The end is just the beginning

This working thing–it’s not for the faint of heart.

When I accepted the position as the Children’s Ministry Director, I thought 20 hours a week would be a breeze. I’m sure I’ve got 20 hours.

I clearly did not calculate my week properly. Because that’s half of every day, and the kids are out of school by 2 at the latest.

Right.

We are making it work, between extra hours on the weekend and a couple afternoons with the kids in the office and errands condensed, run in the little bits between. It did not help that I had two major school-wide PTA activities to run in the past month.

During this time, one of my very dearest friends suffered a tremendous health scare via her husband. I prayed for her, texted her, tried to be supportive. But how do you offer enough support to someone whose world has been swept from underneath them? I needed to do more.

More. The word sends me into a coma. But I knew this was important.

So I swept together the dregs and jetted over to her house.

“What is this?” she said as she answered the door. And instead of the thoughtful and sentimental reassurances I had swirling in my heart, I offered her a mushy foil-wrapped package of Rice Krispy treats and a burned CD with the simple admission, “This is all I’ve got.”

Did I mention it was the same foil I’d made the treats in? People, I could not even get fresh foil.

Colton Dixon has this amazing song I sing a lot these crazy days. The chorus meets me right where I am:

This is where I end
And this is where You start
And everything I needed
Is everything You are
Love has come for me

We all have an end point; we were never meant to have enough to do the things God would have us do, not on our own. That’s why God sent Love: Love in creation and covenants, with Jesus on the cross, in the Holy Spirit.

I love my friend, and when I offered her the dregs, the foil-wrapped remnants of my week, God took over. She was touched by my thoughtfulness, and we shared a much-needed conversation on her front porch.

It’s okay to admit we’re out. It’s the time when we see God most clearly, when we reach the end of the road and see that He’s there, ready to carry us on. Love has come for us all.

A life surprised

For my 30th birthday, B threw me a surprise party. In the weeks leading up to it, there were countless odd conversations (if you were going to order food from somewhere, or do you still like Costco cake conversations, etc). Friends were strangely distant, flexible plans seemed set in stone. The weekend of my birthday, I was terribly sick and asked to postpone my parents’ visit, but B insisted I’d be fine (I was not fine, I was beginning our swine flu ordeal, but I’m glad I didn’t protest).

B sent me out with my mom to get my nails done. When I returned home, B called me into the kitchen, and when I walked in, everyone yelled, “Surprise!”

I turned around and walked out of the room. Yep. My friends and family had gone to great lengths to surprise me, and I walked right out.

Surprise is hard to process.

Seconds later, I walked back in and started taking the most wonderful hugs you could imagine. Hugs not just of appreciation and joy, but also of relief. All the strange distance and confusion of the previous weeks melted away in the warmth of such love, love that would plan and prepare and work so hard to make my birthday really and truly special.

I feel as though God has thrown a surprise party for my life.

For what seems like ever, I’ve struggled to understand God’s plan for my life. I do not recommend this. God’s plan and his timing work just fine on their own, thank you very much. But I like to know. So I’ve struggled, prayed, tried and let go. I’m decently good at being obedient, so we’ve walked a path, God and I, but I was always trying to figure it out. Why would you lead me into writing when I don’t like publishing? Why would you take away these friends, the cakes, my ministries?

God never left me. But he didn’t fill me in, either. Your adventure is still to come, he told me. So I waited, patient but aching.

God wasn’t kidding.

A few months ago, eager to find my place in our church, I offered to help in the children’s ministry. In the following weeks, the director and I tried to find the right niche for me. I enjoyed everything I tried, but didn’t have a heart for anything specific. The fear set in again–another disappointment.

Then the director asked me to cover for her one Sunday, even though I was barely qualified to cover for anyone in the ministry, least of all the director. But I agreed to anyway. That morning was amazing! I loved welcoming parents, encouraging the staff, and organizing the materials. I was so shocked by how satisfying the ministry was, and what a good fit it was for my skills.

Lord, I’ve never even thought about a position in ministry, and I know I’m not qualified, but I love this work. If you want this for me someday, I trust that you will open the doors.

And that was it. I lifted up my prayer and left it go.

The next Sunday, the children’s director told me she was leaving and that the pastors wanted me to interview for her position.

Surprise!

I could not believe it. Even though I had asked for such an opening, I didn’t actually expect it would happen, and especially not in a single week. I told her about my prayer, and three days and two interviews later, I accepted the position. Scared to death of the responsibility, the permanency, the change in lifestyle to two working parents, but all in, because God asks nothing less.

It’s a dream job–part-time with full-time potential, flexibility on working at home or bringing the kids with me, and full of opportunities to use all of my different talents. Suddenly the decisions God had directed made sense, the things he took away and the doors he chose to close. Since then, I’ve been filled not just with joy for the tremendous opportunity I’ve been given, but also with relief. There was a purpose for it all, just as God promises:

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29:11)

I always trusted God, but I’d be lying if I said I always believed that verse. Sometimes, like when B planned that surprise party, you have to trust that the people around you love you, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. God is no different. He’s got big plans for each of us, and sometimes those are clear, and sometimes those are surprises.

I have a feeling I needed the surprise. I needed to be kept in the dark a little, because I learned both trust and patience. Plus I know me–I would have planned the dickens out of this career, had I known where I was heading, and probably would have missed out on building the skills he really needed me to have. Then there’s the reward, the giant payoff, which creates a whole new level of trust and respect–two things I will definitely need on a career in ministry.

Still, surprise is hard to process. I had no intention of getting a job, and when I pictured the job I might someday have, this never came to mind. I stand in awe of God’s planning, and I bow to his supreme authority. I hope I will never forget this feeling, that it may keep me forever mindful that I am second, and privileged to be so.

Suffice to say, as I start working, things like this blog will have to play second fiddle. I’m not sure what God has planned for my writing, whether it will be used within or outside of my position, but I now trust him with abiding humility. Right now, I’m focused on honoring his plan for me, and that includes clearing some mental space to get that done.

Blessed be the name of the Lord!

All good things require some strength

They were so excited. A new teacher, a new class, a new year, plus all their old friends.

I clung to summer.

2am found me still awake, crying. Just one more day, Lord. One more week. Forever. 6am came anyway, with youthful giddiness and packed backpacks and chocolate chip bagels. My babies so big, so ready.

It feels like I’ve pulled my heart from my chest and sent it off with them.

I know the plan God has for us. I know it means being in the local school, ministering to our community in the process. I know keeping them home would be self-seeking. But I want to anyway. I pray for forgiveness, for a new focus, for hands willing to take what God has for them, instead of holding on to what I must let go.

It was such a great summer. Breathtaking! We had so much, with such a great balance of friends and family, of staying home and going out. We built and rebuilt Legos, forts, obstacle courses. We swam and swam and swam. We went to the park, the beach, Nickel City, the movies. We experimented with Mentos and cookie dough and moon sand (though not all at once).

These babies of mine, they’re at such a sweet age. They’re tall, responsible, opinionated. They’re losing interest in picture books and toddler programming, but they’re also discovering new foods and books and skills. K has mastered the cartwheel and is now working on doing them one-handed. M nearly has the lay-up. We tried our first summer camp–a half day karate camp for M–and he was beyond bummed we hadn’t signed up for a second week. And yet they are still young–still pretending stuffed animals are real and Orbeez are pets and making up restaurants and art shops and letters for us. They still reach for my hands, still hug me with abandon.

Maybe I’m holding this moment so tight because I know how soon it will be gone.

As I wrote M a note for his lunch, I wondered if he’d be embarrassed yet. If there was something I would say that would make him blush, sitting at the table with his friends. As I said goodbye to him this morning, I wondered how affectionate to be. Yes, I know he’s still young, but I want to respect his maturation as well. I don’t want to hold on so tightly that they aren’t free to grow.

This conscientiousness, this is how I know I’ll be alright.

Because at the end of the day, as much as I loved our summer, as much as I treasure my sweet babies, I want even more to see them walk the path God has for them, and that takes me walking the path God has for me. With tears, sometimes, but with joy as well, even if I have to choose it sometimes instead of it coming naturally. And the joy of the Lord is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10), on all days but especially ones like these.

Choose joy. Find strength. Use that strength to choose joy again and again and again. Praise Jesus for a cycle so divine.

In the arms of a good hug

I woke to a small presence at the side of my bed–3:46 a.m. In silence, I slipped from the sheets and took K by the hand. We snuck back to her bed and she climbed in.

“Can you please give me an extra hug and a kiss?” she said with the utmost of clarity and politeness.

I held her close, her tiny arms wrapped around me, then took her little head in my hands and planted a solid kiss on the center of her forehead. She settled back between the sheets and I returned to my bed and that was the end of it.

In the morning, I asked her what had brought her to my room. “I just needed that extra hug and kiss. I don’t know why.”

There was something, surely. Something little, something nagging, something that unsettled her, something I could settle.

A parent’s love is a powerful thing. In the midst of the struggles of parenting, navigating their constantly growing independence, there is always that love. Unconditional. Reassuring. It tells them, whether they know what’s wrong or not, that something is there for them, backing them up. That they are important, valued, recognized. Loved, truly and deeply.

This is our Father’s love also, even more unconditional and powerful that our love for our own children. Perfect love, which we can strive for but never fully achieve.

We wake, we struggle, we fall. I fail to come to God, often because I think I can or should handle it myself, often because I don’t know what I’d be coming for.

We don’t need a reason. Sometimes we just need love.

God is waiting. God is never asleep. God is closer even than my bedroom to K’s.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19)

So when that’s hard, when anything and everything and nothing is hard, let him love.

K slept two hours later than usual that morning. I like to the reassurance I gave her led to such rest. If I came to God, if I let him love me like that, would I be rested like that as well? Would I have as much energy as she did, brilliantly awake and cheerful?

Love is a powerful thing.

I don’t blame her for shaking

You know the cry, the one that swells from regular into wail, the one that says something is very wrong.

As the shift happened, I dropped what I was doing and moved for the staircase, my mind racing through the possible catastrophes. But before I could get far, K speed-walked into the kitchen, one hand held steady by another, her body shaking with panic. A very sizeable shard of wood had gone straight through the end of her finger, starting at the pad and coming out in by her nail, blood already spread around it.

“Oh my,” I managed. Her shaking was uncontrollable. As quickly and delicately as I could, I pulled the shard from her hand (honestly, I just wanted that thing out of her finger, freaked-out as I was). Then I examined it closely, making sure that I’d gotten every bit and that there were no other splinters than the (giant) one. I wrapped it with tissue and got her some ice. I smothered her with kisses and hugs and reassurances that it was scary but fine.

But when she was calm, we went to the banister and I asked her where she’d been holding on. I ran my hands along every inch of that banister, checking for loose wood, making sure it was smooth. There was one little chink and I smoothed it off, then talked about how the banister was old and maybe we shouldn’t run our hands along it too roughly.

I was so thankful that she came to me, panicked as she was. I was thankful that she trusted me to make it better. I was thankful that she knew I would be more skilled at the task than her, because she could easily have broken that splinter off trying to get it out, and then we’d have had a much more unpleasant task before us. I was thankful that I could care for her, both in the moment and in the future, trying to ensure she was safe and also trying to help her learn.

It’s not lost on me how very much I learn about God through parenting.

How many times do I panic? How often do I try to fix it myself? I will do better, I tell myself. I will be different. But those hurts, those struggles, those are the very times that we need our God. He is so much more capable–dexterous but gentle. He sees the big picture, the real place of our hurt, and not just the bloody spot on our hand. And He longs to comfort us, immediately and tenderly.

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)

I imagine the love I have for my children, the way I want to help them, keep them safe, teach them and comfort them. And then I multiply that by a million. And then I stand awestruck to know that even that doesn’t capture my Father’s love. Why, in the midst of struggle, do I still refuse that love? What do I make worse by not taking my hurts immediately to the one who loves me more than I could ever imagine?

I know enough to not task myself to do better. But I will try to remember: the way I could help K, the way God could help me, the way we could work together. And maybe the next time that I am shaking with fear, I will remember that I don’t have to face it on my own.

Squirrel School

It started out so innocently.

I still miss having pets. The rest of our family does not. Thankfully, we had a couple of squirrels in the backyard, and I took to feeding them occasionally. Or often. Maybe calling them pets. And generally pretending that they appreciated me for more than my nuts. So we went from one squirrel to a couple of squirrels. Squirrel babies. A couple more squirrels. And then I came out one morning to discover 3 grown squirrels, 7 baby squirrels, and 1 very confused little bunny.

As the rest of you probably guessed already, this does not end well.

It took me awhile to see it, what with all the cute little animals running about. But after noticing that our growing summer green beans are now thoroughly leafless–why yes, squirrels do climb PVC pipe and eat green bean leaves with the greatest of ease, even if they also eat a steady diet of nuts, thank you very much–we committed to the extrication of the squirrels. Humanely, of course. With tears. Did I mention what a pet person I am?

But everything–everything–has a lesson from the Lord. Here’s what He’s teaching me:

1) Identify your needs

Those spaces in our hearts, we fill them with all sorts of things. Food, clothes, legalism, etc. Even squirrels. I might say on the surface that I needed a pet, but I was also lonely, slowly left behind by school-bound children. That hole, I’m never going to be able to fill it without know what shape it is, and that might require opening myself up to find out.

2) Accept no substitute

Once that need is recognized, be very careful to be filling it with the right thing. I might gently argue that most of those right things come from God, but in the very practical sense, I was not going to meet the need for a pet by calling a wild squirrel by the same name. Substituting at this stage may seem like the ideal solution–it certainly did to me–but it ends up causing even more pain when you recognize that you’re just going to have to rip that ill-fitting piece out of the hole. Trust me.

3) Boundaries are there for a reason

God bless boundaries. The limits we set on our time, our space, our values–they are there to keep our hearts safe. It may seem to easy to toe the line, to cross it every now and again, say yes to something that we know we shouldn’t. Just this once, we tell ourselves. But crossing boundaries is a tricky feat, because there often is something else just a little farther begging our attention. And once we’ve crossed that line, it’s hard to see it quite so clearly anymore. So the one squirrel turns into two turns into an extended animal family. Before you know it, it’s not you on their territory but them on yours–your heart, your values, your green beans. What started out as cute, helpful, or gracious ends up hurting things you value. So guard what you value carefully.

4) Right stuff is often hard, and hard stuff is often right

Reestablishing those boundaries, removing substitutions, and taking a long hard look at what you really need are all super big feats. They may be the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with a hefty emotional price tag. Trapping those beloved squirrels, taking them elsewhere, watching them scamper away, returning to an empty backyard–talk about traumatic. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do. Give yourself some time, some space, and a whole lot of grace. It’s okay for it to be hard. Stay the course and rely on your team. Which means–

5) Know your team

These are the people on your side. God, spouse, family, friends. You know, the people who don’t think you’re crazy for befriending a squirrel (or at least try to understand it). Whatever you substituted, that’s probably not on your team. Like the squirrel, who did not seem to care where my boundaries should be or why green beans weren’t included. Know who’s on that team and turn to them for support. In turn, be ready to support them when they struggle–be gentle in helping them see the need, eliminate substitutes, maintain boundaries. And be especially graceful as you walk with them through the hard stuff. Next time it might be your squirrel heading up the block. You want to dole out the kind of grace you’re going to need.

So that’s that. Squirrels and decimated green beans and heavy emotional fallout. God truly does work in mysterious ways, but I take heart that I can trust in their inevitable goodness.

Awesome imperfection

I’ve been a little overwhelmed lately by some perfection messages. One of my dear friends wrote recently about her struggles regarding the messiness of her faith. Somehow she–and let’s face it, many of us–feels like it should have some shiny glow. That there should be constant communion with God, memorized scripture, extended times of prayer, and enriching quiet times alongside corporate study.

Where did we get the impression that’s what faith should look like?

When I hit the scriptures, faith looks messy. It’s believing in something unseen and often unfelt. It’s standing out against the backdrop of our culture. It’s being aware of our shortcomings, of what we lack, of what a terrible price Christ paid for us. It’s sounding crazy sometimes, defending miracles and resurrections and archaic biblical messages, not to mention the conversations we–by most reasonable assessment–should not be having.

Nothing about true faith sounds shiny to me.

Motherhood neither. As Mother’s Day rolls past, we’re crying at our kindergarteners singing about us seeing them as beautiful, those little voices rising with semi-synchronized hand gestures, our minds full of times we’ve made them feel otherwise (like this very morning when I suggested to K that she might want different leggings that matched her dress and suddenly I’ve crushed her into thinking her idea isn’t okay. Way to blow it, mom). I read yet another post about how much I’m missing when I check my iPhone or run to Walmart during M’s karate, how many moments are slipping through my fingers, how much more I should be present, how much more I should enjoy.

Where did we get that message either?

I can point a few fingers: those blog posts, magazines, Pinterest. What’s worse, often the alternative messages are denigrating. Moms “confess” they’ve resorted to McDonald’s and/or locking themselves in the closet so that we can bond over the okay-ness of our failure. Even there we have this notion that there is a perfect ideal that we’re somehow all missing. The other message that stings is the “anyone can do this!” cheerfulness. I know we are trying to encouraging when we say “anyone can make this craft!” or “anyone can throw this recipe together!” But when we can’t, we feel like a failure.

Motherhood is messy, too. It’s hit the ground running in a rush of hormones and exhaustion. It’s everything changing. It’s diapers and sleepless nights, arguments, discipline. It’s teaching and standing back (and sometimes guessing when to do which one). It’s a huge thing, raising a little person. There’s so much for them to soak in–and do we ever expect them to take it all in? Or more than that: to stand back and recognize that the are taking it all in, while taking it all in?

In faith, motherhood, and life in general, there are so many different things we could do, and always something left unchosen. Life is messy, especially when you live it abundantly. So instead of the expectations, the self-deprecation, the shiny Pinterest perfection of which we fall woefully short, I would like to push this message:

You. Are. Awesome.

Try saying it to yourself. Try saying it again out loud. Try really meaning it. Because you are. Period. Even without memorized scripture or handmade felt decor. Even with McDonald’s and an empty prayer journal. None of these things will make you any more or less awesome. You are awesome because the maker of the universe knit you together, one molecule at a time.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work at our faith, our mothering, our lives. But don’t work to be awesome. Work because you’re awesome, and God means for you to enjoy that, in action and in rest. And trying to balance that in a broken world is messy. An awesome mess, but messy nonetheless. Being frustrated with that just shows that we are meant for someplace perfect. Perfect sounds great, but for now, I’ll settle for awesome imperfection.