The Choice

cropped-1918-2.jpgIf you’re on social media at all, I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs in opinions: opinions about racial issues, opinions about abortion, opinions about Donald Trump. I scroll through my newsfeeds and see all sorts of opinions. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, attended a conservative Christian church as a child, and I work in a pretty conservative Christian environment. Among all of the opinions I hear and read on a daily basis, one theme winds itself around through most of them: many American Christians today claim that the government and cultural agents are slowly but surely eroding their freedom of religion.

I hear people say they think they’ll have to compromise their convictions because of laws regarding things like gay marriage and abortion. I hear them wishing that life would go back to the way it was when Christians were the majority and, even when people did not adhere to the Christian faith, they usually outwardly appeared to go along with it. The people I hear talking about this want America to be “a Christian nation again.”

US flagThe Challenge We Face

My husband said something profound about this topic this week. I knew when I married him he was super-smart, smarter than I can dream of being. But sometimes he says something that makes so much sense that I think to myself, “Man! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Then I remember: it’s because he’s super-smart.

We were driving down the street on our way to the library, where super-smarties like him go, and he said, “I think that American Christians are facing a huge challenge, and it’s not what we think it is.” He went on to explain himself by saying that Christians in America are used to feeling like America is a Christian nation. We’ve mixed Christianity and patriotism so well that we can’t tell the difference between what is Christian and what is American. We so badly want the government to uphold traditional Christian values that when the government acts like a secular force and not a Christian element we feel betrayed and angry. The challenge facing Christians in America in the coming years isn’t winning a culture war or standing up for our faith or our freedom.

The challenge facing American Christians is deciding whether to follow American patriotism or Jesus’ teachings. When the American government diverges from biblical teaching, what do we do? Do we rail against the government and demand that it return to biblical principles? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been fighting this “culture war,” arguing and debating until we’re blue in the face, and yet we haven’t turned the tide of secularism in America. We seem to feel that if the American government doesn’t uphold Christian values, those values will no longer continue to exist. However, the government has never been called upon to promote Christian values. From what I read in the New Testament, I see Jesus tells us many times that as believers we will live in a way that is not culturally popular. This is not something to fear but something to expect. Despite the fact that throughout history much of the world has not been Christian, Christianity has continued to thrive.

According to Andrew, “We are facing a series of tests that cause us to choose between a political position and something that actually is a Christian value. For example, it’s legitimate to think that a country has to have reasonable control over its borders and its immigration policy, but when that turns into a blanket rejection of immigrants and we say racist and hateful things about a group of people, we’re choosing nationalism over Christian values. What is revealed in that situation is that our primary allegiance is to our country more than it is to the principles of Christ.”

cross and flagLove Your Enemies

In a political debate, we often express contempt for people who do not agree with us, although they are made in the image of God. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, that God would guide them and bless them. Instead we call down curses on our leaders, criticizing them in ways we would never criticize someone for whom we were praying a blessing. When we do this we show that our political party or our nationalism is where our allegiance really lies.

There are Christian principles on each side of any issue. If we see a person on the opposite side of an issue as an enemy, as Christians we should react the way that Jesus told us to and love that enemy. When we gossip about him, turn others against him, work to divide ourselves from him, we show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

An Example

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. The issue of abortion has taken center stage in the last few weeks. As a Christian, I am convinced that abortion is morally wrong. However, I know Christians who campaign fervently against abortion but refuse to accept and help young unwed mothers because they obviously sinned by having sex outside of marriage. These same Christians campaign just as passionately against government assistance, claiming that the people who need it should “just go out and work like the rest of us.” Now, tell me how a young mother who chooses to keep her baby instead of aborting it is supposed to afford to raise that child on her own. My husband and I have eight college degrees between us and two incomes, and we still need financial help from our parents from time to time just to make ends meet for us and our three children. What is the Christian response to abortion laws and welfare laws then? Can we just sit back and spew rhetoric about the precious life of a child while at the same time refuse to support that life once it has entered the world?

Christians today live at a crucial moment in history. We typically hear that statement followed by a stand-up-for-your-faith-by-fighting-against-the-culture kind of statement, but, just as Andrew said, that’s not really the crux of the decision. God is presenting us with a choice these days. Will we as Christian people choose nationalism and patriotism or will we follow his directives and choose Christian values?

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All’s Quiet on the Western Front

stormI’m sitting in my dining room, at the table. The kids are in bed asleep. Andrew is in bed asleep. All I can hear is the gurgling of the fish tank, the occasional stirring of the dog in the corner, and my neighbors fighting outside the window. It’s 10 pm this time. The last time it was closer to midnight, and the talk sounded a lot more dangerous. In fact, the last time I’m pretty sure they threw some garbage cans around the yard at each other.

I listen to their voices but can’t really hear much more than the occasional curse word. I listen because I’m curious and because I feel for them. I understand the frustration that brings a person to the point of yelling and not caring who hears. Or yelling and wanting someone else to notice and care. Or even worse, the frustration of just being quiet and either not knowing what to yell or not caring enough to say anything at all.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Relationships are hard, and the ones that matter most tend to bring the most hardship. If I don’t like a coworker, I can avoid the person and keep things superficial. If I don’t like someone who lives in my house, there’s not much I can do but dive in and face the discomfort. I can quote the Bible verse, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:7) until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t ignore the fact that when iron sharpens iron, sometimes sparks fly!

I tell my kids all the time if people live in a house together they will sometimes have conflict. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. It’s conflict that gives us the chance to learn how to face disagreements in ways that don’t hurt others. I tell them when they grow up and have families of their own they will know how to deal with conflict in ways that build up instead of destroy. That’s what I say, but I’m not sure I’m teaching them how to do it. I’m still learning it myself, and I have to admit I’m not all that good at it.

wedding picWhen Andrew and I got married, I knew that God planned us for each other. I felt certain of it. I never was one of those girls who thought there was one person for everyone, and I’m still not. If that were the case, I for sure would have messed up and married Mr. Wrong and then what? Would my whole life have been a mistake from then on? I have always believed that God’s will for me is flexible and fluid and that if I know him I’ll follow him and I’ll look for ways to do what he wants. If I miss some things he’s pointing out to me, he will still use me in other ways.

That being said, though, I knew Andrew was for me almost the moment I met him. Now I thank God for giving me that assurance! Now I can rest in the belief that God put Andrew in my life for a reason. When life gets hard and we get frustrated with each other, I can look back at the time I felt sure God put us together and know that he still wants to use us in each other’s lives.

If I believe this, I trust God will use him to change me into the person He wants me to be. I trust that God will use me to mold him into the person He wants Andrew to be. Even in times when living with another person is hard and I feel frustrated by our differences, I have to admit that when I look back at the people we were when we started this marriage, I like who we are now better. I might think at times that my life would have been easier had I just gone it alone, and I might be right. It almost definitely would have been easier in a lot of ways. However, what would I have become if left to my own devices, without the smoothing influence of my husband? I’m not sure I would have liked that person.

Peace in the War Zone

Let me give an example. One of the struggles we’ve had in our marriage revolves around the way that we talk. I come from a tell-it-like-it-is kind of family. I remember my grandma telling me men can’t read your mind so if you want something you’d better go ahead and just tell them what you want, not to expect that they’ll figure it out on their own. I took that to heart. I saw too many girls hinting, wishing that some guy would figure out they wanted something and then getting disappointed and even angry when the guys didn’t catch the hint. That seemed foolish to me, so I decided I wouldn’t hide how I felt or what I was thinking from my husband.

Andrew’s family is different. They’re waaay more subtle than mine. Their idea of telling-it-like-it is…well, my family would never even know there was any telling going on if they heard it. His family does this out of respect, I think. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so they present themselves more subtly. And guess what. The other family members figure out what they mean without the loud, in-your-face telling that my family does. It works for them.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

We were about to have a family conflict over the appropriate way to take the photo.

However, put these two together, and it’s not always so easy. When we were dating, I went home from college with him to visit his family one weekend. On Saturday night, I asked him to wake me up the next morning in time to get ready for church because I didn’t have an alarm clock. The time to get up came and went, and he didn’t even knock on my door. I finally woke up and asked him why he didn’t wake me up. His answer? “I was making noise so you’d hear it and wake up.” To him, this seemed like a perfectly polite method of waking me up. To me, it seemed like he didn’t care enough to make sure I was awake.

These different styles have led to a lot of “interesting” conversations over the years, but early on we both realized the value of being married to someone with a very different style of self-expression. Over the years, I have become less abrasive, more thoughtful in my approach. I’ve learned to think before I talk, to consider people’s feelings and not just blast everyone away with my opinion. I’ve learned that if the tone of my voice sounds angry, it doesn’t matter what I say because he will only hear anger. I’ve learned it’s not up to me to save the world and to point out everyone’s flaws and shortcomings. He’s learned to stand up for himself more, to be more aggressive in conversation. He’s learned to say what he thinks because people might not pick up on the subtle cues. Somehow in the mix of the two of us we’ve both found a decent middle ground that enables us to say what we think without hurting each other much of the time. This has translated into our other relationships at work and with friends as well.

Nothing Worth Doing is Ever All That Easy

The most recent picture of us. We've changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

The most recent picture of us. We’ve changed just a little from how we looked in that wedding photo!

In that case, iron has sharpened iron, but, oh my, that sharpening process has been long and difficult, and it will probably continue until the day one of us dies. It has involved deep issues, things from both our pasts that aren’t easily dealt with, things that neither of us ever wanted anyone else to know about, things that we can’t hide from the one we live with day in and day out, especially not if we want a healthy marriage. When those kinds of things come out in the open, they have the potential to destroy us, but they also have the potential to grow us into  stronger, more stable, more understanding people. People who are more Christlike.

I began writing this post over seven months ago. I have hesitated about posting it because I’ve got friends who know some of the realities of my marriage and might read it and think what a hypocrite I sound like, coming from a less-than-perfect marriage and writing about how God uses it. I hesitated because it’s easy enough to gloss over the difficulties publicly and present our marriage as this model relationship when it most definitely is not. We’ve had our share of destruction and pain over the years. I can’t help but think, though, that it’s worth it. It’s worth the arguments, the silence, the hurt that we’ve both sometimes felt because now that we have been married long enough to look back we can see some progress. We can see the positive changes that have resulted. We’re learning to see each other as people who are still growing and changing instead of as final products, solidly stuck in our ways and unable to change.

Not that we’ve perfected it! Not at all! There are still so many things that we need to work on, some that I’m sure we don’t even know about yet. There are still so many mistakes and blunders. We still struggle quite a bit. Sometimes I still look at him and think, “Who is that?!” and at times I wonder if he even knows me at all. Then he says something that summarizes my personality in one sentence and I think maybe I was wrong. Maybe he knows me better than I thought. No matter what our differences might be, our sixteenth anniversary is just around the corner, and I can happily say that we are not throwing garbage cans at each other. At least there’s that!

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?

IMG_8295

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.

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!

Anything Else?

 

Nobody make any sudden moves. The whole place is about to blow to smithereens!

Nobody make any sudden moves. The whole place is about to blow to smithereens!

“When it rains, it pours.” “Bad things happen in threes” (or fours or fives, at times). We’ve heard the old proverbs before. Old sayings are said for a reason. It seems that way too often they’re true.

Last week those two proverbs proved true in our house, at least. It all started one night when Hannah noticed the cat doing his business on the dog’s bed. She shooed him off, but then he went to another spot and tried to do the same. This was a first for him, so we didn’t know what to do. We locked him and his sister in the laundry room with the litter box and cleaned up the mess. Then I went on an errand.

I was only gone for an hour at the most, and when I returned I expected to open the door to a quiet house with children sleeping and Andrew reading or sleeping or doing something else peaceful. Instead the front door swung open, and Emma stood in the entrance.

“What are you doing up this late?” I asked.

“While you were gone, we tried to get the cats back in the laundry room. I carried Smokey down, and she clawed my stomach and tried to bite me because she didn’t want to go into the room with the water.”

“Water? What water?” I asked. I mean, it’s just a laundry room, not an indoor pool. Although that would be nice…

“The water on the floor of the laundry room from where the laundry overflowed.”

This was not what I wanted to hear. Water on the laundry room floor means one of two things: the pipes to and from the washing machine broke or the main line backed up. Neither one of those sounded good at all.

Turns out, the main line chose that night to get clogged with tree roots, and since I’m in charge of laundry and wasn’t home, no one noticed that water covered the floor until the cats put up a fuss and somehow escaped. So our laundry room floor, which some brilliant former owner thought to cover with carpet (?!?) became a spongy, stinky mess.

The next morning, Andrew called the plumber. After he did his thing and sewage no longer flowed into our house instead of out of it, we were left with a smelly mess downstairs and a nice plumbing bill. Enter Stanley Steemer, who graciously cleaned up our mess…for a fee, of course.

At the same time that the plumber was working in the basement, the oven chose to go out. It had been dying slowly since last summer, but it must have thought, “Hey, if everyone else is freaking out, I will, too!” and gave up the ghost. The next morning, Emma sat on my lap and cried that she couldn’t see the board in class and her glasses weren’t working anymore.

I called the eye doctor, we went oven shopping, and we thought all was well. The salesguy even surprised us by saying the oven we chose was 15% off, so we felt happy to get a deal on it. The happiness didn’t last long, though. That night when they delivered the oven, they also told us that the pipes that brought gas to it were not up to code and they could not install it.

Enter the same plumbing service, which took four hours to install all new pipes to the oven, which required new pipes to the water heater and the furnace. All for a price higher than

the cost of the oven itself.  Alex summed it up pretty well when he said to me the other day, “Well, I guess I’ll have to be an aerospace engineer when I grow up after all. You people won’t have any money at all saved for retirement. I need a job that makes enough to support us all!”

Did I mention that I think the cat’s sick and we probably still have that bill coming up.

For crying out loud! I’m almost afraid to make any sudden movements now, for fear of breaking something, flooding something, making something sick. We thought about stopping by Starbucks for coffee while the kids were in youth group tonight, but then we realized that we do not have even close to enough money to pay for that coffee, so we just came home.

Let’s just hope the old proverb “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is true, too!

A Big Waste of Time

Yesterday morning I listened to a sermon by a veteran preacher. In it, he encouraged the audience to focus on what is important in life and not to settle for mediocrity.

“I can’t help but think of how many great things I may have missed because I was preoccupied with lesser things.”

That struck home with me because even at that very moment, when I sat in a room listening to an eloquent speaker open up truths from the Word of God, I also thought about what texts I might have gotten during the praise time or what someone else around me might have been tweeting about the sermon. My mind wandered to what I’d eat for lunch and what my kids were doing at school. I kept bringing my train of thought back to the sermon, back to what he was saying because I didn’t want to lose sight of the diamonds in life while focusing on the gravel at my feet.

imagesSo I left thinking I’ll do it! I’ll put away my cell phone when my kids are around. I’ll engage with people and really listen. I’ll care about things that God cares about and put the rest in perspective. Yep! That’s what I’ll do starting now! As it turns out, that is much easier to think than to do.

After a long day at work and a busy night caring for sick kids, making dinner, doing housework, I sat down in the quiet house where everyone slept except me. I wanted to write a little, but instead I did The Bad Thing.

I looked at Facebook.

I’m not going to rant against Facebook because I happen to love Facebook. However, I’m not dumb enough to think that Facebook doesn’t steal my life away, one status at a time. This time was no exception. I started looking at a thread on a Facebook crochet group I like. One of the group’s members started writing all kinds of stuff on there that I would consider bitter, hateful, and downright mean. She decided that one of the other members was trying to con innocent people also in the group, and she took it upon herself to start a harsh and condemning thread about that other member. Publicly.

I watched the thread fill up with people spewing hateful things about this person that they did not even know, and I just felt disgusted. So I chimed in and reminded people to mind their words and pay attention to how they treated one another.

Big mistake. They turned on me. The crocheters became violent, hook-weilding gladiators, intent on ridding the world of all that is good and decent under the guise of exposing a “con artist” and self-righteously criticizing those who reminded them of civility. I watched it unfold in disbelief, made a few comments, and then attempted to extract myself from the conversation. I looked at the clock and saw that the lesser things had stolen quite a bit time from the great things.

Isn’t this how it goes, though? We make a decision to change something, to do something better than we’ve been doing it, and before we know it, we’re back doing the same old thing we’ve always done. Just now, I sat down to type while the kids played quietly and independently in the other room, but as soon as I got a good start, one after the other called for me, asked for help, for lunch, for paint, for exacto knives (?!). I, writing about taking time for what’s important, told them that I was busy and couldn’t they do some of this on their own (except for the exacto knives!). I put off the great, the relationship with my kids, to focus on the lesser, my beautiful blog.

images

So here’s what I’m going to do to make sure I focus on some of the really important things this week. I consulted my kids for advice on this, since they are the ones who often get put off when I’m working on something less important. Here are their suggestions:

1.   “Spend more time thinking” (Emma, 8 years old). Think about God and what he wants me to do instead of what I want to do. Interesting that this was the immediate response since this is also what a lot of experts suggest for relaxation. Stop and think. Spend time meditating/praying/thinking. Hannah (12 years old) added, “Analyze the things you think are important and compare that with what you know God thinks is important.”

2.   “Not playing on your phone a whole bunch” (Emma). I was hoping that one wouldn’t come up. I mean, I hoped maybe no one noticed that they saw the top of my head more than my eyes since I look down on my phone a lot while we’re together. I decided to move the Facebook app on my phone so that I don’t see it and its demanding notifications every time I pick up my phone. Less of a reminder, less of a temptation…right?

3.   “Use the extra time to do things you say you don’t have time for when you’re using time doing unimportant things” (Alex, 11 years old). In other words, stop saying I don’t have time to read or crochet because I do. Maybe when I see all of the fun things I get to do when I’m not checking my work email or texting someone who can probably wait an hour or so to hear from me, I’ll decide the sacrifice is worth it.

Now that I’ve publicly committed myself to them, you can hold me to them. But, oh my goodness, be nice to me about them! No more Facebook crazy!

Like Riding a Bike

Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I rode a bike.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

My bike sat discarded in the garage through the births of three kids and a lot of sleepless nights that produced days when bike riding was the last thing on my mind. I taught my own children to ride, but I have never been much of a rider myself, so I never rode it. In fact, I think the last time I rode a bike was the summer after my oldest was born. I can’t remember any bike riding after that.

Once in a while the kids ask me to ride with them, and I say something like “I don’t really like to ride. I’ll walk, and I’ll meet you at the park (or wherever).” They’re old enough to do that now. Before I could let them go ahead, I sat outside with a book or the phone and watched them ride up and down the street in front of our house. Today I decided to join them.

I don’t know what got into me. Why did I decide this was a good day for me to break my 12-year bike-riding moratorium? Whatever the reason, I found myself pumping up the tires on my husband’s bike (mine has squeaky brakes, and, believe me, I don’t want to draw any more attention to the middle-aged me wobbling down the street than necessary). I got on confidently. I mean, why not? I don’t have any skinned-up-my-whole-body stories to tell. I took off down the driveway. It went faster than I expected. A lot faster. I tried to put on the brakes, but I realized I reverted back to the bike riding I learned as a five-year-old…when there were brakes on the pedals. I felt a moment of panic as a tree approached and I veered around it while frantically groping for the brakes. Somehow I managed to stop slowly enough that I didn’t hurtle forward over the handlebars.

What my girls saw when I got on the bike today.

What my girls thought of me when I got on the bike today.

As my heartbeat returned to normal, I heard the girls behind me. They weren’t laughing, thank goodness. Instead they were worrying. “Do you think we should do this? Maybe she’s not ready,” one of them said. “It’s been a long time. I’m not sure she really knows how to ride one,” the other one answered.

“We’re not going until you ride down the hill and back up,” my oldest called out to me from the driveway.

“What do you mean? I’m fine. Shut the door and let’s go!” I answered.

“Uumm…I’m not so sure. The ride up the hill is pretty hard.” Now keep in mind this hill is barely visible. I’m not kidding. We live in Nebraska, people. It’s not the Rocky Mountains. I rode back up to them, convincing them I was ready.

Here’s some of what I heard on the way:

“She’s still back there, Hannah. She’s ok!” (after turning to check on me).

“What would happen if Mom fell and skinned her knee really bad? Would she cry?” LIKE I WASN’T EVEN THERE!!!

“She’d probably get mad and make us leave her alone!” What am I, a mother bear?! ROAR! Sadly, they’re probably right.

So what did I learn from the bike riding experience? For one, the old saying is true. You don’t forget how to ride a bike! I was a little nervous riding with children around me. Children who tend to cut in front of me and make me think I was going to hit them and maybe do something like run over them. But I’m pretty glad I did it.

Second, I probably should do more things that I’ve written off in the last decade. My kids have been my excuse for not bike riding, not travelling, not working out, not doing more stuff like that. For a long time, they really were too young to do much with, and for a long time I mourned losing those things that I would have done if there were no kids. Then somewhere along the way I started kinda liking not doing a lot of different stuff and fell into a habit of doing the same things all of the time. They’re older now. Maybe it’s time to branch out.

Hopefully, it won't come to this.

Hopefully, it won’t come to this.

Third, they’re going to take really great care of me when I get old. I always wondered if they’d just let me wander off down the interstate in my nightgown in February, but apparently they are pretty good mother hens. Maybe we’ve done something right. Whew! It’s about time we saw some fruit of all these years of labor!

I’ve been sitting in the library writing this. I just heard the librarian say that the library closes in fifteen minutes.

Does this mean I have to ride home?!

 

I Was the Perfect Mother

I love mom

Reassurance from a little artist.

I remember when I was a perfect mother. Man, those were good days! Days when I could go in a restaurant and smugly watch moms struggle to get their kids to eat. Days when I could walk down the mall and feel superior when I saw mothers try to cope with their children’s tantrums.  Too bad everything changed. I suddenly lost my mothering skills on the day that my first daughter entered the world.

Before my oldest’s birth, I remember talking to a coworker who had teenage children. I told her that I would stay home after the baby was born but might do freelance work or try to do something from home “after things went back to normal”. I so distinctly remember her laugh. Somewhere between incredulous and mocking. She said, “Things will never go back to normal.”

How hard could it be? I asked myself. I graduated from college with honors. I lived overseas and navigated a completely new country in a language I did not know at all at first. I lived on my own and learned to manage a home in a place that had an unreliable electricity and water supply and required that everything be made from scratch with food I sometimes walked a mile or more to buy and lug home. Children couldn’t be harder than that, right?

Wrong! How incredibly naive I was. Children have been waaaaaay harder than that. All of those things I did before I married and had children still contained one element that mothering does not and never will: the ability to live for myself. Sure, I said I lived for God, and I did to some extent. I was a missionary, after all. But I never learned self-sacrifice in the concrete, day-by-day, unavoidable way I have since having children.

I visited my former roommate in Ukraine a few years ago. She somehow looked almost exactly like she did when we lived in that apartment building behind us 15 years ago. How could that happen?!

Roommates, 15 years later. How is it that she looks the same?!

As a single woman, I had roommates. With each one, elements of my personality emerged. Some of those elements showed me areas that God wanted me to change. I worked on those, changed some things to make life with the roommates more pleasant. I thought I had it together. Then I got married, and before long I realized there were a lot more rough edges to my personality that I hadn’t yet smoothed down. The more into marriage we got, the more of those rough edges we found.

Then motherhood hit. We thought Hey, we’ve been married a couple of years. We’re ready to have a baby! Now I ask myself if anyone is ever ready to have a baby. There must be women out there who take motherhood in stride. It seems Facebook is full of them. They love all of the fingerpainting and chaos and mess, and when their children scream in public it’s just downright cute to them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m one of them.

I realized that when my daughter was a few hours old. I was trying to learn to breastfeed her, not doing well, really, and I found myself irritated. This didn’t bode well. How could I be irritated with a baby who had only been breathing the air on this planet for a few hours? And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life.

This littlest one is so silly!

This littlest one is so silly!

For me, the story of raising children has been one of learning to give up myself and yet not wanting to surrender. I know, I know, we have to keep some things for ourselves and carve out our own hobbies (hence this blog and a lot of crocheted items I’ve produced over the years). However, it’s really not possible to live for myself now that I have children. The moment I sit down to rest, I’m called on for something. The clothes I love often disappear to reappear in my oldest girl’s closet. I haven’t cooked a meal that I really liked for years, but I sure have cooked a lot of meals. I’d like to say that I have happily turned over my selfishness and have become this great mom who sacrifices it all for her children, but I don’t think I have. I still struggle.

Once in a while, my kids complain about each other to me. They tell me things that basically amount to them being in the midst of the same kind of struggle with their siblings. Selfishness vs. surrender. I tell them that anytime a person is in an intense relationship with another person there will be that struggle. It’s part of being in a family, and it’s good for us. If we live in a social vacuum, we won’t feel that tension between getting our own way and giving someone else what they need or want. We will sail along, having everything the way we want it. But we will also forfeit the good things that come with practicing self-sacrifice: the ability to see and sometimes meet another person’s needs, the desire to please God by surrendering to him instead of seeking just our own pleasure, the love and warmth of belonging to a family or close relationship of some sort. The results are worth every bit of sacrifice.

airport family

Is it still called a selfie if you’re taking a picture of an entire family?

Maybe that’s where God is working. Can I tell myself that? That point where my desires and their needs intersect sparks a fire that can refine us all and make us more of what God wants us to become. Now the key for me involves realizing that and surrendering to it. Stopping the fighting and pushing against it and letting God intervene and guide.

How hard can that be, right?

Easier said than done.

We Crashed a Family Reunion

This is how I sometimes feel when visiting relatives.

This is how I sometimes feel on vacation. I know I’m not alone in this growly, too-much-fun-is-just-too-much feeling.

I am smack dab in the middle of a week of visiting relatives. And by relatives, I mean step relatives. My youngest daughter, surrounded by my stepfather’s family at a reunion, looked at me with a look of shock and awe and said, “Are all these people my relatives?!” She’s grown up with my stepdad as one of her Papas. He’s treated her like a regular granddaughter. So how to answer that question? Do I say “No, these are just some strangers who have taken us in and treat us nicely”?

I thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, they are your family.” She’s heard all about divorce and remarriage. She knows that Papa isn’t my dad, but I think she needed to fit the new people into her life in some manner, and this was a good way. After all, you can never have too many people to love your children, right?

And maybe I sometimes also feel like this on vacation.

And maybe I sometimes also feel like this on vacation.

Besides, these relatives are actually really great. My mom and stepdad, Tim, have been married for twenty-some years, so even though much of his family lives in Colorado and I live in Nebraska I’ve met many of my stepdad’s relatives before. I went to their family reunion about 18 years ago, when my parents’ divorce and remarriages felt somewhat fresh to me still, and I was unsure how to answer that question of who they were to me myself. I felt strange as an outsider coming into their homes and meeting all of them. Would they even want me there? But they accepted me as one of them from the beginning. Treated me like one of the family when I probably did not, in fact, seem like one of the family to them. Even so, I felt accepted by them.

Last weekend we packed up our car and my parents’ SUV and headed west to Colorado. The vacation promised greatness from the beginning because the children rode in the car with my mom and Tim, and Andrew and I got to spend the entire eight hour trip alone in our car! We all checked into a hotel in Denver, and each night one child slept with my mother, giving us the luxury of only two children, one per parent, and a much easier bedtime routine.

We did some typical touristy things.

We went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. You can see Denver in the background.

We went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. You can see Denver in the background.

Lookout Mountain in Denver. Not pictured: Buffalo Bill's grave...or maybe not. There's controversy over whether he's actually buried there or not.

Lookout Mountain in Denver. Notice that there is at least one stuffed animal in every photo. This is true of just about every picture ever taken of my girls.

Crossed the Continental Divide...

Crossed the Continental Divide and had our picture taken…along with a stranger’s fingertip. So glad we have that little bit to remember him by!

In the evenings, we had dinner with Tim’s family. The children were shockingly polite. My son even impressed his elders by removing his hat during introductions and inside the house. Nobody argued. Nobody spilled anything or had any wild bodily fluid episodes… not even the children!

The very best part of the whole trip so far, though, happened after a discussion of an injury of my mom’s and how she still is taking medication for it. This came on the heels of a conversation about how Colorado has legalized marijuana, so naturally someone commented about how Mom should self-medicate her injury while at the same time enjoy the state’s newest legalized drug. Of course, my mother would never, ever do such a thing, and that made the joke even more funny.

Andrew and I were talking to Tim’s sister-in-law, who was hosting us at this reunion, and told her about the joke. We said she should have made brownies and sprinkled them with some parsley to offer my mom. She laughed and said, “Well, actually, we have brownies for dessert!” We laughed at the irony and thought no more of it…until she came out carrying a tray of brownies and sporting a twinkle in her eye. She held them out and offered them to us. “I made these special brownies for our guests from out of state. Because you can’t come to Colorado without sampling some!”

Brownie, anyone? Come on, you know you want one!

Brownie, anyone? Come on, you know you want one!

This was possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time. This woman, a sweet and beautiful great-grandmother with wonderful artistic ability and a soft-spoken demeanor, offered my mother a plate of pot brownies! I still laugh just thinking about it.

Maybe it’s because this other family hasn’t been intimately present in every minute of my business or because I have only a few pleasant memories of them at two short family reunions. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been an adult in their eyes and have been treated like one from the first day, or because I don’t hold them to the high standards with unreachable expectations like I do my own family at times, but sometimes other people’s relatives who have become your own can be a whole lot of fun! And maybe answering my child’s question the way I did showed me that it’s ok to love stepparents and that loving one group doesn’t mean I don’t love the other.