a hopeful myth in the face of real, hard life.

And then it hit me.

That’s why we do it. We want our children to trust in something that actually doesn’t make sense on the face of it. We want to trust, too, but we wonder at the mythic nature at the core of the Gospel. We believe God became flesh and died on a cross for our sins. We believe he rose from the dead and is still alive today. We believe this God lives inside our hearts. Step back for just a moment and consider how crazy that sounds.

Indoctrination is good. We want our children to know these basic truths and we give them every opportunity to ingest them. But indoctrination can lead to a numb acceptance. And numb acceptance will not hold up when the hedge of protection comes down and the difficult drama of real life appears far more real than the catechisms that comforted our kids in Sunday School. Add the clichés to those catechisms and our children are in danger of lumping the half-truths with the simple, stunning basics. And then what a mess they’ll have to untangle when they wake up as adults.

Consider the day when the notion of a God who came to earth and died and rose looks ridiculous to your child. When grace flies in the face of his or her understanding of life. When the truth you meted out so carefully becomes the elephant in the room. This may not happen, but it might. Give your child an elephant that is real and stands up to scrutiny. Don’t give in to the easy half-truths. Our friend Ron Blue says, “The longer term your perspective, the better your decisions today.”

The faith leap of parenting is a long jump.

So, instead of reducing the most colossal mystery in the universe to stuff like “when God closes a door, he opens a window,” a panacea which, aside from not being in the Bible, teaches our kids that God always has a contingency plan to make them happy, why not revel in the ridiculous mystery of what we know is true?

What if instead of fumbling to define God for our kids, we directed them to the One whose ultimate prerogative it is to define himself, to a God who called himself, from the burning bush to the cross, I AM? And what if we ourselves trembled in the Presence of this God and, in the midst of our quaking, asked him to show his glory to our children. Our small truths will never produce an earthquake in their hearts. The only Person to ever claim that his very essence was Truth can do it, though. Yes, there is a body of truth worth teaching our children, but in the end what we prayed desperately for our children was that they would encounter the Truth-giver.

A.W. Tozer said, “A low view of God is the cause of a hundred lesser evils. A high view of God is the solution to ten thousand temporal problems.”

Our clichés give our children a low view of God. So why not give them instead a higher view? Why not cultivate that view in our own minds, even though the high view often prompts more questions than it answers, even though it is full of paradox and wonder? What if we left the inevitable sorting out that comes with this view to God? To our children? What if, as our kids matured, we became their advisors, ones who stand in awe alongside them and marvel at this God who, though his thoughts are higher than ours, has stooped to make his very being known to us?

How a Boy Loves

With a plastic snake,
That’s how a boy loves.
He wraps it around the milk jug
In the refrigerator
Or puts it under your pillow
So you’ll find it in your
Most unwary, weary moment.
A boy’s affection is
Kinetic and sneaky
Like that.

When a 300 pound
Homeless man slugs you in the face
In broad daylight
On a sidewalk in Manhattan
While you’re working there
And that night
Your 6-year-old calls you at your hotel
To ask if you got a good look at the man,
And you say yes, and he says:
Good, I’m coming up there to beat him down.
Then a boy’s love is
Valiant and just a bit delusional.

He’s mystified when his teasing
That makes you laugh one day
Makes you cry the next.
He will then adopt a certain skepticism
Toward you and your intelligence
Which will fuel further teasing.
But that’s okay,
Because you remember your SAT score.
Besides, your ego is less fragile than his,
Or it ought to be.
A boy’s love is sometimes
Brazen and rough
A maybe even hard to take.

You won’t see it coming,
Because a boy doesn’t plan to love you,
He just executes his expressions
Of that love offhand, as if he doesn’t.
But he does.
He will love you in sparks that,
Random and seldom as they may seem,
Will blind you
With their brilliance
And burn you with
Bursts of wonder.
Catch a boy’s love like fireflies.
It’s abrupt and incandescent.

And then there will be that day
When he writes you from
Texas or somewhere far away,
And he will say it outright.
His love will sound,
No, it will be mature.
He’ll soon be ready to marry a girl
You would have picked
If you’d known how
And he will love her so well,
Not perfect, but better
Than you dreamed
With traces of the way
His father loves you.
And this vicarious love
That isn’t even exactly for you
Will fill you up.
Because that’s how a boy loves.
To make his mama proud.