Friday, November 29, 2013

5 Things I Learned in November

It's that time again. The post where I share what I've learned this month. It's not an exhaustive list, nor will it change your life. But it's a fun post to write and I'm thankful that Emily over at Chatting at the Sky offers this link-up opportunity at the end of each month. Want to know more of what I'm talking about? Go here.

In no particular order, here are five things I've learned in November.

{So technically this first one reaches back into October but I'm using it anyway.}

1. Sometimes going the extra mile for our kids is totally worth it, even if you lose a bit of sanity in the process. 

My Facebook post on October 30th:

Halloween. The holiday that is evil not because of witches and ghosts but because mothers everywhere are losing their religion over an 'easy'-30-minute-turned-six-hour-costume creation. Last year? A human-sized bag of Skittles. This year? A hand-painted Michigan football helmet.

I told the kids we weren't buying anything this year, that we were using stuff we had. Since my 10-year-old had Michigan football player gear, I figured I'd just paint a plastic helmet navy blue and slap on a Michigan emblem. But no. Because Michigan helmets don't look like that. They look like this:

No big deal, I thought. It's a simple enough design. Four hours later, I was ready to stress-eat a 10-pound bag of kiddie mix and just spend the $20 at Walmart on a skeleton costume. But paint on I did and in the end, I had a sweet and grateful mini football player.

He was so grateful that I received a thank-you note a few days later. {Totally indulgent to show you this but I can't resist.} It's a keeper because y'all, he gave me hearts for eyes. I will swoon forever over this card.

2. It is a lovely and affirming thing to hang out with fellow bloggers.

I've been writing here for over five years and I don't know about most bloggers, but I don't actually have real-life friends where I live who blog. While other moms are getting laundry done or organizing their kids' classroom holiday parties or homeschooling or going back into the workplace, I'm sitting in my pajamas or at Starbucks {but not in my pajamas at Starbucks} writing posts about being a reluctant cheer mom and other assorted randomness. 

It can seem a little strange. But having the opportunity to attend the Allume conference helped me feel a little less weird. I had the best time hanging out with hundreds of Christian blogging women gathered for a weekend of keynotes and workshops and fellowship.

And then spiraled into a post-conference pit of introvert exhaustion for the next five days.

3. At Allume, I learned about an incredible organization called Sole Hope. If you have a minute, check them out.

I spent Saturday afternoon at the conference cutting out fabric that will be sewn into shoes for kids in Africa, saving their feet from parasites and disease. The shoe-making also translates into work for African men and women. 

For just $10, you can buy a kit for a shoe-cutting party. I bought one at Allume and I'm thinking this might be a great activity for my daughter and her middle school friends or a fun and meaningful activity for family over the holidays. Lots of possibilities. All you need are some good scissors and old jeans. They provide everything else.

4. Oprah had a yard sale. And I am still sad I missed it. But seeing as how she sold a pair of Louis XVI arm-chairs, I'm pretty sure I couldn't have afforded a single thing. Still, Oprah + Yard Sale? Yes, please. 

5. And speaking of shopping, we experienced the strangest consumerist role reversal ever this morning

My husband {a total non-shopper} and my daughter {a total shopper} went Black Friday shopping early this morning while I slept in. What?!? 

Nothing like this has ever happened. And then it got even weirder.

Ten minutes before they got home, I get this phone call from my anti-shopping husband: 

Um, I'm sorry. I over-bought. But don't worry, I'll be returning stuff. 

It's officially Bizarro World. {Name that reference?}


I'm sure there's more stuff I've learned but I am still in a pecan pie / dressing / yeast roll coma from yesterday and my brain is a tad fuzzy.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend, friends. 

What did you learn this month?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Receiving Your Own Life This Thanksgiving

We welcome "easy gratitude" into our hearts like easy friends, the ones who stride effortlessly through our front doors, tossing their coats on the sofa, sliding the metal cars and Legos to the side so they can prop up their feet. They help themselves to coffee, fold the basket of laundry while they visit, make honest conversation so that it's not like conversation at all; it's just breathing with words.

Most of our gratitude is like that easy friend. It's a no-brainer. It's so obvious, it often eludes acknowledgement. Except for during weeks like this, seasons set apart to give thanks for what is good and true and beautiful in our lives.

We give easy thanks for family, food, time with those we love, early sunsets that blaze like fire, the earthy, simmering, smoldering scents of the season, all that we have, that if we're honest, we know we don't really deserve. 

If even at a subconscious level, we are thankful for grace, for all things undeserved but often under-appreciated.

We toss around "grace" to describe the lovely and the unmerited and the fantastically unexpected.

And we should. Grace is everywhere, lowly and loving even when we don't acknowledge its existence, its movement in our everyday, its inexhaustible ability to never tire of giving and giving and giving with nothing in return, its utter inability to be anything other than its character.

We love this side of grace, even if we fail to comprehend how counter it is compared to how we are.

But what about the "flip side" of grace? This "side" isn't actually an alter ego but is instead so blended into grace's wholeness that we can't tell where the blazing-beauty-of-the-sunset-grace ends and the unwelcome-mess-of-our-real-lives-grace begins.

What about the grace that we don't acknowledge as grace at all but as gross imperfection and discouraging failure and ends that don't meet and seemingly hopeless relationships? And how is this even grace?

When we take turns around the Thanksgiving table this week, when we say what we're thankful for with teary eyes and bursting hearts, I doubt we'll offer gratitude for the hard roads. And that's okay. We don't have to. We can say we're thankful for our health and our children and roofs over our heads and we should. We should.

But might I offer the possibility of another Thanksgiving table, one that's equal parts table and altar? It's okay not to invite anyone else. It's okay for this conversation to be private and unspoken and simply between you and the Giver of Grace, the One who is Grace incarnate. 

This is the Thanksgiving Table of Imperfection and Failure and Hardship. It's the place where we sling our everyday heaping platters of all that we wish was different and we give thanks anyway.

Ann Voskamp calls this the "hard eucharisteo" in her book, One Thousand Gifts. It's a Greek word in which thanksgiving and joy and grace are all bound together. Eucharisteo is what Jesus did in the upper room with the disciples when He broke the bread and gave thanks even as He was preparing to die. 

This is not an easy thanksgiving. It's a humble and determined submission that only Grace can provide.

I call it what I've begun to call the many verses that seem to comprise the song of my story: Receiving My Own Life. 

What does that mean? 

It means not looking at what I think I want or what I feel I deserve or what someone else has or who I want myself to be or who I want others to be

It means unwrapping my own life, every part of it, as a sacred gift

It means receiving my inability and imperfections as purposeful graces because they show me that I am not, nor will I ever be, my own savior. 

It means receiving real life.

It means receiving the harsh reality that I will keep on disappointing my husband and he will keep on disappointing me because we are human and we are sinners and this is marriage. Grace enables us to keep on loving anyway. 

We are frail and finite, faulty and forgetful. And because we are one, our sin is constantly scraping up against one another.

But disappointment brings us to repentance and repentance brings us to forgiveness and forgiveness brings us to restoration. Restoration over and over again until our days on this earth are over. 

This very real relationship is hard precisely because it is real. We're not roommates. We're not Prince Charming and Cinderella. We have never ridden off into the sunset on our trusty steed. Unless our banged-up Toyota Sienna is a trusty steed and in that case, okay. There may be an element of fairy-tale-ness to the adventure that is our life together after all. 

But receiving the disappointment also means receiving the opportunity to acknowledge my humble state, his humble state, our humble state. We can offer grace to one another only because we've first received it from the only One who can save us.

This is hard grace. And we need it.

It means receiving the obvious reality that I am woefully selfish and not the mom I'd like to be on most days. 

I can be harsh. I can be distant and distracted and preoccupied. I can wield cutting words like a world-class fencer. I can speak before I think and what's worse? I can speak even after I think and the words don't always come out any differently because I do. I can want and wish for different every day and no amount of might can change the condition of my heart. Ask me how I know.

But receiving the harsh reality of imperfect motherhood means receiving the opportunity to fall on my knees in sheer and utter need. It means being broken when I see their hurt that I've caused. Sometimes it means running after a crying boy in the backyard and falling on my knees before him, both of us in tears and me, the grown-up who has acted like a spoiled child, apologizing over and over and him forgiving in an instant because that's what children do more readily than grown-ups: forgive

This is hard grace. And we need it.

It means receiving the embarrassing realization that I am just bad at stuff that comes easily to so many others. And it means living loved anyway. 

Not talent-type stuff like singing or ballet or being able to paint. I don't want to be a contestant on The Voice. I'd just like to be a contestant on The Competent. I'm talking about basic stuff like staying within my budget and getting laundry done and managing my time well and getting up early so I can stride into the kitchen and fix oatmeal without wanting to slay someone for no reason other than the fact that I am half-asleep and grumpy and they are awake and needing a lunch to take to school. 

I often lack discipline and diligence when left to myself. And I definitely lack determination in the wake of failure and this would be fine-ish if my lack didn't affect others, which it often does. Bring on the guilt. 

But receiving the harsh reality of imperfect character and questionable competence means receiving the opportunity to live loved anyway. It means ravenous, desperate listening to the word of God that says to me, Child, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You are loved. You are mine. Nothing can take you away from me, not even your own everyday failure. Especially not that. 

I was needfully reminded by my friend Ellen last week that fear only motivates temporarily but love motivates in a way that lasts. She encouraged me to "live loved" {that's her line, by the way} and now I want to turn those two words into a billboard to mount on the roof of my house. 

Living loved makes all the difference. 

I can look at my failure and turn from it in my own strength, making lists and reading books and resolving to just get it right from here on out. Or I can look at my Savior who came because we are all lacking. I can still seek change but instead of seeking it through my own strength, I ask for the change that only He can manufacture. Change that is lasting not because I never fail but because it's fueled by the Grace and Love to get back up and keep going anyway.

This is hard grace. And I need it.

It means receiving my own story even though it is not the one I would have asked for. 

Though I am honest here, I am also private about some hard things.

I don't want to provoke interest or curiosity. Quite the opposite, actually. Though I'm purposefully veiled, I write about the reality of painful things only to tell you this: Just when I think I've gratefully received that which is past and that which I cannot change, I'm often blindsided by remorse and self-pity, anger and shame, a desire to deny and a compulsion to hide.

But receiving our own stories invites us to come out of hiding. It invites us to step into a story that is greater and not all about us. It invites us to accept raw, beautiful, and sobering realities: 

Triumph would seem normal without tragedy

Redemption wouldn't exist without failure

Real change would be under-appreciated without season after season of real disappointment. 

The joy of new mercies would be everyday no-big-deal-ness without the dark night of weeping.

A new start can only be celebrated in the context of something else that came to an end, often painfully.

The Thanksgiving Table is a feast of paradox because The Thanksgiving Table is a feast of Grace and that's the upside-down-ness and inside-out-ness of what Grace is and Who Grace is. 

Grace is paradoxical, non-sensical even.

Grace welcomes the bride in her beauty and the beggar in his rags.

Grace soothes our scars and lifts our downcast faces so that we can see the beauty in the brokenness.

Grace leads us away from what we think we're missing, prompts us to acknowledge our actual bounty, and then takes our hand and dances around it with us. 

Grace knows we need to apologize because we can be idiots and she accompanies us to do what we ought, pride-swallowing and all. She shows us the greatness of humility.

Grace keeps running after us even though we push her away like an unruly toddler, wanting to do all this business of living all by our big selves.

Grace gives us days that are so rich with obvious goodness, we can't contain the fullness. And Grace gives us days that rain such heavy buckets of sorrow, we can't contain the sadness. 

We can't separate easy Grace and hard Grace because it is all grace.

I cannot write those words or read those words or deeply acknowledge those words without getting weepy. I am not that old yet but I've lived long enough to know this Truth with all that I am:

Life is all grace.

Today and this week and throughout the coming days, think about what it means to receive your own life as a gift. To receive the moments of wide-eyed wonder and the moments of teary-eyed disappointment. To bask in the bounty and make peace with the pain.

Wherever you feast, whatever your story, whoever you are, gather 'round the Table of Grace. And give thanks.


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Thursday, November 21, 2013

When You Have More Questions Than Answers. Or So It Seems.

I over-think.

It is the mother of all cursed predispositions, if you ask me. 

From time to time my task-oriented friends have said they envy how I take time to process and write about the overflow of my mind and heart. But this is not a discipline or necessarily even a virtue; it's just me. And lately, I have exhausted myself from the inside out. 

Much of the time I feel like I might be a crazy person.

Please, non-overthinking-friends, heartily embrace your level-headed natures and neat categories and non-tendencies to debate everything internally. 

Over-thinking is no joy ride. One spirals and upswings and plummets and it feels like the cruelest coaster in the world. 

Gone are the days where I valued my meandering mind and ability to accept {even if I didn't support} all sorts of contradictions. Gone is my self-satisfaction in never throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I'd love a tidy box right now.

I'd love non-negotiable resolution about every single complicated issue under the sun.

I'd love to wear black and white every day of my life and never don a muddled hue again.

The gray is killing me.

I have written and prayed and gotten emotional and gone to the place where over-thinking minds tend to go when they're knee-deep in tough issues...the internet. This is a bad idea.

I have asked God to show me Truth and I have eaten His word like a starving child. This is a good idea.

But I'll be honest, sometimes I stumble into just as many questions as I find answers. Or so it seems. 

I research and study and read things one way while someone else reads them another and we're both earnestly seeking but we end up at different destinations and how can this be and why are so many challenging issues all coalescing at the same time? 

My husband tells me to let things settle, to stop thinking for a while, which is sort of like asking the sun to take a few days off from shining.

My spirit struggles to still itself and my mind ticks on anyway and my pretend conversations make me want to kick my own dueling inner monologues to the curb.

I'm not typically fond of "narrow-minded" people.

But these days, a narrow mind sounds like a welcome relief.

Where does the over-thinker go when so much seems unresolved? 

At the risk of offering a tidy solution to an issue that is anything but simple, for those who are in Christ, we go to what we do know instead of stewing in what we don't. 

We go to who we know. 

That's where All-Things-Unresolved took me yesterday morning. 

I sat at my makeshift writing nook, reading and praying and desperate for God to speak.

And He did. He gave my restless spirit his Word, specifically the passage that He gave me on one of the very first mornings of a brand new season in my life, a season dedicated to rest.

It was early January almost two years ago and I sat in an overstuffed chair at the public library, Bible and journal splayed across my lap. A passage from Ephesians 3 opened up like the perfect gift, the kind that's uniquely personal and just what you needed and how did the Giver know exactly what to get you?

The verse has unwrapped itself over and over again, continuing to resurface over the last two years, buoying my sinking spirit and tired bones and uncertain mind.

One day during that same season I sat in my bed, exhausted and pensive, while the kids were in school. With my daughter's watercolors I sketched a tree and penciled the words from Ephesians throughout its branches. To be honest, it's a terrible piece of art, completely amateur in every way, but it's above my desk anyway. I don't often consider it because I see it every day. 

But yesterday I looked up and saw the tree and the penciled words smeared with watercolors like it was all brand new. I turned to Ephesians and opened the gift again, grateful and tearful and expectant. 

God answered me with this:

Prayer for Spiritual Strength
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, {Eph. 3:14-20}

There's so much to uncover in this passage, so much that's relevant to my own current struggle. But perhaps the take-away is simply this: Jesus is enough. His love is everything.

He's my strength and surety when so much else seems undecided. Do I believe this? I do. But I admit, it's an astounding mystery, simple enough for a child to understand and deep enough for scholars to dissect throughout the ages.

Where does a Believer go when she's sure of her foundation but buffeted by the winds of confusion and controversy and contradiction about so many other things? 

She goes to Jesus. 

His love roots a daughter and strengthens her insides even when she feels weak and wind-blown. 

His love doesn't answer her questions with a paper or a principle or persuasion. It answers her questions with a Person. 

A Person that so roots us and envelops us and fills us with an immeasurable love that surpasses even knowledge itself.

Instead of seeking greater knowledge, I find Christ.

Instead of chasing after insight, I rest in Christ. 

Instead of sifting through bias and books and banter, I make Christ my home as He makes his home in me.

I cling to the beautiful mystery, despite losing my grip every single day.   

This piece of commentary on Ephesians 3:17, "so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith," paints the perfect picture:

In a word, faith is not a distant view, but a warm embrace, of Christ, by which he dwells in us, and we are filled with the Divine Spirit. 

Not a distant view, but a warm embrace.

To be sure, knowledge and understanding are woven into faith but when knowledge supercedes Christ, I end up striving and loveless and anxious. I have a "distant view" of my Savior, obscured by all sorts of intellectual distractions.

I don't have any more answers or resolutions or conclusions than I did a few weeks ago. 

But I'm aware of the deep, deep love of Jesus.

I'm rooted and grounded in a love that surpasses knowledge. 

I find comfort and certainty in his warm embrace. 


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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Simple Tool That Orders Our Days & Saves My Sanity {Kind of}

I hit a squirrel on the way to the middle school this morning so I'm sitting in Starbucks right now drowning my guilt and horror in Holiday Blonde Roast. 

Sometimes the week seems to begin with fail despite our best efforts and intentions to begin with win.

I've been {attempting to} get up way earlier for many weeks now. I succeed about one-third of the time. 

Today was not one of them.

Time in the morning before the rest of the family bombards me with words and the need to be fed {the nerve of them} provides this weary mom with desperately-needed time to wake up, pray, and, on a good day, spend time studying Scripture. 

Even though I don't succeed more often than I do, I keep trying. I'd like to say that I'm kind to myself on the fail days. I'm not. Thankfully my husband is. He brings me coffee in bed and prays with me before I can even acknowledge what day it is and scrounges for the boys' matching socks in the laundry basket that has yet to be sorted. Because he's been waking up next to me for 18 years, he understands that early mornings are simply easier for some than for others. I'm still try to accept this. 

I've only been a stay-at-home mom with all of my kids in school for three months but I feel like I should have a better grasp on how to do my days. I prioritize and make lists but on most days I consider how the hours and tasks and relationships have transpired and then figuratively bang my head on the piano a la Don Music from The Muppets: I'll never, never get it! Never! {Anyone?}

This thing of ordering our days and prioritizing and living from a well of grace is very much in process for me but I recently realized that there is actually one practical saving grace in the midst of all the crazy. {One saving grace besides my husband who brings me coffee.} 

It's something super spiritual and profound. Ready?

This $4.99 weekly planner decal

Martha Stewart Home Office™ with Avery™ Dry Erase Weekly Planner Red and Gray, 5-7/8in. x 15-7/8in.

Ours sticks to the front of the fridge. I'm not affiliated with Staples or Martha Stewart in any way. I'm just a scattered mom sharing real-life hacks that work for me. Well, let's be honest, the one real-life hack that works for me.

I stumbled upon this gem when doing back-to-school shopping with my daughter. Though I keep my calendar on my iPhone and set alerts for everything, I've found that the whole family needs a large visual of the week. Each day has plenty of room and I write out our dinner plans at the bottom. 

There's something about only viewing a week at a time that's helpful for me. It's like a manageable bite instead of an overwhelming buffet. 

I fill out the upcoming week's calendar each Saturday and think through our meals at the same time. The whole thing takes five minutes. 

One week I failed to fill out the calendar and was shocked to find that things went really badly. I couldn't believe how much difference this simple tool made in keeping us on track.

When I filled out the calendar this weekend, I discovered that we have to be at three different places at 5:30 today. Seeing this dilemma in black and white on the front of my fridge helped us plan for it in advance. Crazy how a simple stick-on calendar has helped to eliminate surprises like that.

It's also helped me incorporate margin on weeks that are full. I talked a little bit about creating margin in this post. It's simple really. If there's too much black scrawl and not enough white space, I think about what I can rearrange or even cancel altogether. If our calendars don't have white space, our lives won't either. And that just makes for a life that's jerking us around instead of a life that's lived with some intentionality.

Different systems work for different families and different personalities. This just happens to be the one that's helping us out right now.

I wish there was a $4.99 tool to help me navigate everything else, including spastic squirrels that run across the road when it's just too dang early to deal with death.

What about you? Any real-life hacks and simple solutions that are working for your family? Let's dish in the comments. 

{If you don't live near a Staples and would rather order one from amazon, I found this similar calendar.}


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