Mother’s Day

Seven years ago, these three were pretty cute on Easter morning.

A few weeks ago, a local organization, Papillion Parent, asked me to write an essay to read at a fundraiser they were hosting. The instructions simply said, ” to write [a] hilarious or heartfelt 3-5 min essay about motherhood and read it out loud at the event.” Last Sunday night was the night. Since Andrew and the kids went to Hannah’s final band concert/awards ceremony, I asked a couple of friends to go with me. We enjoyed an evening outside at a local hangout listening to moms writing about their different perspectives on parenting. I loved spending time with them and meeting other writers and moms from the area.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s the essay I wrote:

A Normal Mess

Before the birth of my first child, I showed a coworker an ultrasound picture and told her I’d decided to quit my job to stay home with the baby. She asked if I’d be doing any freelance work. I answered that I’d need to see how I felt about freelancing when things went back to normal. She laughed and said, “Honey, things are never going back to normal.”

Fifteen years and three kids later, I’m not even sure what “normal” is!

What did I expect motherhood to be? I’m pretty sure that whatever I may have thought it was going to be, it hasn’t really been that. When my husband kissed me goodbye and drove away the first day he went back to work after our daughter’s birth, I sat in a silent house holding a tiny stranger and listened to the sound of nothing. I felt overwhelmed. Somehow I adjusted, but it wasn’t without a struggle.

My daughter was born on New Year’s Eve, and I spent that entire first winter in the house, seeing few people, and crying at 6:30 am because I hadn’t slept and knew I had 12 more hours to care for her before I could put her to bed again. I stood in the living room, holding her and peering out the picture window in hopes of seeing the mailman’s footprints in the snow because that would mean I could check the mail. Maybe there’d be news from the outside world for me!  A hunting magazine or Field and Stream or ANYTHING would do! Or maybe even I’d get to talk to the actual mailman. Imagine that!

My second child, a boy, really didn’t talk until he was about two years old. I worried constantly that I wasn’t giving him enough opportunities to talk or wasn’t talking to him enough to teach him properly. Of course, when he started talking, he spoke in complete sentences. The first words I remember hearing from him were “I want to pinch your neck”. Guess we know what he was thinking all those months. Maybe he wanted to perfect his language skills in his head before trying them out!

After the birth of my third baby, I was so tired that I fell asleep sitting up in bed while holding her. I woke to the sound of her crying and the sight of her lying on the hardwood floor next to my bed. I had dropped my sweet newborn!  After a trip to Children’s Hospital, wandering around in the dark forever trying to find it while she slept, I felt reassured that she was fine, but I’ve never truly been the same since.

My understanding of “normal” has changed many times over the last decade and a half. I hear people tell moms to cherish those baby and toddler days and hold onto every moment, but I’m going to tell you that I have mostly been relieved when one stage passed and we could speed on to the next.  Now that they’re older, though, I love seeing my kids become interesting, funny and articulate people. I look forward to seeing them as adults. I can hardly keep up with their almost-adult schedules, but I love watching them live them.

This year they were still sweet on Easter morning!

As a mom of teenagers who is just about in the final stages of parenting children, I will say that these years are without a doubt my favorite so far. I can look at my son when I hear something funny and know he heard it, too, and we can laugh together at things that really are humorous. Not some I’m-laughing-because-I-don’t-want-him-to-know-his-knock-knock-joke-wasn’t-really-funny kind of funny, but a truly hilarious kind of humor. I can listen to my oldest daughter talk about her boyfriend and say “Oh yeah! Can you believe guys do that?” and really relate. And I can watch my youngest girl primp in front of a mirror and offer some outdated and unsolicited fashion advice. These are humans! And they’re interesting and fun, and finally I can start to see that putting them in time out twenty times one afternoon when they were three was worth the effort.

When they were very little, I worried all the time that something I was doing would ruin them forever. I wondered if I’d measure up as a mom, if my parenting would somehow scar them for life.

I have a confession about how much I needed reassurance when my kids were babies. I haven’t told anyone this. I don’t even think my husband knows it. I sometimes used to call the pharmacist in the 24-hour-pharmacy near our house in the middle of the night. I didn’t do it to chat, although at times that might have been nice. I often didn’t really have a medical question. I called for reassurance that how I was treating my children’s illnesses or what I was doing for them was good enough.  I only called a few times, but when I called he actually did give me reassuring advice. I wondered if he had a wife and kids at home and knew the uncertainty that parents of babies sometimes experience.  Or maybe he was really bored because hey—24-hour pharmacy in the middle of the night.

Somehow in the midst of all of the pressure and uncertainty of parenting young children, I began to come to peace with the fact that I was indeed messing them up. I also learned, though, that we’re all messed up and all parents do make pretty big mistakes of one kind or another. Maybe the real key isn’t raising kids without scars but teaching them how to heal.

I’m still figuring that one out, and my kids are still young enough that I haven’t seen how they’ll turn out yet. I know this, though: I do not know what normal is anymore, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got!

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Beginning and Ending

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m getting ready to make dinner. It’s a special dinner, as it is every New Year’s Eve, since it’s Hannah’s birthday dinner. I told a friend today that our New Year’s Eve is always pretty boring, except for that one New Year’s Eve when we had a baby. That one was pretty exciting.

img_4211That particular New Year’s Eve, we were in the hospital early in the morning, and Hannah was born around 2:30 pm. We were supposed to go to a party with our small group from church, but instead we called them and told them we were in the hospital with our new baby. They all spent the night at their party and came to visit us in the hospital the next day. We were the first of the group to have a baby, so everyone passed her around, talking to her and cuddling her. Those are special memories.

The Beginning and the End

img_4212We had no idea how having a baby would change our lives. We had a cerebral knowledge that everything would be different, but we didn’t know how that change would feel on a day to day basis. I remember telling a coworker I’d decide whether to do some freelance work “when everything went back to normal” after the baby was born. She just laughed and said, “Nothing is ever going back to normal.” How right she was!

I had no idea how it would feel when absolutely no decision  would ever be made again without first considering how it would affect that little being and her siblings. Every single decision now gets filtered through the how-will-it-affect-the-kids filter.

The moment she settled her little self into my arms marked the beginning of the difficult process of thinking about someone else on a consistent basis. That moment ended my ability to live for myself while at the same time pretending to myself that I was living for others. This is something I never learned in Bible college, didn’t learn in ministry, had only begun to learn in marriage at that time. Each step in life has taken me deeper into the project of thinking about others, a huge endeavor to say the least, but the step into parenthood was like stepping off the high dive and jumping into the deep end of a pool of lava. Trial by fire!

img_4213I spent my whole childhood and young adulthood preparing for and doing ministry. I was 100% in when it came to my work. I loved living overseas, loved teaching, loved the kids I worked with, loved my friends there. I loved it all! Having a baby, we decided we’d be staying in the US for a long time. We decided I would stay home with the baby instead of trying to find a job that paid enough to cover childcare. I guess I thought motherhood would be my thing, but over time I still missed other things. I had trouble figuring out what my niche was in this new state of affairs. Besides childcare, did I have a purpose?

 

For a long time, I struggled with this. I felt alone a lot, and I resented my husband for getting to go to work and sit in a quiet office where he did things like read books and write lesson plans. Alone. With hours and hours at his disposal and an endless career to feed.

New Life

Gradually I got used to parenting, to thinking about children ahead of myself. Gradually I adjusted to being home with them, and eventually I did start working again. I earned a masters. I got jobs and now even have a career. Over time, I learned that being a mom can teach me more than I ever thought I could learn. I have learned a lot about sacrifice and trust. I’ve learned about patience and how my words and actions affect others. I’ve learned a lot.

I’d like to say I learned those things well. I’d like to say I loved it all. I’d like to say I didn’t struggle most of the time. I can’t say that, but I can say I’ve made it so far, and I can say that now that they’re almost all teenagers I enjoy parenting. That’s something, right? I love spending time with them and joking around. I like having intelligent conversations about truly important topics. I like sharing real insight and hearing theirs. I love seeing their interests and thinking about the people they’re becoming, wondering what they’ll do in their lives. I love those kids in ways that I could never have understood on that New Year’s Eve fifteen years ago.

Today my girl Hannah got in a car and drove us to the mall. Legally. And today she planned her whole birthday, including that trip to the mall with a friend. Today she made herself a birthday cake for fun with her boyfriend. I listened to them laughing in the kitchen and smiled at the fun they were having. Maybe we did ok after all!

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Old Year Resolved

new-years.jpgI don’t like New Year’s resolutions. I think the only one I really remember keeping was the one I made when I was fourteen. I grew up in an environment that gave me the impression that all music that wasn’t specifically Christian music was wrong (You can imagine how George Michael’s I Want Your Sex song went over). My parents didn’t really teach me this, but it was a general impression among my Christian peers and the church. So at fourteen, I guess I thought I listened to too much straight-from-the-devil music on the car radio and resolved to change the station to the local Christian station and not move it from there the whole year. I kept that one, but only technically. I sometimes cheated by asking another family member to change it for me.

That’s the problem with New Year’s resolutions. They’re rules, and nobody likes rules, even when they made them up for themselves. At some point, we want to break the rules and find ways around those, and we either make up some good excuses for dropping the rules or we find ways to get around them.

New Year’s Theme

About two years ago, we decided we’d have a family theme for the year. Not a resolution but more of a motto to focus on. At the end of the year, I asked the kids how we’d done and what they wanted to choose for their new theme. You know what they said? “Theme? What theme? I’ve never heard of this theme idea before.” They responded thus despite the fact that they heard me cry out “KINDNESS!!! Remember the kindness!” repeatedly throughout the year. My goodness, they should have been hearing that theme in their dreams!

New Year’s Celebration

Another thing I’ve noticed about New Year’s resolutions is that they tend to focus on the things we’re doing wrong. “We’re not kind enough in this family. This year, we’re going to be kind!” Well, who wants a constant reminder of how they’ve failed or how they are failing every day?

So this year, I will continue my practice of no resolutions and instead just look back at the year and celebrate things we did well. I spend enough time beating myself up over being too fat or too lazy or spending too much time on social media or whatever. I do actually do some things right. Why not focus on those and keep them up? How about focusing more on how to increase those things in my life because I’m already doing them. How hard can it be to do just a little more of them?

Old Year Resolved

So this year, I’m thinking back about some things my family and I did well. And since it’s my blog, I’m going to brag a bit on them:

  • Time Together  I admit it. I lament the amount of time we devoted to technology this year. However, when I look back, I see that we also spent a lot of time together. We watched movies. We found out we all liked watching Agents of Shield (some of us more than others) and watched plenty of that. We did crafts, sometimes together and sometimes just in the same room. We devoted at least twenty minutes just about every evening to a technology-free, interruption-free dinner, and we had fun while we sat around the table talking about how school was or who made what in Minecraft.

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    Family and friends being kind to each other. My mom was mobbed by the children. Even one of the small group kids got in on the fun, which made it even sweeter!

  • Time with Friends I think we’re great at having family friends. This hasn’t always been something we’ve done well. In fact, for a lot of years we struggled with this, but now that the kids are older we have a lot of fun with our small group and with some of the students, all of whom have become more like family than friends to us.
  • Kindness  I know my kids don’t remember the theme, but I think it made a difference anyway. They still bicker sometimes, but I’ve seen them do some very kind things for one another. Now that I’m looking for it more, I see it more. I see them hug each other good night sometimes. I’ve heard them say “I love you” to each other before bed. Unprovoked. Yesterday Hannah couldn’t open one of her Christmas gifts, and before I could do anything she turned to Alex, who opened it without comment. Andrew and I haven’t always been the best examples of kindness, but this year I think we’ve made a concentrated effort on being kinder to one another. Maybe that trickles down to them. Whatever the case, I’m happy with it!

So here’s to a year of doing more of the good stuff, enjoying one another more, noticing and appreciating what we’re doing well! Happy 2016!

 

The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

That Christmas Feeling

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I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has to be my favorite holiday. I think my love of the holiday began the day I was born, Thanksgiving 1971. We’ve had a special relationship ever since. Every once in a while, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving, so I always have that to look forward to. I hear some people complain when their birthday happens on a holiday, but I’ve always loved having a holiday birthday. Who else gets to have all their family members present for a big feast on their birthday? And they all bring gifts, of course, because they have memories of that Thanksgiving day I was born (and because they know they’ll feel like a loser if everyone else remembers and they don’t). So it’s special to me.

My grandparents. My grandma was being silly wearing that crazy hat.

My grandparents. My grandma was being silly wearing that crazy hat.

Growing up, my family always went to my grandma’s for a big Thanksgiving meal. She made it all: turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, pies. She was a great cook, too, so it was all good. When I got older and moved away, I celebrated with other people. In Ukraine, the missionaries got together and celebrated. Of course, it’s not a holiday for people in Ukraine, so life went on as normal for them. I remember my first Thanksgiving there. I had two other single women stay over for the night. We got up and went to the market to buy food for the pitch in we’d have later, and the market was full of people doing their regular thing. Nobody knew it was a holiday for us. That felt a little strange, but we still enjoyed going to the other missionaries’ apartment and eating the traditional stuff, even when the downstairs neighbors banged on their ceiling to tell us we were having too much loud fun together.

One year especially stands out to me. I was still in Ukraine and had travelled to Kharkov to celebrate Thanksgiving with the other Americans living there and to celebrate my birthday with my boyfriend, Andrew. That year, my birthday fell on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I woke up to find that Andrew had brought me a dozen roses and left them at the house where I was staying. Later we went to dinner at a restaurant with a huge aquarium that covered a whole wall of the restaurant. He was quiet and I wondered if he was mad (foreshadowing for the rest of our life LOL). We left and decided to walk instead of taking a taxi. It had begun to snow those huge snowflakes that fall softly and pile up quickly, and we walked through the downtown and through some parks, visiting all of the places we’d gone so many times while we were dating. It was all very romantic, a perfect birthday. We went to his apartment to watch a movie, and before he took me home he said, “Let’s read the Bible together.” He handed me a Bible and said to read where the bookmark was. I opened it, and there was a ring attached to the bookmark, encircling the word “Love” in I Corinthians 13! He asked me to marry him, and the rest is history. Needless to say, that celebration the next day was more exciting than any Thanksgiving ever!

This is a rare picture of my sister and her husband, my parents, Andrew's parents, and us all together. It was 2009, I think.

This is a rare picture of my sister and her husband, my parents, Andrew’s parents, and us all together. It was 2009, I think.

After we moved back and had kids of our own, I wanted them to like Thanksgiving, too. When we lived closer to family, we celebrated with them. Now that we’re far away, we invite friends over.

Our first Thanksgiving in Nebraska. We celebrated with the small group and their families. One of my favorite Thanksgivings!

Our first Thanksgiving in Nebraska. We celebrated with the small group and their families. One of my favorite Thanksgivings!

To me, Thanksgiving is Christmas without the hype and materialism. It’s a day to get together with people we love or to do something for people we want to love. It’s a day to remember the good things God has given us without the distraction of buying, wrapping, opening and putting together toys. It’s a day to eat and not feel guilty about diets. It’s a day to sleep in and have fun together.

So today on Thanksgiving, I wish you all the best day. Whether you’re alone or with family or loved ones, may you find meaning in the simplicity of remembering God’s blessings.

 

Andrew was present this year. He took the picture!

 

Witches and Salem and Halloween

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I wish I’d bought this t shirt!

If anyone has reason to remember Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts does. The approximate site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, which took place over 200 years ago in 1692-93, Salem has capitalized on its reputation as a center of the supernatural. People from all over the world converge on this small town during Haunted Happenings to dress up in costumes and parade through narrow streets lined with old buildings renovated to hold shops and restaurants.

In a way, I can’t believe I was there just a couple of weekends ago. Until a few weeks before, I had no idea the place even did this. Visiting the town famous for witchcraft wasn’t really on my bucket list. Halloween hasn’t ever been my favorite holiday. In fact, helping three kids plan and don costumes and carve pumpkins tires me out, and walking around in the cold and sometimes in the rain at night with three small children and without warm attire that might cover up their beloved costumes worries me.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate?

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Early on, though, Andrew and I decided to go ahead and celebrate the holiday, despite the fact that some Christians reject it because they fear its historic association with evil. We noticed when we moved to our first house that our neighbors, who almost never saw one another throughout the year, came out in droves at Halloween. They sat in chairs at the end of their driveways passing out candy to trick-or-treaters and visited one another, talking and laughing together. We decided that hiding in the house with the lights off would only alienate us from the people we were trying to build a sense of community with, so we dressed up the babies and took them out in the cold.

That being said, we never considered driving across the country to celebrate the day before. However, Andrew is working on a book about ministry to people who practice pagan religions like witchcraft, and he heard of an outreach that some believers have to the witch community in Salem. It takes place around Halloween, at the festival there. He wanted to see it firsthand, and since we’d be “close” for ICOM (if a ten hour drive counts as “close”!), he wanted to go. We left the kids at the grandparents’ in Virginia and made the longer-than-we-thought drive through New England.

Fearing the Unknown

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The lines for these touristy things were long. Everybody wants to take a ghost tour on Halloween.

Even before we went to Salem, when we told people we were planning on going, we got a variety of reactions from our Christian friends. I think there’s a pervasive idea that inherent evil surrounds Halloween in general and the practice of witchcraft or any kind of pagan religion in particular. Many Christians think that believers should stay away from pagan religions or risk being somehow influenced by evil in ways that they don’t realize until it’s “too late.” It’s as if people think that just because they interact with someone who practices witchcraft or another pagan religion they will be possessed, haunted or pursued by demons.

The more I’ve learned about different religious practices, the less I fear them. There are a couple of reasons going to a place like Salem doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel that it’s pretty important.

1) People confuse today’s witchcraft practices with what is actually superstition. They read about the Salem Witch Trials and to some extent believe the things the community in Salem believed about the women accused of witchcraft—that they had a special communion with the devil, that they held evil power over the people in the community. If we study the Salem incidents, we find that those were superstitious, bored people participating in mass hysteria. Their belief that the women accused of witchcraft had some communication with the devil or demons actually stemmed more from superstitious beliefs about evil than biblical teaching about it.

2) Even if I did think there was inherent evil in today’s practice of witchcraft, I believe the Bible. Throughout it I see that God has more power than any evil spirits. The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus and his disciples taking control of evil spirits, and they don’t seem intimidated in the least by them.

3) I’m not afraid of other religions somehow corrupting my faith. I don’t mind hosting a Muslim for dinner or talking to Hindus. Witchcraft is another religion, and I don’t feel more threatened by that than other world religions. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to change that because I’m with a person who doesn’t believe the same as I do.

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In front of a shop full of witchy stuff. If you look very closely, you can see Andrew in his blue hoodie inside the shop talking to the owner, a self-described shaman who responded enthusiastically to Andrew’s request for information about his beliefs.

4) Signs and symbols and the interpretation of natural events are things Christians see as part of Witchcraft. They shy away with fear that learning what they mean to other people will somehow give them power in their own lives. However, those things only mean what we let them mean to us. For example, when we lived in Ukraine people told me over and over not to sit on concrete. They said the cool concrete would give me a “cold” that I didn’t even know I had until years later when I couldn’t conceive a child. Then I’d know I probably had sat on concrete once and gotten that mysterious cold in my reproductive organs and, well, I had to pay the consequences. I told them if that’s the case I’m surprised the US is populated at all since everyone sits on the concrete! My friend, a highly educated young woman, told me once, “I know it’s not true, that it’s just an old wives’ tale, but I still just can’t do it. It’s still in the back of my head.” The old fiction meant something to her because she gave that meaning to it. She gave it power over her thinking and her actions.

5) If believers don’t reach out to people of other faiths, even witches, who will? This should probably be #1 in the list. Are we just waiting for them to come to us for some reason. Put a church on the corner and surely witches will want to go there? I don’t see that happening.

What We Saw

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people.

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people. In fact, this picture doesn’t show well how big the crowds were.

When we finally found a parking space in the small town of Salem, which was flooded with more people than it was ever meant to hold, and made our way to the middle of the town, we saw a huge crowd of people, many dressed in anything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein and lighted jellyfish. Music and laughter filled the air. People stopped for selfies with scary zombies and ducked into souvenir shops full of witch-themed memorabilia. Tourists lined up to take tours of the important historical spots in town and museums dedicated to the history of the area and the witch trials.

Andrew was hunting the pastor he’d corresponded with who leads an outreach to witches during the festival. We didn’t know what to expect and only had a basic idea of what they do, but he wanted to see their outreach firsthand. We never managed to meet up with that pastor, but we did meet people working with him. One of them had a tent with signs advertising free spiritual readings, free hugs and dream interpretation. This ministry rents space around a small square in the heart of the festival. A great band singing pop music played at one end, and people sat around the square eating or talking.

Andrew started a conversation with one guy standing in front of the tent. He led us into the tent to a woman who sat in the corner. Andrew introduced himself and said he was doing research on outreach to the Wiccan community. The woman, Kelly, was friendly and open. She offered to interpret a dream for him. Now this is where I know I’m losing you because in our branch of the Church there’s not a lot of dream interpreting going on. Most people I know don’t put much stock in it or in God communicating with us through dreams. Hang in here with me, though, and give it a chance!

A Dream’s Meaning

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The tent we visited.

What Kelly did was no different from what I’d do if someone came to me for advice or asked me why I thought they dreamed something. While I don’t know if I really believe God usually talks to me through dreams, I believe that our dreams can tell us something about ourselves and can lead us to seek God in certain areas of our lives. So it makes sense that someone intuitive who listens to God and seeks him in her own life could ask the right questions to help a person understand why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming.

Kelly did just that. She asked Andrew to describe a dream. She told him what she thought it meant. She asked how God could use his dreams to show him areas he wanted Andrew to turn over to him.

That’s pretty straightforward, I think, but she did something else with it that neither Andrew nor I had thought about. She said that sometimes the things we worry about, when turned over to God, become strengths to us. The things he worries about and sometimes dreams about could become areas where God could use him more powerfully. That makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Since Andrew told her about the research he’s doing, he asked some questions about her work. She told us a little about the outreach she’s involved with, how it aims to connect with people at the festival by meeting them on their own turf and communicating in ways they could connect with. Obviously, dream interpretation appeals to the people there. Her kind demeanor, her care for the people who come into her tent attract people who are in need of that acceptance. She spoke to me as well, and I felt so drawn to her that I could completely see how effective she is in her ministry. I left that tent feeling positive and with a renewed sense that people are doing some great things for Jesus in the world.

It is possible to minister to people very different from us. I think God prepares each of us through our life experiences, our personalities, our giftedness and even our family histories to do what it takes to reach out and share Jesus with those who need him. We don’t need to fear contamination by the world but can step boldly forward into the work set in front of us!

Religious Freedom and Jesus

picA few months ago, I had a conversation about posting controversial conservative viewpoints on Facebook. In the conversation, the other person said that she felt compelled to stand up for her beliefs and her rights as a Christian on Facebook and in other public forums. She said that this was her duty as a Christian. Since then, my home state of Indiana has passed the infamous religious freedom law that has brought them to the forefront of the nation’s attention and has flooded my Facebook feed with all sorts of opinionated talk.

Growing up in the Bible Belt in a conservative home, I was faced with this stand-up-for-your-rights point of view quite a bit. I saw a lot of loving, kind people reject anyone different. I saw people hide their real beliefs because they were different from what other Christians believed and they didn’t want to rock the boat. I saw my friends pushed away from Christianity because of differing points of view. I am convinced that church people did this out of a sense of conviction that good Christians did not support anything sinful and out of a lack of understanding of how to accept people who are different while allowing those differences to exist. People feel that in order to love someone they need to reject the things about them that they think are bad and this will somehow show them the error of their ways and turn them to the path toward godly behavior.

In the Gospels I read about Jesus’ ministry and how he did not stand up for his rights at all. In fact, he didn’t stand up for his rights so much that he let people murder him. I think there’s one major passage in the Bible where he does talk about Christians standing up for their rights, and that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that his followers should give up their natural rights in order to love other people. You want revenge? You have a human right to revenge. However, as a Christian, give up that right and love your enemy instead. That over-the-top love is what turns people toward Jesus and not away from him.

In the controversy over religious freedom laws, it seems that there are actually two separate things happening. There is a desire for freedom as Americans. As an American, I want my freedom to worship, my freedom to believe whatever I want to believe, and my freedom to tell the world about that belief. That is my right as an American, as long as I’m not putting someone else’s life in danger.

However, I feel the tension between demanding those rights and the second idea–showing the love of Christ. I must be careful not to mix my freedom as an American with my faith. I may have a right to turn someone away based on my religious beliefs, but is rejecting them the best way to show the love of Christ to them? What if I decided that I would pay particular attention to the gay community and provide fantastic service to them in an effort to show love to a group of people who has been rejected repeatedly by those who follow Christ? I’m not saying anything at all about whether I agree with them, but as human beings I care about them.

I see the focus in this religious freedom issue shifting away from Jesus and onto our rights. From the viewpoint of the non-Christian segment of America, we Christians spend more energy advocating for our right to refuse service than we do on loving other people the way Jesus did. We get caught up thinking that part of our duty as Christians is to stand up for God, as if our willingness to be outspoken for our faith is a test of our spiritual maturity. In reality, our faith is tested by our willingness to love like Jesus did. The New Testament says “they will know you are Christians by your love,” not by your right to religious freedom.

So in this case where Christians are faced with serving people who are different from rainbow cakethem and live in ways they think are wrong, maybe the way to deal with those situations according to Jesus’ teachings is to make sure they have the best service possible. If you’re a wedding photographer and a gay couple asks for your business, make sure you give them the best photos ever. If you’re a baker, make the most beautiful cake. People who don’t and who reject the business of the gay community lose the rather rare opportunity to show extravagant Christlike love to a group of people who has only been repeatedly hurt by the Christians they know. This may mean a loss of support from your Christian friends, but, hey, those are people who have experienced God’s love before. If we care about reaching those who do not know Christ, maybe it’s time to stop focusing so much on our rights as American citizens and start focusing on loving the ones Jesus loves.

How an Introvert Survives a Party

My name is Laura, and I’m an introvert.

You may think because I talk a lot that I’m an extrovert, but that just means I’m an introvert in recovery. Or something. I admit that despite my introvert qualities I like being with people. I search them out and tell them stories, and some people might just run the other way when they see me coming, especially after I drink a cup of coffee because caffeine makes me extra talkative.

I think, though, that I like being with people on my own terms. I like them in small groups. I like them when I approach them. I like them when I’m ready for them. I like them when I know them. I like them when they like me.

This weekend, I found myself in a situation that put me waaay outside of my introvert bubble. My youngest daughter, probably not an introvert herself and probably the only extrovert in our family, got invited to a Christmas open house at her friend’s grandma’s house. I remembered that this friend of hers invited her last year, too, and she could not go for some forgotten reason. This time I told her she could go before I actually inspected the invitation closely. Her friend is moving far away soon, and she is pretty sad about that, so how could I tell her no?

After I read the invite Saturday afternoon, I remembered why I told her she couldn’t go last year. It said “All children under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult who stays with them.”  What?! When I saw that, I knew it must be me who went. While I am an introvert on the introvert/extrovert chart, I’m also much closer to extroversion than my husband, who falls solidly in the very introverted category. In our family, that means that if there’s a social gathering that requires only one of us to go, I’m probably the one, and I’m OK with that most of the time.

This time I headed to the house with not a little bit of trepidation. Apparently this family holds a huge Christmas party every year, and all of the family members invite friends. That includes Grandma and Grandpa, who actually organize the thing, Mom and Dad, and all four kids, so there are a lot of people there. We arrived at the house. I walked in, and my daughter disappeared upstairs with her friend. I looked around. I knew no one. I mean not one person looked even remotely familiar. An older and very friendly lady hugged me and said how happy she was that I could come, and I had no idea who she was or who she thought I was for that matter!

I went straight to the bathroom and stayed there while I adjusted to the idea that I was about to be surrounded by strangers and expected to party without knowing anyone, but a person can only stay in the bathroom for so long when the house is chock full of people. I left the bathroom and tried to look nonchalant while furtively scanning the rooms for someone who looked familiar and might be the boy’s mom, whom I’d only met once or so. I feared that when I saw her she would remember me and I wouldn’t remember her, and how embarrassing would that be?

In the process, I ended up finding another woman with a face that registered the full range of confusion, alarm and false cheer that mine probably did. I made my way toward her, and, careful not to scare her off, I introduced myself. We chatted for a moment, and I could tell she was holding onto me as much as I was holding onto her, so we had each other. After a while of hiding in a corner, talking to her, and observing the party together with her, I noticed that, while some of the men did have on suits, my jeans fit in with many of the other people. I noticed that the woman/lifesaver I was talking to and I weren’t the only ones who did not know anyone. I also noticed that quite a few people had gravitated toward the front room, were singing 60’s and 70’s songs and appeared to be antique hippies, and for some reason that disarmed me a little. I guess I figured if the hippies were having fun, I could too. In addition to that, I noticed that there was one group who felt much more intimidated by the crowd and even found their lives in danger in such a house full of people. The homeowners had these tiny chihuahuas who scurried around, nervously shivering in their little Christmas coats, dodging people’s feet. I tell you, if all of them are still alive today, I’m surprised, since I was sure all evening that they would either be smashed by the crowd, fallen on by an unsteady toddler, or just die of sheer terror.

Since I know a lot of introverts, I bet a bunch of the people reading this understand completely where I’m coming from. Here are some tips for introverts who want to enjoy the party scene:

  1. Take something to distract yourself. If you’re messing with your phone, you’ve got a reason to be solitary. If you’re trapped by someone you prefer not to be trapped by, you’ve got an out. You can make the excuse that someone is texting/calling you, and you don’t even have to worry that the other person will notice that the phone didn’t ring or vibrate since it’s so ridiculously loud in that room.
  2. Take a baby or a toddler with you. I can’t believe that I’m saying this after my angst at having had to leave many a social gathering because one or more of my children had a meltdown or a nap or a blowout, but if you really don’t want to be there or don’t want to socialize, a tiny human will give you a reason not to interact with adults. Plus they will inevitably cry, and you will leave. For probably the first time ever, I envied the woman chasing a toddler around the house at that party.
  3. Find someone else uncomfortable and team up. Misery loves company, and finding someone who doesn’t know anyone or feels left out can help.
  4. Eat. Or drink. Find the food and eat it. This one is self-explanatory.
  5. Help the hostess. Hey, I wish I had thought of this Saturday! If you’re helping, you forget that you’re a dork without a friend in the world and stop feeling like you’re just bouncing around helplessly.
  6. Play with (or in this case protect) the dog. This will bring you around other people who also like dogs and then you’ll have allies.
  7. Watch tv. I was about to get into football big time because there was a tv playing some game. I mean, I think it was football. There were guys and a ball on a field.
  8. Snoop around. Hey, why not? They’re all partying in the kitchen and dining room. It’s the perfect time to look around the rest of their house. (I promise I did not do this–except the bathroom. Remember, I spent quite a bit of time in there at first. Interestingly enough, there was a vacuum cleaner in the bathtub!)
  9. Just stand there. How bad can it be just to stand there and watch everyone? If you smile a little, you look pleasant enough. I bet you can find out lots of stuff just by watching and listening to the people around you.
  10. Make it a game to talk to as many people as possible. Wait. Games are supposed to be fun, and that doesn’t sound fun whatsoever. Forget that one!

I survived Saturday night and the work party on the previous night and the work friend’s open house on the next night, and guess what! I actually enjoyed all of the parties. I am also happy that I got most of the Christmas partying done in just one weekend. If you’re an introvert faced with a slew of Christmas parties, buckle on your elf shoes and dive in. But remember my ten suggestions in case you feel overwhelmed at the open house!

Holidailies

Well, I just did it. I signed up to participate in Holidailies. I have heard rumors of it from other bloggers in the past, but I don’t really know a lot about it. All I know is that it involves a commitment to blog regularly in the month of December, and there’s a website where participants communicate with one another (http://www.holidailies.org/). Oh, and I know it started six days ago and I already missed the first week of it.

However, since I spent the month of November writing a novel (Don’t ask right now! I’m just glad it’s over!) and I did not blog much during that time, I thought maybe committing to update on a more frequent basis would be good for me. Maybe it will get me more into the swing of updating my blog regularly. The added bonus: holidailies.org posts writing prompts, so if I find myself out of ideas, I can look there for inspiration.

So here we go. I commit to writing at least once a week this month. That’s not exhausting. It’s not even all that much. Once a week is what I committed to myself when I started, so December can be a month to get back on track. I think I can even manage once a week during the holidays. After all, there’ll be more to write about then with all of the festivities going on.

That being said, I think I’ll stop with this little announcement. Sorry if you came here hoping for greatness. It’s late, and I’m ready to give up the ghost for the day. Now I’m committed. Now I have to write, right?