Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Umbrellas, Overestimating My Power, and Freedom



I sat down by the ocean with the wind whipping around and the sun turning my winter-white skin a golden shade of peach.  I was alone, pondering life and motherhood and roles and the self-inflicted rules that I once thought would bring me life but instead offered a slow death by fatigue.

I stared at our navy and white striped umbrella sunk deep into the damp sand providing a circle of shade and protection from the early summer heat. The wind whipped it and shook it and yet it didn't move.  I looked at it and thought of my mothering, and that the umbrella must be a metaphor for all that I am and do.  I must provide all protection and never waver in the storm, and my presence must stand deep, strong and firm, and there is no room for me to venture into any calling beyond that one rooted space.

And within minutes of that narrow and restrictive and formulaic thought, the wind took my umbrella down the beach, twisting and turning at the mercy of unseen forces. And the Voice whispered deep in my spirit, "You are not Me for your children. That is my job."

And I repented and I relaxed and I smiled the way that you do when freedom blows you hard and your spirit flies free.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Weekly List, May 18

I absolutely adore making lists and the deep satisfaction of checking things off. Brain to hand to paper helps me to make sense of my life and my daily priorities. Many friends enjoy seeing my lists, so for now, I have decided to share a personal photographed list every Monday. In the early years of the blogosphere, there was something so interesting about taking a peek into someone else's everyday life. My weekly list will be a small peek into mine.

I am at Holden Beach, North Carolina this week for our annual family vacation. So my list is short and yet important.



Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Abbey, Alligators, and Courage in our Calling



I first heard about Mepkin Abbey a few years ago, and when I looked at their website, I knew that I wanted to have a visit.  Mepkin is a Trappist Monastery located on a beautiful piece of land along the banks of the Cooper River in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. As with all monasteries, hospitality is offered to visitors with warmth and grace. The old plantation land is still home to amazing, large Live Oak trees that drip with silvery moss, and there are also well-kept gardens, ponds and a prayer labyrinth for any guest to come and enjoy.

I showed up on my 42nd birthday, all alone and happy to have several hours for receptive listening and contemplation and prayer.  I entered into the Visitor's Center and spent some time looking at their lovely books and treated myself to Henri Nouwen's book Life of the Beloved. There is something so nurturing for me in spending time alone in a slow and beautiful setting that tunes my heart towards God and allows me to pick up on His whispers and nudges and graces. Slowing our life down is an act of trust that all will be well.  The ultra-efficient, fast life doesn't need to rule us and cause us to miss out on paying attention.


I drove down to the gardens, and when I got out, the drizzling rain began.  I loved walking through the quiet mistiness and observing the natural gifts that God was offering. A retired couple from Huntington Beach, California, was also there...all outfitted like tourists with bug spray, Eagle Creek backpacks, sturdy hiking shoes, and maps and cameras in both hands. I fought a sense of judgment towards them while thinking that most of us as tourists seem to show up ready to consume instead of ready to receive.  We demand to consume a certain knowledge or experience and we will push to make that happen instead of allowing the environment and setting to speak to us in its own way.  We come into conquer instead of entering in to learn.

It didn't take long for my arrogant ponderings to be interrupted when I saw a snake in the grass near my feet.  I have had a long-standing phobia of snakes that God has been healing by my having five adventurous sons who find snakes to be some of the most fascinating of creations. I quickly moved away from it and breathed deep only to look ahead toward the banks of the pond that I wanted to explore to find an alligator sitting on the left-side bank. Again I redirected my steps through the grass up the hill only to stumble upon another snake making his way towards the water. This threatened to do me in.


In the past, snakes and alligators would have been signals for me to simply leave. I would have not been able to stay and enjoy another minute of my time because fear would have had a stranglehold on me not to mention the panic that the fight-or-flight response triggers in those kinds of seemingly threatening situations. This time though I was determined not to allow fear to keep me in a place of living small and living safe.  I called Mike at this point and his reaction was the same.  He agreed that his initial response would be to tell me to be hyper-aware, back up and get to a "safe spot", but that we knew this time that wasn't the truth that I needed to lean into.

The fact is that when we decide to pursue a life of Beauty and Adventure in our callings, in our passions and in our dreams, we will face snakes and alligators every single time.  Fear and threat aren't just found when we are veering off the path into unknown territory, but they show up right here in our chosen paths of life every day. Perceived threats will arrive wherever we want to go in life, and these predators love to show up when we are seeking Beauty in our giftings and in seeking to hear His voice and want us to be paralyzed and shut down and shut up by fear. Their messages tell us to freeze, hide, and be quiet. Our fight-or-flight responses shut down our creativity, our rational problem-solving skills, and put us into self-protection and into "going away". Our presence is gone from the present. Fear robs us of all good things especially knowing God's love and the love of others and strips us of our ability to love back. There is wisdom in noticing threat but not in allowing it to rule us and control our choices. Growth comes when we can notice but choose courage.

If I had left the Abbey at the point that I met the reptiles, I would have missed out on a deeply meaningful walk through the outdoor prayer labyrinth where the path dividers were filled with yellow and purple wildflowers with viceroy and cloudless yellow sulphur butterflies skipping across the paths and ladybugs making their ascent up stalks to find their afternoon lunch of aphids. I wouldn't have had the chance to repent of my fears and offer up prayers of healing for my gut as I sat in the center of that labyrinth space.


If I had left the Abbey, I wouldn't have met Brother Joe whose birthday was also that day and we would have missed sharing in that joy together. I would have missed the tour of the church designed by Cistercian architecture that offered simplicity, balance and contemplation.  I would have missed Brother Joe's humility about how he approaches conflict with a brother, his thoughts on diet and food, and the meaning behind the Vow of Stability that challenges my own wanderlust sensibilities when it comes to location and community.


If I had left the Abbey, I would have missed out on Beauty and Courage and Connection and Grace. I would have driven away harried and harassed and saddened by my day. Instead, my day was filled with all the good things that we really want in life when we move through fear and say Yes to Presence. This is a lesson that I will be thinking and reflecting on in the days to come as I face fears in writing, speaking, and in investing myself into my husband, children and friendships. I don't want to be robbed anymore but to live life open, courageous and abundantly.





Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Marriage and Love Languages and Honesty


Most of 2015 has found our family to be busier than we have chosen in the past.  When our children were small, we kept a guard against busyness and much preferred a slower, more contemplative lifestyle.  But as your children age and you begin to allow them to make social decisions and extracurricular decisions, your life becomes much fuller and scheduling becomes a sort of art-form of ebb and flow. There is a real need for quality time at home and yet another need for being more open and flexible to the world around us.

As a result of greater involvement in Scouting and youth group activities, and for me, a greater investment in loving and leading women, Mike and I just haven’t been getting the time that we need with each other to feel connected and loved and known. Both Mike and I have Quality Time as our primary love language, and when that language isn’t being spoken we both feel pretty neglected. As an aside, I think it’s really wise to see how love languages influence a marriage and also parenting and friendships. We tend to love others according to our own language, and if we speak a different language, then sometimes we don’t realize how we are being loved by someone and only look at the ways that we think we aren’t. It’s really helpful to communicate what our languages are to each other!


So we went to Charleston, SC, for an overnight this past weekend. We had the annual triple whammy of my birthday, our 18th anniversary and Mother’s Day to celebrate and getting out of town for 18 hours is better than not going at all! We both entered this weekend feeling happy and hopeful for rest and connection but as the Friday evening wore on and the expectations of intimacy arose, we realized how relationally disconnected we felt and that no amount of physical closeness was going to connect what was feeling broken on a spiritual and emotional level. That would just be a brief band-aid of sorts and may give us the illusion of connection when our hearts would be far from one another.

So instead, Mike and I stayed up talking vulnerably with open listening and sharing without accusation or defensiveness because at the end of the day, we are best friends and we are on the same team.  We forgave one another and recognized areas where we have allowed distance and stress to keep us from oneness. We got up Saturday morning and had a beautiful breakfast together and went deeper on catching up with each other’s hearts about our dreams and goals, books and podcasts we are listening to and found our way back to fun and laughter.


It’s really hard when you have expectations of what a “romantic getaway” will look like and you hear about or read about these idealistic images of what it “should” be like and you know that your marriage isn’t in that place that week. We look at each other’s photos on social media and assume that every other marriage is connected, intimate and loving, and we feel a sense of marital shame that ours feels a bit stale and needs some work and healthier ways of relating. 

All marriages go through growth seasons and there is no shame about that.  We have been married 18 years, and there have been years of deep friendship and grace and connectedness and seasons where we felt so different from one another spiritually and emotionally and also just in our interests, mindsets, hobbies, expectations and habits. These are the times that our deep covenantal commitment kicks in, and we remind ourselves that we are in this for the long haul and because of that, we are going to invest in this love and also trust that God has so much more He wants to give us and free us and heal us for in the context of this bonded relationship.

Having a large household means that he and I are going to have to build better habits of dating and connecting with each other in consistent, creative ways.  We have young children up early and teenagers up late so finding the time to connect alone is crucial. We can’t just get by with being teammates and parenting partners.  We have to pray and plan and commit to holding up our relationship in ways that will protect it, nourish it and grow it back into better health.  Stress and busyness contribute to the insidious undermining of a marriage, and bring out the worst in both of us. We keep reminding each other that life and dishes and laundry and schedules are not an emergency, and that we can live this calling with joy and peace, love and respect.


We are not alone in our marital struggles. Most of us desire vibrant marriages built on commitment, respect, love and grace along with adventure, laughter and intimacy, but those things take tending, a growth-mindset, communication, forgiveness, humility, and grace. These are all worth asking Jesus for and fighting for as we pilgrim through the middle years of marriage. We need to share our stories with each other and stop hiding them. We need to ask for help and insight.  And mostly we need to trust that He can do immeasurably more than we can ask for or imagine in our very messy relational dailiness.  We are counting on it!

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Weekly List, May 11

I absolutely adore making lists and the deep satisfaction of checking things off. Brain to hand to paper helps me to make sense of my life and my daily priorities. Many friends enjoy seeing my lists, so for now, I have decided to share a personal photographed list every Monday. In the early years of the blogosphere, there was something so interesting about taking a peek into someone else's everyday life. My weekly list will be a small peek into mine.




Thursday, May 7, 2015

How To Host an IF:Table



"The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It's about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment." 
~ Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine


I have said this many times but I think it always deserves repeating: being around the table with women is where the good life happens. Some of my most favorite, most connected times, have been when I am seated around my beat-up white farmhouse table or around the table in the homes of good friends. The table provides nourishment for body and soul and is an invitational platform for vulnerability, active listening, compassion and the reception of grace. It's the place where friendships are forged, secrets are shared, and hearts are held gently. IF:Table has been an equipping tool that God has used in my life this past year to focus my hospitality efforts and to make it simple and doable for me to invite women into my home and into my life. It provides a schedule, conversation cards, and a larger community all participating together to bring women together on Sunday evenings. These are the steps that I have taken to make IF:Table a regular part of my monthly rhythm.

INVITE

Make a list of women that you know locally. I use my list of Facebook friends to prompt me to write down women that I know from many different segments of my life.  You can also jot down a quick list of women at church, preschool, your neighborhood, your job, etc. Write at least ten names to begin. Which of these names represent five women that you want to know better?  Pick a Sunday evening (I stick with the second Sunday of the month and don't fiddle with switching it all around to try to get everyone there) and send out a private message on Facebook or text to invite these five women over. Tell them that you are hosting a dinner for two hours to get women to know one another better and cultivate friendship, and that there will be four questions to guide the conversation.  Setting the parameters for the evening allows everyone to know what to expect and that you will be facilitating the time.  The evening is purposeful to get us below the surface of only talking about our children, schools, etc. If a woman responds that she can't come, trust God that He has the right mix of women that He wants together on that evening and go down your list and invite someone else. Keep going until you find the woman who has that opening in her schedule. He has always, always, always provided women to come even up until two hours ahead of time!

{Personality Tip: I find that inviting a mix of extroverts and introverts offers the best opportunity for the richest and diverse conversations...when you make a list, think of each one's personality a little bit so that you have a balance of conversationalists and listeners}



MENU

I keep it very simple by cooking a main dish or soup and offering salad, crusty bread and a simple dessert.  I don't deviate from that because the goal is to make hosting as streamlined and easy as possible so that I will actually do it! Oven Chicken Risotto is always a winner, and in the winter, any of Edie's soups are delicious. And of course, you can never go wrong with a recipe from The Pioneer Woman. If one of the women asks me what they can bring, I have them bring the dessert. If others ask, I give them the salad and bread.  The only drink I offer is water, and I keep it in glass carafes with limes and lemons. Depending on the group, I will also offer red or white wine and have glasses out on a counter for them to serve themselves.  I have a Keurig machine that I keep on a side table over near my dining room table that I make sure is filled with water, and place mugs and a basket of decaf K-cups over beside it along with sugar and half-and-half.


SETTING THE TABLE

Go with your personality and with whatever makes you a hostess who feels warm and welcoming. If setting a table stresses you and perfectionism creeps in, then keep it super simple! I like to use vintage sheets for tablecloths and layer a table runner over it from Target or World Market or a thrift shop.  I buy a $3.99 bouquet of flowers from Publix, trim down the stems low, and place them in a Mason Jar in the center.  I scatter six glass tea light holders over the table runner.  These can be bought cheaply in Target's candle section, and I keep a stash a tea light candles from the Dollar Tree in a drawer in my kitchen. I go to the IF:Gathering website and download that month's questions, print on cardstock, cut and scatter on the table. White plates are always simple and versatile paired with cloth or paper napkins, and place a fork, knife and spoon. I always use Mason Jars for the drinking glasses with a colorful paper straw in each one. You can buy paper straws in the Target or Michael's Dollar sections. Setting the table is something I do several hours in advance so that it's complete, and my focus can shift to food preparation. Now that is what I do, but if using paper plates and a bare table gets you to actually invite women in, then DO IT! The goal is connection with others not stressed-out, angsty hospitality.


GUIDING THE CONVERSATION

When everyone arrives, introduce women to each other that may have never met before.  Have everyone fill their water glasses or pour themselves a glass of wine.  I serve the meal buffet-style so that each woman grabs her plate, fills it up and finds a seat at the table. I pray for the meal and for our conversation, and then I immediately ask one of the women to grab a conversation card and read it out loud to all of us. We jump right in. If there are some women who don't answer the question, that is fine. Move on to the next question when the conversation lulls or if you need to move on because of the time boundaries you have set for the evening. On the second question, call on women who haven't shared and tell them that you would love to hear their thoughts. Guide the evening so that everyone is heard and can feel safe to share openly. Lead with vulnerability. Vulnerability is holy and invitational and allows sacred space for women to bare their own soul struggles and receive love and acceptance. Shame keeps women in hiding and thinking that they are all alone and that their struggles are unique to them. Vulnerability is the powerful antidote to shame and is the avenue to connection with others. It is the relational key that allows us to know that we are not alone and every woman has a story of pain and heartache, fear and sorrow.


NEXT STEPS

I try to follow up by sending a private Facebook message to the women later that evening or the next day to thank them for coming and for sharing their evening with me.  I may even challenge them to begin their own IF:Table now that they have seen how easy and fun it can be. My rhythm is to host new women each month and offer more and more women the opportunity to be invited, fed, listened to and challenged. Your group of women may be one that God is calling to stay together and meet monthly. I have a group of women like that, and it has evolved into being a place of safety, mentoring, connection and hope for each one of us.

Women are lonely and need spaces to be nurtured, loved, listened to and seen. We have been generously gifted by God with homes, no matter how humble, to use for His people and His glory. We own tables and chairs and plates and cutlery and why don't we take time to share them once a month with five others? It seems so simple and small, and yet when we offer our spaces and our very lives, His Kingdom is ushered in with life and light and laughter.  And we could all use a whole lot more of that, couldn't we?





Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bedtimes, Hot Cocoa Packets and Listening to the Spirit




I am pretty worn out at the end of the day.  After I have cooked dinner, I usually just feel emotionally wasted and in need of quiet and some space from the noise and interactions of a family of eight. My patience and tolerance wane, and all I want is to get into my bed with a book or have some time with Mike to relax and connect. Our nightly routine involves Mike putting our two youngest children to bed while I read to my middle boys, and the teens are being chatty and beginning to dig into their homework (why pray tell did God design teenagers to be night owls?)

Early this spring we had a season where the littlest ones would not stay in bed. We were spending a crazy amount of time and energy telling them to get back in their beds. If they stayed in their rooms, then they would play and destroy the already-picked-up room. Sometimes we would hear their door open, the pitter-pat of scampering feet and then their door shutting again. We came to realize that this was the time when they would go in and steal food to take back to their beds...hot chocolate packets, sourdough bread, cereal, apples, you name it. Needless to say, I was not happy. That would be an understatement.

As this scenario kept happening and my time for quiet kept diminishing, I found myself getting really, deeply angry.  I would yell at them, threaten consequences at them and it just all felt like this vicious scenario of antagonism and disobedience that was beginning to wreak havoc on my relationships with them.  I felt at my wits’ end and didn't understand what to do.  My default setting is to get more controlling and harsh and to "win", and I felt so trapped by it all.

I finally prayed, "Lord, teach me what to do. Show me the path to firmly teaching my children what is best while doing it with kindness, gentleness and wisdom."  

The response that came into my mind and heart wasn't actually the one I wanted.  It seemed like it would require more of me, and I didn't think that I had anything else to give at almost nine at night. “Go be with them.”

Be with them? No way.  That’s giving in! That means they are winning! This can’t be God! What the huh!? And yet, the only thing I kept feeling prompted to do was to go in and be with them. So I did.

All of that quiet that I was craving? Who knew that it could be found while lying in a twin bed with a five-year-old?  It turns out that being in the dark with little warm bodies and a sound machine was the most peaceful place in the whole house.  These boys were shocked that I was doing this, and they both settled in and fell right asleep. Instead of feeling angry and antagonistic, my heart began to soften towards them leading me to gently direct them towards quiet and sleep.  Right when you think you can’t give one more thing, God shows up and offers a path where your needs get met and their love tank gets filled and everyone falls asleep (including me!)

It’s so important in our parenting not to follow rules and formulas.  The path to effective parenting is to listen to the Holy Spirit.  He knows our children best, and what it is that they need at the right time. Formulas keep us dependent on one-size-fits-all knowledge, but real wisdom and parental insight is gained through listening to the Holy Spirit. Formulas can lead to pride or despairing failure.  Listening to the Lord requires trusting Him and knowing that His work in our children’s lives will be done in His ways and His timing.

When we feel confusion and don't know the path to take and the Voice doesn't seem completely clear, the best path is to treat others the way we want to be treated. Boundaries paired with love and gentleness always always wins.