Wind Beneath My Wings

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I’ve been in storms, but tonight…this storm beats them all. The two oldest kids had a band performance scheduled for 7:30, so we made our way over to the stadium where we were supposed to watch it. By the time we got there, it was raining a little, and they had cancelled the performance. Andrew and I decided to wait in the car until the kids finished practice. We had books, as all good nerds do, so we were completely satisfied just to sit there and read.

We’d been sitting in the car about 20-30 minutes when the sky got really dark. The rain started pouring, and the wind picked up. I called Hannah to tell her not to come outside, and at about the same moment she picked up the phone, the wind got so bad that I basically yelled “Stay inside! Don’t come outside!” and hung up. Andrew told me to get out and run inside. Forgetting all about the running car, he got out. I reached over and turned it off and we started running into the building.

The tornado sirens were so loud! I’ve never heard them up close like that. I guess their close proximity combined with the extreme wind made me think the sirens were instead a tornado (you know how they always say tornadoes sound like a train?! I guess tornado sirens do, too!). I kept yelling, “That’s an actual tornado!” a fact that probably freaked out my southern-born husband.

About halfway into the building, the wind blew me so hard from behind that I actually felt my feet start to leave the ground a little! Before I knew it, I was lying on the wet grass! I looked over, and Andrew was, too! We managed to get to our feet, despite the extreme wind pushing us from behind, and scramble the rest of the way into the building, holding onto each other the whole way, just in case.

I looked at Andrew when we got into the high school. He had no glasses on his face! I thought to myself, Whew! I’m glad I still have my glasses…wait a minute…why can’t I see anything? I lost mine too! The wind blew us down AND blew the glasses off our faces!!

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Andrew and me, alive but still lacking spectacles!

We hurried down the hall to the band room to find our kids. We managed to find them, found a safe hall to sit in, and waited out the storm with all of their bandmates. I was afraid we’d have to get Hannah to drive us home because neither Andrew nor I had our glasses, but we actually managed to find both pairs on our way out. In the grass, not far from where we fell. Along with the keys to my office, which, hey, I didn’t even know I’d lost!

 

I could spend some paragraphs comparing storms to problems in our lives and how God works it all out and yada yada yada. I’m not doing that. I’m sure you can figure it out yourselves. What I will say is in a moment like that what I wanted most of all was to find our two kids. Once we found them and saw them safe, I just felt extreme relief that kid #3 was in Hawaii with my mom and sister and not home alone or something! Oh my! At least she was safe! And when it was all said and done, when we drove home, we saw the downed trees and branches and neighbors spilling out onto the street and I suddenly felt such an appreciation for the people in our life. We’re safe and dry, and we even saw a nice rainbow on the way home!

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Journaling a Legacy

Rebecca Waters and I met when she and my husband worked together at a university in Cincinnati. Andrew, the new guy on the faculty, had a tiny office/former closet in the basement of the girls’ dorm. Becky and some of the other professors, all women, had offices upstairs. I remember going to visit him and seeing them. They were always so sweet and friendly. We had just moved to back to the US and didn’t know anyone in Cincinnati, but they welcomed us. That’s the kind of women they were.

keysNot long after we moved to Cincinnati, I came home from work, threw my keys on the kitchen table and went out the back door to read the mail while the dog ran around and did her thing. When I closed the sliding glass door, I heard the safety bar fall into place. I was locked out! Andrew was 20 minutes away in class. I was six months pregnant, and it was 90 degrees out. Becky to the rescue! She brought his keys to me on her way home from work that day.

I remember taking our new baby Hannah, our firstborn, to visit Andrew at school. We walked past the classroom where Becky was teaching. She stopped class to look at our new baby, cooing over how sweet she was. I remember how happy she was to meet Hannah. If you’ve got kids, you know how much you love anyone who loves your children.

I also remember a Christmas party at her house. We somehow showed up an hour early. She met us at the door and let us hang out in her family room while she finished getting ready. And to think Andrew and I had been arguing about how we were running late on the way there!

Becky has gone her own way since those days, and so have I.  She’s written a book and has a blog about writing, and I live in a different state. We don’t see each other anymore, but we keep in touch on Facebook. A while back, she asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I readily agreed. That post happened today.

So here’s to Becky, and here’s to her inviting me to write. Thanks, Becky, for years of steady friendship and caring and for giving me a spot on your blog!

To read the post, click here.

 

Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.

Unexpected Ways

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My husband and I both grew up in pretty conservative churches where we sometimes both got the idea that we were required to do certain things to maintain our status as Christians: read the Bible every day, invite people to church, volunteer for or participate in every event the church had to name a few. As an adult, I see the value of these things and I realize that my thinking as a child may have been black and white and not allowed me to fully understand the church’s teaching on these topics. However, I also understand that they’re not essential to my faith. For example, reading the Bible every day can give me guidance and help me know Jesus better, but if I don’t do that I am not somehow condemning myself forever. I may be cheating myself out of a deeper relationship with and understanding of God, but I’m not less valuable to God because of that.

A few months ago, Hannah came home feeling guilty because she hadn’t asked all of her friends to church yet. She’d received instructions in Sunday school that every Christian should ask all of their friends and the people they come into contact with to church if they really cared about them (at least that was what she understood the lesson to mean). I told her that the Bible never tells anyone to ask someone to church. I can’t think of any instances of Jesus telling his followers to invite their friends to the synagogue. Sure, they invited them to him, but they did that because their lives were changed from being with him, and they wanted their friends to experience the same radical love that Jesus had shown them.

This is way more than just a perfunctory invitation to a church service. I told her that we show our friends Jesus by the way we act, the way we love others, the way we care about people who are in difficult situations. We talked for a long time about how our life makes a statement and can draw people in or push them away and how truly caring about a person is more important than inviting them to church. I told her I think that you only have probably one chance in our culture to invite a person to a church event, so you shouldn’t squander it at the very beginning by giving them the idea that you’re only being friends with them to add one more notch to your Bible belt. I also emphasized that when we do care about them this way, we earn the right to talk about things that are important to us, and we have natural opportunities to tell them about our faith.

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My lovely, happy girl, Hannah.

Not long after the Sunday school lesson and our discussion of it, her school let out early. In true junior high fashion, great swarms of students went down the street to our local Runza, a Nebraska fast food favorite. Of course, the place was packed with middle schoolers without parents. She and Alex waited a long time in line. When they finally got their food and sat down, Hannah noticed a group of kids causing a lot of trouble and making a mess of the place. After plenty of complaints, the manager came out and told them to leave. They mocked him and laughed at him, threw ice and food on the floor and tables. When they finally left, they stood outside the window and laughed at him as he cleaned up their mess. Hannah saw it happening and got up to help him. She picked up ice from the floor and wiped down the tables with a rag he gave her. When they finished, he thanked her and gave her two coupons for free meals. (Note: Alex says he didn’t notice any of this happening, and, while that seems hard to believe, knowing the boy’s capacity for living in his own bubble, I believe it!).

Right about the same time, Alex, who had an obsession with Rubik’s cubes, had one at church. That day, a woman we know told him her brother loved Rubik’s cubes when he was younger and had one that was left solved at their mom and dad’s house. Sadly, her brother passed away in a tragic and unexpected accident as a very young man, and her mom kept the Rubik’s cube on a shelf to remember him. Unfortunately, a visiting kid grabbed the Rubik’s cube and messed it up, and her mom felt sad now that the reminder of her son was gone.

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Alex, with a Rubik’s cube, of course.

Our friend from church asked if Alex would mind solving the cube if her mom brought it. He agreed, and a few days later we found ourselves at the store where the woman works, meeting her mother. As Alex started working on the Rubik’s cube, I watched him, 13 years old, just a hair taller than I am, at the very beginning of being a young man. I wondered how that mom felt when she looked at him. Did she remember her boy when he was that age? I wished I had told him to give her a hug when he finished because I thought how nice that would be if I were in her shoes. Within a minute or two, he had solved it and handed it back to her. And lo and behold, with no instruction from me, he hugged her.

Those two events, so close together, they hit me hard. I watched our two oldest children live out their faith right in front of me. They did what they could and used their talents and interests to right injustice and relieve suffering. Even though they didn’t invite anyone to church, offer to stop and pray with someone or quote Bible verses, they showed them what Jesus’ love means in action.

Living our faith can be more difficult and tricky than the traditional instructions for living that Sunday school taught us. Living God’s calling may be less about deciding at church camp to be a missionary and more about committing whatever we do to Christ, looking for ways in our everyday life to right injustice and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.

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Gratuitous picture of the third child, who was left out of this blog in every other way. Poor little thing 🙂

Why the Mosque?

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.40.07 AMAfter I published my last post about my experience at the mosque, I heard questions about why we went there and what we were doing. I decided to write a follow-up to that one and address some of the questions people might have had when they read it.

Why did you go to a mosque? Why is Andrew in particular interested in Muslims?

Andrew teaches intercultural studies and world religions courses at the college where we work. He’s been teaching those subjects for sixteen years now and before that worked as a missionary. He has multiple masters degrees in foreign policy, practical ministry and theology and a doctorate of ministry in missiology. He’s studied politics, ministry and missions his entire life. As a professor, he feels like part of responsible teaching involves going to places where other religions gather and learning about them there. Meeting people who practice the religions he teaches about enhances his teaching and provides the students with a more thorough education. He also takes students with him to places like the mosque, Messianic Jewish churches, and churches that practice in ways different from how we do. This helps them feel comfortable connecting with people who are different from them and therefore learn more about them. This approach is not unique to him, it is a routine part of cross-cultural education at Bible Colleges such as Johnson University, Cincinnati Christian University, Hope International University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Education aside, as Christians we believe it’s important to follow Jesus’ teachings as closely as possible. In the post-911 world in which we live, many Americans see Muslims as enemies. Although Andrew and I do not see them that way, even if we did, how does Jesus instruct us to treat our enemies? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Love involves respect. It involves time together. It involves sharing my life with someone. If I say I love my husband but never speak to him and avoid going places where he is, do I love him? How can I love Muslims if I never meet one, never speak to one, and do nothing to understand the way Muslims think and act?

In going to programs at the mosque or inviting friends we meet there over for dinner, we create conditions that foster mutual trust. We show genuine interest in their culture and their ideas. We demonstrate that we care about and value them as human beings and appreciate the good things about them. And we actually do care about them as human beings because Jesus cares about them. If we fear them or fear going to places they believe are important, we create mistrust. They will in turn mistrust us. How does that create an environment open for any kind of meaningful, positive interaction?

Are you trying to convert the Muslims you meet to Christianity?

Andrew and I both believe that all people are in some sort of relationship with God. Some people are close to him, pursuing him full-speed ahead. Some people have turned their backs on him and refused him. Most people are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. My goal as a Christian should be to somehow nudge people a little bit toward Jesus. Some people will jump straight into his arms, and some people may just slightly turn their faces toward him. In everything we do, we want to point people toward Jesus. Doing small things like attending a service at a mosque a couple of times a year may not make a huge difference, but it’s a little like sending $30 to a ministry that helps stop sex trafficking. It’s promoting something worthwhile in the world, even if it is a small thing that doesn’t by itself fix the problem.

Will attending a prayer service at another place of worship make you question your own faith?

I can only speak from my own experience when I say that going to another place of worship does make me question my own faith. It makes me ask what parts of my beliefs are really essential and what things are only cultural. It makes me question how I live my faith on a daily basis and whether I’m really expressing it well. Seeing how others worship makes me look at my own worship with fresh eyes. Why do I do what I do? How do other people understand that? Do the things I say and do actually communicate what God wants me to communicate?

I think questioning the things I believe is healthy. Thinking through what I believe leads to stronger faith. We see this happen in other parts of our lives. If we never use our muscles, they weaken and cease to function properly, but if we use them daily, challenge them even, they grow stronger and more efficient.

What about posting about it on Facebook? Even if your faith is strong, won’t that influence people whose faith isn’t as strong?

I hope so. I hope hearing about our experiences challenges people to start thinking about their beliefs and about the things they believe about people who are different from them. I hope it prompts them to step out of their comfort zones in order to reach out to another person and make a connection with him or her just as one human being to another.

Aren’t Muslims dangerous? Doesn’t the Qu’ran, their holy book, say things like, “Death to the infidels” and instructs them to kill everyone who isn’t Muslim?

This is an excellent question! The speaker at the lecture we attended at the mosque actually addressed this very question on Saturday. One of the teenagers in the audience said that people in his school say he’s a terrorist because all Muslims are terrorists and want to kill all non-Muslim people. He pointed out a verse in the Qu’ran that said Mohammed instructed people to do so. The speaker said that if you read that verse in context it happened during a war time, and it referred to people protecting their families and fighting for their freedom. It happened centuries ago, and, according to him, is something mainline Islam does not teach today.

I try to remember that there are different sects of Islam, just as there are different sects of Christianity. I would not want anyone to assume that all Christians are like the members of a church like the Westboro Baptist Church. I am most definitely not like them, and I never want to be seen like that. Some Muslims are radical, but most, like the ones we interact with, are regular people. They just want to live their lives and practice their faith and are much less aggressive about converting people than most churches try to persuade their members to be. Many of the immigrants who come from Muslim countries have been persecuted by the very extreme radical groups we ourselves fear.

At the lecture we attended last weekend, the man spent about 45 minutes telling the children in the audience how to react when someone bullies them for their faith, their skin color, their accent, etc. He told how he was bullied as a child and how he told the principal, who gave him the choice to ask the bullies to be punished or to forgive them. He chose forgiveness and from then on the children who had bullied him were friendly to him because they saw forgiveness in action. He urged the children in the audience to do the same, to be good examples and good students and to show others how to live peaceful lives. Many people would be surprised to know this is the message being taught in the mosque.

Good Missionary Methodology in Practice

What we hope to do by visiting a mosque a few times a year and going to the places where other religions practice, by making friends with people of other faiths and other denominations is good missionary methodology. It’s putting our faith into action by actually attempting to live out the principles we have learned in Sunday school since infancy–principles like loving our neighbor as ourselves and thinking of others above ourselves, working to build relationships with people who are discriminated against by society and standing up for those in positions of less power. These are principles that Jesus taught us. He urged his followers to be involved in people’s lives and not to rest in the safety and security of their comfortable and familiar cultures but to go out of their way to show him to those who may never see him otherwise. This is what missionaries do on a regular basis. In our current situation in America, we have the chance to do that without even leaving our own towns.

I appreciate that people asked questions about our mosque experience. I hope seeing what I wrote encourages them to reach out to a coworker or acquaintance who’s different and find ways that they are similar.

Look for Something Good

Today I started feeling like everyone’s life is a mess. Do you ever do that? Just start thinking about people you know and realize that just about everyone’s got something big they’re facing. And by “big” I mean potentially life-altering: relationship problems that just don’t end, debilitating depression, gender identity issues. This afternoon I started thinking about these things and about how life is more often than not pretty complicated and messy, and I told my friend, “I just want to go back to the time when everybody’s lives were happy and OK.” I can’t do that because, of course, that time doesn’t really exist. We just think it does when we’re young and we haven’t lived long enough to have enough people open up and share their secrets with us, when we don’t realize that everybody’s struggling in some way with something.

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One of the fond memories: vacation with the family in the mountains.

I was thinking about that this evening when I saw a Facebook post asking people to share their fondest memories. I shut my eyes and started thinking what I’d write if I were going to share. I have to admit, it took a while to get past the obligatory days: my-kids-were-born and wedding day, but as I pondered it I realized I have an awful lot of fond memories.

  • sliding (on purpose) on a patch of ice on the sidewalk in Kharkov, Ukraine only to run into Andrew at the end and knock him down
  • walking everywhere around Simferopol and Kharkov with Andrew while we were dating, not feeling tired because I was just so happy to be with him
  • cleaning my first apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Kherson while listening to 80’s music on a little red tape player
  • walking Betsy, the best dog in the world, in the cold every morning and snuggling under the covers with her at night
  • sitting at the island in our kitchen as a child and talking to my mom as she cooked dinner
  • lying in bed as a little girl, watching the “digital” clock dial turn every minute
  • reading for hours every day during Christmas break when I was in junior high
  • fighting with my sister over which direction the fan would point in high school
  • making a video with my Ukrainian friends to give to the missionaries before they moved back to the US
  • teaching my dad to use his iPad and staying up late making funny videos on it
  • spending time with my great-grandma, my grandma, and her sisters, and listening to them as they sat outside, breaking beans and laughing together and thinking about how much alike they looked and sounded
  • eating rice pudding in NYC with my friend and just being happy to be together
  • Andrew making a surprise visit to see me in Simferopol, a 12-hour train ride from his home in Kharkov, while we were dating
  • playing Michael Jackson music and dancing with Andrew and the kids after supper every night when the children were little
  • making Christmas cookies with my grandparents and my cousins and standing still while my grandpa vacuumed the flour off our clothes
  • watching Oprah and praying for her with my friends in Bible college
  • putting up a tiny Christmas tree in my first apartment and accidentally getting myself twisted up in the lights
  • the best vacation ever in Wisconsin Dells when I was about nine and my parents saying yes to everything we wanted to do
  • teaching my kids to crochet
  • some really fun parties with missionaries in Simferopol
  • walking part of the Oregon Trail with my kids and Andrew
  • meeting some writing goals I thought I wouldn’t meet
  • going to work and seeing a surprise gift waiting at my door
  • meeting my best friend (I’ll let you all think it was you–but I actually remember the moment I met a lot of you, and all of those moments were pretty great)
  • my mom teaching me to write and later to type
  • riding the scariest amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden with my ten-year-old and being more scared that my phone was going to fall out of my pocket than I was that I’d die in the ride
  • lunch dates with my American friend in Simferopol–especially the one where she slipped on a mossy sidewalk and fell in a puddle, getting green moss all over herself
  • meeting a friend to talk about writing and not talking much about writing but a lot about everything else
  • eating chips and drinking Coke and talking about life with a friend on the balcony of an apartment in Kharkov
  • laughing with my roommate about the stray horse in the courtyard of our apartment building in Kherson
  • making the kids laugh a lot by making up lyrics to a song on the radio and mimicking the person singing it
  • going to dinner with a friend and staying until they closed and then talking in the parking lot
  • lying in bed, cuddled with Emma and Andrew, warm and soft and sleepy
  • working half the night to do inventory with my boss and coworkers and laughing at everything
  • waking up with baby Emma on one side, Andrew and Hannah on the other, and Alex on my feet and not daring to move for fear of waking them up
  • lying on the picnic table at night in our back yard in Indiana when I was little, thinking about what I’d do when I grew up

Just typing all that out, just the fifteen minutes it took me to think those up, turned around how I felt. Life stinks in a lot of ways, but, man, there are some good things about it. The next time I lament giving up my alone time to be with someone else, I hope I remember how all of those things in my fondest memories list were done with other people (well, one was a dog, but maybe that sorta still counts). My friends and family make my life worth sorting out the rough parts!

Old Year Resolved

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

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

New Year’s Theme

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

New Year’s Celebration

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

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

Old Year Resolved

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Holiday Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish and Houseguests

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Movie night with the students. See how happy everyone looks?!

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Most of the time, I think Ben was onto something when he wrote that quote, but this week I disagree.

A week ago, at the end of Thanksgiving break, some sort of pipe/faucet malfunction occurred at the college where we work. A flood followed, and quite a bit of water damage happened to the classrooms, library and dorms. The college arranged for the boys to move to another dorm building and the girls to stay in a hotel. Three of the students asked if they could stay with us instead.

I have to admit I felt reluctant. I wasn’t sure. I told one of them, “I want to make sure we’re all still friends at the end of the week!” because I know that having houseguests can be stressful, for the hosts and the guests. I know I can get tired and grumpy when there’s a lot of extra stuff around the house. I know our family is pretty quiet, and enjoys our time alone to recharge. However, I asked myself what I’d wish I’d done when I look back on these times in ten years. Will I remember how we had a clean house and some quiet time or will I remember the fun we had staying up late and talking and laughing with friends? Not to mention that our children begged us to say yes. So we did.

And guess what. It was great! I loved it! How could I ever have questioned how fun it would be? They happen to be so much like us that we felt like family. I’m so glad we have such great young people in our lives, and I’m happy our children get to be around them. Having different people around lightens things up and gives all of us something different to think about. It’s not just all homework and work. We played Apples to Apples and watched movies. They filled in for us when we couldn’t get home right after work and even cleaned the house this morning!! How great is that?!

I love that we are settled enough to provide a home away from home for college students. We always wished we could have more students in our home, but, frankly, I was too stressed out and busy when the children were younger to host them. I felt like we needed our down time. Now the kids are older, and we can get down time when they’re around instead of just after they’re in bed. Now it’s fun to share our life with other people and build relationships with new people.

So here’s to stepping out and inviting some fish over. Turns out they smell pretty good!

Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Andrew was present this year. He took the picture!