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!

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Forgiveness Changes Everything

Who could ever stay mad at this sweetie?

The other day, my daughter stayed up too late. This may seem like a harmless event, but in her nine-year-old life, staying up too late produces a sentimental reaction to just about everything. After 9:30, she cries. She cries for the friends she left behind when we moved, she cries for the house we moved out of, she cries for pets that have died. On the particular night in question, she came to me with a sad face and cuddled on my lap and told me she was crying because of the mean things she had said to me in the past.

Right then, not one mean thing she had ever said came to mind. I said, “Honey, I can’t even remember those things anymore. I know you remember them, but I’m your mommy, I love you and I don’t even care what you said to me before.”

At that moment, a light came on in my head. This must surely be how God feels when we come to him with old sins, long forgiven, long forgotten. He loves us. He wants us for his children. He doesn’t even try to remember anything we did so long ago. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, those things are gone.

There’s a story I’ve been thinking about that illustrates this point. Jesus ate dinner with a lot of people, and in this story he was eating with the religious leaders of the time. They lived with the assumption that their religious observances and practices would pave their way into God’s good graces. In this particular story, they gathered for dinner. At some point in the party a woman who was known for her sinful life, a prostitute probably, came into the house where they were eating, searching for Jesus.

She saw him and fell at his feet kissing and annointing them with expensive perfume, wiping her tears from his feet with her own hair. The religious leaders in the room expressed their concern. “Don’t you know who that is, Jesus?!” No doubt they nudged each other, eyebrows raised. What did Jesus say? He turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” She came to him for forgiveness, and she received it.

An Expensive Sacrifice in An Unforgiven State

This woman expressed her love for Jesus in an extravagant way. She poured out something expensive. This wasn’t a five dollar Wal Mart special. Perfume cost a lot in Jesus’ day. Now, think for a moment about where she got the money for that perfume. She purchased the perfume with money she got from selling herself. She purchased it with her morality, her dignity, her very soul. She brought that to Jesus, and she sacrificed what she had to honor him.

Not only did she come to him with something expensive, but the woman came to Jesus in her unforgiven state. She came with her sins. She came carrying the jar of perfume that represented her sinful life. Had she never lived that life, she would have had nothing to present to him. She had a past, she had sin, and she gave it to him. Her act of turning that sin over to him, pouring it out on him, that was her sacrifice to him.

There’s a tension in Christianity. It comes from the pull between the freedom that comes from grace and the bondage that comes from sin. It sometimes manifests itself in this difficulty some Christians have in forgiving people who have wronged them, accepting people who live different lives from them, loving people who have made mistakes. I know it because I feel it. I have that tension in my own life. It’s the tension that makes me ask myself how I should treat people I know who mess up royally. How should I treat people who continue to live in their mistakes, who don’t seem to want to change? When I love someone, shouldn’t I want to point out their shortcomings so that they can change those and be somehow worthy of God’s love?

Forgiveness Brings Change

In thinking about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I don’t remember any times that he required a person to change before he or she came to him. I don’t remembering Jesus himself ever turning someone away because they weren’t good enough, sinless enough, perfect enough to come to him. They changed because they were with him, not because they heard about him or because someone told them to clean up their act before they made it to him.

Forgiveness breeds something in the forgiven. Maybe it’s not just realizing that we’re sinful that changes us, but maybe the actual forgiveness itself changes us.

I worry about us as believers sometimes. I worry about how we draw lines and create boxes and how we like to say, “This far is ok, but past that and we’re over the line.” I worry that we read the Sermon on the Mount, and instead of noticing that Jesus says that we can’t possibly be good enough and we therefore need his grace, we use his teachings to draw the lines around what we have decided determines sinful behavior and what determines being in God’s good graces even darker than they were before. We say, for example, “Aha! Before we thought murder was wrong. Well, guess what! Now even anger is wrong.” When we do that, we feel justified in ostracizing people who we think have crossed the line, have stepped outside the box. We choose the sins we don’t like and we focus on them, but we ignore the fact that our sins are all destructive and none of us escapes those sins on our own.

What Are We For?

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Tobias, Nebraksa

Even as I write this, I notice something. I notice my well-defined ability to judge people for being judgmental. I pull the Pharisees down from their high horses only to jump right up there in the saddles so I can look down at them from my “perfection.” In our culture today, it’s popular to say everyone has a right to live how they want. It’s hip to be against people who are against everyone different from them. I scroll down my Facebook feed and see people posting about the right to bear arms and restricting immigration, tossing out Muslims and putting (evangelical Christian) prayer back in school, and I feel myself climbing right up on the high horse next to the people who posted those, ready to push them down for their conservative views that go against the current cultural views that say we should love and accept everyone.

Then I realize something. I realize that, just like everyone else, I define myself as what I’m against instead of what I’m for. I judge the judgmental. In championing acceptance and love for those who used to be on the margins of society, I couch my judgmentalism in terms of acceptance, thus enabling myself to continue being judmental but in a politically correct manner that is focused on judging those more conservative than I am.

Set Free for Freedom’s Sake

Our culture of acceptance and tolerance isn’t a bad thing. I like it. I think there are some parts of it that resonate with the Gospel. I’m glad that the new generation of Christians seems to be rising up to love the ones previous generations saw as unlovable. Here’s my fear, though. I hear many Christians advocating love for the sinner and yet scorning other Christians whose opinions about social issues or understanding of theology differ from theirs in the same way that the previous generations scorned the non-believers.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” A Bible college professor once told me that the translation doesn’t quite convey the intensity of the original meaning. It actually means something more like, “Christ set you free. Now start living like you’re free!” We don’t have to set up boxes and draw lines. We don’t have to self-righteously proclaim to the world which groups we’re against. We can love people exactly how they are: sinful and messy, law-bound or lawless. If I’m quick to say that we should love gay people, for example, but turn my back on my friends who see things in a legalistic, conservative Christian way, maybe I’m still missing the point.

A big, fancy church in Honolulu.

Honolulu, Hawaii

What are my motives? Am I zealous for truth and righteousness and freeing the oppressed or am I zealous for maintaining a particular self-image that revolves around condemning those who are different from me? Do I do what I do for God or to promote an image of myself as a particular type of Christian?

This comes back around to the story of the woman with the perfume. These days we like to focus on the woman and on how she was forgiven, and that is very important. However, we also need to remember that Jesus loved and forgave the Pharisees in his midst as well. Those who believed in him–those were also forgiven and accepted, even if they hadn’t quite grasped the idea of freedom from the Law. Maybe even if they never did.

A Calling to Sacrifice

Last week I sat in a meeting where an evangelism professor from the Christian college where I work called on a student to give an impromptu testimony in front of a group of incoming freshmen. I initially felt sorry for the poor girl put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, but I then thought what if he calls on someone else after her? I began planning what my testimony would be, in case he called on me. By the time she finished her speech, I had just two thoughts ready: calling and sacrifice.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

When I was the age of those hopeful students, I had all kinds of plans. I thought I would do what I had planned to do since I was nine years old: be a missionary. I was sure of this. I knew God wanted me to go, and I wanted to go. I had figured out God’s plan for my life, and I would do what he wanted, and it would work out.

Fast forward a few years, and I was living the dream I thought God had for me, teaching missionary kids in Ukraine.The ministry fit the exact combination of skills, education, and interests I had, and I loved almost every minute of it. I remember feeling so settled and content, sure that God had put me exactly where he wanted me. Four years into it, I even married another missionary who shared my passion for cross-cultural work.

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I often heard Americans say to me, “I don’t know how you can live there. I couldn’t do it.” I always responded, “I couldn’t not do it.” I felt compelled to go, compelled to do this hard thing for God. It was at the very core of who I thought I was. But along the way things changed. I found out that God doesn’t leave us in those comfortable places forever. It seems that sometimes he requires some things we don’t really understand.

Our last year in Ukraine was complicated, and it eventually became evident to both my husband and me that we needed to move back to the U.S. He got a great opportunity to teach at a Christian college, something he had always dreamed of, and we packed up and moved. Before I knew it, I lived in a house in the suburbs, doing nothing I had planned to do. We had children, a mortgage, some pets, and I worked hard not to think about how my dreams of being a missionary lay broken somewhere in a dark room in the back of my mind.

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute!

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute in this photo!

I wish I could say that being a mom became my unexpectedly fulfilling calling. In all practical ways it did, of course, because I had three children to care for. They were there, they were mine, so I apparently was called to mother them. However, I haven’t ever really had the passionate, I-love-motherhood thing that some moms have going on. I love my children; I just always wondered if maybe I had missed something else I was supposed to do. I thought if I were a better woman, a better wife, a better mom, I could have handled motherhood and some sort of vibrant ministry, and the fact that I did nothing but change diapers for the better part of a decade proved that I couldn’t handle more. I pushed that thought into that dark room in the back of my mind as well.

I had a lot of jobs over the years. I took most of them only because they fit conveniently into our lifestyle and did not require us to get a babysitter. I discovered that I liked some of the jobs, though. In fact, I really liked them. Still I could never quite reconcile the Bible college, church camp, calling-from-God idea with those jobs. Working in a store in the mall, for example, didn’t require a calling. If God called all of us to something, did he call me to work in a store?  Sometimes I felt weird for loving these jobs as much as I did. I mean, selling stuff? Why was that important in the big scheme of things? I felt like I had to justify my enjoyment of my work. And how had I become one of those people who just works a dead end job and tries to find joy in the little things in life while ignoring the big, world-changing things I heard so much about in Bible college?

I still feel that way sometimes, even though I work in a Christian organization and can placate myself by saying that my work contributes to the school’s mission of creating the next generation of church leaders. I never saw myself in this type of job, although I do really love it.

It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve begun unpacking some of the junk I pushed in that dark back room of my mind and maybe I’ve started understanding some of it.

Maybe God’s calling is less about what we do and more about who we are. This relieves the pressure to somehow find God’s perfect will. In American culture, we are all indoctrinated to believe that we are great people, capable of doing great things, and therefore should search diligently for those great things we should do. For American Christians, this gets translated into being told we are great because God made us great and that he has planned great things for us. We spend our lives searching for a specific calling from God, and if we don’t find that we start to feel frustrated and disillusioned in our run-of-the-mill lives. Sometimes we push our way into something that we think is great in an attempt to prove our worth to God and other Christians. Sometimes we fall into the habit of expecting God to choose us to rise above the crowd and become superhero Christians: missionaries, preachers, worship leaders, charismatic speakers with huge followings.

In reality, we don’t find much in the Bible about us each having a great big calling, but we do see that God clearly tells us throughout the Scriptures that our calling is to love him. Love him and live with him and show him to those around us by the way that we love them. A few years into my job in the mall, I realized that I came into contact with more non-believers in a day there than I had in months of ministry. I had the opportunity to live out my faith every day in that menial job that I initially took just because I could work when my husband was home to care for the kids.

Maybe I needed to sacrifice what I once thought God wanted from me. I thought God wanted me to be a missionary. It appears that he doesn’t have that in the plans for me at this point. Thinking about my testimony distilled my thoughts into those two ideas: calling and sacrifice. Do I stubbornly sit myself in a corner and refuse to do anything because it’s not what I originally thought I’d be doing? (I admit, I have done that…) Or do I stand up and do what’s at hand and give it to God with the confidence that he will use it? Maybe my true calling actually involves sacrificing the calling I once thought I had. I find over and over that I must sacrifice the dreams I thought God had for me or the dreams I had for myself and enjoy what God is really doing around me.

superman-clipart-9i4E9jeiEMaybe God knew when I chose the superhero path that part of my motivation involved showing off the big red S on my shirt. Maybe the rest of my life’s challenge and calling is to live a regular life, a quiet life, not caring if anyone remembers my name at all when I’m gone.

I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on these student’s ideas of what God has planned. They’re young and energetic and idealistic, and maybe he really is planning on using them in great ways. I know a lot of professors and college staff rooting for them along the way. But maybe he’s got more menial jobs in store. Jobs where they can sacrifice the flashy, superheroes-of-the-faith dreams they have and live a day-to-day life of being his in a world that doesn’t know him.

Maybe that’s the calling.

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.

Family Away From Family

“God sets the lonely in families.” (Psalms 68:6)us

I left home at eighteen when I moved to Tennessee for college. After graduation, I headed straight to Ukraine to teach for five years, and after that, Cincinnati. Now we’re living in Nebraska, so I’m nowhere close to my home state of Indiana. I can’t say I’ve actually missed it much. Not that Indiana’s not a great place because I liked it fine enough. I’ve just noticed a phenomenon that occurs in each place where I live. Even though we left behind our families long ago, we have seen met people who became like family to us in every location.

In Matthew 19:29 Jesus says, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sister or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much…” This has definitely proven true for us, a fact that I see more and more in our relatively new home state of Nebraska.

The main campus of our church, Calvary Christian Church

The main campus of our church, Calvary Christian Church

When we moved here, we only knew a few people here, and we knew them just barely. We began attending a huge church. We loved the music and the professional feel of the worship services, and we loved the preaching as well. However, it quickly became clear how difficult it could be to make friends in a church of 1,700. We hardly saw the same people twice in a row, and those we did see already had lives and friends and plenty of stuff going on to keep them from taking on newcomers. That’s not to say they weren’t welcoming. It was actually at one of the meetings for new people that the church set up that we met our new “family.”

Andrew went to the meeting because I stayed home with the kids. He came home uncharacteristically excited about some new people he met (he’s an introvert–see the previous post about how he feels at parties and the like!). He invited them to our house, and somehow we decided to start a new small group together. I’m not sure how this all happened because we have traditionally balked some at such endeavors, us being introverts and needing our space and all, but the timing was right for everyone. They had just moved to this area and needed friends as well. We all have the unique perspective of outsiders looking at the culture of the region from a newcomer’s viewpoint, so we could all talk freely about our experiences here without worrying about stepping on a native’s feet.

Since that day, we have done so much fun stuff together. I mean, seriously, a lot of stuff. Stuff people sometimes do with family. Here are some pictures of us all together, doing fun stuff:

Hayride at the pumpkin patch

Hayride at the pumpkin patch

 

And then we had a pumpkin carving party on our back porch.

And then we had a pumpkin carving party on our back porch.

 

 

It was fun!

It was fun!

We all dressed up for Halloween.

We all dressed up for Halloween.

We've celebrated quite a few birthdays together...

We’ve celebrated quite a few birthdays together…

 

Two Thanksgivings and Christmases

Two Thanksgivings and Christmases, some even with their extended families.

 

 

 

 

We've eaten a LOT of food together.

We’ve eaten a LOT of food together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We got to spend a fantastic day at the air show with up front "seats" since we have connections in the Air Force!

We got to spend a fantastic day at the air show with up front “seats” since we have connections in the Air Force! (Tip: Never wear jeans to the air show in the middle of a Nebraska summer, and if you do, never fall asleep on a blanket while watching it. A lot of so-called “friends” will take your picture and text it to you and to each other!)

The value of our new family away from family became clearer this Christmas break. Most of the group has been out of town because the guys are all in the Air Force and have been deployed. Their wives have been scattered all over visiting family while they’re gone, so we were left with just our family and two of the guys who couldn’t get enough time off to travel. We invited them over to spend the night on Christmas eve. They got up with us and watched the kids open presents, ate breakfast, and lounged around the house with us all day, just like part of the family. And guess what! It was totally comfortable and fun! I sometimes feel sorry for my kids not growing up around aunts and uncles and cousins, but I see in this family away from family that God has provided more aunts and uncles for them, and he even gave them a cute little cousin!

Christmas morning, 2014

Christmas morning, 2014

I’ve learned a lot from this group:

  1. Weird things happen when you’re in your twenties. Like flat tires, leaving curling irons on when you go to work, and getting locked out of your house, sometimes all in the same week. I remember these kind of things happening to me and having to deal with them on a regular basis, and now I see them happening to my small group friends.
  2. When we leave things behind, we gain new things. Like aunts and uncles for our kids. It’s hard to say good-bye, but when we said good-bye to our last home and the friends there, we opened the door to a new group of friends who have become so important to us.
  3. Military families face a lot of special issues. They sacrifice a lot, and it’s not just the person in the military who sacrifices. Their wives Hannah and meand children give up just as much, if not more in some ways.
  4. In being friends with a group of younger adults, we get the unique experience of doing a trial run for when our own children are their age. We can see the relationships with in laws from the safely removed distance of not being involved and learn things to do and not to do.
  5. I’m not as young as I used to be. When we first met them, I thought of us as all being the same age, and then one of their parents thanked us for being such good examples and being a home away from home for their children. Then the oldest one in the group told us that his mother is the same age as me, and I almost died of shock!

    She is adorable in every picture!

    She is adorable in every picture!

  6. Our children have grown up friends who can relate to them in a different way than we do and can provide guidance from different perspectives. In fact, the members of our small group are closer in age to our children than they are to us. I cannot even begin to tell how valuable this is to me as a parent. These people are such great examples to our children, too. How did we get so blessed with such a good group of mentors to our children?!

So here’s to leaving home and stepping away, to letting God provide the relationships we need. Here’s to taking God at his word and trusting that he will give us the family we need when we need it!

The Best Way to Travel with Kids

 

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

Happy faces at the beginning of the trip.

I’ve been a mom for almost thirteen years. All of that time, we’ve lived far away from family. That means that most “vacations” have been trips to the grandparents’ houses and have involved driving long distances with very small and very squirrely people. We’ve tried all kinds of methods to get from point A to point B without a murder/suicide pact, but I discovered the best one yet last week: travel with coworkers.

It sounds crazy, I know. In fact, before we left for our 14-hour road trip to ICOM (International Conference on Missions) in Columbus, Ohio, I dreaded the idea of packing my husband, my three children and myself into a mini van with my boss and another professor from the college where we work. I imagined hours of monotony infused with severe whining and me maybe doing something horrible like yelling at the kids while simultaneously trying to hold an adult conversation with a Ph.D.

My boy is the cutest boy.

My boy is the cutest boy.

As it turned out, though, I was very wrong about the whole thing. In fact, I hadn’t even considered the idea that the presence of outsiders might make our family nicer to each other. My children, being preteens and old enough to entertain themselves for longer stretches than 3.2 seconds, brought books, notebooks, homework (!), DS games, and they actually kept themselves busy about 70% of the time.

Of course, kids their ages are decent at being nice to each other, but sometimes they get tired and feel cramped and bored. When that happened on this trip, the children did something wonderful. Instead of yelling at each other and pushing each other around, they calmly (most of the time) expressed themselves and guess what! Having two extra adults in the vehicle proved wonderfully handy. Instead of Andrew and me shouldering the entire burden for entertaining and refereeing, whenever the boredom started setting in, one of the other grown-ups came up with something interesting for them to talk about or listen to or do. Imagine that! We brought a village in the van with us, and they helped us raise our kids for a few days.

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving...

Is that a mushroom cloud in the distance? Just keep driving, just keep driving…

One of the professors regaled us all with stories from his doctoral dissertation in literature, and that proved interesting and informative.  During the long ride home, in what felt like the middle of the dark night but really was only about 6 pm, the other one broke out in a narrative poem/story he recited from memory. Very impressive, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss.

The best parts, though, were not related entirely to the children’s behavior. I watched us all together and I realized a few things.

1.  I enjoyed seeing my coworkers in a different and unusual setting. I see them at work, interacting with students and other faculty and staff, but I never see them on a ridiculously long road trip with children. They both have grandchildren of their own, though, and I got to see the grandfather come out in them. I like them better now, having seen how gently they treated my children. Like I said above, my children don’t get to see family very often, and this trip reiterated for me how God provides families for us when he leads us far from our biological families.

2.  Children spend more time with their parents than anyone, and I think that sometimes can get oppressive. They need other people’s input in their lives. Seeing other adults, listening to them talk, hearing the way they spoke to each other and to their own children on the phone during the trip gave my kids a different perspective, little glimpses of other ways to view the world. Not to mention that they listened to us converse about things other than what was for dinner and whether the cats and dogs will ever get along in our house. They got to hear about theology and literature and ministry and all sorts of important things that I know very little about and rarely discuss with them.

3.  My own behavior improved drastically on this trip because nothing will make you nicer and more patient with your children than having your boss sit there and listen to you talk to them. I realized how much my attitude affects the children’s behavior. The old saying holds some truth: “If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” That can go for Dad, as well, of course. One person can bring down a carload, and one person can build up a carload as well. I need to remember that in everyday life!

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year's ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

The picture from our three-hour trip home from last year’s ICOM. Note the priceless expression of the middle one. One of my all-time favorite travel pictures.

So now that we have made it home and have managed not to do anything horribly embarrassing, we can be thankful for the experience. I think my kids will remember the time they travelled with the faculty! Now if we can just convince them to go with us on our next family vacation…!

What’s Your Goliath?

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

The Story

I left my father early that morning, carrying a load of grain, bread, and cheese for my brothers. My stomach fluttered with excitement at the prospect of being among all of those fighting men, armed and ready for battle. All of my life, I’d dreamed of fighting the Philistines, of being part of our great army blessed by God! I arrived at the camp just in time–just as the soldiers were lining up for battle.  Finding the keeper of the supplies, I left my donkey and his burden and hurried to find my brothers in the ranks.

I had barely greeted them when I heard the voice. It boomed out over the ranks, echoed off the hillsides. I craned my neck to see him. Anyone with a voice like that had to be big! I was not disappointed. He stood in front of his army, covered with bronze from head to toe and carrying a spear as big as a weaver’s rod. Its iron point alone weighed as much as a young sheep, yet he handled it with ease.

“Why are you lining up for battle? Choose a man to come and fight me…if you have any men that is!” His laugh rang out. “If he kills me, we will all be your subjects.” I heard his mocking tone.

“Why are you all just standing there?” I turned to my brothers. “Someone go and fight him!”

My oldest brother furrowed his brow. “Boy, go home to Dad. You don’t understand this situation. We can’t fight that giant of a man!”

“What are you talking about? I’ve killed bears almost as big as him. God is on our side. What’s an arrogant man compared to the Creator of everything?”

He shook his head. “Go back to your sheep,” he scorned. “You just came down here to poke your nose in our business and watch a battle!” He spun on his heel and walked away.

I turned to the other men, but they all averted their eyes, angry and embarrassed. One man put his hand on my shoulder.

“Come with me,” he said. I hurried after him to a tent in the back of the encampment. Guards surrounded it. Strong hands pushed me through the opening. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I heard a man talking in low tones to the one who had brought me. He turned toward me, and I saw that it was the king himself!

“You think you can defeat that giant?” he demanded. I swallowed hard, cleared my throat.

“I have been tending my father’s sheep most of my life. Sometimes a bear or a lion comes and carries away one of them. I pursue it, fight it with my hands, and kill it to rescue the sheep. If God can save me from a bear or a lion, he will save me from this Philistine!” At that moment, I knew it would be true. I knew God would save me, would save his people.

To my surprise, Saul agreed to let me try, even gave me his weapons and armor, but I felt heavy and uncomfortable. I chose to go out to face the giant as myself, not pretending to be a grown warrior. As we walked toward the field where I knew the giant waited, we crossed a stream. I stopped and chose my weapons: five stones. I put them in my pouch, rubbing my fingers across their smooth surfaces. In my other hand I held my sling.

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

Traditional Sunday school picture to complement the story

The giant and his shield bearer approached as we stepped forward. I saw him stop, and a look of derision crossed his face. He threw back his great, bronze-covered head and laughed.

“Have they sent a little puppy to fight me?” He cursed me by his gods. “Come on over so I can feed you to the birds today!”

“You come at me with a sword and spear and javelin,” I called out. My voice sounded loud and strong. That man was no match for my God. “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today the birds will eat your flesh!” I felt the stones in my pouch. “Today all the world will know there is a God in Israel. Everyone here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves. The battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hands!”

His face turned dark, and he rushed toward me. I ran toward him as well, pulling a stone from my pouch. As I had done hundreds of times, practicing in the fields with the sheep and even protecting them from bears and lions, I placed the stone in the sling. With one fluid motion, I swung it, released the stone, and watched as it sailed through the air and sank into the giant’s forehead. He toppled forward, falling face down onto the ground. His shield bearer dropped his shield and ran. I hurried forward. Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed Goliath’s own sword, pulled it from its scabbard, and cut off his head with it!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

Now grab the sword and off with the head!

My fellow Israelites flooded around me, yelling at the victory, and chased the fleeing Philistines. That day the dead Philistines were strewn all along the road to Gath and Ekron.

The king’s man found me again in the crowd and brought me to Saul’s tent once more.

“Whose son are you, young man?” he asked me.

“I am the son of your servant, Jesse of Bethlehem,” I answered. I saw a man approach from behind the king, carrying something heavy and bulky. Saul turned to him, motioning him to come closer.

“I believe these are yours,” he smiled, presenting the Philistine’s weapons. “I will remember you, son of Jesse.”

The Application

I wrote that for the class I’m taking, and I had so much fun imagining the scene, wondering about what David must have thought. I can still close my eyes and see that dusty field, a hill on each end, with fighting men assembled and a loud and scary voice paralyzing the army with fear.

I have always liked to write. As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued with words and stories and how people put words together in specific ways that make their stories come to life. Even as a child, before I could read, I made picture books with scrap paper my grandpa brought home from work, binding them together with bright red yarn. Words make sense to me. I love telling stories, either in written form or aloud, and I work hard every day in the office to shut my mouth so I won’t drive my coworkers insane with the funny things I think of to tell them (If you work with me, just allow the rest of the world to think I am successful at this endeavor, ok?!).

Today I listened to a speaker talk about how we need to find our core identity and let God work in that, using us in the way that he’s made us to be used. He said a lot of great stuff that I hope I remember, but one of the things that stuck in my mind dealt with how people resist changing. They resist stepping into the unpredictable to become awesome and instead stay with what is predictable, where they are just ok. They like the security of the predictable, even when they have a nagging feeling that it’s not really what they were created for, not where God can use them in great ways.

I think that’s a little like David and Goliath. David had a choice that day on the battlefield. He was young, untrained. Absolutely nobody expected anything from him. They definitely did not expect him to step forward and fight the giant that had seasoned warriors shaking in their sandals! He had the choice to stand in the safe predictable-ness of the crowd and be just ok or to step forward into the unpredictable awesomeness that God had planned for him. One little stone stood between him and God’s will, and he chose to step out.

What is your Goliath today? What’s blocking the road to what God has in store for you? I ask only because I’m willing to share my own roadblocks. My Goliath comes in fear of letting go and forgiving people who have hurt me in the past. My Goliath comes in fear that I won’t be good enough, that my writing, which I think may be part of what God wants to use in some way, will stink, that people will read it and think, “Whoa! Better stick with your day job, honey!” My Goliath comes in fear of not measuring up, of stepping out on faith and trying to forgive or trying to love more or trying something that leaves me vulnerable and then falling flat on my face and making a mess of it all.

What Goliath is standing on your battlefield today? Are you ready to reach down and pick up that smooth stone God put just within your reach?

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.

The Elah Valley, where the story took place.