Tuesday, December 15, 2015

All I Want for Christmas

It came up again last week at bedtime.
A gift from the past:
hand print snow man ornament.

“Mom, what do you want for Christmas?”

I could not think of one reasonable thing to say.

A few years ago Zach asked me this same question, and I was ready with a completely practical idea.

“You know what I really want? A pair of really warm pajamas.”

He looked at me in disbelief, and exhaled an incredulous, “Phfffffff!” My request didn’t even warrant a real word.

I got my warm jammies that year, but not from Zach. I got them from my mom who had a good chuckle when I told her the story.

It’s not that can’t think of anything. I’ve had my eye on several pairs of high quality, semi-cute, supportive shoes made for middle aged women with fragile feet who aren’t willing to concede the need for ghastly orthotics. But that’s not much fun to write on the Christmas list.

“Candles?” he suggested.

“That sounds good.” I do like candles, they help cover all the wet boot odors, and last night’s supper smell that the furnace recirculates day after day.

Then he made an astute observation for a 13 year-old: “You know, for the first twelve years of your life you kind of know what you want for Christmas. But then you learn some things. And you don’t know what you want.”

And that’s the truth.

He has learned “some things.”

He’s learned that dollar store toys fall apart after 3.5 minutes of play time.

He’s learned that any affordable remote control vehicle will withstand approximately one crash before it has to be super glued or tossed.

He’s learned that this year’s impractical Christmas gift often ends up on June’s garage sale when he needs cash for fishing bait.

I told him it’s the same when you’re older. I had a robust Christmas list when I was young.

One Christmas I asked for stuffed animals. For years I displayed my vast collection in the corner of my room, arranged by height and in rainbow order.

In my teens I asked for designer jeans that basically guaranteed coolness and self-worth. For several years in a row I got them. Guess. Z.Cavarricci. Pepe. Union Bay. (Brass Buckle, anyone?)

I used to want a horse shoe driveway in front of our house so guests could just drive right up and out without a cumbersome three point turn.

Then I learned some things.

Stuffed animals take up a lot of room, and I have no idea what became of them.

Personal value doesn’t come from jeans, and after college I made a denim quilt.

Paved driveways are overrated, and it turns out guests don’t really care where your driveway is, or that you have a thick crop of crab grass where the horse shoe drive might have been. They just want to know you enjoy having them.

The things I want for Christmas can’t be paid for. Sometimes they have to be worked for. Fresh creativity. Thriving relationships. Unshakable confidence. 

The kind of things that make a 13 year old roll his eyes.

After he went to bed I decided I should have said, “All I want for Christmas is for you three boys to love Jesus, love each other, and actually want to come visit dad and me someday.”

But if I had thought of that request before he fell asleep, I’m pretty sure it would have been met with the same response the jammies got.


And that actually feels like an appropriate response some days, because that kind of gift doesn’t come with a receipt and tidy wrapping.

Some days it feels like work. I run out of creativity. I second guess every single thing. And I think, “It’ll never work out that way! I haven’t done enough to guarantee I’ll get three grown sons who love Jesus and each other…and still want to visit Kurt and me.”

But God is gracious. And the nature of a gift is that it can’t be earned.

With prayer and thanksgiving I will make this request known to God, and I’ll have peace in remembering it can only come from Him.

It will likely look different than I expect, but it will undoubtedly be exactly what I need in order to know Christ better.

And knowing Christ better is what I really want…not just for Christmas but every day.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Receiving the Undeserved Gift

I scrambled up to the first couch cushion and dutifully obeyed my mother’s little rhyme:

“Open your hands and close your eyes and I will give you a big surprise.”

Meanwhile on the middle couch cushion, long after I had settled myself, my little sister wriggled off the couch and then climbed back up again. I didn’t dare open my eyes to see the spectacle, but I could feel it.  And without looking, I knew she hadn’t even closed her eyes!

Now I use that little rhyme on my couch.
Which of these little monkeys
do you suppose deserved a gift?
I was irritated by her unrestrained glee, because she wasn’t doing it right. And I didn’t think she really deserved a gift.

I, on the other hand, was doing it right. And I wasn't going to merely receive a gift. I was going to deserve it.

And yet, every time our mother said the little rhyme, we both received a gift simply because it was our mother’s great pleasure to give.

Last December I had big plans to celebrate Advent right. To get quiet. To lead my kids through their Advent calendar. To read my Christmas devotional. To prepare.

I started strong, and for a while I did Advent “right.” Then we added to our Advent celebration by worshiping Christ at programs, performances, and parties all over town.

But all our celebrating led to a string of late bedtimes. I fell behind on my reading. My kids fought about whose turn it was to open the Advent calendar, and I worried I wouldn’t experience Christ’s presence during “the most wonderful time of the year” because I wasn’t doing Advent right!

But the Gift of Christ’s coming was never based on our performance.

God gave us the gift of Christ because He wanted to.

 “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by sending Jesus Christ to die for us. And he did this because he wanted to!” {Ephesians 1:5, TLB}

It was His pleasure to rescue us from having to earn a place in His family, and to this day He is still rescuing performers from working to earn His gifts.

“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” {Romans 4:4-5, NIV}

His gifts cannot be earned. And incredibly our shameless, open-handed receiving is counted as righteousness!

So if the Christmas craft--which looked far easier in the video--reminds you that Christmas cheer isn’t dependent on your decorations, receive it as a gift of His presence.

When the company Christmas party, which you’d rather skip, presents a natural opportunity to bring Christ into conversation, receive it as a gift of His presence.

And if you find yourself wiping tears at another Christmas program where tender little voices sing Away in a Manger, receive it as a gift of His presence.

These undeserved gifts are indications of His presence. Reminders that in the hush and in the hustle, He is still Immanuel.

God with us.

The grandest surprise of all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Growing Gratitude

Back in the day when the boys were 2, 3, and 4 years old, it was a little rugged around our house. 

I was plagued by my inability to mother like I thought I should--you know, teaching my toddlers to use their manners, say thank you, and always obey. But since that rarely went planned, I almost always opted to stay home and relish nap time rather than go anywhere. 

Occasionally we ventured to the grocery store where the boys, bit through the hot dog packages, chewed on a bag of chocolate chips until melted chocolate oozed out of a little hole in the bag, and also tipped over the cart.

Needless to say, we didn’t get out much. 
Artwork by Julie Chen of Live Verse Design.
Order prints here

So when the postman brought a package from the outside world—from Grandma no less-- expectations were high. 

They each ripped open a little present and sat silent for a moment.

With a budding sarcasm I didn’t even know was growing in him, Zach finally said, “Another Hotwheels car. Big surprise.”

The incident prompted the first of many conversations about being grateful when you receive a gift. The same pep talk we will be having again in a couple of weeks: “Whenever you get a gift--regardless of what it is--you should SAY, ‘Thank you. Thank you for thinking of me.’”

And with a few more years of practice we might be able to pull off a convincing gratitude act.

Beyond being polite, it’s the way we remind ourselves that someone spent time, effort, and money with me in mind. This kind of gratitude is rehearsed, polite, and necessary.

Gratitude starts here, but this is not its end.

Contrast that experience with the long suffering experience of hearing the boys plead and beg year after year for a Nintendo Wii. In 2010 on Christmas morning, when they opened two Wii remotes and an empty box, they were confused and breathlessly hopeful.

In a rare moment of parental readiness, I got it on video. 

After a few minutes of urgently explaining to mom and dad that “you need a Wii machine, not just remotes,” we sent them downstairs where the “Wii machine” was ready to be enjoyed.

Elated and excited, Zach and Levi took control of the remotes and Spencer sat down, began smacking his head and said, “I think I’m dreaming!”

Now I realize the cost and anticipation level for a Hotwheels car and a Wii are different. The analogy breaks down here because the Wii is no longer the fulfillment of all our entertainment cravings.

But I use the example to propose that sincere gratitude is born out of the recognition of what we lack. A need. A longing.

It is a strange dichotomy.

A fragile connection exists between pain and pleasure, hunger and fullness, need and thanksgiving. Without the first, it is nearly impossible to explain or experience the other.

Can I truly be thankful for my health when I have not walked through the valley of chronic pain or illness?

Can I truly be thankful for my meal when food has been available every day of my life?

Can I truly be thankful for peace and freedom when I have only read of war?

Can I truly be thankful for God’s forgiveness if I do not accurately understand the extent of my sin?

For all these things I can be--and am--politely thankful in the way I have rehearsed with my boys.

But there are things which illicit that squealing, head-smacking, “I think I’m dreaming!” sort of response, and I doubt it’s your new Wii.

It might be the baby you waited a decade or more to conceive or adopt.

It might be one day of feeling good in the middle of a long stretch of feeling horrible.

It might be a resurrected marriage.

Maybe it’s a fresh understanding of God’s gracious rescue in Christ.

Even this degree of gratitude isn’t the end. Just as need produced the head-smacking gratitude, the fruit of gratitude is unbridled generosity.

Those who have seen war willingly give their lives to ensure their families can enjoy peace.

Those who have suffered through chronic pain willingly give time and effort to relieve the suffering of another.

Those who have witnessed a resurrected marriage willingly give counsel to anyone suffocating in a dying marriage.

Need presupposes gratitude.

Gratitude produces generosity.

Generosity meets the needs of another, and the cycle repeats.

Over time, we might be surprised to find ourselves genuinely grateful even for our need, because it is the fertile soil where gratitude takes root and generosity blossoms.

You may even find yourself smacking your head and saying, “Thankful for my need?! I think I’m dreaming!”

But I assure you, Friend, you’re not.

Monday, November 2, 2015

When Trick-or-Treaters Make You Think of Jesus

I counted about 27 princesses and nearly as many ninja warriors. Not to mention a walking vending machine, and a few pixelated Minecraft characters. There were little girls who felt perfectly secure as princesses and insecure teenagers who were “too old” to dress up, but still young enough to be lured by candy.

There were also the scary and gross costumes. Downright disgusting stuff that made me want to rush and cover the eyes of every tiny trick-or-treater on the street.

Hordes of people trickling down sidewalks and streets stumbling over cumbersome costumes, running door to door, and some limping and growling.

I stepped back for the wide view.

Eeeeks! Such a strange scene!

It occurred to me at that moment that Jesus’s earthly ministry was probably a little more like Halloween than I like to imagine.

I thought of Jesus and his disciples who were mooring their boat when they were startled by a mad man running and screaming at them. Broken chains dangled from his limbs, and his naked body bore a web of scars and scabs from a hundred self-inflicted wounds (Mark 5:1-8).


Another time, after a horrific night at sea when his disciples mistook him for a ghost, Jesus stepped ashore at a place called Gennesaret. When the people there recognized him as the one who had fed a multitude on the other side of the lake, they brought all their sick friends, family, and neighbors to him.

People with hacking coughs, oozing sores, deformed limbs and faces. People crying, moaning, hollering to be first. Mothers carrying lethargic babies and fathers cradling skeleton-like children. People on the verge of physical and spiritual death. (Mark 6:45-56)


They came in hordes from all over the surrounding country begging him. (Matthew 4:23-25)

And what did Jesus do when the helpless and harassed came running down the streets and shores to him?

He wasn’t disgusted.

He had compassion on them.

To him they were like sheep without a shepherd, and as The Good Shepherd, he welcomed them.

But he wasn’t content to simply welcome and feed them. He also taught them, spoke about the kingdom of God, healed their sick and changed them. (Mt. 9:35-36)

I don’t know if Jesus would have had a bowl of candy at his house or not. He never claimed a permanent earthly address. But I know that if he had, the line at his place would have been long because Jesus drew a crowd everywhere he went.

The line wouldn’t have been moving fast either. It was his life’s work to address physical and spiritual needs, and that takes time.

I suppose His disciples would try to hurry the line or disperse the children. Perhaps parents would urge their children to “skip that house.” But I just bet Jesus would tell them all, 
"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me." (Mark 9:37) “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14). 
Artwork by Julie Chen of Life Verse Design.Prints available here.

Jesus was never one to miss a teachable moment.

Whether we admit it or not, without Christ we are the spiritually helpless and harassed. It’s just that in the 21st century we’ve figured out how dress it up and rename it so we don’t have to be thought beggars--people unable to earn what we desperately need. 

But the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like that.

Our best hope is to come to Jesus with empty hands, offering him nothing as payment for what we need and cannot buy.


And to everyone who receives him, to those who believe on his name, he GIVES the right to become Children of God (John 1:12). No matter how you’re dressed. No matter how sick you’ve been, or how pretty you feel. He gives to everyone willing to receive what he is handing out.

Come empty. Leave full. Be changed.

For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Monday, October 19, 2015

When You Work for the Gift You've Already Got

Remember the fort/blind the boys built this summer for all their fall hunting adventures? Well, apparently a blind isn’t complete without certain hunting accessories. And this year for his birthday, Zach asked for all manner of them.

Every time we went to the store he’d point them out. When they were on sale, he’d let me know. He’d tell me which store had them cheaper and when the shipping was free.

But I kept saying, "No."

He got tired of asking and waiting, but he was unwilling to spend his own money.

So he decided to make his own.

He ransacked our garage and collected cardboard, paint, Styrofoam, dowels, and tubes. He stripped two motors from remote control cars that supposedly no one played with anymore. Then he went to work making a Mojo Decoy on the work bench.

Three days later, he emerged from the garage with his finished product.

I could not believe my eyes.

While I was floored by his commitment to economy and the project, I also felt a little sorry for him because the thing didn’t work as well as the one at the store. 

I also felt a little sorry for him because hiding upstairs in a gift bag was the “real thing.”

I almost felt like the surprise was ruined now that he’d already made his own. And because I am an EXPERT second-guesser when it comes to parenting, I wondered if I should have saved him the time and effort and told him not to bother.

Thankfully I didn’t.

I thought of all he had learned through the process about trial and error, about painting and mixing colors, batteries and electricity, effort and economy.

His work was valuable, even if he received the end product as a gift.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “work” we do as we walk with Christ. The apostle John wrote that if we claim to know Christ we must walk as He walked. (1 John 2:6)

But that is hard work. 

In fact, much of what Jesus did was hard. 

He loved the self-righteous leaders who tried to sabotage his God-given work. He accepted invitations from them and extended invitations to them.

He loved a backstabbing traitor in such a way that his disciples were befuddled trying to figure who in the world Jesus was talking about when he said, “One of you will betray me.”

He even loved his pretentious disciples who were jockeying for His own position in the Kingdom they couldn’t even comprehend.

Have you ever tried loving those kind of enemies? The ones who play on your team, work in your office, attend your church, ride in your car, eat at your table, or sleep in your bed?

It is hard to walk like Jesus walked when I bump into people I don’t like and stumble over my own sin. When I compare my life to His, I can’t help but notice the “product” doesn’t function like His.

I need Someone to gift me the thing I’ve been working on.

And this is the very reason the gospel is good news.

With an apologetic heart I can bring Him my jumbled pile of sporadic obedience, selective love that tires easily, and hard work that didn’t work out.

And do you know what he gives in return? His own perfect walk--His long obedience in the same direction.

He never stumbled, or got off track, and always went towards His Father. His life is like the gift from the manufacturer that works perfectly. A life of perfection that’s been lived for us, and is ours to receive.

I might be tempted to think the magnitude of that gift renders my work worthless. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered working to walk like Jesus walked.

But on my limping walk of half-hearted love, foot-dragging obedience, and begrudging duty I learn to honestly talk with Him. I begin to lean on His strong arm when I tire of loving like He did. I become increasingly aware of my inability, and appreciate His great ability.

As I talk with Him and increase my dependence on Him, I discover I don’t merely need Christ.

I’ve actually grown to love Him.

And all that hard work is valuable, not because I earn something by it, but because through it I discover the gift that was there all along.

Christ’s work in exchange for mine. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It's the gift that can't be manufactured or earned. 

It must simply be received.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When Freedom Means Giving Up

It seems like I’ve mentioned my love for music recently. 

As a word-lover I especially love meaningful lyrics. So when enjoyable music and thought provoking lyrics bump into each other, I swoon. 

This week as I was buzzing around my kitchen with my Ellie Holcomb Pandora station playing, I heard All Sons and Daughters singing Dawn to Dusk and I was smitten with one particular lyric:                              

                                                        Tomorrow’s freedom is today’s surrender.

Lovely. Profound. And counter intuitive. After all, doesn’t surrender mean captivity?

In war, yes. 

In sin, yes. 

In Christ, no.

Ironically, I keep applying this profound truth to what seems like mundane and annoying facets of life. 

My steady two-year weight gain for example. Yikes. Did I just say that? That was embarrassing. 

But now that it’s out, it’s a reminder that tomorrow’s health, is dependent (in part) on surrendering thoughtless, excessive eating today. Whoah! That was awkward. NEXT…

My kids keep hearing me sing those five words but what they don’t know is that I’m reminded to apply it in parenting as well. Certain behaviors are easy to ignore when I consider the time and effort I’ll have to surrender in order to deal with them. But tomorrow’s freedom, for me and for my kids, is dependent (in part) on my surrendering the time and effort it takes to address it today. Big sigh. 

And then there is that pesky issue of my cherished sin. The little sins I love to indulge, just a bit. An appetite for gossip. Creative insults. Lashing out. Hating rude people. “Acceptable” sins.

But cherished sin is dangerous, because the more I feed the little creature, the more it grows. And next thing I know, I’m not holding its leash anymore. It is holding me. Demanding to be fed more and more, and I become enslaved to a master of my own making.

Surrendering excess, time, and “acceptable” sin seems constraining and hard. But we don't surrender because we are gluttons for punishment. We surrender because on the other side of surrender is freedom. 

How do we get there? We endure a little discipline. Sometimes even self-discipline.

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

It’s painful. Or at the very least, tiring.

Perhaps the first step is recognizing the creature that’s secretly been holding us captive. Then, for those who train--repeatedly exerting the emotional muscle that resists the weight of excess, or apathy, or “acceptable sins,”--later on, it produces peace, righteousness, and ultimately freedom.                           

it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Gal 5:1)


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When You Pray About Your First-World-Problems

My pre-workout brain teaser.
There is so much to be legitimately upset about, but last week, the thing that brought me down, was a first-world-problem.

It wasn’t that Burger King no longer offers honey-mustard dressing, or that I had to spend the first three minutes of my workout untangling my earbuds.

I was moping around because I lost my wedding ring.

On Kurt’s birthday.

That night, I gave myself a vigorous scolding, the kind I usually save for the boys: “Well, if you can’t keep track of that, you don’t deserve another one! And on Kurt’s birthday!! Nice. So how about that conversation you had with the boys about being responsible for their water bottles? Oh wait… what’s that? You lost a DIAMOND!?"

You’d think such penance might punch me right back to sound reason: “Thank you, Mean-Self, for that emotional spanking. I realize my folly and I will stop feeling sad. Thanks for pointing out that I am selfish and petty and under-concerned about All the Real Problems In The World. I feel so much better.”

But that’s not what happened, and I went to bed sad.

The next morning I decided to pray about it.

Yep. Prayed about my first-world-problem. I thought the only thing stupider would be to pray about untangling my ear buds. But I know the apostle Paul said to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Ephesians 6:18)

All occasions. All kinds of prayers.

So I sat in my arm chair and prayed something like this, “Hi God. This is your irresponsible daughter here. And I’m sorry for being a baby, but since you are God, and through Christ you've made a way for me to talk with you, would you help me find my ring?”

While I was praying, the boys were getting ready for school and started asking the regular morning questions.

"What’s for lunch?"

"Do we have any milk?"

"Where is my backpack?"

I knew it was time to get out of my chair and ended my prayer.

I pushed the ottoman away from my chair, and then I saw a little round circle buried in our high-pile carpet.

Like the woman in Jesus's parable who found her lost coin I wanted to call my friends and neighbors together and say, "Rejoice with me; I found my lost ring!" So I hollered to the boys.“I found my ring!”  I grabbed my phone to text Kurt and then I saw the date: September 11. Not exactly a day for a group celebration over a first-world-problem solved.

Then I cried.

Why did you do that, God? There are bigger problems!!

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.
And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:29-31).

It wasn’t an answer as much as it was a sign post: If He sees when a sparrow falls from the sky, when a hair falls from a head, He most certainly sees and knows our most difficult circumstances. Turn on the TV. Scroll through your newsfeed. Look around your dinner table. People are struggling with hard things.

But even as I read those verses, it occurred to me that Jesus didn’t promise to keep the sparrow from falling, nor to keep my hair in my head, nor to “fix” any of my major or minor problems.

In fact, when Jesus spoke those words, He was in the middle of teaching His disciples not to be afraid when they face serious and scary circumstances. Why not? Because as Jesus said, “You are worth far more than many sparrows.”

I have to admit, that doesn’t feel like an anchor of an answer.

But it reminds me that He is attentive. He sees. He knows. He cares.

So when I don’t see him doing anything about the long list of serious, urgent, ongoing prayer requests--which break His heart and mine--His little interventions on smaller matters remind me He is always working (John. 5:17).

His plan is not haphazard. His work is not random. His sight is not blurred.

"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!" (Romans 11:33)

We may not see His greater plan in our suffocating struggle, but He does. And we can be certain He does, because He sees when a hair falls from a head, when a sparrow falls to the ground, and a when a wedding ring falls into the carpet.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Gifts of Music and Memory

I love music.

Photo Credit: TiiaBear
In the car, in the kitchen, while I walk, when I worship. 

And nearly every kind. I can appreciate a banjo as well as an intelligent rap and just about anything in between.

I’m amazed that God would use elements as formulaic and functional as math and physics for a composition so artistic and enjoyable as music.

His brilliant combination makes music a powerful tool.

Think of the lyrics you know by heart. You have words from entire songs--perhaps entire albums-- tucked away in your brain. With a few starting notes you can recite the words without much effort. 

It is no coincidence that in biblical times children—yes children—could memorize the entire book of Psalms because it was their song book. The soundtrack of their heritage. Add melody to words, repeat regularly, and over time 150 chapters of scripture and history get locked into memory. 

One-hundred-fifty chapters! 

I have trouble remembering phone numbers…except for Jenny's, “8 6 7 - 5 3 0 ny-eee-I-een.” See what I mean?

I’ve tried to harness this gift for my kids. We’ve set verses to such ridiculous melodies, none of us can forget even if we tried. We’ve also listened to artists such as Ellie Holcomb who has set scripture to music.

But it “cuts both ways” as Gloria Estefan sang.

We’ve had the radio going in the car a lot because… well, I love music. However, while I admire Megan Trainor’s message in “All About that Bass,” I cringe when I hear my boys singing about “booty.” Call me a prude but hearing them sing Bruno Mars’s jam, “Up-town you-know-what,” is also troublesome for me.

So I took a cue from a friend and decided this year on the drive to school we will hear a monthly theme song. An entertaining song with lyrics that don’t embarrass me, or them, if they start mindlessly singing them at family gatherings.

With school starting in August, I chose an oldie by Scott Krippayne called I’m Not Cool. Even if it is cheesy, I still get a little choked up when I listen. It speaks to adolescent insecurities which apparently die hard.

The tune is catchy, and I hope the message sticks. The artist laments his complexion, clothes, and car and then declares, "I’m not cool, but that’s okay, My God loves me anyway!”

There was a little eye-rolling from the boys, but we stuck with it through August.

For September the boys chose Impossible by Building 429 which champions the truth “That nothing is unreachable, when we trust the God of miracles.” I like it, but a month is going to be a challenge. I may have to adjust the schedule for a new song every week.

So I’m on the hunt for songs with solid lyrics that my boys would like.

If you have a recommendation, I’d sure be grateful if you’d share it. I’ll head straight to iTunes and add it to our playlist!

(Unless it’s something like THIS SONG. I think that song, catchy as it is, will ruin the theme song project forever! Thanks to Andee for digging up that gem

Monday, August 24, 2015

Multiple Choice Parenting

We were having a summer, and all of the sudden it was the first day of school. 

At least it seemed that way because I didn’t really create any preparatory ramp-up to get ready for school.

None of us are into school-shopping, so I rummaged through drawers and made sure they had at least five t-shirts without rips or armpit stains. We bought school shoes in July so it didn’t feel like “school shopping.”

The boys are pretty much over shopping for school supplies too. So I had them sort through last year’s supplies, and then went alone to buy the remaining items on the supply list.

We didn’t even start going to bed early as we have in the past. Instead we squeezed in as much summer as possible.

And then, WHAM! The first day of school.

Two out of three students are
are unenthused about a 7:30 photo shoot.

They couldn’t believe it was actually time—already!-- for reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.  

So I added to my growing list of Parenting Decisions to Second Guess: Perhaps I should have given them a bit more notice to prepare them for the start of school.

And all my second guessing brings me back to my own school days.  
Remember the ACT test? I had a severe case of test-taking anxiety in high school. I second guessed every answer I chose, which made it hard to finish within the allotted time. But there was a little nugget of a rumor which was my multiple-choice-test-taking salvation.
Choose “C.” 
If you don’t know the answer, choose C. 
If you get the five minute warning and still have questions to finish, choose C…all the way down your bubble sheet. C. C. C. C. C.
The theory was it wouldn’t really affect your score. And apparently it didn’t since I received the exact same score three times.
Sometimes I still default to this theory, and I feel like I’m parenting by multiple choice. I look at the multiple choices and I wonder:
Should I… 

1.    Indulge their desire for brand name clothing and equipment for the sake of helping them feel comfortable in the awkwardness of middle school? OR prove to them that neither the clothing nor the equipment make a good person or a good athlete. Uhhh…I don’t know. I choose C.

2.    Allow practice schedules to fill our evenings and risk communicating “SPORTS ARE LIFE” OR cultivate life lessons about practice, team work, and time management. I don’t know….C.

3.    Sign up for one sport per season or two? ...C.

4.    Squeeze in a music lesson too? Piano or guitar? …C.

5.    Algebra or pre-algebra. Ummm… C.

6.    Read a morning devotional in the car, or right before bed? Or both?  C.
I don’t know the right answers. Minutes tick by, and there's no time for second guessing.
I pay attention to the questions, I evaluate each answer, but I’m always a little bewildered.
Sometimes C is the right answer, but probably only 25% of the time.
But just like when I took the ACT, I’m banking on the fact I’ve already answered some questions correctly.
We’ve fed, clothed, sheltered, and loved them. Maybe it wasn’t organic, name brand, new or perfect, but we’ve done that much, and that is the right answer.
We’ve told them the truth. Sometimes it's hard, and there are truths they aren’t ready to hear yet, but telling the truth is the right answer.
Whether we’ve “crammed it down their throats” or done “too little too late” will remain to be seen, but I know for sure we have pointed them toward Christ. And that is always the right answer.
So as I’m scribbling in all the C bubbles on the peripheral parenting questions, I’m thanking the Lord for the grace He’s given to answer a few questions correctly and counting on His lavish forgiveness for the ones I may get wrong.


Monday, August 10, 2015

The Essence of a Childhood Summer

I don’t want to mention the s-c-h-word just yet, but there are sure signs that summer vacation is winding down. 

For instance, our final baseball tournament is in the books. Like ballpark franks on a grill, we sizzled on the bleachers and watched a lot of baseball.

Those little boys in grass stained baseball pants—the ones who made sand castles in the dirt at first base--they grew up. They’re pitching fast, hitting hard and the grass stains are gone because the knees have been ripped right out of the pants due to a nasty slide.

After the tournament, I fell asleep counting pitches. And it didn’t take long…one, two three strikes and I was out.

The next day we slept in. For the first time in several weeks we had nothing on the calendar. Ahhhh. A day to relax.

Only apparently we forgot how because no one knew what to do with themselves at home all day.

Finally, around 5:00 when I was about ready to start supper, the boys remembered that cooperation is less exhausting than bickering and, by some miracle, they started to assemble a fort in our trees.

Well, “fort” is what they used to call it. Back when they were building sandcastles at first base. Now that they’re able to name and aim their pitches, they call it a “blind.” And it’s outfitted for all their fall hunting adventures.

When they finally ran outside to put the finishing touches on it by weaving the snipped cedar branches to create an authentic camouflage, I was glowing with pride.

Ahh, yes! I thought as they ran outside. This is what summer is for. Creativity! Mental exercise! Physical work. Repurposing junk lumber and pallets. Hands-on learning!! This is the essence of childhood!  
They’d been working for over an hour when I went out to admire the modifications. I took my camera to prove my maternal interest. I wanted to subtly affirm this brotherly cooperation, creativity, and construction.

But when I arrived the work was at a stand-still, and they were slinging words in a verbal BRAWL.

I tried to snuff out the argument, but I was too late. No one was receptive to diplomacy or reason by that time. Two boys quit and went inside to the reprieve of the Wii while one boy stayed and finished construction.

And I spent the next half an hour trying to recover from emotional whiplash.

I thought they’d been learning. Discovering. You know…the whole essence of childhood delusion?

Then I realized, just because they’re arguing doesn’t mean they’re not learning. And I supposed it could be argued that such family feuding is also part of the essence of childhood.

Because in reality they’re still learning. Learning how to argue, compromise, and negotiate. No one said it was effective, but sometimes you have to know what doesn’t work in order to find something that does. For instance, one brother had decided to copycat every phrase his brother said in the argument.

Stop it!

Stop it!

Stop copying me!

Stop copying me!...

Needless to say, it accomplished nothing.

But I suppose it was just another learning experience of sorts. Another hypothesis to test when vehement yelling hasn’t worked.

Whatever it was I’m starting to think the bickering and fighting is just as much a learning experience as the fort. And eventually experience will prove what the writer of Proverbs meant when he wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Incidentally, a copycat also stirs up anger.

And it’s a great reminder to me that I can teach and talk until I’m fresh out of words, but some lessons have to be learned in the field. Or in the trees building a fort…I mean a blind.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Plunging into Hello

Photo Credit: Jenni C
For the second time in two years I was the new girl. I was mighty scared that when the recess bell rang all the first graders would sprint toward the playground, and I’d be standing alone. Again.

I couldn’t stand the thought of it so I decided to do something. And quick. The girl at the desk in front of me had two long, beautiful French braids. In my Laura-Ingalls-loving mind, that was a sure sign of congeniality, so I tapped her back right between those braids.

She turned.

"Will you be my friend?” I whispered.

I felt ridiculous. My face flushed. But she nodded, and I followed her out to recess.

Thirty years later, surrounded by five children and a multitude of acquaintances, I felt mighty alone again. With all the chaos, loneliness didn’t seem possible, but the demands of family and self-inflicted expectations had exhausted me. I needed a friend to lead me to Jesus in prayer.

I’d never actually done the one-on-one prayer thing before, but I knew it was the only way to survive and finish that chapter of life.

So I did something that felt socially weird. At Bible study I sat by a woman I admired, and right before our Bible study video started I feigned confidence and whispered, “Hey, would you be willing to get together to pray with me sometime?”

I braced for a reasonable rejection. Something like Hmmm, I’m traveling quite a bit lately. Or, Sounds wonderful, but I’m sooo busy. 

Instead she answered, “I would love to.” As I turned back toward the TV screen, I thought I saw her wiping tears. Then I started wiping mine.

Last year I attended a conference alone, and of all the things I worried about, the one that haunted me was a scenario from junior high. 

The dreaded cafeteria.

What if I had to weave through the trays, soda fountains, and tables to sit by myself? A veritable announcement to every observer, “I have no friends here!” 

Fortunately, I found delightful women to chat with at meals. 

But then I saw her. One woman at a table for two. Living my junior high nightmare.

Don’t be weird, I warned myself. Maybe she’s relishing solitude. So I walked past her only to discover “my people” sitting on the back side of her booth. 

After setting down my tray, I poked my head over the partition and invited her to sit with us.

Turns out she wasn’t relishing cafeteria solitude, and our table of three became a table of four.

But I’m not always so socially courageous.

During that exceedingly awkward “greeting time” at church, I find it easier to rifle through my purse in search of nothing. While waiting in line at Wal-Mart I’m more comfortable frantically texting than talking with someone in line. And I can become engrossed in a menu, doctor’s office literature, or a map in order to avoid eye contact with anyone at all.

It feels like a game of Social Chicken--each stranger daring the other to make the first move. And the worst possible outcome happens when neither person acts: the enemy of our souls wields loneliness and insecurity to frighten us into isolation.

And sometimes the only thing worse than feeling socially awkward is feeling alone.

As I’ve staggered around between the illusion of isolated safety and a nerve-wracking introduction, I’ve discovered the fastest way through an awkward “hello,” is to hold your nose--figuratively speaking of course--and plunge straight in: extend a hand, offer to help, ask a question, or simply say “Hi.”

Sure, it may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable. Maybe even stressful.

Yet God can use loneliness, insecurity, and even the uncomfortable weirdness before that first “hello” as an invitation to friendship. And once you take the plunge you just might find you’ve greeted a friend, a prayer partner, or a sister in Christ. 

What is your awkward hello story? How did it turn out?


Thursday, June 18, 2015

When a Father Made Me Cry at the Pool

They say you remember trauma more acutely than pleasure. If the memories of my first high dive experience are any indication, it’s true.
My boys did not inherit my high dive angst.

I was in fourth grade. No one made me do it, but it looked fun. Something akin to flying. So, in my least favorite faded-red swimsuit, I leapt to my near-death.

A nanosecond after my limbs smacked the water, my head throbbed with pressure of chlorine water forced up my sinuses. I remember “rearranging” my swimsuit while I was still ten leagues under.

When I finally surfaced, I clung to the concrete ledge gasping, coughing, and crying.

Last summer I cried at the pool again. But this time it wasn’t me jumping off the high dive.

On that day, a little boy stood wide-eyed and dripping near the high diving board. He smiled as he watched the big kids twirl and flip, head first, feet first, laid out, and curled up. Almost as if they’d achieved flight!

His dad had come straight from work to the pool to watch a few minutes of swimming lessons. Scurrying between the board and his dad the boy seemed to be asking, Should I do it? Should I do something brave and scary?

His dad encouraged him. “Yeah! Try it.” The boy did the shivering shuffle over to the ladder, climbed up two steps, stopped, and went back to his dad. His dad knelt down and smiled, “You don’t have to,” he reassured him, “but if you want to try, I’m here to watch you.”

Finally, he climbed to the top of the high dive. With knees knocking from cold and fright, he bobbed at the end of the board.

Far below friends and lifeguards hollered advice: Just go! Plug your nose! Hurry up! It’s fun! I’ll buy you ice cream if you do it! It doesn’t hurt! (Whatever!)

His dad encouraged him. “You can do it.” But there was no bribery or threats about ice cream. He just waited.

Finally, bolstered by his father’s presence, he barely stepped off the edge and fell to the water. No flips. No twists. Just a brave little boy, smacking the water. He came up sputtering. Pulling at cockeyed goggles. Dog paddling to the ladder. Suppressing sobs.

His dad squatted by the ladder and lifted him out. Pressing his wet head into his father’s dry shirt, the boy let the sobs go.

And that was when I cried.

To me, it was a picture of God’s dealing with me.

How many times has God invited me to jump into fun, brave, and scary adventures: a college transfer, a move, foster care, a new job. The courageous people who’ve already jumped seem like they’re having so much fun! Or doing such meaningful work, or learning such important things.

With God’s kind permission I dip my toes in the water and do a little research. It’s cold, but not icy.

This location is good, and so is that one.

My work is meaningful, and I could also do that job.

Parenthood is important, and so is foster care.

Ministry is fruitful here, and also over there.

Everyone poolside is calling out advice, warning, or impatience. Hurry up and do it already! You’ll do great. That will be hard. Are you crazy?

So I pray. Lord? Should I, or shouldn’t I?

And my loving Father answers, “You can, but you don’t have to. If you do, I will be with you. If you don’t, I still love you. And I will be with you always. Either way, My grace is sufficient for you.”

Sometimes I’ve climbed back down the ladder and wondered what could have been. What would that mission trip, that move, or that job have been like?
On rare occasions, I’ve jumped and freestyled my way to the other side of the pool.

But most times I’ve come up sputtering wondering what in the world the Lord was thinking by letting me jump.

Then I remember that poolside father. The one who reminded me of my Father God.

He’s helping His scared and gasping child out of the water. Soggy and sobbing, I fall into his arms. It felt like failure. The move was rough. The job required more skill. Foster care was demanding.

But my tears tell me I did something hard. My water-slapped skin tells me I still have sensation. My draining sinuses tell me I was all the way in.

I drape my soggy self around Him, and I realize My Father loves me whether I jump or not.

Monday, June 1, 2015

7 Reasons I Can't be the Umpire

Umpires for Little League seem to be in short supply around here so a couple times per seasons the parents are required to ump. Although this sounds efficient, it’s probably not the best solution—at least in my case. 

When it was our turn to ump, I contacted a whole list of umpires potentially available to cover parental umpire duty. They were all unavailable. In circumstances when it's more work to get out of work, I can tend to get over confident. Pshhh, how hard can it be?

So out of curiosity I asked the boys, “What would you think if I umped your game?”

Zach and Spencer gave me a please-be-joking stare, but true to form Levi addressed it: “A girl umping baseball? That’s just weird.”

With no substitute umpire lined up, I started to get a little nervous. To assuage my umpire angst, I thought I'd test my skill by volunteering to run the scoreboard. I lasted for three batters.

Talk about an intense job! You have to watch and record every pitch, batter, run and out! And any of my bleacher buddies can testify that paying close attention at sporting events is not my strong suit.
Lucky for Levi, just hours before the game we found an available umpire, and I promised to never ump his game.

After my scoreboard trial, I'm pretty sure no one else wants me to either. Here’s why:
1. Steee-rike! It sounds so accusatory. I prefer “Whoops. Hey, it’s no biggie. You get two more chances!”
2. Foul ball! Was the hit disgusting and stinky? Why ya gotta be so rude? I’d rather whisper to the batter, “Pssst…good news, I don’t even think you can strike out on a foul ball!”
3. Batter’s out! Do you hate the batter? Why do you take that tone? How about, “Batter gets another try after these next 11 batters.” Baseball is a game of second and third chances.
4. No time for second guessing. Second-guessing is one of my spiritual gifts, and the split second decisions and finality of the umpire’s call don’t allow for it. I would prefer to watch a replay, phone a friend or poll the audience. I’d turn toward three sets of bleachers and shout “Hey parents and spectators! All in favor of calling a strike say ‘Aye.’ All opposed?” Admittedly, it would slow the momentum of the game. And no one wants baseball to go any s  l   o    w     e      r.
If a wild pitch can imprint our fence,
imagine the damage potential for human flesh!
5. Wild Pitches. If you’ve watched three minutes of little league (not the little guys on ESPN, but the regular kids), then you know there are MANY wild pitches. Last week a wild pitch flew straight toward my head. Even though there was a batter, catcher, umpire, and 15 foot back stop between the ball and me, I still squealed like a scared monkey. 
6. The bat. Scary!! The thought of it whistling by my ear 176 times per game makes me nauseated. At this level, the odds for taking a bat to the skull seem a bit too high and the helmet a bit too flimsy.
7. All the action at home plate. Swinging, catching, and sliding. My cat-like reflexes have used up all nine of their lives, and chances are slim that I could dodge the ball, the bat, or the cleats. 
So thank you, Little League, for the vote of confidence. I really wish I could (fingers crossed), but I think we’re all better off taking our cues from Levi. If you need anything else, I’ll be in the concession stand.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Post-Mother's Day Reflection

Super-mom forgot to supervise.

Did you ever imagine motherhood would be a ride like THIS?

I always wanted to be a mom. I’m just not always the mom I wanted to be.

Here’s a little confession: I actually remember telling someone I wanted to be a supermom. I know…

But somehow confessing, recounting, and laughing about it redeems the weirdness.

The supermom I wanted to be drove a minivan. She had long hair that didn’t tangle when she drove with the windows open. She sewed adorable dresses from 4-H patterns as her daughters quietly played nearby her purring Singer.

I imagined I’d be pretty crafty too. When Kurt and I were huffing and puffing our way through Lamaze classes the teacher asked the class, “What are you most looking forward to about having children?” My inner crafty-mom spoke up--out loud in class--and said, “I’m looking forward to helping my kids make play-dough.” That's what I was most looking forward to.

Wish I was kidding.

I imagined taking every opportunity to teach my children all the things I wished I’d learned early in life. Including Spanish.

And in the evenings I planned to sweetly lead my children in bedside prayers. I’d gracefully teach them about the Love of Jesus and use those “hard moments” as “teachable moments.” I’d harness the power of music to help them hide scriptures in their hearts.

And then I became a mom.

A locking steel tool box is a good fort.

I tried to be the mom I wanted to be, but things have rarely gone according to plan.

I wrecked the minivan three times. Yes, thrice. For the record, the Chevy Venture didn’t handle so well in snow. Its one redeeming feature was the unobstructed aisle down the middle that gave me a straight shot from the front seat to the back to catch puke in a bucket on a road trip.

My long hair tangled in the wind, so I cut it short, and so far none of my sons has asked for any homemade article of clothing.

These days when I’m feeling crafty, I toss my boys a hot glue gun and send them out to the gravel driveway with the instruction, “Find an extension cord. Have a good afternoon.”

I once bought a Barney video in Spanish, but eventually passed it along to a friend whose children actually spoke Spanish. I’m still holding onto hope our Spanish Barney days provided an advantage if they ever try to become fluent. 

I used “hard moments”--make that “hard seasons”--as opportunities to model all sorts of apologies. 

I did harness the power of music to imprint Scripture on their hearts thanks to Steve Green and his Hide ‘em in Your Heart CDs. But the verse they’ve quoted back to us most often is from the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want.” 

The weird thing is that when it comes to motherhood, childhood or life in general, the Rolling Stones got it mostly right: 

You can’t always get what you want,
but if you try sometimes,
you just might find,
you get what you need.
The writer of Proverbs, however, put it more succinctly: Many are the plans in a man’s [or woman’s] heart,
but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
(Prov. 19:21, NIV)
And that’s a solid truth worth hiding in our hearts. 

We may “plan the work and work the plan”—children quoting verses out the minivan windows in multiple languages in their homespun clothes--but it is the Lord's purposes that prevail. Thank Heaven!

I’m not the mom I always wanted to be, but with time, and by God’s grace and patience, I’m becoming the mom He planned. And so are you.

Happy (late) Mother’s Day, Mom’s. Let's embrace the bumpy ride.